At the opening of her memoir, “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail,” Cheryl Strayed writes, “The Pacific Crest Trail wasn’t a world to me then. It was an idea, vague and outlandish, full of promise and mystery.” Fortunately, you don’t have to hike all 2,663 miles of the PCT from Mexico to Canada to find the promise and mystery that inspired Strayed’s book.
In fact, you can take in some of the trail’s most eye-popping scenery by hiking some relatively short stretches that can be conquered in several hours.The 460 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail that pass through Oregon lead from the California border near Mt. Ashland and wind north past natural wonders like Crater Lake, the Three Sisters mountains and Mt. Hood before ending in the Columbia River Gorge at the Bridge of the Gods, which featured prominently in “Wild,” the critically acclaimed film adaptation of Strayed’s book.
The Oregon portion of the PCT draws legions of outdoors enthusiasts, from occasional trekkers to ardent backpackers. It’s best experienced as a day hike from late spring through early autumn. Here are seven spectacular PCT hikes, most of them accessible from paved roads, in order from north to south.
Enjoy a moderate, 4.4-mile round-trip hike from the parking lot near the Bridge of the Gods, in the picturesque Columbia Gorge town of Cascade Locks, up to Dry Creek Falls. The trail climbs about 700 feet through a lush forest to arrive at the base of a 75-foot waterfall. Lengthen the hike by continuing another 1.6 miles to see the imposing basalt pinnacles between Dry Creek and Herman Creek. Plan a visit to Cascade Locks in August to attend the PCT Days, an annual celebration of the great long-distance trail and outdoor recreation.
Nearby Lodging: Best Western Plus Columbia River Inn (in Cascade Locks, across the street from the PCT, by Bridge of the Gods), Columbia Gorge Hotel & Spa (in Hood River, 20 miles east of Cascade Locks)
Within a scenic 90 miles’ drive of Portland, the epic PCT meanders around the grand, historic Timberline Lodge constructed in 1936 on the slopes of Mt. Hood by the Works Progress Administration. Several hikes leave right from the lodge. Check out the easy 4.4-mile round-trip hike to Zigzag Canyon, the short but steep 2.2-mile hike to Silcox Hut or the strenuous (2,300-foot elevation gain) 12.1-mile loop to Paradise Park and back. After working up an appetite, settle in for a fine dinner at the lodge’s find Cascade Dining Room, which has won awards for its Northwest-focused wine program.
PCT veterans often describe this 5.8-mile stretch through wildflower meadows and past 10,497-foot Mt. Jefferson as one of the most magical sections in Oregon. The moderately difficult out-and-back (11.6 miles total) day hike from the Breitenbush Lake Trailhead ascends about 2,500 feet and requires navigating some rocky terrain above the timberline, but you’ll be rewarded with mesmerizing views of snowcapped Mt. Jefferson as well as several serene alpine lakes, including crystal-clear Russell Lake. As wonderful as this hike is, it takes some effort to drive to Breitenbush Lake Trailhead — the last few miles of road along FR 4220 from either the FR 46 turnoff or Olallie Lake are extremely rough and narrow, and high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicles are recommended.
Nearby Lodging: Olallie Lake Resort (adjacent to PCT, 5 miles from Breitenbush Lake Trailhead), Breitenbush Hot Springs Retreat and Conference Center (16 miles from Breitenbush Lake Trailhead)
The PCT traverses the backbone of the Cascade mountains for 40 challenging miles through the Three Sisters Wilderness Area, a 281,190-acre expanse of pristine coniferous forests and craggy volcanic peaks. The hardiest trekkers like to tackle the formidably rugged 16.3-mile section between McKenzie and Santiam passes — out-and-back excursions of whatever length you prefer are a great option from either of these two trailheads.
About 33 miles of the PCT pass through the backcountry of Crater Lake National Park. An alternate trail from Rim Village takes hikers to the dramatic rim of the caldera and follows it for 6 miles, offering spectacular vistas across the east side of the lake and down over Wizard Island.
Nearby Lodging: The Cabins at Mazama Village(1.5 miles from PCT junction with Highway 62), Crater Lake Lodge (8 miles from PCT junction with Highway 62), Diamond Lake Resort (10 miles from PCT junction with Highway 138)
Hikers of all ages and experience levels can get a feel for the PCT along this easy and picturesque 4.5-mile one-way trek from the Highway 66/Green Springs Highway trailhead to the dam near the southern shore of Hyatt Lake. Situated in the heart of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, this span of the PCT offers some fun potential side excursions, such as the climb to 4,551-foot Green Springs Mountain. You can extend your adventure by continuing northeast on the PCT another 6.5 miles to Howard Prairie Lake, an oasis of boating and fishing.
This 2.8-mile out-and-back hike leads to one of Southern Oregon’s most dramatic — and photographed — points along the PCT, an ancient volcanic plug that soars 570 feet above the surrounding Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. Only experienced mountaineers should attempt the steep scramble to the top of Pilot Rock, from which you’ll be treated to sweeping views of Mt. Shasta, Mt. McLoughlin and Mt. Ashland. But even from the base of Pilot Rock, the scenery is breathtaking.
If You Go
In addition to the official website of the Pacific Crest Trail Association, other useful resources include PCT Oregon and the Oregon section of the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Crest Trail web page.
Keep in mind that much of the PCT in Oregon traverses high terrain that’s snowbound for several months in winter. Although some sections — such as Timberline Lodge and Crater Lake — are popular for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, the trail is best suited for hiking from early summer to early fall. Depending on recent weather conditions and the previous winter’s snowpack, some sections can be managed as early as mid-May and as late as early November. Avoid summer weekends if you’re averse to crowds.
Before setting out, review your route on TripCheck.com, which will alert you of current road conditions and potential closures. Also be vigilant about wildfires in Oregon; you can check the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center web page to see if the area you plan to hike is affected by fires. Always be prepared by packing layers, carrying an emergency roadside kit, and bringing paper road and trail maps. When hitting the trails, tread lightly and aim to leave no trace.