California’s Historic Snowfall Has Increased the Danger on the Pacific Crest Trail
Rescue crews in SoCal are already warning hikers to skip the snowy San Jacinto Mountains
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This article was first published by Backpacker.com.
A search and rescue group in Southern California has urged early-season Pacific Crest Trail hikers to skip a 60-mile stretch through the San Jacinto Mountains due to the recent record snowfall.
California’s mountains are in the middle of one of their snowiest years on record, after a late February storm buried much of the state. The Sierra Nevada received 12 feet of snow in a single week, shuttering some ski areas and forcing Yosemite National Park to close indefinitely to visitors. Some mountain areas in southern California have received nearly seven feet of snow, trapping residents in their homes and leading Governor Gavin Newsom to declare a state of emergency across 13 counties.
That storm coincided with the beginning of the Pacific Crest Trail’s official season, with the first northbound thru-hikers departing from the U.S.-Mexico border on March 1. While most hikers heading north try to plan their departure for later in the season, permits run from the beginning of March to the end of May. It won’t be long before those hikers begin to reach Paradise Valley Cafe at mile 151.9, which marks the beginning of the ascent into the San Jacinto Mountains and the first meaningful high-altitude section of the trail.
That, Riverside Mountain Rescue wrote in a Facebook post, is where thru-hikers should get off for now.
“The mountains have received a ton of snow and more is on the way,” the group said. “Anyone starting this hike needs to check the weather (noaa.gov or mountain-forecast.com) and trail conditions (sanjacjon.com or faroutguides.com), have the proper gear, and have the training to enter these dangerous conditions. Please avoid the following areas due to north-facing slopes and ice: Spitler and Apache Peak areas at miles 166-173, Tahquitz Peak side trail at the junction at mile 178, [and] Fuller Ridge Trail at miles 185.2 and 190.5. Due to dangerous conditions, it is advised to skip this entire section.”
Instead, as the group told the Palm Springs Desert Sun, hikers should plan on skipping ahead to Cabazon. State authorities have closed 5.5 miles of the section through Mt. San Jacinto State Park as well.
Hikers aiming to walk border to border this year will need a lot of patience: It’s likely that snow will persist on the trail longer than normal. As the Pacific Crest Trail Association notes, hikers can typically expect sections of the trail to remain snowy until June. But 2023 is far from a normal year: Snowpack levels in California are currently sitting at 181 percent of average statewide, with the southern Sierra at 219 percent. There are still weeks left in the snowy season as well, with most areas in the state historically reaching their peak snowpack between mid-March and early April.
On and off the PCT, the extreme weather has already been getting hikers into trouble. On January 29, the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Office reported that it had rescued 15 hikers from Mt. Baldy in the San Gabriel Mountains in less than a month, with two more dying and one, actor Julian Sands, still missing. Besides the perils of getting lost and avalanches, snow-swollen creeks can endanger hikers into the summer. In 2017, another high-snow year, two hikers died trying to cross fast-moving rivers in the space of a single month.
The San Jacinto Mountains in particular can be dangerous in inclement weather. Multiple hikers have gone missing or died there including PCT thru-hiker John Donovan, who passed away after losing his way there in an early-May snowstorm in 2005.
If thru-hikers do decide to stay on trail, the Riverside Mountain Rescue Unit urges them to be ready for full-value winter conditions.“If you choose to hike north, be prepared to turn around, have a Plan B, or hike later after the snow melts and conditions improve,” the group wrote. “Don’t put yourself or others at risk because you made a bad decision.”