PCT SoCal Big Bear to Wrightwood: Day 3 (November 2015)
Updated: Mar 24, 2019
76 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail in 5 days, from Big Bear to Wrightwood in Southern California, November 2015, lands of the Yuhaviatam and Maarenga’yam (Serrano) people.
On our third day backpacking, I set the goal of reaching a hot spring for a good soak. I wanted to get to the natural volcanic springs in the afternoon, and I calculated that we’d have to walk at least sixteen miles. Elu seemed up for the challenge, enthusiastically stretching and prancing around our campsite in the morning, and I was motivated by the prospect of steaming hot water to relax my sore muscles and wash off some trail dirt. We walked out of the pine and oak forests of the transition zone and hiked until the land was covered in chaparral and dark green scrub.
By that point, Elu and I were several miles ahead of schedule. After two nights of freezing temps and reheating water bottles every few hours to keep from shivering, I decided to keep pushing our mileage and try for a Friday night finish of the section hike. Then we'd be able to cut out a night of camping in the chilly weather.
The trail curved in a single-track of tan dirt along steep granite ridges. It ran above a large winding stream named Deep Creek that fed into the Mojave River. We walked on the path in sight of the dark sparkling water for much of the day, never tiring of the view.
As we neared the hot springs, we heard the roar and crescendo of motocross bikes shifting gears as they scaled the ridge on the opposite side of the creek. I stopped to watch as three riders passed up the hill and out of sight, and then a fourth struggled behind them, stalling on a particularly steep section. I was thankful that they were far away, and I began to wonder if I’d see anyone at the hot springs. I was surprised to find that I was actually looking forward to talking to people, not having spoken to anyone but my dog in forty-eight hours.
As the sun descended in the sky, heading behind the rocky hills, the trail led down toward a grassy area. Continuing to the creek, we reached the geological fault line that allowed deep volcanic rock to heat the water. The trail led straight to a naturally occurring backpackers’ spa with several pools of varying degrees of heat.
Three men in their thirties sat in one section drinking beer next to the sandy beach. I laid my pack against a small tree and I asked to join them. They seemed happy to have a woman in their small group, and there was plenty of room. I attached Elu’s lead to a tree, so she wouldn’t get wet so close to sunset, then I lowered myself into the hot water in just my shorts and sports bra. It’s as warm as a bath, but not uncomfortably hot, and I can see round rocks and sand at the bottom. Elu stretched out on her belly in the nearby dirt, long legs in front and behind her as she watched me, wagging her tail whenever I made eye contact and smiled at her.
The three guys started passing around a bong but left some distance between us and I stayed in one corner of the pool. The usual anxiety I felt around unfamiliar men didn’t appear, and I feel strong and triumphant from having walked forty-two miles to get there. Without my asking, each of the men all stayed more than an arm’s distance away from me. I felt safe partially because I knew I wouldn’t camp there; I’d be at least a mile away before night fell. Right then, small groups of men and women were walking around the springs, chatting and soaking in the pools, and readying campsites. Several tents were set up in the sand near the creek around a nice fire pit with fallen logs for seats. If I stayed the night there, I knew I'd probably get some free food since everyone else seemed to have carried coolers full of beer and snacks on a shorter trail nearby, but I didn’t think Elu or I would be able to sleep well.
I soaked and chatted with the men for an hour, enjoying the first real break I’d had on the trail since starting on Monday afternoon. One of the guys was so drunk and high that he was talking to himself and laughing. When he walked away to grab another beer, the other two men admitted that they don’t know him, but they traded their pot for his beer, so they were stuck hanging out with him. I gingerly climbed out of the water and walked up the small sandy hill to take care of my blistered feet and rinse the dirtier pair of wool socks and silk sock liners. The water had left me feeling rejuvenated and happy. I was surprised to feel content in my own skin while sitting still for an hour among strangers.
Checking the time and the trail app, I knew that we'd have to hustle to get to a camping spot a mile down the trail near a small stream before it got dark. As I was getting my pack shifted into place on my back, the more drunk and high of the three men I was sitting with earlier yells, “Excuse me, Miss! Are you single?”
“Nope. Married,” I yelled back, certain I'd made the right choice to move on before setting up camp.
“Awe! All the good ones are taken!” he wailed to himself. No matter what, I wouldn't have told him I was single.
Elu and I hurried past the hot springs, needing to put a little distance between us and the drunk strangers before stopping to rest for the night. Elu and I started walking at a surprisingly fast pace, considering we’d already put sixteen miles behind us that day. Plus, it was day three, officially the farthest and longest backpacking trip we’d been on.
A mile down the trail I found the perfect spot for us to sleep, with just enough flat ground for our tent and a gurgling creek nearby where we could fill our water containers. The sound of the creek flowing over the smooth rocks comforted me during the night. With a clear sky of stars above us, I left the rain fly off. From behind the thin mesh of our tent, we watched a beautiful bright moon rise in the sky and light the woods.