Pacific Crest Trail: Section A (Laguna Mountains)

The author on the 5,900-ft summit of Garnet Peak.

The author on the 5,900-ft summit of Garnet Peak.

Section A starts at the Mexican border near Campo and winds through the low yet rugged Laguna Mountains. At mile 20 the Lake Morena Campground hosts the annual PCT Kickoff Party. Once across the interstate-8 the trail climbs 3,000 vertical feet into the serene pine forests of the Laguna Mountains. It follows the crest of the range for a while before dropping thousands of feet sheer to the Anza-Borrego Desert. The most challenging segment is the hellish desert walk at Scissors Crossing coupled with the brutal shadeless climb up and over the steep cactus-studded San Felipe Hills. Refuge awaits at Warner Springs in the form of a volunteer center.


23 April 2015 (Day 1)

Today Giselle and I start a three month walk through California along the pacific crest trail. We’ve just been dropped off by my parents at the Mexican border after midday burritos in Campo. Dad hands me a piece of paper with the Lao Tzu quote “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. He takes our photo at the pct monument (metal border wall behind).

Looking north from the border is a wide view of low boulder-studded hills; though I can’t visually trace the pct I know it leads through those hills and thousands of miles beyond to the Canadian border.

From the start we hike several miles with a fellow from LA named David.

We float through the chaparral hills delighted by the desert plant life.

We contour the east flank of Moon Mountain (3,722 feet) and a broad valley opens below us.

Just past 6:00pm we notice the grey skies are darkening. We pause to put on our rain gear and as if on cue the clouds begin to pour.

In the rain the scene is almost jungley and the fragrance of wet sage fills the air.

We press on to mile 11 to a flat area next to the trail. For supper we cook Indian curry and tea.

Teeth brushed with tooth powder before retiring to the tent.



24 April 2015 (Day 2)

When we awake at 6:30am we learn it’s been steadily raining and our tent has been leaking. We pack away our wet gear, breakfast on coffee-cranberry oatmeal and hit the trail.

By mid morning we’re happily stomping through light rain down into Hauser Canyon. Weaving through oddly-shaped granite boulders and brilliant manzanita trees we descend to the dry riverbed.


Undocumented immigrants beware!

“Caution! Do not expose your life to the elements. It’s not worth it!”

Looking across the gorge we see the lower crags of Morena Butte (3,900 feet).

After descending to the riverbed we climb the opposite wall of Hauser Canyon, sneaking over the southeast shoulder of Morena Butte.

By mid afternoon we’re on fat granite slabs looking straight down on Lake Morena.


Flowering yucca plants galore.

On sore feet we stomp into the Lake Morena campground and receive the free coffee and tacos offered to pct hikers.

Finding the trail at 4:30pm we leave the crowded campground and march through the fog on sandy ground. Gradually we ascend to 3,400 feet before crossing a foggy plateau of granite.

Around 6:30pm we hear and then see Buckman Spring Road with bridge crossing the dry arroyo of Cottonwood Creek. We choose to camp under the shelter of the bridge.



25 April (Day 3)

At 7:30am we rise, there’s heavy fog in the air but it seems we’ve stayed relatively dry under Cottonwood Bridge. We breakfast on bagels, pack up camp and stomp two miles across swampy Cottonwood Meadow.

We cross overtop the old highway-8 and then underneath the new highway-8.

Here begins our 3,000 foot climb into the Laguna Mountains.

Not far up the trail we catch up to Lauren and Kyle, a young couple out for a soggy day hike with their energetic dog Baxter. The great dane mutt leads us down an unmarked trail into Kitchen Canyon.

Wild roses make for a scenic descent into Kitchen Creek.

At the bottom we find stagnant pools of water among smooth granite boulders.

As a matter of fact the boulders are excessively slippery and it makes for a comical scramble down the narrowing gorge.


Some distance down the canyon we bid farewell to the trio and turn back for the pct, joining as it begins its ascent up Kitchen Creek. 

At mile 30 (4,000 feet elevation) we cross Kitchen Creek Road and find a little water cache for us left by some angel.

The trail jumps up to a windy 4,300 foot ridgeline with unique metamorphic rock formations.

The trail eventually passes over a shoulder and into Long Canyon (aptly named) to the crossing with Fred Canyon Road where a sign warns of undetonated military explosives in the area.

The ascent up Long Canyon continues…

Around 4:00pm we find ourselves above the 5,000 foot elevation mark and well into a thick cloud.

We ascend a thousand feet to Mount Laguna in heavy rain.

The weather raises to a storm with sideways rain and all. Face and hands bitter cold, we march the final three miles through tall pines to the small town of Mount Laguna.

We go straight towards the first shelter we come across, which happens to be the awning of the volunteer center. We manage to stay mostly dry while the storm rages outside for the better part of the night.


26 April (Day 4)

We awake slightly damp in the morning and take some time to dry our gear in the large parking lot for the volunteer center.


It’s a half mile walk to the cafe, during which time we dry our still-damp clothes on our rucksacks.

The Pine House Cafe in Mount Laguna is a chance for hikers to rest and slurp unlimited $1 coffee.

Further up the road we come to the local outdoor shop; out front a traveler  and fellow Calgary native named Keith gives us a few tips on how to reduce the base weight of our packs.

On the edge of town we take a short trail to the rim of the mountains and look 5,000 vertical feet down to the Anza Borrego desert.

But for now we continue through the high pine forests of the Laguna Montains.


A short scramble out to Foster Point (5,472 feet) affords a superb view of rugged Garnet Peak, the sentinel of the desert and our targeted camp location for the night.


Back in town we’d been given cans of Coors beer, which we now enjoy atop Foster Point.


Back on trail, signs warn of potentially icy conditions but this time of year it’s only bright sun and wonderful wildflowers instead.


On this exact day one year ago I climbed this exact mountain (Garnet Peak) with my best friend Karl. As we approach the junction for the climbing route, I see this woman in front of me – by incredible coincidence she’s wearing a sweater that bears Karl’s name, and what’s more but she’s  she’s from the midwest (Wisconsin) just like Karl himself. The woman and I swap a few traveler stories and exchange contact info.

I recognize this faulted dike system on the eastern escarpment of the Laguna Mountains.

Quick celebration for Mile 50!

Before starting the scramble up Garnet Peak we heat some soup on the trail.

The late afternoon climb up to the top of Garnet Peak is fun. 

From the 5,900 foot summit of Garnet Peak we have a commanding view over the Anza Borrego Desert.

Looking south along the craggy escarpment of the Laguna Mountains we notice a low fog creeping in.

We pitch our tent on a notch 100 feet below the summit with a phenomenal view of the sunset over Cuyamaca Mountain.


27 April (Day 5)

In the first hours of morning I explore the summit area and find the most dramatic spots.

Also I find the little red garnet crystals that give the peak it’s name.

Mid morning we pack up camp and begin the short descent back to the pct. Across the high valley I spy Slack Pine Meadow where one year ago I played frisbee and slacklined with Karl.

Pioneer Mail water tank: first use of the sawyer squeeze filter.

From Pioneer Mail the pct follows the old Sunrise Highway which is blasted dramatically our of the cliffs thousands of feet above the desert.

It’s a popular hang gliding location; there are many plaques commemorating those who jumped to their death by accident.

The trail continues along the eastern escarpment of the Laguna Mountains and we are treated to airplane views over the Anza Borrego lands.

The rest of the afternoon is spent descending a gradual (never ending) 2,000 feet to the desert.

Going down to the desert, the land of flowery cactus and scorching sunshine!


Our first views of the desert are outstanding in the late-day light.

That’s 68 miles of dirt right there! Time for a baby-wipe shower and a night of sleep.


28 April (Day 6)

It’s a glorious morning at Rodriguez trail camp!

Early morning and we’re descending the north flank of Granite Mountain. Along the way we join the Tumbleweed Group, a collection of six individual hikers.


Down on the desert floor the heat is oppressive.

Saved by a water cache in the middle of the desert!

Upon reaching the highway 78 we are eager to hitch a ride to anywhere with shade.

And this fellow (a wacky German immigrant named Volker) comes to our rescue. Turns out he was a decorated race car driver in the 1970s – needless to say he’s got crazy stories and he likes to drive real fast.

Volker learns that I study geology and his eyes light up- he’s got property up in the hills, a now-defunct mining operation in fact, and he offers to sell it to me for a small price. I tell him I’ll consider it and he insists on giving me a tour of the property.

Check out the huge minerals in the  tailings pile! Mica, hornblende, crysacola, you name it.

And here’s the town of Banner (a bustling mining settlement in the 1860s):

After the property tour Volker takes us back to his place for back-porch massages using his own unique hydraulic-powered inventions.


After spending the entire lovely afternoon with Volker, he drops us off back on the pct for us to begin a late-afternoon climb into the steep cactus-studded San Felipe Hills.


We climb until last dark when we improvise a camp at 3,400-feet on the ridgeline.


29 April (Day 7)

So there we awake on the ridge in the soft glow of sunrise.

Not even 9:00am and the mercury’s in the 100’s… hot day ahead…


A tormenting 33-mile waterless stretch  is cut in half by a miraculous water cache set by pct volunteers.

Southern California: in a single glance, one can see from the sweltering 2,000-ft deserts to the cool 6,000-ft pine forests.

Coming around the bend to delightful mountain views (the trail ahead!)

It’s definitely far from being flat here, as evidenced by wacky trail systems like these in the San Felipe Hills.

A sign congratulates us on reaching the 100-mile mark!

After filling up at Barrell Spring we keep walking, entering an area of wide open fields. Jersey cows graze under the sunset sky.



30 April (Day 8)

In the morning we start climbing a 5,000-ft ridgeline under the watchful eye of black vultures.

Mid morning we reach Eagle Rock! No description required for this uncanny granite bird.


Section A concludes at Warner Springs (population 203) where we pick up our pre-dropped food supplies.

We pass the afternoon relaxing under the shade of a giant oak tree with our favourite homies, reflecting on our first completed section.



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