The five sections of the PCT, part 1: Desert and Sierra

Minor housekeeping: Start date is now looking pretty set on Wednesday 8 May. If you’re in San Diego on the 7th, I’d love to grab a last meal with you.

As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, the PCT runs the height of California, Oregon, and Washington. Living in Europe (the UK is and always will be part of Europe, no matter what anyone says), a lot of people I speak to think that California is just beautiful beaches and don’t really know anything about Oregon or Washington.

The reality of the PCT is very different: I’m fairly certain that the ocean is never visible from the trail (maybe on an exceptionally clear day with no smog you could see over the Los Angeles basin?), and you’re in some form of mountainous region for the vast majority of it, even when you’re in the desert. Anyway, I thought I’d describe the route of the PCT in a bit more detail, with a section on each of the five sections the trail is typically split into: the Desert, the Sierra, Northern California, Oregon, and Washington. I’ve covered the first two below, and will talk about the other three in a subsequent post.

I’ve spent varying amounts of time in each of these places (mostly in Northern California), but my descriptions are largely based on stuff that I’ve read rather than firsthand experience, and none of the photos are my own (yet).

I’ve posted this map before, but it’s useful here, so keep it handy:


Section 1: The Desert (702 miles)

Beginning: Mile 0 – Campo (Mexican Border), CA Section A
End: Mile 702 – Kennedy Meadows, in CA Section G
Stokedest about: Finally being on the trail, interesting scenery that I don’t know so well, the occasional visit with SoCal friends.
Scaredest about: Heat, water, getting into the routine of just walking every day.

The first 700ish miles of the PCT are categorized as the desert. While the word “desert” conjures images of Wile E. Coyote and tumbleweeds drifting along a deserted highway, this section is actually quite mountainous, traversing most of the major Southern California mountain ranges (from the south: Laguna, San Jacinto, San Bernardino, San Gabriel, and Tehachapi mountains).

While the section is characterized by heat and dry stretches, especially in the lower portions, it also has some of the most dramatic changes in elevation, dropping up to 9,000 feet at a time into low passes occupied by major interstate freeways (8, 10, 15) and large scale wind farms. The biggest of these is from the top of Mt San Jacinto* at 10,600 feet down to San Gorgonio Pass at 1,200 feet (where I-10 connects Riverside/San Bernardino to Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley), over just 25 trail miles.

*Technically the PCT doesn’t go to the top of San Jacinto, but it’s a very popular alternate route.

Apparently the inspiration for Mt Chiliad in GTA: San Andreas. Goodbye, knees.

Beyond just finally being out there, I’m excited to see something a little different. Most of the hiking I’ve done has been in pretty alpine, forested areas (or cold and damp UK), so the desert scenery should be a nice change.

Another big upside of this section, beyond being situated in a pretty novel ecosystem for me, is that it has by far the best access to civilization, with the outlying towns of the greater SoCal urban conglomeration never more than a few days apart, and with pretty reliable phone service. Later on in the trail, I think this would be a drawback, but I think I’ll appreciate having the logistical training wheels on at the beginning of the trail.

The section is also supposed to have quite a lot of exciting fauna, like rattlesnakes that think that trails are pretty well-designed for basking, and scorpions that think that shoes are pretty well-designed for sleeping.

Eyes on the ground, always. (p.c. The Hiking Tree Blog)

In the lower elevations, heat (90s F/30s C) and water are a concern, so I’ll try to avoid hiking in the middle of the day, opting instead for getting an early start, taking a siesta from 12-4, then hiking into the evening. In the worst sections (like crossing the floor of the Mojave desert), I may go completely nocturnal. I’ll also need to load up on up to 8 liters of water for the longest dry sections, which adds 8 kg (thanks, metric!) or 17.6 lbs (boo on you, imperial) to my backpack.

The section ends as it rises into the southern extremeties of the Sierra Nevada mountains. The traditional end is a place called Kennedy Meadows, a tiny little town with a general store where hikers tend to swap out their gear for more mountain-specific gear.

Section 2: The Sierra (317 miles)

Beginning: Mile 702 – Kennedy Meadows, in CA Section G
End: Mile 1,018.5 – Sonora Pass, end of CA Section I
Stokedest about: BEARS! Also, HUGE mountains, HUGE views, true wilderness, and plenty of water.
Scaredest about: Carrying lots of additional weight (more food, snow gear, bear cannister), stream crossings.

The second, and most popular, section of the trail is the Sierra Nevada mountains, known to PCT hikers as simply The Sierra. I have a slight quibble with the nomenclature, on the basis that the Sierra Nevada continue about another 200 trail miles to the north of Sonora Pass (which is well south of Lake Tahoe – unambiguously in the Sierras), but I understand that these 317 miles of trail have a lot in common in terms of the hiking, with high passes, snowy conditions, and a general sense of wilderness.

This is the highest and most rugged section of the trail. When non-Americans balk at the concept of mountains in California, I generally tell them two facts: (1) The 1960 Winter Olympics were hosted by Squaw Valley, CA (this is less impressive now, since apparently Beijing is worthy of hosting winter olympics); (2) the highest point in the contiguous (i.e. no Alaska or Hawai’i) United States is not in Colorado, but in California (granted, numbers 2-4 and 7-17 are in Colorado). Said peak, Mt Whitney, stands at 14,505 ft/ 4,421m above sea level, and is a short side hike off the main PCT.

The Sierra (Mt Whitney on the right) from the Owens Valley far below and to the east

And approximately the opposite view: The Owens Valley from the summit of Whitney

This section of trail is by far the most remote: the distance from Kennedy Meadows to the next reliable re-supply that doesn’t require a substantial detour is about 180 trail miles. Those that push through that stretch will go 9-10 days without crossing a road or even seeing a power line. Most hikers will instead take one of a few side trails down into the Owens Valley, and then have to hike back up into the Sierras. The former approach sounds pretty appealing, but I’ll make up my mind on that later.

This section of trail stays almost exclusively (maybe entirely?) above 10,000 feet, and crosses several high alpine passes, including the highest section of the official PCT at Forester Pass. The scenery is pretty grand up there (though I haven’t seen it with my own eyes). Here are some pictures I’ve scoured online, but looking forward to replicating (probably not the Ansel Adams one…).

Kearsarge Pass & Pinnacles
Mt Williamson. p.c. Ansel Adams
Evolution Valley

In terms of big tourist destinations, this section of the trail also overlaps with almost the entirety of the John Muir Trail, named after possibly the most important person behind the creation of the national parks system in the US, and passes through the Ansel Adams wilderness. It also crosses through three national parks: (from south) Seqouia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite (though avoiding the most famous valley portion of it).

Along with this beauty comes some definite hazards though: black bears (which are more of an adorable nuisance than a danger, and mean that you have to carry a heavy plastic bear cannister to protect your food), potentially snowy treacherous slopes (tackled with the aid of spikes and an ice axe, if necessary), and, most concerning in my opinion, stream crossings.

Due to the remote location of the trail and the severe winter conditions, there are almost no bridges across any of the myriad streams and rivers fed by the high mountain snow. Sometimes a log will conveniently straddle the creek, but in many cases, the only option is to ford the river. Those of you who have played Oregon Trail know that that’s not an ideal option, and this is especially true in June when snowmelt is at its peak and when many PCT hikers are passing through the section (the optimal time for hiking this section, if not bound by getting to Washington by October, is probably July or August, when the snowmelt has subsided). The most likely consequence of all of this (besides being cold and wet often) is that I’ll have to spend a lot of additional time looking for a slow section to swim, or waiting for a bigger group to cross with, or waiting for morning to cross (these streams will peak in the afternoon, as the sun melts snow more quickly). However, worse consequences do happen: two thru-hikers drowned in seperate stream-crossing accidents in 2017, which was an exceptionally high snow year. The snow (and creek) levels will almost certainly be a lot lower this year, but I’ll do well to remember the very real consequences of these hazards when considering whether its worth spending the additional time required to make a safe crossing.

This section ends at the next road north from Yosemite, Hwy 108, as it crosses Sonora Pass (approximately due east from Stockton, CA). At this point, I should be able to ditch my Sierra-specific gear (snow and bear-related).

Ok, I think that’s plenty of text for a single post. I’ll write up Northern California, Oregon, and Washington in another post.

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