Day 2: “I’D RATHER BE IN RUSH HOUR TRAFFIC THAN THIS”
We were told last night that breakfast wasn’t until 9am. It was kind of late for my taste, but both of us took full advantage of sleeping in.
I was hoping that we’d be able to hike both Cedar Creek Falls and Kitchen Creek Falls today. But one look out the window quickly made me reassess our situation…
“What?!?” I thought to myself. This went against all the weather forecasts leading up to last night.
Well the local news weather forecast said this pocket of precipitation would pass as the cold front out in the Rockies was licking the San Diego area as it was passing through.
It was about 9am when we were finally fully packed and ready to go. As I went ahead and loaded up the car, the snow was falling a bit heavier.
I had to accept the fact that our rental car probably wouldn’t make it to Cedar Creek Falls since there was a stretch that involved driving on dirt road.
Afterwards, we joined another couple as well as the innkeepers Dawn and Ed for breakfast. We showed up a little after 9:20am, which was just in time for the San Diego couple to be on their way out.
Our breakfast consisted of apple pancake, sausages, and a bowl of sweetened stawberries topped with whip cream. The drinks were hot tea, coffee, milk, and orange juice.
But more importantly, we got to socialize with Dawn and Ed. That was when we came to appreciate more their attention to detail as Dawn had spoken to her friends about trail and waterfall conditions prior to today when she knew we were planning to hike to Cedar Creek Falls (when I made the reservations to book here). She even pulled out her books to check elevation information in light of the snow we were seeing this morning.
She even knew about my book about New Zealand Waterfalls without even me mentioning it as she followed one of the links on my email signature.
That was really cool!
When I announced my change of plans to just tackle Kitchen Creek Falls today, Dawn seemed to agree with my plans as it was right off the I-8 about 50 miles east of San Diego. So that was the plan!
In any case, breakfast was done, we bid a fond farewell to Dawn and Ed, and we had to brave the light snow by about 10:25am. I was a bit concerned about driving in snowy weather without chains (something I had never done before), but Ed had assured me that the roads were sanded and the temperatures weren’t cold enough for the snow to “stick” on the roads.
As we left Julian and headed south on Hwy 79, the snow had let up and even the light drizzling rain that followed where there wasn’t snow had also relented. There was even some patches of sun breaking through the clouds.
It certainly looked like the weather way playing out like the local forecast had predicted, and indeed doing Kitchen Creek Falls in lieu of the popular Cedar Creek Falls today seemed like a good move.
We carefully followed the directions in both Ann Marie Brown’s book as well as a local website printout about Kitchen Creek Falls (especially on the so-called “Frontage Road” which is really the Old Hwy 80), and by about 11:30am we were at the Boulder Oaks Campground.
It was freezing cold when we got out of our car. My hands were starting to go painfully numb whenever my hands were out of my pockets. Julie wasted no time taking the climbing gloves out of my pack and wearing them.
When we followed the Pacific Crest Trail further back up the Old Hwy 80, we saw where the trail crossed the road and headed beneath the Interstate. The crossing was directly across from a large pullout/bus stop area.
That was when it dawned on me that this must have been where the old (now demolished) Boulder Oaks Store was located. No wonder why the directions were confusing at this point.
After passing underneath the noisy I-8 overpass, the trail climbed along a somewhat gently sloping ridge. As the trail went up the first two switchbacks, Julie and I couldn’t help but notice holes cut into the chain-linked fence at each switchback.
We pondered why they were there, but didn’t pay much more attention to them as we passed through a couple of gates and further away from the highway.
By now, the interstate was in the distance and the raucous of cars and trucks whizzing along slowly faded as we got further away.
After about 30 minutes or so into the hike, the skies started to drizzle. Then, that drizzle started to turn into mini-hail stones (or I guess what is sleet; I had never experienced this before).
With the winds gusting, some of those mini-hail stones stung our faces so we made a concerted effort to look down at the ground.
Sure enough, the weather let up again as we got higher up on the mountain.
By around 1pm, we saw the easy-to-miss spur off the Pacific Crest Trail that Ann Marie Brown warned us about. The spur trail looked somewhat obvious and the 6-ft rocks were a noteworthy landmark. Plus the pair of PCT signed poles nearby made sure we’d regain the trail again on the way back out.
So Julie and I followed the spur trail towards Kitchen Creek Falls.
Up to this point, there was no indication of the waterfall nor any running stream. Both of us had doubts about whether we’d be seeing anything or not. After all, we were in the middle of a mountainous desert and perhaps the cold might have re-frozen Kitchen Creek or something while choking off the flow to the falls.
Then, we were a bit worried about the spur trail degenerating into a scramble amongst the jumble of scratchy desert vegetation.
At first we had difficulty finding the waterfall as we approached the now-noticeable stream of Kitchen Creek.
“This is not a 10!” she’d exclaim.
But by now, the sleet started to fall again and the winds were blowing harder. Julie was really getting worried about scrambling in this kind of weather. So was I.
Anyways, we had a bit of a leap of faith moment and proceeded down a steep gully leading to a flat area at the brink of the falls. We couldn’t see the waterfall here but we knew we were on the right track.
Then, we descended further down another steep gully that went directly towards the rocky granite base. This descent was rather precarious as it was riddled with loose rocks, slippery slopes, and some getting tangled with desert vegetation. As the weather continued to deteriorate and the sleet started turning to snow, we both had doubts as to whether this waterfall excursion was worth it.
So we crossed the stream over some boulders slick snow and snowmelt. The scrambling beyond the stream got rougher as there was obviously no trail at this point. So I had to bushwhack my way through a mix of large boulders and still desert vegetation while trying to avoid a few stray cacti along the way.
Meanwhile, the snow that was coming down was coming down even harder. It was 2pm, and I knew I didn’t have much time left. So I finally reached a spot where the falls was in full view, took out my tripod, and tried real hard to man the SLR camera under the freezing conditions. It was hard to do anything with my hands as they were painfully cold and numb.
Indeed the snow was really coming down hard now and I was a bit concerned about losing the trail as we still had to scramble out of here and get back on the Pacific Crest Trail.
So Julie and I wasted no time climbing up the steep gully back towards the top of Kitchen Creek Falls. Snow had already obscured the obvious brown dirt sections so we judged based on steepness which route to ascend.
Under the circumstances, we climbed fairly fast and we were breathing heavily in the suddenly snowy conditions.
When we finally made it to the top of the falls, the winds were gusting and the snow still had some hail-like sleet pebbles stinging our faces. Still, we were able to find our way up towards the spur trail where the brown dirt “trail” was still visible despite the snow collecting around it.
From that point forward, it was easy to follow the trail and we observed how the trail still managed to remain snow-free despite everywhere else getting whited out. We attributed that to the trail workers putting sand or something on the surface to keep the snow from “sticking.” Still, we could be wrong in our reckonings.
Now that we didn’t have to worry about getting lost on the trail, my thoughts next turned to the driving conditions. Even though we were under 4000ft, I could see the road was starting to get some snow.
So that hastened our hiking pace.
During our hour-and-a-half or so of the return hike, I echoed my fears to Julie as well as the unpleasant thought of driving towards San Diego then up to LA during rush hour traffic.
Finally by 3:30pm, we made it to our car which had some light snow accumulating on the windows, roof, trunk, and hood.
“We’re not out of the woods, yet,” I told Julie. She didn’t say anything in response, but she knew the precarious situation coming up as we now had to drive through this sudden snow storm.
I still couldn’t believe how this cold front that was forecast to pass this afternoon all of the sudden became a snow storm. It just goes to show you how weather predictions are an inexact science, but that did little to calm our fears about possibly getting into an accident or getting stranded in this snow storm when we’re supposed to be back in LA by this evening.
We next wasted no time starting the car, turning on all the defrost and heaters, and heading out towards the I-8. A pair of vehicles going the opposite direction as me turned on their emergency hazard lights when I passed by. I wasn’t sure what this meant, but it did cross my mind that maybe they didn’t want me to drive on the I-8 or something. Who knows?
Once we got on the I-8, I was following a vehicle in front of me and at first he was going about 40mph or so, but when he saw vehicles moving slower up ahead, he slowed down and I made sure I kept a safe following distance behind him.
It did cross my mind that maybe we should wait it out with the rest of these folks.
But at the same time, there were other cars still moving so I went ahead and followed them.
After one moment where our rental car didn’t seem to move when I accelerated from a complete stop (because the car was sliding on the snow), I knew that we had to keep moving and try hard not to stop the car and run the risk of losing traction again.
So from that point forward, I allowed enough space between me and the guy in front. When they really slowed down or stopped, I gently slowed down and nudged the car towards them hoping they’d get moving again before I arrived.
Now, I-8 was mostly white except for the obvious tire tracks that I’ve been following as well as the line of cars behind me.
The traffic all of the sudden became mostly a singular train of cars with a few SUVs or crazy drivers blazing their own trails as they passed us on the “passing lane,” which was no longer visible. All the lines on the road were covered in snow so it was hard to tell where one lane started and ended nor where the shoulders started.
Traffic still proceeded no faster than 20mph.
During these tense moments of not knowing if we’re gonna slide into the next car or the car behind us sliding into us, I kept my focus on the guy in front and keep my concentration.
Our gradually moving train of cars passed by one car that was upside down. Julie and I briefly speculated how that happened, but we reckoned it was definitely snow related.
Julie also noticed three bears on a trail as she looked out her passenger window. I couldn’t entertain the thought of stopping to try to photograph the bears or something due to the inclement weather and our dangerous driving conditions. Still, I guess it was rather reassuring to know that California still has bears even near the Mexican border, but what were they doing out instead of hibernating?
Eventually, we got to a part where the I-8 continually descended on a 6% grade for some 17 miles. Still keeping a safe distance between myself and the car in front and trying not to brake suddenly to prevent any further slipping on the snow, we still maintained 20mph speed.
Eventually as we approached the town of Alpine, we started to get under 3000ft and the snow accumulation on the road was less abundant.
The interstate continued to descend even more until finally we started to notice that the snow turned into rain and the road was mostly free of snow.
By this point, the speeds picked up to about 50mph.
While our minds we on the fear of getting into a wreck or pile-up in the snow, I also had a terrible urge to use the restroom. So we found a gas station where we finally got to do the deed.
It was 4:40pm, and it was still rainy and chilly, but Julie and I were quite relieved as the only snow left was on our car, and our bladders must’ve thanked us for making the pit stop.
When I hastily returned to the car and its comforting heating, a big caucasian guy in a blue jacket knocked on my door and had me roll down the window.
“Did you just come down from the pass?” he said, pointing eastward.
“Uh, yeah,” said I, thinking he must be going the other way.
“What was it like?” he asked.
“Uhh, well, it was quite slow. There were a bunch of cops looking like they’re about to close to highway,” said I. At this point, I wasn’t sure where he was going with this.
Sensing my hesitation, the guy then said, “I’m with Channel 8 News. Do you mind if I film you?”
This took me off guard. My BS meter was on, but when he readied his big camera (one I know you need serious money to be carrying around), I gave in and said, “Uh, sure.”
He first asked for my name, which he then must’ve input into the camera. I guess that’s how they are accurately able to flash the names of the people they interview on the spot on the local news.
Next, he proceeded to ask me, “So how difficult was the driving on the pass?”
I told him, “It was quite precarious. We basically made sure to keep a safe distance with the car in front of us and that the car kept moving. We weren’t moving more than 20mph the whole time.”
He went on to ask a few more questions, which I can’t recall off the top of my head. I couldn’t even remember the responses I gave to those questions. I guess the whole day just seemed a bit surreal with a snow storm in the San Diego County deserts on Valentine’s Day and now I’ve got a camera pointed at my face.
Julie entered the car after her pit stop somewhere during this line of questioning.
Finally when he asked me, “So what were you guys doing up at the pass?”
I smiled and told him, “We were hiking to Kitchen Creek Falls. We were at the falls when the snow storm hit, and that was when we knew we had to get out of there.”
After that question, he was done with the questions. He then asked if he could film the hood of my car.
I guess he wanted to show the television audience the snow that still remained on the rental car.
After he thanked me, I wasted no time pulling out of the gas station and headed towards the I-8. As I pulled out, that was when I saw the body paint of his van that said something to the effect of Channel 8.
Clearly, he wasn’t BS’ing at all, but it was too bad we wouldn’t get to see my mug on TV since we don’t get San Diego stations (let alone Channel 8) up in LA.
From that point forward, the driving on the I-8 was fairly smooth sailing as it was clear we were going against most of the traffic. The I-8 East was a parking lot as the Highway Patrol and Caltrans probably closed off the road until the snow storm calmed down.
Traffic didn’t really start building up until we were on the 805 North, which eventually became the I-5.
As the rain gradually became drizzle with the dark cloud looming over us still, there were moments where we could glimpse towards the ocean and see the setting sun.
What a surreal ending to a strange Valentine’s Day!
As we started edging towards Carlsbad, the traffic got considerably lighter and we were back to the more familiar 70mph by around 5:30pm.
Julie wasn’t too happy about making us hike in what turned out to be a drama-filled day in the snow, so I had to try to make it up to her with a Valentine’s dinner at the Houston’s in Irvine. Sure we knew it would be busy, but we mind as well enjoy the moment while LA’s rush hour was in full effect.
We finally arrived at Houston’s by around 6:45pm. Sure enough, the parking lots were packed, but we were fortunate to find a parking spot.
We were still dressed in hiking attire when we declared ourselves and were told the wait would be about an hour.
That gave us time to change our clothes in the car and get into the more “formal” jeans and sweater we had worn while we were up in Julian the night before.
Clearly our hiking attire wouldn’t cut it with everyone else dressed to impress for Valentine’s Day.
But that also threw off the hostess’ memory-based system as she must’ve remembered us in the hiking attire and not the more normal attire.
“Did you guys change clothes?” she asked.
“Yep,” said I, wondering why they don’t use a pager or announcing system, especially when it’s as busy as today.
Finally when all was said and done, we had ourselves another good dinner, and we finally arrived at home while returning the rental car.
We had no trouble sleeping on this evening as we were tired from our drama filled day.
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