With the 2020 northbound PCT thru hiker season winding down here at mile 145.4, I want to share some thoughts on this year and this thru hiker class during these strange, strange times.
Before coronavirus, 2020 was looking like it would be yet another record-setting year in the number of thru hiker permits issued. The Sierra snowpack was lower than recent years, making an early start more promising than the previous several years. March started normally, with the number of hikers passing by typical for the very early part of the season. Then coronavirus-related shutdowns started and federal, state and local governments instituted physical distancing requirements. The PCTA requested that hikers cancel their long-distance hiking plans. The trajectory of coronavirus was still unknown, and many hikers struggled over whether to start (or, for those who had already begun) whether to continue their thru hike. While the USFS (which is the agency that “controls” the PCT) never closed the trail, national parks began closing both front country and back country areas, making it look like hikers may need to skip some of the premier parts of the trail or risk running afoul of the closure orders.
While I don’t count hikers passing by my place, I spend enough time interacting with hikers at my oasis to guesstimate that less than 20% of permit-holders made it as far as mile 145. The trail definitely wasn’t deserted, but hiker numbers were back to pre-Wild levels. Part of me was sad to realize that thousands of people who had planned to thru hike the PCT in 2020 felt the need to cancel their plans. But, part of me was glad to see hiker numbers down to a more sustainable level that permits a degree of solitude that has been absent for four years, since Wild caused a radical increase in thru hiker numbers. As a trail user myself, my daily out-and-back hikes and horse rides have been more peace-filled. The hikers I converse with — especially those with previous experience on extended hikes in the PCT — also enjoy the benefits of lower hiker numbers, such as open camp sites.
We shall see what 2021 brings. I predicted that the Wild bump would run its course within a few years and the sudden interest in thru hiking would be seen as a fad in retrospect. 2020 is an anomaly, and I don’t see the fad fading … but, one can hope.