When Carol “Cheer” Coyne set off from the Pacific Crest Trail’s southern terminus on April 14, she did so believing that it was not only the best start date to ensure her hiking partner made it back to school on time in the fall, but also the best departure to hopefully avoid the worst of the Sierra’s unpredictable shoulder season conditions. “We were in that window when most people would have started anyway, so we figured the weather should be pretty good,” she says. “If we would’ve known what we know now, we probably would have changed that date.”
While posted up in Tehachapi, a trail town nestled at the base of the Sierra foothills, Coyne researched conditions in the high peaks ahead. She didn’t have experience hiking or camping in the snow, but learned that she needed to carry an ice axe and crampons if she ventured into the steeper terrain past Kennedy Meadows [ed note: the southern Kennedy Meadows. There is another PCT-adjacent Kennedy Meadows, north of Yosemite in the Emigrant Wilderness, that many thru-hikers use as a refueling stop], a tiny mountain hamlet that serves as a major decision point for northbound PCT hikers.
The organization issued a total of 1,041 long-distance permits in 2013; only five years later, the number had quadrupled.
Coyne departed Kennedy Meadows in early June with a group that included an experienced river guide. While she was nervous about the snow itself, she quickly realized that the real danger was in crossing waterways swollen by snowmelt. When one of her companions fell into a high, fast-moving river, saved only by a rope the group was using as a security measure, the hikers sat down for a long discussion about acceptable risk. It was time to bail on the Sierra.
Not everyone is as lucky as Coyne and her companions. In July 2017, Rika “Strawberry” Morita and Wang “Tree” Chaocui lost their lives in separate incidents while attempting high water crossings along the PCT. Their deaths reverberated through the hiking community, where grief mixed with speculation that perhaps people were taking unnecessary risks in order to complete their thru-hikes without missing a beat.
PCT Trail New Permit Requirements
It was a similar conversation to one that began two years earlier, when the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA), a non-profit organization focused on maintaining and protecting the trail, announced that long-distance permits would be restricted to fifty per day for hikers departing from the southern terminus during peak season, a change made in conjunction with the various agencies who manage use of the lands the trail passes through.
Though some feel that an earlier start means easier travel conditions (including solid snow bridges over waterways) in the Sierra, a long-held belief is that hikers should aim to depart Kennedy Meadows no earlier than mid-June in a year with “average” snowfall. Facebook groups and message boards lit up with commenters who felt that the new permit regulation would effectively force hikers unable to get start dates within the coveted window to either begin too early, which meant burlier conditions in the Sierra, or too late, which could expose them to extreme heat and limited water sources in the desert.
That conversation has resurfaced with the PCTA’s recent announcement of additional changes to its permit system. First, as occurred with the limits on the southern terminus, southbound starts will be restricted to 15 per day between June 15 and July 31, to spread user impact on the trail, especially in the northernmost section, where hikers typically double-back to continue south after first crossing north into Canada. This hasn’t elicited as much commentary as the decision, prompted at the behest of the U.S. Forest Service in an attempt to respect trailhead quotas and better mitigate heavy use during busy summer months, to require continuous travel within the “Southern Sierra,” defined here as the roughly 300 miles of trail between Kennedy Meadows on the southern end and Sonora Pass to the north. This means that while hikers will still be allowed to exit for brief resupply trips and can continue hiking northbound on their existing permit if skipping ahead as Coyne did, they can no longer return to this portion of the PCT later in the season on the same permit.
Once again, there’s concern that hikers will attempt to forge through potentially unsafe conditions in the Sierra to avoid needing to secure an additional permit when “flipping” back down to finish their thru-hike. Coyne, who jumped ahead to Northern California, then returned to the Sierra in early fall to connect her steps, is grateful that she didn’t have to make that call this year. But perhaps the conversations we should be having are not about whether hikers will be able to complete every single mile of their thru-hikes, but about the role of permits in a changing landscape, the importance of self-reliance in the backcountry, and the nature of long-distance hiking itself.
The PCTA issues a free permit for trips that cover 500 or more miles along the trail that allows passage through multiple land managers’ jurisdictions (hikers planning for less mileage will need to secure permits from local land managers). The organization is under no obligation to provide this service; it’s simply a convenience they offer to hikers, who can thus bypass multiple requests to instead secure one permit that rules them all. At the same time, the organization is also bound by the tenets of the National Trails System Act and the Wilderness Act, which means that it must both encourage use and protect the trail resource itself.
Crowds on the PCT
Whether it’s because of what some have dubbed the “Wild Effect,” so named for Cheryl Strayed’s book of the same name (and the film that followed), or as a byproduct of the general surge in participation in outdoor recreation, the PCT has exploded in popularity. According to statistics published by the PCTA, the organization issued a total of 1,041 long-distance permits in 2013; only five years later, the number had quadrupled. When section-hiking permits are included, the number soars to 7,313—and that doesn’t count day hikers and other users, like trekkers on the Nüümü Poyo/John Muir Trail who retrieve their permits directly from land managers.
Justin Kooyman, the PCTA’s Associate Director of Trail Operation, says that before the restriction was enacted, usage varied wildly from day to day—say, two-dozen people at the southern terminus one day, and nearly a hundred the next. Now, it’s rare to have a day that tops the 50-hiker cap. “There’s only going to be more and more use on the trail, which is a great challenge to have, but we really need to think about the protection of the landscape in the long term,” says Kooyman. “When we have big surges in use, that’s often when we see crowding, people’s opportunity to find solitude goes down considerably, [and we see] some of the physical impacts, such as too much human waste in an area and campsite proliferation, as well as campsite expansion. So, from our perspective, the permit is just one of many strategies to reduce those impacts and to spread use a little more evenly along the trail.”
Kooyman says that no hiker should feel pressured to venture forth in conditions they’re not prepared for because they’re worried about obtaining a permit, especially since most trailheads in the area reserve a significant amount for walk-ups, requiring a day or two off-trail at most. “Users really need to take responsibility for their own safety, and picking an itinerary that is realistic for someone’s skill and ability level might be one of the most important decisions that people make along the entire trail,” says Kooyman. “One of the things we want to remind folks of is that the trail is 2,650 miles long. There are innumerable long-distance opportunities across the PCT, and the really popular areas have to be managed to protect those landscapes in the long run.”
Both points resonate with Anne “Kimchi” Hildebrand, secretary of the American Long Distance Hiking Association – West and an accomplished trekker who has completed the PCT among other long routes. While she says that the organization itself certainly supports any regulations that help protect the wilderness experience, her personal stance is that permit changes are less a roadblock than they are an opportunity to reflect on our true motivations for these kinds of endeavors. “I love thru-hiking, obviously,” she says. “But we have hung our perspective on what thru-hiking is on this one narrow definition of this one specific trail done in a very specific way.”
Hildebrand suggests that instead of an all-or-nothing mindset, people should approach their hikes with a sense of flexibility and curiosity, considering all of the experiences that might be possible outside the limited bounds of any one trail. “There is still freedom in the wilderness. I think that we sometimes forget that when we get narrowly concentrated on the long trails,” she says. “Maybe it’s time for us to be more open-minded, and that will be helpful both for the places that we love and also for feeding our own souls.”
It’s the exact sort of thing Coyne learned while on the PCT. When she returned to the Sierra early this fall, foul weather followed. She was separated from her group during an electrical storm, hiked through damp snowfall that chilled her to the core, and woke up to discover her wet gear had frozen solid. With 260 miles left to complete her thru-hike, Coyne was at peace with the difficult decision to end her trip. She left the trail with a resolution to further develop her snow travel and mountaineering skills, and with inspiration to return someday to experience the trail and surrounding lands unburdened by the pressures of a thru-hike.
“At first, I was like—Yeah, I’m going to be hardcore and do this in one year! You know, what’s really behind that? Is it my ego? Probably,” says Coyne. “I think a good lesson for me to learn on the trail was to drop the ego and just really be in it for the experience.”
Top photo: Sébastien Goldberg.
This post has been updated to reflect that the PCTA collaborates with various land agencies on their permitting process.