How we re-opened the Pacific Crest Trail above Idyllwild, Calif., 5 years after it was destroyed by wildfire

We’re thrilled to report that the Pacific Crest Trail is open again above Idyllwild, Calif., after years of hard work by the Pacific Crest Trail Association in partnership with the American Conservation Experience and the U.S. Forest Service.

It’s no secret that fires in California are more violent and more complex than ever, displacing more people and destroying more homes every year. The fire season here is no longer a season — instead, it is a nearly year-round occurrence that is to be expected. As most people know, the Pacific Crest Trail is often victim to these events. Being prepared to change your plans at short notice is a necessity on the trail these days.

In July 2013, a piece of electrical equipment near Highway 74 malfunctioned, sparking a wildfire that would last for 16 days and grow to 27,500 acres. The town of Idyllwild was evacuated (though thankfully the fire did not spread quite that far), the city of Palm Springs was blanketed in ash and smoke and 3,500 firefighters were deployed. Luckily, a week later, heavy rainfall slowly brought the fire under control. But the PCT was badly damaged and nearly 25 miles of trail were closed.

Given the scope of the damage and the predicted time it would take to repair, the PCTA and the San Bernardino National Forest decided to split the project into three phases. This allowed the closed section to re-open little by little, letting trail users access more of the trail each season. It was also a practical approach — splitting the work into more manageable chunks that we could tackle piece by piece.

Phase 1 work began in fall 2015. The PCTA and our partners repaired the closed trail between Cedar Spring and Fobes Trail. Here the trail suffered from major drainage issues. The fire burned away the organic material (trees, bushes, and roots), leaving the soil loose and fragile so it easily washed away. In one location the tread had become a gully more than a foot deep from rain running down the hillside and using the trail as a natural pathway. By shifting short segments of trail to sturdier, more sustainable areas and applying good drainage techniques such as check steps and water bars, the crews were able to leave the trail in excellent shape. As of November 2016, the trail was once again open as far as the Fobes Trail — just 4 miles from the highway where hikers and horseback riders could find their way into Idyllwild.

Work on phase 2 began in 2016, but in 2017 the crews really dug in. This section, ending at the Spitler Peak Trail junction, follows the ridgeline of the desert divide, with beautiful views on either side: east toward the desert and Joshua Tree National Park, and west across lush green forests, with views of the ocean on especially clear days. Along with completing work on the PCT, the crews conducted extensive work on the Spitler Peak Trail, an access point that allowed people to detour around the closure by staying on trails and roads en-route to Idyllwild, rather than spending time on the highway.

Clearing this access trail also had the significant benefit of giving our horse packers the ability to bring tools, food, and water into the backcountry so that our crews could camp closer to the work sites. Prior to the Spitler Trail being open, crew members were hiking up to 8 miles each way every day from their camp at Tahquitz Creek. Once again we’d like to express our gratitude to these packers, and specifically to PCTA volunteer Michael Lewis — a constant source of inspiration for all of us working on the trail! Michael has been involved in every pack-in for the Mountain Fire project this year, and even took the time to hike up with us to assess the trail from the perspective of a packer, an incredibly valuable insight.

The final section, from Spitler Trail Junction to Tahquitz Creek, was perhaps the toughest of the three sections to repair. It required dozens of retention walls and rock armor for drainage and eroded backslopes. Many places required complete tread reconstruction where the trail had literally fallen off the side of the steep rocky slope that holds it up.

After working on Phase 3 all spring and feeling confident in reaching our goal of opening the trail in the fall, we were disheartened when Cranston Fire erupted in July. It burned another 13,000 acres that overlapped in some places with the Mountain Fire from five years earlier. Unfortunately for the PCT, this fire not only closed the detour from the Spitler Trail to the PCT, it also burned several sections on the PCT that we had previously repaired and considered to be completed. The fragile earth, followed by rain later in the summer, left us with a lot more work to do this fall than planned. Not to be deterred, our ACE crews buckled down and tackled this additional work along with what they already had planned. The crews’ commitment to getting all of the work done, both Mountain Fire and Cranston Fire work, enabled the Forest Service to amend the Cranston Fire closure so that the PCT is now open for trail users.

Walking through this section in 2016, I was taken aback by how desolate the trail looked in some places. While the vistas are still impressive, thousands of charred spires stretched out in front of me and the earth is black and ashen. If you were to ask me to describe the landscape I saw, “healthy” is not a word I likely would use. But while the fires here caused a lot of damage to the trail, it’s important to remember that fire is also a natural cleansing process. Fire scientists have pointed to the Mountain Fire as a great example of how fires in Southern California should burn. Years of fire suppression efforts had lead to a buildup of dense undergrowth, brush and other fuels. The fires reduced the fuels and the forest should see long-term benefits as a result.

The Forest Service has done an excellent job ensuring that the landscape has had enough time to recover — and it shows today. The skeletons of manzanita bushes are slowly disappearing under fresh growth, California black oaks have returned to once again provide shade from the desert sun and for the most part, the feared poodle-dog bush made a substantial retreat.

However, while conditions have clearly improved, the effects of the fires are still visible and will serve as a reminder of its power to change the landscape for years to come. The work will continue as well. While we’re ecstatic to have the trail open for users, this area is still in the process of recovering and will need annual maintenance for the foreseeable future. PCTA volunteers, like the Southern California Trail Gorillas, are up for the task. Perhaps we’ll see you out there next year!

Many thanks to our friends at REI, the Coachella Valley Hiking Club and the U.S. Forest Service for funding this important work.

Read more about the effort to reopen the trail in the region

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.