Vicki and I backpacked (mainly) on the Pacific Crest Trail from Mill Creek Summit to the Golden Spike in Soledad Canyon, near Acton. It was only 25 miles of hiking, but we took 4 whole days to do it. Why? Because we’re wimpy hikers. Let’s be honest here. As it turns out, being wimpy is a real liability on this section, thanks to the lack of water along the way. In fact, I drove all the way up there from San Diego, back in February, just to cache two gallons, in two locations, in order for us to do the hike.
There was still snow on the trail up at 6,000 feet in February, and then more storms came. I read on a local internet forum that the snow was still there in March, and so we waited. Finally, the weather warmed up in April, and we started the hike. Our big hope was that the cached water jugs hadn’t burst due to all the freeze-thaw cycles they’d been subjected to. In fact, the weather was getting almost too warm and we thought about postponing the trip to next Spring, but there was all that plastic garbage I’d left up there in the wilderness, so we pretty much had no choice but to go, if only to retrieve it. And that’s what we did. We lucked out and chose a time when the weather report indicated that it might cool off a bit for the final two days. Two out of four ain’t bad.
Day 1: Mill Creek Summit to Beartrap Canyon Road
We drove there in two cars, the day prior to the hike. We stealth-camped in the car at the hike’s terminus, the Indian Canyon Trailhead on Soledad Mountain Road. Early the next morning, we left one car there and drove the other up Angeles Forest Highway to the Mill Creek Summit, and parked near Mount Gleason Road where the PCT crosses the highway.
As you may have noticed, we hiked on the paved road and didn’t take the PCT. Why not? Because, back in February, I schlepped two gallons of water up Mount Gleason Road using my bicycle. I planned to ride about 3.5 miles, to the PCT intersection, and leave the water there. During the actual hike, I would carry it a mile or two more to the first night’s camp. Unfortunately for me, there was still plenty of ice-hard snow on the north-facing sections of the road, and I could only push the bike so far. I gave up, sweating and frustrated that I hadn’t brought my microspikes, at about the two mile mark. I stashed the water down below the pavement, not far from a guardrail which I used as a landmark. That would have to do. At least I’d gotten most of the climbing out of the way. The PCT was up above the road, on very steep terrain, so I knew we’d have to take the road in order to get the water.
And that’s what we did. After two miles of enjoyable hiking, we found the guardrail, and I descended to the cache. I lifted the jugs and there was still water inside! Hooray! They hadn’t burst. If they had, we would have turned right around and aborted the entire trip. But we were in luck. I stuffed the jugs into my big backpack and we hiked onward, joining the actual trail a mile and a half further on.
The PCT had paralleled the pavement the entire way up, so I didn’t really feel like I was cheating by taking the road. Not much, anyway.
Someone must’ve sprayed RoundUp on the Poodle Dog plants last year, as most of them were dead. But a few still survived here and there, so you had to be on your guard all the time. The trail was also quite overgrown, but we felt guilty about going back to the road. We were committed at that point, so we continued on.
After three miles of bushwhacking on the PCT, we found the campsite that had been described on the Guthook PCT Trail Guide app. We headed off the trail to set up our tent. It was quite exposed to the sun, but at least it had a nice view. We could see Mount Gleason to the west and the Mohave Desert to the north. And there was even a bit of breeze, which we really needed. It was a hot day.
The temperature was in the upper seventies, so it was perfect for laying around reading all afternoon. Life was good, and we had some fine views from the campsite. Other PCT thru-hikers went by, but none of them stopped here as there was no water. Also, they weren’t wimps like us.
Day 2: Mount Gleason to Moody Canyon Road
We had read the recent comments (in the GutHook app) written by previous hikers, and one of them mentioned that the next several miles of trail were totally overgrown, and that it was a bushwhack almost all the way. We had a feeling that a lot of it was buckthorn (whitethorn) which wasn’t “sparking joy” with Vicki and her bare legs. We checked out the map and decided to make our way back to good old Mount Gleason Road, which headed around the peak on the south side rather than the north where the PCT traversed it. We could see the road from camp, and the topographic map indicated that it climbed just as high, maybe higher, than the PCT, and it might even provide better views. Was this cheating? Of course it was. And we did it gladly. Once you start cheating, it’s a slippery slope. In for a penny, in for a pound. In other words: Life’s too short to hike on overgrown trails, when you don’t have to.
Vicki produced a cloud of Pine Tree Pollen using her walking stick
Along the road we came upon the Station Fire Memorial, which was created in honor of two men who gave their lives on that spot back in 2009: Ted Hall and Arnie Quinones, both firefighters. The PCT didn’t go anywhere near the memorial, so we were already feeling better about taking the road. This was an important spot, and worthy of our attention. Brave men, doing brave deeds.
After that, we continued hiking on the paved road up the side of Mount Gleason. We got fine views to the south from the road, which we never would have seen from the PCT, which stayed on the northern slope. Cheating was working out well for us!
Eventually, we got high enough that there were a few still-living pine trees that had escaped the fire’s wrath. There was shade underneath them, and a mellow breeze had begun blowing. We decided that it was time for lunch. We took off our shoes, and I read a book while Vicki took a short nap. We were the only people hiking on the road, and the silence and solitude was extremely welcome.
We climbed a bit further, and came upon the side road that led directly to the top of the mountain. The map indicated that there might be radio towers there, but we never saw them. I asked Vicki if she wanted to bag the peak, but she declined the offer. More uphill was not on her to-do list that day, I’m afraid.
The trail was almost entirely downhill from there, and Vicki enjoyed it thoroughly. We walked down to the junction with the road to Lightning Gulch, but turned right toward the Messenger Flats campground.
We took a break in the shade at the campground, and checked the map. We decided that the fastest way to our campsite (and the next two gallons of stashed water) was to get back on the PCT. This mile-long section wasn’t anywhere near as overgrown, so it worked out well.
There was a very slow-flowing creek where the trail crossed Moody Canyon Road. Someone on Guthook said that it took them a half hour to collect a liter of water. Now that’s slow! And we needed two gallons total. I was gladder than ever that I made the extra effort to stash two jugs of water up here. This slowpoke stream was my back-up plan in case my water cache was damaged or missing. There was only one way to find out. We headed down the dirt road to my stone marker, and I fetched the jugs from underneath a bush. They were both fine, as I expected.
We set up the tent on a flat sandy spot along the edge of the dirt road. I knew that the gate down below was locked from my earlier visit, but we weren’t positive that a ranger or another authorized vehicle might not drive up the road and accidentally run the tent over in our sleep. So I constructed primitive barricades out of big dead branches and placed them on the road. This would most likely force them to stop, or at least slow down a whole lot. That would have to do. And it did. Meanwhile, We had some fine views, plenty of water, and a spot far enough from the PCT that we wouldn’t be disturbed by other hikers. We cooked up some dinner and watched the sunset, then went into the tent and slept the sleep of the truly tired.
Day 3: Moody Canyon to the North Fork Ranger Station
A cold front passing by to our north during the night caused a weather shift down in SoCal, and the temperatures dropped significantly. As a result, the marine layer thickened over Los Angeles, to a depth of five to six thousand feet. Since this just happened to be our current altitude, we woke to a cold breeze, with damp, chilly clouds pouring over the ridge to our south and west, while other low clouds partially filled the valley to our north. It was very pretty weather to look at, but it was cold and windy in person. In fact, we chose these days to do the hike precisely to take advantage of the cooler weather, as we had to descend into lower elevations during the final two days. But this was a bit colder than we bargained for.
So we put on our warmer, windproof layers and got ready to hike. We didn’t have very far to go, only four miles, so we cooked and ate a normal breakfast in camp. In fact, it was cold enough that we ate the food inside the tent, where the breeze was much less. Then we packed everything up, including the four squashed-flat plastic water jugs I’d cached back in February. They were much lighter now! And then we headed out hiking once again.
Most of the hike was going to be downhill, but the first part climbed a couple hundred feet, and for once we were thankful. It helped us to get warm! We hiked over a saddle and suddenly the frigid wind was blasting at us. We tied our hats to our heads and pushed onward into the gusts. There were great views of the marine layer clouds pouring over the tops of the coastal mountains. We could watch them moving, but they all dissipated as they hit the warmer, drier air of the desert. We lucked out and stayed in the sun for the most part. It’s fun to hike in real weather! When you’re prepared.
The PCT paralleled Santa Clara Divide Road, and climbed a ways above it. We got some fine views of what would have been Iron Mountain in the south if it hadn’t been shrouded in clouds. We continued downhill to yet another saddle, where the trail dropped over onto the northern side and left the road behind. The trail then headed almost directly toward our night’s campground, so this time we didn’t bother taking the road, which went the long way around.
On the final stretch of the day’s hike, the clouds began to win the war over the mountains, and soon we were walking in their shadows. There was a bit less breeze on the north slope, but the air was still quite cold. We didn’t even want to stop for a break, or we knew we’d start getting hypothermic. We eventually came in sight of the North Fork Ranger Station, where we would be camping, and the trail began dropping down to meet it at the saddle, located at the top of both Mill Canyon and the North Fork Pacoima Canyon.
It was extra-breezy at the saddle by the picnic area near the ranger station. We stopped at the picnic tables, then noticed some nice pads for tents nearby. We also noticed several jugs of water, which I had already known about. This was why we were staying here, and why I hadn’t needed to cache any additional gallons myself.
We set up the tent on one of the pads, then I headed over and spoke with Todd, the caretaker, who had come down to greet us. He said that it was a bit less windy on the south side, down below the saddle, near some horse corrals, and he recommended that we set up camp there. So we thanked him and took down our tent, then carried it down to the lower spot and put it back up again. He was right. It was much less windy down there. Maybe we’d even enjoy our rest that night!
I spoke to Todd again later on that afternoon. We asked him about the water and camping, as the signs indicated that it was a day-use-only area. He said that there really wasn’t any water or camping spots for at least four miles in either direction, so the forest service tended to look the other way when PCT hikers camped nearby. He said that the Ranger Station was officially closed, but when something important happened, like a wildfire or rescue operation, then suddenly the place was swarming with people. His job was to make sure that it was always ready.
Several more groups of PCT Thru-Hikers showed up that afternoon, and most of them stopped for the night. They set up camp on the pads up at the saddle, and we had the corral area all to ourselves, which was fine by us. Meanwhile, the weather got even colder, so after a hot dinner we retired to the tent and read our books with our wool hats on, and our legs under the sleeping quilt. There’s nothing like being cozy in your own tent.
Day 4: North Fork Ranger Station to the Indian Canyon Trailhead
We woke up to a breezy tent that was covered in droplets of mist. Yesterday’s clouds had won the battle for the ridge and were now attacking our side directly. It wasn’t really raining, but you could smell the moisture in the air. We hung out in the tent with our legs still inside the sleeping bag and ate our final, no-cook breakfast. Then we buckled down, packed everything up as quickly as possible, and headed down the trail. The clouds were blowing everywhere and visibility was limited. Sometimes a view would open up, and just as quickly shut down again.
Video of the clouds flowing upward past us
Eventually, we seemed to drop below the cloud layer, and the trail followed a long, undulating ridge into Mattox Canyon. Down at the bottom there were a few campsites, but the water in the creek had already dried up for the season. We stopped there for lunch, and rested on some granite boulders in the dry streambed.
After that, it was time to start the main climbing part of our day. Most of the hike was downhill, but unfortunately we had to escape from Mattox Canyon, and the trail switchbacked upward. Naturally, the moment when we would have appreciated some cold breeze and cloud shadows, the clouds began to evaporate. Soon we were hiking uphill in the sun, and it was hot. Luckily, the breeze was still present. We made it to the top of the ridge and Vicki insisted on a nap. It turned out to be too warm and sunny to sleep, and there was no shade. Sorry, Vicki.
Panorama video from the ridge above Mattox Canyon where we stopped for a break
We only had two more miles to go, and almost all of it was downhill. The main view at this point was down into Soledad Canyon. We saw and heard trains go by on the tracks, and watched cars moving along the road. There was a green strip of vegetation down in the bottom near the Santa Clara River. As we neared the end, we decided to cheat one last time, and took the dirt road down to the trailhead parking lot, which saved us at least a quarter mile. We started this hike cheating, and ended it that way, too. Fair’s fair.
We drove a few miles to the town of Agua Dulce, got some pizza at Big Mouth Pizza (which had a big sign out front that said “Welcome PCT Hikers!”), and drove down to the nearby Vasquez Rocks County Park to eat it. We checked out the rocks, which are pretty cool, then headed back south. Along the way, we decided to finish our hike with a quick visit to the “Golden Spike,” which was a short hike across the river from our destination trailhead on Soledad Canyon Road.
The Golden Spike – a historical marker near the train tracks at PCT mile 445 where the federal authorities officially commemorated the completion of the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail back in 1993.
After that, it was time to head back to the Mill Creek Summit to get our other car. Then we each drove home alone on the long ride back to San Diego. No matter how much fun you have on a trip, it’s always good to be back home.
The rest of the trip’s photos and videos can be found on my Flickr Page.
For an interactive topographic map of our hike, including GPS Tracks, please see my CalTopo Page.