Pacific Crest Trail- Section E: Where Dreams Die

Ironically, I sat in my hot tub most January nights, dreaming of hiking the low desert section of the PCT in Southern California. While walking section E, all I could think of was about sitting in my hot tub back home.

Ask most PCT thru-hikers what their favorite section was and responses will vary. Many pick a section of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Others choose northern Washington as their favorite section. But when you ask what was their LEAST favorite part of the trail, more than 75% would list the low desert in section E from Agua Dulce to Tehachapi as their least favorite.

Cottonwood Creek Bride (Tehachapi Mountains in the background)

Thru-hikers usually arrive at this section in May, when blistering heat, and lack of water or shade sap their energy and crush their spirits. This is why I chose to attempt this section hike in late January and early February instead of May. A winter hike here has the advantage of avoiding the scorching temperatures of May, along with not having to deal with snakes this time of year. Having to carry less water due to lower temps is also a plus for a Winter hike. The downside included very long, cold nights, and no one else on the trail.

I made the long drive from home, taking advantage of snow free roads, and arrived at the Cottonwood Creek bridge at the California Aqueduct to start the middle of this section. Since I had no support, I would have to use my car as a base camp and do small sections at a time. While this would require doubling the mileage on the hike, it would negate having to hitchhike back to the car during a pandemic. To complete this 108 mile section, I would have to walk 216 miles.

Joshua Trees in the middle of section E

The first few days crossed through the dry Antelope Valley, passing through the massive Tejon ranch on private lands. The temperatures were a comfortable 60 in the daytime, but below freezing at night. I started the hike in the middle of the ubiquitous wind farms. The trail alternated walking over the paved aqueduct or following lonely dirt roads, and unexciting walk. It took two days to walk 34 miles which resulted in only 17 miles of new trail gained. With the completion of the section between Cottonwood Canyon and highway 138, I now had passed the 1,800 mile mark, with only about 850 miles to complete the whole PCT that I have been chipping away at for almost 20 years.

The trail runs over the California Aqueduct

Near the Aqueduct, I came across some large, freshly made Cougar tracks. Needless to say, I kept looking back every few hundred yards.

Fresh Cougar tracks

With two days of windy, boring hiking under my belt, I decided to move to a different part of Section E, up into the Liebre Mountain section, where roads crossed the trail every 7 miles or so. This way, I could “slack pack” the trails in small sections. Slack packing only requires a light pack with water, snacks and a few clothes. I could day hike 7 miles to the next road and then return to the car to camp. The following day, I could then move the car to the next spot and continue on. No need to carry a heavy pack with all of my gear.

First base camp on Liebre Mountain

The first morning started off with a beautiful sunrise, usually a good omen. However, hiking was another story. The trail was in very bad shape. Blown down trees, bad erosion in places and no tread-way on side-hill slopes were par for the course for the sections that I walked. Much of the forest had been destroyed by fire in recent years. Covid had prevented any trail work being done for the past couple of years. I saw no one while hiking, but could hear the loud sound of dirt bikes on the nearby forest roads.

Forest ravaged by fire
Burned area on Liebre Mountain
looking north across Antelope Valley to the Tehachapi Mountains in the background

The trail paralleled a forest road, so when I intersected the road after several miles, I decided to walk the road back to the car. On the way back, I removed several large rocks, so that I could safely move my car to the next spot to resume my hike.

Rocks I removed from the Forest Road

Another day of brutal roads to reposition the car and more miles of eroded trail and I had enough of this middle section of Liebre Mountain for the time being. So, I moved to the north end of Section E to walk the 8 miles between Tehachapi Willow Springs road and Highway 58. This section had well maintained trail and again began in a Wind Farm.

A few miles in, I ran into a fellow from Bakersfield who was trimming brush on the side of the trail. We chatted for a while and I told him how much I appreciated his work. This section was the first pleasant walking I had in days on Section E. He was the only human I encountered on this section of trail.

dedicated trail worker
Lots of up and down on this short section
Canada and Mexico sign on Cameron Ridge
The end of Section E at Hwy 58 and Cameron overpass.

After crossing Cameron Ridge, the trail descends rapidly to Cameron Road, where the trail joins the road’s shoulder for a couple of miles to Highway 58.

Road walk….see PCT marker in the foreground

Now, to make the return trip back to the car. 16 miles of hiking to gain just 8 miles of new trail. The sound of spinning turbines and choking on desert dust have me again dreaming of sitting in my hot tub at home. Finally, I reach the car. Tomorrow I will begin a real “backpack” and tackle the Tehachapi Mountains.

There are 22 trail miles between Tehachapi Willow Springs road and Cottonwood Creek, where I previously parked the car to hike the Aqueduct. I planned to backpack in 11 miles and camp, and then turn around and hike back to the car. I would do the same from the other end to complete this section. The picture below shows the difference in pack size between slack packing and backpacking. There is no water on this section, so I carry a gallon and a half for the two days to complete half of this section.

slack pack versus Backpack

The trail rises abruptly from the valley floor, following the property line of the wind farm. Very soon, there is a big erosion gully to cross.

A few miles further, I find it has hard to distinguish where the trail is, due to the amount of damage done by dirt bikes.

Even though PCT signs are every few hundred yards apart warning that it is illegal for motorized vehicles to use the trail, it is evident that the Proud Boys have willingly disregarded these rules and exercised their “freedoms” of tearing up the trail, even though their designated trails were close by. This is not what I signed up for on a PCT hike! Not exactly a National Scenic Trail in this section….

PCT trail sign denoting no motorized vehicles

My friend Larry used to say that it was a sexual thing with motor bikers on the trail. He said that the only time these folks felt power between their legs was when they were on their bikes and raping Mother Earth. I used to think his sentiment was a bit extreme, but after several miles of walking on eroded dirt bike trails and sometimes losing where the actual PCT was, I was beginning to come around to his way of thinking.

The wind was blowing hard and I was not feeling well, so I stopped short of my goal of reaching mile 547, which was the halfway point of the Tehachapi Mountains hike. I made a makeshift camp on a knoll protected from the wind by a few downed trees. My lungs ached badly and I could not take a deep breath without pain. I wondered if somehow I had contracted Covid. The last place I had gassed up had few people masked inside, which made me wonder. I had no energy. I laid down with the ever present sound of humming wind turbines in the distance.

After a fitful night of sleep, I decided to leave my stuff at camp and walk ahead with only water and snacks. I still felt sick, but trudged on anyway. At least it was easier walking with a light pack. However, walking on an eroded motorcycle path while in pain was not my idea of fun.

Finally, at mile 549 of the PCT, I saw something positive about this section. Trail angels had set up a cache of food and water. I stopped and took a granola bar from the cache, sat down and relaxed for a moment.

A welcome sight at Mile 549
in May this would be full of thru-hikers
snacks, books and water left by Trail Angels

Still feeling puny, I decided to head back short of the 547 mile marker. I just wanted to get back to the car, and possibly a hotel to recover. Even though most of the trip was downhill, my lungs ached. My calves ached. I had no energy left. I picked up a huge pine cone the size of a loaf of bread on the way back down. If I lived through this hike, I would gift it to my sister.

Just before I reached the car, I spotted a group of horses grazing beneath the windmills.

My body needed some rest, so I drove to Tehachapi and recovered in a motel for a couple of days. After a couple of days of bed rest, my lungs had improved to the bit where I felt I could at least slack pack some more, if not being able to tackle the other half of the Tehachapi mountains just yet. I think the lung infection was a result of dust getting into my bronchial tubes.

I drove to the south end of Section E at Agua Dulce, but first stopped at Vasquez Rocks a few miles south of town. Technically, it is part of section D of the PCT. Vasquez Rocks is the site of many Hollywood films, with some old Star Trek episodes filmed there.

Site of filming of Star Trek’s “The Gorn” episode
the trail passes through Vasquez Rocks

I followed the PCT a bit to the south, and saw where it would run under the Hwy 14 freeway. Then I drove into “downtown” Agua Dulce and parked the car. I saw that the PCT actually required walking on the shoulder of a paved road for the first few miles out of town. Not being interested in that, I drove ahead to scout where other roads intersected the PCT.

From what I could see, the trail undulated up and down over barren, windswept ridges. I was beginning to wonder why I wanted to hike this section. Was it just to complete more mileage? At some point, recreation has to be more than just checking boxes and accumulating mileage. With the wind blowing hard and dust blowing across the road, I made the decision to bag it. It wasn’t just my physical weakness at the moment. I just didn’t want to do any more of this section. All I could think about was being home in a comfortable bed and soaking in my hot tub. Like so many other hikers before me, Section E ended my dream of ever completing the whole trail.

But I’m okay with that. I still dream of completing some other parts of the PCT.

As I drove north on the way back home, I stopped by the Mojave Air and Space port to see the boneyard of old DC-10 jets. Fittingly, old jets go to die on this spot near Section E of the PCT.

photo: Wikimedia commons

At midday, I continued north in time to reach the Alabama Hills outside of Lone Pine while it was still daylight. From there, I got to see the sun set over Mt. Whitney and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Finally, something to get excited about!

camping in Alabama Hills, looking towards the Sierras

The night was cold, but I awoke in time to catch the first glimpse of morning light illuminating the top of the Sierras. I fired up the stove and mixed some instant coffee and hot chocolate to make a poor man’s mocha, while I watched the rest of the majestic mountain range being lit up by the morning sun. This morning beat any day I had on Section E of the PCT.

Morning sun illuminating Mt. Whitney and the Sierras

It dawned on me (both literally and figuratively), that I had not yet hiked the PCT in this portion of the Sierras, even though I had climbed Mt. Whitney twice before. Now that is a section of trail to get excited about!

Morning has broken

When one dream dies, it allows others to be born to take its place. I started thinking of South Georgia island in the Antarctic, and the deposit I just made on a trip there this coming November. I thought about an upcoming road trip across the country to the Southeast USA this Spring. I no longer HAD to hike all of the PCT. Now I was free to pick a few of the best sections I really wanted to experience and leave the rest to someone else. Disappointment melted into a feeling of freedom!

A fairly long day of driving brought me across the border into southern Oregon. Not wanting to drive the roads on a Friday night, I chose to camp on the deserted shores of Lake Abert, on Hwy 395. The sunset was gorgeous. In one more night, I would be back home in my hot tub, looking at stars and virtually traveling to new places.

Sunset over Lake Abert, Oregon

When one dream dies, it leaves room for endless possibilities to fill the void. It also brings back fonder memories of another desert trip, the deserts of Namibia. That desert trip was magical for many reasons, mostly because of the people I traveled through that desert with. I also did not have to backpack through it. Keep an eye out for an upcoming post on the “United Nations of Namibia”. While we’re at it, “Where else would you like for geographicaljourneys.com to take you to?”

7 thoughts on “Pacific Crest Trail- Section E: Where Dreams Die

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