I‘m recommending you join me for this section because it has a little bit of everything from desert to mountain snow. If you scroll down you will see the guide books warning of snow and freezing temperature if one was to hike this section in April or early May….guess what, that’s us, we will be going through this section from about April 28th to May 8th. Don’t let the snow and 9 days it will take us to complete this section scare you off. If you choose to join me for any part of this section I’ll make sure you have the right gear and clothing to make it through the changing ecosystems and I have no doubt that the adventure and mountain vistas will more than make up for a few cold nights. There is also a major resupply point about 3 days into this section with hot showers to warm us up and delicious food to fill our bellies. You don’t have to hike the entire section just a portion will do.
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Running the entire length of the San Bernardino Mountains, this long trail section samples most of the diverse ecosystems found there. Beginning in San Gorgonio Pass in the sweltering heat of a typical Colorado Desert (Lower Sonoran Zone) ecosystem, the Pacific Crest Trail crosses the San Andreas Fault and then climbs through a sparse, drab chaparral of bayonet-sharp cacti and thorny scrub along the whitewater River and Mission Creek. Though sprung from subalpine snow banks high in the San Gorgonio Wilderness, these streams almost all evaporate or sink into the desert gravels before reaching the foothills.
As you climb higher, small drought-tolerant pinyon pines, favored food source of Native Americans and various animals, soon border the trail, heralding your passage through the Upper Sonoran Zone. These trees gradually mingle with Jeffery pines and incense-cedars until, at about 7000 feet, you find ourselves in the crisp air and enveloping forest of the Transition Zone. Just North of Coon Creek, at the 8750-foot apex of the PCT in the San Bernardino Mountains, the route touches Canadian Zone where isolated patches might linger into early summer. Hikers traversing the high San Bernardinos in April or May should expect possible hail or snow and nightly subfreezing temperatures. Bring warm clothing and carry a tent. From the high point, one can turn southwest to scan the San Gorgonio Wilderness’s high summits, where hardly subalpine conifers huddle below gale-screening ridges. The PCT was routed around the highest elevations of the wilderness because it’s backpacker population was already excessive.
Nearing dammed Big Bear Lake, a popular resort area, the PCT alternates between Jeffery-pine and Pinyon forest. In this northern rainshadow of the San Bernardinos, plant and animal life is much more influenced by proximity to the high Mojave Desert, stretching northward, than by the terrain’s elevation, which would normally foster a uniform montane Jeffery-pine-and-fir forest. Instead, Joshua trees, cacti, mountain mahogany and sagebrush share the rolling hillsides with dry pinyon pine groves, and drive Jeffery pines, incense-cedars and white firs away to higher summits or to the cold-air microclimates of streambeds.
North of Big Bear Lake the PCT begins to trend west, following the main axis of the San Bernardino Mountains. A part of the Transverse Range Province, which includes the San Gabriel Mountains and other mountain chains stretching west to the Channel Islands, the San Bernardinos cut conspicuously across the lay of other California physiographic features, which trend northwest-southeast. Long before being intruded by molten rock that solidified to form granite plutons, the region now straddled by the San Bernardo’s had been alternately low land and shallow sea floor. Evidance of this lies in two rock types you will encounter often: the Furnace marble – derived from marine carbonates that became limestone – and the Saragossa quartzite – derived from sand that became sandstone. The limestone and sandstone were then altered under heat and pressure perhaps several times, to reach their present metamorphic states.
Near Lake Arrowhead, another reservoir originally constructed to store water to irrigate foothill orange groves, the PCT again veers north, now down Deep Creek, a permanent stream feeding the ephemeral Mojave River. The floral composition of the Mojave Desert, seen here and also later as the PCT skirts Summit Valley, differs strikingly from the lower Coldorado Desert flora seen farther south. Bitter cold, windy winters here account for many of the differences.
Section C ends unremarkably under 6-lane Interstate 15 in Cajon Canyon, overshadowed by massive workings of humanity – the freeway, the powerlines from the Colorado River and the multiple railroad tracks. These in turn are dwarfed by an awesome artifact of nature – the cleft of the San Andreas Fault, which slashes through Cajon Canyon and bends east to demarcate the southern base of the San Berbardo Mountains.