12 Best Day Hikes on the Pacific Crest Trail

Apr 7, 2017

The Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail (PCT) is a 2,600-mile contiguous hiking trail that stretches from the border of California and Mexico to the border of Washington and Canada, traversing the most rugged environments found on the western coastal states. The trail crosses through 26 national forests, seven national parks, five state parks, and four national monuments, not to mention the entire John Muir Trail of Central California. It's easy to understand why each year, hundreds of hikers start at either border and attempt to "thru-hike" the entire PCT in one six-month window.

For those who can't take six months off work, or are a little trepid of continuous backcountry trekking, there are still ways to enjoy the PCT, either through backpacking smaller sections of the trail or hopping on one of the great day hiking options listed below. Hiker beware, though, once you find yourself standing on the PCT, and you feel it stretch out in either direction across the entire country, it may be hard to get it out of your mind until you've explored the whole trail.

1 Eagle Rock

Author Brad Lane at Eagle Rock
Author Brad Lane at Eagle Rock | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

The Southern California portion of the PCT extends seven hundred miles through arid landscapes filled with twisted chaparral and few water breaks, and while this formidable terrain is often a challenge for thru-hikers and day-trotters alike, the Southern California section of the PCT has many highlights of its own. No better example of that can be found than the aptly-named Eagle Rock, just over 100 miles north of the Southern Terminus of the PCT.

If you are looking to make a day hike to Eagle Rock, all it takes is a 6.5-mile round-trip starting from Highway 7 near the Warner Springs fire station. Follow the PCT markers from the road, as the trail bends alongside the Canada Verde Creek and ravine for the first half of the trip before continuing through arid grasslands and sparse vegetation until you reach the unmistakable geological icon that is Eagle Rock. Tackle this trail between March and May, before many of the thru-hikers will be found in the area, and there is a good chance you'll stumble across a stunning display of wildflowers blooming along the path.

2 Mount Baden-Powell

Atop the summit of Mount Baden-Powell with views of Mount Baldy
Atop the summit of Mount Baden-Powell with views of Mount Baldy | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

For a good example of the vistas and maximum grade you'll experience on the Southern California portion of the PCT, the nine-mile, round-trip hike to the top of Mount Baden-Powell in the San Gabriel Mountains gives you a healthy dose of both as it climbs high in the sky. This popular summit hike isn't necessarily for everyone, though, and the roughly 4.5 miles it takes to climb more than 2,800 feet to the top is filled with enough switchbacks to make you consider turning back. But once you get to the top, be prepared to be greeted by old-growth pine trees that have existed for more than a millennium, as well as stunning views of the opposing Mount Baldy and the surrounding Los Angeles National Forest. You can trek this calf-pumping portion of the PCT by driving along the Angeles Crest Highway (2) towards Vincent Gap, where there is ample parking at the trailhead.

3 Mount Whitney

Mount Whitney
Mount Whitney

After traveling just over 700 miles through the arid and challenging landscapes of Southern California, the PCT transitions into Central California, including with it the jaw-dropping and often snow-covered Sierra Mountains. At the height of all the action, the PCT joins up with the 211-mile John Muir Trail (JMT), and together the two trails navigate the different mountain passes, alpine lakes, and other natural splendor found in this high-alpine paradise, including the upwards-gazing, snow-capped Mount Whitney.

Standing as the tallest summit in the contiguous United States, the Mount Whitney peak is the southern terminus for the JMT, and is a much-taken, alternate route for the PCT. To hike to the top of this bucket-list peak in a day, you won't spend much of any time on the actual PCT, and instead tackle it from the other side of the mountain, from the Whitney Portal, after obtaining a much sought-after permit. Accomplish this 22-mile, round-trip however, gaining over 6,000 feet as you climb to the top, and you'll get the most concentrated taste of the physical demands it takes to tackle the PCT found anywhere else along the trail.

4 Tuolumne Meadows

A thru-hiker makes dinner on the banks of Tuolumne Falls
A thru-hiker makes dinner on the banks of Tuolumne Falls | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

While Yosemite National Park marks some of the busiest places you can find on the PCT, there is a reason why this national park is so popular. To get a taste of the high-mountain splendor that is Yosemite, you can hop on the PCT starting from the Tuolumne Meadows Campgrounds, near the eastern Highway 120 entrance to the park, and head north alongside the Tuolumne River as it carves its way through the granite-infused scenery.

The cascading rapids of the Tuolumne River eventually lead hikers to the gushing Tuolumne and White Cascade Falls four miles down the trail, lending for a great photo opportunity and turnaround point on a fantastic day hike. For those with an early start or looking to camp overnight, the Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp is roughly six miles north of the Tuolumne Meadows Campground on the PCT and provides cabin accommodations and an unworldly location to soak in your Yosemite National Park experience.

5 Sonora Pass

Sonora Pass
Sonora Pass

From the parking lot atop Sonora Pass (Highway 108), hikers have many trail options to explore, but to see the biggest views and most awe-inspiring scenery, it's worth trekking five miles south on the PCT from the parking area. The trail starts with a climb and eventually evens out as it treks across the flank of Leavitt Peak, exposing hikers to a stunning ridgeline and deep basins containing alpine lakes. How far you want to go is your choice, because the PCT continues south for another 1,000 miles, but most day hikers can get their fill by traveling five miles south of Sonora Pass and turning back, and with the standout views along the way, you won't be disappointed by checking them out again as you head back.

6 Carson Pass

Carson Pass
Carson Pass

Just 30 miles south of Lake Tahoe, along Highway 88, and 55 trail miles north of Sonora Pass on the PCT, Carson Pass is a beautiful destination for day hiking. It's not just the stunning woodland and alpine lakes found throughout the area, but the varied amount of adventure options that make it great for anyone looking to hike along the PCT. Heading either north or south from the trailhead at Carson Pass, you can expect to find some scenery worth hiking towards, and whether you go south in searching for Lake Winnemucca or the more distant Round Top and 4th of July Lakes, or you head north towards the Echo Summit 12 miles away, you'll see for yourself the rewards you can stumble across when exploring the mountains of California.

Where to Stay in Lake Tahoe - Tripadvisor.com

7 Lower Castle Crags

The spectacular Castle Crags from the Northern California PCT
The spectacular Castle Crags from the Northern California PCT | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

After the PCT drops out of the highlands of Central California, spectacular views and scenery can still be found every step of the way. Especially so, when hikers enter the vicinity of Castle Crags State Park and nearby Mount Shasta. The granite spires and impressive rock croppings that comprise Castle Crags can be seen in clear sight along the 6.7 miles the PCT meanders through the state park, as well as stunning views of Mount Shasta not far off in the distance. While the PCT portion of this celebrated Northern California landmark is filled with enough scenery to make an out-and-back adventure worthy, many visitors also opt for the Castle Crags Dome Trail, which takes recreationists up to the top to explore in and around these postcard-worthy pinnacles.

8 Editor's Choice Crater Lake Rim Alternate

View from the Rim Trail of Crater Lake and Wizard Island
View from the Rim Trail of Crater Lake and Wizard Island | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

While the official PCT takes a route that strays west of the ancient caldera that is known as Crater Lake, the Crater Lake Rim Alternate is a highly recognized and much encouraged departure from the original route, of which more non-equestrian PCT hikers trek along every year. That's because without the Crater Lake Rim Alternate, you'd miss out on the eye-popping scenery comprised by the second-deepest lake in the nation.

The alternate trail officially begins at the Dutton Creek Trail Junction, but day hikers can cut some less scenic miles out by starting at the Rim Village. From here, the alternate trail follows along the rim for six miles, displaying dazzling views of Crater Lake and its sapphire waters the entire way. When you're ready to turn back, or you've hit the six miles the alternate trail encompasses, all you have to do is turn around and enjoy the same view twice. Crater Lake is truly a highlight of the entire PCT experience and is one geological feature that everyone in their life should get to see.

9 Paradise Park via Timberline Lodge

View of Mount Hood from the PCT near the Timberline Lodge and Paradise Park
View of Mount Hood from the PCT near the Timberline Lodge and Paradise Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

While many sections of the PCT could be claimed as the most scenic, the portion of the trail that departs from the historic WPA Timberline Lodge in northern Oregon stacks up to be not only one of the best day hikes on the PCT, but a highlight of the entire cross-country trail. It meanders through the wildflowers and big mountain views of Paradise Park and the surrounding Mt. Hood National Forest.

The PCT nearly connects to the backdoor of the Timberline Lodge, making for a great starting point on a PCT day hike. Follow the trail north for six miles from the Timberline Lodge and be prepared to soak in the scenes of abundant wildflowers, cascading water sources, and up-close views of Mount Hood the entire way. Six miles down the trail is the Paradise Park Loop Trail Junction that can get you back to the Timberline Lodge, where you can stay the night or fill your hiker appetite with their first-class breakfast buffet.

10 Eagle Creek Alternate

The impressive Tunnel Falls on the Eagle Creek Alternate
The impressive Tunnel Falls on the Eagle Creek Alternate | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

The Eagle Creek Trail of northern Oregon is another alternative route that departs from the official PCT. It is not only a common deviation for most thru-hikers, but one of the most popular spots in Oregon to see a high concentration of water features. While most thru-hikers navigate the many waterfalls of Eagle Creek heading north into the town of Cascade Locks and the border of Oregon and Washington, a day hiker's best bet will be to start from Cascade Locks to make their way south along this featured trail of the Columbia River Valley.

Just under two miles from the start of the trail, Punch Bowl Falls and its large basin of water waits to be seen, and nearly seven miles in, Tunnel Falls allows hikers to trek under a waterfall through an impressive tunnel carved out of the rock. The Eagle Creek trail is one of the most popular trails in the Pacific Northwest, so you might be sharing the trail with some other avid adventurers, but with all there is to see, you won't mind the company.

11 Chinook Pass

Distant Mount Rainier shrouded in clouds, not far from the Chinook Pass trailhead
Distant Mount Rainier shrouded in clouds, not far from the Chinook Pass trailhead | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Every mile of the Washington portion of the PCT is filled with lush rainforest environments, craggy high-alpine terrain, and big views of defining Pacific Northwest attractions. Not much of the Washington PCT is easily accessible for day hikes, but where the trail crosses Highway 410 at Chinook Pass, complete with an ample parking area, day hikers can explore the PCT in either direction and feel their wanderlust satisfied. Heading north on the PCT from Chinook Pass, Sheep Lake is only 1.5 miles away and is worth the drive up the mountain. Heading south, Dewey Lake, Anderson Lake, and the Laughingwater Trail Junction encourages exploration. With Chinook Pass serving as the eastern border of Mount Rainier National Park, your fun doesn't have to end with a day hike on the PCT, and the adventure options are nearly endless considering the vast mountain environment that surrounds it.

12 Hart Pass

Hart Pass
Hart Pass

The North Cascades National Park section of the PCT in northern Washington is arguably the most rugged, but with an adequate amount of sweat equity, the stunning views of the craggy Cascade Mountains are well worth the effort. Much of the terrain that the PCT crosses through in northern Washington is inaccessible without multiple days of hiking, but not far from the Canadian border, just outside the small adventure town of Mazama, you can access great PCT day hiking from Harts Pass.

The Forest Service road to access Harts Pass is narrow, with a steep cliffside instead of a shoulder, and partly for that reason the drive up to this day hiking destination could be your biggest challenge of the whole adventure. The other part of the reason is that because Harts Pass is at an elevation of more than 6,000 feet, you don't have to climb much when you start hiking on the trail. Instead, the whole family can follow the relatively flat grade heading south or north on the PCT from Harts Pass, and take in some of the most dramatic ridgelines, mountain peaks, and craggy alpine environments found in the entire state of Washington.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Mazama

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