Trail Skills Colleges Provide Expert Training and New Friendships

Volunteers at the PCTA’s Columbia-Cascades Trail Skills College learn from highly experienced instructors about what makes a trail sustainable. Photo by PCTA.

So—you’ve found our website, located our blog…but what you’d really like to do is get out on the trail and swing some tools! Move huge piles of dirt, develop your “trail eyes”, build a log bridge or a stone staircase, and make a bunch of amazing new friendsall while contributing to the national treasure that is the Pacific Crest Trail—how does that sound?

You might be a thru-hiker, wanting to return to the trail in a new way after completing your adventure. Or perhaps you live near the trail and aspire to contribute as a steward of our public lands. Maybe you have a close friend or family member who has hiked the trail, and you’d like to share in their experience and provide support in a tangible, lasting way. Whatever the case may be, there’s a chance you’ve clicked on the “Volunteer” section of our website and wondered whether you feel prepared to get involved in our trail maintenance program.

Great news: Everyone is welcome! Regardless of your background in trail work, physical ability, hiking experience, or any other notion of preparedness, we have opportunities for you to get involved. Often this might be as simple as just signing up for a project—most of our volunteer work parties have zero prerequisites—you can learn while doing it. And if you’re someone who benefits from a more structured learning environment, we’ve got just the thing: Trail Skills College.

Tahoe Trail Skills College participants in a crosscut saw course. Photo by PCTA.

“I loved getting to talk with different people during various breaks and activities in my training day. I learned so much from the hikes to and from the project site with my leader and assistant leader, and got to network during the day.” —Trail Skills College attendee

 Each year, the Pacific Crest Trail Association hosts a series of free weekend events as part of our Trail Skills College program. Typically hosting between 50 and 150 participants, these weekends bring PCT community members together. Both seasoned trail workers and those new to the world of trail maintenance will find the opportunity to develop new skills—including dry stone masonry, a range of sawyer certifications, wilderness first aid, and more. We often provide food for the entire event, bring in experts to give evening presentations, and allow ample time for socializing and making connections with other members of the PCT family.

More than just a training ground, Trail Skills College stands as a testament to the importance of stewardship, camaraderie, and adaptability in the world of trail maintenance.

Volunteers at the North Cascades Trail Skills College construct a turnpike—a raised section of trail tread in a wet area. Photo by PCTA.

“The instructor was awesome. She was so interested in finding out what we wanted to learn and so willing to answer all of our questions. I really appreciated her eagerness to share her knowledge with us.” —Trail Skills College attendee

 In July of 2023 we hosted events in both the North Cascades and Northern Sierra regions. Often, we try to squeeze in training sessions before the start of the field season, but in these regions we had to wait until enough snow had melted to allow us access to high-elevation trailheads.

“The camping area was a spectacular setting and the obviously well-organized event made it easy to relax and socialize with like-minded trail crew members.” —Trail Skills College attendee

 Both events offered an Intro to Trail Maintenance course for newcomers. In this class, instructors take small groups of students out to a section of trail in need of annual maintenance and spend two days demystifying the process (and the trail jargon that comes with it). New students are always amazed to see what an immediate impact they can have on the trail.

Columbia Cascades Regional Representative Jeanine Russell visited the North Cascades event to teach a class on Crew Leadership, helping to foster a new generation of volunteer crew leaders. And in the Northern Sierra, Regional Trail Stewardship Coordinator Matt Rump taught an advanced class on constructing rock retaining walls—teaching participants how to move 500-pound boulders down a steep scree slope. If that sounds scary (it can look scary too!), please know that Matt has been quarrying rocks for years—and as with any PCTA project, safety is always our number one priority.

Volunteer students at the Columbia-Cascades Trail Skills College gather for briefings before hiking to locations on the trail. Photo by PCTA.

“The trainers were top notch, humble, and very detailed. Probably the best training course I have taken in the past 5 years.” —Trail Skills College attendee

Climate Change Challenges

The increasingly frequent and severe wildfires and extreme weather events fueled by a changing climate pose new challenges to preserving trails. The Pacific Crest Trail Association, including our Trail Skills College program, have adapted to this changing landscape by recruiting and training volunteers and equipping them to tackle these challenges head-on.

“The level of instruction surpassed my expectations. I appreciate the personal attention from the instructors and their motivation to see me succeed and do a good job.” —Trail Skills College attendee

 By understanding the intricacies of trail maintenance and management in the face of evolving climatic conditions, Trail Skills College participants play a crucial role in safeguarding these pathways for generations to come.

A volunteer uses a PCTA-developed scouting app to record trail damage. Photo by PCTA.

Bouncing Back from the Pandemic

In the wake of the pandemic, the Trail Skills College program has demonstrated remarkable resilience. Despite setbacks and uncertainties, the trail community bounced back with renewed enthusiasm, and participation numbers have rebounded—reflecting the commitment of individuals who refused to let a global crisis extinguish their passion for the trail.

“I loved picking the brains of people who are knowledgeable about the forest, trails and wilderness and being outdoors with them. I value their knowledge very much.” —Trail Skills College attendee

PCTA staff members at a Trail Skills College gear raffle. Photo by PCTA.

 Since its inception, Trail Skills College has evolved into a series of transformative events that leave lasting impacts. From interactive workshops to hands-on trail restoration, these events provide a diverse learning experience. Over the years, the program has welcomed countless students and participants, fostering a vibrant community dedicated to the preservation of the Pacific Crest Trail.

“We ended up on a perfect section of trail for this course so we were able to get experience with a variety of tasks (moving and crushing rock, upgrading waterbars) and feel proud of our group’s work.” —Trail Skills College attendee

 One of the most heartening aspects of Trail Skills College is its commitment to inclusivity. Students of all ages and experience levels, hailing from myriad backgrounds and corners of the world, come together with a shared passion. This diversity enriches the learning environment, fostering a cross-pollination of ideas and approaches that empower participants to become well-rounded trail builders, crew leaders, stewards, and supporters of the trail.

Perhaps one of the more gratifying sights for me is witnessing our “graduates” in action on the Pacific Crest Trail throughout the year. These dedicated individuals, armed with newfound skills and a heightened sense of responsibility, provide a massive contribution to the trail’s deferred maintenance. This full-circle journey from student to contributor epitomizes the program’s success in creating an enduring legacy of trail stewards.

“I loved seeing how a giant rock could be moved through the forest, and also that it required teamwork. I really want to do more work with giant rocks!” —Trail Skills College attendee

 As the Volunteer Training Coordinator, it’s been an honor to help facilitate these experiences over the past couple of years: from trail-building breakthroughs to inspiring stories of personal growth, this work has underscored the program’s profound impact on both individuals and the trail itself. Hope to see you out there soon!

Next up is the Southern California Trail Skills College in Angeles National Forest, on October 21-22. Click here to learn more and register!  

Author: Landon Welsh

Landon Coates Welsh is a PCTA Technical Advisor. He spent the last two years working on the PCT leading an American Conservation Experience Corps crew. Landon is an avid traveler and spent last winter in Ladakh, India, helping construct artificial glaciers to combat the effects of climate change in the region. He enjoys playing guitar, exploring the local music scene and, of course, backpacking.