Fire and Ice: The Pacific Crest Trail in the Era of Climate Change

“Last year was the most challenging year we’ve had in terms of dealing with closures on the PCT,” said Beth Boyst, who for the last 11 years has been the trail’s chief administrator with the U.S. Forest Service (the PCT passes through all different designations of federal and state land, but USFS holds the lead oversight role). Boyst’s tenure has seen the PCT through some tenuous conditions. She watched California’s five-year drought take its toll on the trail, only to be mitigated by last year’s near-record snowfall that made hiking the Sierra Nevada mountains—even in midsummer—a dubious proposition.

The PCT, “America’s Wilderness Trail,” runs from the Mexican border to Canada, traversing some of the West’s most iconic places: the Mojave Desert, the Sierra, the Cascades. That it even exists is a symbolic statement about the country’s priorities—a single pathway from the southern border to the northern border of the United States, the vast majority of it on public land.

As it traces its way through six national parks, 25 national forest units, and 48 federal wilderness areas, it weaves a narrative of changing ecosystems and the monumental effort required to set aside and protect each one. It’s not just the snow-capped peaks that make the PCT iconic. It’s the long stretches in the arid Southern California desert, the thick, sunlight-blocking forests in the Pacific Northwest, the fact that they’re all part of the same trail and open to the public.

Every year, a few hundred thru-hikers walk the trail’s entire 2,650-mile length, but the number of people who simply set foot on some part of it each year is closer to a million. For thru-hikers, desert conditions in the south and heavy snowfall at high elevations mean their five-month hike must take place in a short window, generally between April and September.

Even more so than its East Coast sibling, the Appalachian Trail, the PCT is uniquely susceptible to the effects of climate change. “The West has been the center of the warming, and the warming in the West has been greater than it has been in the East,” said Hugh Safford, a regional ecologist with the Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest office. “Water stress is a much bigger issue in the West.”

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