The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) stretches from Mexico to Canada, spanning an astounding 2,650 miles across three states. The longest section snakes through California, where hikers can experience the stark beauty of the Anza-Borrego Desert, the Sierra Nevada’s snow-capped peaks, the dense forests of the Klamath Range, and much, much more.
Each year, roughly 7,000 thru-hikers spend months making the epic journey immortalized in Cheryl Strayed's Wild, while thousands more choose to explore smaller pieces of the trail. In a recent episode of the California Now Podcast, Mark Larabee, Associate Director for the Pacific Crest Trail Association and the author of The Pacific Crest Trail: Exploring America's Wilderness Trail, joined host Soterios Johnson to share his favorite spots along the trail and top tips for exploring the majestic PCT.
1. Choose your favorite scenery
Covering seven different eco zones and 48 National Wilderness areas, the PCT traverses nearly every type of terrain imaginable. Start your research by deciding whether you’d like to see craggy mountains, shadowed forests, big lakes, or flower-filled deserts.
2. Try a day hike
It takes thru-hikers roughly half a year to hike the PCT from end-to-end, but the trail’s beauty can also be enjoyed over the course of a weekend or even an afternoon. “There are thousands of trailheads on both sides of the range,” says Larabee. No matter where you are in California, you’re likely just a few hours away from any given access point.
3. Start in a trail town
There are dozens of charming California towns that nestle up to the PCT—such as Big Bear and Idyllwild in Southern California or Mt. Shasta and Dunsmuir up north. Larabee says these are great destinations for novice hikers or anyone who’d prefer not to camp: “You can get out and walk for the day, see some beautiful mountains, get a vista, visit a lake, and be back in your hotel room that night having had a great experience.”
4. Be mindful of the season
“The right season is key,” Larabee says. High elevation will be difficult or even dangerous to navigate when peaks are snow-capped, while hot weather presents its own challenges. Larabee says one of his favorite times to hike is during the spring: “There are places in Southern California where you walk into meadows filled with wildflowers. It's not a hundred degrees yet, and it's beautiful.”
5. Bring a buddy
Larabee explains that the trail covers “the wildest places in America,” so strength in numbers is always a good idea. The Pacific Crest Trail Association offers resources to help you find a hiking partner if you don’t have one at the ready.
6. Select an emergency contact
Part of practicing good trail safety is having a backup in case you get into a bind. Before you go, share your itinerary and timeline with a friend or family member. Agree to check in at a specific time upon your return so your contact knows you’re safe.
7. Pack the essentials
No matter how long you spend on the trail, it pays to have the right gear. The Pacific Trail Crest Organization offers helpful details on the 10 essentials every hiker should pack: navigation, sun protection, extra clothing, headlamp/flashlight, first aid supplies, fire starter, repair kit, nutrition, hydration, and emergency shelter.
8. Balance effort and relaxation
The PCT offers plenty of opportunities to relax—you just have to work for them. Larabee says one of his favorite areas is the Ansel Adams Wilderness. Hike from Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park along Lyell Creek. After climbing over a mountain pass, you’ll hit Thousand Island Lake and Garnet Lake, the perfect spots to spend a lazy afternoon fishing, napping, or taking a brisk dip.
9. Leave no trace
The central allure of the PCT is exploring the pristine wilderness the West Coast has to offer. Do your part to maintain its beauty by packing out any trash, following campfire rules, and hiking single file on the trail to avoid destroying delicate plant life.
10. Embrace the journey
Above all else, enjoy yourself. Larabee says that hiking the trail can be a truly transformative experience. “It’s a place to go out and just lose yourself in the middle of nowhere—and then find yourself at the same time,” he explains. “You find out what's important in life. “