The Sierra Nevada Range and the Pacific Crest Trail have a symbiotic relationship regarding recreation and public access. Both draw visitors worldwide and invite hikers/backpackers to a stunning landscape to traverse year-round. However, for most, this opportunity to enjoy the Pacific Crest Trail is seasonal at best. Once the snow flies, the PCT is regarded as out of bounds for many. However, winter recreation for the brave on the PCT can be an introduction to the truest form of wilderness experiences.
For anyone willing to prepare and give it a chance, the coming winter promises a new way to experience the Pacific Crest Trail.
At places along the trail where snow is a given, winter offers us a completely different Pacific Crest Trail—one that becomes a muted path through a glorious landscape of sparkling white, green pines and firs and (on a sunny day) blue skies. And as the poet Robert Frost described it, “The only other sound’s the sweep / of easy wind and downy flake.”
In this article, we’ll introduce winter recreation on the trail in the hope that you’ll have an opportunity to experience how rewarding it can be when blanketed with snow.
First steps: knowing where to go
For those new to winter recreation in the backcountry, you’re likely to be limited to where you can access the PCT via interstates and primary state highways plowed and maintained for travel throughout the winter. Ideally, look for maintained routes over mountain passes where there is legal parking near the PCT. Fortunately, many passes have Sno-Parks near the trail or at least a plowed parking area for recreation.
A good place to start is the PCTA Interactive PCT Map—where you can get an idea of what passes are closest to you.
In the Sierra, the following locations are the most accessible access points to the PCT in winter: Echo Summit in Lake Tahoe, Carson Pass on HWY 88, Interstate 80 near Boreal Ski Resort, The Yuba Pass Scenic Byway, just north of Sierra City and further North the PCT crosses HWY 89 near Lassen Volcanic National Park just outside of Chester Ca. The most accessible access point on the South Side of the Sierra is Walker Pass Pass along the Isabella Walker pass highway.
Obviously, snow levels and conditions vary enormously across the trail, so you’ll want to know as much as possible about snow depth where you plan to go. The PCT Winter recreation and snow information page includes many online links to real-time snow information sources.
Snowfall: Climate change notwithstanding, parts of the Sierra (such as the Lake Tahoe region) can be prone to gigantic amounts of snow in a short period. While this is true everywhere in the Western mountains, it can be extreme in the Sierras—so again, being aware of the weather forecast before you go is essential.
Here is a Short List of our Favorite PCT Winter Access Hikes
Carson Pass Highway 88 near Kirkwood
This exceptional location is plowed and maintained all winter long. It gives you miles of PCT trail that leads to local favorites, including Winnemucca Lake and backcountry ski areas like reds Peak.
The Echo summit access lot is large and allows travelers to go North or South on the PCT. Beautiful Echo Lake and the Desolation Wilderness to the North, and the trail leads down into Meiss County to the south.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
The trail through Lassen is so wild and unique. Unfortunately, the Dixie Fire of 2021 destroyed much of the forest area around the PCT and until the all-clear from the Forest Service, travelers should check to verify it is safe to travel. As this section of the trail recovers, however, the PCT with views of Lassen Peak is a great winter activity in the park.
Study the trail and the terrain ahead of time, and bring a map
Once you’ve found safe access to the PCT, take the time to study maps of the trail where you intend to go. For your first winter outings, distance won’t be an issue; you can have a wonderful time just going a mile or two along the trail, then return. As you gain experience in winter, you can push your distance. One good option, if it’s accessible, is to pick a part of the trail you’re already familiar with from your summer and fall hiking.
Most important is elevation gain or loss: for your first outings, you’ll be happier and safer on sections of the trail that aren’t very steep. Level or rolling terrain is best, followed by long, gentle slopes. Until you gain experience and knowledge, learn about avalanche safety, and how to avoid terrain that puts you at risk of avalanche danger.
And be sure to bring a detailed map of the trail with you on the trail. National Geographic’s new PCT trail maps are a great resource—they are made in partnership with PCTA, and 4% of the purchase price supports the PCTA. Keep in mind that places you’re familiar with in the summer may look very different when blanketed with snow, and if no one else has left tracks before you, some trails may be difficult to find.
Snowshoes: a great first way to experience the PCT in winter
If you have no previous experience in traveling over snow, snowshoes are the easiest and most accessible way to travel over snow. While they may appear bulky and complicated, traveling on snowshoes isn’t much more difficult than walking—and some would say a lot more fun! Snowshoes keep you from sinking into the snow by spreading your weight over a wider area. Another big benefit is they also serve as cleats—giving you more traction in slippery areas through serrated metal teeth on the bottoms.
There are many different types of snowshoes. However, the general rule is that larger snowshoes are designed for heavier people and deeper, softer snow, whereas smaller snowshoes are for lighter people and more firm or packed snow and ice. (Smaller snowshoes are also sometimes used by those who enjoy running in the snow.) Compared to skis, snowshoes are inexpensive and many outdoor and ski shops will rent them to you for as little as $10-20/day.
Aside from snowshoes, you’ll need a pair of poles. While not essential for snowshoeing, poles give you an extra level of stability and can help with balance on sloping terrain. Most popular are trekking poles (the same kind you’d use in summer) with the addition of screw-on “baskets,” the discs just above the tip of the pole that prevent them from penetrating too far into the snow. Of course, ski poles will also work if they are short enough.
Snowshoes can accommodate a wide variety of footwear—most likely, whatever winter or snow boots you already have will work well enough for your first outings. The more waterproof and warm the boots, the better. SAVE MIN 55% and UP TO 90% on top picks for Men’s Outdoor Clothing, Shoes, and Apparel at Geartrade. Get it before it goes!
Finally, for your first outings in snow, figure on moving more slowly than you would on a summer hike: 50-75% of your normal pace is a good ballpark for estimating time and distance on the trail. Your speed will depend on your conditioning as well as the snow. Loose, deep snow will slow you down and require more effort—and if you’re on a well-traveled part of the trail where others have packed the snow, you’ll find the going easier and faster.
Cross-country skis: going faster and farther
While they require more experience and skill to learn, cross-country skis (commonly abbreviated as XC skis) are a very efficient way to cover distances over snow. If you’re an experienced cross-country skier but previously have only skied on groomed trails at a Nordic center, you’ll find skiing on the PCT to be a little “wilder.” If you’re new to XC skiing, you might consider making your first outing at a Nordic center or on groomed trails just to get a feel for the skis. Sno-Parks are often good places to learn, as many will have trails on relatively level terrain.
Finding level or gently rolling terrain (or long, gradual elevation changes that aren’t too steep) is more critical for XC skiing than snowshoeing. When the trail begins rising or falling at more than a gentle slope, your day can quickly become frustrating and difficult if you aren’t experienced. Studying maps of the trail that show elevation contours or profiles can make your outing a lot more enjoyable (and enable you to eliminate any locations with steep terrain starting near the trailhead).
Often when XC skiing on the trail, someone else will have gone before you—and you’ll find a nice pair of ski tracks in the snow to follow. But, sometimes, you’ll be the first one on the trail after a fresh snowfall, and you’ll be breaking the trail. This can be incredibly beautiful and rewarding but is more demanding as you’ll work harder and have the added task of navigating and ensuring you remain on the trail. (And know that wherever you ski, others will follow in your tracks.)
There are many types of XC skis and we couldn’t cover them all here. But generally, the best skis to use on the PCT (and backcountry trails generally) will be shorter and broader than skis used on groomed trails. They’ll also have metal edges to aid in turning and gripping the snow on slopes. These are sometimes referred to as “backcountry touring” or “backcountry Nordic” skis.
With knowledge and preparedness, you can enjoy the spectacular winter experience on the PCT.
Despite the hazards, winter recreation on the PCT can be spectacular and rewarding. For many, being on the trail in the snow is even more fun than in summer. Under the snow, the PCT becomes a true wonderland—like being inside a vast snow globe where every detail sparkles, colors are more vibrant and the air feels fresher and cleaner. (And no bugs!)
Best of all, getting knowledgeable and experienced at winter travel in the backcountry extends your “season” for outdoor play to more each year.
Elevation: because the Sierras are often higher than the Cascades, temperatures can be lower and winds more substantial—and the consequences of storms can be potentially worse. Exposure can be greater at higher elevations (e.g. above treeline), so all this must be considered when choosing a place to go, clothing, and gear. So do your research, learn about the hazards, then get out there and enjoy!
Source: By Scott Wilkinson PCTA Communication director Blog Post December 23, 2020 “Winter offers a spectacular new way to experience the Pacific Crest Trail“
Scott Wilkinson is the PCTA’s Content Development Director. A former professional musician, Scott has 20+ years of experience in almost every marketing role. Before joining the PCTA he was a marketing/creative director at West Virginia University and the University of Oregon. A serious outdoor addict, Scott is an experienced whitewater paddler, hang glider pilot, flyfisher, mountain biker, and (of course) hiker and backpacker.