The Mojave (part 1)

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Occupying just 55 thousand square miles, but remaining the driest desert in the US, the Mojave would dominate our next fortnight of hiking. Known as the ‘high desert’ it is dominated by the San Bernadino, San Gabriel and Tehachapi mountains. Inevitably water was scarce and there some big distances to cover without supply, so packs were exceptionally heavy as we carried sometimes as much as six litres as well as up to seven days worth of food.

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Despite the lack of available water we were ever conscious of its presence as we passed aqueducts taking water from the central california mountains down into the drought-stricken districts of L.A.

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This was a tough section with little variation in the surrounding landscape. Most of the flora and fauna was tough too. Most plants were either spikes or poisonous. This little gopher must have been a tough miner too!

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Other hikers we met chose to night-hike a 25 mile section of flat desert due to the extreme day-time temperatures. More by luck than judgement we’d timed our arrival at this section with the full moon. However in the event we had a somewhat overcast day which would have meant a very cold night so we set out across that section in the morning and were chased across the desert by storm clouds.

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One thing we didn’t expect to see was the wind farms. In hindsight it is an obvious place to generate power. The rising air from the desert during the hot day draws cooler air down from the mountains, so afternoon and evening winds especially can be strong. It was hard to imagine the amount of power being generated in this area as the wind turbines here number thousands.

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We pulled into Tehachapi after a long stretch for a resupply and rest. Only one day though as we were keen to complete southern California and the Sierra’s seem almost in reach now.

Peaks, valleys & poodle-dogs

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Leaving Wrightwood was harder than expected. We were back and forth between a couple of stores and the gas station trying to get final supply items sorted out and get fed before hitting the trail. In the end we conceded to lunch and cold sodas at The Village Grind, a very cool bar/coffeehouse at which local musicians play for tips. When we did finally leave it was not until 5pm. Just as we were preparing to find a spot to hitch out to the trailhead a local in a pick-up pulled in and asked if we needed a ride. So many kind people have helped us along the way and rides to and from the trail to town is a great example. The US was just not built for pedestrians (despite the hiking trails) and we often have to get miles into towns to resupply (and occasionally wash too!).
We camped early that night in a quiet spot among pine trees and enjoyed the antics of our reptilian neighbours.

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The following morning we began to ascend, heading up the biggest climb of the trip yet to summit Mount Baden Powell, at 9399ft it was dedicated to the (British) founder of the scouting movement in 1931.

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[thanks Tom from Washington State for the summit photo at the head of this post]

The altitude had a noticeable effect on our breathing and we crossed the first mountain snow on trail that day, but we sailed past day hikers so the past month of hiking must have been paying off in terms of fitness. That night we stayed at Little Jimmy Campground where we met several other hikers as well as a couple of former PCT hikers who were happy to share some old timer trail wisdom. We off again in the morning at 5:30 as we had two long days ahead.

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Trail closure to protect yellow-legged frog habitat (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mountain_yellow-legged_frog) meant a long road walk round and our feet suffered from the repetitive motion on tarmac. After a 23 mile day we reached a quiet equestrian camp spot called Sulphur Springs. Despite the name there was good water available albeit a trickle,  from a tank so we got a chance to wash off some of the dust and even Lisa’s hair!
It was another early start and long day the following day with a 24 mile hike to Messenger Flat campground. We were pretty tired when we got there, not least as this was a high mountain camp so we’d climbed several thousand feet across the afternoon to get there. I was surprised then when I felt Lisa’s hand on my thigh as I began preparing some dinner.. Quickly realising Lisa had both hands in view I tentatively glanced down to see a snake-like head appearing around my right thigh! Slightly unnerved I moved slowly and quietly (no, not really!) and separated myself from my inquisitor which turned out to be a 10 inch southern alligator lizard: http://library.sandiegozoo.org/factsheets/alligator_lizard/alligatorlizard.htm

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Very snake-like in movement these lizards have a forked tongue and will strike and bite quite aggressively if threatened. I ensured he was safely in the grass at a good distance before resuming domestic duties!

The following day would see us descend from the high alpine pine forest once was more and down into the dry, scrubby desert foothills. We were looking forward to getting into the town of Agua Dulce, where each year a very generous couple known as the Saufleys, open their home to PCT hikers to enable them to wash, repair and resupply as necessary. It was also a great place to meet other hikers and socialise a little.

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It had been a tiring couple of days. 3 climbs over 6000 metres and almost 50 miles in 2 days despite 80′-90′ heat and after having done Mount Baden Powell.
So there are the peaks and valleys of this post’s title, what were the poodle dogs all about? Well actually to use the proper name it is known as poodle dog bush: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eriodictyon_parryi

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Somewhat less friendly than your average poodle, just a touch of this poisonous plant will induce a burning sensation, severe irritation, itching and other delights. Unfortunately both it and poison oak, are prevalent in some of the california hills so even when tired we have to be constantly aware of our surroundings and avoid contact with these two shrubs.

Mountains & Forest.

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The trail closure at Interstate 10 meant a challenging journey to get back on trail. There was no simple reroute and re-gaining the trail meant a forty minutes ride into San Bernadino, a long wait at the transit centre and an hour on the mountain bus out to Big Bear Lake (BBL). The mountain roads were windy and treacherous enough but thick fog descended on us and we were held up briefly as a roll over crash occurred just minutes ahead of us. BBL provided us with a couple of nights good recouperation at the Travelodge and we took the opportunity to leave heavy packs there and hike the 14 miles from the closure end at Onyx Summit out to the highway without a load on our backs.

After regaining the PCT via the Cougar Trail from town, the next couple of days were dominated by the presence of Deep Creek Gorge which we followed for over thirty miles. We walked through a huge area that was still recovering from the 1999 & 2008 forest wildfires and it was good to see substantive new growth taking hold again after such a destruction. Deep Creek presented a logistical challenge as strictly speaking no camping was allowed within a mile of the creek. As there really was little alternative we walked until after dark and ‘stealth-camped’ in a secluded spot practicing leave no trace principles.

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The creek provided plentiful water for the section and with it plenty of wildlife. The lizards are fast movers and hard to capture pictures off but snakes seemed less concerned by our presence. I guess that reflects their relative status in the food chain, nothing motivates movement quite as much as survival!

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We’ve not yet identified this one so anyone out there who can identify it please do let us know. So far we know we’ve seen rattlesnakes, garter snakes and gopher snakes, but only one of this colour and patterning. We’ve hunted hard for scorpions in the desert without success yet, but think we’ve seen a Camel Spider (http://www.livescience.com/40025-camel-spiders-facts.html) who tried to join us in bed back at Mike’s place.

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Leaving Deep Creek behind, we passed the Mojave River Forks Dam, which is a large US Army Corps of Engineers flood control dam, below which we crossed a plain of incredibly fine grey dust (marked as quicksand on our maps) and crossed the river to climb once again into the mountains. On several occasions we’ve crossed railway tracks that are travelled by enormous goods engines. Being a wider gauge rail than our UK tracks these trains are much larger and often three or four engines will pull seventy to one hundred cars, sometimes loaded two high with shipping containers.

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After an overnight stop and restock in Cajon Pass, we climbed further over two days to over 8000ft on the ridges of Wright Mountain before descending into Wrightwood itself, another mountain town well equipped for hiker resupply. A high altitude camp and early start gave us the opportunity to capture a cloud inversion over the LA valley an the early morning sun was melting the ice trapped in the tall pine trees leading to sparkling showers of fairy dust twinkling down around us as we hiked through the silent morning.

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We’ve got to know hikers from South Africa, The Netherlands, Canada, France and Australia as well as from the US and Alaska, and these resupply towns have been a great opportunity to re-connect with some of them and share some time out as we each make our way north at our own pace.

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Fire closures & clouds

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Idyllwild had been a great place to take a well earned day off but we’d had to hitch in from the Paradise Café due to a fire closure on the trail from Mile 162. Each year a number of trail sections get closed due to fire, landslip or as in the case of one upcoming section, for the protection of the yellow-legged mountain frog!

The small mountain towns that the PCT passes near appear to welcome the annual throughput of dirty, smelly hikers and it is clear that the communities there appreciate their position as an important supply town for hikers. It’s hard to imagine any member of the community demonstrating that appreciation more however than the little old lady I met in the centre of Idyllwild handing out homemade cookies, in carefully wrapped bags of two, to PCT hikers she met. They were good cookies too!

Getting back to the trail from Idyllwild meant a long steep climb up the devil’s slide trail including the ascent of Mount San Jacinto. Like Mount Laguna this took us to an elevation where the desert scrub gave way gradually to an alpine environment of huge pine trees and fresher scents. This was fast becoming my favourite environment and we would have lingered longer had we not been pursued by a bank of building cloud that spilled over the summit crest and began to cascade down the far side of the mountain in a manner and at a speed reminiscent of an avalanche.

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We’d hiked up with a small group of other hikers and a sociable camp that night in a small clearing clinging to the mountainside between boulders and bushes. Inevitably many conversations amongst hikers are frequently drawn back to who’s using what kit and how much it weighs. The diversity of nationalities present only added to that with an equally diverse range of equipment in use.

The following day was a long hot descent with no water sources until we hit the valley where a faucet (standpipe) had been provided for hikers to help with crossing the long dry section, 5 miles across the dusty floodplain to Cabazon and Interstate 10 where we faced a challenging reroute to avoid the 2nd major trail closure that remains closed since a major fire in 2013.

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