The Call Of The Wild:
The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is a 2,661 mile hiking trail, starting in Mexico and ending in Canada. To continuously hike the whole trail in one long attempt is called through-hiking.
I through-hiked the whole trail this year, starting in April as the deserts warmed before the greatest heat, and finishing in September before the first snow.
As an outdoors woman, before I left I wondered excitedly on the things I would experience – I felt I already knew enough to ‘survive’ in the outdoors, but I pondered on what little intricate gems I would be shown by being in the wild and being in it for the next five months.
Would it be very different from a week in the Lake District?
Oh yes it would.
The trail begins in the desert chaparral at the Mexican border. 702 miles of arid beautiful land lay ahead. Water is scarce and the desert is certainly not flat.
Further, through the San Jacinto Mountains, crossing the western arm of the Mojave dessert, there is beauty and magic to be found here: Sleeping under Joshua Trees; the stars and the fullest of moons; waking to golden, glowing sunrises; the short sharp crunching sounds of hard sands under your feet; coyotes, foxes, lizards and snakes.
For my partner and I, there rose the challenge and excitement of the next water source, a trickling creek or tiny spring – water was our biggest focus – it determined our mileage for the day and therefore the weight of our packs.
We hiked stretches 33 miles long, with no guarantee of the next water source running – we took some chances.
It was here in the desert that we were introduced to ‘trail angels’ and their ‘trail magic’ – wonderful, generous people who each year take the time and make huge efforts to provide the most welcome gifts to those hikers attempting the PCT.
Some offer beds, laundry, a meal or showers. Some leave caches in the middle of a wild ‘nowhere’, occasionally with surprises: soda, apples, oranges and water (the most welcome gift in the desert).
The kindness and generosity I experienced this year on the PCT, was like nothing I have ever felt. If your faith in human nature is dwindling or has been savaged, it is a sure way to restore it. This alone, is reason enough for me to have made this journey.
On the trail, the simplest offerings: a carrot from or a fresh tomato from a day hiker, become the most precious of gifts. Not to mention the daily treasures of your wild surroundings.
We woke and walked early, to witness the sunrises and to walk in the cool of the morning. We took long breaks in the harsh heat of the day and walked again later, when it was cooler.
Starting in the desert is wise – it’s the hardest stretch in many ways – but luckily, you don’t realise this until you have left its arid regions behind.
The trail continues to follow the spine of the mountains heading north. Out of the desert we climbed into the Sierra Nevada, and water was everywhere. It was a fairy tale.
We were now walking 20-plus miles each day. Our packs got 3lbs heavier, with the weight of the bear can we (legally) had to carry. It contained all our food with a bear-proof lid.
There was a new careful nightly routine, a triangle of three different sites; one for cooking food, one for sleeping, and one for locking away and storing food. If the bears smell the food you cooked (which they will) at least they wont find you, or your food! We saw many bears too.
We could walk throughout the day now the weather was more bearable and the large pine trees created big shades to walk and rest under. We were slowed by the raging torrent rivers and excursions up and down the banks to find a safe crossing point. Sometimes a careful rock hop would see you across, or a precariously balanced log, sometimes our shoes would have to come off and the river came up to our waist.
We could swim and wash in the Alpine lakes – refreshing and rewarding nectar. Having walked throughout the day we could end our hike earlier so to have time to just sit and be still with the mountains.
The PCT links up with the John Muir Trail (JMT) at Mount Whitney, an optional side trip for PCT hikers – which we chose to take. At 14,505 ft (4,421 m), it is the highest mountain in the lower 49 states, not including Hawaii and Alaska.
Moving through the fabled Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Park it was here we reached the highest point of the trail Forester Pass – which looks impassable from below – where a narrow snow shute takes you over the pass. Here begins the first of many precarious snowy passes to negotiate.
We followed the JMT until Tuolumne Meadows, just outside of Yosemite – another optional side trip! Bugs, bears, birds and chipmunks were our companions.
The trail moves through the Northern California Cascades and into Oregon with its stately trees and clear waters.
We were now walking 25-30plus mile days. Oregon soon turns volcanic, when the unmatched view at Crater Lake is revealed, and crossing beautiful brutal lava fields is a timely reminder that your body is fragile and one loose rock could mean the end of your journey. Striking, snow-capped peaks tower around you – every moment, every day.
It is possible, for most of the hike to resupply with food along the way. In some rare instances the trail will lead you into a small and often very beautiful town. More often you will be met with a road and can hitch to town. For some remote locations, we sent ourselves food packages ahead.
Into Washington State. The temperature drops. The water freezes. The mist comes in.
If I had seen a fairy in Washington – I would have felt no surprise. The greenest green moss you have ever seen, and the coolest clearest water to drink. Sunsets that feel as though the world is ending…
A high snowy arresting ridge-top sees you out and drops you down into a clear cut line through the trees which stretches high up to the mountains either side of you – the Canadian border.
So, Why Would You Walk The Pacific Crest Trail?
I could write much a shorter piece than this on why you wouldn’t.
The route itself is made up of many individual trails, which were in existence long before the proposal of a border-to-border route. A thought on which I found I would often dwell while hiking.
We were following in the footsteps of so many before us. Natives, cowboys, miners, traders, bandits and adventurers, all walked the path I was now following.
The Pacific Crest Trail was a physical, personal, mental, and emotional challenge.
Facing extremes of the heat and the cold, the wet and the dry, igniting a relationship with myself and with nature, with my thoughts and surroundings, to be the fittest I have ever been, to adventure…
There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but Nature more,
This is the first in a series of three articles for the Frontier Bushcraft blog.
Which long-distance hiking route or extended journey do you aspire to taking one day? Let us know in the comments below.
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