America's Triple Crown

The Pacific Crest Trail: A Paradox
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The author and her husband in the High Sierra
The author and her husband in the High Sierra

Standing atop Mt. Whitney, it's easy to believe the boast that the Pacific Crest Trail offers hikers a greater variation of climates, environments, and vegetation than any other trail in the United States. The evidence is convincing. The mean and dry Mojave Desert is just to the south whereas the high passes of the Sierra are clear of snow for only a few weeks each year and the nearby ancient Cascadian forests are lush and green. The elevations soar to more than 13,000 feet in the Sierra and plummet to near sea level at the Columbia River Gorge.

It is, however, interesting and not a little surprising to learn that the Pacific Crest Trail is in fact an easier, gentler trail than its Appalachian cousin. It's especially surprising if you consider that the Appalachian Trail runs through settled, gentle ridges, and that its highest point is Great Smoky Mountains National Park's unremarkable 6643-foot Clingman's Domea mountain that is not only below treeline, but is also accessible by automobile and has an observation deck on top. That the AT could be more difficult than any western traillet alone a trail that boasts the dramatic extremes of the PCTdefies logic. Nonetheless, my calves and thighs and feet are unanimous: This is an easier trail.

The reason why is simple: switchbacks. For much of its length, the Appalachian Trail seems to take perverse delight in sending hikers straight up and down the steepest sides of a mountain. Sometimes, it's because the trail is old. Sometimes it's because the easements granted to the trail corridor are too narrow to permit switchbacking. In other cases, I think it's pure orneriness. Whatever the reason, profile maps of the AT more often than not look like out-of-control EEGs, and the footway is so rocky that AT hikers often complain they spend so much time looking at the ground that their most memorable view is of their hiking boots. By contrast, in the bigger wildernesses of the West, there is plenty of space for trails to turn back and forth while gently climbing at grades that can be negotiated by livestock as well as hikers. As a result, PCT mileage is faster and easier, and the footway is smooth enough that you don't have to stop walking to take in the views.

There's yet another paradox: the PCT may be physically easier than the AT, but it requires more advanced wilderness skills. Take blazes, for example. The AT is a"follow the dots" sort of trail, so frequently, consistently, predictably blazed that hikers can walk from Georgia to Maine without knowing which part of the compass needle points north. The PCT is marked less frequentlytrail signs are farther apart, and the blazes may not be consistentand to reassure yourself that you haven't taken a wrong turn somewhere, you'll need to know how to read a map. Long distance hikers who challenge the Sierra early in the season also find that cairns and signs are still buried under snow. A little later, during snowmelt, care must be taken in fording overflowing streams and crossing lingering ice slopes. Ice axes, crampons and ropes are not always necessary, but they might be. Finally, you will need basic desert skills in the Mojave. Knowing how much water to carry (sometimes as much as two gallonsthe way I think of it, that's 16 pounds) or when to pull in for a mid-day siesta is vital.

Finally, there is the problem of resupply. Where there are no roads, no power lines, no crowds, and no observation decks selling postcards, T-shirts and Indian artifacts made in Korea, there are no post offices and no stores, either. Towns are smaller, farther apart, and not as close to the trail. It's harder to find replacement parts for broken gear in a tiny one-shop town, not to mention your favorite brand of color slide film or a cobbler who can repair your delaminated boot sole. If you're a health-food nut, you're going to have to plan ahead and send yourself boxes full of food because you won't find anything edible at the local grocery store. On the AT, it's rare for long distance hikers to carry more than a week's supply of food; on the PCT, I once carried 17 days worth of supplies.

These challenges are not a bad thing. Fewer people go out for 100 mile hikes than 10 mile hikes, so the remote parts of the PCT are indeed very remote and far less crowded than the AT. There are fewer boy scouts, fewer camp groups, fewer weekend partyers. On the Appalachian Trail, hikers camping at sites listed in the guidebooks assume that they may have to share their spot with strangers. But on the PCT, even during the height of the summer season on the popular John Muir Trail, there is always the opportunity to camp alone.

The day after our climb up Whitney, we hike over to Forester Pass, which, at 13,180-feet, is the highest point technically on the PCT. Our campsite is 800 feet below the pass on a flat, gravely spot hidden among some boulders. To either side is one of those crystalline upcountry tarns, with water as clear as the mountain air. Directly in front of us looms the near-vertical rock wall that leads to the pass. I can see the trail start to zigzag up, but then it blends into the rock and disappears. For the life of me, I can't guess where it's goingexcept for up.

I give up trying to solve the mystery and look instead at the rocks themselves, brushed a silvery pink by the twilight. The air is clear and dry and utterly silent. There are no planes, no distant traffic hums, no lights twinkling off in some far away valley. The tarns are as still as mirrors. I feel a sense of wonder, more, of exhilarating freedom, that I am in this place, that I have had to walk so far to get here, that I will walk another hundred miles before I see a telephone or an automobile or a road. Except for the trail and our tent, there is no sign of man anywhere. We are alone in the wilderness, dwarfed by the bigness of the mountains, the scale of the sky, the vast vistas of jagged peaks.

We can hear everywhere Muir's small voices, his noon thunder calling,"Come higher."

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 7 Nov 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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