The San Felipe Hills section of the Pacific Crest Trail wanders, meanders, and squiggles its way through 24 miles of the San Felipe Hills between Scissors Crossing and Montezuma Highway. This segment has a reputation for being hot, difficult, monotonous, and even dangerous. There are no natural water sources, there is no shade until just before Barrel Springs, and it is terrifically hot on most spring days. Furthermore, there are no easy places to jump off the trail in the middle, meaning that if you run into trouble halfway through, there’s no escape route.
As I have gradually whittled away at the PCT in San Diego County, I’ve looked ahead toward the San Felipe Hills with some trepidation. There’s no easy way to dayhike the route, as 24 miles is a bit out of my comfort zone for dayhiking, the water requirements make backpacking a chore, and the shuttle logistics are always difficult to manage. As my friend Shawnte continues her section-hiking assault on the first 1,000 miles of the PCT for her book, and as the weather promised cool, breezy temps, this weekend turned out to be the optimal time to hike the segment.
I met Shawnte across the street from the Warner Springs fire station where the PCT crosses Highway 79 for the first time. We left her car there, and then I drove us over to the Scissors Crossing trailhead where we hoisted our packs and set off. The weather turned out to be a lot more than just breezy, as the lingering remnants of the low pressure system that brought a brief burst of storminess was causing the winds to blow hard down the Volcan Mountains, across San Felipe Valley, up into the hills, and then right into our faces. It kept the temps cool, but I knew the wind would make the camping situation interesting.
The San Felipe Segment starts off with a comprehensive mix of desert flora. This initial section lies at the transition zone between low desert and high desert, and most of the species from both regions show up here. The cacti are particularly impressive, with numerous barrel, hedgehog, beavertail, mammalaria, and cholla specimens, plus creosote and ocotillo, dominating the slopes. We were probably a week or two early for cactus blossoms, and aside from a few early bird beavertails, there wasn’t much of a floral display.
Beyond the first three miles, the PCT settles into a meandering and often ponderous traverse that heads generally northwest by way of every other possible direction. The PCT never misses a chance to dip into a gully or ravine as it sacrifices the direct approach for a gentle grade. This happens even where there is an obvious opportunity to shave off several miles of dry, sinuous, monotonous contouring.
I’m not sure what the PCT architects had in mind when they designed the trail here; perhaps there’s a good reason. I do know they selected the San Felipe Hills for the route after the determined that it would be too much of a battle to route the trail through private property in the cooler, loftier Volcan Mountains across the valley. However, I walked away with the impression that somebody was trying to win a bet to see how many gullies they could route the trail through.
On the plus side, there are some pretty good views through the San Felipe section, especially around mile 12-13. By this point, the trail traverses a higher region of the hills with good views back toward Granite Mountain. We enjoyed the views as the sun dropped, casting shadows across the valley, and again in the morning after we woke up to watch the sun cast its first rays over the Volcan Mountains.
As expected, the wind was brutal overnight. Wind chill got down to about 29 degrees, even though temps were forecast around the mid 40’s. The tent slapped and flapped all night, but somehow I eked out about 6 hours of sleep. When we woke, we saw fog pouring through the valley as the wind blew it off of Lake Henshaw about 15 miles away. Fog continued to pour over the Volcans, even though it hit a temperature barrier around 5,000’ that caused the fog to evaporate before it could drop into the valley.
As we set off for the second day of hiking, we crossed over to the north side of the hills and watched the fog continue to stream through Montezuma Valley. We wound our circuitous (often excessively so) way down toward Barrel Springs past the 100 mile mark for the PCT before finally reaching the shade of oak trees. The wind continued to blow hard, but the northern aspect of the slope often sapped most of the wind’s bite.
After a stop at the seductively tranquil, oak-shaded Barrel Spring (in this case, a pipe draining into a large catch basin), we crossed Montezuma Grade and wound our way through a series of grassy valleys divided by low, chamise-covered ridges.
Eventually, the trail finds rim of the vast San Jose de Valle, which stretches from the base of the San Ysidro Mountains in the east to the foot of the Palomar Mountains in the west. This spacious valley was a vivid, emerald green following some modest late winter rains, and the combination of low, fast-moving clouds set against higher cirrus clouds created ideal atmospheric conditions for photography.
After crossing trickling San Ysidro Creek, the trail climbs up again through chaparral before emerging on the broadest section of the valley at the base of the San Ysidros. Once you crest the ridge, you get a view of Eagle Rock far off in the distance. This granitic jumble of rocks looks remarkably like an eagle, and it has become a popular day-hiking destination from the Warner Springs fire station. The approach from the south was an interesting experience, as the vast views west are much more epic than what you see coming from the north, and the formation is much more obvious from this vantage.
In the context of the PCT, Eagle Rock is little more than an interesting side note. Even as a dayhike, it’s really just an excuse to enjoy the sublime stretch between the rock itself and Highway 79. Here, the PCT passes through a gorgeous gallery forest of oaks, cottonwoods, sycamores, and willows along the seasonal stream within Canada Verde. Some of the coast live oaks here are among the most impressive of their kind in the county. Eagle Rock is cool and all, but for me the best reason to hike it is to enjoy everything that comes before it.
We reached the car around 4pm and wrapped up the hike with another epic weekend of hiking in the bag. As far as the PCT, I have to complete the first 27 miles, and then the section between Pioneer Mail Picnic Area and just south of Sunrise Trailhad before I’ve hiked everything in San Diego County. I’ll probably re-hike the Sunrise Trail to Scissors Crossing since I hiked that stretch at a time when I didn’t have access to a camera. A photo gallery showcasing the PCT through the county will go up eventually, and I’ll add photos as I complete sections.
Year-to-date mileage: 271.5