Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail is ‘almost impossible’ due to climate change

Andrew Carter is a flip-flopper. As in, he’s attempting to complete the iconic 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches from California’s border with Mexico all the way to Washington’s border with Canada — but not in one continuous hike. He’s tackling it section by section, dividing the journey into four segments.

Carter hiked two segments already, and almost immediately, his hopes of completing the entire PCT were dashed. On the first leg, he had to detour twice within Angeles National Forest and then again near Mount Jefferson due to closures from last year’s fires. On the second segment, he ran into a 160-mile trail closure because of the Dixie Fire. Then, when he saw smoke rising from the Lava Fire on Mount Shasta, he was forced to hike a grueling six miles extra to safety.

“Here’s my takeaway,” Carter tells SFGATE. “One can no longer expect to thru-hike the PCT in one year. Climate change means fires along the trail and fire closures are the new normal.”

Trees burn after firefighters conducted a firing operation to slow the spread of the Dixie Fire in Plumas County, Calif, on Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021.

Noah Berger/Associated Press

In addition to hundreds of miles of fire closures, climate change is causing additional obstacles and safety hazards along the PCT. Smoke in the air is unhealthy to breathe. Drought is leading to increasingly long journeys without water sources, especially in the desert. It also weakens the forest, which leads to a build-up of flammable materials. Heavy rains can cause flooding and debris flows, particularly in areas stripped of vegetation by fire.

Traversing the changing ecosystems of some of the west’s most beloved public lands, including six national parks, 25 national forest units and 48 federal wilderness areas, the PCT reflects a Herculean effort to set aside and protect natural areas. The idea that humans might never again complete the trail, either as flip-floppers or thru-hikers, is difficult for some PCT enthusiasts to accept. But it’s something they’re all talking about.

“It’s gotten to the point where it’s almost impossible to thru-hike every point of the trail,” says Scott Wilkinson, the Pacific Crest Trail Association’s (PCTA) director of communications and marketing. “I’m not going to venture as to whether we’ve reached that.”

Right now, 242 miles of the PCT are closed because of active fires or fire damage from previous years, Wilkinson reported. And although that’s better than the 1,800 miles closed last year because of fires and the pandemic, it’s among the most significant closures the trail has seen. These days, the PCTA website even has special page entitled “how to react to wildfires.”

“You’re on your own out there. Be prepared,” it reads. “There are tens of thousands of wildfires every year, and because of drought and our changing climate, they’re growing in number, size, and intensity.”

Advice for what to do in the event of a wildfire includes the following: Because fire typically travels faster uphill than downhill, avoid being at the top of a ridge. If there’s a lake nearby, get in the water and if possible, hide behind an island or a big rock. To breathe in less toxic smoke, stay low to the ground, dig a hole and keep your nose in the dirt.

Of course, the smoke can become problematic even if a fire is far away. Recently the PCTA added a layer to an interactive map on its website to offer information on air quality. On Tuesday, the map showed 1,200 miles of the PCT with air-quality ratings that were less than good, and 470 miles of the trail had air-quality ratings of unhealthy or hazardous.

Backpacker Stan Nassano heads out onto the Pacific Crest Trail at the Southern Terminus along the U.S.- Mexico Border in Campo, Calif.

Backpacker Stan Nassano heads out onto the Pacific Crest Trail at the Southern Terminus along the U.S.- Mexico Border in Campo, Calif.

Sandy Huffaker / Corbis via Getty Images

Although the number of people wanting the thru-hike the PCT has been growing in recent years, particularly in response to Cheryl Strayed’s novel Wild and the resulting Hollywood blockbuster with Reese Witherspoon, Wilkinson believes that climate change is bound to become a deterrent, and rightfully so. With that in mind, the PCTA is altering its marketing approach.

“We’ve started advocating more and more for people to enjoy their local PCT, or to do section hikes for a week here or there,” Wilkinson says.

Of course, thru-hikers are not the kinds of people who are easily dissuaded. They aim to walk 20 or 30 miles a day and live in tents for five months, mailing themselves provisions and breaking in five pairs of hiking boots in advance. Factoring in flights, food and gear, the trip can end up costing more than $6,000.

Despite the closures and warnings of a worse-than-ever fire season, hundreds of thru-hikers set out this year in April or May with the goal of finishing by September. The timing is key, because an earlier start means getting stuck at flooded creeks and in a snow-covered Sierra. Ending later end means it’ll already be snowing in the Cascade Range. Some hikers have even more ambitious plans, though.

This image released by Fox Searchlight Pictures shows Reese Witherspoon, right, in a scene from the film, "Wild," in which she hikes the Pacific Crest Trail.

This image released by Fox Searchlight Pictures shows Reese Witherspoon, right, in a scene from the film, “Wild,” in which she hikes the Pacific Crest Trail.

Anne Marie Fox/Associated Press

Crystal Gail Welcome recently began a trek on the Great Western Loop, which runs the entire length of the PCT and then links the Pacific Northwest Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, the Grand Enchantment Trail and the Arizona Trail, for a total of 6,875 miles.

As a Black woman and lesbian with a disability, Welcome is doing the 18-month trek to “take up space,” she tells SFGATE. “I’m hiking to pave the way for others with many intersecting identities.”

She started her hike on the PCT in Chester (before it went under evacuation orders) and worked her way south, though the smoke from the Dixie Fire made it hard to navigate. Upon arriving in Truckee, she learned she’d need to find a way around the Tamarack Fire and started weighing her options.

In studying a map, Welcome realized she was looking at 2.5 hours of yellow-blazing, which in PCT-speak refers to yellow median stripes and means catching a ride. A clerk at an outdoor outfitter offered her one, and although she is wary of hitchhiking, she was inclined to accept. Climate change isn’t going to thwart her, Welcome says, but the journey will certainly be a different one.

Crystal Gail Welcome is hiking the PCT and beyond to "take up space."

Crystal Gail Welcome is hiking the PCT and beyond to “take up space.”

Courtesy of Crystal Gail Welcome

“I’ll need to rely more on the kindness of strangers,” she says.

Last year in California, more than 4 million acres burned, and the state saw five of its largest fires in history. This year, more than a half-million acres have burned. Fire season is just getting started, though, and is likely to continue through September, raising serious doubt about the future of PCT thru-hiking.

“It’s a great idea to hike every mile,” Wilkinson says. “But if you really want the best possible experience, you might want to rethink that.”