Cherry-Picking the PCT: Hiker’s Must-See Stops
Hiking the entire length of the Pacific Crest Trail can be a once in a lifetime experience, filled with amazing sights, personal empowerment and ever-lasting friendships. It’s also a real commitment. At 2,650 miles long, stretching from the Canadian border to the Mexican border, the PCT typically takes hikers four to five months to complete. In its length, it passes through seven national parks, some of the most scenic areas in the country, and somehow still contains spots that manage to stand out in a land of breathtaking terrain.
If long distance hiking isn’t your jam or if you just want to cherry pick the best of the best, we put together a shortlist of great section hikes that give you the remote feel of life on the PCT without the same time commitment. After hiking the entire length of the PCT, we put our panel of experts: Chris Berry, Molly Katzman, Matt Hess and Cody Howell on the spot by asking them their favorite stops along the trail. With their help, we highlighted four must-see destinations along the PCT you won’t want to miss, whether thru-hiking or section hiking.
Goat Rocks Wilderness, WA
Named after the hairy, hooven residents who frequent this alpine area, the beauty of Goat Rocks Wilderness is the result of a two-million year old extinct volcano that once dominated the landscape. The area’s distinctive rugged peaks are the result of the subsequent glaciation and erosion of the remnants of the ancient volcano. Located in Washington between Mt. Adams and Highway 12 near Packwood, Goat Rocks is a popular destination for both thru-hikers and section hikers alike. The magical, dreamy beauty of Goat Rocks wasn’t lost on Molly Katzman, who remembers her time there as “jaw-droppingly beautiful” and being the perfect spot for a weekend trip. More information on Goat Rocks, along with details on potential hikes can be found on the Gifford Pinchot National Forest website.
North Cascades National Park, WA
Containing over 300 glaciers and 300 alpine lakes, the rugged terrain of North Cascades National Park is some of the most remote in the state. While a mere 120 miles from the sprawling metropolis of Seattle, the North Cascades are home to some of the steepest mountain ranges in the US., preventing the usual urbanization and development national parks typically receive. Matt Hess noted the area’s remoteness and beauty while Chris Berry suggested visiting in fall. “One of the last days on the trail we were walking through swirling mists near Cutthroat Peak. The Larches were in different stages of changing from evergreen to fiery orange, and it just exemplified the area and why I was doing the hike.” Accessible from a single, seasonal highway, Highway 20 is the perfect jumping off spot to enjoy this area. As one of the few National Parks with no entrance fee, North Cascades NP is an affordable way to experience the region’s rugged beauty.
Alpine Lakes Wilderness, WA
As one of the most popular section hikes in Washington and along the PCT, the Alpine Lakes Wilderness is just as known for its quick and easy 77-mile, I-90 to Hwy 2 stretch as it is for its high mountain passes, abundant waterfalls and glacier-carved alpine lakes. Featuring some of the most rugged terrain in the Cascade Range, craggy peaks and ridges, deep glacial valleys and over 700 mountain lakes make this an area worth visiting. Its unique terrain is the result of two million years of glaciers advancing and retreating, scouring the landscape and leaving rock debris in their wake. Molly Katzman appreciated how the PCT through Alpine Lakes Wilderness “is quite accessible from the front country, yet still feels remote and rugged.” Numerous entry points to Alpine Lakes Wilderness can be found off Hwy 2, I-90 and Hwy 97, but due to the area’s popularity, backcountry permits are required for many overnight treks.
Sequoia-Kings Canyon Wilderness, CA
For thru-hikers heading north from the Mexican border, days of brutal desert travel are finally rewarded once they reach Kennedy Meadows and the start of Sequoia-Kings Canyon Wilderness. Known as “The High Sierra” and featuring the signature barren alpine ridges, glacially scoured lake-filled basins and deep winter snowpacks, this high altitude area is many thru hiker’s first glimpse at a changing environment. Chris Berry shared this relief, saying “The first day we left the desert and went north out of Kennedy Meadows, life became amazing. You are entering the supersized part of California. I think we were on the Northwest Flank of Olancha Peak watching the sunset and I felt the stoke return I had while planning.”
This unique landscape began with the tectonic uplift of granite deep underground and was eventually polished to its signature look of light-colored mountains and cliffs through centuries of glacial erosion. Cody Howell reiterated this area’s beauty, “Kings Canyon proved to be absolutely stunning. As we descended off of Mather Pass, our sketchiest mountain pass, we came into a pristine valley void of snow but alive with so much wildlife. It was our first bit of relief from the snow in the Sierras and so amazing.”
If there seemed to be a lot of Washington areas on our list, it’s not from inherent bias, but the testimony of our panel. While the entire length of the PCT is scenic in its own right, these four areas constantly came up in conversation. Molly Katzman backed up these opinions, saying “The Washington section of the PCT was my favorite by far. I loved how rugged and remote it felt, how green and lush and vibrant everything was.” For Matt, the area’s remoteness helped separate it, “Overall, the trail through Washington was very good and seemed more remote than the rest of the trail. The scenery blew me away.”
One of the best things about the Pacific Crest Trail is its many access points. For as long and remote as the trail is, plenty of opportunity to share in the hike present themselves in the form of crossing mountain passes. There’s no doubt the PCT can become a busy place during the summer season, but luckily, each of the areas we listed above have many different trails, routes and views that lie off the PCT. With a little research and some planning, plenty of options for day hikes and backpacking trips are available, because the most important thing is to just get out there and enjoy.