Continuous Travel through the Southern Sierra to Protect the PCT

As world-wide interest in hiking grows, so has the popularity of the Pacific Crest Trail. More people are going to the mountains for a day, a weekend, or a week. Some of us are fortunate to be able to take longer trips.

The Southern Sierra Nevada are one of the West’s most popular mountain ranges and iconic landscapes. People have long traveled through the high country, as John Muir wrote to, “… get their good tidings.” Muir called the Sierra the “Range of Light” and countless people have walked through them and reveled in their spectacular beauty.

Photo by Sarah Reid.

More people are traveling through the Southern Sierra — specifically along the PCT and well-known 211-mile John Muir Trail (JMT) — than ever before. The increasing numbers of weekend backpackers, JMT thru-hikers and PCT long-distance travelers (500 miles or more), are putting the PCT and surrounding landscapes under considerable pressure. Having too many people in the same place at the same time can have negative effects to the environment and the PCT experience we all love.

As addressed initially in PCTA’s Oct. 1 blog post, one of the terms of the 2020 interagency PCT long-distance permit will be that thru-hikers must travel continuously through the Southern Sierra (Kennedy Meadows South, mile 702 to Sonora Pass, mile 1017). Permit holders have 35 days to complete the section. If for any reason hikers are unable to comply with the 35-day completion, they simply need to have a new permit issued by the local national park service or national forest unit.

Should I skip the Sierra and return when there’s less snow?

Know your limitations and abilities. The PCTA encourages people to choose an itinerary that meets their skill, experience and ability levels; we do not urge anyone to travel through areas or in conditions that are beyond their ability. If people are uncomfortable traveling through the Sierra when the trail is covered in snow, we encourage them to not hike or ride through the mountains. Skip ahead or choose a different itinerary from the beginning that doesn’t require snow travel.

PCT long-distance travelers need to take responsibility for their own safety. Choosing an appropriate itinerary is one of the most important decisions a hiker will make. In addition to choosing a realistic itinerary, pay attention to changing weather and conditions on the ground.

If I skip the Sierra, how do I return later in the season?

If someone skips the Sierra, their PCT long-distance permit will remain valid north of Sonora Pass. The PCT long-distance permit allows people to travel through the Southern Sierra as part of a long trip, but it does not allow people to change their trip and return when the area is even more crowded with other hikers.

Skipping the Sierra does not mean people cannot hike the Sierra later in the season. If they would like to skip the Southern Sierra and return later, they will need to obtain a local permit as their long-distance permit will no longer be valid in the Southern Sierra.

Local agency permits are available ahead of time on agency websites. “Walk-up” permits are also available at ranger stations. Walk-up permits are released daily by the Southern Sierra land management agencies. Most people can get a walk-up permit in one or two days; this is a reasonable way to get a local permit.

Sustainably managing and protecting overcrowded areas while providing access

Why doesn’t the PCT long-distance permit allow people to hike the Southern Sierra whenever they want?

The reality is that PCT long-distance hikers often skip the Sierra because of high snowpack levels and return later in the season after the snow melts. But that’s also when the mountains are most popular. All those other folks — weekend backpackers, JMT hikers, etc. — are there as well. That may have been sustainable years ago when there were fewer people trying to thru-hike or traverse the Sierra on the PCT, but with increased trail use the situation has changed. The federal land managers responsible for protecting these fragile ecosystems and trails realized that too many people in the same place at the same time are having a harmful effect on our most special places.

Ultimately, land management agencies are required to manage the lands around the PCT to provide access while still protecting the natural resources and environments along the trail. This direction stems from the 1964 Wilderness Act, which directs Federal land managers to protect and preserve “wilderness character.”  Wilderness lands need to be managed in a way that leave them, untrammeled, undeveloped, natural, and protect them for future generations.

Photo by William Rushin.

“Working collaboratively with the PCTA, we are protecting long-distance travel and managing for wilderness character,” said Yosemite Wilderness Education Coordinator Lissie Kretsch. “As the demand increases for recreation opportunities in the Southern Sierra, it has created complexity that requires collaboration and education across all boundaries.”

With so much demand to hike the PCT and JMT, unlimited use would lead to damage to the landscape that could be irreversible or would take decades to restore. The PCT is special because the areas along the trail are natural and pristine; most of us don’t want to experience areas where the vegetation is dead or dying, see human waste that has not been disposed of properly or stay in crowded campsites that grow larger every year. Distributing use is necessary so that we don’t overwhelm these areas.

It’s great that more people are enjoying the PCT and JMT, but the trail and surrounding corridors need to be protected for generations to come. Working collaboratively, the agencies and the PCTA support these terms of the long-distance permit. It’s up to each and every one of us to do our part to travel responsibly, lighten our footprint and protect the PCT for generations to come.

Author: Justin Kooyman

Justin Kooyman is PCTA’s Associate Director of Trail Operations. He works on trail protection and management projects out of our Northern Sierra regional office in Portola, CA. When not working, Justin can be found exploring the Northern Sierra, especially looking for uncommon birds in Plumas County.