Pacific Crest Trail Attracts a Different Type of Hiker From Appalachian Trail
Some have referred to the Pacific Crest Trail as the Appalachian Trail of the West. The Appalachian Trail is America’s trail of the masses; some three to four million people per year step foot on it at any one time each and every year. The Pacific Crest Trail does not have this feeling.
For starters, it begins with 703 miles in the desert. The striking thing to me about that long, and sometimes brutal, march through the desert–including parts of the Mojave–was how isolated it all seemed. You could literally count on two hands the number of hikers I saw in there, who were not PCT thru-hikers. You almost got the feeling that nobody in their right mind would be in there, except, of course, for those of us for whom it was required to do the desert as part of their thru-hike.
There were more section hikers when we finally got to the ‘High Sierra’ at mile 703. But even there, the PCT had nowhere near the masses that swarm on the AT. The rest of the way–northern California, Oregon, the northern Cascades–all had a considerably more isolated feel than on its east coast counterpart (with a few exceptions such as Yosemite and Crater Lake).
Humans are, for the most part, social animals. I consider myself no different. This took some getting used to. One upshot is that the thru-hikers became exceptionally close to each other. But even that being the case, a hiker can expect to spend long amount of time alone. I doubt I had ever been a single day in my life without seeing a human; but on the PCT in northern Washington, I once went three days without seeing a single human. To say the least, it took some getting used to. It was almost like you were communing with yourself. I felt most lonely while setting up camp each night. And I wouldn’t be leveling if I didn’t mention that it was sometimes a bit creepy–it’s amazing how much noise a mere squirrel can make. You hear them snapping twigs all night.
Nonetheless, I don’t want to make the PCT sound like a Lewis and Clark style journey. It’s nothing of the sort. The U.S. Forest Service, in conjunction with local trail clubs, has done a fabulous job maintaining the trail, even in the most isolated sections. Of course, in the snowiest areas of the ‘High Sierra’, it doesn’t really matter how well maintained the trail actually is–you can expect to be improvising.
Perhaps the upshot of all this is that–as much freedom as the AT affords–the PCT is the real shout of freedom. It truly was a different kind of experience. Yes, I missed the social network of the Appalachian Trail. But the Pacific Crest Trail was a once-in-a-lifetime immersion in the vast openness of the American West and its sometimes overwhelming feeling of isolation.
Bill Walker is the author of Skywalker–Highs and Lows on the Pacific Crest Trail. He is also the author of Skywalker–Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail, The Best Way–El Camino de Santiago, and Getting High–the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal. Walker, who is nearly 7-feet tall, is currently working on a whimsical book on the subject of height.