The Pacific Crest Trail Experience
Far TrekMay 2016
Story by Tim Holt
“It’s a chance to see part of our country, see all the beauty that’s out there,” Kristyanna Virgona says about the experience of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Virgona is a volunteer assistant at the Dunsmuir Library Over the past nine years she’s seen a lot of Pacific Crest Trail hikers, most of them young, come through the library to use its computers and recharge their phones.
“Most of them are escaping from cities, getting out here to experience nature, before they get their first real job,” she says. After starting at the Mexican border and trekking through the baking heat of the desert, they finally reach God’s country, the Mount Shasta region.
There were more hikers out on the trail this past season than ever before, thanks in part to “Wild,” the movie starring Reese Witherspoon that chronicled one woman’s adventures on the PCT. Permits to hike the entire 2,650 miles of the trail nearly doubled to more than 2,800 last year. So many people wanted to hike the trail, in fact, that U.S. Forest Service officials limited the number of hikers starting out each day from the Mexican border to 50, to help preserve the wilderness experience for those on the trail.
“To most of the hikers it’s a sacred thing, a once-in-a-lifetime adventure they’ve been planning for years,” says Dave Harrison, who with his wife Vibeke runs a hostel for hikers in Etna. Last season, he had a record number of hikers stay there, nearly 500.
And, thanks to “Wild,” he notes, “we had a whole lot of what I would call less serious hikers who had the attitude, ‘If we finish, fine. If not, that’s OK, too.’ That’s not the typical attitude. Most of them are very goal-oriented.”
The hikers get support along the trail from good Samaritans known as “trail angels,” who live near the trail and place coolers filled with sodas and beer and snacks along the route. Others take them into their homes and provide much-needed showers and home-cooked breakfasts.
It’s common for local residents to give hikers rides to and from towns along the route. Harrison’s hiker haven provides a shuttle service to the trail, 10 miles away from his hostel in Etna. He remembers one guest hiker who was from Scotland, in his 60s, and had just retired from working in a brewery. The company had agreed to pay him his salary for another six months so he could hike the trail, and his co-workers had chipped in to pay for his roundtrip flight from Scotland.
Then there was the fellow from the East Coast, the retired prison guard, who, because of that job, said he “had lost confidence in humanity,” Harrison remembers. Getting out on the trail and mingling with his fellow hikers improved his opinion of his fellow human beings.
For some who hike the trail, the experience is a chance to take stock of their lives, and can be a chance to take one last break before plunging into a first real job. And for some older hikers, it can be a chance to make a mid-course correction.
The Castella Post Office next to Castle Crags State Park receives lots of the hikers’ restocking packages, filled with food, letters, new shoes and shirts. The clerk there, Carley DeVault, remembers one couple who stopped by one day to pick up a package. Before starting the hike, they had been pretty well off, with big cars and a fancy house. But they had grown tired of that life, sold everything they had, and set out from the Mexican border. When they got to Canada, they told DeVault, they were going to decide where to live and what to do with the rest of their newly downsized lives.
For North State residents looking for a quick getaway, it’s easy to sample the trail on one-day hikes or short overnight treks. One of the easier access points is at the Soda Creek exit, just south of Dunsmuir off Interstate 5. You can start hiking the PCT just west of the exit and after a few miles of hiking, discover a series of cascading creeks and stunning views of Castle Crags.
Or head farther north on I-5, go west off the freeway to Lake Siskiyou, and drive 11 miles past the lake to the section of the PCT that's just above Gumboot Lake. From there, you can hike a little more than four miles to a pristine alpine lake, Porcupine Lake, where you can enjoy a refreshingly cool swim on a warm summer day.