The PCT begins on a low hill near Campo (elev. 2,600’), a small town near the Mexican border. It passes through Lake Morena County Park and beneath Interstate 8, then climbs through chaparral, scrub oaks, and pines to the rim of the Laguna Mountains.The trail dips into Anza-Borrego Desert State Park at Scissors Crossing, then winds up, down, and around the San Felipe Hills and lesser mountains of the Cleveland National Forest before crossing Highway 74 at 4,900’ and climbing the backbone of the San Jacinto Mountains.
It reaches its highest point in this section at 9,030’ shortly before it plunges to its lowest, crossing beneath Interstate 10 at elev. 1,190’ in broad San Gorgonio Pass.
From here, the PCT climbs steeply to the crest of two east/west-oriented ranges, often under welcome forest shade. It passes near Big Bear Lake and Lake Arrowhead before crossing Interstate 15 between the San Bernardino and San Gabriel Mountains at Cajon Pass near Silverwood Lake State Recreation Area.The vistas from the trail in these mountains include the Los Angeles Basin and Mojave Desert. To the west of Mt. Baden-Powell and the Angeles Crest National Scenic Byway, it descends to Highway 14 at Agua Dulce, then traverses the often brushy landscape of the Sierra Pelona. The trail continues north for a generally hot and dry traverse across the San Andreas Fault Zone and the western arm of the Mojave Desert before climbing into the Tehachapi Mountains where it crosses Highway 58 and enters the Sierra Nevada.
The Southern California section ends where the trail crosses Highway 178 at Walker Pass (elev. 5,246’). The mountains of this section are bounded by and internally laced with faults that have been active in recent geologic time. The animals in this section include lizards, rodents, snakes, coyotes, and cougars. Colorful and quick, hummingbirds can also be seen darting about, gathering nectar. The plants here are generally desert scrub, chaparral, or oak, with forests only at the higher elevations. Trail-side water is scarce in this section, particularly in the summertime, when temperatures range from the 80s to the low 100s.
Starting from this section’s lowest point at Walker Pass (elev. 5,246’), the trail enters a road-less and wildly scenic realm, being met only occasionally by a dead-end road from the east. It hugs the relatively dry crest through the Chimney Peak Wilderness before reaching and crossing the South Fork of the Kern River near Kennedy Meadows.
The route alternates between expansive meadows and conifer forests, then embarks on a 3,300’ ascent and traverse to Cottonwood Pass. To the north is the majestic glaciated High Sierra. For trail users, the glaciers’ most important accomplishment was the excavation of shallow basins which filled with water to create thousands of photogenic lakes and tarns, many near or above tree-line.
In Sequoia National Park, the popular John Muir Trail descends from nearby Mt. Whitney (elev. 14,494’) to join the PCT. The trails share the same tread for most of the way to Highway 120 in Yosemite National Park’s lush Tuolumne Meadows (elev. 8,690’). Along this mostly wilderness stretch, the route repeatedly descends deep canyons only to ascend to high saddles. The PCT crosses eight named passes above 11,000’ in this section, the first being Forester Pass (elev. 13,180’), the highest point on the entire trail.
After crossing Highway 180 at Sonora Pass (elev. 9,620’), the altitude changes diminish in amplitude, and the trail soon begins a generally sub-alpine, relatively level traverse that stays close to the Sierra crest until this section ends at Interstate 80 (elev. 7,200’). There is some volcanic rock south of Yosemite, but notable amounts are encountered from Sonora Pass to Echo Summit at Highway 50, and again near this section’s end north of the Granite Chief Wilderness.
Plants in this section include corn lily, snow plant, red fir, Jeffrey, and ponderosa pine at lower levels and mule ears, mountain hemlock, and weather-twisted white bark pines near tree-line. Animals include marmot, coyote, deer, and black bear. The latter too often enjoy a meal of dehydrated food and granola bars left unguarded.
Mountain chickadee, junco, Steller’s jay, Clark’s nutcracker, and red-tailed hawk provide a cacophony of nature to visitor’s ears.
North of Donner Summit (elev. 7,200’), old volcanic flows and sediments bury most of the ancient bedrock of the Sierra Nevada crest, making travel in this section potentially dusty in late summer. Beyond the North Fork of the Feather River, the Sierra Nevada yields to the southern Cascade Range.
Rich in nutrients, the volcanic soils here are at the right elevation and receive sufficient rainfall to produce exceptional forests. Other plants include lupine, paintbrush, larkspur, columbine, gooseberry, and manzanita. Animals include raccoon, marten, mink, badger, fox, bobcat, and the ever-present deer and black bear. In the fall, the skies are often filled with migrating birds on their journey south along the Pacific coast flyway.
This is prime logging country (as are most of the PCT’s lands north of here), and the trail crosses many back roads. Midway through the southern Cascade Range, the PCTcrosses Highway 89 and traverses Lassen Volcanic National Park, overseen by Lassen Peak (elev. 10,457’). North of the park the PCT follows the mostly waterless Hat Creek Rim toward majestic Mt. Shasta, which dominates the north-state skyline
Rather than continue north through the dry southern Cascades beyond Mt. Shasta, the PCT turns west toward greener lands, dropping to cross the Sacramento River (elev. 2,130’) at Interstate 5 before entering Castle Crags State Park and the Trinity Alps. The trail reaches 7,600’ elevation in the mountains connecting the inland Cascade Range with the coastal ranges.
The trail winds north through the Marble Mountains before descending to the Klamath River (elev. 1,370’). It climbs again to the crest of the Siskiyou Mountains and traverses east, entering Oregon near this section’s end at Interstate 5 near Siskiyou Summit (elev. 4,310’).