The History of the Pacific Crest Trail
Updated: Oct 20, 2021
The Pacific Crest Trail is one of the world’s most famous long-distance trails. Spanning 2,650 uninterrupted miles of western American beauty, the trail stretches from the U.S.-Mexico border in Campo, California all the way up to Manning Provincial Park, Canada.
Today, the trail, known colloquially as the PCT, is a mainstay in the world of thru-hiking. Since its inception 8,084 people (and counting!) have registered the amazing feat of completing the length of the trail. Before all these bright-eyed backpackers stuffed down their sleeping bags and strapped on their boots, however, decades of meticulous planning and development went into constructing the PCT as we know it.
How did the PCT come to be? How was a swath of land the length of a hundred marathons (none of which is paved) set aside for this mega-hike? Who helped develop the trail, and how has it garnered such popularity in recent years?
Like most great outdoor projects, the Pacific Crest Trail was developed over time by a collection of ambitious outdoor enthusiasts who dreamt of connecting future generations to the natural world. The first of these dreams began way back in 1926, before the word hiking even hit the mainstream, when Catherine Montgomery, a schoolteacher and avid tramper in Bellingham, Washington, outlined her vision:
“A high winding trail down the heights of our western mountains with mile markers and
shelter huts—like these pictures I’ll show you of the ‘Long Trail of the Appalachians’—
from the Canadian Border to the Mexican Boundary Line!”
Inspired by the Appalachian Trail (AT) in the eastern United States, this account is the first documented proposal of what we now know as the Pacific Crest Trail. Though Montgomery would not get the opportunity to tramp across the PCT in her lifetime, her vision was instrumental in paving the way for the trail's eventual success.
In this case it appears great minds think alike, because just a few years later, in the early 1930s, a mountaineer from Los Angeles named Clinton C. Clarke developed an idea of his own that would eventually become the PCT. Though he and Catherine Montgomery never crossed paths (on a hike or otherwise), they seem to have come up with the same bright idea for a continuous, border-to-border hiking trail.
Clarke may not have been the first to dream up the PCT concept, but he was the first to unify the necessary stakeholders to make it happen. By 1935, Clarke put together a federation of hiking clubs and youth groups dedicated to the project, known then as the Pacific Crest Trail System Conference. Throughout the ‘30s, Clarke worked alongside his devoted group of everyday explorers to scout and construct a trail system through the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Ranges. He and fellow Southern California explorer Warren Rogers ran relays with YMCA and Boy Scout groups, wherein backpacking youths carried a logbook in a relay. The teams passed the book from one to the next as documented the route by hand. Together, they connected existing trails by blazing new ones, all while carefully avoiding already settled land. The result was a continuous 2,300 mile trail from Mexico to Canada. In 1939, the PCT appeared on a federal government map for the first time.
Clarke went on to serve as the president of the Conference for 25 years, earning himself the moniker of the “father of the PCT”. Clarke’s initial federation still exists to this day, now as the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA), a non-profit with the mission to “protect, preserve, and promote the Pacific Crest Trail Scenic Trail… for all the values provided by wild and scenic lands.”
It is worth noting that even though Clarke’s efforts were essential to the trail’s beginnings, Catherine Montgomery’s vision went largely unrecognized throughout the 20th century. Despite being the first documented person to envision the trail, she is less often credited as the “mother of the PCT”. No mountain along the route bears her name, and evidence suggests she died without knowing of the trail’s development. It was not until 2010 that she was inducted posthumously into the Northwest Women’s Hall of Fame.
After World War II left the forest service shorthanded, work on the PCT slowly came to a halt and over half the trail went unmanaged for years. Both Montgomery and Clarke passed away in 1957, and with them went the certainty of a completed PCT. Decades passed until the PCT received the boost it needed to create an enduring legacy.
That boost came in the late 1960s when President Lyndon B. Johnson and his cabinet advocated for the proliferation and protection of a trail system to enhance America’s outdoor environment and provide opportunities for outdoor recreation. In 1968, Congress went on to pass the National Trails System Act, which served as the greatest inflection point in the PCT’s history. Under the Act, a Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail Advisory Council was appointed and established a “Guide for Location, Design, and Management” of the trail. This document provided a crucial management plan for the PCT in the ‘70s and has been used by the USDA Forest Service ever since.
For the past 40 years, the Pacific Crest Trail Association has worked alongside the federal government’s Forest Service, Park Service, and Bureau of Land Management to protect and promote the trail’s longevity. The PCTA thanks its volunteers who pour their time and talent into maintaining a sustainable trail for all for generations to come: “If your life has been touched by the PCT, you are a part of its history and significance.”
The last decade has seen a massive uptick in foot traffic on the trail. Thanks to the narrative surrounding the Pacific Crest Trail in Cheryl Strayed’s New York Times bestselling memoir Wild, which was spun into a blockbuster film starring Reese Witherspoon two years later, thru-hiking in general and the PCT in specific have garnered worldwide fascination. The numbers reflect this recent buzz. Following the 2012 release of Strayed’s book, the number of long-distance hikers on the PCT rose by 30 percent. The widespread success of the film adaptation seems to have had an even greater impact; between the time of release in 2014 and just two years later, the number of PCT completions increased 2.5X, and that’s just counting those who finished the whole trail. Strayed herself only finished about 1,100 miles of the trail.
While there is some debate over the narrative’s unintended consequences (e.g., romanticizing inexperience, or brushing aside the trails associated with long-distance trekking), there is certainly no denying Wild’s lasting influence on the PCT. Strayed’s story is the trail’s most notable depiction in popular media; millions of people have discovered the PCT anew thanks to the book/film’s success. Many of them have found inspiration and healing in the process of preparing for, falling in love with, being humbled by, and completing this both grueling and restorative trail. Ultimately, so long as its hikers set out with an intentional commitment to safety and sustainability their impacts will reverberate out with the same progressiveness and future-forward thinking as those of Montgomery, Clarke, and Strayed.
The First to Walk the Trail
Of course, no history of public land in the United States would be complete without mentioning the Indigenous communities who first called the land home. The PCT’s impact on Indigenous communities, both historical and contemporary, along its route has gone largely undocumented and undiscussed. In most accounts of the trail’s history, there is no acknowledgment of Native peoples or the fact that the PCT runs through dozens of traditionally Indigenous lands. Especially when researching and presenting a comprehensive history of the PCT—a trail that has traditionally served non-Native people—it is important to recognize that outdoor recreators over the past century were not the very first to blaze the trail.
In fact, one of the most famous sections of the PCT, the John Muir Trail, which stretches along the Sierra Nevada through Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite National Parks, has special significance to the tribes who originally inhabited the region. Despite its namesake, the John Muir Trail predates Muir and the conservation movement (by over 200 years). Centuries before European settlement, the Ahwahnechee, Paiute, Miwok, Mono and other tribes blazed the trail. They called it the Nüümü Poyo, or the People’s Trail. The 211 mile footpath is a part of a network of trails in the Sierra that served Native tribes as a trade route for hundreds of years. Just a few years ago, members of a grassroots organization known as Indigenous Women Hike reclaimed this ancestral trade route by leading a thru-hike along the Nüümü Poyo.
The PCTA does formally acknowledge the trail’s place amongst this overshadowed legacy. While it acknowledges the accomplishments of the trail’s early conservationists, the PCTA recognizes “their legacy is built upon the forced removal of Indigenous people from their ancestral homelands.”
With each step one takes along the PCT—or any trail for that matter—she becomes a part of its history. This established history encourages us to dream big; to unify groups in harmonious association in order to protect our lands; to prop up outdoor projects with our time and our talent when they need a boost; to tell stories about our relationship to nature; and to carve out open space to give to future generations. The history of the PCT is one to remember as we benefit from and build upon the hard work and devotion to accessibility of those who came before us.
About the Author
George Kingston is an all-out outdoorsperson. He holds a B.A. in Political Science and an M.S. in Sustainability Science & Practice from Stanford University. His training has motivated him to advocate for greater sustainability and accessibility within outdoor activities. These days, George is working as an actor and screenwriter to depict our relationships with the natural world.