Burnt Rancheria to Pioneer Mail

11.3 miles


Burnt Rancheria had been one of our trail heads on a prior hike, and we’ve heard of Pioneer Mail. Kind of funny names. No one ever hears of these places excepting those hiking the PCT and locals who care to know. Both are in the Cleveland National Forest in the Laguna Mountains. Burnt Rancheria is a campground that gained its name after a ranch house, used by developers and cattlemen in the late 1800’s, was burned down by native Dieguenos who hoped to defer any further progress. So, then, Burnt Ranch. Pioneer Mail is a picnic area just 5.5 miles to the north.  It is named in dedication to the Birch Overland Pioneer Mail Trail, an active mail distribution route from Texas to San Diego back in 1857.

We also learned that we are officially what is known as “flip floppers.” We have gone both north- and southbound, and have done segments in a disconnected way. We will connect all the dots eventually. But we are neither doing a through-hike, nor are we even doing it in order. We are flip-flopping and have earned the label. Our aim is to get the miles in, to hike the entire thing. We’re not purists over this, not finding it necessary. And for us, it is not possible to do this once through. Life happens. We’ll do it as we can. We’ll take advantage of flexibility. We are also getting older and falling apart. But we’re still young at heart (usually).

Mapping out the next segment

Even before starting our Pioneer Mail hike, Patti is planning our next trip. Our plans to do a section near Chico, CA in two weeks got nixed: fires have closed the 45-mile section we wanted to do.

We took a campsite at Burnt Rancheria on Friday night to get an early start on Saturday. We mused at reading that driving from Burnt Rancheria to Pioneer Mail, our destination for this hike, was only 5.5-miles and was a 10-minute drive. We knew the hike would take us 10-plus miles and would probably take five-to-six hours.

The campsite was unexpectedly great. We were able to get set up in a nicely tucked-away site, protected by both shrubs and trees and was elevated over the roadway. As far as established campsites go, this particular site, site 64, was quite good. We like to look for privacy and protection from the sun. Really good campsites are hard to find sometimes. We were pleasantly surprised with Burnt Rancheria.

Raccoon footprints

Big Foot’s pet’s prints? We are starting to see more wildlife and signs of wildlife. These raccoon footprints greeted us on Saturday morning. Luckily, we tucked everything away on Friday night before we went to sleep. We both slept through the visit.

On Saturday morning, we got up and out early. We had a huge luxury with a car there at the campsite. We were able to bring firewood, cooking utensils and food that we would not be able to have if we were through hiking. The other car was at Pioneer Mail waiting for us after the hike.  It made it easy to just throw everything in the car when we woke up. It also made for light packs in the morning. We didn’t need to carry the tent, sleeping bags, and stuff we didn’t need for a day-hike.

The weather was sensational. Friday’s high in San Diego was over 90-degrees. But up in the Lagunas, the temperature was mild the entire night Friday and then into most of Saturday. It warmed up early afternoon Saturday but it probably never got over 85-degrees.

It was fun being able to connect some dots. One “dot” was dropped when we went south from Burnt Rancheria a couple of months ago to Cibbett’s Flat. That trip started with a nice smooth descent and then a climb up nothing but rocks and then down a huge descent, again, all on rock, down to Cibbett’s Flat campground. That was a tough day. Back at Burnt Rancheria, we knew exactly where to go to find the trail because we had been there before. We found it and took a left.

Water fountain at Burnt Rancheria.

One of a few places water was available to hikers on this segment. There would also be water available at Pioneer Mail.

Heading toward Pioneer Mail was a tight altitude range so we looked forward to an easy day. We  went 3/4-miles in forest that was damp from recent rain. Thunderstorms through the week sparked lightning fires east toward the desert. We monitored reports for the last few days hoping not to run into the smoke or flames. But we would be hiking the trail about 30-miles west of the flames, well away from any danger.

On way toward Stevenson Peak

Those clouds would roll in and out of the area all day.

It was a perfect day for a hike. Some intermittent cloud cover would drift to full sunlight and then back again. At one point, we were walking through clouds and we could see the vapors sweep pass us. And then shortly later it was bright and sunny. The condition of this segment of the PCT is in excellent shape.

Maybe Bigfoot changed his name.

A message from Bigfoot using an alias? You never know.

Some new technology and gadgets at work now since our last hike. We found an excellent photography app called Dermandar (www.dermandar.com) that creates 360-degree panoramic tiles of pictures. We are trying our hardest to make the pictures good but we are not photographers. (By the way, you can click on any of the pictures to see a higher-resolution version of what you see on the main page.) This hike brought a lot of great picture points with lookouts of huge valleys and canyons and the desert down below. We also found a handy connection rig for the camera. It’s really just a strap and can be wrapped around us any number of ways. The strap is secured to the backpack. It has a connecting clip on the strap and an extra one is provided for the camera. The camera connects and detaches really easily and the thing was only $14. Previously, the camera was being a real pain because we hadn’t yet found a good solution.

We were about three miles into the hike when we started the only real ascent we would see through the day. Once at the top we hiked through some California Chaparral. We noticed a few cut-away trails heading east and decided to investigate. Just a few yards off the trail we came up to a spectacular view of the desert valley below and out to the Sawtooth Mountains beyond. Much of the view was clouded over: but a lot of it was flush with sunlight and the contrast made for great pictures. Check out our Dermandar here. The contrasts were stark. And if the day carried any continuity, it might have been the differences we saw between the forest we were hiking and the desert floor we could see below.

Sawtooth Mountains from the PCT

Sawtooth Mountains and wilderness from the Pacific Crest Trail in the Laguna Mountains.

Later, we approached another side path and decided to see what it might lead to. We eventually wound around to find Foster Point, another lookout to the Sawtooth Wilderness. From this vantage point, we could see Stevenson Peak, Monument Peak and Garnet Peak. Palomar Mountain was beyond that and in the clouds, but supposedly, on a clear day, we might have seen even that.

When we approached a little stairway made of rocks to get up to the lookout, we saw two rattlers protecting the path. We had to walk around from the other side. They kept a watchful eye on us and we took pictures from afar.


We wondered if these were a mother and her baby but we don’t know much about snakes. They seemed pretty protective of that space. We were happy to keep our distance.

Tony Dominick Memorial

Off the trail is this makeshift memorial for Tony Dominick. We found his obituary online. You can read about Tony here. Seems he was a good guy, one might have guessed.

Much of our hike ran parallel to the Sunrise Highway. It was not often but there were times when we could hear cars as they passed by. The highway runs from Interstate 8 to Julian, home of the great apple pies. It essentially rides the terrain dab in the middle of the foothills of the mountains and the desert below. The last half mile of the hike took us back up a slight incline before dropping us down into a small canyon about 200-yards from the Sunrise Highway. There, we met up with the car we left earlier.

We are planning out a four-day within the next few weeks. We had originally planned on hiking a 45-mile stretch around Chico, CA. But that area has seen many fires over the past week and that exact stretch is now closed to hikers. We’re looking for a good alternative. We will be celebrating our 25th.

Laguna Mountains 2012

View from trail. Natives would snowbird in the desert and hike up in the spring, carrying their foods and lives in baskets. Can you imagine telling Jr, “Carry your own Yucca?”

PCT to Pioneer Mail

Portions of this trail were so easy they almost appeared manicured.

A heartfelt thanks to the many, many people who have shown interest in our project. Cheers to all!
Patti & Lynn


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