I’ve been to Deep Creek Hot Springs a fair number of times. The most common route is south from Bowen Ranch. Two and a half miles of unmaintained trails with a 500 ft. elevation gain at the top and then the bottom. Another route I have only done once is 6 miles long, going east from the Mojave River Dam along the Pacific Crest Trail. (The PCT is one of the 3 great north-south trails of the US, along with the Continental Divide Trail and the Appalachian Trail.) This particular section of the PCT is very well maintained. It follows Deep Creek its entire distance and presents only gentle grades. I could not recommend a better route for a beginner backpacker.
Another way to get there is to go north from Splinter’s Cabin, a PCT access point to the east of Lake Arrowhead down some very rough and confusing roads. I am glad I have high clearance in my trusty Suzuki. From there you hike north about 9 miles, again following Deep Creek. From the map, it appears to be a lot gentler than it turned out to be.
If you look at the compressed map above, the trailhead is the red X at bottom right and my destination is the X at the top left. I printed the map out on 3 pages with each page covering approximately 3 miles. For a rough scale, each square section is one mile square. Sadly, the NatGeo maps are no longer available on CD and their online maps suck. Good maps can be gotten from Halfmile’s PCT Maps and for areas not on the PCT from CalTopo
Google maps gave me an ETA of 2.5 hours from Santa Clarita to there. Actual drive time turned out to be 4 hours. Of course I got a late start! Is there any other kind?
Splinter’s Cabin was built long ago and got its name from the rough wood from which it was built. Today what remains is a low rock wall over which a modern roof has been built, making for a nice picnic location. It is an important local stop for the PCT as it will be another 3 miles before you find enough flat area to make a camp. If they are lucky, PCT hikers may be able to bum a ride into Lake Arrowhead to clean up and restock. Otherwise, it is about 3-4 miles of hiking to get to town.
This Saturday was a red letter day for thru hikers. Trail angels were offering free hot meals. I had already eaten and did not intend to start my hike out with a full belly. Because of my late start, around noon, I bypassed this generosity. Besides, I wasn’t a thru-hiker, I was a section hiker. The real adventurers were the ones who started at the Mexican border and did not intend to stop until Canada.
The trail descends from the cabin to cross the creek on stepping stones and then begins a long ascent. A mile up the trail is Aztec Falls, a popular day-hike destination. This first mile is very crowded. I passed this group going in just after passing another group leaving. The departing group has just spent their morning doing graffiti cleanup. The outgoing group will no doubt replace the stuff that was removed.
Compared to what you see further up, Aztec falls are pretty humble. They don’t even get a mention on the topo map. However, it is one of four locations you can get to the creek between the trailhead and the hot springs. Most of the time the PCT hangs precariously hundreds of feet above Deep Creek with near vertical embankments.
Right around mile 5, my left knee started hurting on the downhill side. Probably my iliotibial band and I slowed to a crawl on the downhills. Wrapped it with an Ace bandage and swallowed a combination of Ibuprofen, Norco, and a bit more Tylenol. When I found a yucca stave that was just perfect for a walking stick, my sorry butt was saved. I still have it.
Deep Creek is a famous clothing-optional recreation site. The word from the rangers is that they don’t care if you hike the trail nude as long as you are more than a mile from the nearest road. That would mean from just past Aztec Falls (a mile north of Splinter’s cabin) to the Mojave River dam (14 miles) is clothing optional. Then you get to turn around and go back for 28 miles total, probably taking 2 or 3 days – if you don’t dilly-dally at the springs. And I LOVE hiking nude.
Oh, didn’t I mention? I got naked about a mile north of the day-use area. Hiked the remaining trip that way. Two hikers passed me. The first time, I was off trail (in one of the very few places one could be off-trail) and I noticed a woman hiking by. Not wanting to risk offense, I stepped behind a tree. She must have seen me as she stopped and went back around the tree to say “Hi!” We talked very briefly about the trail and she went on. Soon another person, a young man came up behind me as I sat on a warm rock in a stream and said “Good afternoon, good sir!” and kept on going. After that, I decided not to even think about it.
I spent the evening here. Laid out my ground cloth, out my air mattress over it, and threw out a couple of $20 down blankets from Costco. Met some really good people, families, couples, singles. Later that evening some of us sat around the Arizona pool. We passed around a water pipe with a recently legalized herbal material, and much Bourbon and vodka lemonade were shared.
I got lucky and the Forest Service rangers didn’t come by to hand out tickets. It is illegal to camp overnight at the springs but my leg was too sore to hike the required mile to where it is legal.
I had run out of water by then. However, not to be undone, I removed my mouthpiece from my bladder and replaced it with my Sawyer Mini as an inline water filter. Didn’t want to wait the 4 hours the chlorine dioxide tablets recommended.
One would think that wearing the waist belt and shoulder straps of the backpack right next to the skin would be problematic but it was actually quite comfortable. No fabric to absorb sweat, no seams to put creases in your skin, and the open mesh fabric lining the pack elements didn’t chafe at all. Not all backpacks are created equal and you should test yours on a short run before tackling anything long. (Tho there is always the option of clothing if you must.)
I left Sunday morning. Still naked but wearing my broad-brimmed hat. Met one thru-hiker on my way out and we said hi and smiled. About a mile down the trail, I had gotten extremely tired. Managed to find a wide spot on the trail where the bank wasn’t too steep and took a nap snuggled up to my backpack. A half hour later I was awake and full of energy.
The weather was weird. When the sun was out it was blazingly hot. But when a small cloud would drift across, it suddenly got quite chilly. Went on and off that way all day. After dark, it got chilly so I dressed.
On the entire walk back, Promontory from Last of the Mohicans went thru my head over and over. The vision of Daniel Day-Lewis running across that vast and primitive land cycled thru my mind. The rhythm of the music drove my pace. It was appropriate, if overdramatic. If you haven’t seen this classic movie, you are missing out on a great thing.
Thru-hikers are some of the nicest people I have ever met. When I was waking up from my nap a guy came by and was all concerned for me. Was I injured? Was I sick? Should he get help? The woman who caught up to me earlier giving (what would seem to be a creepy old naked man stepping behind a bush) trail advice with a smile. Someone offered me Ibuprofen for my knees. As it was getting dark and I was still 2 miles from Splinter’s, a young couple (trail names Qua and River) offering to signal for help and giving suggestions on how I might find assistance at Devil’s Pool. Universally polite and smiling. Nobody even mentioned the nudity.
I wasn’t the only one running out of time. I passed two northbound (nobo) hikers, both exhausted and both running out of time. One was a lady who asked where the nearest place she could make camp was. I mentioned a place I had stopped to tape my foot (hot spots developing) and re-lace my boots a couple of hundred yards north. I could have slept there easily. All I needed was a mildly sloping spot about 2×6 ft. I hope she didn’t insist on putting up much of a tent.
About a mile and a half from my destination it became fully dark. No moon and no stars due to overcast. I can only surmise that I’d been traveling 2 hours slower in my southbound (sobo) journey than I had nobo. The trail was still as precarious as it ever was, with pain and/or death on one side and a rock wall 18 inches to the right. I clipped on my headlamp and proceeded cautiously down the trail.
No lamp gives you a proper light for this kind of work. So many details that even twilight shows you are invisible with just a headlamp. What is the exact slope of the trail? Does it bank to the upslope, is it level, or does it bank to the downslope? It the sand soft? Is it hard? Is it really a flat rock surface? Everything loses contrast and the outside world no longer exists for orientation. I spent the next hour focusing on the trail a couple feet ahead of me, using the stave to test the consistency of the trail ahead as well as for balance. I understand why people who don’t make it back to the trailhead on time might call for rescue. Without that headlamp, I’d still be back at Devil’s Pool with Qua and River.
Obviously, I survived, And I knew I would, altho the intensity of making sure had started to wear on me. Four hours later I was fast asleep in my own bed with my wife, two dogs, and our cat. Would I do it again? Oh yes! Just wait for the burning in my muscles to subside.