Summer may be nearing its end, but that doesn’t mean the Pacific Crest Trail shuts down for the season. With a little extra preparation, fall hiking on the PCT can be just as enjoyable as summer. Along with milder temps and less trail company, fall ushers in a whole different mood in many of Oregon’s wilderness areas. This is when the Green Tunnel turns into a Golden Tunnel. Vine maples turn brilliant orange and yellow, and huckleberry shrubs turn bright red. In addition, your chances of spotting wildlife are improved. Critters that normally hide out through summer days are busy gorging on and storing up food for the winter.
Logistically, there’s not much difference between hiking the PCT in Oregon during summer and fall. If you’re packing along your Ten Essentials, you’re pretty much already set. Cooler temps means perhaps bringing along an extra layer or two. Shorter daylight hours means you might not cover as much distance in a day. But the trade-off can be a quieter, more intimate wilderness experience. Here are five tips to help you plan your own fall PCT hike.
Pack Extra Layers
Fall on the PCT in Oregon is usually a mixed bag weatherize. Days can be sunny, cloudy or rainy, with temps ranging from mild to cold. Overnights in the Cascades can often be near or below freezing. The last few years have experienced Indian summers with warm, sunny days stretching into October. So you’re prepared for whatever the weather has to throw at you, be sure you’re packing along insulating layers for cooler days and cold evenings. Don’t forget your gloves and a beanie. This is also the time of year when you definitely want to have your rain gear handy, as weather in the mountains can change quickly and dramatically. If you’re prepared for a variety of weather conditions—and can roll with it—you can still have an enjoyable experience out there.
Shorter Hiking Days
As summer turns to fall in the Northwest, the amount of daytime sunlight begins declining rapidly. September usually sees about 12 hours of daylight, with sunrises around 7am and sunsets around 7pm. October typically sees daylight reduced to about 10 hours, with sunrises getting progressively later and sunsets progressively earlier. That means less daylight time for hiking. Your two options are to hike faster or hike fewer miles per day. If you’re a moderate hiker, you can still knock out 10- to 12-mile days, which is still just about any leg of the PCT in Oregon (See Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail: Oregon). If you opt for the latter, you can enjoy a casual, comfortable hike. Just remember to bring extra headlamp batteries since you’ll be in the dark longer.
Be Navigation Savvy
The later into fall you hike on the PCT, the more likely you are to experience snow. Oregon’s wilderness areas can take on a beautiful wintery appearance when blanketed in fresh snow, but this is when you need more reliance on your navigation skills when the trail is not easily visible. In forested areas, look for tree blazes (PCT markers, diamond markers or tree notches) and log-outs; in higher exposed areas, look for cairns and posts. Of course, you should also be carrying your map and compass (and know how to read them), or a GPS device, to help keep you on track. If you’re not familiar or comfortable with winter navigation, you may want to turn back when you can no longer see the trail. Packing along a pair of traction devices (e.g., Yaktrax) can also help.
Plan a Fall Menu
You may enjoy easy, no-cook meals on summer trips, but with chilly fall mornings and evenings, good hot meals will help keep your spirits up—and keep you warm from the inside out. If you’re packing along freeze-dried meals, carry a warming cozy to keep the pouches in while they’re steeping so they don’t get cold. Even better, pack along an insulated, wide-mouth bottle (my bottle of choice is the Hydro Flask 32 oz.). You can prepare hot tea or coffee in the morning and keep it hot as you hike, or hot cider in the evenings to keep you warm in camp. You can also prepare simple broth-based soups (e.g. chicken noodle or minestrone) and pack it along to enjoy a hot lunch when you break midday. Just remember to bring a long-handle spoon to get all the goodies at the bottom.
Be Aware of Hunting Season
Fall is hunting season in Oregon, with several regulated hunts throughout the Cascades. One of the big ones that occurs near the Pacific Crest Trail is the High Cascade Buck Hunt. This year, the hunting season is October 1 through November 25 for deer and elk. This hunt is particularly popular in Central Oregon’s wilderness areas (Three Sisters, Mt. Washington, Mt. Jefferson), and you are likely to see camo-bedecked hunters toting scoped rifles. If you’re going to be hiking in these areas during this time, it is advisable to wear bright colors to identify yourself as a hiker. Avoid wandering off-trail, especially if you know hunters are in the area. If you like to hike with your pup, this is the time to keep them on a short leash, or perhaps leave them at home.
With just a little extra preparation, there’s still a good month or two of PCT hiking in Oregon. Check the trail conditions page for updates on weather forecasts and other notices.