Getting Lost on the Pacific Crest Trail

My heart sank as I looked up the trail. Snow covered the majority of the dirt that I had been walking on for hours. And now that the sun was getting low in the sky and I still didn’t have a campsite, life was beginning to look pretty terrible at the moment.

Gearing Up for an Overnight Adventure

Only 24 hours earlier, I had gleefully been packing my stuff into the back of my 2006 Toyota Corolla. That little tan car was stuffed to the brim with all of my gear. Pack, tent, sleeping bag, trekking poles, and my trail runners scattered around the trunk and back seat.

I had learned quite a bit from my last backpacking trip in Rocky Mountain National Park. Getting my pack weight down to a manageable number meant giving up some items and replacing others with lighter versions. Packing my gear down for this quick overnight on the PCT was incredibly important to me as I would be gaining a significant amount of elevation on this trip.

Background on the PCT

The Pacific Crest Trail, also known as the PCT, stretches 2650 miles from the US-Mexican border in the south and the US-Canadian border in the north. It goes through some of the most rugged and diverse landscapes in the entire lower 48. From scorching deserts to cold mountain peaks, the PCT offers those who dare to hike on it the unique opportunity to test their resolve in some of the most beautiful country the US has to offer.

I was fascinated by the PCT when I first started working for the state parks in California. My district had several sections of the trail wind through it. As I heard the stories of those that had hiked it, getting on the PCT became an obsession of mine.

When the opportunity presented itself to do a quick overnight on the PCT in late May, I couldn’t refuse! My plan was to start my trip in Idyllwild, CA to catch an offshoot trail that would connect me to the PCT and then hike up to the junction and find a place to camp along the way.

No Where to go but Up

My journey began at the bottom of the Devil’s Slide Trail. Plenty of cars lined the parking lot when I pulled in around 10 AM, so I felt pretty confident that the trail was in good shape and that finding a place to camp for the night would be easy as pie. Once I parked the car, I gathered up all of my gear in my backpack and waddled over to the trailhead.

The beginning of the Devil’s Slide Trail had a large sign with a map of the area. Details of what lay ahead revealed themselves as I looked over the map. The first thing that I noticed was that the trail was a straight shot up with very few flat or downhill sections. My legs were in for a serious test.

Huffing and puffing, I made my way slowly up the trail. The temperature was warm enough to make me regret not starting earlier. But despite the steepness and the heat, I couldn’t be happier!

Here I was, a mere 2 hours from where I lived in San Diego hiking my way up to this mystical trail. It couldn’t get better than this. I road that feeling of excitement all the way to the trail junction with the PCT. That’s when my heart dropped.

Now What?

The hot, dry trail that I had been marching up for the past two hours gave way to snow. I looked around for a trail sign to see if I had made a mistake and found myself on a different trail that still had snow on it. Nope. This was the PCT.

At this moment, I contemplated turning around and camping somewhere near Idyllwild. It would be the smart/safe option since snow in the San Jacintos could potentially make the trail dangerous to hike on due to icy conditions and steep drop offs.

But I wasn’t about to let this little bit of snow stop me! I resolved to press on through the snow, figuring that in some points, it must melt away. With renewed vigor, I hiked carefully over the snow and was successful in finding melted patches here and there for a few more miles.

The sun was getting low in the sky as I approached yet another snowfield. The only thing on my mind in the moment was finding somewhere to camp, because I knew that I didn’t want to be hiking in the dark trying to find somewhere to set up for the night.

This snowfield went on for what seemed like forever. It covered up the trail to the point that as I walked through it, I became increasingly worried that I had gotten off the trail completely. As dusk set in, panic began to flood into my body.

Thankfully, as if on que, a snowless patch of ground that looked level appeared off to my right. I quickly set up my tent for the night, figuring that I could more safely and easily navigate during the day.

I gladly tossed my pack to the ground, pulled out my tent, and crawled inside to get a good night’s rest before trying to find my way out the next day.

Getting Home Again

The morning sun rose brilliantly over the San Jacinto mountains, stirring me from my sleep. As I lay in my bag slowly waking up, I quietly thought to myself what I needed to do in order to get back to the car safely. “Maybe I’ll just follow my footprints in the snow out of here and find my way back to the trail junction,” I thought. “Yeah, that’s what I’ll do. No one else was up here, at least not that I could tell from the snow last night.”

I slowly crawled out of my tent and was shocked by what I saw walking towards me. It was another PCT hiker! They were no more than 200 ft away from me and gliding atop the snow with their pack on their back.

A slight feeling of embarrassment creeped into the utter relief I felt when I saw that other hiker. I knew that I had a way out of my predicament, but at the same time, I couldn’t believe how close I was to the trail the entire time!

I packed up camp and made my way out of the San Jacintos and back to San Diego. I smiled as I drove home, knowing that while the situation was a bit scary in the moment, I had overcome my fear, kept my cool, and gotten home to tell the tale.

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