Have you seen the movie Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon? Or did you read the best-selling book on which the film is based, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail?
If the answer to both those questions is “no,” here’s a short synopsis: Both tell the story of the soul-searching by Strayed on her 1995 solo hike of 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. That journey started in the Mojave Desert and went through California to her home state of Oregon, ending at the Bridge of the Gods (at the Oregon/Washington border).
After the death of her mother and a divorce, Strayed felt lost. During her 94-day journey on the PCT, the 26-year-old novice hiker and first-time backpacker not only survived, but found her way in life.
According to historyvshollywood.com, the book and movie inspired 1,600 to 3,000 people to take out permits to hike the PCT—about 10 times the number of people who’d attempted the hike before the book and film.
The Pacific Crest Trail runs about 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada, crossing through state and national parks, as well as numerous national forests, so a permit is required to hike on just about any section. If you’re backpacking more than 500 miles, you’ll need a long-distance hiking permit, which will cover you along the entire length of the trail and grant you permission to camp along the route. Only 50 long-distance permits, which are free, are issued each day, on a first-come, first-served basis. You can apply on the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) website.
According to the PCTA, the best time to start the through-hike going northbound is mid-April through early May—but beware! Snow can cover sections of the trail within 200 miles of the border through early summer, and that makes the trail very dangerous in some areas.
Of course, you don’t have to hike for months to enjoy the adventures of the PCT; you can make it a week-long trip, a weekend, or simply a day hike.
Section B—nearly 90 miles, from Warner Springs to Highway 10—passes through the San Jacinto Wilderness area, just above Palm Springs. Beginning north of Highway 74—just a half-mile east of the Highway 371 junction, at the Paradise Valley Café in Garner Valley—a 55-mile stretch of Section B travels along the mountain range and exits north of Cabazon Peak, near Highway 111 and Interstate 10. While training for a half-marathon, a friend and I once did a 13-mile out and back north of Highway 74. I must say, the trail is amazing, and the views are beyond breathtaking. However, the other end of that section, near Snow Creek, is the part of the trail I frequent most.
Once, my hiking buddy and I met a through-hiker from Texas. We all had a snack break together; he really liked the peanut butter pretzel bites we had, so we gave him the entire bag. He was most grateful!
I also like to hike a part of Section C that starts north of Interstate 10. This section travels through the San Gorgonio Wilderness area near Whitewater and goes up through Big Bear, all the way to the Cajon Pass at Interstate 15. The longest trip my hiking buddy and I have taken so far on this part of the trail is an 18-mile out and back, with Whitewater being the turnaround point. That was an eventful day! We came across a desert tortoise and two bighorn sheep. We also met a couple of through-hikers who started their journey at the Mexico border. As we were visiting, along came a “Trail Angel” carrying a backpack cooler with beer to share. The two through-hikers were so thrilled to have a beer on the trail.
In 2019, I attended the presentation “Wild Coachella: The Pacific Crest Trail” at UCR-Palm Desert, where author, hiker and outdoor advocate Barney “Scout” Mann and his wife, Sandy “Frodo” (Scout and Frodo are their trail names), shared a slide show and discussed their experiences while hiking the PCT in 2007. Scout’s latest book, Journeys North, is available at his website or directly from Amazon.
I recently reached out to Barney with a few questions about their PCT journey, and he pointed me to the journal he kept along the way. I was most interested to know what their trail travels were like as they traversed the nearby wilderness and passed through our desert area.
According to the journal, they rolled in to Idyllwild (a major hub for PCT hikers) after day 9. Idyllwild is only 12 “distance” miles from Palm Springs, but almost 50 road miles away. While it was a strenuous scramble up the back side of San Jacinto from Idyllwild, they were rewarded with beautiful views. As Scout describes it, “The morning had us alternating between Mountain King views of Palm Springs on one side of a knife ridge, and on the other, million-dollar Hollywood movie star views over the vast Los Angeles basin stretching to the sea.” He’s not kidding; I have been on this portion of the trail and have seen these views (on a clear day).
Trying to find a campsite in the remote area of Fuller Ridge the previous evening was quite the task, according to Scout. “I know the San Jacintos, and they can be harsh, but I felt this wasn’t what the guidebook or the San Jacintos had in store for us this night. So, one, two, three switchbacks later, it still looked dismal, but then on the next turn, I saw what looked like a second saddle on this ridge, and sure enough, the trail gods smiled—there were two flat, beautiful sites. Four hundred and twenty paces, the difference between a miserable night and the relative comfort of PCT camping.”
As their trail companions settled into one of the two sites, one of them called out, “Is this why they call you Scout?”
The following day featured nearly 24 grueling miles descending the San Jacinto Mountains into windmill country, where the industrial whirring noise is enough to drive you crazy, said Scout. It was a day of dramatic contrasts, Scout said, going 8,700 feet in elevation to 1,600—from a calm alpine forest to roaring 40 mph wind gusts spitting grit in your face.
As they approached the trash-strewn, shaded Interstate 10 underpass, they found Scout’s parents and family friends waiting. They had driven up from Los Angeles with a cooler of sodas, juices, beer and fresh fruit. What a party they all had!
I hope you are getting out and enjoying the trails while the weather is perfect to do so. Please continue to be vigilant and be safe. Always pack appropriate gear, and bring lots of water. Oh, and keep an eye out for our slithering friends and other wildlife that may be out and about on the trails. Happy hiking!