Mill Creek Summit (PCT Halfmile 418.6) to PCT 424.4
(5.8 miles, +2,200/-1,400 feet).
Over the last two and a half years I’ve hiked about 15% of the PCT. It’s such a beautifully-designed and well-maintained trail that my buddies and I often use it as a baseline to rate other trails (as in “hey, this is PCT-grade!” or “you would never see a stretch like this on the PCT.”)
And now after hundreds of miles of rounding bends, climbing switchbacks, and rock-hopping streams, I have come to be intensely interested in some questions that often fog my zen-like state on the trail. “Who designed this trail?” “Who built the walls on those switchbacks?” “Who got rid of all the Poodle Dog Bush?”
In other words, who are the heroes of the PCT?
As it turns out, the heroes on the first 700 miles of the PCT have a wonderful name: the Southern California Trail Gorillas! And after nearly 500 miles of my own, I finally decided to check them out.
The idea of volunteering for trail maintenance can seem somewhat daunting, but fortunately the Pacific Crest Trail Association makes it easy with a series of courses designed to teach the fundamentals. I signed up for Trail Skills College (no mortarboards, just hard hats) and enrolled in Course 100: Intro to Trail Maintenance. It would be taught at mile 510 on the PCT, which is about a 3 hour drive for me, so I decided to combine the class with a short overnight hiking trip.
The class met at a trailhead parking lot at about 8am where we got a safety lecture, learned some basic terminology, then grabbed gloves, hard hats, and tools to put theory into practice. Soon we were a half mile up the trail, brushing it, lopping it, sloping it, and sculpting it towards perfection.
I really had no idea how much effort it takes to keep the trail in such a wonderful state. One rule of thumb they teach is that the corridor of the PCT should be big enough to drive a delivery truck through it! It never actually looks that way when you are hiking, but when you are maintaining the trail it quickly becomes apparent.
The instructors emphasized over and over again that we should develop “trail eyes” so we could see where the trail needed to be cleared, how water would run across it, and what needed to be done to prevent major problems. It was so eye-opening.
The process reminded me of my botany class in high school. When I learned to look carefully at all the parts of a flower, I could easily identify its species. But once I saw flowers that way, I never saw them the same way again. For me, it made flowers even more beautiful because I could see the gentle curve of a pistil, the sharp colorful contrast between a petal and a sepal, the radial symmetry of a monocot.
With my new “trail eyes” I suddenly saw the effort in a flat and the artistry in a bend. The hidden traces of all the givers to the trail will now forever be in my view, causing the trail to come alive not just with the sounds of nature but the sights of human altruism.
By 3pm it was time to call it quits. We returned to the trailhead where the instructors offered to buy everyone dinner in town. But I thanked them and reluctantly passed so I could hit the trail myself and see it with my new eyes.
It took me about an hour to drive down to Mill Creek Summit where I had previously left off with Half Cookie. This time I would head north, hiking the last couple of hours until dark.
By 7:30pm I was nestled in my tent. I had cell service so I texted Half Cookie to let her know the day went well.
Tomorrow I hope to do something I’ve never done before: 30 miles in one day! I think it will take me about 14 hours, so I set my alarm for 4am and will need to hike a couple of hours in the dark since the days are so short now.