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The long hike. An exhilarating stroll. Take your choice of outings on the astonishing 2,600-mile Pacific Crest Trail.

The long hike. An exhilirating stroll It is a 2,000-mile achievement--a 20th-century trail worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as the 19th-century trails that peopled the West.

Sixty years after the first pass was flagged, the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail is nearly complete. It takes its northernmost steps on the border of Okanogan National Forest, in Washington; its southernmost point lies east of San Diego on the California-Baja border. In between, the PCT surveys the West's handsomest landscapes. Along its route lie 23 national forests, 33 wilderness areas, and 7 national parks.

Much of the PCT's romance derives from the fact that each year 20 or so hardy souls set off on a five-month, border-to-border trek. "Hiking the whole trail is an epic accomplishment," says Louise Marshall of the Pacific Crest Trail Conference. "Ulysses did something like it, and he's been famous for 2,000 years."

But you don't have to be a Homeric hero to enjoy the PCT. It will inspire backpackers who can spare only four or five days, or a weekend--or even one day.

A trail 60 years in the making

In 1932, Pasadenan Clinton Clarke proposed a trail along the summit divides of California, Oregon, and Washington. His proposal suggested building on trails already in existence--Oregon's Skyline Trail and California's John Muir Trail. And it struck a chord among Depressionera Westerners who saw outdoor activity as an antidote to economic jitters.

Clarke found the Pacific Crest Trail Conference and enlisted the YMCA to help plot a route. Work halted during World War II, and did not regain momentum until 1968, when Congress designated the PCT a national scenic trail and the U.S. Forest Service became the main force behind its construction.

Today all but 20 miles of trail is complete: 2,638 miles long, 18 to 30 inches wide, few grades steeper than 10 percent. The last unfinished segment lies in the Tehachapi Mountains north of Los Angeles.

A revived Pacific Crest Trail Conference has begun a volunteer program to maintain the PCT. It also offers advice to long-distance hikers. For details, write or call the conference at 365 W. 29th Ave., Eugene, Ore. 97405; (503) 485-5550.

Six hikes, Cascades to San Gabriels

We can't claim to have hiked the PCT in its entirety, but Sunset editors have sampled substantial portions. The six outings described here give you an idea of the trail's beauty and variety. Four of the routes make good two- or three-day trips. We've also selected two good day-hikes.

For longer trips, and for segments we don't list here, turn to The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California and Volume 2: Oregon and Washington, by Jeffrey P. Schaffer, Ben Schifrin, Thomas Winnett, and Ruby Jenkins (Wilderness Press, Berkeley, 1989 and 1990: $24.95). This excellent two-volume guide leads you mile by mile along the entire route; the maps are especially helpful.

The Forest Service's Portland Regional Office sells five useful maps ($2 each) detailing the PCT route in Oregon and Washington; write to U.S. Forest Service, Box 3623, Portland 97208.

Weather, water. The PCT's higher elevations are subject to severe weather, even in summer. Before you set out, check forecasts and carry gear to help you survive sun, rain, thunder, and--in the Sierra and Cascades--sleet and snow.

Despite the dearth of water along portions of the PCT--especially in California this drought year--water should be available along the stretches listed here unless otherwise noted. Giardia lamblia makes its potability questionable, however; boil water for 5 minutes, or use chemical disinfectants or a filtration system.

1. WASHINGTON: Cutthroat Pass

and Snowy Lakes

Pasayten Wilderness, Okanogan National

Forest; 10 miles round trip

One of the most spectacular stretches of the PCT in Washington begins at 4,855-foot Rainy Pass on North Cascades Highway (State 20), 97 miles east of Burlington and I-5, a 3 1/2-hour drive from Seattle. From the large parking lot north of the highway, the broad trail climbs gently for 5 miles through pine forest, edges a basin loud with waterfalls, and crosses wildflower meadows to 6,300-foot Cutthroat Pass. Here, rank upon rank of glacier-clad summits and stone spires fill the horizons. Here, too, mountain goats frequently amble within camera range.

It's a grand day-hike to the pass, suitable for families. But campsites abound, and a backpack allows time to explore. You can hike 5 miles north from Cutthroat Pass to a 1/2-mile spur to 6,839-foot Snowy Lakes. For more details, write or call Okanogan National Forest, Winthrop Ranger District, Box 579, Winthrop 98862; (509) 996-2266.

2. OREGON: Sky Lakes

Sky Lakes Wilderness, Winema National

Forest; 15 1/4 miles round trip

This remote area sees fewer visitors than closer-to-Portland PCT destinations, but it's close enough to Crater Lake for national park visitors to make a side trip. The 7 1/4-mile hike to Devils Pass brings big views. Or stop after 4 3/4 miles to tour Seven Lakes Basin, a superb sampler of regional topography.

From Fort Klamath on State 62 south of Crater Lake, turn west and go 4 miles on Nicholson Road to Forest Road 33, which becomes 3334; follow it 4 1/2 miles to Sevenmile Trail (5,560 feet). This trail leads 1 3/4 miles to a junction with the PCT; in 2 1/2 miles, Sevenmile Trail departs for Seven Lakes Basin (another 1/2 mile).

The PCT continues to climb for 3 miles, leaving forest for meadows, to 7,320-foot Devils Pass and views south to 9,495-foot Mount McLoughlin and north to Crater Lake's broad plateau. It's a steep 1/2-mile scramble on a spur track to Devils Peak's 7,582-foot summit.

Overnighters can car-camp at the trailhead for Sevenmile Trail; wilderness campsites throughout Sky Lakes Wilderness require no permit. For a map of the wilderness ($2) and for other information, write to, call, or visit Winema National Forest, Butte Falls Ranger District, Box 227, Butte Falls 97522; (503) 865-3581.


Castle Crags day-hike

Castle Crags State Park and Shasta-Trinity

National Forest; 6 miles round trip

This three-hour hike begins in Castle Crags State Park--just off I-5 in the upper Sacramento Valley, 50 miles north of Redding--and leads into the adjoining Castle Crags Wilderness. Its drawbacks are two: there's no safe water along the trail (carry a canteen--or two), and while the state park has a pleasant developed campground, good campsites are in short supply in the adjacent wilderness.

Both conditions make this segment better suited to day-hiking. But what day-hiking! From much of the trail, the spires of Castle Crags rise above you with Phantom of the Opera drama.

From Redding, take I-5 north to Castella. Go west 1/4 mile on Castle Creek Road, then right to park headquarters. The park has 64 campsites, reservable through Mistix at (800) 444-7275. Hike-in campsite 25, set aside for PCT hikers, is available on a first-come basis.

From campsite 25, walk 1 mile on a spur trail-fire road to join the PCT. The PCT heads west from the junction, giving you views of granite crags above. The trail crosses Winton Canyon and Indian creeks, then enters the wilderness, climbing northwest to Sulphur Creek--3 miles from your start and a good stopping point before you head back.

For more details, write or call Castle Crags State Park, Box 80, Castella 96017, (916) 235-2684; or Mount Shasta District Office, Shasta-Trinity National Forest, 204 W. Alma, Mount Shasta 96067, (916) 926-4511.

4. Ebbetts Pass to Asa Lake

Toiyabe National Forest; 13.4 miles

round trip

This PCT segment, off State 4, gives Sierra scenery without the crowds that cluster in Desolation Wilderness to the north or along the John Muir Trail to the south.

From Angels Camp, take State 4 northeast about 65 miles to Ebbetts Pass and trailhead parking on the southeast side of the road. The trail climbs due east on rust-colored volcanic slopes, then descends toward Nobel Canyon and Nobel Creek, which it crosses before switchbacking up to Nobel Lake (4.1 miles). This canyon area offers good camping, but a lot of hikers continue 2.6 miles south to Asa Lake; the lake is probably a bit too popular, with both campers and cattle.

To camp at Asa Lake, you need a Carson-Iceberg Wilderness permit. Heading in from the east, look for a self-registration box at Ebbetts Pass trailhead along the highway; from the west, register at Stanislaus National Forest's district office, State 4, Hathaway Pines; (209) 795-1381. For more details, write to or call Toiyabe National Forest, Carson District Office, 1536 S. Carson St., Carson City, Nev. 89701; (702) 882-2766.

5. Horseshoe Meadow to Chicken

Spring Lake

Inyo National Forest; 11-mile loop

You could feel guilty taking this Eastern Sierra hike, not far south of Mount Whitney. Although elevations are extreme--9,800 to 11,200 feet--the road to the trailhead makes most of the climb for you.

From Lone Pine, take Whitney Portal Road 3 miles west, then turn south on Horseshoe Meadow Road and drive 21 miles. Scored like the mark of Zorro into the mountain's eastern escarpment, the road rises 6,000 feet before ending at the Kern Plateau hiker's staging area in Horseshoe Meadow. Facilities here include a hiker-camper walk-in campground ($3 per night, one-night limit).

From the trailhead, hike west past the Golden Trout Wilderness boundary a short distance to Cottonwood Pass/Trail Pass junction, then hike 2 miles southwest to Trail Pass (10,500 feet) and the PCT. Then head northwest 4 miles to Cottonwood Pass. Mount Langley and other 14,000-foot peaks rise to the north; to the east, your view extends to the Inyo Mountains on the California-Nevada border. From Cottonwood Pass, it's 1/2 mile to Chicken Spring Lake, the best camping option. (Horsemen will find an equestrian campground at Cottonwood Pass.) To return, double back on the PCT to Cottonwood Pass Trail, which runs 3 miles east back to Horseshoe Meadow.

Overnighters will need a Golden Trout Wilderness permit; for a permit and other forest information, write or call Inyo National Forest, Mount Whitney Ranger District, Box 80, Lone Pine 93545; (619) 876-5542.

6. Mount Baden-Powell day-hike

Angeles National Forest; 9 miles round trip

In Southern California, much of the PCT lies within an hour or so of metropolitan Los Angeles and San Diego. One good day trip is the stiff 4 1/2-mile climb up Mount Baden-Powell, in the San Gabriel Mountains. Named for the Boy Scouts' founder, the 9,399-foot peak has long been a required stop for Scouts bagging merit badges. But you don't have to aspire to Eagle-hood to enjoy the views of mountains, desert, and megalopolis.

From I-210 at La Canada Flintridge, take Angeles Crest Highway (State 2) northeast 50 miles to Vincent Gap and the trailhead's parking lot. The trail climbs south, each switchback allowing more ample vistas: west along the crest of the San Gabriels, north to the Mojave Desert, and south--if it's a smog-free day--across the Los Angeles Basin to the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

In 4 1/2 miles, a short spur trail climbs another 1/10 mile to the mountaintop, where a small monument to Lord Baden-Powell squats near an austerely gnarled limber pine--a species found only at the highest reaches of these mountains.

For more details, write or call Angeles National Forest, Valyermo Ranger District, Box 15, 29800 Valyermo Rd., Valyermo 93563; (805) 944-2187.
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Title Annotation:Washington State to South California
Date:May 1, 1991
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