There’s an outside shot I’ll need a second knee surgery because of a series of hikes that will amount to nothing more than a blog post. This is all because my favorite outdoors retail store, Adventure 16, offered a couple raffle tickets if you summited the three tallest mountains in Southern California. I enjoy hiking and am notoriously cheap, so in the name of the chance to win free gear, I talked my buddy Jeremy into a series of three murderous day hikes that we now regret.
The challenge consists of hiking San Gorgonio near Big Bear, San Jacinto near Palm Springs, and San Antonio near the Azusa senior center, in either three months, three weeks, three days or, for a handful of psychopaths, 24 hours. Seriously, a couple of masochists start hiking before dawn and do all three in a day. We put the three hikes on the calendar over the span of June, July and August so that we would have something to say on Fridays when coworkers asked us about our weekends.
The thing I like about hiking is that it’s a discernible goal that’s easy to quantify. If you get to the top of the mountain, you win. If you don’t, you lose. That’s much simpler than most goals that involve nebulous measures like happiness and wealth and living life to its fullest and accomplishments and accolades. Not with hiking. If you get to the top you achieve your goal. Also, it costs nothing. Compared to hockey gear, you pretty much just have to walk uphill for a really long time.
I didn’t even have a good emotional hurdle to overcome, along the lines of Wild and Into The Wild. Those books were so popular because they weren’t really about hiking. They were about something else that was being worked through while the main character was on a trail. I would’ve loved to have had a mental block, or an emotional breakthrough on my drive through San Bernardino County, but the strongest emotional pull I felt was when we pulled into the West Covina In-N-Out. And that Into The Wild dude was kind of an idiot. I mean he walked into Alaska and died, that’s pretty much the book. Spoiler alert.
We knocked the best hike out of the way first, because apparently we didn’t want anything to look forward to on this stupid adventure. Mount San Jacinto was the most spectacular of the bunch, which would’ve been a lot more enjoyable were it not for the blood seeping through our socks. When you drive from L.A. to Palm Springs, it towers to the south of the 10 freeway. It can be hiked as a 10-mile trail from the Palm Springs tramway, 15-20 miles from a few trails starting in the town of Idyllwild, or the Skyline Trail (also known as Cactus to Clouds), which, at 36 miles at 10,000 feet uphill, is the highest vertically-climbing hike in America. We did not do that one.
We split the difference and picked the Devil’s Slide Trail from Humber Park in Idyllwild. This presented us with a 16-mile trek from a really nice town where we would’ve been better off spending the day. Idyllwild was a low-key Big Bear without the bling shops. The route took us along the Pacific Crest Trail for a few miles, a view of Palm Desert and Joshua Tree, and brief spells of flat terrain shaded with summer camp pine trees. For around three minutes out of our eight-hour adventure, it was paradise. The final mile was a grueling, rocky climb to the second-tallest mountain in Southern California.
On a clear day, you can see the ocean, Mount Whitney and even the curvature of the Earth from the summit of Mount San Jacinto. On the day we were hiking we could clearly discern the Morongo Casino. But views aside, our first hike was done which meant, unfortunately, we had to continue with the other two. If only one of us had broken our legs then we would’ve had the excuse we needed to quit.
Mount Baldy was the steepest and most fun (I use the word fun very loosely) of the three. Clocking in at 10.6 miles, Baldy starts at a packed parking lot and climbs straight uphill in a way that makes you question your life choices. The summit overlooks a huge bowl with a half-dozen peaks and a ski resort that global warming is putting out of business. The misery of hiking down a gravel ski trail is alleviated by the bar you encounter at the seven-mile mark. We snapped some photos of the lame zip line, questionable ski lift and battle of the beers before crossing the second hike off the list.
The three-peak challenge culminates in the final, worst, most unpleasant, brutal trek of the three: the 19 miles up the tallest mountain in Southern California, Mount San Gorgonio. In the same way I remember middle school bullies, I have nothing nice to say about this hike. There’s nothing redeeming and there’s no sense of accomplishment to justify the horrible pain this hike causes. The bottom of the trail and top of the mountain have vertical climbs determined to force your tibia to pierce through your kneecap. The trail spends most of its time in a forested valley so you don’t get any views. When it does become awe-inspiring, you’re already suffering from altitude sickness and sunstroke so you’re imagining all sorts of random stuff. You’re not sure if you have a great view of the endless high desert or if there are Pokemon everywhere.
You know when a dog is out for a long walk on a hot day and then before it gets home it just quits? Like it finds a spot in the shade on the sidewalk and lays down and that’s that? Right, so that’s our knees. With three miles remaining, we were limping like seniors using our hiking poles as walking canes as we took one ginger step at a time down the endless trail with the parking lot feeling like it was getting further away with each step. Until finally we descended with scores of hikers passing us along the way and finally we could proclaim that we never have to hike again.
The most insulting part was sitting in the car afterwards. After logging over 40,000 steps in a day, my fitness watch sensed that I was immobile for more than an hour and ordered me to, “Move!” Our enormous physical challenge amounted to topping the 29th-tallest summit in California, which barely fits on a bumper sticker. There was no emotional breakthrough, no real sense of accomplishment and nothing but pain to show for it (although the In-N-Out was nice). And I have a pretty solid hunch that I’m going to come up empty handed on the raffle.
I’ll never understand why people do iron mans and tough mudders, which is that race where you electrocute yourself for fun. But I guess there’s something good about setting goals and accomplishing them. It gives you a challenge to anticipate, it makes you push yourself, gives you something to do on the weekend, and you can conquer office small talk on Monday. You might even win a prize or two for your efforts. But the important thing to do before setting out on any endeavors is to make sure that the goals are easy. Because you actually have to work for the hard ones and there’s nothing fun about that.
I can’t tell if the Sierra Nevadas are the most beautiful place on Earth or if it just feels that way because you arrive there via Fresno. Either way, there is a decent collection of mountains, lakes, rivers and volcanoes a few hours from L.A. and it never hurts to spend a weekend camping when Southern California is on fire.
Everyone told us Lassen was better than Yosemite, which I refused to believe. If Lassen was better than Yosemite then I would’ve heard of Lassen. There aren’t many poems and works of art about flying into Sacramento. But after this trip I can unconfidently say, yes, Lassen is better than Yosemite. In fact, out of all the national parks on this silly adventure to see them all, Lassen might be the best of the bunch.
That’s not to say it’s the most beautiful or awe-inspiring, it doesn’t come close. Zion and Yellowstone can smite down Lassen like a freshman trying to sit at the senior table. But it has all the beauty, scenery and relaxation of the best parks in the system without the tour buses. Lassen isn’t the most jaw-dropping national park in the country, but in terms of getting out of town and camping in paradise for a weekend, it’s hard to beat. When we crossed the Canadian Rockies, traversed Yosemite and Zion, we were racing motorcades of tour buses and getting elbowed by tourists and poked by selfie sticks. Lassen is a few hours away with a tenth of the visitors (400K to 4 million), even though we make up the deficit by hitting the car alarm button the middle of the night.
We started the trip with what’s becoming my latest national park pastime: dodging suicidal animals with an SUV in the dark. This time the West Texan bunnies were replaced by Northern California deer. The one-hour drive up the mountain at 9pm was spent slamming the brakes as antlers and eyes darted along the side of the road like an 80s arcade game. Sort of like a Grand Theft Auto version of the E.T. Ride.
Day two we lucked out with the Bumpass Hell trail by arriving on the first day it was open for the season due to snow and ice, which, I apologize for this, meant we got to throw snowballs in Hell. It was a three-mile hike to one of the largest thermal vents outside Yellowstone, which belched up steam like a Turkish bath. We took the King’s Falls trail along a creek that cut through some meadows. Then circled Manzanita Lake doing our best to hope that none of our tens of thousands of mosquito bites contained any Zika.
Per usual for any national park adventure, the largest group of visitors were from Germany. I have no idea why this is, but anywhere we go in the world – Vietnam, Australia, the furthest reaches of Texas and the Sierra Nevadas – we always encounter people on vacation from Bavaria. I have a feeling that if we were to spelunk down an ancient cave in Central America and push aside a hidden door to find Mayan ruins leading to an untouched palace, waiting for us would be a guy named Hans telling us about a great schnitzel place in Munich. I’m pretty sure there are no Germans in Germany, but rather roaming the world with a sensible supply of sunscreen and hiking poles.
On day three we took the long way back to the airport, driving north on the Volcanic Legacy trail with Mount Shasta 50 miles in front of us. It was a quarter-mile hike through the pitch black subway cave, which provided some excellent opportunities to scare the hell out of people (“What’s the date? No, the year. The year!!!”). Then one more hike at McArthur-Burney Falls State Park. The falls were around an hour north of Lassen and looked like someone took a small chunk of Brazil’s Iguazu falls, or the setting for a reality show date, and stuck it in Northern California.
But the best part of the morning was definitely admiring the small coalition of Pacific Crest Trail hikers we encountered. As they took down camp, filtered water and lifted 50 pounds on their backs in the midst of their 500-mile hike, I checked the tire pressure in my Avis rental and ensured we hadn’t lost our phone chargers. Pretty much equally badass.
All-in-all it’s way better to be underrated than overrated. You can do whatever you want, you’re never accused of selling out and you avoid the downfalls to fame and celebrity that comes with being overrated. The Grand Canyon is super sexy, but it’s dealing with the drug addiction, STDs and recklessness that accompanies fame. Meanwhile just a few hours away from L.A. and S.F. is a little indie rocker putting on an amazing show and couldn’t care less if you notice or not. Even if the only other people at the show are a group of loyal Germans who you see at every single show.
I know we visit nature to escape the trappings of work and city life. We want to get away from crowds and people, have time to ourselves, rejuvenate and embrace the silence of a beaten trail. We take a day trip to spot wild animals, see the desert in bloom, photograph spectacular views and hike to distant waterfalls. But if you walk past me and don’t respond to my cheesy hiking greetings, I’m just saying… Watch your step.
I will settle for any kind of acknowledgement that you and I exist together on this dirt pathway. I have pulled out all the stops to welcome your arrival. I offered a high-five, said, “Good morning, super hiker friend,” and held up a sign that reads, Greetings Mountain Man! I expect nothing less in return. If you breeze past me as though I’m part of the shrubbery, you should be very aware that we’re traipsing along an extremely steep cliff.
You can’t be too cool for my warm welcomes because I have done everything in my power to make hiking uncool for everyone. My fanny pack is secured tightly, I have stood in the same place for an hour trying to refold my paper map, my hat was a Valentine’s Day present that says, I love you. And you think that you can walk past this kind of love and not reciprocate my hug?
It’s just you and me up there. I move to the side to let you pass and raise a hand in the air for a high-five. We’re in this together. We’re hiking, climbing, conquering and you leave me hanging? You’re doing to me exactly what the treasonous regiment of the Scottish Army in Braveheart did when they ditched William Wallace mid-battle.