You’re hiking through a grove of spruce trees on the Pacific Crest Trail when you hear voices up ahead. Fifty yards away you spot a few pop-up tents and several dozen people hanging out, cheering. They offer you a cold soda and some chips and cookies. They’re hosting a trail running race, they explain—so watch out for runners coming the opposite direction.
Despite its reputation as a Mecca for thru-hikers, the PCT is host to a growing number of trail races, which draw between 75 and 400 trail-runners to small sections of the trail during about a dozen weekends between March and October. The atmosphere of these events may not call to mind the type of meditative experience Cheryl Strayed chronicled in her best-selling book, Wild, but does sharing the trail with a few hundred runners on a given day diminish the experience of the individual? That question is at the heart of an emerging controversy over the overarching purpose and meaning of the trail as a public resource.
In October, a trail-race director in Washington named Candice Burt had hoped to use a 50-mile stretch of the trail for a new 200-mile ultramarathon she is organizing for August. She contacted the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA), the nonprofit that partners with the U.S. Forest Service to manage the PCT, and a representative “basically told me [the race] wasn’t going to happen.” Even though the PCTA doesn’t issue race permits, the group’s influence over the permit issuing Forest Service is undisputed.
Last month, Burt filed a petition asking the PCTA to stop lobbying against new trail races to the feds. The petition stirred the outdoors community into a frenzy of debate over festering issues about who should have access to the trail, the nature of the PCTA’s role, and what the trail means to the public at large.
As trail running has surged in popularity in the U.S., so have the number of permits to hold trail races on the PCT. Many of the approximately 15 trail races on the PCT (which attract about 3,500 people, a fraction of the overall number of trail users) were started in the past decade. Now, the PCTA has indicated it would like to cap the number of new trail races allowed by the Forest Service.
Two days after Burt’s petition emerged, PCTA Executive Director Liz Bergeron published a blog post stressing that her organization encourages trail running on the PCT and supports the current trail races, but is troubled by the idea of allowing more group events.
“Our concern is not with the activity of running but with any type of event that concentrates crowds and detracts from peaceful experiences,” wrote Bergeron. The PCT is designed to foster “a quiet communion with nature,” says Dana Hendricks, the PCTA’s Columbia Cascades Regional Representative. “You should be able to detach from dense populations and hectic pressures of the modern world.”
In considering whether the PCTA’s push to cultivate “peaceful experiences” squares with our contemporary approach to outdoor activities, it’s worth delving into the little-known origins of the trail and its place in the grand scheme of U.S. outdoor recreation.
Established in 1968 when Congress passed the National Trails System Act, the PCT is one of 11 trails designated as a National Scenic Trail. The designation calls for providing “maximum outdoor recreation potential and for the conservation and enjoyment of the nationally significant scenic, historic, natural, or cultural qualities of the areas through which such trails may pass.”
More than two decades before the Trails System Act, hiking enthusiast Clinton C. Clarke—often called “the father of the PCT”—published a book called The Pacific Crest Trailway. Because it fell out of print soon after, few PCT users are aware of its existence. In the book’s foreword, Clarke wrote about a need “to maintain and defend for the benefit and enjoyment of nature lovers the Pacific Crest Trailway as a primitive wilderness pathway in an environment of solitude.”
The definition of “wilderness” here is a complicated one. As defined by Congress in the Wilderness Act of 1964, federally designated wilderness is “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Furthermore, it is an area with “outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.”
Fifty-four percent of the PCT is in designated wilderness areas. Runners and race directors generally agree that races do not belong in these places, where events are already prohibited except in rare grandfather-clause cases. The controversy primarily lies with sections of the trail that fall outside of designated wilderness areas.
“The PCTA is trying to make the PCT into a de facto wilderness area, something it was never intended to be,” says James Varner, a long-distance backpacker (who thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 1999), trail-runner, race director, frequent trail-work volunteer, and member of the PCTA. “The PCT was not created for folks to have a ‘peaceful experience.’ It was created for a wide variety of recreation opportunities.”
Indeed, the original wording of the National Scenic Trail designation makes no reference to peaceful experiences or the necessity for solitude—only to maximizing outdoor recreation potential. The PCTA’s mission statement is a bit more specific. It calls for “preserving, protecting and promoting the PCT as a world-class experience for hikers and equestrians.” The group’s predecessor, an advisory council, set the first management plans for the trail in 1970, before there was much demand for trail races. But by 2001 race events were becoming more common, prompting the PCTA board to adopt a policy expressing concern about larger ones.
Now, with Burt’s petition, a chunk of the trail running community is asking the Forest Service to solidify its stance on group events on the PCT and to distance itself from the PCTA's position. Forest Service Manager Beth Boyst, who oversees the PCT, says that concern about the growth in events has put pressure on the service to ensure that races don’t substantially interfere with the purpose of the trail. Nevertheless, the service will continue to evaluate permit applications on a case-by-case basis, taking into account PCTA’s concerns as well as the opinions of the greater trail community.
“Each race is different, and each landscape is different,” Boyst says. “Part of the basic process is to scope stakeholders and communities and citizens and understand what the concerns are.”
Burt’s petition has garnered more than 3,600 signatures to date. Many of the signatories identified themselves not only as trail-runners, but also as hikers, backpackers, thru-hikers, and PCTA members.
One, a person identified as Eugene Finkle of Middle Island, New York, summed up the importance of the debate like this: “I’m signing because…these races may be the only introduction people will have to places like this. I can appreciate the effort to preserve the [forest], but if we make it less accessible, some people will never experience [its] splendor!”
Ultimately, the overarching goals of the trail running community and those of the PCTA are more closely aligned than the spat over new races suggests: they both aim to get people engaged with the outdoors via one of the country’s most illustrious trails.
In fact, Hendricks is the first to admit that trail-runners are among the most thoughtful stewards of the PCT. “I have to give props to the vast majority of trail running races and organizers in my region,” she said. “They’re very vigilant about cleaning up. Most do trail maintenance. We have some very dedicated volunteers who are trail-runners.”
On a macro scale, the long-term health of the PCT is dependent upon attracting new users who ultimately function as advocates and stewards of the trail. It’s clear that trail races and similar group events—although they may go against the PCTA’s notion of the spirit of the trail—appeal to a broader base of users. It’s hard to imagine stewardship increasing when opportunities for people to experience the trail are capped.
“As a female runner, I would not run much of the PCT alone,” wrote Lisa Butler of Fort Collins, Colorado, when she signed Burt’s petition, “but in organized events, I can feel safe, have support, and enjoy the trail.”
Though Forest Service administrators ultimately make decisions about use of the PCT, every member of the trail community—self-proclaimed or otherwise—has the opportunity to voice their opinions to help inform those decisions. To grapple with the dueling roles of solitude and fellowship on the PCT is a task that belongs to us all.