5 soul-boosting reasons to hike the PCT

Die-hard “thru-hiker” or aspirational backpacker (like myself), a trip along America’s infamous Pacific Crest Trail has much to offer. Here we explore 5 reasons why hitting the trail is a no-brainer. Could a call to the wild be just the life-altering experience you need?

1. Fresh air anyone?

With 2,650 miles of primitive trail snaking all the way from Mexico to Canada, one thing the PCT has in abundance is space. In epic proportions. Rarely will you find yourself crossing a road or treading tarmac of any kind. How refreshing it is to walk a path absent of crowds and wafts of other people’s cigarette smoke. Whilst you’re enjoying this new-found clean air, expect to repetitively utter the word ‘awesome’ to describe the surrounding scenery, in a totally non-ironic way. Take for example, Washington’s Goat Rocks Wilderness. Home to the oft-photographed “Knife’s Edge”, where you will inhale lungfuls of frigid mountain air as you scale across its perilous ridge. The remnants of an eroded stratovolcano, these sharp, serrated peaks resemble a Stegosaurus’ spine, perfectly sandwiched between deep valley drainages – vertigo-sufferers be warned!

2. The opportunity to finally disconnect

Unsurprisingly, the wilderness isn’t known for its high-speed data connectivity – in fact, good luck if you find any mobile signal out there at all! When was the last time you didn’t sneak a peek at your phone’s captivating screen for more than a couple of hours? Yet, being forced to switch off those swiping reflexes and tap-out of the bombarding online world is invigorating. It may take a few days to adjust, but once you do it’s incredible just how far your other senses are heightened. You will begin to appreciate your surroundings in a whole new light, the small things we otherwise miss, such as the vibrating tones of circling hummingbirds, or the fragrance of evergreen pines so indicative of Christmas. Call it mindfulness, a digital detox, or whatever you like, but clearing your headspace of over-stimulation to get in touch with your more intrinsic-self should be on everybody’s To-Do list.

3. Trail Magic

I probably shouldn’t even list it here, because the whole point of “trail magic” is the unexpected element associated with receiving a gift of unsolicited kindness. Yet, the PCT is renowned for attracting just this. Total strangers – with no hidden agenda – time and time again aid hikers by providing free rides into town, food donations, and even sometimes hosting them in their homes. At my lowest point on the entire trail, having hiked through rain for three days solid, a chance encounter with an American-Irish family reunion saved me. Welcomed into the fold, within 24-hours of being fed, laundered, and provided an actual bed, I hiked out not only stronger, but with a restored faith in humanity. You will undoubtedly meet a plethora of genuine people from all walks of life on the PCT. Often known solely by a playful trail meme, many a colourful character will become a life-long friend.

4. Appreciating simple things

There’s nothing like an extended trip along the PCT for highlighting the simple things we often take for granted. With an average of five days living in the wild standing between any facilities or food resupply, you will begin to appreciate things like never before. Take for instance, being able to drink clean water straight from a tap – without the need to source and filter it first. Simply mind-blowing. Not to mention how good it feels to remove days of sweat and grime with a steamy shower, or the pleasure derived from a hot meal that wasn’t once dehydrated. The modern world has desensitised us from the wonder of such utilities. Reaching them becomes an exciting, tangible goal. One that holds with it an unparalleled sense of achievement because let’s face it, it requires sheer grit and determination in the face of mental and physical hardship to make. After all, there’s no Amazon on call when you’re days away from the nearest extraction point.

5. Freedom

It’s human nature to lust after a sense of freedom. We didn’t always live crammed into cities after all. So where better than the vast American wilderness to embrace your liberty? Nowhere else have I ever experienced the thrilling delight of marching to the beat of my own drum. Gone were the days of bus timetables, clocking-in, and struggling to figure out my tax obligations. Life sure is liberating when the usual mix of daily worries are dissolved into a simple but variable rhythm: Walk, Eat, Sleep, Repeat. What’s more, no two days are ever the same. Each morning I would awake – slightly sore from sleeping on the ground – to pumping of adrenalin supplied purely from the exhilarating anticipation of facing the unknown. Who knew if I would be mauled by a bear or fall into a ravine? I can’t say that ever happens to me in London.



If the above sounds tempting, but you find yourself short of the circa five months required to attempt hiking the entire PCT, just pick a section. Whatever section you choose to discover, one thing’s for sure: the trail will embed in your soul a vivid collection of images and memories that will last a life-time. So, why not try it for yourself? I am living proof that even the unlikeliest of backpackers can not only survive, but be completely moved by the wild.

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For more information on hiking the PCT see: https://www.pcta.org
Free trail maps can be downloaded from: https://www.pctmap.net

The day we came face-to-face with a Grizzly

My heart stopped.  Just moments before, we had been happily enjoying the down-hill momentum and views into Glacier’s central valley, that was until company round a bend ahead.  We froze in our tracks.  A giant male grizzly dominated the trail just 20 meters beyond.

Of course, I’m well-aware that Glacier National Park is home to a grizzly bear population – warning signs are everywhere – but I never really expected to get THIS close to one.  I had hoped to catch a sight of one form the car window.  That would have been nice.  Nice and safe.  If anything, I had been on higher alert earlier that morning as we set out, completely alone, from the Siyeh Bend trailhead.  Crossing through Preston Park meadows still enveloped in mist, I made sure to make our presence known, and scouted the area for any sign of movement.  Nothing.

 

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Entering Preston Park ahead of the sun

 

Leaving the timberline far below, we wound up a shingle trail to summit Siyeh Pass.  There we found a plump lonely marmot, hair blowing in the breeze, admiring the view.  He didn’t seem bothered by us, so we let each other be, taking in the same view of a previously hidden eastern valley with tiny glaciers dotted high above.

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Capturing the views from Siyeh Pass

 

From Siyeh pass the views really exploded.  No longer sheltered by trees, the trail begins a tight descent, switch-backing 3220 feet alongside the stunning Sexton Glacier.  Both Conrad and I became so preoccupied with trying to capture the splendor on our cameras – failing completely – that concerns of bears left our minds.

Our cameras had just returned to bags as the trail began evening out, hugging the edge of Goat Mountain.  That’s when the creature appeared, completely startling us.  Conrad was in the lead (thank God), as we simultaneously stopped dead in our tracks.  He had seen us too.  Definitely a grizzly.  His dark coat hung over huge hunched shoulders, with the tell-tale long snout that identified his bread.  I suddenly felt very vulnerable.  We hadn’t seen another human-being all day.  And here we were carrying a bag full of trail snacks.  What idiots!  I bet we smelt good enough to eat too.

 

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If only we’d seen this BEFORE the bear!

 

My mind rapidly began processing every bit of advice I’d ever consumed about bears.  I knew enough not to run.  Even though instinct kind of made me want to.  Now, what was the difference between dealing with grizzly verses black bears again?  The bear was holding our gaze.  It felt like a Mexican stand-off.  He seemed unsure too.  Then, slowly, he resumed his stride, edging even closer.  Shit!  I’m going to die!  I immediately began clapping my hands and shouting loud, incoherent nonsense – anything that sprung to mind that identified us as people.  Meanwhile, Conrad frantically released the can of bear pepper spray from its holster, the can we had debated paying $50 for just days before.  He pulled the safety tab out ready.  I cowed behind him.

I’m so grateful we never had to dispense the noxious mace.  For one thing, a strong wind was blowing in our direction so we would have probably blinded ourselves!  And for another, by the bear choosing to have a change of heart and divert off of the trail instead of confronting us, he kept himself safe.  Not that we could have defeated him, but National Park policy often dictates that ‘troublesome’ bears – those deemed a threat to humans – are killed.  So we both happily got to live another day!  We watched as he leisurely passed us further down the slope, eventually stopping to inspect some fallen timber, to no doubt on the hunt for food.

 

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The only photo of the bear – taken once our safety seemed fairly certain & my pounding heart recovered

 

I spent the remainder of the descent along the gushing Baring Creeks constantly looking over my shoulder, rattled.  I didn’t dare get any food out.  But wow!  What an encounter.  My respect for nature increases every day.

 

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Baring Falls. Sunrift Gorge.

 

 

We hiked the Siyeh Pass Trail from Siyeh Bend, ending at Sunset Gorge. The trail is just over 10 miles long and gains 2240 feet.  There is a further option to extend the hike up to Piegan Pass and view Piegan glacier, but you will have to back-track from the pass to re-join this circuit.

Photographed in early August 2018.

A Beginner’s Guide For First-Time Hikers — Suzy Stories

Ever wondered how you can go from city-slicker to mountain-hiker? Kathryn Barnes, author of The Unlikeliest Backpacker has provided a few tips and anecdotes in this guide for first-time hikers as part of the… 1,184 more words

via A Beginner’s Guide For First-Time Hikers — Suzy Stories

So I did it… I finally wrote a book!

When I was [much] younger, as a student studying English at A-level, I was convinced I could write a book.  I mean, how hard could it be?  They say everyone has a book in them, so I just needed to figure out a title and I would be away…

Such dreams have a tendency to relax themselves from the forefront of your mind as you grow older and focus on more materialistic things – such as paying a mortgage.

Then, nearly three years ago I took a time-out which resulted in the most epic experience of my life.  I hiked along the infamous Pacific Crest Trail – as a complete and utter amateur hiker/ outdoors person – reinvigorating my dreams and leaving in me an over-whelming desire to put the experience to paper so I couldn’t forget a single memory.

Read all about how the book actually came about on Book Brunch

Or just buy a copy from Amazon 🙂

 

I really was the Unlikeliest Backpacker!

 

Gem of the Eastern Sierra

Tucked 10 miles into Rock Creek Canyon lies Little Lakes trailhead and my favourite hike in the Sierra.  So far at least.  From the very beginning of the 7.5-mile walk, the rewards felt endless.

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Keep left on the first fork towards Mack Lake/ Barton Pass

The trail departs from a peaceful campground sat beside the babbling creek and slowly ascends 994 feet through the valley.  As it does a handful of alpine lakes appear, happily nestled below rapidly melting snow-capped peaks.

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We managed to keep our feet dry!
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Long Lake – far too big and deep for a dip this time of year

The path that eventually ends at Gem Lake isn’t overly difficult and contains all the drama and beauty you could possibly want from a hike in the Sierra.

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For some, the path to a closer Lake such as Long or Chicken Foot is enough.  We pass by the odd angler peacefully fishing in crystal-clear waters.  And here lies the charm of this trail – you don’t have to make it to the end to feel rewarded. You could spend 4 hours hiking all the way to Gem Lake like we did, or find yourselves happily lost in the views almost anywhere in between.

 

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Aquamarine Gem Lake

 

 

 

Not that you will get lost – very little navigation is required.  The trailhead contained a map detailing the various lakes and 2 passes further along different splinter trails.  Some brave people trek all the way to Mono Lake more than 50 miles north, but for those with little time to spare, this trail is still well worth the drive.

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The last lingering signs of winter
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Verdant meadows

A frigidly cold breeze sometimes whipped us as we rambled the rocky path, hopping across stone water crossings.  Yet at this elevation, the sun certainly left its mark.  Bring mosquito spray, and even better – if you have the time – pack a tent and s’mores to spend the night under the endless sky.  Happy trails.

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Returning along Rock Creek

 

Becoming an unwitting Mountaineer in Snowdonia National Park

Last week Conrad and I shattered a personal record.  Having made it across the border to Wales for the first time ever – yes we only live in London – we somehow managed to take a ridiculous 7 hours to complete a 6-mile walk.  I use the word ‘walk’ loosely here.  What followed involved some seriously sketchy scrabbling as our hiking poles got stowed away to grip onto wet rocks for dear life.  Please don’t make me another tragic face on the news following a failed mountain rescue attempt I prayed.  On the plus side, the views were exceptional. Continue reading Becoming an unwitting Mountaineer in Snowdonia National Park

Colorado’s [not quite] Four Pass Loop Trail

Road-tripping Colorado last September our entire journey centred around completing the Four Pass Loop trail.  Situated close to Aspen in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, I first learnt about the hike from an Instagram photo.  The image of an impossibly steep mountain pass covered in wildflowers caught my imagination.  Eager to find out more, I searched YouTube where after a few hours my excitement had been fuelled by the epic mountain scenery and numerous ‘awesome’ references.  I knew the hike would be challenging – twenty-eight miles of rocky terrain, ascending four 12,000-foot passes, at an altitude we were not acclimatised to – but since our PCT hike ended the previous year I longed for adventure.  After convincing a reluctant husband that sleeping outdoors wouldn’t be too bad, we packed the camp set-up we vowed never to use again for 3 days in the wild. Continue reading Colorado’s [not quite] Four Pass Loop Trail