The sun rose in a palette of blue and pink over the rugged, rolling terrain of eastern San Diego County as Cowboy Dave navigated his Hyundai Santa Fe onto a dirt road a quarter-mile from the U.S.-Mexico border.
“There’s the trail right there.” He pointed to a single-track lane flanked by sagebrush and the residual expectations of thousands of hikers who have followed through on a dream of walking to Canada.
It wasn’t my first time on the legendary 2,650-mile trail. When I hiked sections of the PCT in 2017, the wall separating the United States and Mexico was made up of rusty corrugated sheet metal panels welded to steel pipes by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the California National Guard. The panels — more than 3,000 to cover each mile — came from metal landing mats used by helicopters in Vietnam, fighter planes in the Gulf wars and bridges used by troops in World War II, according to Thomas Nail’s 2016 book, “Theory of the Border.”
Now the border wall is triple the height it once was: a 30-foot-high fence of vertical steel beams that disappears into the horizon to the east and west, with a double-wide road paralleling it. There is better visibility from either side now, but a squirrel couldn’t fit through those beams.
Cowboy Dave, who doesn’t use the Internet and spoke on the condition his full name not be used, insisted on driving me up to the fir-timbered PCT monument within easy reach of the border. He offered to snap some photos, gave me his card, and was gone in a cloud of dust and nicotine, leaving me to contemplate distant Morena Butte and the long walk ahead.
I thought I was done with long-haul hiking, but something about the first 20 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail always stayed with me. The pandemic essentially shut down the entire trail to thru-hikers in 2020, and ongoing border wall construction blocked off access around the monument. As the trail reopened in 2021, with thru-hikers warned to practice “extreme social distancing,” wildfires closed all of the national forests the PCT traverses in California.
It made me all the more eager to get back on the trail. As soon as peak wildfire season ended, I made plans to return to the remote town of Campo with a daypack and hopes of soaking up things I had barely noticed the first time around. The beginning of the trail skirts the torturous route of the San Diego and Arizona Railway and passes through Camp Lockett, a World War II prisoner-of-war camp and a base for the Buffalo Soldiers before the unit there disbanded in 1944. The elite Black Army cavalry unit was tasked with protecting the then-unwalled U.S. border in the event of an invasion from the south. Today, Camp Lockett is a California Historical Landmark that operates as an equestrian center and hiker-friendly camp with giant oak trees and spectacular views of the nighttime sky.
The first 20 miles of the PCT are also bloody hard, as Cowboy Dave will tell you. He has driven thru-hikers back to the bus station or airport because they were unprepared for what they signed up for. His first passenger, a young man from England, realized, 20 miles in, that his boots were half a size too small. Dave overheard him talking about his plight at the local malt shop and offered to give him a ride to REI.
I thought of those doomed shoes as I began the challenging, circuitous route up Hauser Mountain, about five miles from the start. The first several miles had been deceivingly easy: a sandy descent marked by jack rabbits, yucca and chamise and views of the dilapidated barracks of Camp Lockett and a Border Patrol station swarming with trucks. At Mile 3, the trail crossed railroad tracks that once carried freight between Imperial County and the Pacific Coast on an impossibly steep and rocky route through the Carrizo Gorge. Next to the tracks, a demoralizing sign proclaims it’s another 2,647 miles to Canada.
From here, things got tougher. The trail teased my own increasingly sore feet as patches of smooth sand gave way to disorienting mazes of granite rocks. Waist-high chamise chaparral closed in on my legs and backpack, but never blocked the striking vistas to the south.
The border wall, and the scenic valley where the Kumeyaay tribe once lived, remained my steadfast companion for almost half the hike. I had barely noticed the omnipresent wall the last time I was here. Most thru-hikers at this point are focused on rationing their water supply and debating whether to set up camp a few miles down in Hauser Canyon or soldier on another five miles to Lake Morena.
From my distant vantage point, it at first appeared like a mirage, an elongated crown undulating atop the mountain ridge and separating two indistinguishable high-desert landscapes. At one point, I could see a clear rift where the new steel wall stopped and the old corrugated panels remained. (In January 2021, an executive order by the Biden administration essentially halted construction by diverting all funds being used for the new border wall.)
With surprisingly good cell reception, I was tempted to share my view on social media, but I let go of the desire to instantly document it and seek the world’s approval. The experience was mine alone to digest and interpret. Washington — along with the angst and uncertainty of the past two years — felt a million miles away.
After another sluggish mile to the top of Hauser Mountain, I started down a fire road oddly juxtaposed by power lines and the majestic peach-hued Morena Butte. Around Mile 13, a tower fitted with two small solar panels appeared in the distance. Closer inspection revealed it was a transmitter with a red button above a sign that urged anyone in need of help to push it and await rescue. It stood next to a battered sign cautioning in Spanish not to expose one’s life to the elements. (“No vale la pena,” meaning it’s not worth it.) A stick drawing of a person drowning added to the sign’s perplexity: There was no water for miles.
The trail eventually veered down a single track to Hauser Canyon. During thru-hiking season, the area is often packed, but it was silent during my visit, save for the crunch of leaves as I stomped across the dry creek. I had planned to linger under the oaks and sycamores and rest up for the arduous climb to Lake Morena, but the picture-perfect 70-degree weather and a steady momentum (known as finding one’s trail legs) inspired me to keep moving.
About three miles later, I reached a flat, sandy path lined with red-barked manzanita trees. It was here that I encountered my first humans in 18 miles. A couple with hiking poles and large backpacks were heading down the canyon, followed shortly by a bespectacled man wearing an umbrella hat. They were all clearly happy to be out on the trail.
The deep blue waters of the Morena Reservoir soon came into focus. A young man sat hunched over a book on a flat boulder overlooking the water. Motorized fishing boats, canoes and kayaks drifted across, while children rode bicycles around a nearby campground.
Despite my euphoria, it was jarring to witness all this buzzing normalcy after hours of solitude. Only the discovery of a Little Free Library upon my return to the Lake Morena ranger station brought me back to the hike’s earlier quietude. Inside the wooden kiosk was a curated selection of books with themes of nature and wandering: Thoreau’s “Walden,” Jack London’s “The Call of the Wild,” Homer’s “The Iliad and Odyssey.”
The titles uplifted me, as an unexpected encounter with a close friend might. In the end, though, I left the books there, maybe to be discovered by the next long-distance hikers looking to fulfill a dream.
If You Go
Where to stay
Lake Morena County campground
2550 Lake Morena Dr., Campo, Calif.
Large camping and fishing park located near Mile 20 of the Pacific Crest Trail. There is a designated area for PCT hikers to camp just off the trail at a discounted rate; check in at the ranger station upon arrival. Campsites and RV sites with showers and picnic areas from $24 per night.
799 Forrest Gate Rd., Campo, Calif.
Located about a quarter-mile from the Pacific Crest Trail’s trailhead, this site offers primitive tent and RV sites with fire pits, plus an area reserved for PCT hikers. Free, but donations appreciated. Tents $10 per night, dry pull-through RV sites $30 per night.
What to do
Pacific Crest Trail
California, Oregon, Washington
The Pacific Crest Trail is a 2,650-mile National Scenic Trail that begins in Campo, Calif., and passes through California, Oregon and Washington before reaching its northern terminus at the U.S.-Canada border. Most thru-hikers begin at the Mexican border and head north between the peak months of March, April and May. Hikers who plan to walk 500 miles or more in a continuous trip must obtain a permit through the Pacific Crest Trail Association. Beginning in November, the PCTA typically issues 50 permits per day for northbound thru-hikers who plan to start between March 1 and May 31. More information on permits, trail conditions, maps and coronavirus safety guidance on the PCTA website.
Descanso Ranger District, Cleveland National Forest
10845 Rancho Bernardo Rd., San Diego
No fee or permit is required for day hiking, but a visitor’s permit is required for all hikers to camp at dispersed sites on all Cleveland National Forest lands outside the Laguna Mountain Recreation Area. Camping permits may be obtained from the Descanso Ranger District, which manages the Hauser Wilderness area of the Cleveland National Forest, where the first stretch of the PCT is located.
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.