Patti and I have been in Southern California since the 1980’s and never have we seen a drought as bad as the one we are in now. I know that it’s a desert here, and I know that drought isn’t new here. I remember as a kid watching Johnny Carson one hot summer night in Iowa, and in his monologue Johnny was bemoaning mandatory water savings. Shower with my wife??? he joked. “Have you seen my wife?” he jabbed.
The current drought in California has pretty much decimated most of the water sources along the PCT, at least as far north as Mt Whitney. That’s near where Patti and I most recently hiked an eight-day, 105-mile segment from Horseshoe Meadows to Walker Pass. We had very few opportunities to collect good water and many of them were contaminated. Luckily, we had good water reports and came prepared. But water played a huge role in this hike, perhaps more so than any other we have done.
In fact, the decision to do this segment rather than doing a section of the Mojave Desert, came about entirely because the water reports were even more dire in that section than the one we ended up doing. There, most of all of the water sources were dry and had been for quite some time.
Water weighs eight pounds per gallon. Guidelines for water intake on the trail probably average around a gallon to a gallon and a half (or about four-liters to six-liters) per day. Patti and I hike on average about 12-miles per day. So, if water sources are greater than 12 or so miles apart, we need to carry even more than that gallon. Recommendations vary widely but this is the guideline we normally follow.
When we arrived at Horseshoe Meadows, we had all our water bladders full. About a mile into the Trail Pass route from the campground to the PCT cut-off south (at about PCT mile 745), we found a small creek with water flowing but iced over. I hated like heck passing over that water knowing that water in general was going to be tough to find, but we had what we currently needed and we moved on.
We found Diaz Creek at approximately PCT mile 741, a few hours later. The sun was hot and the air dry, so and we had been drinking our water. Knowing that the next water source was dubious, we chose to fill our bladders again. Reports indicated the next few sources were either likely dry or contaminated by cows in the area. We did see evidence of cows in the area, though we didn’t see any. Diaz Creek, while flowing, was very low. The water channel I slid down into was evidence of how much water was not there. Patti stayed above and began to prepare our lunch. The creek was about a third mile from the trail. And not until I was literally right on top of it did I know for sure that I would even find water. The water was reasonably clean and it was gloriously cold. Once we filtered it, it was very good tasting. Patti enjoyed her Via coffee. I decided I might try to taper my coffee usage a bit. Secretly, I worried about the water and didn’t want to use it up on coffee.
We were still at about 8,000-feet elevation on the third day of the trip, but we began to descend a little and it became easier to hike. However, water remained a scarce commodity. At mile 736, there was a side trail to a corral and stream. But we followed it for more than a third mile and we never found the corral. We did, however, see four opportunities to collect pooled water. We didn’t find any flowing water, but we did manage to find enough to fill our bladders. We had lunch and moved on. I felt a little defeated having found such poor quality water and with few good prospects in our near future.
At mile 716, we came to the wooden bridge at the South Fork Kern River. We had seen the water from miles away while we hiked into the canyon that the river ran through. I felt so relieved to know that water was there. We just had to get there. Once at the bridge, Patti and I settled beneath it on the shore of the north side and ate our first hot meal in two days. Our hot meals required that we use water to rehydrate the food. So we had been eating jerky and other dry food for the last couple of days. We boiled water and ate a rice meal and ate dried apricots for dessert. A little trail mix after and we both felt well nourished and ready to go and off we went.
At mile 702, we knew we would have water available at Kennedy Meadows Campground. There, we found a spigot serving clean, clear water. A nice reprieve from having to work on our water situation. The next day, after camping one night with Swept Away, we had to collect water from Pine Creek at mile 698. The water was green, topped with debris and a slow flow. But we filled up and rehydrated. Again, our next sources were questionable.
Our next good water source wasn’t so good. At mile 683 we came across the seasonal Fox Mill Spring, a pipe running from the ground into a trough. The water was clear, but it tasted rusty even after filtering. We didn’t have a lot of options, though. We had used up not all but most of the water we had collected previously.
At mile 681 we came up to the Chimney Creek Campground turn off. We were delighted to find a small cache in a Home Depot bucket dug into the ground. Patti cheered when she found Snicker Bars in it, but I was even more pleased to find water bottles. We each took a bottle and Patti took one Snickers Bar. We also decided to leave some food as a trade. We weren’t sure if Chimney Creek Campground would have water or not. The sign indicated that water is turned off sometime between middle September and early October. As it was already getting to be mid-October, I wasn’t hopeful. I left Patti at the turn off, took our empty bladders and hiked to the campground. It was a quarter mile to the entrance. From there, I hiked an additional mile or so to campsite #36 to the only water source in the park, a spigot from the well. Luckily and thankfully, I found that the water was still on.
As we entered our final phase of the hike, we had fairly good prospects of finding water but we weren’t sure exactly where. Our water reports indicated that within a few miles of each other, we would find three opportunities from the same creek. We would be crossing over the Spanish Needle Creek on three occasions. The first crossing was mostly dry. However, I did see that the soil was a little moist and there was even some mud just a few inches under the brush. But on the second crossing, we found a beautifully free flowing source and we drank as much water as we could. This water was especially important to us as we had been feeling parched. This water would take us into our final leg and would be enough to get us to our car at Walker Pass. Once at Walker Pass, we discovered that between us, we had only a half-liter of water left. We cut it close but we made it.
Never has water played as big a role in our hike as it did on this trip. We never lose sight of the fact that without water, we could not hike as we do. As I write this, in the comfort of my living room at home, sipping my ice water, I still smell the lingering fresh scent of the rain we received last night. It is the first real moisture we have received in Southern California for many, many months. Here’s to wishing for a rainy, reservoir-filling winter. We in California, and hikers of the PCT, most certainly need it.