Hiking Trail From Mexico To Canada More Popular Than Ever

A record number of people are hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. This year, more than a thousand backpackers applied for permits to complete the entire 2,650 mile trek between Mexico and Canada, though just about half of them are expected to actually finish as the season wraps up this October.

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The Pacific Crest Trail is one of the nation's iconic hiking routes. It stretches more than 2,600 miles between Mexico and Canada, and this year a record number of people are hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. In fact, as many as 500 are expected to finish the entire trek. From member station KPLU in Seattle, Bellamy Pailthorp reports on how the experience is changing as more people do it.

BELLAMY PAILTHORP, BYLINE: Wow. I'm on the Pacific Crest Trail at an iconic part of it called the Kendall Katwalk. It is a narrow shelf that's been blasted into the mountainside. All around us, 360-degree views of the rugged peaks of the North Cascades. To the south, there's about 2,400 miles of the trail that go through Oregon and California all the way to the Mexican border. To the north, there's less than 250 miles to go if you want to reach Canada and the end of the trail.

NAMIE BACILE: It's always an adventure. You never know what's around the next bend.

PAILTHORP: That's Namie Bacile, a construction worker turned full-time long-distance backpacker. He's not surprised at how popular it's become.

BACILE: Bound to happen. The first time I did the trail in '92, there was, like, 19 of us. So I've seen it grow over the years and it's the same way with all the trails.

PAILTHORP: He remembers a spike on the Appalachian Trail 15 years ago when Bill Bryson's book "A Walk in the Woods" became a bestseller. And now a bestseller about the PCT is being made into a Hollywood movie. "Wild" by Cheryl Strayed will star Reese Witherspoon. That is driving the latest boom. Bacile says a lot of good things come with the big numbers.

BACILE: A lot more trail work, a lot more involvement, a lot more resources. And like I say, it's a long trail. You stretch all those people out. And I still go. I can go all day long and not see anybody.

PAILTHORP: But it can get busy where the thru-hikers come off the trail to get their supplies and do laundry. They often gather at the homes of people they call trail angels.

ANDREA DINSMORE: This is a hiker dorm. We've got bunk beds here, or they can sleep outside. We've got two acres for them to go camping on.

PAILTHORP: Andrea Dinsmore and her husband, Jerry, have converted one end of a large garage into free lodging for hikers. They call it Dinsmore's Hiker Haven. The Dinsmores have already hosted more than 250 hikers this year.

JERRY DINSMORE: Every year, we have more here than we did the year before by about 50 hikers. So, you know, better not get too much bigger.

(LAUGHTER)

PAILTHORP: Along with the increasing numbers, the Dinsmores have seen the gear get much lighter over the years. To finish the trail before snow starts covering the passes in Washington, thru-hikers have to put in 20 to 30 miles a day for five months. Among them is 28-year-old Jessie Chism. She says she's whittled the weight of her backpack down to about eight pounds, not counting food and water.

JESSIE CHISM: I've heard horror stories about 60-pound packs and I don't - I would have never made it if - I would have injured myself long ago should I have ever tried a heavier pack.

PAILTHORP: Chism quit her job as a hydraulic engineer with the Army Corps to make this journey. She's part of the growing community that rejects the idea that the Pacific Crest Trail is only for super-buff, hardcore hikers.

CHISM: I believe that everyone has a business on trail, and it's not difficult. I did 200 miles of it in flip flops because my blisters on my feet had exploded. So I did it in flip flops, and so it's just getting up and walking. And I think that anyone could do it.

PAILTHORP: Of course, that view is colored by the invincible feeling of someone who's just put 2,400 miles behind her. Parts of the trail wouldn't be safe without boots. Other parts are accessible enough that even a reporter can make it up there and back in a day. For NPR News, I'm Bellamy Pailthorp in Seattle.

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