On the PCT’s 54th year as a National Scenic Trail

Fifty-four years ago this week, in October of 1968, the National Trails System Act was passed—and granted National Scenic Trail status to the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail. It’s worthwhile to remember the efforts of so many people who made the PCT possible. Below, we’re publishing the introduction to the 2016 Rizzoli book The Pacific Crest Trail: Exploring America’s Wilderness Trail. Written by Mark Larabee and Barney “Scout” Mann, it’s an eloquent statement on why we should never take the trail for granted. The book itself is extraordinary—a must-read for anyone passionate about the PCT.

Introduction: why?

Evening light streaks over Mount Laguna, California, highlighting the contours of the Anza Borrego desert below. Photo by James Parsons.

“This land is your land…”

 We sang the song as children but it forever rings true: this land was made for you and me.

Out in the great landscape of Western America, the Pacific Crest Trail climbs and descends, rambles along, dives into canyons and forests and crosses rugged mountains and arid deserts. Like life the trail ebbs and flows. Why do we go out there? Is it the place? Is it a state of mind? What are we searching for? Are we searching at all?

Out there, along the path from Mexico to Canada, you’re immersed in beauty. It’s a reason to go but you can find that at the seashore. At a backcountry lake around a campfire with a tight group of friends, the day becomes a celebration. But you can make personal connections in the city. Those reasons may fit into your narrative of why you travel the trail. They may not. They may only be part of your reason.

Some would say the answer to the eternal question – “why?” – is simple. For others it’s more complex. Why? It doesn’t really matter. You know why you go. It’s personal.

Being out in nature, walking or riding your horse on the PCT, certainly is a state of mind. It’s special. Iconic. You go out there and lose yourself, and as soon as you do, you find yourself – in that perfect moment – when the clicking clock seems to pause and you forget about the often empty grind that weighs you down and you just breathe.

You live.

Looking out onto a high, forested valley in the Southern Sierra Nevada. Photo by Clinton Hart.

We will talk about the creation of the path in these pages. We’ll focus not on the step-by-step journey, but on the many people who have contributed to the grand idea to make and champion the great PCT. This book is largely about them, their struggle, past and ongoing. Through their stories you’ll discover why what they’ve done is important and why their legacy matters. It’s our history and the history of a great trail.

But for now, for a brief moment, think about being there, experiencing it. It’s in that context that their contributions matter most.

There’s something truly liberating about carrying everything you need to survive in a backpack or a saddlebag. Spending days this way strips away so much. The sweat and dust cling to your legs, the funk embeds itself in your clothing and yet, you feel cleansed. All of life is consolidated to the basics.

You wander. You meander. Minutes are meaningless. You marvel at a tiny flower squeezing existence from desert sand. You stop to enjoy the beauty of moss-covered rocks next to a bubbling stream and understand why a Japanese gardener continues to strive for perfection that will never come. You stand at the base of a tall conifer and look up, or stare at the stars in the night sky. And you feel small, even insignificant, while at the same time, perfectly at peace.

The view coming north over Forester Pass after waiting out a storm, just in time for sunset over King’s Canyon. Photo by James Townsend.

The longer you stay out there, the more at home you feel, the more yourself you become. Perhaps because it’s temporary, it’s more precious. Realities are what they are, even despite our greatest wishes. You can come back. You must. You will.

In the 21st Century, does true adventure remain? Street crossing signs tell us how many seconds are left before the light will change. Animals live in zoos behind bars. You can “run” through the Swiss Alps on a gym treadmill while watching the scenery go by on a glowing screen. But on the PCT, the mere act of walking or riding carries us through a looking glass that is the trail. Anything can happen: a bear appears out of nowhere; a bald eagle glides past within arms reach while you walk a high pass; a waterfall fills the air with roaring din, pulsing endlessly, like blood pumping through your veins.

These experiences and feelings bind us. For those who’ve never set foot on the trail, the possibility is electrifying. Either way, we all share the secret of the Pacific Crest Trail, that sense of wonder. And that explains why it’s here, why so many have added a verse to its grand poem.

Horses resting ten miles north of Muir Pass in the Sierra Nevada. Photo by Ted Weiss.

The Pacific Crest Trail speaks to what is best about the United States. Its story is one of men and women who moved mountains, at least the mountain of bureaucracy. With tenacity and cunning, lots of ink and will and a little luck, Congress and President Lyndon B. Johnson officially designated the PCT as a National Scenic Trail with the signing of the National Trails System Act of 1968.

It was a time of great change and upheaval in America. Stewart Udall, the Secretary of the Interior under presidents John F. Kennedy and Johnson, wrote about the alarm people were feeling over population growth and development, forces with the potential to permanently alter the country’s relationship with the land. Udall supervised the writing of the Trails for America report, precursor to the National Trails System Act. The PCT is part of his legacy.

The Pacific Crest and Appalachian trails were the country’s first two National Scenic Trails. They are forever linked as sister trails. The PCT has nearly always been seen as the younger sibling, perhaps because the AT was so close and therefore more tangible to the folks in Washington D.C. Its progress was certainly further along. No matter. Today, there are 11 National Scenic Trails, part of a nationwide system that offers the best of the best in unique outdoor experiences, scenic beauty and wilderness.

Mount Jefferson, Oregon at sunset. Photo by Jeffrey Larson.

That’s another of the country’s great gifts to the world. The Pacific Crest Trail runs through 48 wilderness areas and six national parks. It is often called the wilderness trail because about half its 2,650 miles runs through Congressionally designated wilderness, land set aside under the powers of the 1964 Wilderness Act.

In the 1930s and 1940s, a relentless groundswell environmental movement pushed those in power to create this wilderness-saving law. Think Sierra Club, National Resources and the Wilderness Society. These organizations were created by people who understood that while setting aside roadless areas and national parks was all well and good, such preservation could just as easily vanish with the stroke of a pen in Washington D.C. In the face of much opposition, they acted. The Wilderness Act created the National Wilderness Preservation System and immediately set aside 9.1 million acres. In the last five decades, Congress has added more than 100 million acres to this amazing land bank.

Morning on the Knife’s Edge in Goat Rocks Wilderness, Washington. Photo by John Meehan.

Early PCT visionaries such as Catherine Montgomery, Clinton C. Clarke, Warren Rogers and many others, pushed the idea of this long trail through California, Oregon and Washington and never let it go, prodding government to be its best self, to go one better than it likely would have on its own. While Clarke is considered the father of the trail, it’s clear he was also the trail’s first volunteer. After diving into the endless stream of letters he wrote, ideas he pitched and maps he sent to the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service in search of a federal commitment to the cause, one could conclude nothing less.

So we dedicate this book to all PCT supporters – anyone who’s given time, attention or money; anyone who has championed the cause by sticking a tool in the earth or picking up a pen; anyone who’s sat through a seemingly endless meeting, pushed back against powered opposition or made countless phone calls; members of Congress who carried the flag or government employees who kept the trail on the front burner; and anyone who’s loaded a horse with supplies, sharpened an old crosscut saw or cooked a bottomless pot of stew for a trail crew.

You are the history of the Pacific Crest Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail Association.

Early morning beauty in Washington, thirty miles south of the Canadian border. Photo by Ted Weiss.

It’s true that most people want to do something in life to leave a mark on the world. And our culture and society seems hell bent on recognizing those who become famous, even for the trivial, while often forgetting about the world’s true champions. Know this: your effort on behalf of the trail is worthy of recognition. You are likely not famous but you have left your mark. You have helped protect one of the best places on Earth, one that helps define who we are and shapes our soul as a country.

The Pacific Crest Trail is, after all, a trail of the people. We can only name a few of the army of contributors in these pages. But their stories are your stories. We celebrate everyone who’s helped along the way. And most of all, we thank you.

If you purchase the book from Amazon Smile, and select the Pacific Crest Trail Association as your charity (via Your Account > Amazon Smile), your purchase will benefit the PCT.

Author: Scott Wilkinson

Scott Wilkinson is the PCTA’s Content Development Director. A former professional musician, Scott has 20+ years of experience in almost every marketing role. Before joining the PCTA he was a marketing/creative director at West Virginia University and the University of Oregon. A serious outdoor addict, Scott is an experienced whitewater paddler, hang glider pilot, flyfisher, mountain biker, and (of course) hiker and backpacker.