Botanical Tales of the Pacific Crest Trail: The Making of a “Super-Naturalist”

by Matt Berger

Over two PCT thru-hikes I took tens of thousands of plant photos, figured out each plants’ identity, and uploaded these observations to citizen science websites. Getting to this point was a process that I took one step a time. Now, I’m ready to share what I’ve learned with others who walk in these same steps along the PCT and are wondering what all the plants are along the way – the tall and the small, the showy and the “wallflowers,” the commonplace and the rare. Let me share a bit with you about how I got here…

My Trailhead

A love for hiking and the natural world has always been a part of me. My first long-distance backpacking trip, approaching 100 miles, took place when I was 14 at Philmont Scout Ranch. Carrying a 45-pound pack, despite weighing a whopping 110 pounds, I trekked the Rocky Mountains of New Mexico. It was physically grueling. Between the pain and welcome trailside respites, I began noticing and taking photos of cool and seemingly exotic (as a mid-western Ohioan) plants along the trail. This trek, and the wild places I fell in love with as a 14 year old, was just the beginning of my journey.

14 year old me on my first long distance backpacking trip at Philmont. I’m on the right.

I also had a passion for insects, reptiles, and amphibians that began as far back as I can remember—having collected dozens of field guides to identify these critters. Thanks to my experiences in nature, I naturally turned to collecting and reading wildflower and tree field guides. My passions also shaped me into a collector. Seeds from plants I’d find on weekend Scout trips were brought home and sown in home-made milk jug potters. After a few years of this, a native plant garden—packed with biodiversity—spread across my backyard in garden beds I usurped from my parents. I was officially hooked on botany.

I went to college at West Virginia University in the Appalachian Mountains to study horticulture. One summer, I returned to Philmont as an adult leader for another long-distance backpacking trip with my friend Jon, and this time suffering was replaced with joy. These experiences led Jon to suggest an Appalachian Trail thru-hike when we graduated. With degrees in hand, we started the AT in Maine southbound in late June 2012. Turns out I was to be humbled by the mountains once again.

Try, Try Again

Having done minimal research into long-distance hiking, I carried standard, heavy gear and some nonsense items: a machete, fishing pole, and a sling shot. After four days, my right Achilles tendon began to tear and I had to get off trail in the Hundred Mile Wilderness. This hard lesson led me to drop 20 lbs from my pack whence I returned to the trail and met up with Jon. After that, the trail was fantastic. With the pain of hiking gone, the experience became about nature, friends, and living simply.

Claytonia serpenticola

At this point my hiking experience also became research oriented. When I arrived in towns, and cell service allowed, I would spend dedicated time identifying the plants and fungi I had photographed along the hike. When we finished the trail in early December, I found a job near the southern-terminus, growing plants in North Carolina—putting my horticulture degree to use!

Diverse habitat – Ridge on Mt. Baden Powell.

After a year of growing plants in the greenhouses, while dreaming non-stop about the Appalachian Trail and thru-hiking, I realized I was more interested in plants in their natural environment than I was in growing them. What better way to see thousands of plant species, in habitat, than a thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail?

A New Direction

I saved up money and in April of 2014, started my first of two thru-hikes of the PCT. I hadn’t hiked out west much, so virtually all the plants were new. Thus, began my photographic obsession with the PCT—I strove to document every unique species I saw the entire hike—and look them up in town or after the hike. This was a monumental goal. I took literally thousands of photos of plants I would not identify until years later. On top of the cool plants, I had the time of my life. Astonishing views were complimented by the diverse habitats I walked through. Botany and thru-hiking had become an obsession.

Modern technology, particularly georeferenced photos (photos with the exact location saved), allows for new and exciting approaches to understanding the natural world—like citizen science. Citizen science is participation by the general public in scientific undertakings (such as observations) and research (uploading observations to databases). Photos of the natural world taken on smart phones can be upload to websites like Calflora (plants in California) or iNaturalist (all living things anywhere on Earth). With photos ready to upload, it is also important to enter other data about the observations: how many you saw, phenology, habitat, etc. This data is then available to other users and scientists who use it to improve range maps, confirm new occurrences of something rare, or track the spread of invasive species!

Triteleia piutensis

In 2019 when I returned to hike the PCT again, I felt far more prepared because I knew so much more about the plants I was seeing and looking for. I took tens of thousands of photos and I uploaded every species I saw to citizen science sites. What is most exciting is finding range extensions for rare species. These help scientists gain a better understanding of species’ distributions and habitat preferences.

From Trail to Science

One of my coolest range extensions came with the documentation of Piute mountains triteleia (Triteleia piutensis) in 2014 and again in 2019. This rare plant was first described to science in 2014, exactly one month before I saw the plant on my first PCT hike! I lacked photographic georeferencing abilities in 2014, but in 2019 I recorded the plant in 3 different locations along the PCT, all of which were new, previously unknown occurrences.

Collomia mazama

Another plant that surprised me, and one that I wasn’t even aware of, was Collomia mazama. This beautiful blue wildflower is only known from the Crater Lake area, and I found two new populations of this species growing right along the trail! Also observed were new occurrences of the recently described Claytonia serpenticola, which grows trailside in the Klamath Mountains. It may be more common than presently known due to its similarity to the common Claytonia lanceolata. Populations of these and other rare plants are protected by law, so these days, something as simple as a photo of a cool plant can have real-world importance in protecting biodiversity!

Matt, with friends, in Goat Rocks Wilderness, Washington.

I encourage you to look closer on your next hike and you may very well find a rare plant growing along the trail! For me, I wake before a day of hiking full of anticipation about what I’ll see growing along the trail. Even on the toughest climbs I encourage you to always be curious and observe what you are walking by.

Sharing Botanical Tales

Starting on February 16th, and for a total of five consecutive Tuesday evenings, I will be sharing the tales of plants along the Pacific Crest Trail via a 5-part Webinar series hosted by Backcountry Press.

Each of these sessions will showcase both the common and the rare plants found along trail. I’ve broken the length of the PCT up into five sections, and you are welcome to join for any or all of them:

2/16: Southern California Mountains and Desert

2/23: The Sierra Nevada of central California

3/2: The Cascades and Klamath Mountains of northern California

3/9: Oregon’s Cascades

3/16: Washington’s Cascades

I hope you can join me! Each session will be recorded in case you can’t make the live broadcast or would like to watch again. Pre-registration is required HERE.