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 breath-taking 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.
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