Monday, February 10, 2014

Whitewater Canyon Backcountry: So. Many. Animal. Tracks!

After last weekend's trip up Whitewater Canyon on the PCT, Josh and I decided the canyon needed more exploration.
We left San Diego Friday night and spent the night in the truck in the Whitewater Preserve parking lot. We had secured our permit before we left and received a gate code which allowed us to enter the preserve after hours.

The next morning we woke up around 6:30 and listened to the sounds of traffic entering the park. We dressed and got out of the truck to chat with a group of hunters. Josh asked them what they were hunting and they told him they had won a lottery to hunt a Big Horn Sheep. They planned to stay until they got one as the permit only lasted for ten days. 
I told them we were planning to head up the canyon so don't shoot us, which they didn't find amusing.

After coffee and breakfast we headed out on the PCT. 

But not before silly pictures, of course.

We diverged at the river crossing and stayed next to the canyon wall. After a while the trail dissolved and we decided to cross country to the river's edge in hopes of easier terrain.

As we hiked along the sandbars we spotted many animal prints including those of coyotes, big horn sheep, bobcats, cougars and even a bear! Knowing we were going to be off trail and in the backcountry we brought a can of bear spray just to be on the safe side, and I'm glad we did! Sometimes the added physical weight of possible protection is less than the mental weight from the fear of not having it.

We continued on and the hiking became harder as the canyon narrowed. We stopped for a lunch of bean and rice burritos while airing out our feet. I decided to try using Desitin on my feet to help with the blisters and so far it seems to be great!!

I have talented toes. They can give the bird. :-)

 After lunch we continued following the river up the canyon where we reached a split. We were unsure of which fork to take and we opted to stay with the water. The path became less and less intuitive and we tried our best to follow the animal tracks as they seemed to stay on the easiest routes.

Finally we started to see pines in the wash and remnants of trees that had long ago washed down stream.

While climbing over a scree field Josh spotted a Great Horned Owl on a low branch of a tree. We watched him for a time and tried our best to get pictures of him, though we were facing the sun. As I walked past him he flew away which Josh caught on tape. We guess he had a wing span of three feet at least.

The sun was starting to dip below the mountains so we looked for a tent site. We were unsure exactly which fork of the canyon we were in, but were pretty sure it was the South fork. We pitched in a soft sand bar near the river. The vibe in the air was a little tense and we were sure there were animals all around. 

We collected water and cooked dinner when I realized I was unusually low on food. It seemed I had forgotten to pack a breakfast and snacks for the next day. 

No food makes me sad. :-(

After dinner we retreated to the warmth of the tent where we ate chocolate and took silly pictures. The sun was casting alpenglow on the desert and turning the sky pink as we lay down for sleep.

I could not (still can't) stop laughing :-D

nom nom nom!!

The next morning we woke up at 6am. In spite of all of my fears of animal encounters we heard nary a one! We made coffee and ate breakfast in the tent before breaking down camp. 

With a fresh head we looked at the map and GPS and agreed we were in the south fork. We thought we could cross the river valley to an old jeep road that would connect us to the PCT. While the route would be longer, it would also be easier hiking compared with the scrambling we had been doing yesterday.

We set out down the river and Josh found a partial big horn skeleton in pieces next to the mountain. I looked closely for the skull but it was nowhere to be found. 

We finally broke free of the canyon walls and saw the easiest route across the river valley was tucked up against the inlets for all three forks. If we were going to stick so close to the canyon we may as well try for the waterfall that we hoped to see on our way into Middle fork canyon. We pushed through the chaparral and tried to follow the animal tracks to avoid cutting our legs. 

At last we were at the mouth of the middle fork and there was water, and animal tracks EVERYWHERE! We kicked ourselves for not trusting the map and opting to stay with the water when there was so much water here. 

We saw rock formations that were familiar from our Google Earth searches pointing the way to the falls and we pressed on. The canyon was tight and unstable and there was an abundance of cougar prints. We kept our wits about us and rounded the last bend to be welcomed by the massive falls. The hike in was completely worth it and we high fived with sweaty hands.

We found a shady spot next to the falls on top of a pile of scree. Josh stripped down to his underwear and jumped in the cold water. I'm sorry, those images are only for me!

Can you see the frog?? He came out of the scree to say hello!

I see a man in a hat and jacket in this rock. Do you?

After lunch, or what we pretended was lunch, we hiked back out of the canyon. I really wanted to see the headwall, which is a glacial cirque at the end of the middle fork linking San Gorgonio to the Yuciapa Ridge but I could only see the top. Next time I will know which canyon to hike into! 

As we cross-countried our way out of the canyon Josh found some more body parts. Uh, those are interesting sticks there...where's the rest!?

The culprit? Could be. So much wildlife out here!

We followed the maze of bear tracks back down the river. Now that we had found a more direct route we opted to hike out the way we came and ditch the jeep road and PCT.

It was a hot trudge back down but we lucked out with the sandbars and managed to avoid the scramble we had on the way up.

Finally back in the last stretch of the canyon we started to encounter day hikers and picked up the pace back to the truck, and fooooodddd! I was pretty burned out, hungry and sunburned but happy!

I wear a hat and sunscreen and still manage to come home with raccoon eyes. Whats up with that? 
Dumbest tan ever! 
Doesn't matter; had fun.

Looking back at where we'd come from I am impressed. This area is truly beautiful and I hope to spend more time here both before and after the PCT. I kick myself for not spending my wayward youth in the Coachella Valley doing more exploration of these places.

Here's the track log of our adventure. The mileage is not correct, we did about 22 miles according to Josh. 
It was an awesome trip! If you decide to go I do recommend you prepare for animal encounters. 
They are definitely out there!


  1. seriously cannot believe someone. out there is hiking in shorts. So. Jealous.

    1. Aww! We love So. Cal. for that reason but it is going to be a thirsty hiking season for the thru hike. We need some snow!!

  2. Very cool stuff! Cool vid on the waterfall.


  3. Wow, it looks fun out there. I guess that since we're not going to get winter this year, that this is an ideal time of the year to be out there. Glad you guys had fun.

    Mike S.

    1. Thanks Mike!
      It is a bummer that we didn't get any precipitation this winter. It's going to be a thirsty year on the PCT. I can't help but have this feeling that since many of the class of 2014 thru hikers are using the low snow levels to start early that Murphy's law means April will be super wet. Time will tell. Thanks for reading and your help on the SGWA site.

  4. Great pictures of the fall.
    Now you can tell folks you've been to Hell for Sure. Canyon that is.

  5. Exact same trip I've been wanting to do! How tall would you say that second top fall is?