4 Trail Features I Won’t Take for Granted on the PCT

When my life fell apart in 2020, I made some radical changes. One side effect was newfound appreciation for the work required to maintain a hiking trail.

Shaking things up

Radical change has worked for me in the past. When I was deeply unhappy in 2016, I moved by myself to Morocco. Life in Casablanca was fascinating, and I taught English there until thru-hiking the AT in 2018. After Katahdin, I fought back against post-trail depression by teaching in Malaysia for the winter and then relocating to New Hampshire.

By now, I find the dramatic upheaval of my routine almost comforting. When 2020 crashed and burned, my natural reaction was to tackle something completely new. Voila! The small-town English teacher moves 2,500 miles and does manual labor in the wilderness. As a result, I will never take trails for granted again.

Since July, I’ve done a variety of trail work with a conservation corps on projects in Arizona, Wyoming, and New Mexico. These days, it’s impossible for me to hike without noticing evidence of the effort behind each mile of trail. Without further ado, here are 4 things that I took for granted on the AT that I will appreciate on the Pacific Crest Trail.

1) A clear corridor in a wilderness area

When I first joined the conservation corps, I was trained as a crosscut sawyer. In federally protected wilderness areas, all mechanized equipment is prohibited, including chainsaws. This means that when a tree falls across a trail, someone has to remove it Paul Bunyan-style. All summer, my 8-person crew worked in wilderness areas within Medicine Bow National Forest and Santa Fe National Forest to clear away thousands of fallen trees. Depending on its diameter and position, each log could take minutes or hours to move. First, we used an axe to de-limb and de-bark the tree. Then, we used a single-buck (one-person) or double-buck (two-person) saw to cut through it. Finally, we rolled or lifted the heavy log clear of the trail.

This 120-ft tall ponderosa pine fell across the CDT near Cuba, New Mexico. Another crew member and I used “Notorious,” an antique crosscut saw nearly 7ft in length, to cut through the tree.

After we axed through the remaining holding wood on the broken side, most of the crew was needed to roll the log off the trail.

Because wilderness areas are, by definition, far from human development, most of these projects involved backcountry camping. To carry provisions and tools for eight days at a time, we typically hefted packs weighing 40-50 pounds, double what I carry while thru-hiking.

On the AT, I rarely paid attention to which agency managed each stretch of forest. Now that I understand more about the regulations, I appreciate the effort required to maintain an unobstructed trail. On the PCT, when I enter a wilderness area, I’ll know that someone hauled a 6-foot crosscut saw up a mountain to keep the corridor clear of deadfall.

2) A clear corridor anywhere else

I got my chainsaw certification about a month ago, and three days of field training revealed that chainsaws are heavy. They are also temperamental and require the sawyer to carry a repair kit, extra fuel and bar oil, and extensive PPE. Clearing trails with a chainsaw is much faster than with a crosscut, but it’s not an easy task.

Cutting invasive salt cedar during my chainsaw certification

3) Cairns

I don’t mean the stacks of rocks that people build to take artistic photos (My LNT training compels me to remind you: Please don’t make these! Especially not above tree line or in creek beds. They can mislead hikers since official cairns are navigation tools, and you can disrupt fragile organisms in the soil or water).

Instead, I’m talking about stone waymarks constructed in areas where the trail is confusing to navigate, such as wide-open fields or rocky summits. In the White Mountains, for example, strategically-placed cairns might be the only way to spot the trail on a foggy day above tree line. Before this summer, I’d never built one, but how hard could it be? It was just a pile of rocks.

After a project near Kingman, Arizona, I will never take a good, solid cairn for granted again. To build a natural-looking cairn, trail workers must carry heavy rocks from the surrounding area and then play Tetris with their uneven surfaces until a sufficiently visible and sturdy pyramid is produced. My crew leader would test our cairns with a swift kick from every side, and if anything wobbled, we had to dismantle our creation and start again. I enjoyed the puzzle of building a stable cairn, but it’s more time-consuming than it looks!

Compared with the small ones I built in Kingman, this cairn– spotted on a hike near Gallup, New Mexico– is a monster!

4) Good drainage

On the same project, most of our time was spent digging drains to protect fragile trail from the Mohave Desert’s infrequent but destructive monsoons. At first, it felt like a lot of work using pick mattocks and Mcleods just to shift some dirt around. However, throughout the project, I learned to appreciate how subtle changes in grade at strategic locations can guide water across and away from the trail instead of allowing rainstorms to wash away the soil.

I grew up hiking on the East coast, where trails are older and tend to go straight up and down mountains with little regard for hydrology. On the AT, washed-out trails with pools of mud or bare granite slab are… well, most of the AT. Now when I hike, I notice the effort and planning employed to create a durable section of trail that can withstand the weather.

The Dolan Springs Trail System, west of Kingman, Arizona, wanders among Joshua Trees and cholla cactus. Our drainage work should mitigate any damage to the trail when the region eventually receives its next monsoon.

Lesson learned: A thru-hike is never a solo endeavor.

I never felt oblivious on the Appalachian Trail. The AT was maintained by one of the largest networks of volunteers in the world, and I appreciated their work– I just rarely noticed it. I took for granted the scale of labor and coordination required to preserve a 2000+ mile trail through the wilderness. My perspective was understandable. After all, good trail work allows a hiker to forget that any part of the experience is man-made. Good trail work allows us relish being alone in nature.

Nonetheless, even if we do it for the solitude, no one actually thru-hikes in isolation. Trails exist because people– lots of them– care enough to maintain them. Some are short-term trail workers like me. Others donate their time over decades and decades.

My New Year’s Resolution for 2021 is to take no unobstructed mile for granted on the PCT.

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Comments 5

  • Lance A Goehring : Jan 3rd

    Great post! Hope we can both hike the PCT this year.

    Where’d you do work near Kingman? My dad lives in Kingman and I frequently hike in the Cerbat Hills and the Hualapai Mountains there.

  • Jared Messersmith : Feb 5th

    Thank you for sharing this with the rest of the community. I too worked with a conservation corps doing trail work for a couple months, and learned many of the same lessons you mentioned. Working on the trails brings a whole new level of understanding for the trails you hike on. I think one of my favorite parts is being able to hike a trail, see a structure on the trail, like a check step or water bar (we did a lot of these), and being like Oh! I know how to build that! or seeing a rutted trail and wishing I had a shovel to build a few drains.

    Thanks for sharing and happy trails!


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