Total Miles: 2057.0
Not 200 miles from the border of Mexico, the Pacific Crest Trail arrives at the foot of something very unexpected. Rising up from the desert floor as if conjured from the earth and into the sky, Mt. San Jacinto looms impressively above the tiny town of Idyllwild. With an elevation of nearly 11,000 feet and a prominence of over 8,000 feet, it would be hard to miss.
Separated from its neighbors by a strip of desert through which Interstate-10 passes, Mt. San Jacinto is a giant peak where a giant peak does not belong. And for that very reason, it presents a particular challenge for northbound and southbound PCT hikers alike—with an elevation like that, both run the distinct risk of finding a snowy challenge….before descending into a 100-degree desert.
Depending on whether it is the beginning of a thru-hike or the end of one, Jacinto is either a harbinger of what lies ahead or a swan song to the high mountains of the past.
The Continental Divide Trail has its own version of Mt. San Jacinto in the form of Mount Taylor. A few hundred feet taller though with a prominence half as large, it looms out over the surrounding desert just the same. The remnants of a long-since-dormant volcano, the peak was named for President Zachary Taylor in spite of its sacred standing amongst the Navajo and a number of other tribes of the southwest.
Like Jacinto, Taylor is not something you expect. Traveling southbound, we’d already left behind the South San Juans over the course of our first few days in New Mexico and subsequent descent to Cuba. Beyond, we’d traipsed our way through the beachy sand of high desert. We’d even said what we thought were our final goodbyes to the golden aspen foliage we’d so enjoyed.
But as it turns out, there would be one more visit into the high, thin air. One last summit before the inevitable descent into the final few hundred miles separating us from Mexico.
The sky that seems to be permanently painted blue lately was paired with a gusty, cool wind that rustled the dry aspen leaves and made for perfect conditions on the lengthy climb. As the opening day of hunting season in the area—a trend that has followed us south for the past month—we passed a steady stream of hunters, all of whom were unilaterally gracious with offers of water and snacks.
The higher we climbed, the occasional sound of ATVs below grew faint and then finally non-existent. For a perfect Saturday afternoon so close to a town, it was surprising to find the trail so empty of day hikers but empty it was. Without the snow a northbound CDT hiker might expect to find, the climb was a picture of perfect fall hiking.
Taking in the nearly 360-degree view, the absence of any other prominent peak on our course to the south drove home the reality—this would be our last summit. Far in the distance, perhaps farther than we could see even from this lofty perch, the Mexico border awaits with nothing so large as this standing in our path.