There are a lot of rocks on the Pacific Crest Trail

Newly built check step in the Sky Lakes Wilderness, Oregon. Photo by Ian Nelson.

By Hannah Levy, ACE Corps Crew member

“I know it’s a rock. Don’t you think I know a rock when I see a rock? I spend a lot of time around rocks!”

— Flik, from “A Bug’s Life”

That’s how it felt, working on the PCT. Let me paint you a picture: 7 a.m. rolls around, we hike to our worksite and have our stretch and safety circle. Then we start our day. We look for rocks, stare at rocks, dig out rocks, roll rocks, stare again, measure rocks, move rocks, set rocks, and then somehow, it’s time to tool up. We spend a lot of time around rocks.

From August to early September, our crew from the American Conservation Experience spent 16 days working on the PCT in the Sky Lakes Wilderness, just north of Devil’s Peak, Oregon. We rehabilitated a section of trail that had been badly eroded over the years. In steep sections, water had been flowing rapidly directly down the trail, cupping and filling the tread with loose rocks. Our solution: check steps. Essentially dams in the tread, these flat rocks lessen the grade and prevent soil from being carried down the trail with running water. To build one, you need a big rock to act as a keystone, a rock or two as the step, then another big rock pinning the step into place, ideally keeping it stable enough to last decades. So, three to four rocks per step. A lot of rocks.

Stretch and safety with a view of Devil’s Peak. Photo by Hannah Levy.

We didn’t stop there. Check steps are great and all, but it would be better if water wasn’t even running down the trail in the first place. As long as water is running down the trail you run the risk of erosion. So we built other features like grade reversals and water bars with riprap trays to divert water off the trail and into drains.

Back at base camp, our highest priority project was getting better at hacky sack. For those unfamiliar, hacky sack is surprisingly difficult. On the other hand, we discovered that we are very good at trail ball. Other than that, we spent our free time washing off in nearby Cliff Lake or hiking up the peak for gorgeous panoramic views.

Who wouldn’t want to hike up here after work? Photo by Hannah Levy.

Unfortunately, our time on the PCT ended abruptly when a fire started nearby causing us to evacuate our worksite and campsite a day earlier than expected. We all kept our calm and got out quickly, but it was quite the dramatic end to a successful project.

One of the aspects of working on the PCT that I found most rewarding was how appreciative hikers are. Before this project I had only ever worked on new trails as they were being constructed, before they were open to the public. Never before had I been passed by a hiker who profusely thanked me for my work. I could actually see people walking on the structures we just built.

I’m confident that we extended the life of the trail so more and more people can stomp for years to come on the rocks we set.


Find your own rocks! Get involved in trail maintenance by filling out the PCTA’s volunteer application and visit the online schedule to find upcoming opportunities.

Crew showing off the steps we built. Photo by Hannah Levy.