Matt Niswonger

 “Trail magic” makes spectacular section of the PCT possible

By Matt Johanson


Though hundreds of hikers per year attempt the 2,600-mile Pacific Crest Trail, my cousin Zach Padlo and I hit the wall around mile 26. We weren’t rookies but the first days are always tough when starting at high elevation, like 9,624-foot Sonora Pass.

For two days, we labored in thin air under heavy packs, clearing the trail’s highest pass between Yosemite and Canada while attempting an ambitious pace of 15 miles per day. As much as we enjoyed the wildflowers and rocky scenery, the last miles leading to Ebbetts Pass beat up both our bodies and morale.

Then we passed a cardboard sign inviting us to “trail magic.” After a short detour, we met a PCT veteran and three companions who welcomed us into their camp and offered us cold drinks and free dinner. How could we say no? As soon as we sat down, they gave us plates of fresh fruit, and within minutes, hot cheeseburgers. My dog Sam even got meaty treats and a dish of water. A wonderful hour later, we continued hiking with muscles and spirits refreshed.

We had met our first “trail angels,” the Heaven-sent friends of PCT backpackers who greet hikers with food and drinks. “I’ve hiked the entire trail three times, and I want to give something back,” explained our new friend called “Lizard.” Everyone has a trail name up here; his companions included Burger Meister and Forever Fifty. They weren’t the last angels who blessed us on our journey.

The Pacific Crest Trail runs along the west coast of  California, Oregon and Washington, from Mexico to Canada. The hardy few hikers who complete it each year take around five months. Zach, Sam and I trekked a five-day segment from Sonora Pass on Highway 108 to Echo Summit near Lake Tahoe.


After Ebbetts Pass, our next segment began with a pleasant night beneath the stars at Sherrold Lake; Zach and I enjoyed it, at least. But Sam, unused to sleeping outdoors, growled at many unseen critters in the night. The next day, we enjoyed the lakes, streams, meadows and peaks of the Mokelumne Wilderness, feeling stronger as our packs got lighter.

Meeting our fellow backpackers was also enjoyable. Many were thru hikers who began their journeys in the Southern California desert months before. Along the way they acquired impossible strength, trim waistlines and distinctive trail names like Danger, Polar Bear and Yard Sale. Hailing from dozens of states and countries, they share a friendly outlook, and they don’t look down on those who hike for days rather than months.

On our map, the hike to Carson Pass appeared milder than our earlier segment, but outdoors types know well how looks can deceive. Sun, rain, steep switchbacks and tricky route-finding combined to make it longer and harder than expected. Two beat backpackers and one pooped puppy staggered to Carson Pass on our fourth day.

Trail angels came to our aid again, refreshing us with fruit, chips and ice-cold sodas. Their selfless support proved that the PCT has become not just a trail, but a community. Hikers get to experience the west coast of the United States, and trail angels get the rewarding satisfaction of helping them. “They’re so grateful,” said one. “It’s like seeing kids’ eyes get big when they see Halloween candy.” Though I’ve hiked many years in the Sierra Nevada and elsewhere, I’ve never seen anything like it.

We recovered enough to hike three more miles that evening, camping in the lush, wildflower-filled Meiss Meadow. We slept beside the historic cabin built by the Meiss family in the 1870s. Though the building is closed in summer, it stands as a reminder of life in a simpler time when mail arrived only rarely but the Truckee River provided fish regularly.


After about 65 miles, I felt we had adjusted to the rigors of the trail and the wilderness. That goes for my four-legged friend too. A pack of coyotes howled late in the night but Sam didn’t make a sound, simply raising his head and ears before returning to sleep, snuggled beside me.

A final push through El Dorado National Forest took us to Echo Summit. One shouldn’t expect help from trail angels, who won’t always be found, but I was glad to get it a final time from friendly folks who gave us juice and homemade cookies. My nephew Benjamin Story also qualified as a trail angel by driving more than 350 miles to get us on short notice.

The hike still changed us for the better. There’s something unique and special about trekking through pristine wilderness that’s seldom visited while also experiencing unbridled kindness from the world’s nicest strangers. Most of the PCT remains for us to do, but I suspect the day will come when we also visit the trailheads not to hike but to give back.


Matt Johanson authored “Yosemite Adventures,” a new guide to 50 hikes, climbs and winter treks. His writing can be found at