After a hard day of high altitude hiking a dozen miles around Ebbetts Pass, I would have settled for crackers, peanut butter and water. Instead, a group of trail angels I had never met before invited my companion and I to their roadside camp to enjoy hot cheeseburgers and cold beer.
That’s the spirit of the Pacific Crest Trail: mountain-sized challenges balanced by a world-class company. The 2,650 mile road between the Mexican and Canadian borders never fails to deliver both.
Some 7,000 hikers walk the trail each year, with about 10% doing the full distance and the rest doing full portions. Hiking marks the accomplishment of a lifetime for many, but completing even a short section offers rewards and builds skills for longer journeys.
Hundreds of hikers have already set out north through the desert from the Mexican border, but it’s not too late to start planning your own adventure. As the pandemic slowly recedes, it looks to be a good year. The low snowfall this winter will mean fewer mosquitoes, an easier hike, and a longer hiking season. If you are eager to experience this wonderful world, consider these three segments for an introduction.
Angeles National Forest (24 miles)
This section north of Los Angeles closely follows Highway 2 west of Wrightwood. With an average elevation of 6,000 feet (and a high mark of 9,406 feet), it offers cooler temperatures than the hot desert to the southeast that hikers end up in the spring. But it’s also low enough to be free from heavy snow and accessible from late spring to late fall most years.
Hikers who enjoy a gradual warm-up may prefer an eastbound hike from the Three Points Trailhead near Camp Valcrest. Our hike through the San Gabriel Mountains includes several stream crossings and several optional peaks including Winston Peak, Throop Peak, and Mount Burnham. End the switchback hike under Mount Baden-Powell (named after the founder of the Boy Scouts) in a large trail and parking lot. The town of Wrightwood is approximately seven miles to the east.
This segment crosses Route 2 several times, providing easy access by PCT standards and allowing hikers to easily shorten or extend this suggested portion. Parking at popular trailheads in this area requires an Adventure Pass.
Highway 80 to Sierra City (37 miles)
In much of the Sierra Nevada, the PCT traverses elevations above 10,000 feet with distances of 100 miles or more between road access and resupply opportunities. In comparison, this short stretch to the northwest of Lake Tahoe peaks at around 8,400 feet, making it much more accessible and a reasonable choice for beginners, conditions permitting. This section is normally accessible in late June, although years with heavy snowfall may require a later start.
Find the trailhead north of Highway 80; there is backpacker parking south of the highway which is free in the summer. Our route takes us just below picturesque Castle Peak. Once you’ve earned Castle Pass, you can head north to visit the three peaks of Castle Peak, or walk south to climb the more modest Andesite Peak. Less than a mile from the pass, our trail passes by Sierra Club’s Peter Grubb Hut, a beautiful rustic ski lodge. Continue north past Basin Peak, another short, optional adventure and the highlight of this segment.
From there we descend gradually, passing many streams and meadows on the way to the Jackson Meadows Reservoir, about 25 miles to Hwy 80. Another 12 miles, mostly downhill, brings us to Hwy 49, about 1 , 5 mile east of Sierra City.
Shasta-Trinity National Forest (57 miles)
This section showcases some of the best scenery in the Northern State, including Castle Crags State Park and Mount Shasta, encompassing elevations between 2,100 and 8,200 feet, gaining elevation in a northerly direction. In a normal year, backpackers can reasonably access this area in July.
Join the path south of Dunsmuir on Highway 5 at Castle Crags State Park, which protects a spectacular range of granite spiers that formed 170 million years ago. More recently, the miners and the Modocs fought a historic battle here in 1853. The hike to the striking spiers area involves a detour of about three miles round trip from the PCT, which is definitely worth it. if you have the time.
The PCT passes numerous ponds and lakes as it winds northwest through the Shasta-Trinity and Klamath National Forests. About 34 miles from the suggested start are Deadfall Lakes. Here you’ll find a worthy detour to nearby Mt. Eddy, the highest of the Klamath Mountains, which offers visitors breathtaking views of Mt. Shasta to the east.
At 37 miles our path crosses Forest Road 17 at the trailhead and parking lot. Hikers can take a ride here to the town of Weed and Hwy 5. Alternatively, the PCT crosses State Route 3 for an additional 20 miles northwest, about 57 miles from our start and six miles downhill. southeast of the city of Callahan. This is the kind of place where many PCT hikers break a hitchhiker’s thumb.
Whichever section you choose, you can expect to be challenged along the way, physically and otherwise. There is a lot to learn and a short article cannot express it all. But you can expect to learn along the way, especially if you use one of the many great guides and / or cell phone apps like Guthook. You can also expect to meet other hikers who are almost always kind and generous with their experience and help.
Soon you might want to give something back to this community, like extra food, water, city walks, or maybe even burgers and beer.
Matt Johanson is the author of “Yosemite Adventures: 50 Spectacular Hikes, Climbs and Winter Treks” and “Sierra Summits: A Guide to 50 Peak Experiences in California’s Range of Light”.