Vicki and I decided to get into the new hiking season with a relatively simple overnight backpacking trip along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) just east of San Diego in the Laguna Mountains. We’d just bought a new two-person goose down sleeping bag (the King Solomon bag from the Big Agnes company, which was designed to work perfectly with the two Big Agnes inflatable sleeping pads we already had) and, let’s face it, the hiking part of the weekend was really just a method of getting our sleeping bag far enough into the wilderness to do some serious work on our sleeping skills.
We enlisted our son’s aid in order to leave our car at Pioneer Mail picnic area on Highway S1 (the end of the hike) while getting dropped off at Mason Valley Road on Highway 79 in Cuyamaca, CA, just north of Lake Cuyamaca. We would be hiking south on the PCT, camping somewhere in the middle. In fact, along the way we cached two gallons of water in some bushes just off the highway, somewhere near our proposed camping spot.
Mason Valley Road was gated and locked, so our original plan of driving on the dirt road to the PCT intersection was foiled, and an extra mile and a half was tacked on to our hike. No problem, more hiking would only make us sleep better!
And it was nice along the road. There was even a little pond, which was steaming in the early morning sun. Picturesque. And there were lots of Spring flowers everywhere. We weren’t sure if we were on private property, but there were no signs, so we hiked on. We stayed on the dirt road and bothered no one.
At the PCT intersection the PCT headed off north following the dirt road in a major loss of elevation, heading eventually for the desert floor. But we were heading south, not north, and the trail was now a trail, not a road.
It wound along the Laguna Crest, and everywhere to the east were fantastic views looking out over Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. In fact, we were technically hiking IN the park, just inside its westernmost boundary. But we weren’t in the desert, not really. This part of the PCT travels through chaparral country. It’s high in elevation, but far enough east that most of the storms that reach San Diego leave this area dry, most of their rainfall having been distributed on the western slopes of the mountains. So there weren’t many trees, except down in some now-dry watercourses, and that left us with plenty of views!
It got warm quickly, and soon our windbreakers were off, the sun shining strong. There wasn’t much elevation gain or loss along this section of the PCT. Easy hiking, in other words. The trail wound in and out, along the edge of the Laguna Crest. The lilacs were in bloom, and their scent filled the air. Many other flowers were blooming, yellows and reds and purples, and there was a strong feeling of spring in the air. The grass was still green and soft, gently swishing as you walked through it, not brown and dry like summertime, and the new grass seeds were getting bigger, their heads nodding over with the weight. The smaller creatures of the chaparral would be feasting upon those seeds soon enough.
We rested occasionally, but only for a minute or two, a pause to adjust a shoe or a pack strap, but mostly we hiked along at a steady pace. And the time flew by. Before noon we had already reached our water cache! Wow! Was our hiking day over already? Was it time to try out the new sleeping bag? Oh no, not in that heat. It was already nearing eighty degrees, and the sun was hot, directly overhead.
We climbed up a side trail to the highway and grabbed our water jugs, then continued up a gated dirt road that paralleled the PCT. Just off this unused road we found a nice grassy spot, perfect for a tent. But we didn’t set it up yet. We ate lunch, Vicki took a nap on the soft green grass, and I read a book, as a gentle breeze blew up from the desert below us. The view from this spot was truly excellent. I vowed that, whenever possible, I would try to camp where there was a great view. Camping near water can be nice, but the stream or spring is usually down in a gully or canyon with no views whatsoever. I don’t mind hiking an extra mile to get some water, so long as my campsite has a great view.
Now MY plan was to set up the screened-in tent, rig up some afternoon shade with its tarp (leaving me with a bug-free environment wide open to the nice views and cool breezes), while I lay around all afternoon on my inflatable sleeping pad napping and reading my book. Oh, yes. And what a nice plan it was. Was. Past tense. Because when Vicki woke up from her nap she was too full of energy; she was bubbling with it; she wanted to hike some more, to climb that nearby mountain; why, it was less than a mile away, an easy climb; it would only take an hour or two! I pointed out that there was no trail up that particular mountain, a mountain made out of huge tumbled boulders (rather than nice walkable granite slabs), and each boulder was surrounded by impenetrable gnarly thorny scratchy chaparral bushes, that she was leading us into the bushwhack from hell, and that we’d be lucky if the batteries in our headlamps didn’t die as we crawled, bleeding profusely, back into camp at dawn, only to discover that we hadn’t even set up our tent yet. She stared at me. “It’s just a little hill, not Mount Doom.” We laughed. So we ended up compromising.
We took a short day-hike on the California Riding and Hiking Trail, which roughly paralleled Highway S1 on the west side, much like the PCT did on the east. We had seen some mountain bikers riding on it earlier. And it was a nice hike. We went over to a parking area for horse trailers, called Sunrise, where the “La Cima Trail” began. There was an old windmill tower above the well (converted into a solar panel), a water tank and a watering trough for the horses. The PCT hikers were told that it was OK to use it, but to filter it first. We were glad that we had our own jugs of water, but I would have drunk it at need. It looked cool and wet to me! Along the way, as the trail traversed along the side of that hill she so wanted to climb (Peak 5444 on the topo maps), she kept looking for a trail to the top; she still hadn’t given up. She even tried dragging me part way up when the bushes showed a vague path between them. So much for compromising. But eventually even Vicki agreed that it would be a tougher hike up that mountain than we were really looking for. Thank goodness! My long pants would have been ripped and tattered and ruined, but her bare legs would’ve been torn to shreds! “Maybe we’ll climb it another day,” I said, while privately adding “after we’ve climbed every other mountain in California first!”
But then it was my turn. We hiked back to camp and set up the tent, with some nice deep shade from the tarp, and I got to relax in the breeze on my sleeping pad. I read my book and took a short nap. I listened to the bees and bugs fly by outside my screened tent. Ah, yes! It was an excellent time to be in the mountains.
We ate some freeze-dried dinner, and then it was time to test out the new sleeping bag! Oh yeah. And we did. It tested just fine. We even slept in it. If anything, it was too warm, as it is rated to 15 degrees Fahrenheit, but that night it only went down into the fifties. Still we were happy. It was warmer than the ones we had before, and now Vicki didn’t have to carry a sleeping bag at all! So we’d now be five pounds faster, since she typically hikes slower than I. Hmmm… Maybe THAT was why she was so full of energy that afternoon!
The next morning we woke up early, or should I say that Vicki woke up early. I lay in the oh-so-nice sleeping bag and read my book while she was out making hot chocolate and breakfast. Sadly, I had no choice but to leave the bag once breakfast was ready.
Eventually we packed everything up and began our hike to the car. I had the two empty water jugs tied to the back of my pack, so I looked like a walking recycling center. “Nice set of jugs!” laughed one of the northbound PCT hikers that passed us. It was the week when the big PCT Kickoff occurred, when the large group of PCT Through-Hikers left from the Mexican Border. We were heading southbound, so we passed several individuals and pairs heading north; these folks were leaving early, not wanting to be part of the main crowd.
This day of hiking was much like the first. Long uphill and downhill sections winding in and out just below the ridged crest. A stronger breeze kicked up; it was nice until a blasting gust near a particularly steep section of trail whipped the end of one of the nylon straps on her pack directly into her eye. Ouch! She had to hike with her eye closed, as it continued to hurt. Hiking with one eye isn’t easy or safe on a steep mountainside, so progress was slow. Also, Vicki’s energy level seemed to have dropped enormously. She was lagging, even before the eye damage. Indeed, earlier we had to stop for a nap (it was nice, reading my book in the shade of a large bush while Vicki slept).
Our original plan was to get back to the car with our full packs, then take off and climb Garnet Mountain (not Garnet Peak, which is also nearby and larger) with our daypacks. But it wasn’t to be. Vicki’s eye was hurting, and she just wanted to go home. We put a cloth pad over her eye and she wore her sunglasses over the top to hold it in place, and then we drove for home. (Luckily, there was no lasting eye damage; two days later she was fine.) But Vicki still had enough energy left to stop in Santa Ysabel for some delicious Dudley’s Bread and some other excellent baked goods. We munched on pastries as we drove back home through the countryside; yet another excellent hiking weekend was finished. And the sleeping bag worked great!
The rest of my pictures from this trip can be found on my Flickr Page.
An interactive topographic map showing our hiking track can be found on my CalTopo Page.