Snow, Solitude, and Gratitude: My 2023 PCT Thru-Hike in Review

Our Pacific Crest Trail correspondent has finally reached the northern terminus. Here are his final thoughts from his time on the trail.

Photo: David Gleisner

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As Backpacker’s 2023 Pacific Crest Trail correspondent, David Gleisner is reporting on this year’s PCT season as he completed a thru-hike of his own.

My first night on the Pacific Crest Trail, I camped alone.

In the grand scheme of things, this was pretty unremarkable, but it defied my expectations. In 2022, the majority of PCT thru-hikers spent less than 10 percent of nights on trail camping alone, according to the 2022 Halfway Anywhere PCT Survey.

That first night was a sign of things to come, a sign that this year would be a bit different. From the start, northbound PCT hopefuls knew that the defining feature of a 2023 thru-hike would be snow. March starters dealt with atmospheric rivers dumping precipitation on Southern California. High elevation sections in the southern part of the trail, including Mts. San Jacinto and Baden Powell, would go on to have snow well into May. And the Sierra was constantly on our mind, with 300 percent more than the average total snowpack.

This snow led many prospective PCTers to push back their hikes to another year, and many hikers on trail to develop creative itineraries. It became the “Year of the SNOBO” as the majority of hikers flipped in an effort to find snow-free trail across northern California, Oregon, and Washington. Logistical planning, flexibility, and communication became key skills for thru-hikers trying to plan their next move. Trail angels also stepped up to help, going to great lengths to ferry hikers to their destinations.

For those of us who decided to take on the Sierra, we were soon met with another defining aspect of our thru-hikes: solitude. During multiday stretches through austere, snow-covered terrain, our only company was the marmots popping out of the rocks. The usual overlapping John Muir Trail hikers were nowhere to be found, and we hiked for days on end without seeing anyone but each other. 

Completing the section became a crowning achievement that would last through the remainder of our trips. Up until my very last day, dayhikers, section hikers, and thru-hikers all asked me “Did you make it through the Sierra?” But making it through took a toll. Once we were into Northern California, we found ourselves isolated from hikers who had flipped. Our bodies bore the burden of carrying heavy packs over snow for days on end. And we still had a lot of trail left to cover.

In the final days of northern California and most of Oregon, I passed the SOBO/SNOBO bubble, enjoying brief but rejuvenating reunions with friends I hadn’t seen since the spring. Then, it was back to camping alone most of the time. I learned to cherish the solitude in the home stretch through Washington, hiking quiet trails through stunning mountain wilderness and making the most of new connections when they came. On my final day, I met a man completing the entire PCT for the third time, a humbling reminder of one thing that kept me going on the hardest days: In hiking this trail, you become a part of something much bigger than yourself.

There are still pressing issues that weigh on the PCT. Although hikers come from around the world, the vast majority of hikers are white, and the trail fails to reflect the diversity of the nation it crosses. Queer hikers and women continue to face discrimination from others on trail and in surrounding communities. On top of social issues, the effects of climate change present an existential threat to the very idea of a PCT thru-hike. Other northbound hikers and I were lucky to have a relatively tame wildfire season, but fires still closed the trail in parts of northern California, Oregon, and Washington as we passed through. Hiking through Oregon, I was disheartened to see much of the “green tunnel” was reduced to dust as I passed through miles and miles of burn zone.

But despite the difficulties, the PCT community is stronger than ever. The trail has a tendency to bring out the best in people, and this year was no different. At Montezuma Valley Market in Ranchita, California, PCT community members rallied to help the business rebuild after a fire burned it to the ground. Trail angels such as Chris Hoffman and Jay Gosuico worked outside of the box to help hikers travel to and from different parts of the trail, putting in thousands of miles on the road and in the air. On the trail, the stress and anxiety I felt looking ahead at uncertain conditions were always remedied by the helpful, supportive attitude of fellow hikers.

As this season wraps up and I look back on my first thru-hike, I feel overwhelmed by gratitude. The experience of thru-hiking the PCT is only possible through the deep care of a vast community. It’s the people who make this trail a remarkable place and will keep it alive for generations to come.

Cheers to the PCT Class of 2023!

From 2023