After I snuck out of work at 8 p.m. on Saturday evening, we packed the car with lightening speed, stopped at the grocery store for last-minute supplies, and commenced a two-hour drive northeast to the mountains.

It might technically be October, but in SoCal it’s tough to find any signs of autumn. Both Kirk and I miss the definitive seasons of the Midwest. Our longing for cool, crisp fall air prompted our weekend camping trip to the San Jacinto Mountains.

It was just around midnight when we started climbing in elevation. I was at the wheel. Kirk, dog-tired from the week, had passed out in the passenger seat. Fortunately, a gas-station cup of coffee and my own voice belting out off-key harmonies to the 80s hits on the radio kept me alert. Ooh, I was rockin’ the casbah, and the love shack, baby.

Five thousand vertical feet later, we reached the tiny mountain town of Idyllwild. “Mile-high Idyllwild” is a base camp for hikers planning to trek to San Jacinto Peak. Given that it was nearly 1 a.m. and no park ranger was readily available to inquire about the roads higher into the mountains, we pitched our tent at the state park campground just off the main road in town, and called it a night.

The sun rose around 6:30 a.m. Between a baby crying at 2 a.m. and my bladder waking me at 5, sleep had been difficult to come by. I didn’t care to leave the tent. Kirk, on the other hand, was the morning go-getter. He had cooked oatmeal and made tea in our JetBoil before I even pulled myself out of my sleeping bag.

By 9 a.m. we had our act together. The big plan for the day was to hike to the top of Mount San Jacinto. At 10,834 feet, it’s the second-highest peak in Southern California. I had done the research and decided that the Marion Mountain Trail–a 5.5 mile ascent of 4,800 feet–would be our best bet. Once reaching the peak, we’d have to hike back down, making it an 11-mile round-trip. This was an ambitious undertaking.

The trailhead was at the Marion Mountain campground, a half-hour drive from Idyllwild further into the mountains. Luckily, this was where we wanted to camp that evening. We picked a site, re-pitched our tent, packed lunch in Kirk’s backpack, then set off up the trail.

Boy, it was up. And up. And more up. The park ranger we talked to that morning in Idyllwild wasn’t kidding when she said the Marion Mountain Trail was “straight up the side of the mountain.” No, we weren’t exactly climbing with all fours, but nearly every step took our bodies 1 foot vertically higher. Those reviews I saw online that rated the trail “strenuous” and “difficult” were not exaggerations.

Whew. We needed a break. (By that point we had hiked a measly mile; we were in for it.) Kirk found a sunny boulder outcropping with a view.

Once on our feet again, we pressed on, up and up, for another hour.  Finally we reached the first trail marker:

At this point our trail converged with the famous Pacific Crest Trail. A variety of other trails offered routes along different ridges to other peaks and lookouts. Suicide Rock Trail sounds fun!

It was 1 p.m. We had hiked 2.5 miles and gained 2,000 feet in two hours. Kirk was winded; my legs were shaky. At this rate, we wouldn’t make the peak until almost 4 p.m. That’d have left us with only two hours to make it the entire 5.5 miles back down the mountain in the diminishing daylight.

Not going to happen. A few things had worked against us:

  • A late start. (Early morning, 7 a.m., would have been much better than our 11 a.m. start.)
  • Inexperience. (We aren’t avid hikers, and neither of us were in peak physical condition.)
  • Not enough sleep. (Babies and their crying! Sheesh.)

It was mildly disappointing, but I got over it. Kirk wasn’t concerned at all about our lack of accomplishment. “I’ll be just as happy getting back to our campsite and lying in the hammock,” he said, while digging in the backpack for the chocolate-covered raisins.

I had to admit, a book by the campfire and a beer in hand sounded very enticing.

Alright, this was it. Before turning back down, we took an obligatory “This is the highest we climbed!” photo:

It doesn’t look very fantastic. And it wasn’t. But it was one hell of a workout to get there.

On the way back down we found a beautiful dead tree trunk that looked like insects had etched mosaics in its wood.

We stopped at the same boulder outcropping for a leisurely lunch.

Another 45 minutes of skipping over rocks and running down the trail brought us back to the campground.

Warm afternoon sunlight filtered through the trees. We gathered firewood and washed our dirty legs under the cold-water spigot. Then, we took a load off.

Now that’s enjoying the great outdoors. ☼