Like (I assume) all PCTA members, I received a letter from the organization this past week discussing their concern that increased use of the PCT has caused environmental degradation at popular camping sites near the trail and unsightly “traces” that some hikers leave behind that lessen the trail experience for those who come after them. [Toilet paper is most often cited as the undesirable trace, but other “traces” include trampled vegetation, unnaturally-cleared areas, remnants of camp fires, etc.] On my daily ride on Sunday morning, I photographed this “trace” in a popular tenting site just 10 feet off the trail around mile 147.
People in my position relative to the trail (ie, staying in the same place and watching as the trail changes from day to day as the herd of northbound hikers move through) have a unique perspective on the problem. 2017 has seen the largest northbound hiker herd in the history of the PCT, and, based on my experience, is also the year with the largest number of “traces” that are visible along the trail as the thru hiker season winds down.
One of the reasons that I allow camping at Walden is to lessen the burden that hikers place on popular sites nearby — particularly those mentioned in the various PCT guidebooks and apps as being good places to camp. As an example, consider the area the locals call “Big Rocks” at PCT mile 144, mentioned on Halfmile’s app as CS0144. According the Halfmile, CS0144 offers “several campsites among huge boulders.” During the height of last year’s hiker season, there would be upwards of twenty tents tightly packed among the boulders, as the still-novice hikers were very reliant on guidance from others, especially PCT apps, to help them navigate the trail and figure out where to do what from day to day. As a result of all this human activity, all the vegetation among the boulders is gone, and much of the surrounding area is riddled with “game trails” created as hikers leave the tenting areas to find a place to defecate. While the boulders are still magnificent, I wouldn’t want to camp there. At Walden, I have intentionally cleared a large, flat area of vegetation and added trash cans to prevent litter. On an average evening during the height of the thru hiker season in 2017, I had more tents at my place than Big Rocks, thanks in part to the fact that some early-season hikers highlighted Walden on Facebook, and noted that, unlike Big Rocks, Walden has water. My take-away from this is that, if hikers are informed of their presence, many of them will prefer to camp in a location with amenities over a location without amenities, but with more natural beauty and more “wilderness feel.” In southern California, the most sought-after amenity is water.
One possible way of addressing the issue of overuse and environmental degradation at the few natural water sources along the PCT in SoCal is to set up a series of regularly-spaced artificial water sources in less sensitive areas and suggest to hikers that they camp there. Much like the lean-tos along the AT concentrate camping (and the corresponding environmental damage) to small areas, these proposed supported camping areas along the PCT would serve the same purpose in arid, already-developed stretches of the PCT in southern California. I know that people at the PCTA will not like to hear this, but this sounds an awful lot like what the current cadre of water caches do. (Read up on PCTA’s thoughts on water caches and the response from many Class of 2015 thru hikers here.) Despite the PCTA’s public dislike of water caches, in their letter from last week, they propose creating preferred camping areas as one option to deal with environmental degradation caused by overuse in some sensitive areas. My experiment with Walden shows that, if the preferred camping area has the amenities hikers are looking for (relative to the environment they are moving through), the majority of them will stay at the preferred camping area, even if it is less “natural” than many surrounding areas. No coercion in the form of new rules about where to camp is required.
Luckily, I am not in a position to make policy or to direct the limited resources of the PCTA, so I can offer suggestions with little concern for repercussion. I admit to never having thru hiked (or, in my case, thru ridden) any piece of the PCT, but I have ridden the 10-mile stretch near me at least 265 times, so I have some experience to draw from, both about the problem and about a possible solution, at least as it applies to this and similar sections of the PCT.