Thru Hiker permits for PCT 2021 northbound season

Just one day after permit applications opened on the PCTA’s website, most of the days in March, April and May have reached their limit of 50 permits per day for northbound thru hiking the PCT beginning in Southern California. Uncertainties around Covid remain, but it is clear there is still significant interest in thru hiking the PCT in 2021.

Thoughts on PCT Class of 2020

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.

In the cool of the morning

With a cold front moving through, I wanted to do an early hike north on the PCT in the cool of the morning. I nearly stepped on a lizard who had selected a poor location to become torpid … smack dab in the center of the trail. (After I took this picture, I gently lifted it with a stick and set it in a sunny spot just off the foot path.)

Mt San Jacinto was shrouded with a layer of fast-moving clouds, with just the peak exposed.

Within seconds, the clouds had been blown off, again revealing the massive mountain in its entirety.

First non-local rider of 2020 season

Just by chance, I was riding Gracie on the PCT north to Highway 74 and back when I happened upon a rider and two horses heading south to finish up the segment from Highway 74 to Coyote Canyon Rd. I caught up to them on the return trip thanks to Gracie’s lightening speed (and general barn sourness) and invited them to a lunch of hay and water at my place. I learned that the rider is planning to do the whole PCT over several years in 500-mile increments, and, by the end of the day, they will have completed everything from Campo to Highway 74.

I was able to offer her my spare corral for her horses to roll in and enjoy their lunch.

I was excited to learn that her mount is a mustang gelding that she trained herself. (You can see his freeze brand in this photo.)

After lunch, they hit the trail to rendezvous with their pick up later in the afternoon.

Desert Tortoise sighting at PCT mile 145.7

During my daily ride on the PCT, I saw a 10-inch desert tortoise in a small wash right off the trail a quarter-mile north of my place. I’ve never seen a tortoise this high in elevation. (They are pretty common in the creosote scrub of Coyote Canyon and other low-desert locations in SoCal.) The trail was pretty busy with day hikers taking advantage of the nice weather to get out of the house during these covid days; I fear the tortoise was brought here and dropped off by one of these people, but I couldn’t know for sure.