Taking on the Pacific Crest Trail

Zach Garhart
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What exactly is the PCT? We’ve put together this article detailing not only what it is, but also what hikers staying at our hostel had to say about it before taking on the Pacific Crest Trail.

One is never truly prepared for anything, much less the unknown. As a truly one-of-a-kind experience that attracts adventurists and thrill-seekers from all around the world, the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is filled with unknowns, but also a whole host of new, exciting opportunities for self-discovery, personal growth and chances to connect with fellow hikers.

Doing the hike requires planning, perseverance, mental toughness, and a positive mindset. It is an opportunity to forage memories that will surely last a life-time, which is why it is something that many say they have spent their whole lives dreaming about doing. Some quit their jobs to start this six-month long expedition, while others take full advantage of their extended holiday. While many are anxious or nervous, not one hiker showed regret for their decision to come to San Diego and start what will be one of the most challenging, but memorable, blocks of time in their life.

The nuts and bolts of it:

Embarking on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) means putting life on hold for six months, and beginning to walk the 2,650 miles (4,265 kilometers) of trail that stretches from the United States-Mexico border all the way up to Canada. The Pacific Crest Trail Association receives thousands of applications, and they tend to favor those who intend on taking the trail seriously. This is a popular destination, and there is a lot of effort that goes into managing the flow of people on the trail. Registration time slots for permits are also strict, so applicants are expected to be able to be available when their slot is awarded. The PCT Association runs a queue, and applicants are given their own personal time slot on a randomized basis. This means be open-minded and flexible when it comes to the early stages of planning your hike.

While hikers may wish to hike in groups, the Association only grants permits for people traveling solo or in pairs. The PCT is covered in snow for much of the year, meaning there are absolutely ideal windows for planning your permit. For many, this means starting to plan during the summer prior to their arrival, and then applying for a permit in the fall of that same year, if they are to be starting the hike in the spring.

Each year, thousands attempt the hike. On average, less than 20% finish the full trail. Some choose to do the hike in segments, and plan to return at a later date to take on stretches of the trail instead of trying to do it all at once. The first few weeks can be the most challenging, and many have emphasized the notion of taking the trail one day at a time. For many, this means setting realistic goals, and holding themselves accountable to reaching their daily goals for distance walked, while understanding that some days will be more predictable than others.

Where does it go?

There are different ways to take on the PCT. Some choose to start from the north, near the Canadian border, and then work their way south. Others opt to start in sunny Southern California and then make their way up to the Pacific Northwest. For those starting from the south, mid-April to early May is considered the ideal window of time to begin the hike, due to possible snow and precipitation, especially in the Sierra Mountains. 

With an ideal, central location for travelers beginning the first stages of their hike, every year our ITH Adventure Hostel in Little Italy becomes a hub for hikers starting their trek. Over the course of a month, I sat down with nearly a dozen hikers preparing to depart for the PCT and picked their brains about what it means to begin this wild adventure. 

What do people have to say about it?

“A bad day on the trail is better than a good day at work.” – Tim, from Calgary, Canada.

“You only live once!” – Paul, from Syracuse, New York.

“(When doing research) Facebook groups can be toxic, people will troll and there is some fear mongering out there.” – Galileo, from Australia.

“It keeps feeling like it’s not real” – Frieder, from Sweden.

“I don’t plan on not finishing.” – Francesca, from the UK.

“I had to make up my mind on it. I decided to do it, otherwise I’d keep pushing it back.” – Simon, from Switzerland.

“I’m very excited to start it. It’s been a childhood dream of mine.” – Annelena, from Austria.

“Sometimes I feel like I over prepared. But I don’t think anyone feels prepared for this.” – Laura, from Holland.Untitled Design 56

Quirks of the trail: 

There are good eats along the way, such as Mom’s Pie House in Julian, CA (roughly 80 miles out from San Diego). This gem was mentioned by more than one hiker, as Mom’s serves up delicious homemade pies and is located in good proximity to the trail. Paradise Valley Cafe was another restaurant that came up in conversation for hikers already looking forward to a hot meal. Small towns along the trail thrive on tourism. They appreciate the company and support from hikers as much as the hikers appreciate a hot, home-cooked meal.

Trail names are a thing. Trail names are given out by your fellow hikers. Some hikers choose to use names given to them on previous hikes, while others prefer to start fresh with a new name. You can’t choose your own, but you can turn down a name if it is not to your liking. Trail names are easier to remember, and more universal in language, which makes them popular amongst international travelers. 

Galileo is going by Leopard, again. 

With so much information out there, it can be overwhelming. For an enjoyable and informative experience, watch this documentary on the PCT!

Pro Tips:

Mail yourself things along the way. While these items can range, due to your preferences or needs, hikers mainly mentioned shipping themselves personal items, such as contact lenses, extra shoes, and medications. Various stopping points along the way offer hikers the opportunity to purchase food. 

Download or purchase some audiobooks you like or have been meaning to read. Galileo will be listening to To Kill A Mocking Bird on his way up the trail.

Leave the paperbacks at home, and pack a Kindle or tablet for reading along the way.

Prepare by doing some intermediate-to-difficult hikes before you start. While some hikers I spoke with had spent months training, others chose to do hikes that involved overnight and wild camping for shorter stretches.

Most importantly: keep a good mindset! Take it one day at a time.

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Towns and stops that routinely came up as destinations for planned stops: 

  • Julian, CA
  • Idyllwild, CA
  • Big Bear, CA – our hostel at Big Bear Lake is a popular destination for hikers! It’s nestled in the mountains and offers an array of activities!
  • Mount Whitney, CA
  • Warner Springs, CA
  • Lake Isabella, CA
  • Kennedy Meadows, CA

Where to go for more information:

PCT Class of 2023 Facebook Group

YouTube. Check out the various documentaries and vlogs people have made about the PCT.

Reddit. PCT Forums (Tip from Tim: check the sidebars, which include external links with additional information).

Halfwayanywhere.com – A collection of photos and information on the PCT.

Farout. An app with an up-to-date forum, used as a resource with pictures and distances.

Whether you’re planning to take on the Pacific Crest Trail, or considering it, we recommend doing some additional homework, talking to those who have hiked the trail, and practicing by doing a few extended, overnight camps!

With a wonderful, central location in downtown San Diego, visit our Adventure Hostel in Little Italy. You’ll be sure to meet some interesting people, and, depending on when you arrive, you might encounter a few hikers preparing to take on the PCT.

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