It is one of North America’s most celebrated outdoor adventures, and this week it will become more celebrated still with the release of Wild, a new film starring Reese Witherspoon.
The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is a long-distance path that runs 2,663 miles (4,286km) along the high ridges of the Sierra and Cascade mountains of California, Oregon and Washington State, and one of the world’s greatwalking holidays. From the Mohave Desert close to the Mexican border, it strikes north through seven national parks and 25 national forests as it navigates some of the most spectacular wilderness in America.
Twenty years ago, in 1995, the writer Cheryl Strayed, an inexperienced hiker battered by marital trauma, heroin addiction and the death of her mother, walked 1,100 miles of the trail in the hope that the experience would provide a physical, emotional and spiritual release from the “sick mire” her life had become.
In 2012 she published a memoir of the walk, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, a journey of self-discovery that became a bestseller on which Wild, with Witherspoon playing the part of Strayed, is based.
Numbers on the trail increased after the book’s publication, and are expected to rise further still in the wake of the film. Walking the entire route takes the best part of six months, but below we outline how to repeat the walks featured in the film, as well as selecting the trail’s finest day hikes and its best shorter sections if you want to combine walking with a longer visit to the West Coast.
Hikes in the film
Although the PCT runs through three states, all but seven of the scenes in Wild were filmed in Oregon – notably Bend, Ashland and Portland – and only two involved locations actually on the trail.
The first, one of the film’s earliest scenes, in which Witherspoon’s character loses her toenails to ill-fitting boots, is the half-day hike that leads to the three-summit peak of Tom, Dick and Harry Mountain. To follow this walk, drive to the Mirror Lake trailhead, off Highway 26, two miles west of Government Camp (50 miles south east of Portland).
You can cheat and take the Upper Bowl chairlift part-way at Mount Hood Skibowl (skibowl.com), a ski area with summer lifts; this leaves a half-mile (1km) hike along the ridge to the 5,066ft (1,544m) main peak.
The film’s second PCT location involves Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park (nps.gov/crla), which contains 33 miles (53km) of the trail: day hikes are possible here from Highway 62, with a diversion to crater rim the obvious highlight.
Other scenic locations in Wild include Eagle Fern Park (clackamas.us/parks/), the setting for the film’s climactic scene; and Paulina Lake Lodge (paulinanlakelodge.com), a 14-cabin retreat at 6,400ft (1,951m) that in the film stands in for Kennedy Meadows, California, where 135 miles into her hike, a despairing Strayed found help from fellow hikers.
Best day hikes
Few hikes on the PCT will disappoint: the challenge on a short trip is choosing the best. East of San Diego, in the Cleveland National Forest (off Highway 8), the standout option is Long Canyon, a 20-mile (32km) loop that follows a fine canyon before climbing for some majestic mountain views.
North from Los Angeles (or west from Las Vegas), try Morris Peak (trailhead on Highway 178), a 9.8-mile (15.8km) round trip and 2,000ft (610m) climb that offers superb high-desert views; other peaks can be added to extend the hike.
Still in California is the walk between Sonora Pass (35 miles east of Pinecrest on CA Highway 108) and Leavitt Lake Pass, a nine-mile (14.5km) section of the PCT that many consider the best day walk on the entire trail. On good days the views extend for 100 miles across the Sierra Nevada. Add the half-mile (1km) scramble up Leavitt Peak (11,570ft/3,527m) if you’re feeling strong.
Best weekend hikes
If you are prepared to camp, there are many two-day hike possibilities (you can often hire equipment locally). Standout options include California’s Mokelumne Wilderness (14.8 miles/23.8km;); Oregon’s Sky Lakes Wilderness, 28.7 miles (46km) across a 6,000ft lake-scattered plateau; and two options in Washington State: the PCT section in Goat Rocks Wilderness (22.5 miles/36km) for sublime views of the Cascade mountains’ volcanic peaks, and the William O Douglas Wilderness, a picturesque 25.6-mile (41km) section of the PCT from White Pass to Chinook Pass; the last is not challenging, and good for fit families or those new to backpacking.
Longer walking holidays
If you want to make the PCT the focus of your trip, and summon up something of Strayed’s experience, then the best longer sections of the trail include the varied 50-mile (80km) section through California’s San Jacinto Mountains and the 209 miles (336km) in California from Kennedy Meadows to Tuolumne Meadows. Acclimatised and toughened up, you could also detour up Mount Whitney (14,505ft/4,421m), the highest peak in the Lower 48 states.
Part of this section is shared with the John Muir Trail (210 miles/338km), one of North America’s most celebrated long-distance paths; so celebrated, in fact, that there is a quickly filled annual quota to restrict numbers on the trail (recreation.gov).
If you’re in Oregon, the Northern Cascades stretch of the PCT offers nine to 12 days’ superb walking, while in Washington the best week’s hiking is the 59-mile section of the PCT through the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.
When to go
You need to start in April or May to complete the entire trail before the arrival of autumn snow. Summer heat is a consideration in the southern desert sections, as is the possibility of snow lingering on high passes into July; September is the best overall month on most of the trail.
Responsible Travel (01273 823700; responsibletravel.com) offers a tough 21-day small-group hike on the John Muir Trail (from £2,190 per person, camping) plus less strenuous options that involve some stretches of the PCT such as its seven-day California Walking tour (from £1,169 per person) and the seven-day lodge and backpacking North Cascades walk in Oregon (from £2,709 per person, including some meals): the last is suitable for beginners. All prices exclude flights.
Other British operators with hiking holidays on and around the PCT include Exodus (0845 287 2262; exodus.co.uk), Ramblers Worldwide (01707 331133; ramblersholidays.co.uk) and K E Adventures (01768 773966; keadventure.com).
The best source of information on the PCT is the Pacific Crest Trail Association (pcta.org). Much of the trail runs through federal or state parks and forests, most of which have excellent sites, notably the National Park Service (nps.gov) and Department of Agriculture Forest Service (fs.usda.gov/pct/).
The former has links to park maps, but for specific PCT mapping the best resource is The Halfmile Project (pctmap.net), which offers downloadable and printable 1:31,680 scale (1 inch = ½ mile) maps; there is also an iPhone and Android app, Halfmile’s PCT.
Many parts of the trail, and most campsites, require permits. Information can be obtained from the above sites and most permits can be bought online at.
A similar route for cyclists, the Pacific Crest Bicycle Trail (adventurecycling.org) is a 2,500-mile (4,000km) route designed closely parallel to the PCT on roads.
By: Tim Jepson
January 10, 2015