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Spotlight: Pacific Crest Trail

The Pacific Crest Trail extends for a whopping 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada, forging an unbroken footpath through three states—California, Oregon, and Washington. It crosses over deserts and tunnels through forests, travels across glaciated mountain passes, and skirts the shoulders of conical volcanic peaks. To hike the entire trail takes about five months—if all goes well—walking an average of 16 to 18 miles per day. Many hikers plan on six months to account for the vagaries of mountain weather and the need for rest and resupply days.

The tri-state trail was the dream of Harvard graduate Clinton Churchill Clarke, who had been a Boy Scout as a child. In the 1930s, he and his friend Warren Lee Rogers created the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) System Conference, which united several hiking clubs and youth groups. The men began lobbying to link together existing trails to create a border-to-border trail. Members of the Young Men’s Christian Association and the Boy Scouts organization supported their efforts by scouting the trail’s planned route. Even world-famous photographer Ansel Adams played a role on the PCT conference’s executive committee.

Progress was slow. In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson finally signed the National Trail Systems Act, which named the East Coast’s Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail as the first two national scenic trails. Over the next 25 years, countless individuals built nearly 1,000 miles of the PCT. It was completed in 1993.

The PCT was mostly known only to serious hiking enthusiasts until 2012, when Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild, detailing her 1,100-mile solo journey on the trail, was published. Her book was later made into a film of the same name starring Reese Witherspoon, and the accompanying notoriety led to a spike in the number of people attempting all or part of the trail.

Typically, a few hundred people each year hike the entire PCT, but thousands more hike some portion of it. Whether you choose to day hike or take a short backpacking trip, here are six major Pacific Crest Trail access points—from San Diego County up to the Shasta Cascade region—where you can go have your own Wild California experience, listed south to north.

– Ann Marie Brown

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Pacific Crest Trail: Laguna Mountains

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Pacific Crest Trail: Laguna Mountains
Explore San Diego County’s portion of the PCT in the Laguna Mountain Recreation Area and Cleveland National Forest

Day hike: 4.4 miles round-trip: Penny Pines to Garnet Peak

Backpack: 11.2 miles round-trip: Storm Canyon Vista to Kwaaymii Point

One of the easiest and most rewarding places to access the PCT in Southern California is in the rugged Laguna Mountains in eastern San Diego County. The PCT runs roughly parallel to the Sunrise Scenic Byway (Route S-1), which bisects the small mountain range. People unfamiliar with San Diego’s backcountry will be surprised to know that the elevation here is 6,000 feet—roughly the same as Lake Tahoe—so you won’t see any palm trees. In winter, snow falls here, and year-round the Laguna ridgeline provides astonishing vistas from every high point—especially of the Anza-Borrego Desert to the east, 5,000 feet below. Plan a sunrise hike here—or spend the night in a tent and get up early—and you’ll witness a Kodachrome sky turn gold and pink in the dawn light.

For an easy PCT day hike, start at the Penny Pines trailhead on Sunrise Highway (make sure you purchase a National Forest Adventure Pass and hang it from your rear-view mirror). Follow the PCT north (left) toward Garnet Peak. The trail hugs the Laguna Mountains rim, offering nearly nonstop views of Storm Canyon and the Anza-Borrego Desert. A few short spur trails lead to viewpoints that broaden the vistas, but the big payoff comes at a junction about 1.5 miles from your car, where you leave the mostly level PCT and go right and uphill to Garnet Peak’s summit. In less than a mile, you’re on top of the jagged, 5,900-foot summit, and your reward is a full 360—and it’s not just the massive desert thousands of feet below, but also Mount San Jacinto and Mount San Gorgonio, the Cuyamaca Mountains, the Salton Sea, the “white golf ball” of the Laguna Observatory, and more. Look closely at Garnet Peak’s rocks and you may see the tiny reddish-colored crystals that give this mountain its name.

Backpackers who want to take advantage of the Laguna Mountains’ unique beauty can do an extended version of this day-hike. First, obtain a Cleveland National Forest visitor’s overnight permit. Then start your trip at Storm Canyon Vista Point along the Sunrise Highway and follow the PCT north. You’ll join the day hikers on the trail from Penny Pines to Garnet Peak, then continue onward to Pioneer Mail Picnic Area, the site of a historic stagecoach route. Your destination is Kwaaymii Point, one of the best spots in the Lagunas for knock-your-socks-off views of the Anza-Borrego Desert. The wide, half-mile stretch of trail chiseled into the cliff was once the roadbed of the Sunrise Highway. Choose a wind-protected spot to set up camp—you’re going to want to stay up late and enjoy the astonishing star show.

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Pacific Crest Trail: Mount Baden-Powell

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Pacific Crest Trail: Mount Baden-Powell
Tackle this Southern California bucket-list climb in the San Gabriel Mountains

Day hike or backpack: 8.4 miles RT to Mount Baden-Powell

Starting about 60 miles northeast of Los Angeles, the ascent up Mount Baden-Powell is a rite of passage for Southern California hikers. The 9,399-foot mountain, named for Lord Robert Baden-Powell, a British Army officer and founder of the Boy Scouts, is one of the most prominent peaks in the San Gabriel Mountains. The peak sits directly across the East Fork San Gabriel River Basin from 10,064-foot Mount Baldy, giving its summit vista a visual punch—much of the rugged San Gabriel Range is spread out at your feet.

Getting to the top requires a substantial 2,800-foot elevation gain, but the PCT’s dozens of long, meandering switchbacks make it manageable. Before you park your car at Vincent’s Gap, make sure you get a National Forest Adventure Pass and hang it from your car’s rear-view mirror.

From Vincent Gap’s southwest edge, follow the Pacific Crest Trail through a forest of oak, sugar pine, and Jeffrey pine, and as you gain elevation, lodgepole pine. Forty-one long switchbacks maintain a steady, moderate grade. The higher you go, the more interesting the trees—the ridge near the summit is a botanist’s delight, home to ancient limber pines. The PCT passes right by the gnarled Wally Waldron Tree, a more than 1,500-year-old limber pine named for a Boy Scout leader.

After four miles, leave the PCT and follow the short Baden-Powell spur trail on your left. The 9,399-foot summit is marked by a concrete and steel monument to the Boy Scout founder. From the top, you can see more than a vertical mile below you to the East Fork San Gabriel River Basin. Mount Baldy is prominent, as is the Mojave Desert, Catalina Island, Mount San Jacinto, and Mount San Gorgonio. On the clearest of days, it’s possible to pick out the mountains of the southern Sierra Nevada.

This wind-blown, desolate spot is the highest point along the Silver Moccasin Trail, a 53-mile-long hike that thousands of Southern California Boy Scouts have completed. Backpackers who want to spend the night can find a few campsites on the south side of the peak, below tree line. Expect plenty of company, especially on full moon nights.

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Pacific Crest Trail: Devils Postpile

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Pacific Crest Trail: Devils Postpile
Day hike or backpack in the Ansel Adams Wilderness region near Mammoth Lakes

Day hike: 14 miles round-trip to Garnet Lake

Backpack: 31 miles one way to Tuolumne Meadows (3 days)

This section of the PCT near Mammoth Lakes doubles as a big chunk of the John Muir Trail, a 215-mile trail stretching from Yosemite Valley to the Lower 48’s highest peak, Mount Whitney. Day hikers will tackle only the approach to the PCT, enjoying glacially carved lakes and breathtaking views of the Minaret Range. Backpackers will share the same approach trails, plus 20 miles on the PCT (make sure you have secured a wilderness permit in advance).

Begin your trip at Agnew Meadows in Devils Postpile National Monument, heading into an eye-candy region of the Ansel Adams Wilderness. Follow the River Trail (not the High Trail) along the Middle Fork San Joaquin River for two miles to tiny Olaine Lake, then bear left and climb uphill to tree-edged Shadow Lake. Join the John Muir Trail on its far side and continue north and upward for about three miles to reach a high point overlooking stunning Garnet Lake. If this glacially sculpted landscape looks like Ansel Adams’ photographs in real life, that’s because it is. Framed by Banner and Ritter Peaks (both at nearly 13,000 feet in elevation), Garnet Lake boasts one of the most photogenic settings in the Sierra.

Drop down to the lakeshore and soak in the beauty. Day hikers should retrace their steps for an epic 14-mile day; backpackers continue another 2.6 miles to Thousand Island Lake, another showstopper. Here the John Muir Trail and Pacific Crest Trail join as one for the next 20 miles. Find a camp spot, soak in the scenery, and be sure to get up early to snap sunrise shots of Banner Peak. 

From Thousand Island Lake, the PCT makes a moderate climb over 10,200-foot Island Pass, then drops down into the headwaters of Rush Creek. A steady ascent up above tree line leads to 11,056-foot Donahue Pass, the southern border of Yosemite National Park and the heart and soul of Ansel Adams’ “Range of Light.” From boulder-lined Donohue Pass, you descend to the headwaters of the Lyell Fork, a pretzel-like, meandering stream. It pours all the way to Tuolumne Meadows, and the PCT traces alongside it for more than four miles. At Tuolumne Meadows, you’ll need to have a car shuttle waiting for you, or you can arrange transportation on the YARTS bus from Tuolumne Meadows to Mammoth Lakes, where you can pick up the Devils Postpile shuttle bus to get back to Agnew Meadows.

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Pacific Crest Trail: Carson Pass

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Pacific Crest Trail: Carson Pass
Explore the Mokelumne Wilderness south of Lake Tahoe on a day hike or backpacking trip

Day hike: 8.8 miles round-trip to Round Top Lake and Round Top Peak

Backpack: 11 miles round-trip to Fourth of July Lake

Just 30 miles south of Lake Tahoe, Highway 88’s Carson Pass region combines some of the Sierra’s loveliest scenery with some of its most flower-filled hiking trails. The PCT crosses the highway at 8,600-foot Carson Pass, heading north toward Tahoe and south toward Yosemite. Take the PCT south to explore the Mokelumne Wilderness—possible journeys include a day hike to Round Top Lake, a summit ascent of Round Top Peak, or a quickie overnight backpacking trip to Fourth of July Lake.

Start at the Carson Pass Information Station on Highway 88 (be sure to pay the $5 parking fee and pick up a wilderness permit). After an initial climb of about a half mile, you’ll see the trees thin out and alpine wildflowers start to appear. These volcanic soils nourish an incredible variety of flowers—visit in July and you’ll see fields of lupine, paintbrush, mule’s ears, and more. Pass Frog Lake on the left, then press onward to reach photogenic Winnemucca Lake, a blue-green gem whose shoreline is dotted with clusters of whitebark pines and hemlocks. Take a snack break, then continue steeply uphill for another mile to Round Top Lake, set directly below 10,381-foot Round Top Peak. The lake’s deeply carved glacial cirque is postcard-perfect, and a few stands of trees provide shade for picnickers.

This is a fine place to call it a day, but ambitious, sure-footed hikers can opt for a summit ascent by following the footpath from the lake’s east end. The route struggles up, up, and up Mount Round Top’s volcanic slopes. The last 50 yards to the summit requires a third-class scramble, so go only as high as your comfort level allows. Whether you make it to the tippy-top or not, its knife-thin ridge offers dazzling vistas. Survey the view of Lake Tahoe, Caples Lake, Woods Lake, Round Top Lake, Winnemucca Lake, and Frog Lake—all to the north. Even more dramatic is the southward vista of deep and immense Summit City Canyon, 3,000 feet below. On the clearest days, Mount Diablo in the San Francisco Bay Area, 100 miles to the west, can be seen.

Backpackers continuing to Fourth of July Lake should take the left fork near Round Top Lake and head west, curving around the volcanic peaks known as The Sisters. Just over half a mile along the trail you’ll reach rocky Fourth of July Saddle, where you can look straight down 1,000 feet to the lake. Make your way down the switchbacks to the water’s edge, where there are several good campsites and decent fishing for brook and cutthroat trout. Late in summer, as the lake level drops, a sandy beach is exposed—a perfect spot for a well-earned swim.

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Pacific Crest Trail: Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows

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Pacific Crest Trail: Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows
Follow these hiking options to explore some of Yosemite National Park’s gorgeous 77-mile section of the PCT

Day hike: 9 miles round-trip to Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp

Backpack: 27 miles round-trip to McCabe Lakes  

There’s a lot of argument about which stretch of the PCT has the most breathtaking scenery, but for lovers of high-alpine landscapes, it’s tough to beat the 77-mile stretch of trail from Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows—the largest subalpine meadow in the Sierra Nevada—northward to Sonora Pass. This is stark, fragile, granite country. The beauty of this region's glacial-cut peaks, gem-like lakes, verdant meadows, and abundant wildlife make it a hiking paradise. With a car shuttle, you can backpack the whole stretch in a week, or get a smaller taste with these out-and-back trips from Tuolumne Meadows. Wilderness permits are required; reserve yours far in advance.

At Tuolumne Meadows, the PCT starts out deceptively easy. The trail follows the boisterous, Tuolumne River for 4.5 miles, then veers right at Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp. The path gently descends, often tracing within a few feet of the river’s edge, until it reaches Glen Aulin, where Tuolumne Falls tumbles in a series of boulder-choked cascades. Day-hikers should make their destination the bridge at the falls’ base (on a hot day, take a bracing swim in the waterfall’s pool near Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp). Be sure to save some energy for the 1,000-foot elevation gain on the return.

Backpackers can find a campsite near Glen Aulin or a short distance downriver, then get a fresh start the next morning and continue north on the PCT, heading for the three gorgeous McCabe Lakes. You’ll leave the rushing Tuolumne River behind and take a mellow tromp up Cold Canyon through high-alpine meadows to the next trail junction, 7 miles farther. Bear right here, leaving the PCT. Follow the McCabe Lakes Trail alongside McCabe Creek, shadowed by the knife-like ridge of Shepherd’s Crest. After a moderate climb over 2 miles, you’ll reach the forested edge of Lower McCabe Lake, a good spot to set up camp and possibly catch some fish. Be sure to visit Middle and Upper McCabe Lakes as well, both above treeline and set in spectacular glacial cirques below 12,242-foot North Peak.

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Pacific Crest Trail: Shasta-Trinity National Forest

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Pacific Crest Trail: Shasta-Trinity National Forest
Hike the PCT section to Mount Eddy in the Klamath Range

Day hike: 6.0 miles round-trip to Middle Deadfall Lake

Backpack: 10.6 miles round-trip to Middle Deadfall Lake and Mount Eddy

This PCT hike takes you into a sparkling lake basin in the Klamath Range, with an option to climb the tallest mountain in the region, 9,025-foot Mount Eddy. It’s a perfect trail for a day-hike or a beginner’s backpacking trip—suitable even for families with young children—since it requires only 3 miles of walking to reach the Deadfall Lakes basin.

From the Parks Creek trailhead, the PCT travels southeast through a dense conifer forest cloaking Mount Eddy’s northwest shoulder. The path skirts wildflower-dotted meadows, offering postcard views of the Trinity Alps and the Klamath Mountains. At 2.6 miles, leave the PCT and go left, starting to climb on the Sisson-Callahan Trail. In about 10 minutes, you’ll see a path branching off to the right—follow it to Middle Deadfall Lake, the largest of the five lakes in this basin. Day hikers will soon be swimming in its inviting waters or sunning themselves on boulder-lined shores, and backpackers can choose their lake-view campsites.

By late afternoon, day-hikers must head for home, and overnighters will have this lovely lake themselves—with plenty of time to fish for trout, cook them up for dinner, and study the constellations before bedtime. The next morning, get up early and continue on the Sisson-Callahan Trail on the middle lake’s north side. In a mile you’ll reach scenic Upper Deadfall Lake, set in a forest of foxtail pines and western white pines.

Follow the trail past the lake and through its upper meadow, heading southwest and uphill until you reach a junction at a saddle. Go left here and begin a memorably steep climb up Mount Eddy’s south shoulder. The peak looks like a nondescript lump from the east (it’s dwarfed by nearby 14,162-foot Mount Shasta, California’s tallest volcano), but when viewed from this perspective, it’s easy to believe this is the highest peak west of Interstate 5 and the tallest peak in the Klamath Mountains. Your reward for the effort? A mesmerizing view of Mount Shasta, Black Butte, the Trinity Alps, and much of the Cascade Range.