Heart of the PCT Towns — Big Bear to Mammoth Lakes

Sign on the North Shore of Big Bear Lake, California.Sign on the North Shore of Big Bear Lake, California.

By Julie Pendray

BIG BEAR CITY, Calif. — If you’ve just joined this series, welcome to some quick snapshots of life in the towns where Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) thru-hikers re-supply their food, take showers, do laundry, pick up packages they’ve mailed to themselves and get a good night’s sleep in a comfortable bed. Each re-supply town is a welcome reprieve from the 2,650-mile trail that goes from the Mexican border to Canada, through California, Oregon and Washington, across desert and along the Sierra and Cascade mountain ranges. To write this series, I’m traveling comfortably by car. At this point, I’ve done at least 3,500 miles. What’s my motivation? Hiker numbers are increasing exponentially. A lot of that is due to the book Wild by Cheryl Strayed and the movie based on it, featuring Reese Witherspoon. Social media has also played a huge role. Last year, long distance permits (500 miles plus) were issued to 4,453 people from around the world. Figures for 2016 are due to be released at the end of the year. Usually only an estimated 40 percent of hopeful thru-hikers complete the trail. Who knows what the figure will be this year?

Julie Pendray in car in Canada

Heart of the PCT Towns is a series on SpecialsNotOnTheMenu.com

I’m now in Canada, interviewing people who have amazingly already completed the journey, according to their blogs and fellow hikers in Facebook groups. The entire hike takes most people 5 months or more. I’m told these people have done it in less than 3 months.

“That’s not a hike! It’s a run!” one PCT hiker exclaimed in a Facebook post upon hearing about these hikers who have already signed the register at E. C. Manning Provincial Park in Canada, according to staff there.

I concur. Please stay tuned to this series for those interviews.

Meanwhile, my travel companion is Michelle the Cat, who has endeared herself to people along our route and learned that travel might be acceptable if it means extra treats and cuddles. Readers insist our story should be written as a book because they love hearing about her adventures!

Michelle the Cat.

Michelle the Cat.

To get up to speed, you can read the introduction for this series in which we get “bitten by the bug” and surprise everyone by taking off on short notice in a tiny car packed to the hilt from the re-supply town Idyllwild in Southern California. Then join us for the first episode, Idyllwild to Big Bear, in which do our first overnighter in the car, then meet the “sassy waitresses” of Grizzly Manor Cafe for breakfast and breathe a deep sigh of relief to be welcomed into a beautiful cabin for two nights’ respite from the heat and traffic.

Now, let’s pick up the thread. On my second day at Big Bear, I walked around town, chatted with locals and visited the North Shore opposite Big Bear City, where PCT hikers usually arrive off the trail. But before I did all that, I remembered that I’d trained for ski patrol at Snow Summit 22 years ago. Since I didn’t know when I’d be back again, I couldn’t help but walk up there to refresh my memory. I set out to write this series only about the towns but some readers rebelled and insisted I include my own journey as part of it. So here goes. This isn’t a series about the straight facts of the PCT. You can find those in lots of places. This is one woman’s journey through the towns. And what a trip it has been.

At Snow Summit, I visited ski patrollers in their medical room and told them about my project. They seemed amused and enjoyed hearing my recollections of volunteering at the ski area as a trainee. The medical room is now in a different location and it seems smaller but people were happy to be getting their needs met in there as usual. I had always loved figuring out what the injuries were and how to take care of people. That was less stressful than bringing people off the hill on boards during inclement weather.

Snow Summit is capitalizing on summer visitors now. Mountain bikers were everywhere. I approached a couple in the parking lot for a quick interview. Adam Leroy Lawrence and his wife, Michelle Georgilas, had come from Las Vegas to try out the mountain.

“It’s 110 degrees in Las Vegas!” Lawrence said. “This is just 3 hours away and it’s a cool place!”

Georgilas said, “It’s wonderful for cautious women like me. I’m not into the gnarly stuff. I like the fresh air, the flowers, the scenery. Adam does the technical stuff. I like easy-going cross-country.”

So, is it challenging enough?

“Oh absolutely!” they proclaimed. Lawrence called it “world class” and said, “You’re gonna see some top notch mountain bikers here.”

Snow Summit is billed as Southern California's only lift-served bike park. Source: Snow Summit.

Snow Summit is billed as Southern California’s only lift-served bike park. Source: Snow Summit.

August is Learn to Mountain Bike Month at the resort, which offers more than 60 miles of cross-country and downhill trails for people at all ability levels, plus rental and repair facilities and eateries. I was happy to see that Snow Summit still has the low key, friendly vibe I remember. People were chilling out on a patio eating lunch. As I paused to talk to a young staff member outside the rental store, he asked visitors not to accidentally step on a baby bird that had crashed on its maiden flight, in front of the bikes.

“The mother pushes them out of the nest at a certain point,” he said. “But I’m not sure this guy’s gonna make it.”

Walking back down the hill to town, I happily remembered how I was sitting on a chair lift at Snow Summit 22 years ago when I realized I might be pregnant with own baby. I’m now an empty nester but my progeny hasn’t crashed! On that sunny day back then, as my husband and I sat surveying the white landscape, I felt like crying for no reason at all. Since we had been planning our first child, I had a hunch this was it. I took a leave from the slopes and the rest is history. I learned a lot of valuable information on ski patrol — how to put C-collars on people, strap them to boards and bring them down the mountain, pull traction for a broken femur or administer frosting from a tube for a diabetic — but I’ve never regretted leaving it all behind. Motherhood gave my life even more meaning and kept me too busy for patrol. I’ve used those medical skills from time to time.

My next destination on my stroll this day was Big Bear Boulevard and I was glad to be out of my little car. I noticed another business was catering to summer vacationers. Goldsmiths Boardhouse & Ski Rental now offers electric bikes, along with skis and boots. They have a brand of bikes I’d recently tried in Idyllwild, so I went inside for a chat and to get a reprieve from the heat. One of the owners sat with me as I regaled her with my plan to drive through all the PCT towns and she told me her husband did the Pacific Crest Trail on horseback. That’s another angle of the story that would be interesting, I thought.

Big Bear business people told me the town was quieter for June than normal. They were concerned that the lake was 14 feet lower than usual due to the drought and they were looking forward to more visitors. Idyllwild also has been affected by a reduction of precipitation in recent years. Snow brings visitors hoping to find a place to sled with kids and many stay to eat in restaurants. In Big Bear, moisture brings people hauling boats.

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When I’d had enough of the heat, I headed back to my temporary home in a wooded residential area, Dancing Bear Lodge. On the way, I stopped by Hacienda Grill & Bar to grab dinner to go. Many thanks to them for treating me to delicious salmon and vegetables in exchange for an ad on this site. I was amused by the servers’ shirts that read on the front “bartender: a person who mixes and serves alcoholic drinks.” On the back they stated: “Not to be confused with a matchmaker, marriage counselor, taxi driver or babysitter.” Michelle the cat enjoyed her tiny portion of salmon when I returned.

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Dancing Bear Lodge, Big Bear, California.

Dancing Bear Lodge was a spacious resting place to sort through my belongings and downsize. I’d brought most of my worldly possessions with me, not knowing what situations I’d encounter on this trip or exactly when I’d return to Idyllwild. I expected to go through a range of weather. Several suitcases contained most of my clothes for all seasons, plus notes for books I’m working on and my laptop computer. One large suitcase was filled with all my shoes, sandals and boots, so I was prepared for any occasion, whether it was a professional meeting or hiking. I didn’t know how far I’d be able to go on this journey on my less-than-shoestring budget, but to prepare for possibly reaching Canada, I needed all my credentials to win journalistic credibility, so I brought printed work samples. In case of an emergency, I brought my medical records and a first-aid kit. I had food supplies and utensils for preparing meals. I also brought along ridiculously heavy books, hoping to get time to read them on the solitary nights. I was equipped with writing materials so I could send cards to my native New Zealand. I’d packed my sketch pads, one being an autographed gift from “Art Bastard” Robert Cenedella, the iconoclastic New York expressionist whose movie won Best Documentary in Idyllwild’s film festival in January. How could I leave behind such a priceless momento? (I still haven’t sketched on this trip!) Also among my possessions was my cat’s litter box, which took up a corner of my car. Her carrier was smack in the middle of the rear seat, right where I could reach around and open the little door at rest stops.

I began downsizing by leaving two books, including my much loved To Kill A Mockingbird, and a small pad of watercolor paper on a shelf in the bedroom of the lodge. I also donated a mug to a kitchen cabinet. Then, I sprinkled some rose petal tea in the bathtub and took another long, hot soak and dozed. The next leg of my journey would be a long one. I was already tired from the rush of cleaning and sorting and packing at my home before I left, in order for a friend to move in while I was gone. The mental logistics and the driving through the night and sitting upright in my car on the first night, waiting for sunrise at the lake, plus dealing with a cat in the early stages of a heatwave, had taken its toll.

But excitement spurred me on. I felt sure that Michelle would grow in confidence when I let her out of the car on a leash to pee in the woods. The same faith that gave me goosebumps about this trip before I left now allowed me to hit the road again. However, I wouldn’t have had the required nerve and resilience without two girlfriends in Idyllwild who kept in touch with me privately on Facebook, asking, “Where are you? Do you have a place to sleep? How’s Michelle?” One offered to take care of my mail and banking while I was gone. The other baked me muffins for the road. Most of my family and friends didn’t know I’d left Idyllwild. I wanted it to be a surprise. I couldn’t be delayed by questions and well meant advice. I had to hit the road before the worst of summer’s temperatures.

As I pondered the length of this adventure, the cost of gas alone was daunting. One girlfriend suggested a “mom and pop” gas station. I thought the idea was crazy. However, the next afternoon, Moonridge Fuel filled my tank and added air in my tires, after hearing my story about this series. Without them, this thread wouldn’t exist. Moonridge is a family-owned business and one of the last full-service stations in California, the owners’ son told me. He said there are a lot of retirees in the Big Bear area, including his parents, so the family likes to take care of them. The business provides propane and gasoline to a lot of operations, such as the marina and ski resorts. Moonridge is an area just outside Big Bear City limits. I’m told Pacific Crest Trail hikers use both the Big Bear and Moonridge post offices to collect re-supply parcels.

Serrano Campground, North Shore, Big Bear Lake. Source: US Forest Service.

Serrano Campground, North Shore, Big Bear Lake. Source: US Forest Service.

Before leaving, I went to the other side of the lake, North Shore, to see the Pacific Crest Trail sign at Cougar Crest Trail. Hikers can often be seen walking along the highway and residents like to give them rides, I was told. Many hikers stay at nearby Serrano campground.

“Sometimes my husband and I pick them up just to hear their stories,” Laurie Warfield told me at Grizzly Manor Cafe.

North Shore reminded me of some small isolated areas in New Zealand, and also Inverness north of San Francisco. In places, it’s historical and rustic, with sparse population. A hiker can stay close to nature in a campground or stay in the city and enjoy a little night life at the restaurants and bars in The Village. Many stay at Big Bear Hostel or Motel 6, as mentioned in my previous piece in this series.

North Shore was endearing. I would love to have stayed. However, the reality of doing a journey on short notice in summer is that it’s peak season, with fewer lodging availabilities, especially with a cat! I wasn’t ready to try camping in the woods with her. I considered Wrightwood, another PCT town further north, where I’d rented cabins and skied decades ago. But instead, I drove up 395 overnight and was happy to get out of Southern California, away from rising temperatures. Michelle the Cat hates noisy freeways and big trucks with huge lights glaring down on us. I was glad to finish that leg of our trip and arrive on a cool morning in beautiful Mammoth Lakes.

But in the meantime, oh what a night ….

To be continued …

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8 Comments on "Heart of the PCT Towns — Big Bear to Mammoth Lakes"

  1. Hal Brockman | August 3, 2016 at 9:39 PM | Reply

    Great PCT stories. I saw a group at Crater Lake and asked if they were doing PCT and they said yes, this is a picnic table.

    • julie.pendray@gmail.com | August 3, 2016 at 10:19 PM | Reply

      Thanks for reading, Hal. I visited Crater Lake for the first time, for this series. What a view! It was surrounded by snow. Unforgettable for this Kiwi.

  2. Enjoying your story and following your journey! Happy Dancing Bear Lodge could give you a place to rest and recharge, and take a bath in rose petal tea! Thank you for the donations you left for others to enjoy in our little lodge. The mug has taken on a life of its own! Looking forward to the next chapters…
    Wishing you and Michelle the Cat a safe and memorable journey wherever your path takes you!

    • julie.pendray@gmail.com | August 5, 2016 at 12:03 AM | Reply

      How kind of you to write. I’m so glad the mug has taken on a life of its own, with its beautiful message. Memories of your cabin & soaking in the tub bring a smile whenever they come to mind, which is often. It was a fortunate way for me to be able to start the trip. I couldn’t have known how much I’d need that rest. Thank you again. Hopefully one day, I’ll be able to bring you a book to put on that shelf, with my name on it & Dancing Bear in the story. Wouldn’t that be fun?! – Julie

  3. It was fun meeting you Julie. I’m glad you made it to Stehekin – and hope that you find it as special as we think it is up here. P.S., only tell really cool people about the place!

    • julie.pendray@gmail.com | August 15, 2016 at 9:50 PM | Reply

      Hi Mary! It was great to meet you, even if fleetingly! I wanted to quickly say goodbye but I only had a few minutes to run into the store before the boat boarding & you weren’t there. I wanted to stay but the rooms were all full. I just go with the flow on this trip & I’m not able to plan much in advance. I have to go where the stories & hikers take me — like Stehekin, out of the blue! What a wonderful place! Thanks for leaving a comment. I have great interviews & photos from Stehekin coming in this series. It will take a while, since I’m on the road & I’m also juggling other stories but stay tuned please! – Julie

  4. Hi, Julie
    I’ve been following your postings on the Rebergram and, as a somewhat lapsed hiker, have been especially interested in your adventures along the PCT. When you made the big traverse from Big Bear to Mammoth, it’s a shame you didn’t have time to stop in Lone Pine. The Whitney Portal Hostel there is a major rest stop for PCTers as well as a jumping off spot for hundreds of shorter range hikers and climbers. The owner, Doug, is the go-to source for information about the Mount Whitney region and the Sierra Crest. I’d recommend your staying there and at other hostels along the route, but I’m not sure any of them are cat-friendly. Keep up the good work. It’s always inspiring to find people who can make a living with words, on their own terms, after surviving the U-T.

    • julie.pendray@gmail.com | August 15, 2016 at 9:47 PM | Reply

      Thank you so much, Ed, for your interest & comment, which will be very useful for readers. I napped in the car near Lone Pine on my trip. I have passed through that sweet little town many times, for example when I climbed Mt. Whitney more than 2 decades ago. I haven’t found a hostel that is cat friendly yet but I agree that they are perfect places to interview hikers, as I’ve done at Manning Park, Canada, where the trail ends. The cat sleeps in the car if I’m at a non-feline abode. There’s always the southbound, homeward bound trip for me! I won’t be able to visit every place on the itinerary … but I’m trying to visit as many as I can. — Julie

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