Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail: How Climate Change Has Transformed the Trek

The already grueling 2,600-mile hike now includes the added challenges of global warming, which can mean a lack of shade and exposure to smoke and fire.

In the desert near Agua Dulce, north of Los Angeles, hikers along the Pacific Crest Trail who reached mile marker 502 encountered a cistern of water that smelled bad and tasted worse, with a dead rat floating inside. They got out their filters and refilled their bottles anyway. “Will update if I get sick,” one wrote on a message board to those coming up behind.

The message was just one sign of how global warming is affecting life along the trail, where, during a hot season nearly devoid of rain, water tanks and caches were more important than ever, the last line of defense against dehydration. At least some hikers were willing to take their chances.

Thru-hikers on the P.C.T. spend up to five months walking from Mexico to Canada, through a landscape that ranges from high desert scrub to giant sequoias, basalt craters and alpine meadows. The route changes slightly each year, meaning that the trail’s official length, 2,650 miles, is really only an estimate.

What is a fact, now, is the imprint of climate change, felt along the whole trail in the form of weirder weather, bone dry soil and, most of all, the increasing threat of wildfires. Fire is a hazard that leaves other hazards in its wake: meager shade, disruptions to streams and water sources, “blow down” trees you have to clamber over or walk around, and fine black soot that lingers in the back of hikers’ throats and aggravates open blisters. Fire scars — the blackened expanses a wildfire leaves behind — can take days to walk through.

More than 1,600 miles of the trail run through California. Over the last decade, record after record for high temperatures, droughts and wildfires have been broken in the state. Last year, the Dixie fire, the largest in California history, burned 85 miles of the P.C.T. It was the first fire ever to cross the crest of the Sierra Nevada.

In late July, I intercepted the main burst of northbound thru-hikers — the so-called bubble — on a 40-mile section of trail north of Mount Shasta as it jogs west over rugged granite peaks toward the California-Oregon border.

“It used to be a race against getting to Washington before the snow; now it’s that, and fires,” said Melanie Graham, 32, who started her hike on March 15 to give herself the best chance of finishing before smoke intervened. Hiking near Lassen Volcanic National Park, she’d tried to imagine the vista as it was before the Dixie fire, a sharp volcanic summit wreathed in forest stretching to the horizon. Now, it was an island of green and gray surrounded by something that felt hard to see as forest. “The peak was just gorgeous, but everything in the background was decimated,” she said.

Even without the threat of climate change, any hike so long means planning around the seasons. Traveling from south to north, as roughly 90 percent of hikers do, means trying to get through 700 miles of high desert before triple digit temperatures set in, but not so soon that you enter the Sierra Nevada high country when it’s still buried in snow — and then 1,000 miles later, getting safely out of the North Cascades before the first fall snowstorms.

The trail was originally proposed in 1926 by Catherine Montgomery, an educator and avid hiker from Bellingham, Wash., but it would be nearly 50 years before the P.C.T. emerged as a sanctioned route in 1973, crossing a patchwork of parks, national forests and even a smattering of private land. For decades, thru-hiking remained a fringe pursuit: According to the Pacific Crest Trail Association, it wasn’t until 2000 that more than 100 hikers completed the trail in a given year. That changed with the visibility brought by Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling memoir, “Wild,” which was adapted in 2014 into a film starring Reese Witherspoon.

The trail has developed its own subculture over the years, with an atmosphere somewhere between a spiritual pilgrimage and a single-file summer camp, blending long stretches of solitude with the ambling camaraderie of fellow hikers and “trail angels” who assist with advice and logistics. “Tramilies,” or trail families, hike and camp together. Trail nicknames, like Lemony Snicket — “I experienced a series of unfortunate events on-trail,” Ms. Graham said, explaining hers — replace given names for months at a stretch.

Anyone planning to hike 500 miles or more along the trail generally gets a long-distance permit from the P.C.T.A., with start dates spread across March, April and May, to reduce the impact from too many people camping in one place at one time. Of the several thousand hikers who get a permit, more than two-thirds drop off before they reach Oregon.

So far this year, despite heat waves and paltry snowpack, there has not been a megafire along the trail. That’s unlike in recent years when thru-hikers have confronted a barrage of disruptions, either in the form of smoke and active fires forcing them off the trail, or the closing of trails through past burns to give the ecosystems time to stabilize.

In 2021, the fire season in California started in January and did not let up throughout the summer. Before my trip last month, I spoke with Andrew Carter, 65, who started the trail in April 2021, days after retiring from a career in marketing. Fires forced him off the trail on three occasions, including on Aug. 31, when the U.S. Forest Service made the decision to close national forests across California because of fire risks. (Already, some 6,800 fires had burned through 1.7 million acres.) When the forests reopened two weeks later, Mr. Carter walked through smoke, envious of the fellow hikers who’d had the foresight to don N95 masks. He finally gave up altogether on Sept. 24. “It took me three or four weeks before I stopped coughing,” he said.

Ned Tibbits runs the nonprofit Mountain Education, which teaches hiker safety, and hiked the trail in 1974. He said thru-hikers are facing a dire crossroads, and it starts before they even get to the trailhead.

The end of the start-date period, May, is too late, he said. By that time, Mr. Tibbits said, it’s too hot, “and it’s actually putting hikers at risk.” Either the Forest Service is going to have to accept allowing more people on the trail earlier in the season — before the intense heat and risk of fire make it impossible to get all the way through California — he said, or they’re going to have to actively encourage “flip-flopping,” a term that describes hopscotching from one section of trail to another and walking parts in different directions rather than in a continuous hike. The Forest Service said that it reviews the permit process annually.

On my first morning, I camped by Upper Ruffey Lake and woke at 5:30, but I found it impossible to beat the thru-hikers onto the trail. By this point on their journeys, most have been walking for more than three months, putting in 12-hour days to cover as much as 35 miles at a stretch.

Crossing the High Sierra in June usually means slow going over deep snow, with crampons on your boots and an ice axe in hand. This year, many hikers found neither was necessary and moved quickly through the trail’s toughest sections: There was hardly any snow.

I was hiking into the Russian Wilderness, a remote stretch of craggy granite peaks known for its glacial lakes and 18 species of conifers. By the end of July, it seemed that nearly every plant that could bloom was in bloom, and the trail was smeared with streaks of yellow, orange and purple. There I met Joseph Gregory, 31, dubbed “Oracle” because of his talent for dispensing trail names, who was just emerging from a long climb through the scar of the Whites fire from 2014, a forest remade as an expanse of bare gray trunks and manzanita.

Normally, he said, the forest cover would provide enough shade that it would be more than 20 degrees cooler than in the sun. “The forests will come back, but it’s going to take 100 years to get that shade back,” he said.

It wasn’t hard to appreciate the significance of shade while wearing a 30-pound pack in 90-degree heat. Shade turned a warm breeze into a soothing whisper that changed my mood and made my hair stand on end as it crept beneath my collar, reminding me how sweat cools the body. On this stretch, thru-hikers were only a few days removed from the experience of hiking 140 miles through the scar from last year’s Dixie fire.

Many chose to skip that section of the trail; but for some, hitchhiking around the Dixie fire felt wrong. “Before getting on trail, I just felt like the landscape is changing so much, I want to see it before it’s completely different,” said Thao Sheng, 30, who grew up in Sacramento and hopes to be among the first Hmong people to complete the Pacific Crest Trail. As a Californian, Ms. Sheng said, she was accustomed to summers punctuated by yellow skies and air quality warnings. “I think it’s a very sobering experience. Not hiking it would have felt like I was avoiding something.”

Parts of the West are drier than they’ve been in 1,000 years. Under hot, dry, windy conditions, fires burn to temperatures that can sterilize soil and strip the forest bare. In the aftermath, rain on unstable slopes causes landslides; persistent drought starves the succession of plants and fungal life that might ordinarily follow a fire and aid in the forest’s recovery. To this, add in the effects of a century of fire suppression by the U.S. Forest Service; sparks from electrical lines, power tools, automobiles and even arson; and a profusion of native bark beetles feeding on drought- and fire-stressed trees. The resulting cocktail foretells major shifts in the mosaic of forest, scrub and grassland that covers Western mountains.

Nearly everyone I met counted themselves lucky to be hiking the P.C.T. of 2022 as opposed to the P.C.T. of 2032 or beyond. This spring, a group of climate scientists published a paper in the trail association’s magazine outlining the changes in store for thru-hikers in a warmer future. A generation from now, they found, the average thru-hiker is likely to experience nearly three times as many 90-degree days as they climb through Northern California and Oregon, alongside dwindling snowpack (the source of most water on the trail) and more intense and sporadic rainstorms. “Hikers may have to be more wary, more selective about which year they go,” said Dan Cayan, a meteorologist at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, who co-authored the report.

“In Southern California, I walked through more burnt forests than live forests,” Hannah Perry, an architect and ultramarathoner from British Columbia, told me on trail. She said she’d been taken aback by how starkly drought seemed to be remaking the southern stretches of the trail and told me about hitchhiking with a local to stock up on groceries and having them point out a favorite childhood fishing spot that was now entirely dried up.

Andrew Schrock, 43, a writing and editing coach from Long Beach, Calif., has been hiking the P.C.T. in three-week stretches each summer, covering 500 miles a year. “Being on the trail, you’re worried about so many other things that you don’t generally have time to worry about the future,” he said. “You’re going from place to place like, ‘Where’s the water? Can I sleep here? Can I make food here?’ It’s a very stripped down existence.”

As we spoke, a cool spring rushed out beside our feet from a low stand of alders. The last pockets of snow were visible on a distant cirque. He gestured around us: “We’re on a section of trail where there’s still snow, there’s still running water.” Mr. Schrock had been hiking at night recently to beat the heat, and found the trail crisscrossed by mice, toads and other small creatures.

Beneath our feet, the trail alternated between serrated granite ridges and steep forested slopes strewn with fallen branches and deep beds of needles, twigs and cones. It made me marvel at the quantity of biomass a healthy forest throws off. This is the stuff a more regular succession of fires would clear out.

The night before, I’d scrambled up to find a camping spot beside Bingham Lake, which occupies the bottom of a steep granite bowl at 7,070 feet. Great piles of white granite boulders rise from the lake’s rim to form a giant colander, sending melting snow percolating through shallows teeming with large black rough-skin newts and trout surfacing from the deep for insects. At sunset, the rocks and the lake both turned a vivid gold as two osprey chased each other.

In burned areas, there is a sameness that’s hard to ignore: Dead pines hold on to brown needles, or black trunks stand near holes in the ground where roots burned out of the soil. With each year that passes, the insects and flowers come back, saplings regrow and some of the towering trees that survive a fire regain their luster with new, distinct scars to show. Unquestionably, though, the landscape ahead of us in the West is different from the one we’ve grown used to. The question is how different.

The second half of my hike switchbacked over ridges and across narrow valleys through the scar of 2021’s River Complex fire. I passed scorched tree trunks leaching blood-red sap from their roots, and I stirred deer foraging on the border between the brown world the fire had touched and the green one that had escaped.

Beside a tiny creek where tufts of grass and yellow wildflowers were the only signs of new life, Norman Graham, 61, and no relation to Melanie Graham, sat on a rock filtering water, and gave voice to the melancholy that so many thru-hikers feel, a changing world slipping through their fingers. “I didn’t expect to see this much burn in the Trinity Alps,” he said, gesturing at the stands of black trunks that surrounded us. “This has been on my list forever.”

This was his second attempt at hiking the trail, after smoke intervened last year. This time with 50 miles to go, ash from the McKinney Fire fell from the sky, and the local authorities issued a mandatory evacuation order.

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