Improvements in Southern California aim to protect visitor experiences and the PCT environment

The Pacific Crest Trail is famous for very good reasons. It makes “best hike” lists all the time, in part because it crosses many amazing ecosystems and landscapes, offering visitors the opportunity to see, smell and feel the wild in many ways.

Our wild places remain because we’ve chosen to protect them, volunteered for them, donated and paid taxes to support them. Most importantly, since we’ve protected them, we’ve made sound management decisions along the way to ensure that they remain unspoiled for future generations.

The PCT is becoming more popular. This has been the case for years. The popularity has meant that on certain days in the spring, there have been large crowds beginning thru-hikes. The reality is that a campsite with a large crowd is not ideal. That has to change if we are to protect the trail and surrounding landscape. Plain and simple.

What’s new in 2015

Improvements to the northbound permit system

To help spread people out, the U.S. Forest Service is instituting some changes to the PCT Long-distance Permit process that aim to protect the sensitive desert ecosystems of the southernmost part of the PCT.

For northbound starts, a newly streamlined online application system includes a calendar that will allow permit seekers to see how many people have been issued permits for a given day. We hope that people will use this information to start their hikes during less popular times and locations.

A maximum of 50 permits will be allowed each day for long-distance hikers and horseback riders starting at or near the Mexican border. This limit will naturally spread start days. When days fill up, you’re encouraged to still follow your dreams to hike the PCT – but please do so at less popular times and locations. Consider an alternative thru-hike: perhaps starting elsewhere and then flipping around to complete the trail in a unique way.

Crest Runner Program

Starting this year, two Leave No Trace specialists will provide information about minimizing the impact of travel and camping on the first 100 miles of the PCT from the Mexican border to Warner Springs during peak visitor use times. They will assist with monitoring visitor impacts to campsites, water sources, and riparian areas.

Focus on trail maintenance

For the 2015 season, the Pacific Crest Trail Association will have a renewed focus on trail maintenance in Southern California. A new trail steward program, rolled out in October 2014, will improve monitoring of the PCT in southern California and result in more effective mitigation of trail user impacts. Want to help the PCT? Please sign up to become a trail steward. Additionally, a strong group of corps crew members will continue working in the region, focusing on major projects to build a more sustainable trail.

Southern terminus face lift

The monument at the southern terminus is getting significant restoration this winter and the plan is to recreate it as best we can to be an exact replica, but it’ll be cast with more solid materials so that it will be more resistant to weather.

Why it’s needed

Increasing popularity of the PCT

While long-distance hikers remain a small percentage of overall PCT users, in some sections they are likely the largest user group. More than 15,000 people visited PCTA’s long-distance hiking page in December 2014. That’s up 340% from the year before.

The vast majority of thru-hikers head northbound, starting in the spring. In the past two years, the number of permits issued has been on the rise.

Year Total # of permits issued Thru-Hiker Section-Hiker Completions reported
2013 1879 1042 837 258*
2014 2655 1468 1187 425

*Low number of completions likely due to early season snowfall.

In the past, large numbers of people would start on the same day, and relatively few people started the day before or the day after. In 2014, 113 people asked to begin PCT trips at the southern terminus on April 1. But the day before that, only 8 people wanted to leave the border, and on the day after, 13 wanted to start. An online calendar showing these trends would have allowed users to see that April 1 was probably not the best day to start their journey if they were looking for a little solitude and hoped to travel lightly on the land.

Trail experience and ecosystem concerns

The Pacific Crest Trail passes through a fragile desert ecosystem and continues on through many more sensitive locations. Because of the general scarcity of water, vegetation and organic soils, desert lands at the southern terminus are particularly susceptible to damage and are slow to recover. Traveling lightly, in this case, spreading out and not gathering in very large groups, allows all of us to act on behalf of the places and wildlife that inspire – in deserts and beyond.

Large numbers of people have impacts, even more so when they’re all grouped together. Real, negative impacts are noted. Highlighting three:

  • Improperly disposing of human waste is a problem on the PCT
  • Social campfires in Southern California, where wildland brushfires can start quickly and spread all too close to homes
  • Water source concerns – big gatherings build ever larger campsites at water sources. Plants in rare semi-riparian areas get trampled and have no time to recover. Wildlife that depends on the water becomes even more displaced. Notably, the rare arroyo toad’s breeding season overlaps northbound thru-hiker season. In recent years, some previously closed campgrounds were re-opened during “toad season” for thru-hikers. It’s important that thru-hikers travel lightly so this access remains and frogs can breed.

There are many other reasons to address overuse: protecting the benefits that come with a sense of quiet and solitude and having more reasonable numbers of hikers in small towns at any one time are good examples.

Education is key

Join us in spreading the word about protecting the trail. It’s on us – all of us  –  to protect the Pacific Crest Trail through our actions and our words. The staffs of the U.S. Forest Service and PCTA cannot do it alone. We’ll continue to publish educational materials online, at events, on trailhead signs and in our magazine. Thanks for taking care of the trail.

More information

Author: Jack "Found" Haskel

As the Trail Information Specialist, Jack works to connect people to the PCT. He's involved with a wide variety of projects that help the trail, the trail's users and the community that surrounds the experience. He has thru-hiked (Pacific Crest Trail in 2006; Colorado Trail in 2008; Continental Divide Trail in 2010) and is an obsessed weekend warrior.

Photo by: Kern Ducote