This year, a record number of people are hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, a scenic 2,650-mile stretch from Mexico to Canada.
As many as 500 visitors are expected to finish the entire trek, and many more will hike big sections of the trail. And most will pass through stunning scenery in Washington in the final weeks of their journey.
Among the highlights is the Kendall Katwalk, located about 5½ miles up the trail from Snoqualmie Pass. A narrow shelf blasted into the mountainside hundreds of feet high, it offers spectacular views of the rugged peaks of the Cascades.
From the Katwalk to the south, the trail stretches some 2,400 miles through Oregon and California all the way to the Mexican border. To the north, there is less than 250 miles to go to reach Canada. And being part of the “PCT,” as most hikers call it, makes it a special destination.
Popularity boom was ‘bound to happen’
“It’s always an adventure. You never know what’s around the next bend,” says Namie Bacile, a construction worker-turned full-time long-distance backpacker. Out on the Pacific Crest Trail for the fourth time, Bacile is not surprised by how popular it has become.
“Bound to happen,” he says. “The first time I did the trail in ’92, there was like 19 of us. So I’ve seen it grow over the years, and it’s the same way with all the trails.”
Bacile remembers seeing a spike on the Appalachian Trail 15 years ago when Bill Bryson’s book “A Walk in the Woods” became a bestseller. And now a bestseller about the PCT, “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed, will soon be a movie starring Reese Witherspoon. The spotlight, combined with past PCT hikers’ photos and stories shared online, is driving the recent boom.
Along with long periods of solitude found on the trail, Bacile says meeting other hikers along the PCT is a treasured experience.
“You meet a lot of new friends,” he says, “just the greatest people.”
With so many on the trail, many good things come, says Bacile.
“A lot more trail work, a lot more involvement, a lot more resources. And like I say, it’s a long trail,” he says, adding the trail is still far from being too crowded. “I can go all day long and not see anybody.”
A tradition of trail names and trail angels
It is tradition for hikers give each other trail names, usually based on personality traits. Bacile’s trail name is “Let it Be.”
PCT hiker Jaimie Cogswell goes by the trail name “Wildcat.” She says she read “Wild” and “loved the book.”
“But this is no joke,” she says. “It’s not a book, it’s not a movie. This is like five months of 12½ to 13 hours a day of hiking, hiking. So if they make it look easy on the big screen, it’s not. I cried every day for two weeks.”
Nonetheless, more and more people are attempting the trail. And it can get busy at points where thru-hikers—those who hike the entire trail—come off the trail to regroup, get supplies, and do laundry. They often gather at the homes of people they call trail angels.
Trail angels Andrea and Jerry Dinsmore converted one end of their large garage into free lodging for hikers. They call it Dinsmore’s Hiker Haven.
“This is the hiker dorm. We’ve got bunk beds here … or they can sleep outside. We’ve got two acres for them to go camping on,” says Andrea Dinsmore. “I’m a retired truck driver. And Jerry’s a retired mechanic. So, this is kind of like our human truck stop. We don’t charge anything. You know, if they want to leave a donation, great. But what we do is just from our hearts.”
“This is like a large college dorm in the woods,” says hiker Benjamin “Baxter” Gawle at Dinsmore’s Hiker Haven. “It’s great. It’s got recliners. It has all the food you would need right there; you just need to boil water and add it. And there’s soda and beer in the fridge. So it’s great!”
Hikers provide the beer and food, which is mostly left behind by those who had more than they wanted to carry. They leave what they don’t need in so-called “hiker boxes,” which most new arrivals check before spending money on supplies.
They also eat at the Baring store across the street where a grill provides all-day breakfasts, milkshakes, and pies. The hikers say they often consume as many as 6,000 calories per day while in towns, and 2,000 to 3,000 on the trail. And still, most lose weight. Seeing how their bodies adapt is a constant source of amazement, and learning how little they actually need to live is a continuing lesson.
Hiker Mike “Stilts” Dombroski has been surprised to learn “how far you can get with having such little stuff.” He still marvels at the fact he only needs 7 liters of water a day to survive, along with a relatively small amount of food and entertainment. At home, he relies on Netflix and TV, and “Now, I’ve had one book for the last 300 miles,” he says.
Hikers often recap their nighttime reading the next day to entertain one another, says Dombroski. Some even recap entire movies they’ve seen or give lectures on topics they know well.
The distractions are a necessary tool, especially on parts of the trail with grueling topography and mind-numbing monotony, says Mike “Hikerbox Special” Henrick. The hiker earned his trail name by eating only the contents of a hiker box for three straight days while nursing a knee injury. Henrick says he quit his job as a geotechnical engineer in New Hampshire to hike the trail. He’d been feeling restless and wanted to test his limits. The resulting journey has proven tough, both physically and mentally.
“Every section has a different challenge,” he says. “Sometimes it’s weather, sometimes it’s just boredom, sometimes it’s just big hills.”
Long stretches of the trail are about building endurance; they aren’t as spectacular as the highlights, says Henrick.
“The trail, they say, is like pearls on a string. There’s a lot of string between the pearls,” he says.
‘I feel so pretty right now!’
At the haven, aided by full stomachs and perhaps the endorphins generated by all that walking, the hikers let loose and even allow themselves to be goofy. The Dinsmores have shelves full of loaner clothes the hikers can wear while they wash and dry their trail garb. The loaner pieces include cocktail dresses.
Hiker Jill “Muppet” Ostrowski chose to wear a fetching black lace dress while her clothes dry.
“I feel so pretty right now!” she says, laughing. “This is not my normal attire, no.”
“Baxter” Gawle’s choice: a purple sequined number and a matching silver-top hat.
“This is great…it’s super-light,” says Gawle, adding he allows himself to be silly while in town as an antidote to the hard work the trail demands.
“More guys than girls wear the dress, and they look good in it,” says Andrea Dinsmore. “And it’s amazing how much their feminine side comes out in their poses.”
In the shop next door, a shelf is stacked high with dozens of packages of dehydrated food and other supplies that hikers sent ahead of themselves to restock with when they arrive. To finish the trail before snow starts covering the passes in Washington, thru-hikers have to put in 20 to 30 miles a day for five months.
The Dinsmores have already hosted more than 250 hikers this year.
“Every year, we have more than we did the year before by about 50 hikers. So, it’d better not get too much bigger; I’ll have to take another stall in my shop for mail,” says Jerry Dinsmore, laughing.
For the past 11 years, the Dinsmores have dedicated each season—June through mid-October—to supporting hikers on the trail.
“The hikers are great people. They’re just like you and me. They look terrible. They stink. They look like they’ve been living under a bridge for a year. But they’ve all got impressive education and we get families coming through here,” says Andrea Dinsmore. “It’s fun. And where else can you be living in a tiny little town of 200 and have people from all over the world come to your house and educate you?”
Along with the increasing numbers, the Dinsmores have seen the gear get much lighter over the years. Hiker Jessie Chism has whittled down the weight of her backpack to about 8 pounds, not counting food and water.
“I’ve heard horror stories about 60-pound packs, and I would have never made it. I would have injured myself long ago, should I have ever tried a heavier pack,” she says.
Chism hikes without a stove and uses an iPhone with a battery extender for all of her navigation and entertainment needs. She says she almost ran out of food during a 10-day stretch in the Sierras, but aside from the close call, her strategy has worked pretty well. The incident did earn her an ironic trail name: “Safety First.”
“I’m notorious for not carrying any water on me, especially through the desert. And I just drink a bunch of water when I’m at a water source and then I travel without water. People tend to frown on that,” she says.
Chism quit her job as a hydraulic engineer with the Army Corps of Engineers to make this journey. She’s part of a growing community that rejects the idea that the Pacific Crest Trail is only for super-buff, hard-core hikers.
“I believe everyone has business on trail,” she says. “And it’s not difficult. I did 200 miles of it in flip flops, because my blisters on my feet had exploded and so I couldn’t put on the tennis shoes …. It’s just getting up and walking. And I think that anyone could do it.”
Of course, that view is colored by the invincible feeling one gets after having put 2,400 miles behind her. Parts of the trail wouldn’t be safe without boots. Other parts are accessible enough that even a reporter can make it up there and back in a day.
Wise words from PCT Mom and PCT Dad
Whatever the hiker’s ability, the trail does wonders, says hiker Elizabeth “Cinco” Church.
“I think that the trail brings out the best in people, that it improves really human qualities in whoever chooses to hike it. It really improves your self. I recommend it,” she says.
“Get away from your cubicle and your house, and get into nature. It’s beautiful. It’s grounding. It’ll soothe your soul and your mind. It’s good for you,” says “Wildcat” Cogswell. “Yeah, get hiking. Get out there.”
The Dinsmores agree, so much so that they’ve dedicated much of their retirement years to supporting the mission of long-distance hikers on the PCT. Neither of them is a hiker, but they’ve earned honorary trail names of “PCT Mom” and “PCT Dad.” And with that comes a fair amount of worrying if someone goes missing or is out too long in the snow. They monitor trail conditions, work with search and rescue crews in Darrington, and warn thru-hikers when it’s not safe to finish.
The trail parents say they’re a bit concerned that the popularity of a book like Strayed’s “Wild,” which tells the story of someone who set out woefully unprepared, could cause problems on the PCT. They hope the movie emphasizes how dangerous that can be.
“I don’t want to have to tell your mom and dad that you’re dead. They don’t want to sit at home for two weeks wondering where you’re at, because you didn’t show up at the post office,” says Andrea Dinsmore. She wants those who choose to hike in dangerous conditions to take extra precautions, like carrying a locator beacon.
And even experienced hikers can fail in the snow, she says, so slow-paced hikers who want to finish the entire trail should head out early enough to make it past Stevens Pass by mid-September to avoid getting stuck. About 50 hikers are currently holed up between the pass and the border, according to Andrea Dinsmore’s Facebook page.
Like any good parents, the Dinsmores want hikers to take proper precautions, but they also want hikers to enjoy the trail to its fullest. Most of the hikers the Dinsmores have hosted have become life-long devotees of the trail, and PCT Mom and PCT Dad will encourage anyone they can to get out there, even if it’s just for a week or less.