Mountain Fire Closure is Lifted. Here’s What it Took to Repair this Section of the PCT

If you’ve hiked the Pacific Crest Trail within the past five years, you probably remember having to detour around the fire closure above Idyllwild, California. Years before walking around fire closures was thru-hiker norm, the 2013 Mountain Fire wreaked havoc on the San Jacinto Mountains. This season, the trail is open again to PCT users.

In April 2019, I returned to hike this section that I’d skipped when I came through in 2016. On a clear day, the views are incredible.

I encourage past PCT hikers to return and walk this section of trail that so many of us skipped. The remains of a burned landscape are beginning to disappear under fresh growth, poodle-dog bush has begun to die off, and the desert divide ridge line provides dramatic and rewarding views. While the trail remains desolate in a few spots, this forest needed to burn, due to years of fire suppression, in order to regrow and remain healthy in the future. It is, perhaps, the most spectacular stretch of trail along the Southern California section.

What Happened?

The Mountain Fire as it burned above Idyllwild. Photo: Jenny Kirchner of the Idyllwild Town Crier

In July 2013, an electrical equipment malfunction triggered a fire near Highway 74, that would last for 16 days and burn 27,500 acres. The nearby town of Idyllwild was evacuated, though never damaged, before heavy rainfall brought the fire under control. The PCT was viciously burned and 25 miles of trail were closed, forcing users to detour.

In 2015, three phases of repairs would begin, allowing the trail to be reopened little by little. The trail suffered severe damage that required carving new drainages, building retention walls and rock armor, and re-routing trail from the badly eroded landscape. In July 2017, crews suffered a major setback when the Cranston Fire erupted and burned an additional 13,000 acres, overlapping with the Mountain Fire in places and destroying previously repaired sections.

Heavy Damage, Major Repairs

For three full seasons, dedicated trail crews worked to repair sections of damaged trail. Photo: PCTA

After years of hard work rebuilding the trail, the Pacific Crest Trail Association has finally reopened this section. The class of 2019 will get the first look at the incredible effort that went into the repairs. This landscape required time to recover, and with the setback of a second fire, the area remained closed for so long.

It is, perhaps, the most spectacular stretch of trail along the Southern California section.

Typically, PCT trail work is done by PCTA volunteers and AmeriCorps crews, but due to the magnitude of damage, the San Bernardino National Forest and other local groups were crucial to the success of this project. The Redshank Riders and Keenwild Fire Station lugged in crucial supplies, tools and water via horse/mule and helicopter to make remote work possible.

A special thanks is owed to the efforts of Andy Smith, Michael Lewis and the Paradise Chapter volunteers. The continued work was made possible by grant funds of the Coachella Valley Hiking Club and REI. We can expect to see PCTA volunteers and AmeriCorps crews continue the work this season.

What Can Hikers do to Help?

Many of the repairs involved building new rock walls along the impressively steep ridge line south of San Jacinto Peak.

As fires in the American West continue to amplify in complexity and destruction each year, it’s important for PCT users to be aware of the challenges this may present to them, and how their actions impact the regrowth of fragile areas.

No different from most fires, blowdowns in this area will continue to be an obstacle for a number of years. This means hikers need to take note of where they take breaks, fill up water, and pitch their shelter. Stay safe and keep yourself out of potentially dangerous situations by always camping on durable surfaces. Try your best to sleep away from dead and uprooted trees, especially on windy nights, where trees that could fall on your tent (yes, it’s scary and yes, it’s happened before). When encountering a blowdown along the trail, do your best to avoid creating new tread by going around the tree, and instead go over. While not always possible, this can make a huge difference in limiting the impacts to fresh vegetation.

Going over blowdowns not only helps to limit impacts to surrounding vegetation, but is also the ultimate full-body hiker workout.

Thru-hikers should continue following other Leave No Trace principles, like packing out all waste (including toilet paper) and not having fires in California. Remember to be appreciative. As thru-hikers, we reap the efforts of so many unpaid volunteers. Please consider volunteering your time with local crews as they maintain these recent repairs, or supporting the mission of the PCTA through a small donation. Lastly, be an advocate for the USFS and Department of Agriculture, whose funding largely dictates the level of these efforts.

Poodledog Bush is harmful to touch but crucial to forest regrowth after a fire. There’s not much left of it now.

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