Breaking Desert Stereotypes on the Pacific Crest

It's not all sun and sand, as our correspondent discovers.

Photo by Amanda Jameson

For a lot of folks, deserts evoke images of cloudless blue skies, relentless sun, and loads upon loads of cacti. For this year's crop of hikers, the beginning of the desert section of the Pacific Crest Trail has held some surprises. We've had the cloudless and sunny conditions, yes, but also the wet and cold ones.

Day two started and stayed overcast, making for excellent hiking into and out of Lake Morena, and up towards Mount Laguna. Our merry band of hikers leapfrogged around each other all day, and reunited to camp for the evening at mile 32, where we were joined by several new faces—and, later, rain.

That rain continued through the night to ring in the morning of day three. I listened from inside my warm, dry sleeping bag for fifteen minutes before deciding that the steady drumming on my rain fly meant it wasn't ending any time soon. So it was up and, once outside, out of camp as quickly as possible to ideally minimize the time spent standing around in the wet. At least you generate some heat while walking to stave off the chill.

The more elevation we gained, the more the rain gave way to sleet. At 38 degrees and wet, it was prime hypothermia weather, and I was on the lookout for the "umbles"—stumbles, mumbles, fumbles, and grumbles—in myself and others. While nearly everyone I saw seemed to be prepared for, if surprised by, the wild weather, many people called it pretty early that day, opting for indoor lodging or braving the weather in twos or threes rather than alone.

The last two days have been overcast (in the best way) and windy, the former making for some awesome hiking and the latter cooling off what would otherwise have been another relentlessly sunny day into Scissors Crossing, at mile 77.3.

The biggest surprise for me, though, has been the desert's color, not its weather. The cooler, wetter conditions mean that there are so, so many plants in bloom. The desert is awash with color, from delicate orange trailside buds to bright pink blooming cacti. I'm looking forward to seeing how the weather and the landscape change as I keep on keeping on down the trail.