Who takes care of the Pacific Crest Trail? The short answer is a LOT of people. And also, surprisingly few.
You would think that a trail as long and iconic as the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) would warrant hundreds of paid, full-time staff to keep it maintained and trail-worthy year after year. The truth is, the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) - the only organization in the US solely dedicated to protecting, maintaining and advocating for the PCT - has a grand total of 35 paid staff. We have met a few of the PCTA staff members, and while they are all hard working and passionate folks, they alone cannot do everything needed to maintain the 2,650 miles of PCT. So who does?
That is where volunteers come in! On average, over 1,700 people volunteer each year with the PCTA. This cadre of volunteers donates over 118,000 work hours, and completes more than 360 trail projects each year. Organizing this many volunteers is a monumental task and the PCTA does so through regional offices and disbursed teams. Dividing up the management of the PCT amongst six regional offices, the PCTA is better able to get boots on the ground. Each regional office is staffed with a small team who is responsible for all operations within their jurisdiction - and they all report into the main HQ in Sacramento, CA.
At the heart of the PCTA volunteer structure are Caretakers and Crew Leaders. Caretakers are volunteers who have adopted a section of the PCT, and are committed to overseeing that section's annual maintenance. Caretakers are responsible for scouting their section(s) of the PCT - and key alternate/feeder trails - early in the season, usually as soon as snow levels permit. These scouting trips allow the Caretaker and PCTA to prioritize trail maintenance needs throughout the hiking season.
Caretakers coordinate their trail maintenance activities with local land managers - such as the Forest Service or National Park Service - and PCTA staff. The first trail maintenance trips usually involve logout and repairing trail damage that occurred during the winter months, such as washouts or landslides. Caretakers also address issues that may impact a trail's long term health such as effects from water and gravity.
Caretakers are an extension of the PCTA and, despite being volunteers, are truly the ones who care for the trail; but to do this work, they need help - lots of it. This comes in the form of more volunteers, both skilled and not. The main skill needed is actually the ability to lead more volunteers, like a Crew Leader.
A Crew Leader is often also a Caretaker, but they have received additional training and authority from the PCTA. A Crew Leader is authorized by the PCTA to organize and lead trail work parties with other volunteers. Most Crew Leaders are certified sawyers (to cut logs), and have advanced First Aid training. If you have ever volunteered for a trail work party with the PCTA, the person who led your group was a volunteer Crew Leader!
Crew Leaders carry the bulk of the operational responsibilities when leading a trail crew. Many times a trail crew will include a mix of experienced and unexperienced trail volunteers, and the Crew Leader is there to make sure everyone is safe, gets to enjoy their day and get some work done. Some trail parties require more specialty skills, like log-outs (clearing logs off trails) or rebuilding a trail, and the crew leader is in charge of "recruiting" skilled volunteers.
Behind the scenes, Crew Leaders also care for equipment, ensure the right paperwork is filed with the relevant land manager and confirm a safe start and end of the day. They are the project manager, safety officer, instructor and carer for each work day on the trail.
To find out more about the PCTA Caretaker and Crew Leader responsibilities and opportunities, please visit their website.
During the last few months, the CNOC team has been volunteering and working with the PCTA to become Caretakers of a section of the PCT (more on that in a future post). We have been fortunate to work with several experienced (and legendary!) volunteers within the Mt. Hood Chapter of the PCTA. I spoke with a few of them recently to better understand what motivates them to volunteer so much time to the Pacific Crest Trail.
Susan Tracy is a PCTA Crew Leader and the Caretaker of the Benson Plateau section in the Columbia Gorge. She is also one of our mentors as we go through the process of becoming Caretakers and Crew Leaders.
Why did you start volunteering with the PCTA, and what motivates you?
Originally the Eagle Creek fire in 2017 inspired me to seek out trail work. Most of my favorite hiking and running trails burned, and I wanted to be one of the people who helped open them up again. I worked in Eagle Creek for three years before it opened, and I still work there as needed. I help fix problems that get in the way of people using the trails.
I wanted to lead trail crews to help foster inclusiveness and create a welcoming space for diverse volunteers. It's more work but I feel like it's been really successful so far.
There is an atmosphere of camaraderie within our Mt. Hood PCTA Chapter that I also really appreciate. We help one another, do the extra work when needed. We support one another and new people who come to volunteer with us. We hang out with a beverage and a chair after our work parties, talk about the day and catch up with one another. We welcome new people to join that circle, by providing help and encouragement.
How long have you been volunteering at the PCTA, and what do you do?
I’ve been volunteering for five years. I am a Crew Leader and Caretaker (steward) for the Benson Plateau section of the Pacific Crest Trail. I lead trail maintenance crews, help out on other projects, and foster parts of the trail currently without a Caretaker. I've worked mostly on burn area trails on the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area and Mount Hood National Forest since 2018, doing a lot of reconstruction.
You can read more about Susan Tracy’s PCTA efforts in this story recently published by the PCTA
Robert Caldwell is a long serving volunteer in the Mt. Hood Chapter, and the recipient of numerous volunteer awards, including the 2020 Alice Krueper award for Outstanding Trail Volunteer of the Year, and the 2016 Extra Mile Award. Robert, otherwise known as Pace on the trail, is a 2012 PCT thru hiker. His trail maintenance superpower is drainages, which is tested annually as his section of trail is around Ramona Falls near the Timberline lodge on Mt. Hood. Robert’s section of trail was heavily impacted by the 2020 Labor Day storm that wiped out large sections of the Timberline trail, and affected the PCT as well. In 2021, Robert and his trail crews cleared almost 1000 logs. Robert hopes to be able to clear the remaining ~400 logs this year so that section of trail can fully reopen.
Why did you get started? What motivates you to volunteer?
I got started with trail work because I was interested in hiking the PCT and wanted to learn more about the trail. After I thru-hiked the PCT in 2012, I wanted to give back to the trail, so I decided to get more involved by adopting a section of trail and becoming a trail Caretaker. I continue to do volunteer trail work because I enjoy the activity and appreciate seeing how our work improves the trail for hikers and contributes to keeping the trails accessible.
How long have you been volunteering at the PCTA and what do you do?
I first volunteered for trail work with the Mount Hood Chapter PCTA in 2009 and became a trail Caretaker in 2014. I have been a Caretaker for nine years and have adopted sections of the PCT and Timberline Trail (PCT alternate) on the west side of Mt Hood, north and south of the Muddy Fork River, between the Sandy River on the south and Top Spur Trail on the north, along with the access trails leading to these sections. I lead trail crews on these sections when they are clear of snow, and when they are blocked by snow we work on lower elevation sections of the PCT and other trails.
Thanks to Robert and Susan for their dedication to the trail, and to all of the 1,700+ volunteers who get out there each year to give back to the Pacific Crest Trail. If you are interested in volunteering with the PCTA, or other trail organizations near you, dive into this great post to get you started. We have provided a list of organizations throughout the US who would be thrilled to welcome you as new volunteers. If you have volunteered with a trail organization before, we’d love to hear about it!