Pacific Crest Trail: Sections E & F (Mojave Desert & Piute Mountains)

Looking west at the author walking away from Mayan Peak after a quick ascent.

Looking west at the author walking away from Mayan Peak after a quick ascent.

Section E, starting in Agua Dulce and ending at Tehachapi Pass, is arguably the least popular of the southern PCT sections. It climbs up and over the 6,700-foot Sierra Pelona (“Bald Mountains”) but then drops from the crest to the floor of the Mojave Desert. Apparently the government was not able to secure the necessary easement through the Tehachapi Mountains (the logical continuation of the crest), so instead the trail cuts through the dangerously hot and mind-numbingly flat chunk of desert to arrive at Tehachapi Pass.

Section F constitutes the transition zone between the Mojave Desert and the Sierra Nevada. This is a challenging section with regards to sparse water sources and hot dusty climbs. Hikers must first cross the Piute Mountains and then the Scodie Mountains, two subranges of the Sierra Nevada. The trail traverses wildflower-laden valleys and craggy granite peaks on its way to Walker Pass at the base of the Sierra  Nevada proper.


25 May 2015 (Day 33)

Last night Olu dropped us off on the outskirts of Agua Dulce. We’re camped beneath electrical wires at the base of the Sierra Pelona.

At the early hour of 6:00am the sun pierces through our tent and stirs us awake. Time to start our long hot climb into the Sierra Pelona (spanish for “Bald Mountains”).

We battle the heat up to a 4,600-foot summit. Sure enough the top is bald and the views fantastic.

From the peak we continue north, dropping into an oak woodland bursting with wildflowers.

The distant sparkle of Bouquet Lake provides visual refreshment as we lug downwards.

Flora of the Sierra Pelona include pretty wildflowers and wild cucumber.


The terrain of the Sierra Pelona is classic California chaparral; our trail rises over rolling hills at 4,000 feet.

Near sunset we make camp and scramble up to a small peak to watch the soft lavender sunset.


26 May 2015 (Day 34)

In the morning we rise early and hit the trail. The PCT here contours around a broad mountain for no reason; we locate a faint trail through the bushes that cuts nearly 2 miles off the distance. The path cuts steeply over a saddle and there are ropes fixed to the vegetation.

From the saddle we have a great view west down Green Valley.

The trail leads down to San Francisquito Road. We learn that the next seven miles of the PCT are closed due to recent wildfire so we hitch a ride with a friendly local in to the town of Lake Hughes.

This sleepy town hosts the historic Rock Inn bar. We stop for obligatory beer and burgers.

From the patio we look out to Lake Hughes, which is pitifully dry.

Mid afternoon we decide to get back on the trail so we hitch five miles north in the flatbed of a pickup truck with five other hikers to the Sawmill Mountain trailhead.

From the trailhead it’s a relentless 3,000 foot climb over three miles to the top of Sawmill Mountain.

The Coulter Pine lives on the mountaintop, depositing its gigantic pine cones on the forest floor.

We make camp on the 6,500 foot summit of Sawmill Mountain and watch the orange flaming sunset over the Antelope Valley.


27 May 2015 (Day 35)

It’s a glorious morning in the Sierra Pelona. The tallest peak in the range (6,700-foot Burnt Peak) can be seen on the southern horizon.

The 6,700-foot summit of Liebre Mountain is a tranquil flowered flatland punctuated by large oak trees.

Looking west we see distant subranges of the San Gabriel Mountains.

We traverse the top of Liebre Mountain, passing from dry meadows to oak forests.

The trail makes a lengthy descent of the sunbaked north flank of Liebre Mountain. The Antelope Valley, our target for the day, is spread out below us.

Really, the Sierra Pelona sports a fine display of spring wildflowers. For us it’s like walking through a wonderful garden.

Other creatures inhabit the mountains as well, such as the long (and unnervingly snake-like) Alligator Lizard.


After many miles of walking under the hot sun, at last we are relieved by dusk. By this point we’re in the foothills of the Sierra Pelona, approaching the desert town of Lancaster.

On the outskirts of Lancaster we are taken in by a man named Bob who lets us sleep the night in one of his assortment of mobile homes, charging us $5 each. It’s our second true bed of the trail so far!


28 May 2015 (Day 36)

Under morning light we are able to properly take in our surroundings. We’re out in the middle of nowhere on the vast property of a man named Bob. In a unique display of desert oddity, Bob has converted a fleet of old mobile homes into a miniature town for PCT hikers.


At 10:00am my good friend Tyler Shepard arrives to Hiker Town. He’s driven all the way up from Thousand Oaks to visit us in the desert. Giselle and I decide to take the day off the trail and hang out with Tyler instead. After eating Mexican food in Lancaster we drive north for the cool forests of the Tehachapi Mountains.

The three of us spend the entire afternoon climbing to the 7,981-foot summit of Tehachapi Mountain.

We make quick work of the steep descent, making it as exciting as possible.


We drive down out of the Tehachapi Mountains to grab a burger in the town of Tehachapi. The Oregon Brothers are there waiting for us, we have a grand night of fun at the airport (of all places) and Tyler heads back for Thousand Oaks well past midnight. One his way down south, Tyler drops us off at Tehachapi Pass and we roll our sleeping bags out next to the Highway-58.


29 May 2015 (Day 37)

We awake next to the roaring humming freeway and hike four miles through windmills and Joshua Trees along the base of the Piute Mountains.


As the trail climbs higher, the desert scene is replaced by chaparral scrub. The windmill farms are still present, however. It’s a strangely enchanting environment.


We choose to rest in the shade of some boulders near the crest of the mountains. I sit against a rock for nearly a full hour before noticing the presence of a stealthy snake who has also been resting in the shade.

The PCT ascends steeply towards 6,320-foot Walden Peak, with views of the adjacent Tehachapi Mountains opening to the south.

The side-trip to the 6,320-foot summit of Weldon Peak involves two miles of bushwhacking and is a largely uninspiring route, with the exception of a remarkable 70-foot granite summit block. The lower half of the block is a 4th-class chockstone haul.

In order to actually summit Weldon Peak, I have to muscle my way up an exposed 5th-class chimney. It’s only about fifteen feet tall, but I’ll count it as a “free solo”.


The 70-foot granite summit block affords an unparalleled viewpoint of the Mojave Desert, with waxing moon rising above the wind farms.

I downclimb the 5th-class summit block of Weldon Peak and join Giselle to romp down and rejoin the PCT. Not long after, we reach mile 600!

Glancing back over my shoulder, I see the granite summit block of Weldon Peak, from which we have just come.


30 May 2015 (Day 38)

In the dry shadeless Piute Mountains, water is a precious commodity. Springs are often 15 to 20 miles apart from one another, and as such I’m forced to carry six liters of water at a time.

The next section of forest has been burned by a recent fire, and bright wildflowers have taken over the ground.


The granite boulders provide some great opportunities for bouldering.


I look to the north across Walker Pass and see the sawtoothed skyline of the southern Sierra Nevada, accented by the sharp 8,451-foot pyramid of Owens Peak.

The trail climbs up and over Saint John Ridge and enters a new valley, a dry dusty bowl filled with Joshua Trees. The rocky 6,100-foot pyramid of Mayan Peak stands in aesthetic contrast to the pine-clad 6,700-foot plateau of Pinyon Mountain.

Across the valley from Mayan Peak there is a water cache for PCT hikers. This saves us from a potential 35-mile waterless stretch.

From a 4,500-foot spur of Saint John Ridge, we observe a fantastic panorama of Kelso Valley below Mayan Peak:

The trail dips to the bottom of Kelso Valley and then begins climbing to 5,997-foot Butterbredt Peak below a bulbous moon.

Mayan Peak looms tall above us, just as its namesake temple.

It’s amazing to see the bright moon rising above the crags of Butterbredt Peak, bathed in pink alpenglow.


We finish the climb out of Kelso Valley and pitch our tent in the Joshua Tree forest below Mayan Peak. Tomorrow we’ll rise early to make an ascent of the mountain.


31 May 2015 (Day 39)

The pyramid of Mayan Peak bathes in the first rays of dawn, beckoning us up its bouldery flanks.

Our route up Mayan Peak climbs 800 vertical feet through granite boulders, nothing but blue sky above.

Just below the 6,109-foot summit, I tiptoe out onto a granite pinnacle to dangle over the Piute highlands.

The summit boulders are guarded by a hissing Mojave Green Rattlesnake!

…and further down the mountainside we encounter another rattlesnake of the Mojave Green variety.

Panorama looking southwest from the 6,109-foot summit of Mayan Peak:

It takes less than half and hour to slide down the talus slopes of Mayan Peak and regain the PCT near a 5,300-foot saddle.

The craggy 6,700-foot mound of Pinyon Mountain now dominates the landscape from the trail.

A wispy plume of water vapour lends to the image of Mayan Peak as a volcanic cone, even though its simply a mound of granite.

Glancing up from the trail, I notice a large boulder balanced improbably atop a slab of granite. Upon closer inspection of this mysterious wonder, I notice a rainbow sundog ringing the balanced boulder like a halo. Perhaps there are divine forces at play in the equilibrium of this stone.

Panorama looking west from the north slope of Pinyon Mountain:

Right in the heat of the day we arrive at an unexpected water cache. A trail angel named Jaws is here heating hotdogs for hot hungry hikers.


Next the trail climbs up and over the east shoulder of 7,100-foot Wiley Knob, a small peak adorned with communications towers.

The granite walls here in the Piute Mountains are wonderfully colourful!

AMAZING SIGHT: A granite outcrop shaped uncannily like a PCT thru-hiker!!!

Once over the shoulder of Wiley Knob, we have an unobstructed view of 7,123-foot Skinner Peak, our next objective.

On the north side of Wiley Knob I find some quality bouldering routes:


We descend all the way down to 5,200 feet at Bird Spring Pass and then start the 2,000-foot climb up the south flank of Skinner Peak. Jetstreams form pink lineations in the dusk sky.

Climbing up to the full moon…

We pitch our tent on a 6,500-foot saddle on Skinner Peak and endure a horribly windy night.


1 June 2015 (Day 40)

Thankfully the morning is calm and the sky blue as can be.

We scramble 600 feet from camp up to the 7,123-foot summit of Skinner Peak. In the crisp morning air we can clearly see the snowy 14,000-foot peaks of the High Sierra on the northern horizon.

Panorama looking west from the 7,123-foot summit of Skinner Peak.

Looking north at the Owens Peak Wilderness from the 7,123-foot summit of Skinner Peak.

Of the summits on the southern Sierra Crest, the 8,451-foot pyramid of Owens Peak stands head and shoulders above all else.

We descend 2,000 feet from the summit of Skinner Peak to the highway-178 at Walker Pass. My geology friend Eric Heaton meets us with a box of delicious food, then he heads back for Bakersfield. Giselle and I then hitch a ride from a lovely Mexican grandmother to the town of Lake Isabella. The reservoir itself is insanely dry, and the dam seems pointless.

After a few hours in Lake Isabella, the Mexican grandmother drives us back to the PCT at Walker Pass. I’ve now got a 3-liter box of wine strapped to my pack – ready for Section G, the southern Sierra Nevada!




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