I Crossed the PCT Five Times on a Train

I took a very roundabout way to get to the PCT. Before landing at the southern terminus in Campo, I took a 25-day train trip, weaving all around the country.  You can see a synopsis of the overall train route here. 

On this winding train adventure, I crossed the PCT on five different occasions. 

1. PCT mile 209.5

Next to I-10 crossing in San Jacinto Wilderness, CA

The Sunset Limited is the oldest named train route in the U.S., dating all the way back to 1894. Departing from New Orleans and terminating in Los Angeles, it is also Amtrak’s southernmost train. The route spans approximately 1,995 miles and takes roughly two days. 

En route to LA, my train crossed the PCT around 1:00 a.m., west of Palm Springs and near the Morongo Casino. I was asleep in my seat, curled up under my PCT quilt. With a total of eight nights planned on an overnight train, I knew the trip wouldn’t work if I couldn’t figure out how to sleep on trains. I brought everything I could think of to ensure a good night’s sleep: a huge inflatable travel pillow, an eye mask, good earplugs, a blanket, comfy sweatpants, melatonin, and Benadryl. 

It must have worked because I was completely unconscious when we whizzed by this first PCT crossing. 

2. PCT mile 1502.1

Near I-5 crossing by Dunsmuir, CA

After a short visit in LA, I took the Coast Starlight up the west coast to Seattle. On the second day of the route, I woke up to the sun rising behind a huge snow-covered mountain. I checked the map on my phone to see where we were. I was looking at Mount Shasta, a dormant volcano in northern California. At 14,180 feet, it is the second highest peak in the Cascades (behind Mount Rainier in Washington).

I realized that I had just missed my chance for a PCT sighting. The PCT crosses the train tracks near Mount Shasta at mile 1,502.1. I wished I had woken up just a few minutes earlier. I would have loved to get a glimpse of the trail and snap a picture from my window.

Waking up to Mt Shasta out my train window

3. PCT mile 1,907.6

Near Shelter Cove Resort in Deschutes National Forest, OR

Luckily, I would have another chance that same day in Oregon. I tracked the train’s progress as we approached the next PCT crossing at mile 1,907.6, where the trail passes near Shelter Cove Resort. With a cafe, store, laundry, and showers, I expect Shelter Cove will be a great pit stop for me in a few months on the PCT.

This time I was ready. I opened FarOut and watched as our train approached the PCT. After passing the resort, I knew we’d cross the trail any second. I pressed my phone camera against the window and waited for the exact moment, my finger hovering over the shutter button.

Then everything went dark.

Wha? What happened?

In the pitch black, it took me a moment to realize we had entered a tunnel.

The PCT, apparently, crosses over the train tracks. So much for a photo op!

The docks at Shelter Cove Resort, a short walk from the PCT

Despite not seeing the actual trail, I enjoyed the Coast Starlight because it more or less parallels the PCT. It was fun to get a different perspective, and at times, a preview of the landscape of my upcoming on-foot journey through California, Oregon, and Washington.

There are admittedly some big differences between the PCT and the Coast Starlight routes. In southern California, for example, the PCT climbs the Sierra Nevada while the train hugs the coast. The PCT begins some 250 miles south of LA and extends another 250 miles north of Seattle. 

Even so, the train trip gave me a conceptualization of what it meant to travel from southern California to northern Washington.

Even on a train, it’s a long way.

4. PCT mile 2,465.0

Stevens Pass, WA

The next day I departed Seattle on the Empire Builder toward Chicago. The Empire Builder travels along the eastern shore of sound, at times just inches from the water. The route then turns sharply east toward the mountains.

The railway crosses Stevens Pass, the major mountain pass that crosses the Cascades, connecting western and eastern Washington. Train tracks over Stevens Pass were first laid in the 1890s, but the steep ascent combined with heavy snow, avalanches, and landslides proved to be a treacherous route for those early trains. In the 1920s a long tunnel was built into the mountains to reduce the danger. A hundred years later, this tunnel is still in use today. Eight miles in length, it is the longest rail tunnel in North America.

The Cascade Tunnel lies over 1,000 feet below the pass summit. While the train passes under the surface, cars pass above on the Stevens Pass Highway (US-2), also constructed in the 1920s.

Trains and cars are not the only ones to cross the Cascades at this spot. Those traveling on foot also utilize Stevens Pass — specifically, those hiking the PCT. At PCT mile 2,467 the trail crosses US-2 by the Stevens Pass ski lodge. 

As I traveled through the dark tunnel, I thought about the PCT 1,000 feet above my head. In about five months or so I will be up there myself.

The road, the railroad, and the PCT all crossing at Stevens Pass

5. PCT mile 1153.3

Near Truckee, CA, in Tahoe National Forest

After stops in Montana, Chicago, and Utah, I returned west to California on the California Zephyr ten days later. The California Zephyr makes a stop in the popular resupply town of Truckee before continuing west to cross the mountains. 

The train tracks cross the PCT at the Mt. Judah Trail Junction, named for Theodore Judah. I learned from a FarOut comment (thanks LarryBoy!) that Judah was a visionary, designing the rail line route in the 1800s, despite the common belief that the terrain was impassable. Before the invention of dynamite, railroad construction was slow and arduous work, relying on the manpower of Chinese immigrants. 

Once again, as we approached the crossing, I discovered that the train tracks pass beneath the PCT in a tunnel. Though I wasn’t able to see the trail itself, I got a good view of the surrounding landscape, most notably, the snow. 

Until recently, it had been a low snow year in the Sierra. Then on March 4th a massive blizzard dumped 5-10 feet of snow in one day. Another storm hit just a few days ago at the end of March, adding more snow. 

Crossing the PCT near Truckee and Soda Springs Resort, I could see evidence of the recent storms. By the train tracks, the ground was covered in a good 3-4 feet of snow. One can only hope that this will mostly be melted when I hike through in the summer. 

Approaching the PCT on the railroad west of Truckee

I’ve been tracking the PCT snowpack on postholer.com, particularly in the Sierra. Despite these recent storms, the overall snow height is still only slightly above average (and considerably lower than last year’s monster snow year). Let’s hope it stays that way!

Five Crossings, Zero Sightings

That’s right. I crossed the PCT five times and never actually saw it. 

I don’t mind too much though. Although a little sneak preview would have been fun, I know that I will have plenty, and I mean plenty, of time looking at the PCT over the next several months. Moreover, the sight unseen builds my excitement and anticipation. 

Tomorrow I depart San Francisco to head south to San Diego, my final stop before hopping on a bus to Campo. 

After all this buildup, I can’t wait to actually see the PCT!

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Comments 3

  • Jeff Greene : Apr 3rd

    As a SoCal day hiker, car camper, and occasional weekend backpacker, I love spotting and hiking small sections of the PCT on my road trips and hikes, so I’d be as disappointed as you to cross the trail multiple times on the train and miss it every time!

  • tallis george-munro : Apr 4th

    Hi Kirby,

    I look forward to your posts since you write so well. I am curious to know how you intend to cross the many swollen creeks in the High Sierra since you may be hiking solo. Do you plan to hike with others? It may be safer? Also, I taught my self how to play the harmonica when I hiked the California PCT back in the 70’s. Learning to play this simple instrument helped me cope emotionally with weeks of solo hiking. I look forward to reading more of your posts. I wish you the very best!

    • Kirby : Apr 4th

      great question. I do hope to find a group to hike with, at least in the Sierra. As you pointed out, the water crossings could be unsafe to attempt solo. Going NOBO and starting in April, I expect there will be many other thru-hikers around. I believe it’s pretty common to team up at Kennedy Meadows south, if not before. Thanks for reading!


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