The Sonora Pass Café—and its chef—takes trail magic to new heights.
If there’s one thing you want 1,000 miles into the Pacific Crest Trail, it’s a chocolate chip cookie. Or maybe a chocolate chip cookie topped with whipped cream and a cherry.
Hank Magnuski gets it. For the past decade, Magnuski has surprised PCT thru-hikers by setting up a full-service, pop-up café at the top of Sonora Pass. “It has everything a café would have: tablecloths, china coffee cups, the New York Times,” says Magnuski. And it's free to thru-hikers.
And there’s food. Glorious food. Cake, fruit, coffee, sodas, and Sonora Pass Café Cookies—the aforementioned jumbo-sized chocolate chippers, each topped with whipped cream and a fresh cherry.
The “trail magic ahead” sign couldn’t come at a more perfect time for most hikers. “It’s a stark contrast from what they’ve been through. The approach [to Sonora Pass] can be really brutal,” says Magnuski. Up to the pass, he says, hikers have been in complete wilderness for nearly 300 miles, much of which is plagued with mosquitos, steep trails and deep, lingering snowfields.
Magnuski isn’t a thru-hiker himself. He’s a trail maintenance guy. But multiday trips spent chipping away at granite have given him a feel for what thru-hikers might want. (Hint: carbs, non-freeze-dried anything and decent coffee.) Magnuski’s café-themed picnic table setup has been such a hit that he’s never dared to switch it up. The menu, though, “has been fine-tuned over the years.”
Since 2004, Magnuski has trekked from his Bay Area home up to the pass, stopping at a Costco along the way to stock up on supplies. Working mostly alone (he brought his wife up one year but felt bad asking her to hang around for an entire weekend), Magnuski tries to time the pop-up to coincide with one of the busiest weekends on the trail. He’ll stay for the weekend, and maybe a day longer if he can steal away from his job as CEO of a telecommunications firm. Since he can’t camp at the site of the café, he spends quite a bit of time hauling tables, chairs, supplies, and food up and down the pass.
Part fairy godmother, part barista, and part therapist, Magnuski says the Sonora Pass Café hits when many hikers are thinking of quitting. “It’s right after the 1,000-mile mark. A lot are homesick or physically hurting or tired of being so isolated.” Magnuski, who has the trail name “Owl,” listens, comforts and, like a good therapist, tries to help hikers realize their true desires without being preachy. “I’m not a thru-hiker, so I don’t have the experience to tell them what to do,” he says. “But often the café can turn around what might have been a really bad day into a really good day.”
That feeling alone makes the work worth it. He says he’ll continue the café as long as he physically can. “I spend $200 to $300, which, if you think about it, is what I’d spend in one afternoon at a fancy spa. I don’t know what price you can put on making somebody’s day,” he says. “Really, it’s priceless.”