Wildfire and detours on the Pacific Crest Trail

A hiker is caught in smoke and decision-making when the Carr Fire broke out in 2018.

Just when it seemed unimaginable that the 2018 fire season could get worse in Northern California, the Delta Fire joined the Hirz Fire in early September south of Castle Crags and Dunsmuir, closing 55 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. The Delta Fire had grown rapidly, expanding to more than 40,000 acres less than four days after it started. These fires both moved quickly, gobbling up large swaths of trees and buildings. And then, as the fire season stretched into mid-autumn, the devastating 153,000-acre Camp Fire incinerated the community of Paradise in the second week of November. This fire season was one for the record books, but it was topped just two years later when 4% of California’s total acreage burned (4.4 million acres) in a single year. 

Michael Meyer was thru-hiking in the Trinity Alps and Russian Wilderness at the end of July 2018 less than a week after the massive Carr Fire ignited not far to the south. His story has become much too typical, as fire has become an increasing reality all along the PCT over the past decade or more. What was once considered an occasional event requiring a few detours is now commonplace in any particular year. The combination of drought, lightning and humans has created scenarios like those Meyer recounts and have sadly become part of the PCT experience.


I can’t get the image out of my head. It’s messing me up. It threatens to ruin my hike. As if that matters, under the circumstances. The Carr Fire has again doubled in size overnight, engulfing 89,000 acres. Several hundred homes have burned, a dozen people have died or are missing, and nearly 100,000 have fled the town of Redding and nearby communities.

The worst is the story I hear at Bob’s Ranch House diner in Etna this morning. A grandfather and grandmother were taking care of their grandkids for the weekend. Gramps goes to run an errand and soon receives a call from one of the children. The fire has suddenly burst all bounds. Flames are advancing on the house. Grandma doesn’t know what to do. Can he come home, fast?

But he can’t. Police have closed the roads, and ahead is a wall of fire. Gramps is still on the phone with the kids. He hears their rising hysteria. Then the flames come. His family dies in the fire as he is on the phone with them through those last terrible moments.

I felt so heartsick that I choked up and could scarcely eat my breakfast. Up top, the smoke we hikers walk through (or, if we’re lucky, merely look down upon in the valleys) is not merely forest burning, bad as that may be. It’s also the hopes and dreams and lives of many people. For me, going back to the mountains today is impossible. It confirms a decision I was considering yesterday, along with other hikers: to jump north to Oregon or beyond, wherever the air is clear.

Wildfire smoke from the Carr Fire obscures a view of Castle Crags along the Pacific Crest Trail.
Danielle Fenton

My swing through the Big Bend has gone well until now. From the trailhead at tiny Castella, a one-shop hamlet just southwest of Dunsmuir at Mile 1499, the trail rises several thousand feet into beautiful Castle Crags, then the next day gains another thousand feet across talus-covered slopes full of flying grasshoppers (sounding deceptively like rattlesnakes) into the Trinity Alps.

In the morning, these legendary mountains are swathed in smoke. The famed views of Mount Shasta to the east are lost in a white murk beyond a ridgeline or two. It’s a bit like wandering through watery clouds of milk.

The famed views of Mount Shasta to the east are lost in a white murk beyond a ridgeline or two.

At first I expect it to be like this all the way to Oregon, since there are major fires to the north and south. But then, around 6,600 feet, just below the tree line, a northwest wind begins to clear the skies, and the upper reaches of distant peaks suddenly appear above the lower-lying haze choking the valleys.

This becomes a daily pattern. Each morning, as the Carr Fire worsens, the smoke at lower elevations becomes notably heavier. Setting out on a stretch from Parks Creek Road at Mile 1539 several days ago, my eyes began burning, and I donned a medical mask. (I normally wear these on my hands to protect them from the sun.) But as the trail neared 7,000 feet, and as the late morning winds picked up, the air cleared. To the south and east, a heavy band of murk butted up against the mountains, with Mount Shasta and other peaks making only brief cameo appearances. But to the north, at high elevations, the skies were blue and pristine.

Deep into the Russian Wilderness, around Mile 1585, I sit for a spell with a pair of other hikers, Woodchuck and Gently Used. We look out at the sharp smoke line below us to the southwest. Woodchuck, the older of the two, with a resplendent long white beard like Father Time, fears the Carr Fire will grow so big that even here, around 7,000 feet, there will be no escape from the smoke. If so, he says, he’ll just go somewhere else. “I’m old,” he says. “I adjust.” Besides, there are worse things. Like cancer. Over the winter, doctors removed the tip of one ear and a slice of his lower lip. “Skin grafts suck,” he says in his soft mountain-man accent. “Feels like dead meat. Can’t drink my coffee without spilling.”

The Russian Wilderness is a day of sawtoothing — up a thousand feet, down again into a valley. Soft and fast trail through forest one moment, goat-walking along vertiginous rock cliffs the next. After one particularly hot and long climb, I look up at another ridge and think, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to climb that?” But the PCT offers no respite. Up and over she goes.

After Etna Summit, at Mile 1599, a group of us hitchhike into little Etna, 10 miles to the east. The skies are clear. Fifty or so tents are pitched in the town park. Etna is a foodie’s heaven. The best place in town, the Denny Bar, distills its own gin and vodka and offers a menu and ambiance more typically found in Manhattan than a tiny hiker town in Northern California.

I could easily have zeroed here. But, alas. Overnight, the Carr Fire has again substantially worsened, and in Etna you cannot see clearly to the end of the block. Hiker posts from the mountains to the north are not much better.

It’s time to jump north, with fingers crossed.

Michael Meyer, a former Newsweek editor and senior UN official, is author of 1989: The Year That Changed The World and founding dean of the graduate media school at Aga Khan University in Nairobi, Kenya.

This story was excerpted from Crossing Paths: A Pacific Crest Trailside Reader edited by Rees Hughes and Howard Shapiro (May 2022) with permission from the publisher Mountaineers Books. All rights reserved.

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