Finding direction through hard work and a conservation ethic

For what feels like the 100th time this season, a team of six tired 20-somethings bushwhack up a near vertical access trail in the San Jacinto mountains, where they spend eight days camped on a ridge at 7,000 feet above sea level. Sweltering in the desert morning heat, they soon get to work, the dirt sticking to their faces as they begin to excavate and rebuild a burned-out section of the Pacific Crest Trail.

An American Conservation Experience (ACE) crew works to reopen the PCT within the Mountain Fire closure in the San Jacinto Mountains, California.

This crew is part of the American Conservation Experience (ACE), a nonprofit that partners with the Pacific Crest Trail Association to provide two corps crews of 18- to 25-year-olds participating in a 900-hour, seven-month AmeriCorps term. During this time they will travel throughout California, tackling much of the more technical work essential to the safe and sustainable operation of the trail. Some members have backgrounds in conservation or forestry, while others simply want an excuse to spend their summer outdoors. It’s safe to say that everyone involved finds fulfillment and meaning during their time, a testament to both the trail and the sweat they put into it.

“I joined ACE as a way to escape city life — hoping to find existential fulfillment or maybe some kind of personal clarity in ‘the great outdoors’. I wanted to change the trajectory of my life in a big way.” —2018 ACE crew member Luisa Levine

It’s not all soul searching though. The work done by these crews can be a tough ask. They’re expected to hike up to 15 miles a day in some cases (on top of the work itself) through rain, snow and truly oppressive heat. They swing axes and sledgehammers until their hands are calloused, haul 400-pound boulders up and down the trail all day, and absorb so much dirt into their bodies they won’t feel truly clean until months after the season has ended. While working on rock projects (staircases, retention walls, and the like) they stare at unwilling wobbly rocks for so long that climbing back down the mountainside might seem like a better option than attempting the headache-inducing geometry in front of them. And at some point during the season, they forget just what it feels like to not be sore all over. But mostly the crews make it through.

ACE crew members repair a retaining wall on a steep slope.

“One morning I got out of my tent and was almost blinded by the most incredible sunrise I’d ever seen. All the dew and spiderwebs and leaves on the bushes and mountains below us were illuminated and glowing bright orange, and I realized, this is what I’m here for! Maybe it wasn’t a transcendental experience—I still had to face 10 hours of grueling physical labor—but it was something close.” —Luisa Levine

I, too, began my trails career with ACE as a corps member, and with similar motivations. Tired of the office life, I saw a chance to get my backpacking fix for the year while making enough money to get by (ACE provides a weekly living stipend as well as housing). What I didn’t expect to find was a deep affinity for this way of life — tucked away from civilization in the backcountry swinging tools by day, stargazing at night, and building lasting friendships with some of the strangest folks I’ll ever meet. More importantly, perhaps, is that I found direction: a real discernable passion for wilderness stewardship. One might describe that first season as my own personal trailhead, a beginning to the adventure that has led me to where I am today.

Landon Coates Welsh (far right) and PCTA Northern Sierra representative Connor Swift (far left) get their ACE crew ready for a long day’s work. 

The commitment these citizen stewards make each year is vital to the continued success of not only the PCT, but to public land all over the country. Aside from the PCTA, ACE also partners with national parks, forests, land trusts, cities, and more. These programs provide valuable experience for young people interested in pursuing careers in trails, restoration or outdoor leadership and are the backbone of conservation work nationwide.

If you’d like to work with an ACE crew but are unable to commit to a six-month term or are ineligible for AmeriCorps, don’t worry! PCTA volunteers can sign up to work alongside an ACE crew for up to a week during some projects. Look out for these opportunities next year. Come learn from our ACE crews and to see first-hand just how hard they work!

Interested in ACE? Learn more and apply at

Author: Landon Welsh

Landon Coates Welsh is a PCTA Technical Advisor. He spent the last two years working on the PCT leading an American Conservation Experience Corps crew. Landon is an avid traveler and spent last winter in Ladakh, India, helping construct artificial glaciers to combat the effects of climate change in the region. He enjoys playing guitar, exploring the local music scene and, of course, backpacking.