Footpath Atop the West | Travel | Smithsonian
Paciofic Crest Trail vistas (Pasayten Wilderness) have inspired generations of hikers. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas recalled a Cascade trek he made in 1914 at age 16: "We commanded the whole scene as if we were on the spire of a cathedral." (Bart Smith)

Footpath Atop the West

Since the 1930s, the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail, extending from Mexico to Canada, has beckoned young and old

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From 8,000 feet up the side of San Jacinto Peak in Southern California, Interstate 10, at the base of the gorge, snakes through the San Bernardino Mountains and enters the Mojave Desert. Ahead of me to the north rises the snowcapped cone of 11,502-foot San Gorgonio Peak, the tallest mountain in Southern California. The sprawling Los Angeles Basin is northwest and, somewhere beyond, the Pacific Ocean.

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That I was able to take in such an astonishing vista at twilight on a cool autumn evening can be traced to a visionary idea, conceived in 1926, that led to the creation of the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail (PCT), a 2,650-mile high-country footpath extending from the U.S.-Mexico border to Canada. Like its better-known East Coast equivalent, the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail, the PCT constitutes one of the most extraordinary wilderness treasures in the nation.

It is layered with history, crisscrossing many of the California peaks and canyons that naturalist John Muir trekked in the 1860s and '70s, and the Yosemite backcountry immortalized by photographer Ansel Adams. There's even the stretch in Washington's Cascade Mountains where Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas was thrown from his horse and broke 13 ribs—necessitating hospitalization and preventing his attendance at the court's opening session in October 1949. "Growing up in Washington State, the PCT was the quintessential experience for our backpacking forays," says U.S. Forest Service official Tim Stone, trail manager for the footpath.

Demanding though certain segments are—the glaciers of the High Sierra, for instance—much of the PCT is surprisingly manageable, with gradual inclines that allow backpackers, in some places, to trek twice the distance they could manage in a day on the Appalachian Trail. This accessibility lures day hikers as well, perhaps 10,000 or so each year.

It's not all breathtaking scenery. Beginning late in 2003, a series of natural disasters—from catastrophic forest fires to torrential floods—hit the ridgeline. For the first time since the PCT was proposed 73 years ago, a leg of it, 45 miles long, has virtually ceased to exist, washed out by a deluge in Washington State's Cascade Mountains. "We knew almost immediately," says Stone, "that the most remote, the most inaccessible section of the trail was gone."

It was Catherine Montgomery, a 59-year-old teacher from Bellingham, Washington, who came up with the notion of a ridgeline track from Canada through the mountains of Washington, Oregon and California to Mexico. She saw "a high trail winding down the heights of our western mountains with mile markers and shelter huts."

Within a few years, Clinton Clarke, a California publisher, philanthropist and outdoorsman, had embraced the idea and proposed it to the U.S. Forest Service and to the National Park Service. In March 1932, he published the first Pacific Crest Trail handbook. Although his descriptions could be sketchy ("The trail goes east of Heart Lake, then south across granite fields..."), the guide vastly increased the trail's popularity. For the next four summers, Civilian Conservation Corps workers and YMCA youngsters began constructing it.

in 1970, an 18-year-old "southbounder," Eric Ryback, became the first person to walk the entire route. He published an account of his north-to-south trek, The High Adventure of Eric Ryback, a year later. The book instilled a fascination with the PCT in many a reader, including me, who came across it as a sixth grader.

Traversing the length of the PCT was not easy then—or now. Thirty-five years after that first through-hike summer, only 800 individuals are known to have made it all the way, some 1,445 fewer than have conquered Mount Everest.

"I'll tell you why PCT through-hikers are so rare," says Jim Hilton, 70, a Seattle attorney who walked it from Mexico to Canada—considered the easier direction—in 1988 with his wife, Peggy. "The PCT requires three to seven months of daily dedication. Every day, you have to get a minimum of 20 miles behind you, or you won't make it to Canada before the snow flies. And it's incredibly demanding. Mount Everest goes—what?—five miles into the sky? While you're traveling 2,600 miles south to north on the PCT, you also make 85 miles in elevation changes. Think about it: not only are you hiking 2,600 miles, you're climbing 85 miles straight up!"

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