Heavy snow year could present challenges for PCT maintenance

This winter’s extreme snowfall in California has everyone talking. While thru-hikers wonder about the closures in Southern California and traveling through the Sierra in high snow, and residents of trail towns scramble to shovel out, PCTA reckons with the impact of a historic winter on the upcoming season of trail maintenance.

snow-covered southern california mountains

Snow blankets the PCT in Southern California. Photo courtesy of Kristin Harger.

Every year, thousands of volunteers work together to maintain the PCT as a safe corridor for travel through some of the most rugged and remote reaches of the West Coast. Along most of the trail the window for volunteer work is quite short and very busy, typically stretching from June through September when the snowpack melts and volunteers are able to get out into the backcountry. The higher elevation and snowier sections tend to have an even shorter window especially with record-breaking snowfall along large stretches of the trail this year, posing a challenge for scheduling projects that require significant resources and coordination with land management agencies.

Not knowing when exactly the trail will be accessible makes it difficult to plan for all of the work that needs to be accomplished. While some maintenance tasks can still be completed even with some lingering snow on the ground, working on the trail tread is nearly impossible.

PCTA volunteers work together to move a rock in the snow

PCTA volunteers work together to move a rock in the snow near South Sister in Oregon in 2021. Photo courtesy of John Wilson

The high snowfall also presents concerns for physical trail itself.

The possible impacts from the heavy snow can include large amounts of erosion, downed trees, landslides. As users begin using the trail this year, we may see increased user impacts from folks walking around muddy/snow patches or by getting off trail by the difficult to navigate terrain. Many locations won’t be possible for trail crew access due to lingering hazards and damaged or closed roads. We’re also starting to see in the most recent atmospheric river event, larger-than-normal amounts of rainfall set to inundate locations,” said Northern Sierra Regional Trail Stewardship Coordinator Matt Rump, who is based in the Lake Tahoe area and has recently spent many hours shoveling snow.

More water also means increased vegetation growth, so this year and the following we’ll see some super brushy sections!

Water cascades across the trail

Snowmelt cascades across the trail in Yosemite. Photo courtesy of Gabriel Pramuk.

Volunteer Training Coordinator Landon Welsh raised additional concerns about recent burn areas and the increased potential for significant damage to areas of the trail where vegetation has not yet regrown and soil is vulnerable to being washed away.

Matt Rump also mentioned that signage and structures including bridges could also be damaged by the weight of the snow, and bridge abutments could be impacted by melt off when the weather warms.

“It’ll be an all-around challenge both to access and repair. We really won’t know the full extent of the damage until we can see the tread surface again, which may not be until very late in the year. Our passionate volunteers will undoubtedly make their best effort during the short and intense season to repair damage sustained by this year’s winter but impacts in the higher elevations may stick around for some time.

Despite all of the challenges, PCTA volunteers are ready to go to work no matter what the rest of the snowy season brings. Trailwork projects and trainings are being added to the schedule and the first Trail Skills College event will take place in the Columbia River Gorge at the end of April. If you are interested in becoming a PCTA volunteer, sign up for a PCTAConnect account or send us an email at [email protected]!

Author: Hazel Platt

Hazel Platt is PCTA's Volunteer Engagement Associate, working to support the PCTA volunteer community and connect prospective volunteers with opportunities to get involved. Hazel is a self-proclaimed nature nerd, and loves long-distance hiking.