Sign marking the PCT in Whitewater Preserve in Southern California. (Dreamstime)
List Words : Kathryn Barnes | 04 April 2019

6 reasons you must hike the Pacific Crest Trail

Whether you're a die-hard "thru-hiker" or an average backpacker, author Kathryn Barnes America’s says the famous Pacific Crest Trail has much to offer. Here's 6 reasons you should consider the hike

The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) begins at an unremarkable wire fence designating the United States/Mexico border. From this point, heading north, it crosses arid desert, winds up and over verdant mountains, through stark volcanic landscapes, culminating at Monument 30, the entry point to Canada.

Distance-wise, an entire 'thru-hike' of these 2,650 miles would be comparable to journeying all the way from the northern tip of Sweden, crossing through 10 countries, to Istanbul. Yet, most of the land this astonishing trail passes through is wilderness; vast, epic, expanses of scenery completely devoid of any human life.  

So why not hit the trail and check out for a while? Whether you fancy yourself as a die-hard hiker, or beginner backpacker, a trip along the PCT has much to offer...

1. Discover the Goat Rocks Wilderness

Sunrise over Goat Rocks Wilderness (Dreamstime)

Sunrise over Goat Rocks Wilderness (Dreamstime)

It isn’t tough to see why PCT hikers regularly vote the Goat Rocks Wilderness in South-Central Washington as one of the trail’s top highlights. A landscape defined by large glacier-carved basins covered with alpine meadows and transparent lakes, surrounded by – and for as far as the eye can see - craggy volcanic peaks towering into the sky. If lucky, you might even spy the region’s resident mountain goats, scaling seemingly impossible slopes with ease.  

Nestled deep within Goat Rocks you’ll find the often-photographed Knife's Edge, a section of the trail renowned for its perilous crossing. Formed from the remnants of an eroded stratovolcano, the distinctively sharp, serrated ridge resembles a Stegosaurus' spine.

You won’t want to lose your footing gazing down into the plunging drains that drop off to either side, as you tread the narrow pathway. Snow-dusted mountaintops frame the horizon. Vertigo sufferers, be warned.

2. Go swimming... au naturel

A lake in the Glacier Peak Wilderness (Shutterstock)

A lake in the Glacier Peak Wilderness (Shutterstock)

A cooling tingle envelopes your skin. Your heart rate quickens. You break to the surface with a near-desperate inhale of breath. Nothing quite beats the invigoration of plunging into a crystal-clear, glacier-fed lake. Opportunities for wild swimming on the PCT are aplenty. And with bodies of water this isolated, natures playground will often feel like your own private pool.

You’ll find the dazzling waters of Mica Lake perfectly encased by castle-like cliffs in the heart of Washington's Glacier Peak Wilderness. A stone outcrop acts as an opportune diving board. Or choose any number of the surrounding lakes to refresh those aching muscles.

Of course, there are lots of other options for taking a dip along the trail, but be warned: Oregon’s Sky Lakes Wilderness will most likely require sharing the experience with mosquitoes! For added liberation, why not shed those clothes?

3. Navigate ancient lava lands

Obsidian Fall, Oregon (Shutterstock)

Obsidian Fall, Oregon (Shutterstock)

Winding through stunning wildflower-encrusted meadows of Oregon’s Three Sisters Wilderness, the foliage suddenly ends. Landscape transforms into a darkened expanse of lava, cinder peaks and twisted deadwood, evocative of a surreal Salvador Dali painting. All life seems to have departed.

As you satisfyingly crunch across this space rock, make sure to look out for the shiny darkened glass littering the ground surrounding Obsidian Falls. Unlike traditional pumice rock, this volcanic glass is formed when felsic lava cools so rapidly that minimal crystal growth can occur. The resulting obsidian glass is very rare. Having been prized for its use as a sharp-edge tool for centuries, from Native American implements to modern surgical scalpels, the area is now safeguarded with protected status.

For a couple of miles you can follow the PCT through the zone, allowing you to witness ground glistening like thousands of tiny mirrors in the morning light.

4. See indigenous wildlife in the wild

A pika, also known as a 'whistling hare' (Shutterstock)

A pika, also known as a 'whistling hare' (Shutterstock)

With no mobile phone signal to distract your attention, expeditions into the back country reveal a whole new chorus. Above the timberline, a high-pitched "eakk" pierces the air. It belongs to the elusive pika, also known as the 'whistling hare', an ever so cute, round bodied cousin to the rabbit.

Delivering a sudden alarming shrill, it sounds somewhat like a two year old girl in dire trouble. A lone marmot, furry and squirrel-like, stands on his hind legs screaming a sound that doesn’t in any way fit his plump body.

In the forest through rustling leaves, a buzzing sound seems alien until traced up to a couple of vibrant blue hummingbirds, creating the whirr with their frantically beating wings. It’s wonderful to watch the behaviour of these mountain residents going about their daily business.

Of course, there are plenty of larger mammals sharing the trail, too. You could be lucky (or unlucky) enough to encounter mountain lions or bears. And if the legends are true, perhaps even catch a glimpse of the elusive sasquatch as he roams the seemingly impenetrable forests of the Northern Cascades...

5. Visit the off-grid community of Stehekin

Stehekin Pier (Shutterstock)

Stehekin Pier (Shutterstock)

Perched on the north-western shore of a 50 mile long lake, you’ll find the tiny community of Stehekin. Somewhat ironically dubbed the ‘gateway to the Northern Cascades’, there is no road access to actually reach the place, surely making it one of the remotest neighbourhoods in the continental United States. So, what better place to hike to?

The PCT trailhead sits on the edge of the North Cascades National Park nine miles away. From there, nothing beats the novel sense of arrival on board the red retro school bus that ferries people to Stehekin Landing, four times a day.

Lake Chelan, Washington’s largest natural lake, eventually appears like an ocean before you. Hire a bike to go exploring. Or relax. Take a seat and marvel at the lake’s expanse as it snakes through the steep valley with little more than a handful of wooden buildings dotting the shoreline.

Of course, no visit here is complete without treating yourself to a giant cream cheese-glazed cinnamon bun from the trail institution: The Stehekin Pastry Company. 

6. Trail Magic

Three Hikers on a mountain Trail in Cascade Mountains (Shutterstock)

Three Hikers on a mountain Trail in Cascade Mountains (Shutterstock)

Trail magic is the unexpected element associated with receiving a gift of unsolicited kindness. The PCT is renowned for it. Total strangers with no hidden agenda have time and time again been seen aiding hikers with free rides into town, food donations, and even sometimes hosting them in their homes.

I have brilliant personal memories of this. At my lowest point on the entire trail, having hiked through rain for three days solid, a chance encounter with an American-Irish family reunion saved me. I was welcomed into the fold. Within 24 hours of being fed, laundered, and provided with an actual bed, I hiked out not only stronger, but with a restored faith in humanity.

You will undoubtedly meet a plethora of genuine people from all walks of life on the PCT. Often known solely by a playful trail meme, many a colourful character will be sure to become a life-long friend.

I'm sold - but which bit of the Pacific Crest Trail is best to hike? 

If the above sounds tempting, but you find yourself short of the circa five months required to attempt hiking the entire PCT, just pick a section. Whatever section you choose to discover, one thing's for sure: the trail will embed in your soul a vivid collection of images and memories that will last a lifetime.

So, why not try it for yourself? I am living proof that even the unlikeliest of backpackers can not only survive, but be completely moved by the wild. There's more hiking info on the PCT's official website, and great trail maps available for free on PCT Map's site, too.


More amazing walks:

Kathryn Barnes's latest book, The Unlikeliest Backpacker, is out now and can be ordered on Amazon.

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