Rerouting life on the Pacific Crest Trail

Wildflower blooms frame Mount Shasta from the Castle Crags Wilderness. All photos by Johnny Wilke.

By Johnny Wilke, ACE Corps Crew member

As I sit in ACE’s Ridgecrest, California housing on a September day where the air quality is “unhealthy” again, I stare through smog at China Lake Naval Weapons Station and reminisce about my first project on ACE’s PCT crew.

In June, I returned to conservation work after trying horticulture in Washington. It was not my passion as it turns out, and I spent many months on an indoor farm mentally reliving my past adventures with the American Conservation Experience trail crews. This culminated in a desperate 3 a.m. application to ACE’s 2020 PCT crew, which led me back into the forests and mountains I had missed so much.

By mid-June, our crew was heading to Northern California’s Castle Crags Wilderness to work on our first section of trail. We had completed all of our trainings on dry stone masonry, sawing, trail maintenance and safety. I had consumed tons of media about the PCT thru-hiking lifestyle. We had viewed pictures of Castle Crags and Mount Shasta, imagining the adventures we were about to have. We climbed Mount Tallac near Lake Tahoe in preparation. At 5:55 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, our van was NoBo (northbound).

U.S. Forest Service and PCTA staff greeted us at Castle Crags. We set up at a private campsite near a stream in a grove of incense cedar for the first night of front-country camping. I kept my rainfly off that night and stared at the constellations, glad to be back.

Our off-trail hike to our backcountry campsite was the most memorable part of the project. Our destination was a burnt patch of pines near the base of the granite crags, and we needed to crest a large gently sloping hill to get there. Upon reaching this gentle summit, we were met with a view that hasn’t been rivalled since.

The ACE crew climbs high into Castle Crags.

To our north, Mount Shasta commanded immediate attention with her reflective glacial armoring. You can see large-scale volcanic remnants all around the mountain: cinder cones, shield domes and other markers of a long-gone igneous hellscape. Even Oregon’s own Mount McLoughlin, a dormant volcano, was saying hello from behind Earth’s horizon.

To our east, the Castle Crags loomed with oblong spires jutting skyward in unnatural ways. It was hard looking past this superstructure, but Lassen Peak was waiting there for those who could. We were surrounded by hills, trees and lakes whose scale is hard to comprehend from anywhere but the top of a mountain. We could see Castle Lake, where we’d go swimming in a few days.

Our first few days of work involved a lot of learning, both about trail work and each other. Our crew formed backcountry bonds, which tend to happen when sharing the same privy for eight days. By the end of the “hitch” (project), we couldn’t stop regurgitating the same stupid inside jokes.

The work was mostly routine brushing. This cyclical activity must happen every few years because those plants just love the California sun and they don’t care where your trail stands. I used loppers and a hand saw to cut back this hydra-headed chinquapin bush. I could even see lopping marks from crews of years past. It really made me appreciate the importance of regular maintenance.

A clean tread is a happy tread.

I also got to work on a small tread project. For about a 50-foot stretch, the PCT was dangerously sloped toward a cliff’s edge. This tends to happen when water doesn’t drain properly or when hikers don’t walk where they should. We used picks and shovels to bring the trail back into specification, slowly shaving down the dirt until the “outslope” was safe (not to mention it being visually pleasing). The lessons I picked up at Castle Crags stuck with me into my next few hitches at the Sierra Buttes, north of Lake Tahoe, where we rerouted the PCT for considerable stretches. (Part of a multi-year collaborative project.)

The last lesson I learned in terms of trailwork was bucking felled trees. Basically, how to cut the limbs from a fallen tree, then cut the log into smaller rounds that can be cleared from the trail. There was a downed tree blocking an otherwise immaculate section of trail, and our crew leader and PCTA liaison saw it as an excellent teaching opportunity. We built off our earlier saw training and each crew member took part in cutting and removing the log. We were guided in how to assess it, cut it and roll it off the trail. It turned out to be a lot more involved than just chopping and pushing it. There is a lot of physics and energy at play, and safety is the top priority.

I can’t mention safety without talking about close calls. I encountered several dangerous examples of wildlife in just these eight days in the Sierra Buttes. Scorpions hid under random rocks. Red ants raided the campsite. Our PCTA Trail Crew Technical Advisor ran into a momma bear with two cubs. I encountered two rattlesnakes waiting for me in the middle of the trail on separate occasions. Each of these meetings were awe-inspiring yet reality checking. I had a discussion with my crew lead who said that anyone bit by a rattlesnake would have a helicopter ride in their future. It helped knowing ACE had protocols in place even for these unlikely yet dangerous scenarios.

The theme of this hitch, for me, was gratitude. I was camping under the stars in immaculate wilderness with seven peers during a global health pandemic. (Learn more about our COVID-19 safety protocols here.) I learned new skills and immediately put them to use, seeing the difference I could make. I was back in nature and working in conservation. Castle Crags will always be my favorite California hitch, partly because of the immense appreciation I had for it at the time.

The author soaks up the world-class view.

It was an affirmation that my life was rerouted—sort of how the PCT often is. I felt a sense of purpose and accomplishment. I was back doing what I loved, basically.

Going forward, I want to keep working in this field. I have aspirations of trail work and land management in national parks. My life has seemed like a puzzle at times, but the Castle Crags jigsaw piece has been a crucial and unforgettable cornerstone for my own happiness. I owe a great thanks to ACE, the PCTA, the Forest Service and all the individual corps members and leaders who helped craft this unforgettable experience for me.


To get involved in trail maintenance, fill out PCTA’s volunteer application and visit the online schedule to find upcoming opportunities. For all-things-ACE, visit