Home Pacific Crest Trail PCT: Descent to the Desert

PCT: Descent to the Desert

by Lisa

Day 5: Sunrise Trailhead to Mile 73 – 14 miles
Day 6: Mile 73 to Mile 86 – 13 miles

It was time to leave the cool air and breezes of the Laguna Mountains behind and descend over 4,000 feet to the hot and dry desert floor.

Dan and I were again treated to a hearty home-cooked breakfast after enjoying a second luxurious night at the wood cabin with his parents. It was definitely hard to leave the comforts of the cabin in favour of cold nights on trail. We were both feeling the aches and pains of our first 60 miles. Plus our previous day’s 17 mile hike left us with some residual stiffness.

My father-in-law enjoying his morning coffee on the screened-in porch.

We chose to keep adventuring instead of giving up. It sure would’ve been easier to go to San Diego for a few extra days of relaxation but we would’ve missed out on some of the best scenery of the section. Thus we found ourselves once again at the Sunrise Trailhead saying goodbye to our family. My parents-in-law had wined and dined us and given us the best accommodations a hiker could hope for.

Our first couple miles looked a lot like the previous day as we followed the trail through manzanita and chamise. About four miles along we descended steeply into Chariot Canyon where we took a short break.

Yucca, manzanita and chamise make up the landscape for miles on end.
Amazing clouds above steep switchbacks

After our break we had a brief climb up and over the shoulder of Chariot Mountain. From the ridge we could see the 5,635-foot summit of Granite Mountain. The trail then deposited us at the mouth of Rodriguez Canyon where we had a pretty good view of the desert floor to our northeast. We took our lunch break and refilled all of our water containers from a large water tank. Our next water source was nine miles away and we’d have a night on trail before reaching it.

Rodriguez Canyon below Granite Mountain
The Volcan Mountains above the Valle de San Felipe

Our last miles of the day wound eastward under the north face of Granite Mountain. This meant we were in the shade from mid-afternoon onwards. The air had felt warm in the sun but we were cooling off quickly in the shade. I had a tough time pushing through the last couple miles to a decent campsite. My leg muscles were in a lot of pain from all of the downhill hiking and I was just shuffling along.

I was relieved when we found a campsite still in the sunshine. It didn’t last long but it gave us enough warmth to set up and get cooking. It was also a great vantage point from which to watch the sunset.

Sunset colours over the distant hills
Morning clouds and sunrise glow

The next morning I went through a stretch routine and stumbled my way out of the tent. I was definitely sore and achy. The beautiful desert sunrise lifted my spirits though, as did the fact that our current downhill trek was nearly over.

We reached the bottom of the Valle de San Felipe after an hour or so of gentle downhill. It was already much warmer weather than we’d had all week. It took us about an hour to cross the wide valley. We saw a couple jackrabbits and really enjoyed trying to identify the different cactus that we passed. We also encountered a few southbound Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers. They had started at the Canadian border in July and were just wrapping up their trek.

Looking across the Valle de San Felipe
A variety of cacti in the Valle de San Felipe

On the north side of the valley we reached an area known as Scissor’s Crossing. Two major roads come through that area and cross over the usually dry San Felipe Creek. This area is one of the few decent places for a water cache. I’d heard there was often a community-supplied water cache in the area but I didn’t want to rely on it seeing as we were hiking in the winter. Instead we’d asked Dan’s dad to drop off a few gallon-jugs of water near the trailhead. Once we found them we squirrelled ourselves away in the shade of an overpass to refill our water containers, have some lunch and plan our next moves.

Trailhead to the San Felipe hills at Scissor’s Crossing

Thankfully my legs were feeling a bit better after having hiked a few miles flat. I was still worried about the state of my muscles but I wasn’t ready to give up yet.

The next section of trail was 24 miles through the hot and waterless San Felipe Hills. We really didn’t want to do all of the uphill in the afternoon heat so we decided we’d only hike another two miles to a small campsite in a shady canyon. We’d nap the afternoon away, have an early dinner, then hike as many more miles as we could into the evening.

Cholla, barrel cactus, and teddy bear cactus were ever-present in the San Felipe Hills

We woke up after a couple hours of really good sleep. I felt much more relaxed plus I was recharged and ready to hike some more! Night hiking in the desert is definitely a rite-of-passage for new PCT hikers and I was eager to experience it for myself.

We set out around 5:30 pm, just after sunset. I’d bundled up, expecting the near-freezing temperature we’d experienced so far. Instead it was warm and pleasant with barely a breeze. The sky was full of stars with enough light to see the outlines of the hills around us. It was incredible.

We hiked for three hours that evening covering about 6.5 miles. Neither Dan nor I are night owls and eventually we both felt our bodies slowing down. Luckily enough we found a nice campsite on a wide ridge. It didn’t take us long to set up and get comfortable. As I fell asleep, my thoughts drifted to the fact that we only had 25 miles left in our adventure. Of course I’d finish this section of trail. I was brave, capable and strong.

Sunset light during our night hike

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