The Journey Is the Destination
Campo – Start Small Finish Big
There’s more to hiking the Pacific Crest Trail than just reaching the monument.
Before I started hiking the PCT, I read a lot of advice from others about what to focus on while on trail. No surprise, it’s not reaching the monument! Better to focus on a few hundred miles at a time, or even a few miles per day.
I started off slowly and had intended to increase the number of miles per day as I progressed. This would be my strategy towards hiking 25 miles per day and eventually reaching the monument. I was in decent shape and had spent the good part of a year training for this hike with a professional trainer. However, I was somewhat skeptical; 25 miles (40 kilometres) a day, still seemed a huge feat.
By the time I reached Kennedy Meadows, which marks the end of the “Desert Section” I finally felt like the 20 miles per day might be an attainable goal. This section is by no means easy, but I did start to feel like I could hike 700 more.
Sierra Nevada – Not this year
Like many other hikers, I opted to skip the High Sierra section. Which is comprised of approximately 400 miles of trail. It sports granite peaks, cobalt lakes, and alpine meadows. It is arguably the biggest highlight of the PCT. But in June this year, there was no trail; it was still buried under snow. The snowpack in 2023 measured almost 400% above normal average in some places.
What lay ahead for me, seemed beyond my skill and comfort levels.
I was of course deeply disappointed because summiting Mount Whitney was one of my deepest desires on this trip. However, the mountains will always be there and there will be another opportunity in the future to accomplish this goal. I took 3 weeks off trail and flew to Vancouver to visit with family.
Chester – Getting back on trail
My time with my family and friends in British Columbia was an amazing three weeks. I was excited to see everyone and spend time with my son who attends school in BC. It was such a treat to visit with him and participate in his daily life. We enjoyed a few short hikes around Vancouver when time allowed, but I was enjoying the rest. Closer to the end of the 3 weeks I was longing to get back on trail.
I started hiking again near Chester, California which meant that I had skipped almost 630 miles of trail. My first day back felt good and I was excited to push myself. I had no one to answer to and I could make all my own decisions. After a few days of being on my own and seeing others pass by with their trail families or hiking partners, I started to feel lonely. I had met a group of ladies in Chester and met them again on trail. We spent a part of the day leap-frogging one another and then I asked if I could tag along for the day. We camped together which I was so grateful for as a big storm was rolling in, something I had come to expect after the third day in a row now. As I was growing more and more fond of my new trail company, I learned that they were ending their hike at Old Station. “Flowers” and I would continue on together until Burney Falls.
Debra, who I had met in a Facebook group (later known by the trail name “Pivot”) was also returning to trail and we planned to meet in Burney so we could hike together. This, I decided, would be my final attempt at creating a “trail family”. I reasoned that if it didn’t work out with Pivot, I would make arrangements to go home.
Washington – Treasured Moments
Pivot and I were getting along really well. This was the connection we had both wanted so desperately to make. We noted that we had similar styles and pace and enjoyed one another’s company.
I have watched enough YouTube videos of PCT hikers reaching the monument, to know that it is a special moment finally getting to place your hand on those wooden pillars. Many hikers are overwhelmed with emotion and some don’t have any reaction at all. It can be a bit of an anti-climax, expecting a great epiphany and yet being a little underwhelmed. Days leading up to my monument moment were filled with feelings of joy, and satisfaction but also a little sadness, knowing that this experience was coming to an end.
Our hostel stay felt like a short vacation from our daily grind of hiking 9 hours a day. We were eating hot meals and enjoying meeting so many other hikers, some we hadn’t in months. We spent one day building puzzles and painting rocks. Our amazing hostess, Lion, who runs the hostel is a beautiful human and goes out of her way for hikers. She has a gorgeous property nestled just off the highway where she allows hikers to camp for a night or two while they take some respite from the trail. Lion is by far the most accommodating trail angel I have ever met. She also offers a shuttle ride to transport hikers to trail in the morning.
Hart’s Pass – Final Stretch
The drive up to the trailhead is along a winding dirt road. Our driver Raven, had driven it 111 times this season. The fire closures along the PCT in Washington had caused many hikers to deviate from the usual route and come to Mazama before making their way to the trailhead at Hart’s Pass. I was extremely appreciative that Raven had asked those of us with motion sickness to ride in the cab instead of the back of the truck. By the time we reached the trailhead, we had ascended about 4,000 feet, and my ears had popped several times. It was quite a bit colder at the pass. I was struck by the beauty of the clouds between the mountains. It had an almost ‘fairy tale’ setting. Starting the trail here felt surreal. I could hardly believe that this was it, the last 30 miles of my epic journey.
The energy I felt, transcended to my legs and they carried me quickly up the trail. As I looked ahead toward the stunning Cascade mountains and walked above the clouds that lay between them, I couldn’t help but think of the song by Imagine Dragons;
I’m on top of the world, ‘ey
I’m on top of the world
What made this day extra special was a hiker named “Sage” who I had connected with once before was also starting out on the same day and we would be able to spend some time hiking together. We had a common bond, both being from South Africa and he had an energy about him that was contagious. I was excited to spend some time with him. At one point he asked me how the trail had changed my life. I laughed and replied, that it hadn’t changed my life at all. He looked at me quizzically for a moment waiting for further explanation. I said that I had had a great life before hiking the PCT and had not come here desiring a life change. I did however feel that my life had been enormously enriched by the experience and for that I was truly grateful.
Pivot had been feeling under the weather the whole week with a bad cold and was steadily getting worse. It was usually her who walked ahead of me, and me trying without success to keep up. But today she lagged behind and I stopped a few times to wait for her. On a switchback that spanned only a mile, I had lost sight of her and so I decided to wait for her to catch up. I asked if she was okay, knowing that she wasn’t but I hoped she would tell me what was on her mind. I could tell that she had been crying. She didn’t hesitate to share that she was sad that her journey was coming to an end. She was so deeply grateful that we had hiked together since Burney as she may likely have quit and gone home rather than hike alone.
I was overwhelmed by her sincerity and although I tend to hold my tears back, I just burst out with an exclamation of love for this person. We hugged and cried and laughed and smiled and in that moment I knew that no matter how many miles I had hiked or skipped or how many hard climbs I had endured and sketchy river crossings I had made or mushy potato meals I had scoffed down, this girl was beside me the whole time. I could see myself in her. Really, she was an extension of me.
The Monument – The Destination
We had camped at a nearby lake the night before and woke up, packed our things for the last time, and headed out for the day. Knowing that this was the final six miles to the monument, we took it in stride and hiked slowly, embracing every single mile. The mountain views were breathtaking so we stopped several times to take in the splendor that surrounded us. Getting closer to the end, I grew anxious and almost in a hurry to get it over with. I have become quite comfortable throughout my life, avoiding huge emotional outbursts or showing my deepest feelings, remaining stoic and aloof a lot of the time.
It was almost exactly that, I reached the monument, thinking it looked a little smaller than I had imagined it. Another hiker had mentioned to me the day before that she had felt the northern terminus monument was smaller than the southern one had appeared. I wondered if maybe it was because, in a way, we felt larger than life having reached this huge milestone. Larger than when we had started, when the trail was still this momentous task that lay ahead.
I didn’t cry, I didn’t feel moved in any sort of emotional way, however, I was happy. It can also be attributed to the little bottle of whiskey I had brought along, to celebrate. I downed mine quickly so the rush of adrenaline mixed with alcohol may have numbed my senses slightly. We spent some time taking photos and videos and doing our best to preserve this incredible moment. Once we were finally ready to keep moving on, and allow the next group of hikers to have their time celebrating, we started the arduous task of hiking the final eight miles to meet our families.
E.C. Manning Park, Canada – The Run to the Finish
The mood was somber after that and it didn’t take too long for us to be right back in “hiker” mode. Continuing not as if we had just completed our thru-hike but rather like it was just another day on trail, tying to make miles before camp. We had lunch, we climbed, we hiked, we stopped to fill up our water, we rested and finally we were headed down a dirt road to do the last four-mile stretch. I managed to get a phone signal and sent a text to my husband telling him I was so close now, we would be reunited in no time!
That four mile road felt like an eternity. Nothing like wishing something to be over quickly, and it feeling like it will never end. When I was about a half mile away, I started to half-sprint. I was so excited to see him, I wanted to drop everything and run. At one point I even folded my trekking poles because they were slowing me down. My hiking companions, Pivot and Woodsy battled to keep up with me and chanted loud goodbyes as I made my way down the manicured path towards my loved one.
At last there was a clearing and I could see them standing there waiting for us. I turned to wait for Pivot, grabbed her hand and we ran to the finish. Her mum and brother had made the trip out to meet her and had brought along her dog. Renley ran toward us and she stopped to embrace him so I had to let go. I flung myself into my husband’s open arms. I balled loud uncontrollable sobs of joy. The hot sweaty, tear-filled embrace lasted just long enough for me to say, “I’m so happy to see you, I love you, I missed you so much”. “Don’t ever let me leave you again”.
I was not the stoic, emotionless neutral being that I had thought I was. Giant waves of emotion flooded my entire body and it felt good to let it all out. This was my monument, this was my finish, this was the moment I had looked forward to so much.
Home Again – The Aftermath
Now that I have been home for a few weeks and have had time to process my journey, I discovered that it has been a sobering and humbling experience. I did not reach my ambitious goal of hiking 2,650 miles over 6 months on the Pacific Crest Trail. What I did achieve however was so much more than that.
Back in April, I looked ahead to reaching the northern terminus and getting to that monument was my “final destination” but along the way, I met amazing people, I connected with the most generous trail angels, and made some lifelong friends along the way. I learned that I was tough enough to handle some very difficult days on my own and vulnerable enough to not want to endure all of them on my own. There is something magical about spending this much time outdoors surrounded by the beauty of the wilderness and constant fresh air. My body thrived, even through all the pain and my mind felt free of the everyday chaos.
When I look back now at the photos of myself on trail and at the monument and how happy I was, I can see that this hike may not have changed my life in the conventional way, but I do feel undeniably enriched by the experience.
Thank you for following along on my journey.
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.