On October 1, the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) announced a new permitting system that will affect all of the trail’s prospective thru-hikers starting in the 2020 season. Stricter regulations have been added to both north- and southbound hikes to more evenly distrubute crowds in both directions. The changes are intended to combat the significant increase in long-distance trail use over the past five years.
Perhaps the most surprising change for the incoming class of PCT hikers is the addition of a required southbound hiking permit. Previously, only northbound hikers needed one, but now, so will those who wish to hike 500 or more continuous miles starting anywhere from Canadian border through Stehekin, Washington. Every day, 15 permits will be available for thru-hikers for start dates between June 15 and July 31. After that, an additional 15 long-distance permits will be available for horseback riders and section hikers heading south between August 1 and September 15. The lottery for these permits will open at 10:30 A.M. PST on January 14, 2020.
Southbound travelers aren’t the only ones affected by the PCT’s new rules. A minor tweak to the northbound permitting season has also been made: in addition to the 50-hikers-per-day quota that was first implemented in 2013, all thru-hikers starting at or near the Mexican border between March 1 and May 31 will need a designated permit.
At 10:30 A.M. PST on October 29, the lottery will open for the first 35 daily permits to head north in March. There’s also a more last-minute-rush lottery for hikers who don’t nab a permit this October: the remaining 15 permits per day will be issued alongside the southbound permits on the morning of January 14.
The PCTA also implemented stricter rules in central Oregon for upcoming seasons. In the Mount Jefferson, Mount Washington, and Three Sisters Wilderness areas, long-distance thru-hikers will be required to camp inside the PCT corridor (a half-mile on either side of the trail) and will be prohibited from camping in the Obsidian, North and South Matthieu Lakes, Coyote and Shale Lakes, and Jefferson Park areas. These rules will go into effect in 2020 or 2021.
But hands down, the biggest change to hit the PCT next year will be the requirement that all hikers travel the 250-plus miles between California’s Kennedy Meadows South and Sonora Pass in one continuous trip. In other words, hikers can no longer skip the Sierra Nevada due to high snow or bad weather, fly north to hike in Oregon or Washington, and then zip back down south to finish the Sierra in late summer, when conditions are more favorable.
“The John Muir Trail is incredibly popular during the peak hiking season with day hikers, weekend backpackers, section hikers, JMT hikers, and PCT long-distance hikers,” says Mark Larabee, associate director of communications for the PCTA. Those who choose to flip-flop segments to avoid the snow put undue pressure on this already-impacted ecosystem, which affects the sustainability of the PCT itself. The PCTA now expects that thru-hikers will proceed in a more continuous motion through the Sierra, protecting this iconic mountain range for future adventurers.
Of course, trekkers will still be allowed to exit the Sierra and travel to nearby towns for a quick resupply in Lone Pine, California, or a much needed zero day in Mammoth Lakes, for example, but any gap of more than seven days on a hiker’s itinerary will effectively void their permit. “If people want to skip a section of the southern Sierra and return when conditions are more favorable, they’re welcome to do it, but they will need a local-agency permit,” says Larabee.
The U.S. Forest Service has instituted this change to prevent overcrowding in one of the most popular wilderness areas in the country. In 2014, 2,655 long-distance hiking permits were issued by the PCTA. That number has since skyrocketed to 7,313 permits issued in 2018, and the southern Sierra is one of the hardest hit places in terms of foot traffic.
Across the board, the new, expanded permits aren’t intended to persecute already overwhelmed hikers but rather help protect the sensitive wilderness areas surrounding the PCT. According to figures on the PCTA website, last year the trail had 160 southbound hikers beginning their trek on July 1, while only 13 people signed up to start hiking on June 29. When 160 people traverse a delicate, alpine landscape en masse, it can have a serious negative impact on the campsites and waterways those same thru-hikers will come to depend on. Larabee sees the new regulations as necessary to ensure that human impacts on the landscape do not become irreversible. “Reducing crowding by distributing people more evenly over time will protect the fragile environments the trail passes through and will enhance the user experience for all,” he says.