August 2023

Why I detest the PCTA

The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) was originally conceived in the 1930s, though it took an act of congress to form the official Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail (now the Pacific Crest Trail) in 1968. A Pacific Trail Congress was formed in 1977 to offer some oversight of the trail, and in 1992, it became the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA). In 1993, the PCTA formed a written memorandum with the National Forest Service, having the PCTA serve a major role in the supervision and maintenance of the trail. Since the 1990s, the PCTA has been quite active at promoting and maintaining the trail, as well as acquiring land from private landowners in order to make the trail truly a national heritage. Over time, the PCTA has been instrumental in developing use-restriction permits to prevent overuse of the trail. With time and the acquisition of increased control of the trail, the PCTA has done what so many agencies do, which is to lose sight of its original mission, which was to promote, maintain, and protect the PCT.

The PCTA is quite duplicious with trail promotion. They want people to support the PCTA, but they would rather that you NOT hike the PCT. It is a trail that they claim is overused. The PCTA seems hell-bent on keeping people off of the trail, usually citing hiker safety concerns, the Wuhan virus, or mating problems in yellow-legged frogs as the issue. I’d be happy if they worked as hard to keep people on the trail.

Safety is a trail issue since we live in a country ruled by lawyers, and any incident experienced on the trail would generate liability issues with the state. We can no longer accept that a tree may fall on a person, or snake unwarily attacks an innocent victim. Hikers will tend to do very stupid things, often in challenging themselves to set some sort of trail record, such as doing the fastest known time (fkt) hiking the entire trail. Some real safety policies, like expecting (demanding) that everyone on the trail carry personal locator beacons (plbs), would offer safety as well as provide information as to how many and where people are on the trail. One in a billion worries like the risk of transmitting the Wuhan virus from one hiker to another has clouded the judgement of the agency.

For several years, the PCTA had as their poster child the hiker Cheryl Strayed with her book about hiking (maybe) 500 miles of the PCT. One PCT hiker wrote a massive series of posts detailing how nearly everything in the book Wild was false. The reader is welcome to check this out at Cheryl Strayed in her book, though attempting to alternate between seriousness and funniness, shows how to cast environmental concerns, trail concerns, trail etiquette, and trail honesty to the wind. She shows just about everything one can do wrong on the trail, including poor planning, poor judgement, and misjudging many people that she met on the trail. Why the PCTA decided to use Cheryl Strayed as a poster child was very poor judgement, a trait shared between the PCTA and Cheryl Strayed.

Just a few years ago the PCTA decided that there were too many white folk on the trail, and so engaged in a campaign to get more “colored” folk on the trail, meaning, more black skinned folk. They even developed a system of trail “ambassadors”, i.e., colored folk, whom they would economically finance to hike the trail. Then, the PCTA developed a system whereby those of confused sexuality could find themselves “protected”. Various work crews would consist only of females (don’t dare have the males do an activity that restricts females!). Directly and indirectly, focus was placed on encouraging folk with various sexual perversions to make themselves known on the trail. I tend to be colorblind on the trail and I never ask a person to describe in full their sexual orientation as I’m not interested. I don’t care if your skin is white, black, brown, yellow, red or green. I do care that you maintain common trail courtesies and that your are respectful of the environment. From the PCTA promotion of Cheryl Strayed, it is quite obvious that the PCTA is more worried about the promotion of females on the trail, regardless of their sensitivity to the environment and leaving no trace, a trait that Cheryl lacked and never acquired during her summer sojourn on the trail. This shift can also be found within the board and administrative structure of the PCTA, where it seems they are more concerned about diversity than with finding the most qualified individuals. In essence, the entire organization became Woke!

I have volunteered many times in the past with the PCTA as well as with the Washington Trails Association in order to maintain or construct trails in the Cascades. What I found was the technology of trail construction/maintenance has not changed in the last 100 years. Pity. We spent much time rummaging for rock and dirt to fill in the trail. Steps and other structures were built by locating hemlock trees just off the trail, cutting them down, debarking them, then sawing them into appropriate lengths and using (mostly) rock to stabilize the structures. There’s nothing wrong with all of that, except that it is an environmentally destructive process, and the materials would not be guaranteed to last more than 10-20 years. Thus, a trail needs to be reconstructed about every 10-20 years. Surely there are materials with a much longer expected life span that can be made to appear as natural which could be used for the trail?

I find it amusing that trail technology has not sought for more durable solutions to trail construction or maintenance. The Romans could build roads that were environmentally pleasing and yet lasted for 2000 years. Our trails scarcely last 20 years! I surmise that part of the problem is the Wilderness Act of 1964. This act was seriously needed and yet is deeply flawed in how it was written. It needs to be completely replaced by more nuanced thought about the designation of sundry wilderness areas. The PCTA, like other trail organizations, thrive off of the restrictions placed on wilderness lands by the Wilderness Act. A segment of trail could easily be cleared of blow-downs and encroaching weeds through the use of a chain saw, gas powered weed wacker, and a three man crew. What would take a 3-man powered crew about 3-4 hours to accomplish would take a non-powered crew of 10-14 a week or more. Since large volunteer work crews are best accomplished by the PCTA or other state hiking clubs, keeping a non-automated restriction works to the benefit of the organization.

Yet, one may ask about the environmentally friendlier choice? With a large crew using nothing but handsaws and manual weedwackers, there is a far greater distraction to hikers from large crews on the trail, and the recruitment of crews usually cannot occur expeditiously, so that major blow-downs (logs across the trail) may take months or years to remove, and in the interim, destructive detours are created by hikers wending their way across the trail obstruction. Some hikers may complain about the noise of a chainsaw, yet that noise is brief compared to the noise of a large crew spending many days on the trail, with the noise of axes, hammers and lumber saw blades constantly grinding. I find also that those who complain about trail maintenance NOT being completely “natural” are the least likely to volunteer for trail maintenance. So, the Wilderness Act needs to be rewritten to allow the limited use of powered tools to maintain trails. With the PCTA operating largely in personal survival mode, its servant status is lost and the fallacious arguments regarding environmental concerns that it uses to defent itself is easily countered.

There are several other issues regarding trail maintenance where I think the PCTA has been deficit. First is the issue of campsites. The PCTA in general seems to frown on dispersed camping and for good reason. Yet, simple math tells a different story. A hiker will average 15-25 miles per day. The PCTA permit system allows for 50 people a day starting the trail. Not all permit holders will be starting at their designated time, and for the most part, other hikers will also be on the trail, which means that at peak seasons there will be between 40-80 hikers per day at a time on each 20 mile segment of trail. These 60 or so people will hike roughly 20 miles each day and set up camp. Thus, for each 15-20 miles, there needs to aveage camp sites for roughly 50-60 tents. There are VERY FEW 20 mile stretches of trail that would allow for 50+ tents. Thus, there is either massive amounts of dispersed camping, or perhaps there are far fewer than 50 people per day on the trail? Fact: planned and built campsites are actually much less destructive of the habitat than dispersed camping, and why the PCTA doesn’t see this as a problem and seek a solution is a mystery to me.

Second is the issue of water supply in the desert. There are several places on the trail where a hiker would be in trouble is there wasn’t a cache of water. These stretches of the trail would be nigh to unhikable by conventional means without a cached water supply. Examples include the gate 3 cache, water at Mike’s Place and Mary’s Place, three caches between Lander’s Meadow and Walker Pass, and the cache 22 on the Hat Creek Rim. I am told that perhaps the PCTA helps sponsor these caches? I don’t know. The PCTA is quite critical of people leaving cached water for all comers on the trail. The PCTA needs to be less duplicious on trail water caches. Considering that the water caches are necessary for the bulk of thru-hikers on the trail, why isn’t the PCTA more forthright about it and take seriously that trail safety necessitates the maintenance of at least a few of these water caches? Does the PCTA know the segments of the trail where water supply becomes a true safety issue? What are they doing about it? It’s just another mystery to me.

I’ve noticed that the culture of people who hike the trail has changed. Traditionally, a person would dream about the prospect of thru-hiking the PCT, knowing that it would take up about a half year to do. They would quit or take leave of their occupation, hike the trail, and then return to normal life. Some would do the trail after completing school or other education with the intention of returning to work after the hike is completed. Nowadays, it seems like a greater and increasing proportion of hikers are the permanently unemployed, self-identified hiker trash that spends their life on the trail. Their role-models are people like Heather Anderson, Yogi, and Billy-Goat, whose entire identity is with that of the trail. In addition, social media has allowed for increased communication between hikers and others. Facebook is a prime example, with multiple PCT and trail angel pages. The use (and need) for trail angels has always existed, but has gone up precipitously. I served as a trail angel several years and found it enjoyable though exhausting. My wife and I have developed a number of friends that I first met while on the trail who we were able to act as a trail angel. Now that we live further from the trail, such activity is no longer possible. Yet, I have no problem with trail angels. It’s just that hikers have spent less time planning and organizing their trip, forcing an increased dependency on the outside community including that of trail angels. All in all, the presence of trail angels has been both a blessing and curse for the hiking community. So, what do trail angels have to do with the PCTA organization? The PCTA offers a short web page offering advice for potential trail angels and caution for hikers seeking their assistance. Yet, their advice is moderately displaced. The PCTA realizes how many trail angels have created their own trail culture (Frodo and Scott, Hiker Heaven, Casa del Luna, etc.) though many of these trail angels have become temporary fixtures and when they retire from trail angeling leave serious voids. I would hope that the PCTA realize that trail angeling is a part of their problem and working out a better system would be in order. How does one handle the disappearance of Mary’s place now that she is shutting down? Where does one camp? Where does one get water in that stretch of the trail? Ziggy Bear, the Saufleys (Hiker Heaven), the Andersons (Casa del Luna), Dinsmore’s Retreat and more have all come and gone, while momentarily defining the PCT hiking experience. Meanwhile, the PCTA acts almost as though they never existed. The PCTA webpage discourages trail angels that operate shuttles from charging money for their services, yet their services would not exist if they couldn’t ask even reimbursement for gas. Trail angels being such a vital part of the PCT culture, it is surprising that the PCTA hasn’t expressed more interest in organizing trail angeling into a cohesive group.

Ultimately, the issue with so many organizations is that of a power struggle. When a volunteer/charitable organization becomes heavily financed by the government, the character of that organization usually changes for the worse. Being bound by a governmental agency, the organization ceases to be a volunteer organization and becomes a political monster. As a political agency, true care for the PCT diminishes and political power increases. You are told that it is for your own good, yet the increasingly impersonal approach of the PCTA leaves one seriously wondering.

What do we do about the PCTA? At the present time, it is a necessary evil. If you wish to do hiking that includes PCT in the high Sierra, one has no choice but to apply for a trail permit. The PCTA provides information on trail closures, but rarely offers alternatives for those who wish to complete the full 2650+ miles of the trail. Most trail information I obtained from sources such as, for suggestions on the best trail gear and trail strategies, or Yogi’s guidebook for resupply town information, to name a few. The PCTA does a few things well. They are good at organizing trail maintenance. They are keen on watching for when trail access becomes problematic secondary to private interests. Their PCT Days event is enjoyable. They make a PCT photo book that is good for the coffee table. Sadly, their strengths don’t make up for their weaknesses. Until the PCTA wakes up and realizes that they are just as detrimental as good for the PCT, we may only expect the PCTA to become ever more control oriented, rather than seeking a way to maximize the pleasure of the trail for all.