The Long Riders' Guild

Hoofing it on the PCT:

The Highs and the Lows

 

By Gillian Larson

 

Riding the Pacific Crest Trail combines the difficulties of backcountry travel with the dilemma of how to access ever diminishing equestrian necessities present in today’s modern world. When I left the Mexican border on my horse, I knew that I was woefully ignorant of the types of challenges I would face along the Pacific Crest Trail. Learning to be flexible and at times creative when presented with a trail obstacle became a necessary skill. Thankfully, the PCT seems to gradually get more challenging as you move northward rather than hit you over the head right from the start. Had I encountered the kinds of trials at the beginning of my ride that I did at the end, I never would have made it.

 

Gillian and her horses are seen heading north from Sierra City.

In northern Washington I recall my hardest day on the trail, requiring me to jump over, scramble around, or cut through dozens of trees. I had saddled up before dawn and finally arrived in Stehekin sopping wet at 2 am. Naturally I then had to lug ten gallons of water up from a raging river and cut down a bale of hay that a kind rancher had hung in a tree for us before finally retiring to my tent. The next morning I was up and waiting at the bus stop by 9am ready to go into town. After an hour of waiting, I learned from a ranger that the previous night’s storm had caused a massive mudslide to cover over a quarter mile of the only road into town. Skipping over the details, I finally arrived into the little town by noon covered up to my waist in mud but more alive than ever.

 

This lovely photo of Gillian’s horses typifies how most people view equestrian travel; i.e. sunny days, green grass and happy equine companions. As the experienced Long Rider explains, the reality of horse travel differs from the romantic ideal. There is a great deal of hard work and tremendous physical effort required by both horse and human.

 

The trail was the best, worst, hardest, scariest, most beautiful five months of my life. There were many moments where I was uncertain if I would make it. There are so many tribulations that riders must overcome from snow and trees to lack of water and graze to the relentless pace of trying to ride 2,650 miles in less than six months. The one thing that I did become certain of, though, was that I would not simply quit due to my own lack of will power. I could accept ending my journey for the good of my horse or due to environmental factors, but I would not allow myself to become yet another obstacle on the trail.

 

The majority of the trail (approximately 2,000 miles) becomes buried under feet of snow every winter and must fully melt before becoming passable to equestrians. The PCTA provides some great resources for researching snow pack which riders should use during their research and carefully consider prior to their departure whether it is an appropriate year to attempt a thru-ride.  In a normal year the Sierra mountains do not become clear until late June or early July. After navigating the Sierra, which involves more than 300 trail miles, long riders have to cover the remaining 1,600 miles before early October. The relentless pace can often become too much for horse and rider, especially if adequate graze is hard to find. Northern California melts before the Sierra so riders should consider riding the upper part of the state before the Sierra section if the snow is melting slowly. The order that PCT miles are ridden should not be more important than the welfare of the horse, and riders should avoid riding into deep snow at all costs.

 

I rode the PCT in a drought year and was thus fortunate enough to avoid many snow obstacles; however, providing food for my horse then became a daily struggle. Large campsites with grass and access to water are few and far between on the PCT so traveling with less stock can actually be an advantage and increase the number of possible campsites. I downsized from a pack horse and riding horse to a single riding horse for this very reason after two months on the trail. Since I could not reliably find plentiful grass on the trail, every day I carried 10 to 15 lbs of a 6% fat hay-based pellet feed for my horse and packed in extra calories by adding a cup or two of oil per day. I could carry enough food on my horse to cover a max of 100 miles, though typically I averaged 75 miles.

 

Gillian and her horse Shyla depart from the Seiad Valley.

 

Resupplying every few days is an enormous feat when so far removed from towns, let alone a feed store. On my ride, I brought along a truck and trailer which allowed me to reliably resupply my horse. The rig also allowed me to drive ahead and cache a stash of pellets at a road crossing so that I could do a mini resupply while covering a 200 mile section without having to access the trailer. Caching water in the desert was also an important strategy when covering up to 40 miles with no water. Obviously the downside of bringing a rig along is that you have to somehow both drive the rig north and ride the horse north. I relied on many kind family members, friends, and strangers to give me a lift south from wherever I left my rig back to my waiting horse. Moving a vehicle yourself also means that your “rest day” is spent almost entirely moving the vehicle and caching feed/water, which quickly becomes exhausting. Another plausible strategy is having a support vehicle and driver or dropping off horse feed prior to starting the ride at the same places that hikers mail their resupply boxes to. There are very few horse facilities near the trail so riders must travel much farther than hikers to buy food. When in the Tahoe area, I had to go all the way to Reno in order to buy a bale of hay for my horse on her rest day. Being able to resupply in an efficient manner is critical to staying on track and covering the miles in a timely manner so as to reach Canada before the snow starts to fall.

 

Aside from snow, riders will encounter a range of other obstacles about which they will have to use their best judgment to decide whether to proceed or turn around and find a detour. Riders should be prepared to encounter hundreds of trees, particularly in northern Washington. The biggest tree I encountered on my ride was over 6ft in diameter; needless to say, I did not axe my way past that one. Other far less common obstacles include washouts and mudslides where the trail will suddenly vanish. Fires are another yearly occurrence and usually result in the trail being closed for a section and hikers and riders are diverted to walk along roads around the closure.

 

The Pacific Crest Trail is a challenging journey for any Long Rider, but exercising good judgment and diligent research can greatly increase the chance of successfully riding from border to border.

 

During her journey along the Pacific Crest Trail, Gillian (right) met fellow Long Rider Alina Dudding.

Provided below are several links that provide past and current information on snow pack along the trail.

 

After a long, hard journey, Shyla reaches the international border between Canada and the United States.

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