An epic sunrise view along the crest of California’s remote Warner Mountains.
With spring finally here, the Pacific Crest Trail season has begun. Down on the border in Southern California, hikers are beginning to make their way north on the PCT. For 700 miles, they will be winding through deserts, sky islands and boulders fields, working their way toward Kennedy Meadows, the gateway to the glorious Sierra Nevada. However, this year, the Sierra poses unusual circumstances for thruhikers. The Long Winter has piled feet upon feet of snow in the High Sierra to the point of breaking records throughout the range. This makes sections of the trail treacherous not just because the path is buried in snow but also because passes are difficult to traverse and creek and river crossings are nearly impossible. Such are the conditions in spades this year on the PCT.
For hikers on the PCT then, it becomes a delicate balance of making it through the desert during the cooler spring months while reaching Kennedy Meadows late enough for the Sierra Nevada to have thawed out enough to make travel reasonably feasible. The conditions this spring are such that it is causing significant consternation amongst the hikers. Many have already abandoned the PCT while some have shifted to the Appalachian Trail. Still others, the hardened ambitious few, are committed to the PCT in 2023. Within this group, a number will hike the trail in segments, hitting the desert first, then heading somewhere northerly, where the conditions are less snowy and many miles can be strung together in different areas before finally heading back to the Sierra to pass through America’s greatest mountain range.
The Pacific Crest Trail travels through California, Oregon and Washington, from Mexico to Canada.
These conditions have led me to wonder what the plan would be for thruhikers if the PCT followed the true Pacific crest. The crest is one of a few major divides that through America along a north-south axis, creating significant continental divisions in the way water flows. Along with the Pacific Crest, the Continental Divide and the Appalachian Mountains are also major divisions. Roughly speaking, the trail as conceived, is intended to run along the mountain divide that separates the waters that flow directly into the Pacific Ocean from those that flow into Colorado River, the Great Basin or into the Columbia River watershed. Thus, the Pacific crest sets the general route of the Pacific Crest Trail.
Except that, for nearly 700 miles, the PCT deviates from the Pacific crest. Though not many people consider this when thinking about the route of the PCT, but a significant chunk of the route runs far, far to the west of the true divide. At times it ranges nearly 160 miles west of the true Pacific crest. The deviation runs through a substantial chunk of Northern California and the two do not reunite until central Oregon. Indeed, if the PCT followed the true Pacific divide, 25% of the trail would be very, very different.
The PCT and the true Pacific Crest. The PCT is marked in yellow, the true crest in red.
The route of the PCT deviates from the true Pacific crest just north of Donner Pass. It veers west and heads through the headwaters of the Yuba River. At this point, it follows the crest of the Sierra Nevada, rather than the true watershed divide. This means the trail cuts across the heart of the Feather River watershed rather than along the edge of it. This continues to be the case as the trail descends into the Almanor Basin, a depression in the mountains that forms the divide between the Sierra Nevada and the Cascade Range. Beyond this point, the PCT traverses Lassen Volcanic National Park and then crosses the Pit River. The Pit River is one of the three rivers that traverse the Cascade Range. This means that a significant amount the rivers’ watersheds are east of the Cascades even though the rivers ultimately reach the Pacific Ocean. The other rivers that achieve this are the Klamath and Columbia Rivers.
It is at this point the trail once again begins to return to its original purpose and begins following the crest of river watersheds again. Here it follows the divide between the Pit and McCloud Rivers. It does so all the way to the Sacramento River, where it then follows a series of divides that separate the Sacramento, Trinity, Scott, Salmon and Klamath Rivers. This area is often referred to as the Klamath Knot, as it is a tangle of mountain crests and river headwaters. After climbing out of the Klamath River canyon, the PCT continues along the divide that distinguishes the Klamath River from the Rogue River. Beyond this point, the trail resumes its trajectory along the Cascade Crest. However, since the Klamath River is one of the rivers that traverse the Cascades then, like the Pit, much of its watershed, and thus the true Pacific Crest, lies east of the mountains.
The meaning of this is that the outer edges of the Pit and Klamath Rivers represents the true Pacific crest, the divide between the waters that flow to the Pacific Ocean and those waters that flow into the Great Basin. If the Pacific Crest Trail were to follow the true Pacific Crest, then the trail would range far east of where it does, following the edge of the Great Basin. Instead, it courses inland, into the heart of the Klamath Knot. It is an interesting deviation and makes for a remarkably different trail than would have been the case if the true crest marked the route.
Maps showing the Sacramento and Klamath River watersheds. Much of the rivers’ waters originate east of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Range. This means that the true Pacific crest lies along the eastern fringes of the watersheds.
I have not been able to ferret out documented evidence for why the decision was made to deviate so far off of the divide but I can speculate on several reasons, some practical, others more aesthetic. Practically, the current route simply has far more water than the true divide. The northern Sierra and the Klamath Mountains are loaded with creeks, lakes and springs. It is a lush mountain garden through which the trail winds, with water’s availability being of little concern (aside from the Hat Creek Rim, of course). This route also had several existing trails that could be incorporated the PCT, resulting in far less trail construction. On the aesthetic side, the current trail travels through far more wilderness than the route would if it followed the true Pacific divide. There are currently 10 established wilderness areas (including Crater Lake National Park, which, while not officially wilderness, is managed as one) along this section of the PCT. In addition to this, there are also several mountain areas like the Yuba headwaters and the Trinity Divide that are wilderness in all but name. The wilderness character of the true PCT is very different. Only two established wilderness areas are found along the true divide. Certainly, some areas are de facto wilderness but the lack of legal protections and the overall gentler terrain means that roads and civilization have encroached closer than would otherwise be ideal.
The other aesthetic consideration for the PCT’s route is scenic. Passage through the northern Sierra and the Klamath Knot means a journey through some of the most spectacular mountain scenery of the entire PCT. The lakes, creeks, rivers and rugged mountain peaks all add character and beauty to this section of trail. Another great feature is the near ubiquitous presence of Mount Shasta, which remains visible from the PCT for nearly 500 miles, something no other mountain can claim. In contrast, the true Pacific crest is drier but more forested, with a more subdued landscape of rolling hills along with a few higher mountain ranges thrown in for good measure. Overall, there is little scenery that would equal or surpass the grand mountains of the northern Sierra or the Klamath Mountains.
There is one significant exception to this, however. That is the Warner Mountains, a remote mountain range that lies in the far northeast corner of California and extending into southern Oregon. Other than Mount Shasta, they are higher than any mountains between Lassen Peak in California and the Three Sisters in Oregon. Rising nearly 10,000 feet above sea level, they are the highest mountains on the true Pacific Divide. In terms of grand scenery and rugged alpine terrain, this is the pinnacle of the actual Pacific crest.
Though much of the terrain on the true divide is somewhat subdued, the opposite is the case with the Warners. The range is a classic monocline, with a long, gradual western slope on the west side. The range climbs gently to the crest and then plunges dramatically and steeply into a large graben named Surprise Valley. The highest part of the Warners is a feast of mountain grandeur. There are craggy peaks, alpine lakes, abundant creeks, lush meadows and fantastic vistas. The forests are unique among California mountains, dominated by ponderosa, white bark pine, white fir, aspen and mountain mahogany but missing typical Golden State forest stalwarts like incense cedar and douglas fir. It is an unusual mix indicative of the fact that the Warners exist on the edge of numerous different regions.
Warner Mountains Gallery (Click to enlarge):
The epicenter of the Warner Mountains is in the South Warner Wilderness. At 70,385 acres, it is the largest tract of wild land in the Warners and has the highest concentration of tall peaks, alpine lakes and trails. This is among the most wilderness areas in California, boasting unusual geology, unusual biodiversity and spectacular views. The trails that wind through these mountains offer incredible opportunities for solitude.
In the end, I think the current route, passing through the Klamath Knot was the right way to go. It has plenty of water, posed minimal land ownership issues for trail construction, incorporated many existing trails, has abundant water and has spectacular scenery nearly every step of the way. It also passes through more wilderness areas while also maintaining good access to resupply points. I still can’t help wonder what the PCT would be like if it were routed along the true Pacific crest. If it were, then the Warner Mountains would be the highlight of this section of the trail. Though there are other beautiful and interesting sections along this route, nothing else approaches its level of scenery and solitude. Perhaps a secondary route could be constructed, affording thruhikers the opportunity to pick which route they want, hike both, or even allow northbound hikers to follow one route and southbound hikers to take another. No matter what happens, the Warner Mountains are a hidden gem on the true Pacific crest.