By Caroline Hinchliff
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- Make your escape on shorter trips from nearby cities, hit all the national parks along the PCT, or drive the entire two-week route from California to Washington
- Find your hike along the Pacific Crest Trail with detailed trail descriptions, difficulty ratings, mileage, and tips for picking the right section of the trail for you
- Discover adventures on and off the trail: Watch the bubbling mud pots below Lassen Peak or admire Joshua trees in the sparse and peaceful Mojave Desert. Savor artisan, homemade-style pies of all kinds in Julian, sample craft beers in Bend, or gorge yourself at Timberline Lodge’s gourmet brunch buffet. Cross the Columbia River on the historic Bridge of the Gods, climb into the massive granite peaks of the North Cascades, or catch a magical sunrise over the eastern edge of Oregon’s Crater Lake
- Take it from avid hiker Caroline Hinchliff, who shares her insight on the best spots for wildlife-watching, glamping, or having a Wild moment
- Full-color photos, strategic itineraries, easy-to-use maps and site-to-site driving times
- Get the lowdown on when and where to get gas, how to avoid traffic, and braving different road and weather conditions, plus tips for LGBTQ travelers, seniors, and road-trippers with kids
DISCOVER the Pacific Crest Trail
10 TOP EXPERIENCES
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
HIT THE ROAD
Best Trail Towns
“I wish I could do that.”
When I tell people I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, this is the response I get. I understand the sentiment—I still reminisce about the summer of 2014 that I spent trekking through the wilderness of California, Oregon, and Washington with a 30-pound backpack strapped to my hips and near-destroyed sneakers laced around my aching feet. My thru-hike was an epic journey that forever changed my perspective on happiness and success.
Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling book Wild (and the subsequent film) turned the PCT into a household name. The trail is now known as one of the best ways to experience the rugged, scenic West, but for many reasons—family, career, health, finances—most people are unable to venture into the wilderness for five months. Almost everyone, though, gets a few days of vacation every year and can squeeze a road trip into the plan.
This is your accessible, approachable route to the most beautiful places on the 2,650-mile trail. From Campo to Canada, this road trip parallels the PCT, offering many of the same spectacular opportunities (without the giant backpack or the gruesome blisters). Gaze out over the vast expanse of the desert ranges. Marvel at the rugged, towering High Sierra and the formidable Cascade volcanoes. Wander the misty, mossy rainforests of the Pacific Northwest. There’s much more to see than hiking trails: visit steaming natural hot springs, paddle wild and scenic rivers on a whitewater raft, cruise down rocky slopes on a mountain bike, or amble through thick woods on horseback. Historic and charming trail towns peppered along the route welcome weary hikers and cater to the adventurous spirit.
You don’t have to quit your job or leave your life behind to have an authentic PCT experience. After exploring the trail as both a thru-hiker and a road-tripper, I can assure you that this version is just as spectacular (and considerably more comfortable).
This road trip is the answer to your wish—a guide for hikers and road-trippers alike to experience the stunning beauty and wild splendor of the Pacific Crest Trail.
10 TOP EXPERIENCES
1 Hike an Alpine Landscape: Wade across glacier-fed streams and wander through wildflower-speckled meadows on the flanks of remote Mount Jefferson.
2 Soak in Hot Springs: Follow the PCT along the banks of the Mojave River and over a rainbow-painted bridge to reach Deep Creek Hot Springs, a desert oasis on the north side of the San Bernardino Mountains.
3 Drive a Scenic Byway: Zoom along a legendary stretch of the Angeles Crest Scenic Byway through the rugged San Gabriel Mountains, stopping for views of Los Angeles and the Mojave Desert more than a mile below.
4 Gaze at Mountain Peaks: Enjoy the views from Whitney Portal, the gateway to the highest peak in the lower 48 states, sky-piercing Mount Whitney.
5 Explore Yosemite’s High Country: Experience the national park’s high Sierra via Tioga Pass, with stops to admire alpine Tuolumne Meadows.
6 Wander Amid Waterfalls: Dip your toes into an ice-cold plunge pool below Burney Falls, where thousands of natural springs cascade over a basalt cliff.
7 Climb a Volcano: Journey through a volcanic wonderland to summit Lassen Peak, the southernmost volcano in the Cascade Mountain range.
8 Cruise Around a Sunken Caldera: Descend into Crater Lake’s ancient caldera and motor across the surface of the deepest, clearest lake in America.
9 Swim in Mountain Lakes: Splash into warm Deep Lake and fill your belly with fresh huckleberries in this unheralded wilderness area between three volcanoes.
10 Leave Civilization Behind: Escape to remote, secluded Stehekin village in the North Cascades, accessible only by boat or hiking trail.
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
Where to Go
East of San Diego, the Pacific Crest Trail begins its northbound journey from the border near Campo. The trail passes through mountains to visit the old mining town of Julian before grazing past austere Anza-Borrego Desert State Park to climb into the artsy town of Idyllwild.
Big Bear Lake is a hub for year-round sports and recreation. Near the Angeles Crest Scenic Byway, hikers can summit Mount Baden-Powell, the second-highest peak in the San Gorgonio Mountains. As the PCT traces the western edge of the Mojave Desert, it showcases the fascinating geology at Vasquez Rocks.
The Sierra Nevada, with its sky-scraping spires and granite towers, couldn’t be more different from the desert. Mount Whitney, the tallest point in the Lower 48, looms on the western horizon above Lone Pine, a Wild West town on U.S. 395. Bishop is a fantastic base camp from which to access Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks from the east (as long as you’re willing to hike in). The PCT travels north through Mammoth Lakes, a luxurious resort town, before entering lush meadows and granite domes of Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park.
From Sonora Pass, the PCT traverses ragged ridgelines above sparkling Lake Tahoe before heading through the rocky Sierra Buttes massif and into Lassen Volcanic National Park, where geothermal activity abounds. Ice-cold Burney Falls is a scenic stopover and the trail town of Mount Shasta offers great views of its namesake volcano. At Castle Crags State Park, granite monoliths loom over the I-5 freeway below.
Elegant Ashland is home to tasty restaurants, beautiful shops, and world-class theater. Nearby Crater Lake National Park is the best place to learn about Oregon’s volcanic legacy. Outdoor enthusiasts bond over craft beers in Bend, home to more than 20 microbreweries. An hour’s drive from Portland, Mount Hood is a year-round destination for hiking, skiing, sightseeing, and dining at the historic Timberline Lodge.
The PCT enters Washington in the dramatic Columbia River Gorge before tracing the western base of Mount Adams and entering the wild, roadless Goat Rocks Wilderness. Views of the state’s biggest volcano (known locally as “The Mountain”) are incredible in Mount Rainier National Park. Isolated Stehekin is a quaint, remote town at the southern tip of North Cascades National Park, where the PCT exits civilization before entering Canada.
When to Go
Most PCT thru-hikers begin at the Mexican border in April, when desert temperatures are still mild and wildflowers are blooming. This is the best time of year to explore the Southern California region of the PCT, which means the trail and nearby towns can be extremely busy.
If planning to explore this area March-May, reserve accommodations and campgrounds in advance. Snow still covers the regions farther north until May or June, and many seasonal roads will still be closed.
Summer is your best bet for a contiguous trip along the Pacific Crest Trail—the snow has melted in the mountains, mountain passes are open, and the weather is generally quite pleasant (with two exceptions: Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and the Mojave Desert, where temperatures are only hospitable during fall, winter, and spring). National parks are busy during the summer, as are resort towns like Mammoth Lakes and Lake Tahoe, so expect to share the trails with others, and be sure to reserve accommodations in advance, especially if you’re traveling on a weekend.
Autumn can be quite beautiful on the PCT, despite earlier sunsets and potentially chilly temperatures. Thru-hikers finish their journey in the North Cascades in September and October, racing to beat the season’s first snows. The Eastern Sierra in particular is known for spectacular fall colors each autumn, when needles on larch trees turn yellow and huckleberry bushes light up the granite hillsides in red hues.
Most of the Pacific Crest Trail is at elevations of 5,000 feet or more, so accessing the trail during the winter months is difficult at best. To make the most of the winter months, visit the resort towns of Big Bear, Mammoth Lakes, Lake Tahoe, or Mount Shasta in California; Bend in Oregon; or Leavenworth in Washington. If you’re determined to do some winter hiking, trails in Anza-Borrego and Agua Dulce are good bets.
Hikers without avalanche expertise and the appropriate winter gear are advised to visit the PCT between April and October. Regions including the High Sierra, Oregon, and Washington may not be accessible until late June or early July.
Know Before You Go
Most of the Pacific Crest Trail experiences heavy winter snow November-April and is inaccessible by car or on foot. Southern California sections are best explored in spring, when water flows in the seasonal streams, wildflowers explode in color, and daytime temperatures are hospitable.
Plan to visit the High Sierra, Northern California, Oregon, and Washington during summer and fall, when snows have melted and all the roads are open.
Wildfires close sections of the trail every year, and are most common July-September. Be prepared with an alternative route should your planned destination be closed due to fire.
Reservations, Permits, and Passes
With the exception of some parts of Southern California, most destinations on your road trip are only accessible half the year, which means they can get crowded when they’re open. Make reservations for campgrounds and accommodations as far in advance as possible, especially if you’ll be traveling on holiday weekends.
Some national parks require entrance fees ($15-35), as do some state parks, and backcountry permits may be required for overnight stays in addition to the entrance fee. The Mount Whitney Zone, Sequoia and Kings Canyon, John Muir Wilderness, Yosemite, Lassen, Obsidian Trail, Mount Rainier, and North Cascades require advance permit registrations and enforce quotas. While some permits may be available on short notice, permits in extremely popular areas (Mount Whitney, Sequoia and Kings Canyon, and Yosemite) are awarded by application or lottery up to eight months in advance. Other wilderness areas may require free permits available at regional ranger stations or self-issued at the trailhead. Sometimes permitting is completed online through www.recreation.gov or www.nps.gov.
If you plan to camp in California, you’ll need a California campfire permit (www.preventwildfireca.org) for campfires, barbecues, and portable stoves. Visits to national forests in Southern California require a California Adventure Pass ($5/day or $30/year).
In Oregon and Washington, a Northwest Forest Pass ($5/day or $30/year) is required to visit national forests; a Discover Pass ($10/day or $30/year) is required at Washington state parks. December through April, winter recreation areas require a Sno-Park Permit ($5-42) to park in snow-cleared lots.
If you plan to cross the Canadian border to visit the northern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail in Manning Park, British Columbia, you’ll need a valid passport.
What to Bring
In addition to the Ten Essentials, bring your backpack and at least two water bottles. Trekking poles can assist with long hikes and stream crossings. If camping, pack a tent, a sleeping pad, sleeping bag, and a pillow, a camp chair, and an outdoor kitchen set with cookware and dishes. A tarp or awning is a wonderful luxury in sunny California, where many campsites are exposed to the sun.
You’ll need a reliable car to get from place to place. Most local towns are accessible by car—any car will do, although you’ll suffer in summer in a vehicle without air-conditioning.
While some parts of the Pacific Crest Trail are accessible by road, reaching the trailheads in more remote areas may require long drives on unpaved forest roads. A high-clearance, all-wheel-drive vehicle is recommended.
Getting There and Back
This trip starts in San Diego, where you can fly into San Diego International Airport (SAN, 619/400-2400, www.san.org) and rent a car. There are plenty of grocery stores and outdoor retailers if you need to stock up on food and travel necessities. The southern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail is east of downtown San Diego on Highway 94.
Southern California can also be accessed via airports in the greater Los Angeles area, including busy Los Angeles International Airport (LAX, 855/463-5252, www.flylax.com), smaller Ontario International Airport (ONT, 909/544-5300, www.flyontario.com), and relatively calm Palm Springs International Airport (PSP, 760/318-3800, www.palmspringsca.gov).
Sections of the PCT in the Sierra Nevada and Northern California are quite remote—that distance is part of their appeal. For travel in this area, fly into Sacramento International Airport (SMF, 916/929-5411, www.sacramento.aero/smf) or Reno-Tahoe International Airport (RNO, 775/328-6400, www.renoairport.com) and plan to spend a few hours driving from the airport
Portland International Airport (PDX, 877/739-4636 or 503/460-4234, www.flypdx.com) is the best hub for visits to Oregon and the southern part of Washington State.
Your road trip ends in the North Cascades, three hours northeast of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA, 800/544-1965 or 206/787-5388, www.portseattle.org/sea-tac). Or you may choose to end your trip in Canada, as many thru-hikers do. Vancouver International Airport (YVR, 604/207-7077, www.yvr.ca) is three hours northwest of North Cascades National Park.
No one road parallels the Pacific Crest Trail in its entirety, but some major routes provide consistent access to the mountain passes and twisty roads that reach the trail. In Southern California, most trail towns can be accessed near I-15 or Highway 14. Scenic U.S. 395 is your primary route through Central California and the High Sierra. Destinations in Northern California are sprinkled along Highway 89 and I-5. In Oregon and Washington, I-5 parallels the trail on the west side of the mountain range, while U.S. 97 provides a similar route to the east.
Rent a car at the airport, keeping in mind what you’ll need to stay comfortable during your travels. Consider extra space for camping gear, fold-down seats that allow for sleeping in the car, or a high-clearance vehicle to travel on bumpy dirt roads in the mountains. Ask about any related fees for taking the car on unpaved roads. If you’re planning a one-way trip, confirm that you can return the rental car in a different location than where you rented it (this may incur a fee).
Camper vans and RVs are fantastic options for this road trip, if you’re comfortable driving a larger vehicle. Some single-lane, twisty mountain roads may prohibit trailers, but you can still have a delightful trip even if you skip those options.
This road trip spends time on both high-speed highways and curvy mountain byways. Speed limits vary from 30-80 mph. Drivers in California move fast—don’t be alarmed when they want to pass (and don’t feel pressured to exceed speed limits just because others are). Observe laws and common courtesy and keep right except to pass. Watch for wildlife on the roads, especially during dawn and dusk, when many animals emerge from the woods to graze. Deer, raccoons, rabbits, squirrels, and birds are all common sights on roadways across the Pacific Crest Trail.
Most rental cars are equipped with GPS, but this trip enters remote areas where satellite and cell phone coverage may be spotty or nonexistent. Bring a road atlas so you can plan routes and orient yourself when GPS becomes unreliable.
While some parts of Southern California are accessible year-round, most of the PCT is buried in snow between December and April. In winter, many mountain roads into high-elevation areas may close, including sections of the Angeles Crest Scenic Byway, all the roads leading into the remote high country of the Sierra Nevada, and Highway 89 through Lassen in California; Crater Lake Rim Drive and McKenzie Pass in Oregon; and Forest Road 23 and the North Cascades Highway in Washington. Other winter routes are plowed but require traction tires and/or tire chains—expect these conditions near Big Bear, Mammoth Lakes, Lake Tahoe, Mount Shasta, and across all the mountain passes in Oregon and Washington.
Be sure you have plenty of gas in the tank before heading into remote areas. Gas is plentiful in Southern California, where the PCT skirts major urban areas; however, gas stations along U.S. 395 are few and far between where fuel is at a premium (in Mammoth Lakes and Lee Vining, for example, the price can exceed $5 per gallon). Plan to fill your tank in Tehachapi, Bishop, or even the state of Nevada, where prices are more reasonable.
Expect elevated gas prices to continue through the small towns between Truckee and Burney; once you hit the I-5 corridor near Mount Shasta, the prices start to drop.
Gas stations are peppered sporadically along U.S. 97 through Oregon, but it’s wise to fill the tank for adventures into the mountains.
There are two remote sections—no gas, services, or cell phone reception—in Washington: Forest Road 23, between Trout Lake and Packwood, and the North Cascades Highway, between Mazama and Marblemount.
HIT THE ROAD
This road trip follows the traditional thru-hiker’s journey, which starts in spring near the California-Mexico border and runs north to the border with Canada.
21 Days on the Pacific Crest Trail
California in 12 Days
DAY 1: SAN DIEGO TO JULIAN
95 mi/153 km, 2.5 hr
Take Highway 94 east for one hour to the rural community of Campo and visit the Pacific Crest Trail Southern Terminus Monument on the U.S.-Mexico border. Head north on the Sunrise Highway to Mount Laguna, where the Garnet Peak Trail leads to a spectacular viewpoint overlooking Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
Stop at the Pine House Café for a draft beer and a bowl of chili before spending the night in Julian, 30 minutes north on Highway 79.
DAY 2: JULIAN TO IDYLLWILD
90 mi/145 km, 1.5 hr
Wake up and grab breakfast at Granny’s Kitchen before heading north to Idyllwild via Highways 79, 371, 74, and 243. A hike on the Deer Springs Trail showcases the towering granite massifs of the San Jacinto Mountains.
Catch some live music at Café Aroma during dinner before retreating to your cozy cottage or hotel room.
DAY 3: IDYLLWILD TO WRIGHTWOOD
160 mi/260 km, 4 hr
Get ready for a long day of driving on twisty scenic byways that traverse three unique mountain ranges and offer incredible views in every direction. Fuel up with coffee at Higher Grounds before making the two-hour trek via Highways 243 and 38 to Big Bear Lake. Hike the Cougar Crest Trail to enjoy panoramic views of Big Bear Lake and the San Bernardino Mountains, then drive 90 minutes west to Wrightwood on Highways 18 and 138.
Enjoy a frosty pint and a handcrafted sandwich at Wrightwood Brew Co. before bedding down for the night at Blue Ridge Primitive Campground.
DAY 4: WRIGHTWOOD TO TEHACHAPI
170 mi/275 km, 3 hr
Take a morning stroll on the Pacific Crest Trail along Blue Ridge to see the sun light up the San Gabriel Mountains, then head west on the Angeles Crest Scenic Byway to trace the path of the PCT through the remarkably rugged range. After stopping at Newcomb’s Ranch for lunch, follow the Angeles Forest Highway north and Highway 14 south to the tiny town of Agua Dulce, where you can walk through Vasquez Rocks, a group of otherworldly sandstone formations that have been the filming site of countless movies and TV shows.
Head north on Highway 14 and Tehachapi Willow Springs Road to Tehachapi, where you can grab dinner at Red House BBQ and get a comfy hotel room.
DAY 5: TEHACHAPI TO KENNEDY MEADOWS
126 mi/203 km, 4.5 hr
Take a 90-minute scenic route through the Piute Mountains on Caliente Bodfish Road to the town of Kernville, where you can hop on a whitewater rafting trip on the Kern River and sip on a craft beer at Kern River Brewing Company. Afterward, stock up on water, food, and camping supplies in Kernville before making the twisty, three-hour drive on Mountain Highway 99 and Sherman Pass Road to Kennedy Meadows,
- On Sale
- Mar 17, 2020
- Page Count
- 450 pages
- Moon Travel