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Trail Map Courtesy of PCTA

 

Trail Descriptions

Southern California | Central California | Northern California | Oregon | Washington

Southern California

"Hikers in Southern California," writes Karen Berger in Hiking the Triple Crown; How to Hike America's Longest Trails, "invariably talk about hiking through the desert. Technically, that's not exactly true. While the trail does cross some of Southern California's desert valleys, for the most part it stays high and dry on chaparral-covered slopes. But from a hiker's point of view, one thing is true of almost all of Southern California: For 700 miles, there is too much sun and too little water."

The PCT departs from the Mexican border near the small town of Campo (elev. 2,600'). In May (when most thru-hikers and riders begin their journey north) temperatures often reach the 90s in this region. Over the course of the next 40 miles, the trail passes through Lake Morena County Park, beneath Interstate 8, and then climbs through chaparral, scrub oaks, and pines to the rim of the Jeffrey pine-shaded Laguna Mountains. In the Lagunas temperatures in May can dip below freezing.

Next the trail dips into Anza-Borrego Desert State Park at Scissors Crossing, and then winds up, down, and around the San Felipe Hills and lesser mountains of the Cleveland National Forest before crossing Highway 74 at 4,900' and climbing the backbone of the San Jacinto Mountains. Here it reaches its highest point in this section at 9,030' shortly before it plunges to its lowest, crossing beneath Interstate 10 at (elev. 1,190') in broad San Gorgonio Pass.

From here, the PCT climbs steeply to the crest of two east/west-oriented ranges, often under welcome forest shade. It passes near Big Bear Lake and Lake Arrowhead before crossing Interstate 15 between the San Bernardino and San Gabriel Mountains at Cajon Pass near Silverwood Lake State Recreation Area. The vistas from the trail in these mountains include the Los Angeles Basin and Mojave Desert.

To the west of Mt. Baden-Powell and the Angeles Crest National Scenic Byway, the PCT descends to Highway 14 at Agua Dulce, then traverses the often brushy landscape of the Sierra Pelona. It continues north for a generally hot and dry traverse across the San Andreas Fault Zone and western arm of the Mojave Desert before climbing into the Tehachapi Mountains where it crosses Highway 58 and enters the Sierra Nevada. The southern California section ends where the trail crosses Highway 178 at Walker Pass (elev. 5,246').

For thru-hikers and riders, the most important considerations when along the Southern California PCT are water and hot temperatures (ranging from the 80s to the 100s). Springs and seasonal water sources begin to dry up in April or May and distances between reliable water can be long (8 to 20 miles). For help finding water, refer to the PCT guidebooks, which tend to give accurate accounts of water sources and their reliability, but remember -- conditions do vary from year to year. Other challenges in Southern California include flies, poison oak and rattlesnakes.

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Central California

Central California boasts one of the PCT's most remote and beautiful sections - the Sierra Nevada. Spanning 400 miles (800 trail miles), the Sierra Nevada includes the longest wilderness, highest mountain, and deepest Canyon in the lower 48 states. For long-distance hikers and riders the region is a pleasure and a challenge. Elevations range from 8,000 to 13,200 feet and for 200 miles the trail doesn't cross a road.

Starting from this section's lowest point at Walker Pass (elev. 5,246'), the trail enters a roadless and wildly scenic realm, being met only occasionally by a dead-end road from the east. It hugs the relatively dry crest through the Chimney Peak Wilderness before reaching and crossing the South Fork of the Kern River near Kennedy Meadows. The route alternates between expansive meadows and conifer forests, then embarks on a 3,300' ascent and traverse to Cottonwood Pass.

In Sequoia National Park, the popular John Muir Trail descends from nearby Mt. Whitney (elev. 14,494') to join the PCT. The trails share the same tread for most of the way to Highway 120 in Yosemite National Park's lush Tuolumne Meadows (elev. 8,690'). Along this mostly wilderness stretch, the route repeatedly descends deep canyons only to ascend to high saddles. The PCT crosses eight named passes above 11,000' in this section, the first being Forester Pass (elev. 13,180'), the highest point on the entire trail. After crossing Highway 108 at Sonora Pass (elev. 9,620'), the altitude changes diminish in amplitude, and the trail soon begins a generally subalpine, relatively level traverse that stays close to the Sierra crest until this section ends at Interstate 80 (elev. 7200'). There is some volcanic rock south of Yosemite, but notable amounts are encountered from Sonora Pass to Echo Summit at Highway 50, and again near this section's end north of the Granite Chief Wilderness.

Animals in this section include marmot, coyote, deer, and black bear, the latter too often enjoying a meal of dehydrated food and granola bars left unguarded. Additional challenges in this section include icy high mountain passes (ice axes and knowledge of self-arrest are highly recommended) and snowmelt-swollen streams. During an average snow year, the Central California PCT becomes generally passable in mid-June for hikers and riders starting at Kennedy Meadows (often called the "gateway" to the Sierra Nevada). After mid-September, early winter storms bring fresh snow to the higher elevations.

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Northern California

The Northern California section of the PCT is punctuated by a change in mountain ranges. Here, hikers and riders transition from the glaciated Sierra Nevada to the volcanic Cascades. From now until Canada the trail will basically follow a string of Cascade volcanoes.

North of Donner Summit (elev. 7,200'), old volcanic flows and sediments bury most of the ancient bedrock of the Sierra Nevada crest, making travel in this section potentially dusty in late summer. Beyond the North Fork of the Feather River, the Sierra Nevada yields to the southern Cascade Range. Rich in nutrients, the volcanic soils here are at the right elevation and receive sufficient rainfall to produce exceptional forests. Other plants include lupine, paintbrush, larkspur, columbine, gooseberry, and manzanita. Animals include raccoon, marten, mink, badger, fox, bobcat, and the ever-present deer and black bear. In the fall, the skies are often filled with migrating birds on their journey south along the Pacific coast flyway.

This is prime logging country (as are most of the PCT's lands north of here), and the trail crosses many back roads. Midway through the southern Cascade Range, the PCT crosses Highway 89 and traverses Lassen Volcanic National Park, overseen by Lassen Peak (elev. 10,457'). North of the park the PCT follows the mostly waterless Hat Creek Rim toward majestic Mt. Shasta, which dominates the north-state skyline.

Rather than continue north through the dry southern Cascades beyond Mt. Shasta, the PCT turns west toward greener lands, dropping to cross the Sacramento River (elev. 2,130') at Interstate 5 before entering Castle Crags State Park and the Trinity Alps. The trail reaches 7,600' elevation in the mountains connecting the inland Cascade Range with the coastal ranges, winding north through the Marble Mountains before descending to the Klamath River (elev. 1,370'). It climbs again to the crest of the Siskiyou Mountains and traverses east, entering Oregon near this section's end at Interstate 5 near Siskiyou Summit (elev. 4,310').

For thru-hikers and riders, one of the major challenges in this Central California section of the PCT can be what Karen Berger calls the "halfway blues." Leaving the Sierra Nevada, the scenery becomes less dramatic and logging roads and cattle become more visible. Side trips to peaks such as Mount Shasta can help lift the spirits as can the realization that easier miles are ahead.

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Oregon

"The PCT in Oregon is typically wooded," writes Karen Berger in The Pacific Crest Trail; A Hiker's Companion, "following long, broad ridges in coniferous forests dotted with lakes. Climbs are gentle, the footway well-graded. Strong long-distance hikers frequently cover up to 30 miles a day here - and sometimes more."

It's true, the Oregon section of the PCT (from near Siskiyou Summit southernmost Oregon to the Washington border) is not only the shortest, but also the easiest to hike or ride. Oregon's Cascade Range is a subdued volcanic landscape, having a gentle crest that is fairly constant in elevation.

Volcanoes including Diamond Peak, Mt. Washington, Three Finger Jack, Mt. McLoughlin, the Three Sisters, Mt. Jefferson, and Mt. Hood punctuate the skyline. The highest point in Oregon is an unnamed saddle (elev. 7,560') north of Mt. Thielsen. The only major elevation change on this section of the trail is the 3,160' drop into the Columbia River Scenic Gorge to cross the Columbia River and into Washington via the Bridge of the Gods (elev. 180').

While volcanoes dominate the Oregon skies, lakes populate much of its floor, especially in the Sky Lakes Wilderness and Diamond Peak Wilderness. More small lakes and ponds are found in the Three Sisters Wilderness and north of Highway 20 in the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness and the adjacent Olallie Lake Scenic Area..

The chief attractions on the Oregon PCT are Crater Lake (the deepest lake in the nation and the seventh deepest in the world) and Mt. Hood (elev. 11,235'), Oregon's largest and most hazardous active volcano. Additionally, an alternate route down the Eagle Creek Trail (one of Oregon's most popular hiking trails) into the town of Cascade Locks is a scenic highlight, passing deep pools, cascades and even behind a waterfall. (Please note that the Eagle Creek Trail is closed to horses.)

Precipitation in this section results in dense, shady forests, dominated by Douglas, silver, and noble fir at lower elevations and alpine fir nearer the treeline. Other plants include pinedrops, prince's pine, and Oregon grape in the dense forests, while pasque flower and fireweed frequent open spaces. Animals include mice, squirrels, beaver, fox, deer, and elk. Songbirds pursue insects while nutcrackers gorge themselves on pine seeds and grouse forage on the ground.

August and September are the best months for hiking and riding in Oregon because most of the snow and mosquitoes will be gone. Bug repellant and a tent or mosquito netting may still be necessary however.

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Washington

Home to the spectacular Northern Cascades, the Washington section of the PCT rivals that of Central California and the Sierra Nevada in terms of dramatic, mountainous scenery. The Washington PCT also boasts some of the trail's most fickle weather patterns, especially in September when most thru-hikers and riders enter the state. Some years, September in this northernmost PCT state is bright and sunny, others it's cold and rainy - be prepared.

The section begins at the Bridge of the Gods (elev.180'), on the Columbia River, and ends at Monument 78 on the Canadian border (elev. 4,240'). An additional seven miles was added beyond the border by the Canadian government to provide access to Highway 3 in British Columbia's Manning Provincial Park (elev. 3,800').

The Washington PCT starts with a lengthy climb out of the Columbia River gorge and into the Indian Heaven Wilderness, a lake-blessed land abounding with huckleberries. Next, the trail rounds Mt. Adams (elev. 12,276') and heads into the rugged Goat Rocks Wilderness (where scenery is similar to that of the High Sierra) to traverse the Packwood Glacier.

The PCT crosses Highway 12 at White Pass encountering dozens of lakes in the William O. Douglas Wilderness. Between White Pass and Highway 410 at Chinook Pass, the trail skirts many more lakes as it approaches the towering monarch of the Cascades, Mt. Rainier (elev. 14,410').

From Chinook Pass the trail has an easy, rapid run to Interstate 90 at Snoqualmie Pass, which is fortunate, since this stretch traverses numerous clear-cuts that offer little cover from often-present rain.

Entering the North Cascades, the PCT climbs up a deep canyon to a pass, only to descend another deep canyon and then repeat the cycle again. It traverses popular Alpine Lakes, Henry M. Jackson, and Glacier Peak Wildernesses before crossing the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, North Cascades National Park, and Pasayten Wilderness. The prime attraction here is Glacier Peak and the North Cascades' 750 perennial snowfields and small glaciers, which collectively account for about half the snowfield area in the lower 48 states.

Visiting Washington in September, hikers and riders are treated to the bright yellow needles of western larch and the crimson hues of huckleberry bushes -- a colorful conclusion to any PCT journey.

Trail Description courtesy of the PCTA.

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