By Carey Kish
There are eleven trails 100 miles or longer in the United States with the designation of “National Scenic Trail.” Of these iconic gems, the second longest is the Pacific Crest Trail, which extends 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada. The Continental Divide Trail gets top honors at 3,100 miles, while the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail is third.
This hiker plans to tackle the entire Pacific Crest Trail in one continuous push, starting on April 3 at the dusty outpost of Campo on the Mexican border, 50 miles east of San Diego. I’ll journey northward through the wilds of California, Oregon and Washington, and with a lot of sweat and toil and no small amount of good fortune, my plan is to walk across the Canadian boundary into Manning Park, British Columbia sometime around September 24.
The PCT used to be a fairly lonely endeavor, but just as Bill Bryson’s celebrated book “A Walk in the Woods” helped spark a thru-hiker boom on the AT in the late 1990’s, so too has “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed accounted for a recent increase in PCT hikers. Some 50 hikers a day from March through May will head north from the border fence. The pack will thin dramatically, however, because as with the AT, less than 25% will ultimately finish the grueling hike.
The PCT has been on my bucket list for a long time. I first heard about the trail in the mid-1970’s when I read “The High Adventure of Eric Ryback” by Eric Ryback, the first person to hike the entire PCT in 1970, when the trail was largely incomplete. Soon after my first AT thru-hike fresh out of high school in 1977, I bought the “Pacific Crest Trail Hike Planning Guide,” but that’s as far as the dream got. Until now.
California hosts 1,700 miles of the PCT, with another 450 miles in Oregon and the final 500 miles in Washington. The trail wends through 7 national parks, including Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Yosemite, Lassen, Crater Lake, Mt. Rainier and North Cascades, as well as 25 national forests, 4 national monuments and 48 federal wilderness areas.
The first 700 miles of the PCT are through the deserts of southern California, where waterless stretches of 20-30 miles and 90-100-degree temperatures in the Mojave contrast sharply with snow and ice at 9,000 feet on Mt. San Jacinto. The 500-mile section through the Sierra Nevada is the crux of the hike, with the possibility of deep snow and rivers swollen with snowmelt, plus several dozen high mountain passes, including Forester Pass at 13,153 feet, the PCT’s apex.
In northern California, the PCT swings west around lofty Mt. Shasta to connect with the Cascade Range, which it follows past Oregon’s Crater Lake and Mt. Hood and then Washington’s Mt. Rainier to Canada. The trail’s low point is the crossing of the Columbia River at Cascade Locks, just 180 feet above sea level.
Perhaps the most stunning PCT statistic of all is the cumulative elevation gain and loss en route, a mind-boggling 489,418 feet of climbing and 488,411 feet of descent. That’s roughly equivalent to scaling Katahdin with a full backpack two days out of every three for six solid months. It’s no wonder then why I’m planning a moderate average of 15 miles per day.
With the exception of LEKI trekking poles and MSR Pocket Rocket stove, I’ve almost completely swapped out my gear. The major items include an Osprey Atmos 65 backpack, REI Magma 10 sleeping bag, Sea to Summit Ultralight sleeping pad, Big Agnes Copper Spur UL1 tent and Lowa Renegade boots. My base pack weight is 20 pounds, but that’ll swell with food, water and extra Sierra snow gear.
My hike will be fueled with staples like breakfast bars, pasta and rice, tuna and Spam, jerky, cheese and crackers, chocolate, peanut butter, nuts, dried fruit and granola bars, plus all the restaurant meals and junk food I can stuff into my face at every town stop. I’ll receive 19 resupply boxes mailed from home to remote locations, and will buy groceries at stores the rest of the time.
I expect to spend $6,000 while on the 6-month walk. Oh yeah, trail name? Beerman.
Carey Kish of Mt. Desert Island thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 1977 and 2015, and completed the 1,100-mile Florida Trail in 2017. Follow Carey’s PCT adventures on Facebook @CareyKish.