Days 17-20 (May 5-8): Whitewater Preserve to Big Bear Lake

Our 17th through 20th days on the Pacific Crest Trail. We hiked up Mission Creek’s valley from the Whitewater Preserve, headed towards Big Bear Lake, CA.  In doing so, we left the San Gorgonio Wilderness (BLM) and entered the San Bernardino National Forest (USFS). We hiked on to Big Bear, where we stayed for three nights due to weather we weren’t prepared for.

 


 

Day 17:
May 5th
Start location: Whitewater Preserve at mile 218.5
End location: Mission Creek-side campsite at mile 235.5
Miles hiked: 17

We woke at 6:30 am to find that the trail couple we’d been talking to the night before, “Not a Bear” and “Comet,” had already packed up and left, while another couple we’ve been running into a lot, Amy-Ray (now “Mama Squirrel”) and Grant (“No Boundaries”), had made camp near us in the middle of the night. They night hiked from Ziggy and the Bear’s hostel, getting to the Whitewater Preserve around midnight. Crazy hikers.

Our campsite at the Whitewater Preserve, a veritable oasis in the desert

Our campsite at the Whitewater Preserve, a veritable oasis in the desert

We spent a fair amount of time chatting with the two of them and a third, older hiker as we packed up and ate our breakfast. We compared notes on personal locator beacons (PLBs) vs GPS messengers, like our Spot, which had stopped working after Rick’s fall a few days ago while descending from San Jacinto. The older hiker spoke highly of his PLB; We’re considering switching to one now too given that (1) Spot died, (2) Spot’s customer support stinks, and (3) Rick has been disappointed with Spot’s API for social media integration. On top of all that, Spot requires a $150/year subscription fee, whereas a PLB has a one-time fee for life. For us, the main downside of switching to a PLB would be that we can no longer provide daily location updates; PLBs are for emergency use only.

Once we’d had our fill of gear talk, we set out hiking around 9 am, reaching our first on-trail water source of the day (Whitewater Creek) within an hour. While filling up at the creek, several more hikers, including Sarah and a couple of her cohorts, showed up, having left Ziggy and the Bear’s early that morning. We would see them all again at the next water source, Mission Creek, later in the afternoon.

Erica filling up at Whitewater Creek, around mile 220

Erica filling up at Whitewater Creek, around mile 220

Whitewater Creek snaking across the desert floor

Whitewater Creek snaking across the desert floor

The hike from Whitewater Preserve to Mission Creek was relatively easy and uneventful. Although it was very sunny out and there was no shade to be found, the highs were only in the mid-70’s, making for agreeable hiking weather. We had multiple views of San Jacinto early in the day, but lost them by the time we got to Mission Creek, which crisscrosses the PCT for nearly 10 miles through a valley that looks like it burned relatively recently.

A distant view of Mt San Jacinto

A distant view of Mt San Jacinto

We stopped and ate lunch at the first Mission Creek crossing, along with many other hikers who were lunching and taking a siesta nearby. Because of the multiple creek crossings, we carried less than 1 liter of water each for the whole afternoon, making for a relatively light and painless hike up the valley. Painless, that is, except for the fact that we were still a bit hungry after lunch, especially Erica, for whom hiker hunger has started becoming a problem on the trail…

We took this photo when leaving the San Gorgonio wilderness; the other side of the sign welcomes hikers to the San Bernardino National Forest

We took this photo when leaving the San Gorgonio wilderness; the other side of the sign welcomes hikers to the San Bernardino National Forest

By early evening we had left the San Gorgonio Wilderness Area and entered the San Bernardino National Forest. Around this time, we started seeing new varieties of Yucca plants.

Yucca plant seen along the PCT in the San Bernardino National Forest

Yucca plant seen along the PCT in the San Bernardino National Forest

The trail got narrow at some points along Mission Creek

The trail got narrow at some points along Mission Creek

By about 6 pm we had reached our destination for the night: a campsite next to Mission Creek at mile 235.5. “Not a Bear” and “Comet,” who had left the Whitewater Preserve almost three hours before us, were already eating dinner at the campsite, along with a third hiker, “One of Us,” who we had not met before. “One of Us” is roughly our age and hails from Ohio. The five us chatted as we set up camp and as other hikers began showing up for the night. The late-comers, including a few people we passed at lunch and throughout the day, opted to cowboy camp nearby. The campsite at mile 235.5 can really only accommodate 2-3 tents, but there were roughly ten hikers (including us) camping in the area.

Our campsite along Mission Creek

Our campsite along Mission Creek

By 9 pm, we were in bed for the night, but neither of us slept well. Rick’s Exped SynMat UL 7 sleeping pad had sprung a leak and kept deflating, making it difficult for him to rest comfortably. This is the third or fourth time in the last year that Rick’s Exped pad has had two baffles merge into one “super” baffle, causing a pinprick-sized hole to form in the pad. Fortunately, Exped has very good customer service and has replaced all of the damaged air pads for free. Of course, it would be better if they could figure out why this failure mode keeps happening and fix their design/manufacturing processes accordingly. We both use the Exped SynMat UL 7 pad because it is very light for its width and thickness, making it ideal for side-sleepers like us. So far, Erica’s pad has never had a problem. Rick’s replacement pad, the fifth Exped Synmat UL7 he’ll have used across the AT and PCT, should reach us within the next couple days.

 


Day 18:

May 6th
Start location: Mission Creek-side campsite at mile 235.5
End location: Mile 251.02 (Lat/Lon 34.18248, -116.70980)
Miles hiked: 15.5
Miles hitchhiked: About 30 into Big Bear Lake, CA

We were awake before 6 am on Day 18, mostly because of how poorly we both slept the night before. Despite the grogginess, we got up and started getting ready to hike.

Once again, Not a Bear and Comet were gone before we were even out of bed. Those two are from Maine and sometimes it seems like they are hiking on East Coast time. The rest of the hikers were also up early and gradually breaking camp. In these situations, we are often the last ones to leave and this day was no exception. Many hikers prefer to delay breakfast and bathroom business until after they’ve hiked a few miles, but we like to get all of that done before we start walking. Hike your own hike, as they say…

Like the previous day, Day 18 involved a lot of gradual uphill hiking as we regained all of the elevation that we had lost while descending into the I-10 corridor near Cabazon. It wasn’t long before the desert scenery of the previous two days gave way to pine forests and cool temperatures above 7000 feet.

Some of the last desert scenery we saw before ascending to pine groves

Some of the last desert scenery we saw before ascending to pine groves

 

Pine tree and a cactus in the same photo.

Pine tree and a cactus in the same photo.

Unfortunately, where there are forests there are often fires, and within a couple hours we came across a firefighter stationed at a fire road that intersects the PCT at mile 240. He pointed out a small plume of smoke rising over a nearby ridge, at the base of San Gorgonio, and warned us that there was a 10-12 acre fire burning about a mile away from the trail in that area. He reassured us that the fire was small and extremely unlikely to infringe on the PCT. As we continued hiking and the fire continued burning, we got lots of views of the forest service firefighters in action: There were at least two helicopters dropping water on the fire and one plane circling it for surveillance. We assume there were also boots on the ground, but were never close enough to the fire to actually see the flame.

Smoke rising from a nearby ~12 acre forest fire

Smoke rising from a nearby ~12 acre forest fire

Snapshot of a plane involved in surveillance of the nearby ~12 acre fire

Snapshot of a plane involved in surveillance of the nearby ~12 acre fire

USFS fire truck parked at a PCT crossing

USFS fire truck parked at a PCT crossing

The afternoon consisted of more elevation gain and loss as we made our way over the ridgelines near Big Bear Lake. By early evening, we were in sight of SR38, which the PCT parallels for a couple miles, but never crosses. There are, however, a number of unpaved roads intersecting the PCT around mile 250, near Onyx Summit, all of which can be used to access SR38. For several reasons, which Erica will explain in a separate “commentary” post, we decided to walk down to SR38 via an access road around mile 251 and hitchhike into Big Bear Lake a day earlier than planned. The road we went down was about one mile after a section of trail that passes by a private zoo. That zoo houses wild animals trained for movie production. Hopefully, this will be the only time we see a bear on the trail.

A bear in a private zoo near the PCT's mile 250

A bear in a private zoo near the PCT’s mile 250

Our ride into town was with a man who happened to be a professional dog-sledder (if that’s the correct term for it). We didn’t get his name, but we did get to sit in the car as he picked up his high school-aged son on his way into town. The son didn’t seem particularly phased by seeing two strange, smelly hikers in his dad’s truck and both father and son were very friendly. Thanks for the lift, guys!

Our hitchhike, a professional dog sled tour operator from "Adventure Quest Institute, Inc"

Our hitchhike, a professional dog sled tour operator from “Adventure Quest Institute, Inc”

Once we got to Big Bear Lake, we decided to get a room at the Robinhood Resort on the corner of Big Bear Blvd and Pine Knot Ave, right in the heart of Big Bear Lake Village. The lows were forecast to be in the high 10’s to low 20’s–near records for this time of year–so we were glad to have a nice warm room all to ourselves. The hotel staff also offered a good hiker rate that rivaled what the nearby hostel was charging for two people for the night.

We feasted on a large pepperoni pizza from Saucy Mama’s and two caramel apples from a nearby fudge shop, along with our usual town treats of microwave popcorn and wine. We spent the rest of the night watching TV in bed, deferring errands until the morning.


Days 19, 20:

May 7th and 8th
Miles hiked: 0
Miles hitchhiked: About 3 (to and from K-Mart)
Well-fed hikers: 2
Inches of snow fallen: about 5 inches as of 2:30pm on day 20.

We’ve taken two zero days here in Big Bear, waiting for ailments and weather to pass.

The town is crawling with rock-crawler Jeep Wranglers and Cherokees; parades of them down Big Bear Blvd have been common.

We ate breakfast at The Teddy Bear restaurant on Pine Knot Ave. on our first morning in town. They gave us an absolutely amazing deal on breakfast, a $5/person “hiker special” that included eggs, bacon, hash browns, and biscuits and gravy. We were surprised to find biscuits and gravy being served in California; we associate that dish with the southern half of last year’s Appalachian Trail hike.

Teddy Bear Restaurant's hiker special breakfast: $5 for bacon, eggs, hash browns, and biscuits and gravy

Teddy Bear Restaurant’s hiker special breakfast: $5 for bacon, eggs, hash browns, and biscuits and gravy

We returned to the Teddy Bear restaurant for a few more meals during our stay. We also hitchhiked to a nearby K-Mart and back, handling some of our resupply chores. We returned our Spot GPS tracker (the GPS page on this website will soon be removed) via mail.

Rick fixed a small puncture in his air pad (unrelated to the baffle failure problem resulting in a replacement being sent) by submerging it in Big Bear Lake. We walked out on a dock behind the Big Bear Lake post office, inflated the pad, then started submerging it in the lake. It was windy, cold, and lightly snowing while we did this; wannabe thru-hikers would be the only ones stupid enough to go near the water in such weather…

Today, May 8th, we’ve again been resting. Familiar faces are in town, also avoiding the weather. We intend to leave town early tomorrow morning. Till then, we’ve got dinner to eat and a movie theater to visit (Avengers: Age of Ultron is showing).

 

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