Here’s What This Year’s Record Snow Means for Pacific Crest Trail Hikers
Parts of California have received double their average snowfall this season—and that’s a big deal for anyone planning a thru-hike on the PCT.
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California’s record-breaking snowpack has many hopeful Pacific Crest Trail hikers wondering if it’s practical or even possible to attempt a traditional northbound thru-hike this year. And while the season’s just beginning, hikers aren’t wrong to think there could be trouble.
Statewide, snow levels are currently at 190% of their April 1 average, when snow levels typically peak. To put it more plainly: California has twice as much snow as it would usually accumulate in a season, and there are still weeks to go. While snowpack levels across the state vary, the southern Sierra’s snow levels are currently the highest, weighing in at 209% of its April 1 average. The central Sierra follows close behind, measuring in at 175%.
The biggest question floating around most thru-hikers’ minds is whether or not California’s mountains will be safe to hike in April and May, when many northbound travelers hit the notoriously snowy peaks. When asked how he imagines that California’s snowpack will impact this year’s hiking, Dr. Mark Lubell, a backpacker and professor of Environmental Science and Policy at University of California, Davis, said that it all boils down to access and experience.
“Less is going to be accessible until later in the season,” he said. “Right now there are a lot of roads that are closed, and a lot of those backcountry roads are probably going to stay closed or snow impacted for a lot longer. Places you might normally get to in June or July, might not be accessible until August.” Hikers that do figure out resupplies and access may still struggle to travel over snow-covered passes and to adequately navigate avalanche danger.
Lubell’s insight comes just days after SAR personnel rescued two 17-year old boys from a southern section of the Pacific Crest Trail after a planned backpacking trip went off the rails due to a winter storm. While the hikers were prepared for some inclement weather, the magnitude of the storm—some areas received upwards of 10 feet of snow in mere days, thanks to back-to-back storms that prompted Governor Gavin Newsom to declare a state of emergency in 13 counties—surprised them. When a rescue helicopter arrived to retrieve the stricken hikers, both were hypothermic.
The men’s trail experience could be indicative of some of the looming challenges that other hikers may face this season. Over the past few years, many PCT community members have speculated that it may eventually become impossible to complete an end-to-end thru-hike on trail due to climate change and heightened wildfire risks. This year’s extreme weather could be spotlight that shift, forcing hikers that would have previously begun a trek in March to delay, flip flop, or stop their hikes.
The Sierra Nevada is about to see up to another 10-15 feet of snow above 8,000 feet in just the next 7 days. Up to 10 feet of snow could fall just through Sunday above 9,000 feet!
Keep in mind California’s snowpack is already one of the biggest in modern history. pic.twitter.com/LwvJB6EQAp
— Colin McCarthy (@US_Stormwatch) March 9, 2023
Swift river crossings could also create problems for hikers. The mountains of California are home to dozens of rivers, many of which the PCT crosses. Higher snowpack could cause the rivers to swell, potentially making those crossings more dangerous
“If there is a decent amount of spring runoff from the flooding, you might have a knee- or thigh-high crossing that might be kind of dangerous, or a bridge might be washed out,” says Lubell.
While deaths along the PCT are very uncommon, several hikers have drowned after attempting to cross swollen rivers on trail in the past. In 2017, during another high snow year, Rika “Strawberry” Morita died in the South Fork of the Kings River and Chaocui “Tree” Wang died in Rancheria Creek, presumably while attempting to cross the fast-moving waterway.
What effect will this year’s snowpack have on those rivers? It’s hard to say definitively. Lubell points out that, according to most accounts, the water content in recent snow years has actually decreased, which means that deep snow does not necessarily translate into deep and dangerously rapid river crossings.
There’s also the possibility that non-wilderness disasters could impact hikers heading into town. So far, the state’s unusually high snowpack has caused infrastructure damage, stranded communities, and caused at least 22 snow-related deaths across the state, Lubell notes.
“I do think we have to worry about some short-term impacts,” he said. “Even right now, there’s been some infrastructure damage from too much snow. There could be some flooding, for sure. There are some predictions of some warmer wet rivers coming in March and that’s the classic rain on snow that causes flooding.” Besides snow and river levels, it’s likely that mosquito season will be worse than normal as the increased moisture causes the flying insects to multiply
But the high snow year may bring some relief to California, as well. The snow could refill reservoirs, and boost the groundwater supply in order to support the state through future droughts. Overall, the snow year will likely help California, even if it won’t completely make up for years of drought. The high snow could also potentially increase soil moisture levels this year, lowering the intensity and length of wildfire season, another critical obstacle that thru-hikers face, and result in more plentiful water sources.
“More soil moisture is a good thing,” Lubell said. “If it’s a little bit wetter later in the year, I think it’ll be a [wildfire] buffer, but it kinda depends on the [air] temperature. If it stops and dries up, and gets hot, it’s not likely that we’ll have a fire-free September. But it might be that the beginning of the hardcore fire season will be delayed.”
If one thing is certain, it’s that the state of California is experiencing an extreme weather year. Hinting at the magnitude of this year’s snow season, Andrew Schwartz, a lab scientist at the Central Sierra Snow Lab at Donner Pass told Washington Post: “We have had the snowiest October through February period since our digitized records began in 1970.” And statewide, the snowpack is just short of surpassing the record snow year or 1982-1983. Whatever the historical context, one thing’s for sure: This is going to be a wild year on the PCT.