One of the greatest hiking challenges in the United States is the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail. Stretching from Mexico to Canada, this epic trail winds its way through California, Oregon, and Washington. While the trail was completed in 1993, it became much better known after the movie Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon, was released in 2014.
About 700 people receive permits each year to complete the Pacific Crest Trail, which typically requires five months. Unfortunately, due to its difficulty, many who start the journey don’t finish it. However, along the way, there are hundreds of scenic day hikes that can provide a shorter, more manageable version of this trail.
1. Eagle Rock, California
Located in Warner Springs, a small town in East San Diego County, the Eagle Rock Trail is popular with hikers all over Southern California for its final destination -- a large rock formation resembling an eagle. A scenic hike is always enjoyable, but one with an Instagrammable moment is even better.
This 6.4-mile out-and-back hike begins near the fire station in Warner Springs. At the beginning, the trail winds its way through oak trees and eventually turns into desert. Just follow the trail markers for the Pacific Crest Trail. If you’re here during the spring, you’ll enjoy the blossoming wildflowers. But no matter when you come, you’ll enjoy the view of the surrounding mountains, including Hot Springs Mountain, Bucksnort Mountain, and the Volcan Mountains.
This trail is considered moderately difficult and has an elevation gain of 980 feet. Most people allow 3 to 4 hours to complete this hike. If you’ll be hiking Eagle Rock during the summer, get an early start to avoid the heat, and bring plenty of water.
2. Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite National Park, California
Combining a visit to Yosemite National Park with a day hike along the Pacific Crest Trail might just be the perfect vacation for outdoor lovers. In fact, some of the trail’s finest sections run through Yosemite, so you’re guaranteed fantastic vistas.
For a beautiful 9-mile hike, start at the Tuolumne Meadows Trailhead. The first part of this trail is fairly easy and follows the Tuolumne River. It’s recommended that day hikers end at the bridge below Tuolumne Falls, since you’ll need to save energy for the 1,000-foot elevation gain on the return hike. Along the way, expect to see verdant meadows, glacial lakes, and plenty of wildlife.
The starting elevation for this trail is 8,600 feet, so be prepared for the altitude to impact your pace. Be sure to bring ample food and water for this hike and dress in layers to accommodate changing temperatures along the way.
There are 77 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail in Yosemite, so if you enjoyed Tuolumne Meadows, consider exploring more of it during your stay. Or take time to see the many sights of the country’s oldest national park.
3. Carson Pass, California
Wildflower enthusiasts should head to Carson Pass and hike south along the Pacific Crest Trail toward Round Top Lake and Round Top Peak. High up in the Sierras, volcanic soil nourishes a wide variety of flowers, including lupine, paintbrush, and mule’s ears. Along the way, you’ll see Winnemucca Lake surrounded by whitebark pines.
The trek from the Carson Pass parking lot to Round Top Peak is a moderate-to-difficult 8.8-mile out-and-back hike. The altitude can impact how hikers feel along the way. So if you’d prefer something easier, end your hike at Frog Lake. No matter the distance you choose, this will be an experience full of natural beauty.
Carson Pass can get snow late in the season, so most people opt to hike here in the summer. July is typically the best time for wildflower viewing, but it’s also very popular, so get here early to grab a parking space. If you’re driving from a long way away to get to Carson Pass, be sure to check the weather reports in advance.
4. Columbia River Gorge, Oregon
The Columbia River Gorge is the largest national scenic area in the U.S. Surrounding the mighty Columbia River are the Cascade Mountains, and hidden within are dozens of waterfalls. Several miles of the Pacific Crest Trail wind through this rugged region.
A popular day hike along this portion of the trail is the Dry Creek Falls Trail. Start at the Bridge of the Gods trailhead and head south. If you opt to end at the falls, this out-and-back hike is 4.2 miles. Or for something longer, continue on to Herman Creek Pinnacles.
The Columbia River Gorge can be very cold and rainy in the winter, so the ideal time for hiking here is in late spring through early fall. But since rain is common throughout the year in Oregon, come prepared with rain gear for your hike. During heavy rainfall, some trails may be closed, so always check the website prior to hiking.
5. Timberline Trail, Oregon
It’s not often hikers start at a famous lodge located high up in the mountains, but the elegantly rustic Timberline Lodge is indeed the ideal place to experience the Pacific Crest Trail in this area. Head to Zigzag Canyon along the Timberline Trail, and along the way you’ll be treated to fields of lupine and white phlox. Then use the stepping stones to cross Little Zigzag River, all with a backdrop of Mount Jefferson and the Three Sisters.
This 4.4-mile out-and-back trail is considered moderate. If you’re feeling more adventurous, continue on to Paradise Park, but just be prepared for the 2,300-foot elevation. Hiking in winter along the Timberline Trail is not recommended. Instead, opt for late spring through early fall. Be prepared for rain, and pack the proper gear in your daypack.
The Timberline Lodge is a great place to grab a meal after your hike. Several restaurants are available. Or splurge with an overnight stay to really enjoy everything there is to do in this mountainous region.
6. Chinook Pass, Washington
Located at the east entrance of Mount Rainier National Park in the Cascade Mountains, Chinook Pass offers many scenic hikes along the Pacific Crest Trail in Washington. A popular local hike ends at Sheep Lake. In the summer, you’ll enjoy fields of wildflowers, and in the fall, there are hundreds of red huckleberry plants. At times, you’ll have a bird’s-eye view of the Rainier Fork of the American River. The trail winds through forests and meadows, making this a lovely way to spend a few hours. And if you’re up for a swim, Sheep Lake is waiting.
This 3.6-mile out-and-back trail climbs 400 feet and is considered moderately difficult. If you’d like to hike farther, continue on to Sourdough Gap, where you’ll be rewarded with great views of Sheep Lake. Just be prepared for this section of trail to be much steeper. This area can be very cold in the winter, so the ideal time to experience it is in the late spring through early fall.
If you have more time, head to Mount Rainier National Park to explore all of its sights and scenery.
The Pacific Crest Trail is considered one of the best in the U.S. It climbs through 57 mountain passes and dips into 19 canyons. Along the way, hikers will stroll past lakes, streams, and rivers. There’s plenty of wildlife to see, including the occasional bear. Most people will experience this national treasure in small chunks. So whether you’re looking for an easy hike of a few miles or want an uphill challenge that will take all day, the Pacific Crest Trail really does have something for you.