On that day, we hiked not much more than four miles, but what a scenic hike it was. Heading northwest on the trail, we soon found ourselves above the shimmering, blue lake, Mount San Gor- gornio, at 11,500 feet, the highest peak in Southern California, rising up across the valley. The lake and snow-capped mountains were visible for most of the hike. Along the way we learned how to tell a Ponderosa Pine from a Jeffery Pine, by their cones: Prickly Ponderosa, gentle Jeffery. Rubbing our hands up the cone told us immediately which it was. We also smelled the bark, as Pon- derosa has a faintly vanilla odor. We also learned that the north side of the lake, while forested, was drier, with sparser vegetation, than the south, it being in the rain shadow.
Even though it has been a dry spring, there were a few wildflowers out, mostly Blue Lupine, Wallflowers and Indian Paint Brush. At around 7,600 feet, spring comes late on this stretch of trail, so more flowers will bloom in June There were many birds calling from the pines, but none that would stand still long enough to be identified. Lizards scurried across the trail, and we even caught a Western Skink, a lizard with a blazing blue tail, and one who didn’t like being caught, as it bit Dan on the finger.
This particular section of trail rises gently until it gradually ascends to a ridgeline, which affords a view down to the, flat, green Holcomb Valley, easily recognized as the opening scene of the old TV show Bonanza and the setting for the film “Paint Your Wagon,” among others. This valley is also the home of many active gold mining claims, which I visited later that day. It was interesting to be able to look down at the two valleys, both impressive in their own way, at the same time. Also, from the trail head, it would be an easy two mile hike further on Polique Road to Holcomb Valley.
We encountered several PCT backpackers along the way, several of whom said they deliberately got a head start on the annual herd. One middle-aged man said he was only going to Tahoe, as he had to finish another trail in the Rocky Mountains and then take on some trail in Arizona. His plan was to hike 3,000 miles this year, which is almost ten times as far as I plan to hike. Most of these folk expect to be at the Canadian border by mid to late September.
We also stopped to admire a massive, old Juniper, one that begged to be climbed, with limbs seductively close together. It turns out that the miners from the nineteenth century used the berries to make bathtub gin, something to ease the pain of digging all day for a couple bucks worth of gold.
From the trailhead, the other direction drops down to other views of the Holcomb Valley and after a about three miles crosses the Van Dusan Canyon Road, the main route into Holcomb Valley. For the day hiker, the stretch through Big Bear is an accessible part of the PCT, as there are several access points, allowing a hiker to sample sections of the trail without a full backpack.
For the backpacker, Big Bear is also hiker-friendly. People routinely give these folks a lift into town where they descend on the restaurants with buffets and spend the night in the local hostel, a welcome respite from sleeping on the hard ground. In fact, at the place where the trail crosses Van Dusan Canyon, there were several groups along the road, waiting for a lift to town.
Another access point, and a very different section of trail, is right on Highway 18, about two miles east of Baldwin Lake, which is dry most of the time. The trail crossing is at the top of the grade, just before the road winds steeply down to the Lucerne Valley. There’s a very big turnout on the south side of the road, with room to park many cars. The trail leads up from the parking area, but rather than the forest a few miles west, this is high desert, with fewer, smaller trees, brush and rock outcroppings. From the junction at Van Dusan Canyon to Hwy 18 is about seven or eight miles of trail, along the ridge above Baldwin Lake.
At first this high desert section of trail is very rocky, but than it smoothes out as it climbs around some rock out- croppings. After about a half mile, the trail tops out and starts to drop again and turn toward the San Gorgonio Wilderness. At that point, I walked a few feet off the trail to the right where I could look down at Baldwin Lake and also to a small, populated valley to the south. Then I saw what looked like a path up the other side, so I hiked a hun- dred or so yards up to the top. From there I could see down into the wide Lucerne Valley and the bare, rocky hills beyond.
The Big Bear Discovery Center on North Shore Drive will give you a local trail map, and there are four places where you can park and access the trail.
If you go, plan to stay a few days. The Quail Cove Lakeside Lodge in Fawnskin and Cabins 4 Less in Big Bear Lake offer great accommodations at a reasonable price, and the area has some wonderful restaurants.