(Almost) Every PCT Town, Ranked

My recurring mantra on the PCT last year was a little bit unorthodox: “Never skip a town” is basically the only thing I told myself on a regular basis on the trail. Why? I suppose because you know, at the end of the day, I’m a tourist as much as a thru-hiker. And since it was this sheltered Texan’s first real trip out west, I wanted to experience those small-town vibes just as much as the mountain vistas. No regrets.

That being said, the PCT is no exception to the fact that there are some seriously economically depressed places out west, and I think it was just as important to experience those as it was to experience places like the money pits of L.A. or Mammoth Lakes. It’s what makes the trail the trail.  But I think the most important thing I learned before hitting a town is that it’s all about calibrating your expectations accordingly. It’s worth noting that I had such a positive experience in most places that hating on some of these towns was pretty difficult.

Despite mostly positive experiences, there were still a couple of total stinkers though. So, without further ado, I present my totally subjective and by-no-means-definitive ranking of (almost) every town on the PCT from worst to best.

43. Chester, CA

Topping my list is Chester, California. Between the complete lack of accommodation (even before the fires), someone whispering “you hikers are ruining our town” into a friend’s ear in the bathroom, a milkshake that tasted like pothole water, and a grocery store that was sold out of everything, there was nothing for me to like about this place when I was there. It was also one of the smokiest days of the whole trail as the Dixie Fire had just started (fortunately, the town did survive the fire intact). The only formerly affordable tenting option in town had recently shuttered due to “ungrateful” hikers, so part of the reason this place sucked was admittedly probably our own fault.

42. Belden, CA

You ever walk into a place and just get those kinda creepy, half-abandoned vibes? Like someone’s watching you through some blinds or something? That was this whole town for me. The view of the river was nice though.

The town was subsequently hit hard by the Dixie Fire last year but fortunately pulled through mostly intact.

Towering smoke from the Dixie Fire rolling in near Belden, CA. Thanks again to Strix for the ride out a few minutes after this.

41. Cabazon/Palm Springs, CA

Cabazon’s Dollar General was probably the sketchiest resupply of the whole trail. And to be fair, I didn’t actually go into Palm Springs, but I generally assume that a town with 124 golf courses isn’t the type of place that’s going to welcome hikers anyway. This is also where Mama Bear usually does/did trail magic, but when I got there, it was just a giant, overflowing bag of empty water jugs and scattered bar wrappers. Bad timing, but what are you gonna do about it. Whitewater Preserve soon after this was one of my favorite swimming spots though.

40. Campo, CA

This is actually just a little convenience store. The guy working there was so laid back he belonged on a surfboard. But the super-abundance of border patrol trucks, drones, ATVs, motorcycles, helicopters, and agents was NOT the greatest vibe for the start of my hike.

39. Warner Springs, CA

If you are just looking for a lukewarm microwaved hot dog, then look no further my friends. This is the town you always dreamed of. Between the absolutely degenerate resupply, the hiker box full of mystery powders, and the single picnic table beside a giant dumpster, this place exactly lived up to my expectations.

Editor’s note: Unsolicited counter-argument time! Just have to put in a good word for the Golf Grill here. Those veggie omelets, guys. Wow. That’s all, thanks for listening to my Ted Talk. Back to your regularly scheduled programming.

38. Sierra City, CA

A lot of people liked this place but I didn’t really get it. The competition to get a room without air conditioning at the one hotel is bananas. It reminded me of the way that people on the Camino de Santiago will wake up at, like, four a.m. to make sure they get a room in the hostel that night. The town’s only restaurant was closed, but the owner was still letting people cowboy camp in his garden out back, and that was nice of him. Apparently, the church used to host hikers, but for one reason or another, that ship had sailed. This may have also been because of hikers. Also, it was literally 107 degrees the day I was here, so the best part about the town wasn’t even the town—it was the river two miles away.

37. Lake Morena, CA

An extremely hyped milkshake that was extremely average.

36. Seiad Valley, CA

An objectively terrible stop on the PCT that, nevertheless, I harbor a certain fondness for. The lady at the town’s only bar (which didn’t serve alcohol?) let us camp there, which was unexpected. The resupply was also inexplicably affordable, even though some of the peanut butter looked like it had been on the shelf since Armageddon came out on VHS. I also ate so many dang blackberries on the long road walk into town, which was great. But the sense of hostility and general anger at the world in this area was still hard to miss.

35. Timberline Lodge Mt. Hood, OR

An overhyped and expensive buffet in an incredibly beautiful, historic lodge. Probably the best public siesta I took on the whole trail.

34. Mt. Laguna, CA

The brunch place was fine, and the proprietor of the general store was as cantankerous as advertised. That’s about all I can say about an otherwise unremarkable place. Funny sign.

33. White Pass / Packwood, WA

It looks like a cement mixing truck made it to the top of this pass and then just gave up and bled out everywhere. But the Kracker Barrel (with a K) was a cool place, and it was easy to hitch down into Packwood, which looks like an unassuming mountain town, but, thanks to being unincorporated, it’s one of the most egregious examples of a town that is nothing but AirBnBs now. Kinda sad for everyone that has to live and work here.

32. Old Station, CA

This place is actually just a dilapidated gas station and a cafe. The cafe is open from, like, 9:00 a.m. – 9:25 a.m., which makes going there essentially impossible. But the cheese stick and beer from the gas station were fine. Some people were doing trail magic here while some other people were doing more trail magic down at the campground and letting hikers stay there. And then a guy showed up and started handing out a bunch of weed that he was growing in his basement? So, you know, this was actually a great day.

31. Tuolumne Meadows/Yosemite Valley, CA

I had a good time down in the valley thanks to some friends, but objectively, I don’t think this place is anything special. Everyone probably had a wildly different experience here, though, so it feels tough to rank. The campsite at TM did let hikers stay for free, but I think that ended due to overcrowding, like, a week after I was there. Also, down in the valley, the backpacker camp lets PCT hikers stay for a night for free with their permit. You won’t get much sleep, though, because people will be yelling at the half-domesticated bears all night. Definitely worth checking out for a day if you are in the mood for that National Park Starbucks and a $30 frozen pizza.

30. Bucks Lake, CA

There’s not a lot here, but I still stopped when I knew I should’ve just gone into Quincy. Regardless, the restaurant was fine, the swim in the lake was refreshing, and the daughter of the restaurant’s owners was giving hikers a free ride back to trail—everyone really appreciated that.

29. Julian, CA

This place had no business being such an idyllic, quaint town. Plus they gave out free slices of pie to hikers. Total sweethearts for that. It was so insanely busy here on the weekend, though, you couldn’t even walk on the sidewalk. I waited 20 minutes to use a port-a-potty. The brewery was also letting hikers camp out back, which was cool because I didn’t even want to LOOK at lodging prices.

28. Kennedy Meadows North

This place lands firmly in the middle of the pack, even though it had my second favorite bar on the entire trail. 10/10 jukebox, 10/10 neon, 10/10 drinks and prices. Plus the shuttle down to the resort was free, and since it’s pretty much the only resupply option, you’ve got to go in anyway. That being said, the rooms/camping were overpriced, the showers were pretty gross (and paid), wi-fi was hilariously non-functional, and the food was pretty terrible. Honestly, how do you even burn a pancake.

27. Cajon Pass, CA

Not even really a town, just an extremely bitchin’ taco truck. I ate here three times somehow.

26. Agua Dulce, CA

A Mexican restaurant, an outfitter, and an abandoned dirt lot where hikers can camp. Not the worst place, especially given the fact that this is the closest the trail gets to L.A. I slept with a to-go box of leftovers from the Mexican place in my vestibule, and some coyotes totally came right up to my tent looking for it. Special interaction with nature.

25. Snoqualmie Pass, WA

Not much going on here, but the only hotel was affordable and nice. And they had a sweet hot tub and sauna. Really weird trail magic here too, where a guy was giving everyone all the leftover catered food from his wedding the day before. Some say he’s still there handing out kale salads to this day.

Photo by @esdanyog.

24. Donner Ski Ranch, CA

A very affordable bunkhouse, and a ridiculously generous hiker deal where you get a free 40 oz. beer when you show your PCT permit. But when I got here, they were out of 40s, so they were just giving everyone three Coors Lights for free. Unbelievable. Definitely softened the blow of skipping Truckee a little bit.

23. Dunsmuir/Shasta, CA

Free public transport from the trail and between the two towns was sweet. I slept at the church in Dunsmuir but spent two days hanging out in Shasta. Lots of good food and coffee. The church was super friendly, but definitely the total opposite of the one in Burney. Shasta’s vibe was definitely a little off, and it looks like it was really cool and quirky, like, 20 years ago.

22. Idyllwild/Paradise Valley Cafe, CA

This cafe was one of the few places that lived up to the hype. And Idyllwild is a cool place, with a very affordable campground right in the middle of the town. I just didn’t really do much here, and the town is so spread out that it’s hard to walk to very many places. They also have a “vegan guerilla market” but since I couldn’t figure out what the hell that actually means, I didn’t check it out.

21. South Lake Tahoe, CA

This is a very bougie town with very bougie prices. But the hostel here was a very surprisingly laid-back stay, and the lake itself is a great place to swim. They also had free public transport and a Chipotle. I lost a hundred bucks at the Hard Rock casino, though. Somebody should do something about that.

20. Vermillion Valley Resort, CA

Free camping, free beer when you arrive, everything else incredibly expensive. That includes a very average, plain midwestern dinner. Fair enough, though, because it’s in the middle of nowhere. This was one of the most underwhelming milkshakes on the PCT, but probably the best hiker box. They had it all sorted into different categories and everything. Thanks to all the JMT hikers for those dehydrated meals.

19. Cascade Locks, OR

Cool town with an incredible view. I spent four days camped here because of PCT days. There are some semi-affordable rooms, though, and the brewery is a great spot for hikers. Hood River was cool too, so it feels like it’s tough to go wrong here.

18. Mammoth Lakes

Maybe the most overblown town on the PCT, clearly catering more to the mountain bike tourists, which is understandable I guess. Motel 6 cost 120 bucks for a night. The cell tower was so overloaded there that nobody even had service the whole time we were there. Every restaurant had, like, a 30-60 minute wait. The brewery was dutifully brewery-like, the public transport was free, and I think the hitch in/out of town was probably the most frustrating of the whole trail. So many cars passing by, so many drivers pretending to look at something out the other window. I still somehow kind of enjoyed it.

17. Ashland, OR

This place is probably what Shasta was like 10 years ago. Or maybe it’s already as bad as Shasta, I don’t know. It’s probably a really fun place to live, and the Shakesperean theater was fascinating, plus Medford was a really fun and affordable place to stay. But as far as a trail town goes, it was pretty average.

16. Hiker Town, CA

Is it a town? Is it a movie set? Is it some kind of existential nightmare? Nobody knows. And this godforsaken, sun-scorched place will go on resisting classification long after we’ve all attempted to sort out our feelings on exactly what the hell is going on there. I almost melted alive from the heat. Regardless, I loved it. I think?

Also why did they have so many fake guns.

15. Crater Lake, OR

OK, this one is probably further up on my list than most peoples’ because we were lucky enough to stay at the lodge. It was peak wildfire season and the worst AQI day of the whole trail, so I guess we got a good deal because of all the last-minute cancellations. Then the breakfast buffet in the morning was incredibly stacked. Nothing to complain about except the fact that we couldn’t even see the lake because of the smoke. Hard to know what we were missing, though, until someone showed us the photos. The rooms still had wallpaper. It was amazing.

View of the alleged lake from the lodge.

14. Shelter Cove Resort, OR

I had a very ideal afternoon chilling out here. It’s the perfect trail stop because it’s got solid food, solid swimming, solid hiker box(es), and enough camping for the whole tramily.

13. Kennedy Meadows, CA

Yes, I cried a little walking into here. But I also cried again after getting to sing Margaritaville during karaoke night at Grumpy Bear’s. Then I cried again after that second dinner plate-sized pancake. The fact that they are still letting hikers camp for free behind there is truly an act of benevolence.

Great decorations too.

12. Leavenworth, WA

A tourist hell that is actually so kitschy and horrifying that it comes full circle and is ironically charming, maybe? I think I loved it because of how easy it is to hate literally everything that is going on here. That’s probably my own fault. If I had been having a bachelorette party and not hiking the PCT, this town would’ve been number one.

You truly cannot fake such a look of utter confusion and disbelief.

11. Big Bear City, CA

Most people who go into Big Bear probably all have very different experiences, but something tells me that almost all of them are positive. This town has some great bars, some great restaurants, and some great places to stay. The trail angels here are wonderful, even if they sometimes take a little longer than expected to show up, so you have to drink some beers while you wait, but then the sheriff doesn’t even arrest you for drinking in the parking lot of the grocery store. I still can’t believe the manager would snitch like that though.

10. Ridgecrest/Kernville

Free camping right on the river in the incredibly charming town of Kernville, plus an amazing and affordable breakfast at the diner there. The waitress, who had been working there for 40 years, gave me some of my favorite advice of the whole trail. Ridgecrest also has some lovely trail angels and a Wal-Mart, so both of these places, although tough to reach, were great stops.

9. Trout Lake, WA

The most surprisingly thorough AND affordable resupply of the entire trail. What is that grocery store up to?! Good wi-fi on their porch, plus a great lawn to hang out and drink beer all afternoon. Then free camping at the church or on their lawn too? A perfect trail stop.

Plus this extremely chill bodega cat

8. Etna, CA

Deep in the heart of the Free State of Jefferson lies this economically depressed, existentially depressed, and entirely captivating place. The town park had free camping, the community pool had free swimming, and the inexplicable existence of TWO decent breweries really catapulted this place into a surprising stop. I think what makes Etna such a great town is that most people go into it with rock bottom expectations, and like so much of NorCal and the State of Jefferson, you’re going to have a great time as long as you calibrate your expectations accordingly.

7. Acton KOA, CA

There’s no real reason to stop here, which, as you know, makes it all the more tantalizing. Plus, If you can get the tramily to go in for some charcoal and a slab of beef, it’s your best opportunity for a big ol’ fashioned family cookout. Cornhole, swimming, and a chillout room made this a really great accidental zero.

Grillmaster @paris_in_america.

6. Wrightwood, CA

An objectively great place that was doing so much for hikers. Some ladies at the hairdresser’s were having a hiker potluck while we were there, plus the outfitter has a great green space to hang out. And, I mean, I don’t want to blow smoke up anyone’s hoo-ha, but the Bud Pharm might definitely be one of the most iconic stops of the whole trail. How many other places in the world would just let a tramily throw a birthday party in their front yard, no questions asked? The pet donkey sent it over the top.

5. Bend, OR

Bend is probably the biggest city on the whole trail, so obviously it’s worth spending extra time there if that’s your kind of thing. But I mean, floating the river for free? Visiting the country’s last surviving Blockbuster? Walkable brewery hopping, including a couple free beers for hikers? The only reason to skip this place is because you went into Sisters instead.

4. Tehachapi, CA

The larger jury may still be out on this town, but I found it to be a perfect stop. Some cheap motels, some cheap old school diners, grocery stores right in the middle of town, and a whole list of trail angels to score a ride to and from the trailhead. There is a really great community here, and it was something I really appreciated. I also appreciate that the VFW let everyone have a giant karaoke dance party there one night, even if I missed it. That may be one of my biggest regrets of the whole trail, and it was extremely cool of them to give something like that the green light.

3. Burney, CA

It’s well known that the church here is probably one of the greatest resources on the entire trail, and such a huge and beautiful space for hikers to crash. Plus the town is so tiny that everything is extremely walkable, BUT the thing that really elevated Burney for me, apart from the insane generosity of everyone at the church, the great diner food, and the great resupply, was none other than…the bar inside of the Burney Bowling Alley. WHAT. A. PLACE. And what a bartender. Pure class. Pure old-school vibes. Pure, unadulterated small-town shit. If that place ever goes out of business I will personally drive to Burney and demand that the building be added to the national historic register.

2. Bishop, CA

Such an underrated town in the Sierra that isn’t just tourist hell. There is an incredibly American bowling alley with an incredibly American bar and two very hiker-friendly hostels that are in fantastic competition with each other. While each hostel has hilariously different vibes, I really enjoyed spending time at both. They had loaner clothes, free bikes to explore the town, good coffee, and extremely chilled out atmospheres. It was just such a nice place to relax for a while. The cops are clearly very accustomed to hitchhikers too, and that made getting in and out of here way more chilled out.

1. Stehekin, WA

If you’ve been to the bakery, you know. If you haven’t been to the bakery, I honestly think it might be worth walking 2,500 miles just for that cinnamon roll cause god DAMN this town is a national treasure. Unbelievably idyllic, totally removed from society, free campsite for hikers, and a general store that sells beer. My favorite zero on trail, because you can just chill out by the lake and swim for a day if the weather is nice. Stehekin was maybe the most hyped stop on the trail, and I usually meet that kind of consensus with skepticism, but this one really lived up to it for me. The scenery is what makes most people want to do the PCT, but the towns like this are what make me wish I could do it all again.

(DISCLAIMER: Usually because there was another, better town to hit, I skipped: Lone Pine, Independence, Sisters, Truckee, Quincy, Mazama, Skykomish, and Bridgeport).

Featured image: Leavenworth, WA. Photo courtesy J Taylor Bell. Graphic design by Jillian Verner (@yourtrulyjillian).

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Comments 10

  • Shelby : Feb 11th

    What an enjoyable & entertaining read. I’m from Burney and it warms my heart to hear such nice things about people I know and love at the church there. Including my grandparents 💞💞
    I spent my 21st birthday at that bowling alley bar. with my Dad and Stepmom. Yup. Good times. Oh, also my wedding night. Yup. Married in the church, the very same, then drinks at the good ol’ bowling alley bar. *wistful sigh*

    Also lived in South Lake Tahoe for half of my, so far short, adult life & I wish you could have met a local to take you around and experience all of its laid back, hippie-inspired, Tahoe loyal, ski-town-in-the-summer charm hiding beneath the veil of the overwhelming “tourist hell” vibe taking over more every year.
    Plus, I always said we needed a Chipotle, but now that I know it’s there, I’m sad for all the good folk like yourself that won’t hunt for real Mexican food, because Chipotle, and thus miss out on several fantastic hole-in-the- wall joints that I still fantasize about some days.

    Forever love California. NorCal strong. KeepTahoeBlue. State of Jefferson. *sigh*

    Reading this was like a quick fly over everything I love about home. I’ll definitely check out more of your work. You made me laugh more than once!!! Thank you for that.

    Reply
  • Colonel Angus : Feb 11th

    Ive thru hiked the PCT 5 times. Don’t listen to anything this article says.

    Reply
  • Frank : Feb 11th

    One theme stuck out for me in the article and other blogs on the PCT. Perhaps more so on the PCT than elsewhere the local support and mood is eroding because of the conduct and sense of elitist entitlement of what seems to be a growing proportion of the thru hiking community on this trail. When you witness it repeatedly it’s easy to understand why many are just grumpy and fed-up. We all have to do better.

    Reply
  • Clay Bonnyman EVans : Feb 11th

    Fun list, as lists are.

    I always remind myself that my individual experience in a particular town, at a particular restaurant or hostel, is just that: One guy’s experience. I might have a terrible time in Town X where someone else thinks it’s great, for whatever reason.

    So, of course, we should always take one individual’s subjective judgment with a grain of salt.

    A few (subjective) thoughts of my own:

    * Totally agree on Belden. I’d place it dead last. “You ever walk into a place and just get those kinda creepy, half-abandoned vibes?” perfectly describes it, for me.
    * Kennedy Meadows North was really fantastic, in my experience.
    * Top three, in no particular order: Etna, Stehekin, Bend
    * Bottom three, in no particular order: Belden, Seiad Valley (even though I had a blast there with my friends, hanging out under the bridge drinking all day, waiting for the sun to go down on a 113-degree day), Warner Springs

    ~Pony PCT NOBO ’21

    Reply
  • Charlie : Feb 14th

    A classic click-bait listicle argument starter…and I am here for it. Your mileage may vary for about any of these towns–that’s the point of course–but if Stehekin doesn’t top the list, then I’m calling BS. I would think Idyllwild would rank higher because of its sweet setting and nice timing for a break (definitely NOBO but perhaps SOBO too). I would move VVR up too. First drink and night on the house but also AYCE side dishes (at least back in 19 and 97) and excellent pies. Listening to “Harvest” in the VVR restaurant after a (much needed) big lunch while scribbling in my journal was pretty dadgum blissful. Seiad Valley is higher on my scorecard too; the Pancake Challenge alone should place it in the top ten. Listening to Merle Haggard on the porch of the Wildwood Lodge (different management back in my day) after a (also much needed) big breakfast while scribbling in my journal, well, that didn’t suck either.

    I agree with Frank above that the goodwill between PCT towns and hikers seems to be plummeting–at least from my admittedly removed vantage point. The AT has endured a similar pattern and I’m not sure what’s to be done about it. Seems to me it’s a problem of critical mass: just too many hikers. If 90% of us return the grocery carts to their proper places, it’s not really much of a problem if there’s only 10 people shopping. Plus I read somewhere that everybody poops (see also: Mt. Everest). You can plead with people not to be dicks, but some people are just gonna be dicks. And when there’s a lot of people…

    Reply
  • Strix : Mar 2nd

    Strix here! Was very surprised reading this article and getting a shout-out and then realized you were the author! Sorry Chester was so terrible. If I had known, I would have picked you back up and let you tent in the backyard. Glad to see you made it around the fire and finished. Have a blast down in Oz. I’ll be starting the PCT next month!

    Reply
  • Rob Dunning : Mar 9th

    As a proprietor in one of the towns listed, and specifically at a place mentioned, I feel compelled to make a few points.
    Back before the trail was completed, I hiked sections and rarely ran into anyone. Hikers were looked at with wonderment while walking into a town. Now, for various reasons, it has exploded in popularity and has become a major contributor to the economies, and potential thorn in the side, of the towns along its length. We who operate businesses in the small mountain communities appreciate the trade and life that hikers bring during the season. I CANNOT count the beautiful souls I came in contact with on the porch of my establishment. However, I CAN count the hikers who acted with disregard and disrespect in a community that welcomes them and that number, while relatively low, is represented by people who really make it hard to be gracious. Anyone who attempts this monster endeavor needs to consider the impact of every action on and off trail.
    The author of this piece ranked many places low on the list for reasons that are out of line with realities and expectations. With the exception of the bigger tourist towns like Mammoth and Lake Tahoe, most of these communities out here are remnants of gold mining towns that died 100 years ago. The people who occupy these hamlets are mostly retired and independent and do not tolerate bullshit. We do without convenience in remote locations because we are tough individuals who can handle pretty much anything that comes with an attitude of gratitude. We do not appreciate attitudes of entitlement and complaint. Yes, it’s hot, yes it’s expensive, yes, places are closed, yes there are many reasons to rank your misery…and yes, I will refuse to serve you when you display your lesser human traits. Come with the attitude of gratitude and I will accommodate you kindly and we will have us a real good time! Peace and happy trails to the PCT class of ’22!!! Can you guess who, and where, I am? See you this summer!

    Reply
  • James : Apr 11th

    Entertaining article but I don’t know about some of these rankings. Etna, Trout Lake, Big Bear, and Action KOA (!!??) ranked way too high. Sierra City. Tuolumne Meadows and a few others ranked too low. Hiker town is terrible but so weird that you have to respect it. Personally I through that the Paradise Valley Cafe was the most overrated food on the entire trail, whereas I didn’t find the Timberline lodge buffet overrated at all… everyone has different taste I guess!

    Reply
  • Magnifico : May 8th

    Wow, the author’s whiny sense of entitled arrogance oozes from every word with smug clarity. You wonder why hikers’ are increasingly unwelcome in so many Sierra towns? Just look in mirror…

    Reply

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