For a half-century, the epic Pacific Crest Trail has enticed hikers to trek through some of the most beautiful and rugged terrain found in the Western United States. The fabled route stretches 2,650 miles between California’s Mexican border and Washington’s Canadian border, following the undulating north-south ranges of the Sierra and Cascade mountains.
As a young hiker, my friends and I explored the Northern California section of the trail on a course that took us to the Devil’s Postpile National Monument — a geological formation made up of basalt columns — and the beautiful Ansel Adams Wilderness. As anyone who has taken the hike will tell you, the blisters and thin air are worth the trip — nothing compares with experiencing the rooftop of California in all of its rocky glory. These days, I’d probably prefer a day hike (or half-day hike) from one of the trailheads closer to civilization or the RV campground.
Celebrating its 50th year, the trail attracts hikers from around the world for its miles of jaw-dropping vistas that seem worlds away from big cities. Whether you’re a hard-core trekker or a day hiker looking for a short jaunt, you’ll find a memorable outdoor adventure.
Here are five ways to enjoy the Pacific Crest Trail.
- Choose Your Own Adventure. Although some hikers endure on months-long journeys over the entire length of the trail, most adventurers opt for short trips along portions of the trail. Popular trailheads include the Polique Canyon in Big Bear, California; The Eagle Rock in Warner Springs, California; McKenzie Pass in Sisters, Oregon; and the trailhead at Naches, Washington. Take a short day hike or make it a multi-day trip. Find campgrounds just miles from the trailhead you choose and start your adventure!
- See cinema & TV scenery. The Pacific Crest Trail took a leading role in the 2014 film, Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon. The film tells the true story of Cheryl Strayed, a hiker who walked the trail solo from California’s Mojave Desert to Washington’s Bridge of the Gods to overcome personal tragedy. Follow Strayed’s footsteps and see the places portrayed on the big screen. If you’re in LA County, check out the Vasquez Rocks, a popular trail destination that served as a backdrop in the original Star Trek episode, “Arena.”
- Take Stunning Photos. The trail crosses a remarkable variety of environments, from the desert of Southern California to volcanic landscapes in Oregon to high passes and ridges in Washington. In all, the trail crosses seven national parks and 25 national forests. Bring a camera to record this once-in-a-lifetime scenery — and win a prize. The Pacific Crest Trail Association is sponsoring a photo contest of the trail, and first place gets $500.
- Be a part of history. Although segments of the trail existed over the better part of the century, the Pacific Crest Trail was officially designated in 1968 by President Lyndon Johnson as part of the National Trails System Act. Walk in the footsteps of the original trailblazers.
- Volunteer. Trail upkeep is a never-ending task, and the Pacific Crest Trail Association seeks volunteers to clear brush and perform treading maintenance. Find a project and experience the camaraderie of fellow outdoors enthusiasts.
- Hikers can experience extremes on the trail. The trail’s high point is Central California’s Forester Pass in the Sierra Nevada Mountains at 13,153 feet. Not a fan of high altitudes? The trail dips to just above sea level near the Oregon-Washington border.
- So-called “thru-hikers” are the folks who traverse the entirety 2,650-mile trail in one trip. This trip generally takes about five months in the non-snow season, although elite athletes have completed the journey in two months.
- It’s estimated that up to 1 million hikers visit the Pacific Crest Trail each year, hailing from all 50 states and up to 46 countries.
Regardless of the journey you take, make sure you choose a hike that suits your physical capabilities, and always bring plenty of water and sunscreen. The Pacific Crest Trail Association has tips for hiking the trail safely.