Cold and Windy Spring in California

Cacti, in snow. I’ve posted this image before, but I’m posting it again because it is such a great symbol of my long hike in Southern California.

Going into my southern California hike, I was expecting to have problems with heat. After all, it got pretty warm during my week-long hike on the southern California Pacific Crest Trail last year – one day it got over 100 ºF (38 ºC). I was also concerned about finding shade, which is one of the reasons I went with a tarp which could be used for shade.

Yeah, there were a few brief times when the heat was uncomfortable (the warmest I ever got was on the lower part of my hike up San Jacinto), and a few stretches where shade was hard to come by (also on the ascent San Jacinto, actually) but it was cold temperatures and wind which gave me a lot more trouble during my hike.

The most extreme example of problems with cold weather was on the very first night, which I wrote about before. Thankfully, that did not repeat itself.

However, it also snowed on me while I was hiking through the San Bernardino mountains. Yes, it snowed on me while I was hiking in Southern California, in April. I even did a cowboy camp in the snow, which actually is not as bad as it sounds, especially since it got much warmer in the middle of the night.

Normally, hikers take a midday break in the shade. We were taking a midday break in the sun because it was ~that cold~ (and I am impressed that this guy had bare legs, because I never took my puffy jacket off at all this day). We were happy to see the sun come out, because it had been snowing an hour earlier.

Heck, I have calculated that I have spent more time in SNOWY weather in my PCT hikes in Southern California than I have in RAINY weather in my PCT hike of the entire state of Washington. For that matter, it was definitely colder on this Southern California hike than on my Washington hike – I never had a problem with any kind of cold night in Washington like I did in some parts of Southern California, and I definitely had more problems with heat in Washington. Heck, I experienced more rain during my two days in Texas than I did on my 30+ day hike through the Washington Cascades. I know that I did my Washington PCT hike during an unusual summer, but even so, whenever someone talks about how rainy Washington is, or how hot Southern California is, or how dry Central Texas is, I am going to be tempted to roll my eyes.

This was one of the water sources in the San Bernardino mountains. And yes, those are icicles.

And while I was going through part of Los Angeles county which was away from the coast and near the MOJAVE FREAKIN’ DESERT, a ‘marine layer’ came in a blanketed the mountain valleys with fog. First of all, it made the air surprisingly cold (though not quite as cold as what I later experienced in the San Bernardino mountains), some hikers got caught in rain (though I got lucky and pitched camp just outside the area which got rained on) and also, it was exactly was I was not expecting, especially since I had just come out of the Mojave desert.

Hills covered with chaparral with a blue sky and a valley filled with fog.

When I saw this in Los Angeles county, I was wondering if I had accidently walked all the way back to the San Francisco Bay Area.

And on top of all that, there was the wind.

Sometimes, the wind was nice, or scary, or nice and scary at the same time.

The day I descended from Inspiration Point (near Wrightwood) to Swarthout Canyon (near Cajon Pass) was extremely windy. On the one hand, this was nice, because east of the turnoff to Mount San Antonio there was little shade, but the wind kept me cool. On the other hand, some parts of the trail was in bad shape, and by ‘bad shape’ I mean that the trail was eroding and if I slid off the eroding trail I might have fallen down a long way, and the wind forcefully shoving against my body really did not help.

Going down to Cajon Pass. I know a lot of hikers hate the segment between Cajon Pass and Wrightwood, but it was one of the highlights of the trail for me. It definitely helped that I was going mostly downhill and I did not hike this on a hot day.

And the wind was still blowing really strong that night. All the other hikers I met were desperately looking for a sheltered spot, but there were no sheltered campsites, the only fully protected place to sleep was the Best Western Inn in Cajon Pass and a) that was too far for me to reach unless I wanted to push my body very hard and b) it cost more than I wanted to pay. I know that a lot of hikers spend the night in Swarthout Canyon because it is in a convenient location just five miles from Cajon Pass, but the night I was there I was the only hiker, and it was damn windy. Fortunately, I found the single most protected place near the trail within the canyon. It was a bush which blocked about half of the wind. I literally slept under the bush.

This is the wonderful bush which sheltered me from the wind in Swarthout Canyon.

The worst wind was the day I arrived in Big Bear Lake. It as not so bad when I was hiking, since I was not going through any particularly steep or eroded areas, except for the spot which had the whirling dust storms. But when I got to the highway, there was no shelter from the fierce wind, so I had to wait in the wind and practically shout at the other hikers when I was talking to them (but I was lucky to have a guaranteed ride instead of hitchhiking, so I don’t want to complain).

Here is some dead cactus I saw on that very windy morning.

Once I was in town, even though it was a sunny day, nobody wanted to be outside until they absolutely had to go out because the wind was that bad. In the evening, it was so windy that it was physically difficult just to walk down the street to get dinner. I was very happy to be sleeping inside a building with four walls that night – though I was lucky to get a space in the hostel, since that day a lot of hikers decided they would rather extend their stay another night rather than hike (or camp) in such harsh conditions. The next morning, somebody said that, in TOWN (not on the trail, which is higher up in the mountains), the wind had gotten to be as much as 100 mph (160 kph), and the temperature had gone as low as 21 ºF (-6 ºC). I later met a hiker who had camped out that night, and the wind had damaged her tent. Other hikers did not dare pitch their tents that night, but that meant that they had to endure the cold and windy night without a tent to protect them.

On the plus side, due to the cold temperatures and abundance of March snowstorms, I happened to pass through the Angeles National Forest at a time when the forest rangers were actually permitting campfires. The locals tell me that the forest rangers almost never permit campfires. I did not have a fire permit, but on the coldest night I was in the Angeles Forest, I happened to camp with some hikers who did have the fire permit, so they started a totally legal campfire. I enjoyed the warmth.

It was not just a cold spring in southern California, it was also a colder-than-average late spring up in the San Francisco Bay Area as well. Normally, it is difficult to grow carrots in San Francisco, but this spring, the local garden where I volunteer had the largest crop of carrots ever because the weather had been so cold. And it’s not just San Francisco – the local farmers’ markets are overflowing with carrots because vegetable farmers all over northern California have had a great carrot harvest due to the low spring temperatures.

I suppose the lesson here is that I should never trust the ‘reputation’ a particular region has when it comes to weather. If I had known the weather was going to be like this, I probably would have chose gear less suited for sun/heat and more suited for cold. But I guess unexpected weather makes life more interesting, and my gear worked well enough anyway.

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