Pacific Crest Trail, USA
17th April to 3rd October 2010
At 7am on April 17th Susan and I were at the start of another long distance trail. We reached under the border fence to touch Mexican soil (after checking for snakes), stood up, turned around and with a bit of hard looking, thought we could just about see our destination, Canada, only 4,300 kms away. We picked up our packs and, together with Tim (ATC), waved goodbye to our San Diego trail angel and took the first of 7 million steps.
The National Scenic Pacific Crest Trail (or PCT for short):
- Goes through three states (California, Oregon, and Washington)
- Climbs 60 major mountain passes
- Descends into 19 major canyons
- Passes more than 1,000 lakes and tarns
- Traverses 3 national monuments, 7 national parks, 24 national forests and 33 wilderness areas .
The trail passes through five distinct areas: Southern California, the Sierras, Northern California, Oregon and Washington.
Southern California is an eleven hundred kilometre long sand pit. Vegetation is mostly chaparral (think: leatherwood with needles) and the area is marked by a lack of water and temperatures into the 30s. Unusual rainfall in 2010 meant the ground was carpeted with brightly-coloured tiny flowers and the cactii were all blooming. Moving on from a water source was very hard since we couldn’t be sure where the next one would be.
Then came the 500 km long Sierra Nevada. Here travel was like a pass-hopping trip in NZ’s southern mountains where one walks alternately up and down valleys interspersed with pass crossings. The passes were at 3,300m - 4,000m so there was a marked shortage of oxygen. We were unlucky enough to strike a late snow year so the snow was down to 3,000m. This meant large snow fields to traverse and, coupled with “snow-cups” and soft snow, it was exhausting travel. Our group of 5 NZers all lost 8-10 kilos or more each before we made it out the other end at Sonora Pass. Many of our mostly American hiking companions avoided this part of the trail by jumping forward or back, or simply going home to wait it out.
Northern California was notable for dust and sand, water shortages and high temperatures. We got used to carrying water - up to 7 litres each at times. There was a lot of conifer forest. Some pines had huge pine-cones - one picked one’s camp-site very carefully to avoid one of these monsters ripping through the tent in the night. And of course, there were the continual climbs and descents.
Oregon has the reputation of being the fastest part of the trail. Some were engaged in an “I’m fitter than you” game and were exceeding 100 km/day; (I kid you not). Not being in this league, we enjoyed the fantastic volcanic scenery at a more sedate pace, passing through extensive lava fields and around massive snow-covered peaks. We’d thought carrying water was a thing of the past, but Oregon provided even more challenge than the Californian desert, with distances of up to 40 waterless kilometres.
Washington, in short, was wonderful. The terrain is extremely rugged, but around every corner one is rewarded with another stunning vista. The approaching winter meant fall colours were everywhere. Bright red huckleberry bushes lined the trail and brilliant yellow larches brought out the locals. We had rain, of course. It rains a lot in Washington! However we apparently also had the best weather year in living memory. After Washington, we passed through into Canada on 3rd October to end a fantastic 5 ½ month walk.
Hiking long-distance in America seems to inspire the locals into performing endless acts of kindness and support. Some people devote most/all of their free time during hiking season to looking after hikers’ many needs. There is a “trail community” from the “kick-off” party at the start right through to the search and rescue network of supporters who pass you from hand to hand in Washington, lest you get caught up in early life-threatening snow falls.
- Party members
- Susan Guscott and David Castle(scribe).