Out in the great landscape of western America, the Pacific Crest Trail climbs and descends, rambles along, dives into canyons and forests, and crosses rugged mountains and arid deserts. Like life, the trail ebbs and flows. Why do we go out there? What are we searching for?

The Pacific Crest Trail

A PCT hiker pauses near water in Oregon’s Sky Lakes Wilderness. Photo by Tyson Fisher.

It was nearly 90 years ago that the concept of a “Pacific Crest Trail” traversing the West’s most rugged and challenging landscapes was but the whim of a handful of dreamers and adventurers. However the establishment of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) as one of America’s national scenic treasures was as similar as a thru-hike on it—fraught with challenges and a nagging question of success. Unfortunately, little of the effort that went into the creation of the PCT has been preserved, much less documented—until now, that is. Through exhaustive efforts, writers Mark Larabee and Barney Mann have uncovered some of the PCT’s history in the beautiful new book, The Pacific Crest Trail: Exploring America’s Wilderness Trail.

This book is no lightweight with its oversized format and 336 glossy, full-color pages. Your attention is immediately drawn to the glorious photos illustrating the grandeur of the Pacific Crest Trail’s incredible scenery—certainly an inspiration to lace up your boots and go for a walk. Between the vintage photos and awe-inspiring panoramas, a thoughtful narrative focuses on the pioneers, advocates and organizations who exhaustively, and to some personal detriment, laid the groundwork to establish the PCT and have it recognized and preserved. In addition to the historical accounts, the book also showcases a gallery of the many spectacular wilderness areas the PCT passes through on its 2,659-mile journey across California, Oregon and Washington. Grab a cup of coffee and settle in.

I am beginning to think that a Skyline Trail the full length of the Cascades in Washington and Oregon, joining a similar trail in the Sierras of California, would be a great tourist advertisement. This is a future work but it would be fine to plan upon.

— Fred Creator, Survey Leader, Oregon Skyline Trail, 1920

The sun sets on the PCT as it winds through California’s San Gorgonio Wilderness. Photo by Ryan Weidert.

The Pioneers of the PCT

The main narrative of The Pacific Crest Trail is a revealing and romantic approach to the founding of the PCT. It begins with the stories of a university teacher, an amateur photographer and a YMCA leader. It took several years to get the wheels turning, but building off of existing high crest routes—California’s John Muir Trail, Oregon’s Skyline Trail and Washington’s Cascade Crest Trail—a path was finally mapped to connect the three into a single route. The story progresses with a selection of vignettes that outlines the progression of the PCT’s development and the people driving the effort. Some of these stories come directly from a handful of characters still living who participated in the PCT project. Many others come from the recollections of participants’ children, or their journals and photographs—many of which were saved from the trash heap.

Among the more notable tales are those of Martin Papendick, who may have been the first PCT thru-hiker in 1952; Don and June Mulford, the first couple to thru-ride the PCT on horses in 1959; Erik Rybak, whose 1970 southbound thru-hike brought national media attention to the PCT; and Thomas Winnett, of the newly-minted Wilderness Press, who contested Rybak’s achievement and published the first PCT guidebooks. Some of these are protracted accounts of key figures at significant stages of the trail’s development. Others come up lacking much detail or information—largely due to many of these early PCT pioneers having long since passed away—leaving you longing for just a little bit more.

If hundreds of years from now American boys and girls can camp along the Pacific Crest Trail and bless us for all that we have done to save this great wilderness pathway, all our effort, all our striving, and all our work will have been worth it.

— Daniel Ogden, Dept. of the Interior, 1968

A lone PCT hiker traverses Evolution Valley in California’s Kings Canyon high country. Photo by Tyson Fisher.

The Politics of Hiking

Intertwined within the human history of the PCT is the administrative history of establishing a long-distance hiking route across three states and numerous national forests, parks, public and private lands. The 1968 Wilderness Act and the designation of National Scenic Trail was a significant victory for trail advocates, but even then the PCT wasn’t out of the woods. Here, the narrative begins to lose some of its charm as it dives into the weeds of the trail’s administrative challenges. Despite the seemingly constant sparring of club and board leaders over matters of funding, leadership and promotion, the period continued to see an increase of PCT hikers—and the need to rally a host of stewards to help maintain the trail.

Here is where the story picks up again with a reverential assemblage of significant PCT volunteers and individuals. The most notable and heartwarming is that of Alice Krueper, who developed a passion for maintaining the trail after her own section-hike in 1992, and who continued to volunteer through her last living years; Pete Fish and the notorious Trail Gorillas, a group of die-hard trail volunteers who dedicate their summers to maintaining more than 700 miles of the PCT in Southern California; and Doris Peddy, Ben  York, Paul Cardinet and a multitude of others, each of whom has contributed—and who continue to contribute—to the PCT’s enduring legacy.

It’s really important to the health of the country and the world. We create these trails where people can get out and walk. That’s special.

— Paul Cardinet, PCTA Can Do Crew Leader, 2016

Fiery alpenglow illuminates North Sister in Oregon’s Three Sisters Wilderness. Photo by Tyson Fisher.

The Wilderness Trail

Of course, where The Pacific Crest Trail really shines is in the glorious images of the trail and the majestic mountains, deserts and forests it passes through. The book’s latter half—nearly 150 pages—presents each of the 48 wilderness areas along the Pacific Crest Trail route. This your armchair hike. And if you can tear your gaze from each eye-popping image, you will find that each wilderness section is presented with a brief summary of the area, including notable geographic elements, historical factoids and—of course—how many miles of PCT traverse the region.

It begins in Southern California’s dusty Hauser and San Gorgonio wilderness areas, where wildflowers and cactus adorn rolling, rocky hills. Not long after, you’re presented with the jaw-dropping scenery of the John Muir, Ansel Adams and Yosemite wilderness areas. This is the scenery of wild dreams and high adventure, and the main draw for many a PCT section- and thru-hiker. The scenery then turns rich and green in Oregon’s Sky Lakes Wilderness, followed by traverses alongside glacier-capped volcanoes in the Three Sisters, Mount Jefferson and Mount Hood wilderness areas. The final stretch through Washington crosses knife-edge ridges in the spectacular Goat Rocks Wilderness, then culminates in the stunning Stephen Mather wilderness areas, where high, rugged ridges divide vast glacial valleys. Magnificent!

The Pacific Crest Trail is the collective sum of many parts: beauty, preserving wilderness, and communing with nature … And it’s about searching deep within ourselves to find strength and determination.

The Pacific Crest Trail

Sunset on Banner Peak from the JMT, a popular parallel alternate on the PCT. Photo by Eric Valentine.
The PCT winds through the Brown Mountain lava beds en route to Mount McLoughlin. Photo by Deems Burton.
A misty morning on Upper Rae Lake in the Sequoia-Kings Canyon Wilderness. Photo by Ryan Weidert.

 The Inspiration to Explore

If you’re looking for motivation to get outdoors and discover the grandeur of America’s wild wilderness, you need look no further than The Pacific Crest Trail: Exploring America’s Wilderness Trail. There is enough scenic eye candy to get you reaching for your trail maps and trekking poles, and enough inspiring examples of dedicated individuals rising up in support of wild places and adventure to light a fire under your own feet. The only arena where this opus falls short in in the engineering and construction of the trail itself, which will leave you longing for more in the realm of “How did they …”—but that leaves room for Volume 2. One thing is for certain, after reading The Pacific Crest Trail, you will see the trail in entirely new eyes on your next exploration into American’s Wilderness.

Photos are courtesy of the Pacific Crest Trail Association and Rizzoli New York. For more information on the PCT, visit pcta.org.

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