PCT: Interstate 10 to Big Bear

Miles 209.5-266.1 of the northbound PCT: A long ascent from the low desert into the highlands, through a mountainous wilderness to a bustling resort town.

Hiking Difficult

Distance
87 km
Ascent
3.8 km
Descent
2.1 km
Duration
1 day +
Low Point
417 m
High Point
2.7 km
Gradient
VIEW ON MAP
PCT: Interstate 10 to Big Bear Map

Description

California Section C of the Pacific Crest Trail is between Interstate 10 and Interstate 15, passing through the San Gorgonio Wilderness and the San Bernardino Mountains. The segment mapped here is from the interstate northbound to Highway 18 near Big Bear. This long stretch climbs steadily from the low desert into the pine-forested highlands, near the edge of a bustling mountain town. Big Bear Lake is a common destination for thru-hiker rest and resupply, and a logical jumping-off point for section hikes.

There is no real trailhead at the southern end of this section near Interstate 10, however. Section hikers may instead want to access the PCT from Whitewater Preserve or Mission Creek Preserve. By doing so, you would skip a chunk of Section C, but not a particularly impressive one. Between Interstate 10 (NB mile 209.5) and Whitewater Preserve (NB mile 218.5), it takes a few miles for the PCT to break out of the busy interstate corridor. The viewshed contains residential developments and rows of windmills, and highway noise drones in the background. On the plus side, wildflower displays in the valley meadows can be stunning in a wet spring season.

After passing through the wind farms, the trail drops into hillier and more remote terrain, soon reaching the Whitewater River. This desert stream flows year-round, in braided channels across a broad, rocky wash. You might make the half-mile detour to the Whitewater Preserve, a nature center with shade, potable water, and free camping for PCT hikers. The PCT continues for a couple miles along a dry stretch of the river valley, then crosses the river (NB mile 220.3). There is no bridge, but the flow is usually light enough to keep your feet dry if you want to.

From there, the trail heads into more hills with Mount San Jacinto towering behind. Several miles of alternating up and down, with some steep sections, leads eventually to another creek. This is Mission Creek (NB mile 226.2), and the PCT ascends alongside it for several more miles, offering intermittent water, shade, and good campsites. The creek usually flows through the spring and into the summer, but can dry up. Be sure to check the PCT Water Report for current status. Note that much of the trail along Mission Creek was damaged by flooding in 2019, and though work has been done, some spots might remain rugged with boulders or brush to negotiate.

Once the trail enters San Gorgonio Wilderness (NB mile 234.8), it climbs steeply away from Mission Creek. You'll proceed upward, crossing sunny hillsides and diving into coves of pine forest with seasonal creeks. After a long uphill journey, a reliable water source and good camp comes at Mission Creek Trail Camp (AKA Mission Springs, NB mile 239.9), where a rough dirt road crosses the PCT. The next water northbound likely won’t be until Arrastre Camp, some 16 miles away.

From Mission Springs, there’s still a lot of elevation to gain in the San Bernardino Mountains, but it's earned slowly as the trail rolls uphill and downhill to connect the transverse ridges. These miles can be arduous, but at least there’s some shade and rewarding views for consolation. Tall pines begin to dominate the forest, and Southern California’s highest mountain, San Gorgonio, looms in the background.

As this section of trail approaches its highpoint near Onyx Summit, it crosses some dirt roads with a paved highway close by. This provides an option for hitchhiking off-trail if need be. After surpassing 8700 feet and turning downhill once more, the PCT enters the little valley of Arrastre Creek, where a nice camp and natural spring can be found (NB mile 256.2). From there, several more miles of rolling forest and meadows lead to Highway 18 east of Big Bear (NB mile 266.1). Thru-hikers commonly hitch into town from this trailhead to enjoy an overnight or even a zero day among the amenities of the city. If you don't need resupply, you might continue on to Doble Camp (NB mile 268.6) to spend the night.

Permits: On this section, the PCT goes through the San Gorgonio Wilderness on land administered by the BLM, which does not require any permit for day use or camping. Near Mission Creek Trail Camp, the PCT leaves the wilderness area and enters San Bernardino National Forest. The national forest does not require any permit for thru-hikers. However, section hikers should have an Adventure Pass for parking at trailheads. Anyone camping may still need a California Fire Permit for use of cooking stoves.

Sources: https://pctmap.net/trail-notes/ https://pctwater.com/ https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/sbnf/specialplaces/?cid=stelprdb5421918

Difficulty

Difficult

Hiking trails where obstacles such as rocks or roots are prevalent. Some obstacles can require care to step over or around. At times, the trail can be worn and eroded. The grade of the trail is generally quite steep, and can often lead to strenuous hiking.

Medium Exposure

2 out of 4

The trail contains some obstacles such as outcroppings and rock which could cause injury.

Remoteness

3 out of 4

Little chance of being seen or helped in case of an accident.

Best time to visit

March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November, December

Features

  • Wildlife
  • Historical
  • Picturesque
  • Dog friendly
  • Wild flowers
  • Water features
  • Family friendly
  • Forestry or heavy vegetation

Guidebooks in this area