The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) spans 2,659 miles from the small town of Campo on the California-Mexico border to E.C. Manning Provincial Park in British Columbia, covering the entire length of California, Oregon and Washington. From the blistered flats of the Mojave Desert to a trail that climbs eight miles to Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48 states, the PCT is a never-ending study in contrasts. Along the way, you’ll pass more than 1,000 looking-glass lakes and tarns, four national monuments, five state parks, six national parks, 25 national forests and 48 federal wilderness areas.
The 700-mile-long California section of the Pacific Crest Trail is widely considered the most beautiful and dramatic section of PCT, with mind-boggling scenic wonders, often within the space of a day hike. From the Mexican border, the trail passes through ragged desert terrain before climbing into the craggy, pine-scented peaks that stands sentinel over Palm Springs, Los Angeles and the Mojave Desert.
The towns along this section range from charming, quaint mountain burbs like Julian, Idyllwild, Big Bear City, Tehachapi and Wrightwood to the high desert towns of Acton and Mojave located off Highway 14. All of them have lodging, restaurants, dining and resupply stores and are excellent places to start a day, overnight or multi-day hike, offering paved roads that lead directly to trail heads.
The real magic begins after the PCT leaves the high sagebrush plateau of Kennedy Meadows and begins its long climb into the glaciated grandeur of the Sierra Nevada range. The trail passes through a wonderland of sun-splashed pine forests, interlinking alpine meadows and mirror lakes before spiraling to a panoramic ridge line that overlooks miles of forested slopes and rugged granite peaks.
Along this high-altitude section of trail, a long hike and drive is required to reach the small rough-and-ready Western-style access towns and resort towns in the Owens Valley on Highway 395. These include Lone Pine, Independence, Big Pine, Bishop, Tom’s Place, Mammoth, Lee Vining, Bridgeport, Walker, Markleeville and South Lake Tahoe, where the Pacific Crest Trail crosses from the eastern Sierra to the western side of the mountains near the mountain resort town of Truckee, located just off Interstate 5 below Donner Summit.
From the southernmost Cascades in California to the “Big Bend,” the Pacific Crest Trail in Northern California is marked by solitude. This is the forest primeval as the PCT pushes through miles of dense evergreen slopes. Sunlight streams through the dense canopy in Jacobs ladders, forming puddles of light on the forest flood where fairy rings bloom luminous. The trail crosses several footbridges that span streams roaring with snow melt before climbing from the dark forests into the blinding light of the high country. Purple lupine, red Indian paintbrush and orange poppies carpet hillsides threaded with rivulets and mountain streams cascade from unseen heights.
Marmots, the self-appointed guardians of the high country, let out a shrill whistle as you walk by. But mostly you’re alone in a fleeting spring that comes and goes with few admirers, and which calls to mind the phrase: “Beauty is its own excuse for being.”
The “towns” along the remote section of trail are often just small cabin resorts and ranches, including Drakesbad Guest Ranch, Old Station Fill-Up and Burney Mountain Guest Ranch. As the Pacific Crest Trail pushes north to Interstate 5 and Mt. Shasta City, it offers easy access to Mt. Shasta and the small towns of Callahan and Etna before crossing the state line into Oregon and continuing on to Ashland.
For the 1,000 or so annual hikers who hike the Pacific Crest Trail in its entirety from Mexico to Canada or vice versa, the PCT is a leap of faith requiring equal measures brain, brawn and heart and the willingness to endure untold discomforts and deprivations. You could sweat all day and shiver all night, a sliver of foam the only thing between you and the cold, hard damp; go for days on end without a shower, bath or clean clothes and live for weeks on freeze-fried meals.
For millions of other who bite off a small portion of the Pacific Crest Trail in California for a day hike, overnight camping trip or weekend in the wilds, the PCT is a way to get away from it all without spending a fortune. There’s a lesson in every landscape: The desert is a blank slate where you can unload the contents of your cluttered mind and reassemble it into something approximating sanity; belly flowers blooming from the dry, barren sand are a poignant reminder that hope springs eternal and the top of a 13,000-foot peak is the perfect place to put your problems in perspective.
That said, no one can live on beauty alone — even Pocahontas had to come out of the woods every so often for creature comforts. Whether you’ve been dreaming of sushi or Starbucks, a soft mattress or a Swedish massage, a bubble bath or slightly bigger hiking boots, a night out with the girls or a hot date with your honey, a mani-pedi or just a man, the Town Guide to the Pacific Crest Trail in California will tell you where and how to find it.
While the entire PCT from Campo, CA to Ashland, OR is accessible from early April through the end of September, the portions of trail through the Mojave Desert and the foothills of the San Jacinto, San Bernardino, San Gabriel and Coso mountain ranges are best avoided during the hot summer months of June, July and August when daytime temperatures in the desert can soar to 110 or higher, temperature in the foothills can reach the high 90s and streams and springs along the trail are likely to be dry.
Hiking the entire PCT from south to north
Most hikers need 5-6 months to hike the PCT in its entirety and the vast majority of thru-hikers hike from south to north. Begin your hike at Mile 0 in Campo between mid-April and early May, when temperatures are still spring-like and there is plenty of water in the streams.
The average hiker needs about five to six weeks to hike from the beginning of the trail in Campo to Kennedy Meadows at mile 702. To avoid running into snow in the High Sierra, plan on reaching Kennedy Meadows between June 10-15 and work your way backwards from there. Don’t even think about hiking through the High Sierra prior to June 1 unless you’re an experienced mountaineer and know the ins and outs of snow hiking and camping. To avoid running into heavy snow in Washington and Canada, plan on completing your hike within 5-6 months so you reach the end of the trail at E.C. Manning Park in Canada by mid-September or Oct. 1 at the very latest.
If you don’t hike fast enough to get from Campo to Kennedy Meadows within 35 to 42 days, consider skipping the southernmost section of trail between Campo and Idyllwild and starting your hike from Idyllwild, Big Bear or Lake Arrowhead. All three mountain towns can be reached by car and have lodging, restaurants and resupply stores.
If you’re running behind, consider skipping the section of trail between Lassen National Park Lassen Volcanic National Park and Ashland, Oregon and hitch hike or rent a car and head directly to Ashland to restart your hike. PCT’s Grand Central Station for the northern section of trail, this charming town has plenty of lodging, dining, shopping, entertainment, resupply stores, restaurants, food coops, hiker bulletin boards and is home to the Oregon Shakespeare Theater.
Tackling the PCT from north to south
If you plan to hike the trail from north to south, begin hiking from E.C. Manning Park on the Canadian/Washington by early-to-mid-July, based on snow melt in the Northern Cascades. Be sure to cross Forester Pass, the highest point on the PCT in California’s High Sierra, by mid-September but no later than Oct. 1. Finish your hike in Campo no later than mid-November to avoid snowfall in the San Jacinto, San Bernardino and San Gabriel mountains.
You will need about five months to hike the Pacific Crest Trail in its entirety. If you don’t have five months to spare, a day, overnight, weekend or week-long hike along the PCT in the High Sierra is better than nothing. Sections of the PCT north and south of Kennedy Meadows and Lone Pine make for spectacular day hikes and are easily reached by paved road. North of Mammoth Lakes, the Sonora Pass region also boasts comfortable summertime temps, drop-dead-gorgeous vistas and easy access to the trail via several paved roads. Or you can pick up the trail in several high-altitude mountain towns and regions accessible by paved road, including Julian, Idyllwild, Big Bear, Tehachapi, Kennedy Meadows and Horseshoe Meadows in southern California, Mammoth and Yosemite National Park in the Eastern Sierra/central California and South Lake Tahoe, Truckee, Burney Falls and Mt. Shasta in northern California.
High season in the High Sierra and Cascades is summer through fall. In the southernmost sections of trail north of San Diego, high season is early spring. Low season in mountainous regions on the PCT is winter; in desert regions of the PCT, low season is summer.
The entire Pacific Crest Trail is in Pacific Standard time zone.
Bring a sun hat with a wide brim, high-quality sunglasses that block 100% of UVA and UVB rays, sunscreen with a sun protection factor of 30 or higher, a light-colored long-sleeved poly/nylon shirt and moisture-wicking running or hiking shorts. Unless your foot, knee or back doc advises otherwise (or you’re hiking with kids and carrying their load as well as yours) you won’t need heavy hiking boots for the California section of trail. You’ll hike faster, easier and cooler in lightweight low hiking boots or trail runners paired with breathable SmartWool socks.
<h3>Going Ultralight with Your Gear and Pack >h3>
Going ultralight is the latest trend in backpacking. Some experienced thru-hikers carry no more than 10 pounds on their backs. Instead of carrying heavy items like a tent, sleeping bag, stove, fuel and water, they sleep in aluminum “wraps,” us a tarp for a tent and trekking poles for tent poles, eat only cold meals and carry a lightweight water filter.
If this sounds too esoteric for you, you can still get the weight of your pack to under 20 pounds by investing in a lighter-weight backpack, tent, sleeping bag and lightweight sleeping pad; a lightweight canister stove and lightweight but nourishing staples like oatmeal, tea, instant coffee, hot chocolate, nuts, jerky, chocolate, rice, pasta, instant soups and freeze-dried meals.
Count on spending up to $5,000 to hike the entire PCT trail. This includes the cost of clothing, gear, tent, shoes, sleeping bag, food, motel rooms, meals and resupply services in towns, and fees for three permits you must obtain ahead of time if you’re planning on hiking the entire trail. These include the PCT Long Distance Permit, the California Campfire Permit and the Entry into Canada Via the PCT permit. To obtain all three, go to www.pcta.org, click on “Discover the Trail” and then click on “Permits.” It can take a few weeks to a few months to receive all your permits, so don’t wait until the last minute to order them. If you want to leave before all your permits arrive, have someone at home mail them to you at your first resupply location.
The current Canada-U.S. exchange rate is
Practically every town along the PCT has ATM machines, and many also have banks, so don’t carry a lot of cash with you.
Carry enough spare cash along to tip waiters, housekeepers and trail angels and bring credit cards and medical insurance cards for emergencies such as bad weather, injuries and accidents, all of which can strand you in town longer than you’d expected and result in mounting bills for motels, restaurants and medical needs.
Because of the trail’s remote location, in many cases public transportation is not available. In such cases, most hikers either hike and hitchhike into town or contact a local PCT Trail Angel for transportation. In cases where public transportation is available, it will be noted in this guide.
The Pacific Crest Trail in Southern California
The first stretch of the PCT between the small town of Campo on the U.S.-Mexican border to Mojave on Highway 14 is a challenging, roller coaster route that can test the endurance and patience of the most experienced hiker. The trail climbs and falls thousands of feet several times — rising from desert flats to alpine peaks and back down again — before leveling off (relatively speaking) in the High Sierra foothills.
From 2,915 feet near the start of hte trail in Campo, the Pacific Crest Trail climbs into the scrubby Laguna Mountains before descending to Anza-Borrego Desert Park at 4,000 feet. From there, it spirals to 9,030 feet in the San Jacinto Mountains, then plummets to 1,190 feet, tunneling underneath Interstate 10 at San Gorgonio Pass.
From the pass, the PCT ascends into the San Bernardino and San Gabriel mountains, passing through the recreational regions of Big Bear Lake and Lake Arrowhead at 5,100 feet before falling to about 1,100 feet at Interstate 15 at Cajon Pass near Silverwood Lake State Recreation Area.
Near Cajon Pass, the PCT switchbacks into the San Gabriel Mountains and the Angeles Crest National Scenic Byway, both overlooking the Los Angeles basin, climbing to 7,900 feet near Mount Baden Powell before descending to 2,500 feet at Highway 14 at Agua Dulce. The trail then heads north across the San Andreas Fault Zone and Mojave Desert, coils into the Tehachapi Mountains at 4,000 feet and crosses Highway 58. The Southern California section of the PCT ends at Walker Pass at 5,246 feet, where it crosses Highway 178 and enters the High Sierra foothills.
Water near the trail may be difficult or impossible to find during the summer months, when temperatures can reach 120 in the desert and the high 90s in the foothills. Also, there is virtually no shade along the lower stretches of trail and no forests until you reach the higher, forested elevations of the San Jacinto, San Bernardino and San Gabriel mountains. Dress protectively, carry ample water and apply sunscreen liberally every few hours.
The Pacific Crest Trail in Central California
From Walker Pass at 5,246 feet, the PCT enters a road-less, scenic area, hugging the arid crest of the Chimney Peak Wilderness before arriving at the South Fork of the Kern River near Kennedy Meadows. From there, the trail climbs through interlinking meadows and pine forests to Cottonwood Pass at 3,300 feet. Ahead lies the glaciated High Sierra, a hiker’s nirvana with thousands of lakes, tarns and streams; breathtaking wildflower meadows, lush, grassy hillsides and cool, deep forests.
In Sequoia National Park, the John Muir Trail descends from nearby Mount Whitney, at 14,494 feet the highest peak in the lower 48 states, and joins the PCT. The two trails share the same route all the way to Highway 120 at Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park at 8,690 feet. Along this stretch of trail, the PCT is a high-altitude roller coaster, switchbacking from deep gorges and canyons to high shoulders and crossing eight passes above 11,000 feet, including Forester Pass, at 13,153 feet the highest point on the PCT.
The PCT then crosses Highway 108 at Sonora Pass at 9,620 feet and levels off near the crest of the mountains, remaining at sub-alpine elevations until hitting Interstate 80 at 7,200 feet. This stretch of trail is renowned for its beautiful meadows, crashing waterfalls, dramatic views of distant granite peaks and volcanic rock formations. You’ll pass by many aquamarine lakes and crashing streams as the trail climbs from Ponderosa pine forests at lower levels into mountain hemlock and weather-twisted white bark pines near tree line. Keep your eyes peeled for marmot, coyote, deer and black bear and listen for Mountain chickadee, junco, Steller’s Jay, Clark’s nutcracker and red-tailed hawks, who may serenade you as you hike along.
The Pacific Crest Trail in Northern California
From the North Fork of the Feather River, the Sierra Nevada becomes the southern Cascade Range, where volcanic soil and rain have combined to produce lush forests and carpets of wildflowers, including lupine, Indian paintbrush, larkspur, columbine, gooseberry and manzanita.
Past Lassen Volcanic National Park at 10,457 feet, the trail crosses Highway 89 north of the park and follows the dry Hat Creek Rim toward Mount Shasta and Interstate 5, heading west towards Oregon’s greener, wetter terrain.
At the Sacramento River, the trail drops to 2,130 feet, crosses Interstate 5 and enters Castle Crags State Park and the Trinity Alps Wilderness, climbing to 7,600 feet in convoluted mountains that connect the inland Cascade Range with the coastal ranges. The PCT winds through the Marble Mountain Wilderness, descends to the Klamath River at 1,370 feet and then climbs to the crest of the Siskiyou Mountains, entering Oregon at Interstate 5 near Siskiyou Summit at 4,310 feet.
Watch for raccoon, marten, mink, badger, fox, bobcat, deer and black beer and overhead you may see birds migrating south along the Pacific Flyway.
The signs along the Pacific Crest Trail are in English.
The following sources offer comprehensive information on the Pacific Crest Trail as well as a wealth of how-to information on essentila gear, clothing, training, weather conditions, elevation, mileage, geographic and historic points of interest, water supplies, camp sites, resupply towns, detours, and more.
Rent the Hollywood movie, Wild: Lost and Found on the Pacific Crest Trail starring and directed by actress Reese Witherspoon and based on the true-life account of author Cheryl Strayed.
The movie begins in Mojave, hop-scotches to Kennedy Meadows and fast-forwards to the end of the trail at E.C. Cummings State Park, so you’ll get very little sense of what it’s actually like to hike the trail on a daily basis and no notion of the grandeur of the scenery as the PCT switchbacks through the High Sierra and the Cascades. Still, it may be worth a look if you’ve never done any long-distance hiking, if only to serve as inspiration, although the relatively close-knit community of thru-hikers has nothing but disdain for a movie they feel misrepresents “their” trail and has been largely responsible for overpopulating it.
The Best PCT Maps
The most accurate trail maps of the PCT are Halfmile’s Pacific Crest Trail maps, widely used by thru- and day hikers. The author used GPS to create highly-detailed maps that log the entire PCT trail in half-mile sections that note landmarks, elevation profiles and last-minute detours and alternate trails around fires, landslides, avalanches, floods and other natural disasters. You can download the maps for free at www.pctmap.net.
Many sections of PCT have cell phone service.