Backpacking is one of the most sustainable ways to explore California and experience its natural beauty unfiltered. When the climate is hospitable, two of its most famous trails, the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and John Muir Trail (JMT), offer sustainable travelers the opportunity to get off – or on – the beaten path and experience the grandeur of California’s paradigmatic western scenery: granite cliffs, alpine lakes, vast rocky deserts, the list goes on.
Unfortunately for future PCT & JMT hopefuls, one of the most tangible effects of climate change in California has been the increased intensity and unpredictability of recent fire seasons. Landmark seasons in the last two years have prompted widespread trail closures and, in some cases, necessitated last-minute helicopter rescues.
Fire season has certainly affected outdoor recreation all over the state, but it has had particularly severe repercussions for thru-hiking. In upcoming summers – will it be possible to thru-hike California’s most famous trails, or will the longer and more intense fire seasons pose too great a safety risk?
No one can predict the future, especially in the face of climate change. However, a look at recent fire seasons and how they have affected the Pacific Crest & John Muir trails may offer important perspectives on how backpackers and thru-hikers should approach future trips in the California wilderness.
The Pacific Crest & John Muir Trails At A Glance
The entirety of the Pacific Crest Trail stretches 2,650 miles on the west coast through Washington, Oregon, and California, terminating north and south at the U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico. As the largest of the three west coast states, California is home to the majority of the trail – approximately 1,691.7 miles – which traverses some of California’s greatest outdoor hits, including the Mojave Desert, Mount Whitney, and of course, Yosemite.
Once in Yosemite, the PCT overlaps with the famous John Muir Trail, which extends from Yosemite Valley to Mount Whitney, largely following the footsteps of the PCT – about 160 of 210 miles. Where it overlaps with the John Muir, the Pacific Crest boasts some of its most grandiose scenery thanks to the granite wonders of the Sierra Nevada.
Backpackers and hikers can traverse any length of either trail, with many opting for shorter sections that fit into a more “days-off-work” friendly period of time. People looking to thru-hike both trails will take about three weeks on the John Muir and five months on the Pacific Crest.
The recommended season for both hinges upon avoiding the danger of snowy conditions in the Sierra Nevada mountains – April to October for the PCT and July to October for the shorter JMT. Hiking from mid-Spring into Fall means that hikers must also take into consideration California’s wildfire season, which typically runs from May through October.
2020: Evacuations in the High Sierra
Before the 2021 Dixie Fire horrified the state in terms of just how much bad things could get, the Creek Fire made a name for itself as the largest single source fire in California’s history. Following a relatively mild fire season in 2019, compared to the apocalyptic scale of what the state now sees, the September 2020 Creek Fire shocked communities as it swelled to an area twice the size of New York City.
The Creek primarily burned through the Sierra National Forest, interrupting the plans of many on hikes where the John Muir and Pacific Crest overlap outside of Yosemite. Hundreds of people, including hikers stranded in remote areas, had to be evacuated via National Guard helicopter rescues. Although 2021 did not see the same type of dramatic stories of helicopter rescues and fiery last-minute escapes covered by major news outlets, it was still a landmark season.
2021: Closures in the High Sierra
As of August 30, the 2021 fire season had already seen more than 6,800 fires, which burned through 1.7 million acres of national forest land in California. This prompted the National Forest Service’s historic decision to close all national forests in California until September 17, 2021, in an attempt to prevent further fires from Labor Day activity.
The mandate was stark: violations would incur $5,000 fines for individuals and $10,000 for organizations. And the stringent measures were certainly necessary. At the time, CalFire was already notably battling the Caldor and Dixie, as well as many other smaller fires across the state.
Generally, southbound hikers on the PCT reach California in late August and early September, so the drastic decision prompted the Pacific Crest Trail Association to urge equestrians and hikers already in the forests to start walking to the trailhead, acknowledging that some on the trail may have to consider ending their journeys. Most of California’s section of the PCT – apart from Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon National Parks – travels through national forest, so many PCT hikers were left in limbo for two weeks.
Luckily, the blanket regional closure was eventually lifted ahead of schedule on September 14, with the exception of a few national forests in southern California. Still, in the months following the decision, members of the thru-hike community wondered if a southbound journey (or any complete thru journey) on the PCT would still be possible.
It is worth noting that even prior to the national forest closure, the PCT had been severely affected by the wildfire season. At the beginning of August, 242 miles of the trail were already closed and hikers were facing difficulties traveling through smoke from the nearby Dixie fire and navigating detours as a result of the smaller Tamarack fire. Yosemite National Park remained open during this time, but hikers and visitors to the park still had to contend with smoke and ash, which reduced visibility of the park’s beautiful lookout points and negatively impacted air quality.
California Wildfires – Landmarks of the Last Few Years
The latest, and most unprecedented California wildfire season came to an end with atmospheric rivers in late 2021, which set record rainfall for both October and December. The abundant rain renewed hopes for a rejuvenation of the Sierra snowpack and an end to statewide drought conditions. However, a dry January and February, possibly the driest in California history, have left hope (and water) in short supply. What’s more, these record dry months, usually the wettest of the rainy season, also saw two winter wildfires – Big Sur’s ‘Colorado’ fire and the more recent ‘Airport’ fire near the town of Bishop in the eastern Sierras.
Although short-lived, the rain from the atmospheric rivers brought much needed relief from a troubling time in California fire history. In August 2021, Assistant Deputy Director of CalFire Daniel Berlant warned, “Nearly every acre in California has the potential to burn these days.” At the time of Berlant’s statement the Dixie Fire, California’s second largest fire in history, had been raging for nearly a month.
The Dixie totaled over three months of burn time and blazed through 963,309 acres, becoming the largest single source fire in California history. More importantly however, the Dixie Fire was also the first ever fire to cross the Sierra Nevadas – moving from the mountains’ western slopes to the eastern valley floor.
In the same month, the nearby Caldor Fire would shortly follow the Dixie to become the second in California’s history to cross the Sierra crest, burning through nearly 222,000 acres of alpine woodlands in the El Dorado National Forest near South Lake Tahoe. Landmark victims of the burn included – but were not limited to – the incredibly scenic Highway 50 corridor between Pollock Pines and South Lake Tahoe and ⅔ of homes in the Gold Rush town of Grizzly Flats. The smoke and ash from the fire, as well as previous fires, also reduced Lake Tahoe’s water clarity.
The Dixie and Caldor’s jumps over the Sierras were and are still of frightening significance, as they indicate a dangerously low mid-Summer snowpack at high elevation. However, other wildfires in recent years have also distinguished themselves in terms of size and destruction. The Camp Fire of 2018, for instance, did not approach the Dixie in terms of acreage, but is currently California’s most deadly and destructive fire on record. It leveled the town of Paradise and killed 86 people. And in terms of sheer size, the August Complex Fire of 2020 is still the largest overall fire on record. Amassing from multiple sources, it burned 1,032,648 acres across seven counties.
When a Truly “Thru” Hike is Not Possible
Throughout the past few fire seasons, trail associations and park offices have done their best to advise hikers and maintain the safety of their trails, but the nature of fire seasons has made it more difficult to give hikers any advice other than to travel at their own risk. While the Dixie Fire was still raging, Scott Wilkinson, spokesperson for the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA), acknowledged that due to climate change, it had come to a point where it was almost impossible to thru-hike every section of the Pacific Crest Trail. He went on to encourage people “to enjoy their local PCT, or to do section hikes for a week here or there.”
This solution probably would not appeal to thru-hikers, usually characterized by superhuman grit and determination. Luckily for them, enjoying local stretches of the PCT sections is just one solution to the problem of trail closures due to wildfires. Another is “flip-flopping,” or the practice of hiking a trail in non-contiguous segments in a single calendar year, as opposed to tackling it continuously in one direction.
Before wildfires, the majority of flip-floppers on the PCT have been northbound hikers who reach the Sierra Nevada while it is still too snowy to cross, and make the decision to hike Oregon and Washington first before returning to the Sierras at the end. Wildfires may necessitate this practice in other segment combinations for hikers who are willing to sacrifice continuity for safety and completion.
However, flip-flopping proves to be a bit complicated for people short on time and money. For those unwilling to stop their momentum, another workaround is “yellow-blazing,” or hitching a car ride farther uptrail. To hiking purists, this may be too much of a cheat depending on the distance required to drive in order to skip trail closures. Moreover, in the case of wildfires, yellow-blazing may not always be possible if nearby communities are also forced to evacuate, leaving options for hitchhiking scarce.
Reacting to Wildfires on the Trail
When it comes to wildfires, the PCTA does not mince words, “Wildfire is one of the great forces of nature… You’re on your own out there. Be prepared.” The message hits home – don’t ever underestimate nature, especially in the face of megadrought and climate change. Raw fury of nature aside, it also details some practical advice for what to do if you encounter a wildfire on the trail.
- React quickly to signs of smoke. If you wake up surrounded in smoke, assess where the smoke is flowing, and travel in the opposite direction.
- Avoid ridges during a wildfire, as fire travels faster uphill than downhill.
- Make yourself seen – spread out something bright and wear colorful gear for firefighters in airplanes or helicopters to see you.
- Stay low to the ground to avoid toxic smoke. Dig a hole for your face if necessary.
- Find ideal shelter. A lake, with a rock or island to shelter on is best. Otherwise, aim for areas that are flatter with less or smaller vegetation. However, large, steep rocky areas are better than brushy meadows.
Ideally, backpackers and thru-hikers should seek to mitigate risk before their trips when possible. Some ways to optimize safety on any trail include consulting the fire-season outlook report up to four months in advance, choosing a trip with multiple trails and roads out of the area, and checking local updates from regional park and forest authorities about trail closures and prior burn zones.
Local authorities will also have important advice on building or (not building) campfires on your trail. Nearly 90% of U.S. wildfires are started by people not following proper campfire safety. On the trail, hikers should think before starting campfires – is the area too dry and brushy, is an ample water source available, are winds high? To quote Smokey the Bear, “Only you can prevent forest fires!” Well – with climate change and drought – this is sort of true.
The Future: Coping with the Effects of Wildfires
Even after the last flame has burned out, a wildfire can still be felt in forests and communities for many months or years following the chaos. There are still people displaced by the Creek Fire of over a year ago and ecological restoration efforts following the Caldor and Dixie Fires are ongoing.
When it comes to the Pacific Crest Trail, the Dixie burned more miles than any fire in living memory and a section of the trail is still closed in the southern area of Lassen National Park. In Lassen, trail restoration efforts continue as park officials work to stabilize trails and remove hazardous trees. Still, trail restoration may not fully restore an area to pre-fire safety. The PCTA has outlined clear guidelines for how to traverse a burn area, with the guiding principle, “Everything is looser than you think.” This means watching for falling trees, landslides, trail collapse, and other potential consequences of soil erosion from wildfires.
Ultimately, wildfires are a part of California’s ecology. A healthy fire will benefit a forest by clearing underbrush and debris, which opens the forest floor to sunlight and nourishes the soil. The problem with today’s fires is that climate change has made them far more intense. Redwoods and other California trees have withstood fires in the past, but are proving less resilient to the more recent megafires.
In short, California’s wilderness is beautiful and terrifying, but also vulnerable. For many nature enthusiasts, the joy of traversing the Pacific Crest or John Muir trails still outweighs the dangers. Nonetheless, tragedy of the past should certainly color our outlook as we hike into a future looming with the extremes of climate change.
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Want to learn more?
2022 Fire Season Outlook – CalFire
John Muir Trail FAQ – Pacific Crest Trail Association
Discover the Trail – Pacific Crest Trail Association
Backcountry Basics: How to React to Wildfires on the Trail – Pacific Crest Trail Association
The Climate Crisis is Changing the PCT Experience – Pacific Crest Trail Association
Giant Dixie Fire first ever to burn its way clear across the Sierra Nevada – San Francisco Chronicle