Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) and Me - Part One

I'll let you in on a secret.... I love to hike.  Seriously.  If you have spent any time at all reading my posts here you might have picked up on that, but my passion for hiking is actually more of an obsession. In recent years my life has been dominated by a need to make miles on foot, and accordingly I have consistently logged 50+ miles per week in all seasons and all conditions.  It's my thing.

So it should come as no surprise to learn that the Pacific Crest Trail has been on my bucket list for a while now - actually 33 years.  At the tender age of 23 I first heard of this thing called the PCT and despite having no actual backpacking experience decided that launching myself into a six month adventure was just what I needed.

I bought the gear, the guidebooks, and devoured whatever information I could about the newest National Scenic Trail (the other being the long established Appalachian Trail in the East).  A local newspaper published a story featuring a man who was hiking the PCT over a period of several years, taking the 2,651 mile journey and dividing it up into more manageable chunks of around 500 miles each summer.

Of course I looked him up in the phone book (remember those?) and out of the blue called him and asked if we could meet to answer some of my questions.  He readily agreed and gave me his home address.  Although I did not know it at the time that was a turning point in my life, but not the one I had imagined.

The individual in the article was named Dick, and he was quite an interesting guy.  At 70 years of age he was running marathons and trekking long distances each summer.  He was happy to answer my questions and offer tips to make my journey easier.  He was very easy to talk to and we spoke for several hours.  Before we parted company he mentioned he had an upcoming backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon in several weeks, and that one of the participants had to cancel.  He wondered if I might be interested in going along, and I of course thought it was a splendid idea.

That summer I went to the Grand Canyon with Dick, his friends and grandson, and began a lifelong love affair with that amazing and spectacular landscape.  Sadly, I did not hike the Pacific Crest Trail that year, or the next year, or any year after that.  The reasons were many and don't matter all that much, but in retrospect I'm sure I wasn't ready for such a monumental challenge.

Fast forward to now.  For over 30 years I kept thinking someday I would actually hike the PCT, and for a variety of reasons this year was it.  I want to share some of the experience and some things I learned. This will unfold over several posts, and instead of being a travelogue like many previous entries, I want to try and give readers a sense of what it is like to live out of a backpack for weeks on end, and offer thoughts and ideas of just what this was all about for me.


The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is one of several National Scenic Trails designed to preserve long distance routes that traverse areas of particular natural beauty.  The idea of the trail surfaced in the 1920's and over the ensuing decades eventually coalesced into the route we have today.  This was accomplished over many years as devoted advocates and sponsors worked tirelessly with land managers and property owners to develop a seamless trail.

The  PCT was granted official recognition by Congress in 1968.  The route attempts to follow as much as possible the higher terrain found along a north - south line that travels the length of California and into Oregon and Washington.  The terminus at either end are the international borders of Mexico and Canada.

The trail is listed officially as 2,651 miles in length, but every year slight modifications occur due to reroutes or closures in the event of fires or other environmental issues.  54% of the trail is located in Federally designated wilderness areas, and it visits several National Parks including Kings Canyon/Sequoia, Yosemite, and North Cascades.  It reaches a high point of 13,200 feet above sea level in the High Sierras at Forester Pass, and hits a low of 180 feet at the Columbia River Gorge on the Oregon/Washington border.

The topography is incredibly diverse as you might imagine, as the trail travels through 16 degrees of latitude along the way, and environments range from Mojave desert to sub-alpine forests and just about everything in between.  The elevation changes encountered along the length of the trail are the equivalent of scaling Mt. Everest 17 times from sea level, with a significant amount of that occurring in the southern and central sections of California.

In the southern reaches, challenges involve primarily water or the lack thereof, and long stretches of shadeless terrain as the trail climbs and descends isolated mountain ranges punctuated by broad desert valleys. Once the path reaches the typically well watered High Sierras in central California, hikers often must contend with problems involving snow covered passes and crossing cold, swift flowing creeks and rivers fed by melting snow.

Northern California is characterized by heavily forested sections and evidence of ongoing volcanic activity, with mountains and valleys dominated by summits like Mt. Shasta and Mt. Lassen.  When the trail crosses into Oregon, the elevation changes become less pronounced as the path continues a relatively level trajectory until descending into the Columbia River Gorge at the Washington border.  Along the way views of more volcanic mountains like Mt. Hood, Mt. Washington, Three Fingered Jack, and Mt. Mazama (Crater Lake) and many others dominate the skyline.

Crater Lake in summer - Photo courtesy of NPS.gov
Once the path crosses into Washington the character of the trail reflects the rugged nature of the North Cascades, with many high passes and ridges and frequent descents into river valleys.  This is likely to be the wettest section as well, since the mountain ranges lie directly in the path of storms that occur throughout the year, and snowfields and small glaciers abound in the northern half of the state.  There are also some impressive summits reaching lofty heights including Mt Adams and Mt. Rainier, which tops out at 14,410 feet.

Mt. Rainier - photo courtesy of NPS.gov

Beyond simply covering a very long distance especially to those on foot, the trail offers challenges that vary from day to day, and a hiker's experience will be influenced by a variety of factors that can greatly increase the difficulty of the journey.


The reasons for attempting a through hike of the PCT are likely to be as different as the people who are doing it.  For many, the idea of the physical and mental challenge (and whether you're up to it) may be the reason.  For some, it could simply be the desire to see and experience some beautiful scenery up close and personal.  Others may be seeking answers to personal questions or perhaps hoping that the time spent in quiet reflection will provide insight into what direction the next steps in life should be.

I met many hikers in my time on trail, and "why?" was a common question among participants.  As I thought about my own reasons for doing it, I realized that my "why?" was not as straightforward as seeking answers, or testing myself against the rigors of trail life, or even just to experience the landscape in an intimate way.  Although I can't really give any meaningful insight into my motivations or what brought others to make the effort, I believe most people really just wanted to do something amazing with their life.

Logistics and Planning

When I first envisioned tackling this grand adventure many years ago, the conventional wisdom was that planning and organizing the trip should take almost as much time as actually doing the hike.  This was in part in response to the fact that in those days few people were actually attempting a through hike, and resources along the route were scarce and undeveloped.  Over time that has changed dramatically, and now it is possible to make the effort with far less forethought.

That said there are still many things to consider and plan for, and personal experience has led me to the conclusion that a thoughtful approach will result in a far better outcome.  Of course everyone is different and there will be those who plan the trip in exquisite detail while others will truly "wing it", but I believe that to be better organized with greater attention to details will reward the hiker in the long run.

In this day and age of unlimited (and unfiltered) information it is possible to find all kinds of advice and anecdotes about every aspect of the hike, from gear, to food, to technique and everything under the sun.  To the unwary the amount of material out there is truly daunting, and to use a popular metaphor can seem like drinking from a fire hose, but in my opinion the absolute best place to start is with the Pacific Crest Trail Association.  This non-profit organization offers an amazing variety of information and resources to individuals who want to experience the PCT, and serves as the official permit issuing agency for through hikers.

In the next part of this series I will detail some of my preparations, including my methodology for resupply, gear choices, and training.  In the meantime I hope you visit PCTA.org and start dreaming of your own adventure.  Happy Trails!