Drought has gripped the American West for years, and its effects are starting to impact backcountry hikers on two of the world’s most famous trails. Springs and streams along the Pacific Crest and Continental Divide trails have started to dry up for the first time in the trails’ history.
Backcountry hikers can spend anywhere from a few days to several months traversing the wilderness along these trails and they rely almost entirely on natural springs, streams, and rivers for water. Much of the American Southwest is covered by vast deserts where water is already scarce, and if the current drought conditions continue, it could make hiking certain sections of these famous trails impossible.
The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), where hikers traverse California, Oregon, and Washington on their way from Mexico to Canada, crosses 2,650 miles through deserts, mountains, and forests. Hikers along the trail regularly update the PCT Water Report to inform others where they can find reliable sources of drinking water, but even reliable springs have run dry during the peak of the drought. Snowpack in California this year is only about half of what it should be on average, which means that water sources could easily dry up by the end of the summer.
Conditions along the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) aren’t faring much better. The 3,100-mile trail which crosses five states on its way between the northern and southern borders is also experiencing drought conditions over huge sections. Thankfully, water availability along the CDT is also crowdsourced so hikers aren’t caught off guard by a dried-up spring. Unfortunately, however, the lack of water has caused many hikers to go completely around the Black Mountains section in New Mexico in order to travel more closely along the Gila River. The continued drought has also made sections of the trail more susceptible to wildfire. Last year, Montana experienced the worst of the drought and resulting fires. This year, it’s Colorado that is expected to fair the worst because of the lack of adequate snowpack.
What worries scientists and outdoor enthusiasts alike is that these exceptionally dry conditions aren’t a result of some anomaly, but that climate change could be creating a new norm. Horses across the Western US have been dropping dead around dried-up watering holes, urging concerned residents to truck thousands of gallons of water to remote locations. Hopefully, conditions along the CDT and PCT won’t get that bad, but volunteers are already considering caching water along the trail to protect any thru-hikers from dehydration.
These trails are not only a symbol of the American spirit of adventure and a vibrant part of our culture but also the lifeblood of many of the rural, small towns that rely on business brought by hikers. With any luck, heavy summer rains will help replenish these diminishing water sources. If you’re planning on doing any thru-hiking in the drought-stricken West, always make sure to check water availability ahead of time so you don’t end up as dehydrated as the parched ground you walk on.