PCT section C: I-10 to Big Bear

Haven’t had a chance to discuss or portray my experience in the San Gorgonio Wilderness just (amazingly) about three weeks ago now. Was one of the harshest and ugliest and yes, most beautiful stretches of the trail in SoCal.

Blazingly hot on a Tuesday in the desert (80+ degrees). Cold and snowy three days later in the mountains (25). That’s California for you, I guess.

Began in a mostly barren little desert town incongruously named Whitewater, near the Morongo casino on the I-10 west of Palm Springs. Here’s where the trail officially begins.



Camped a little over an hour later, at sunset about 5:00, after this:

December 8, 2015
December 8, 2015


One of those pictures you have to see to believe. This was the camp.

packing up after a night under a thorn tree
packing up after a night under a thorn tree

Pretty harsh, but I was clearly not the only one to camp there…that evening, about an hour after nightfall, I saw bright lights on the trail, and pretty soon five guys on mountains bikes with powerful lights rode by. One apologized for getting in the way. Thought they were pretty cool, actually.

About eight miles north the trail crosses the Whitewater River, which, a couple of hiking locals told me, actually looks like a wild and scenic river at times during the spring. Believe it or don’t.

Whitewater River
Whitewater River

.Trail featured some pretty great markers, erected I was told by the Friends of the Desert Mountains.



Trail passed over a ridge or two and then came down into the Mission Creek streambed, and picked up some fall colors — for about the next twenty miles. Incongruous but appealing.



The desert can distort your sense of beauty: what you thought you knew was beautiful (and it is) — visable life, trees, greenery — becomes an idiosyncratic personal value in an environment that values starkness, simplicity, and hanging on.

Mission Creek is not the biggest or most awesome of watercoursees, but it runs like an artery through the San Gorgonio wilderness, and the trail hugs it close, crossing back and forth, unwilling to let it go.


Enjoyed camping in the leafy colors, despite the coldness and the emptiness, but next day the trail turned away from the creek and headed up the ridge towards the mountains — 5000+ in a day — into an increasingly barren landscape, interrupted occasionally by shrubbery. Left the San Gorgonio Wilderness reluctantly. True wilderness in my experience usually has a kind of wholeness, where BLM or Forest Service land may not.



As the trail steepened, occasionally ran into trees, but then the trees were overwhelmed by burn. Ouch.

1-DSC05497 1-DSC05514

As the wind picked up and the daylight began to fade, had to camp on at a place also called Mission Creek, but at about 8000 feet — in a devastated forest, evidently burned not long before. Call it the Black Tree Camp.


This may have been the grimmest campsite I’ve experienced along the trail. This did have spring water (which I drank, and haven’t gotten sick yet!) but nothing but ash, silt, and enormous black trees. Wind and snow howling in the wind above the mountains.

Onward over the ridge the next day, and, eventually, into the snow — a cleansing experience.


This turned all too soon into a full-on snow storm mode, but I was ready. Only got lost once.


And the snow has its compensations.


Happy New Year, everyone. Onward northward in 2016.

Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

2 thoughts on “PCT section C: I-10 to Big Bear

  1. Did you hear the blackened trees play music? On the PCT in Oregon you will pass through the B&B Complex fire (2003, 90,769 acres) where, as the sun set and the breeze picked up, I heard an unearthly music that sounded like pan pipes and tinkling wind chimes. For a moment I thought I was hallucinating, until I realized it was the wind in the pillars of charcoal all around me. Lovely photos by Naseem Rakha capture the beauty of that place, still stark after more than a decade: http://naseemsphotos.blogspot.com/2013/07/fire-and-fog-14-photos-from-pacific.html?view=magazine


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