PCT hikers complain about the desert. Too hot during the day, too cold at night, too little water.
Maybe as a Southern Californian I am biased, but I’ve always thought the desert gets a bad rap. And after hiking through the 700-mile “desert section,” I am ready to defend it.
First, “desert section” is a misnomer. In Southern California, it’s more like the PCT hikes through oases of mountain forests surrounded by desert: Mt. Laguna, San Jacinto, San Bernardino, San Gabriel, Techachapi Mountains. The trail ascends each mountain and descends back into the desert before ascending the next.
Which, in my opinion, is what made the first 700 miles such a treat. I grew up here, but what I never got from visiting these places individually was the transitions from ecosystem to ecosystem. Starting at the base of a pass between two mountains, and then ascending to the summit, we’d walk through up to five different habitats as the elevation rose, catering to different kinds of life. There is a scientific term for this: “life zones.” The Southern California section of the PCT apparently passes through more “life zones” more quickly than any other section.
But where things get cool, I think, is the patterns you start to observe once you walk up and down enough mountains. I began noticing that the habitat at 4,000 feet on San Jacinto, for example, resembled the habitats at 4,000 feet on San Bernardino and the San Gabriels. The summits recall past summits, and the valleys in between are cousins of one another.
Only, the habitats unique to each elevation are not identical on each mountain. Eventually, I noticed another pattern, running south to north. Each habitat at 4,000 feet, for example, while similar to the last, felt a bit different too. Maybe there were gradually more or less Joshua Trees than before, or the lizards slowly got darker, but as we trudged northward, you could witness latitude making its presence felt on the repeating habitats of each elevation. So even though certain ecosystems felt familiar to what we had seen before, no two places were the same.
This might all sound obvious when written down, but internalizing these patterns over months of walking was phenomenal. It even felt mathematical to me, in a way I’ve rarely seen firsthand. I now picture the mountains of Southern California as a sine wave, whose peak reaches 5 on the y axis and nadir reaches 0. There are 5 adjacent colors of the rainbow, one for each unit of the y axis, moving horizontally across the sine wave. But the colors also move along a gradient, from light to dark, so that the color near the peak of wave is similar, but not identical, to the peak of the previous and following waves.
I’d draw that out for you, but I’m on an iPhone, so sorry.
But even though I’m a dork, it’s not just about the math: There is something mystical about the desert. Hiking through the Mojave at midnight to avoid the heat of the day was surreal. The dark forms of Joshua Trees leaned over the trail like giants in the dark, lit from behind by a full moon, and I’d swear they move when you look away. The starlit silence was only broken by the howling of coyotes, and the horizon was dotted with red lights, blinking in unison, from the windmill farms in the distance.
So that’s my ode to the desert. Shoutout to all the hikers from Oregon and Washington complaining about the heat. Once we’re in your neck of the woods and it’s raining on us for weeks at a time, tell me if Southern California was really that bad!
Some of my favorite places in the first 700 miles: Whitewater Preserve, just off the 10 freeway. Next time you’re driving back from Palm Springs, take an hour and stop for a picnic. A massive bluff, home to bighorn sheep, overlooks rehabilitated trout ponds and the rambling Whitewater River.
Deep Creek Hot Springs. Just north of Big Bear, these hot springs were a welcome respite after 300 miles of hiking. Soaking in the 100-degree water on a moonless night, with the stars at full force, was something I’ll definitely remember.
Others there with me will remember the next day, when I spent two hours walking around in my underwear, asking if they’ve seen my pants. My quick-drying boxers double as swimwear, and when I jumped in the hot springs the night before, I wasn’t exactly sure where I set down my hiking pants. The next morning, I was almost given the trail nickname “No pants,” but thank heavens I eventually found them.
And the San Jacinto wilderness, just south of Idyllwild, is definitely worth the trip. The combination of desert, forest, rock scrambles and burnt landscape made it a favorite stretch for both Kristen and me.
That’s it for now. Thanks for reading!