Update on trail repairs in Mission Creek

By Eleonore Anderson, Trail Crew Technical Advisor with PCTA

My first backpacking trip to Mission Creek Preserve, northeast of Palm Springs, couldn’t have been more perfect. It was 2018 and I was a new Trail Crew Technical Advisor with the Pacific Crest Trail Association.

The cacti were blooming a stunning rainbow of colors and the February sun respected my personal space. The trail meandered on either side of the canyon and across the bubbly creek. Each hour provided glimpses into exciting new drainages and the occasional Cottonwood-covered desert oasis.

Beauty aside, I was here to scout out trail maintenance needs. The repairs needed were at each of the dozens of creek crossings. I could see that our job would be to create an obvious pathway for users so that the trail was protected from the flow of water.

2018 view of Mission Creek

I was eager to lead the project and thrilled about being there. I jotted notes and GPS points into a little dirt-covered notebook and snapped photos of the petite creek crossings that needed some loving attention.

With an American Conservation Experience (ACE) AmeriCorps crew, I went back to Mission Creek for the month of May to dedicate some extensive masonry efforts to the canyon trail. Being later in the spring, the sun was a little closer and, honestly, a little rude. However, the trees provided shade and that little creek worked wonders. We stayed cool, even while moving massive boulders into their new turnpike homes.

In addition to accounting for the desert temperatures, the logistics involved in conducting a project like Mission Creek are more demanding than a typical car-camping, volunteer maintenance run. The remote area of Mission Creek (and a bit of Whitewater Preserve) requires horses and mules, as well as some friendly packers, to get the necessary gear and supplies into the backcountry. Just like the trail maintainers, these packers and their animals are PCTA volunteers. Simply put, the trail crew would not be able to work without them.

2018 Trail Crew installing a rock turnpike at one of the dozens of creek crossings in Mission Creek

Mike Lewis (Southern California’s lead PCTA packer) begins his day before the sun comes out. He loads animals and gear into a horse trailer and then drives many miles to the nearest access point at the Mission Creek Stone House. Last year’s ACE crew included five corps members, their crew leader, and me. We helped load tools and paniers full of food onto our hoofed friends.

Our camp was about 5 miles from the Stone House. At times, our work was up to 5 miles beyond that. Being in a canyon, communications were dependent on a satellite phone, spot device and Garmin InReach device. Our Bendix King Forest Service radios do not reach a repeater unless you climb to a nearby peak. As the main logistics coordinator for the project, this made me a little weary, as Southern Pacific and Red Diamond rattlesnakes are common, and from what I hear, their bite unforgiving.

Mission Creek Canyon also lies within the 95,000-acre federally designated San Gorgonio Wilderness. Wilderness areas prohibit the use of mechanized transport (yes, this includes wheelbarrows), so trail crews rely on hand tools and good old-fashioned grit to get work done. Our ACE crew members wore many specialized hats on this project, building stone armored drains and rock retaining walls, as well as with crosscut saws.

2019 View of Mission Creek showing new drainage patterns and one less Cottonwood Tree

Fast forward a year to May 2019. PCTA Trail Crew Technical Advisor Landon Welsh and I were asked to again scout Mission Creek and Whitewater Preserve after a particularly wet winter. Numerous PCT thru-hikers reported that not only was the trail in poor condition, but also that in many areas there simply was no trail.

PCTA staff suspected the damage in this area would be substantial. PCTA’s Southern California Regional Representative Anitra Kass and I had already discussed the area’s “sandcastle” like nature. That fact combined with 2019’s Valentine’s Day flood — which had significantly damaged Highway 243 near Idyllwild, the access road to Whitewater Preserve and the road to Mission Creek Stonehouse — it was almost guaranteed that the PCT suffered as well.

How much damage was there?

2019 – Photo taken from the same location. No, we didn’t install the waterfall

Landon and I prepared to hike 30 miles or more starting in the high country of San Bernardino National Forest near Heart Bar Equestrian Campground and ending at Interstate 10. We planned for two days of scouting. We worried about finishing and arriving at our shuttled vehicle before the predicted snow and rain came in. The first third of our hike covered the Lake Fire burn area. Aside from 16 large trees blocking the trail, the PCT was in normal condition — except for one creek crossing washout that will need extensive rock retaining walls to repair. This foreshadowed what was to come a few miles later.

2019 – the red lines indicate the original trail location

Upon reaching Mission Creek Canyon, it was obvious that the area had experienced catastrophic flooding since the previous year. In many areas, the canyon and trail were dramatically different, and the trail had disappeared at almost every creek crossing. Despite having spent time there before, I had trouble finding where the trail had been on numerous occasions. If I did find the PCT, I was a bit heartbroken to find that all the work that had been done in previous years (or decades!) was nowhere to be found.

But that is the nature of trail work. While Mother Nature is constantly changing our topography, we get to learn from the past and try, try again.

2019 – River Crossing on the PCT at Whitewater River (Whitewater River Preserve)

So what is the solution in Mission Creek?

The Pacific Crest Trail was, obviously, not built all at once. The trail is a connecting path made up of old logging roads, animal paths, cattle trails and everything in between. The U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, California State Parks, the PCTA and countless volunteers have worked tirelessly to build and repair the PCT to create a lasting, sustainable trail that future generations can enjoy.

Sustainable trail design almost always dictates that a trail should not be built in a creek bed, but on the side of a slope where water can drain quickly. This method serves not only the longevity of the trail itself, but the natural hydrology of the surrounding environment. Of course, this isn’t always possible…

So, it certainly would have been better if the trail originally had been built on the slopes above the creek. It would have been more sustainable, less prone to the forces of fast-moving water, and better for the aquatic environment.

Packers in Mission Creek pause before heading north up Mission Creek Canyon to the Trail Crew Camp

Mission Creek is home to endangered species Bell’s Vireo (a small olive-grey colored songbird), as well as the endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher. Bear, mountain lion, deer and Bighorn Sheep also call this canyon home.

And remember the law that only hand tools are allowed in Congressionally-designated wilderness.

So, it’s easy to see why relocating the existing trail would be no easy task. It would require costly and time-consuming scientific study just to find the optimal route, not to mention the back-breaking work of building miles and miles of new tread.

For all those reasons, the trail corridor, despite its obvious downsides, needs to stay put.

Stunning views in Mission Creek

In Fall 2019, I will be returning to Mission Creek/Whitewater with an ACE trail crew to make the convoluted bits of the PCT a little more obvious. However, one week of work there is not enough. We will have to be a bit more inventive with our camp location as the trail is no longer passable for stock animals.

Nevertheless, in the spirit of grit-fueled trail work and resource conservation, no job is too big. We just might have to get a little creative and sweat a little more.

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If you are interested in volunteering on upcoming projects in the Mission Creek – Whitewater Preserve area, or you would like to make a donation to support projects like this, please visit our website at www.pcta.org or contact us at (916) 285-1846.

Eleonore J. Anderson

The crew takes a break as a Red Diamond Rattlesnake makes itself at home on a new rock structure