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HIKING / San Bernardino Mountains

Where Soothing Waters Await at Trail's End

June 24, 1990|JOHN McKINNEY

Kick off your jeans and slip into the relaxing waters of Deep Creek, site of the only hot spring in the San Bernardino Mountains. Float awhile and gaze up at the sky. You might even feel your urban anxieties vaporize in one of nature's hot tubs.

No one is quite sure what makes the water hot in Deep Creek Hot Springs. Some believe the heat is left over from the earth's smoldering beginnings; others think the warmth comes from radioactive elements. Most Deep Creek devotees consider it a moot point anyway.

Deep Creek is a study in contrasts. Upstream it contains pools of great size flanked by sheer masses of stone. The water has scoured great basins and the creek bounds down the waterworn rocks from one pool to another. Downstream, Deep Creek is but a shadow of its former self. It ends ingloriously in the desert sands, only water-polished stones indicate its path among the dunes.

This is a fine hike on a well-built stretch of the vast Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada. The trailhead, formerly at Mojave River Forks Dam, has been relocated to Highway 173. The Army Corps of Engineers has closed the dam to the public. However, some hikers still begin this trail at the dam.

The hot springs can be crowded on weekends. Bronzed children frolic at water's edge, adults emit gurgles of delight as they settle into the soothing heat, and hikers of all ages enjoy a reward for a hike well done. Weekdays the springs are deserted; you'll probably "take the cure" by yourself.

The trash situation sometimes gets out of hand in the vicinity of the hot springs. Make sure you pack out what you packed in. Due to frequent injuries caused by broken glass, the Forest Service now prohibits the possession of glass containers in the Deep Creek area.

Use of the Deep Creek area after dark is forbidden. No camping is allowed.

If you enclose $1 with your request, the Forest Service will send you a trails brochure of hiking opportunities. Write Arrowhead Ranger District, San Bernardino National Forest, P.0. Box 7, Rim Forest, Calif. 92378.

Directions to trailhead: Exit Interstate 15 on Highway 138. Go right (east) nine miles and veer left on Highway 173, following the latter highway eight miles to pavement's end. At the point where the dirt road begins, you'll find parking and a signed trailhead for the Pacific Crest Trail.

The hike: From Highway 173, the Pacific Crest Trail heads on a straight line for Deep Creek Canyon. It follows the roadbed of an asphalt road (broken up but not removed) through sagebrush and down into the lower reaches of Deep Creek near its meeting with the Mojave River. Uncontrolled use by motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles has seriously eroded the creek bed. The noise echoing through the canyon is simply awful sometimes.

The trail proceeds to the right bank of the creek. You will have to cross the creek and pick up the trail on the other side. You can scramble to the top of the dam and make your way over to the spillway, where good trail resumes.

Past the spillway, you'll find another signed trailhead for the Pacific Crest Trail.

Ascend five easy switchbacks to the north canyon wall. You stay high on the almost barren wall for two miles until the trail descends to Deep Creek, then crosses it on an arched bridge. Now you follow the south slope for another mile and reach oak-shaded McKinley Creek. This is a good area for picnicking, cooling off or exploring. The last mile of trail contours along the south slope, then drops down close to the creek, just before the hot springs.

The hot springs, enclosed by rocks bordering the creek, range from warm to hot. Pick your spot. After you've mellowed out, return the same way.

Pacific Crest Trail

WHERE: Highway 173 to Deep Creek Hot Springs.

LENGTH: 12 miles round trip, 800-foot elevation gain.

HIGHLIGHTS: Natural hot springs, handsome gorge.

DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: Moderate to strenuous. Hikers should be in good shape and get an early start.

PRECAUTIONS: Bring plenty of water. Glass containers prohibited in Deep Creek area.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Call the San Bernardino National Forest, Arrowhead Ranger District, in Rim Forest at (714) 337-2444 for the latest road and trail information.

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