Pacific Crest Trail side quests are objectives PCT hikers can choose to accomplish during their hikes, but that don’t need to be completed to finish a PCT thru-hike.
Before beginning a Pacific Crest Trail hike – or perhaps any thru-hike – it’s common for would-be hikers to spend vast amounts of time meticulously researching, planning, and mulling over their coming adventure.
I would wager that many hours spent “planning” are simply a means of justifiably procrastinating anything else a PCT hiker could be doing before their hike, but I’m not here to judge. I’m here to do the opposite – to give you even more options when it comes to things to plan, research, and consider before setting out on a PCT hike.
Need to Know
Side quests are listed in geographical order from south to north. Some side quests are only applicable to Pacific Crest Trail hikers traveling in a particular direction (i.e., northbound or southbound).
I have assigned each of the Pacific Crest Trail side quests four ratings, an interest factor, difficulty factor, inconvenience factor, and a stupid factor.
All these are scored on a scale of 1 to 10 with a clarification of each scale below.
Also, the mileage used in all the below descriptions is based on data from FarOut. These mileages can change as the PCT is always being rerouted and (hopefully) improved – consider them approximate. If you aren’t already familiar with FarOut and you’re going to hike the PCT, you should invest in the app.
Despite what you read in your overpriced guidebook, not all side quests are particularly interesting. This is an assessment of where the side quest falls on a scale of “not worth your time” to “absolutely should attempt”.
It isn’t unreasonable to encounter a side quest that’s more challenging than any single stage of the Pacific Crest Trail. This is a rating of how difficult the side quest is to accomplish on a scale of “zero effort needed” to “significant physical or logistical effort needed”.
Sometimes a side quest might be interesting and easy, but it may be a huge hassle. This is a gauge of how inconvenient a side quest is on a scale of “will not alter your hike whatsoever” to “enormous pain in the ass”.
Some side quests have become part of Pacific Crest Trail lore and/or the PCT hiker culture that some may consider to be undeserving of such consideration. This metric rates how stupid a side quest is on a scale of “no at all” to “dumb af”.
Belden Music Festival
Every year (most years?) there is a music festival in Belden, California. I’ve never been to this music festival and I know it only from stories of hikers who unexpectedly stumbled upon the festival.
From what I can tell, it’s the Stilldream Festival (although it looks like in 2023 it took place at a different location) which is a five-day psytrance festival that takes place in late June.
A music festival is far from what most thru-hikers would expect to find when setting off on a border-to-border hike across the country, but with the increasing popularity of the Pacific Crest Trail, I suspect it would feel like a festival on its own at times.
Two stars for interesting. Not anything that you’re going to be missing out on (unless you’re a huge psytrance fan), but one extra star for the novelty of there being a musical festival literally on the Pacific Crest Trail. I imagine it has been interesting for past hikers who came upon this event without prior knowledge of it.
Five points for the difficulty of this side quest as you would need to either begin your hike early, hike quite quickly, or do some flip-flopping to find yourself in Belden during this festival. Basically, you need to be either lucky or deliberate with your timing if you expect to show up here hiking (instead of using a vehicle to get to the festival).
The most inconvenient part of attending this festival would be the timing – the same thing that makes it difficult. Five points for inconvenience since it’s essentially a duplication of the difficulty category.
Seven stupid points for this side quest. Zero reason to make this a part of your Pacific Crest Trail hike unless you’re a psytrance fan who is somehow going to be in Belden at the exact time this festival is happening.
Ever wanted to summit an active volcano? Good news, PCT hiker, you can! Lassen Peak (oftentimes also called Mount Lassen), is within reach of the Pacific Crest Trail although you’ll likely need to dedicate an entire day to reach it.
Lassen Peak is 10,440 ft / 3,180 m – not as high as many of the Sierra passes you either just crossed or will cross, but with a prominence of 5,229 ft / 1,594 m, it’s still quite imposing.
The shortest route to Lassen Peak from the PCT is 11.04 mi / 17.76 km one-way with 4,589 ft / 1,399 m of climbing.
One more complicating factor? Bear canisters are required for overnight stays in Lassen National Park.
Peak bagging from the Pacific Crest Trail might sound like a good idea before you set out on your hike, but there’s a good chance you will lose a lot of the “I’m going to do everything” conviction during your hike. Lassen Peak isn’t a particularly famous peak and it’s a longer detour to the top than many other peaks (Mount Whitney included).
That’s why Lassen Peak gets five stars for interest. Something to think about, but not a must-do by any measure.
The hike to the summit of Lassen Peak is not technically difficult. It’s not unlike anything you would have encountered on the Pacific Crest Trail coming from either direction. The four points of difficulty awarded to this side quest come from the fact you’ll need to carry extra food, devote extra time, and hike extra miles to reach the peak. Altitude and snow/ice shouldn’t be an issue (as they may be for Whitney) as most hikers will find themselves in this area during the middle of their hikes.
Lassen Peak gets six points of inconvenience because in addition to taking what will probably be an entire day for many hikers – requiring a heavier food carry – there’s a chance you’ll need a bear canister as well.
Yes, for all overnight stays in Lassen Volcanic National Park, you’re required to have a bear canister. It’s possible to hike the entirety of the Pacific Crest Trail through the National Park and summit Lassen Peak in a single day, but this would be a massive effort.
It’s not a stupid idea to tag Lassen Peak as part of your Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike, but you’ll likely be in the minority should you choose to undertake this side quest.
It gets three stupid points based on the peak’s proximity to the trail and the fact that you may need a bear canister if you end up going for the summit.
Subway Cave (map) is in Lassen National Forest just outside Old Station (where there’s a campground, small store, laundromat, hotel, restaurant, and post office). It’s an underground lava tube you can walk through that’s 0.3 mi / 500 m long.
The shortest route to the Subway Cave is via northbound mile 1378.6 / southbound mile 1276.6; it’s a 0.6 mi / 1 km walk to the entrance. In total, Pacific Crest Trail hikers will walk approximately 0.9 mi / 1.45 km extra to visit the entirety of the Subway Cave.
Just be sure to bring a headlamp because it’s dark underground (who knew?)
The Subway Cave is by no means something you absolutely must see when hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, but due to the low amount of effort required to visit and the novelty of the geologic feature, it’s certainly worth a look. Three stars for interest – don’t feel too bad if you hike past this area outside opening hours (dawn to dusk).
It’s not difficult to reach Subway Cave. Once you’re there, the extra walking you’ll do through the cave is just 0.3 mi / 500 m and the distance from the trail is 0.6 mi / 1 km. This means that the shortest route for a complete Subway Cave visit from the Pacific Crest Trail is approximately 0.9 mi / 1.45 km. You’ve walked over 1000 mi / 1600 km to get here, you can easily walk that distance to visit a lava tube. One difficulty point.
As said above, it’s a short walk to and through the Subway Cave. Two points instead of one for inconvenience for it not being right on the trail.
One stupid point for visiting the Subway Cave as it’s free to visit, close to the trail, and all you’ve lost if you end up completely hating it is around twenty minutes of your life. I’m sure you’ll waste far more time doing far less interesting things while on the Pacific Crest Trail (like hiking).
Burney Falls (map) is the namesake of Burney Falls State Park in California and is a must-see for Pacific Crest Trail hikers. The falls are 129 feet high (40 m) and have an almost constant flow rate of 379 million liters per day. They’re far and away the most impressive waterfall you’ll see on the Pacific Crest Trail (although there are some nice ones if you decide to visit Yosemite Valley – not on the PCT).
Burney Falls State Park is at northbound mile 1420.1 / southbound mile 1235.1 of the PCT.
Full marks for the interest level of this PCT side quest. Burney Falls is a must-see for anyone hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (unless maybe you’re busy setting an FKT).
Burney Falls State Park is located at northbound mile 1420.1 / southbound mile 1235.1. It’s around a 0.5 mi / 800 m walk to the post office and store located inside the park. From there, it’s a short walk down a nice path to the base of the falls. One point for difficulty – nothing tough about getting here.
Given that you’re likely going to want to visit the Burney Falls State Park post office, general store, or flushing toilets, the extra distance to the falls themselves is trivial. Minimal inconvenience points for visiting Burney Falls.
Zero stupid things to say about visiting Burney Falls – worth the trip.
Seiad Valley Pancake Challenge
Seiad Valley (map), located at Pacific Crest Trail northbound mile 1657 / southbound mile 998.2 is a resupply stop that’s on the PCT (i.e. you don’t need to hitchhike, take public transport, or detour from the trail to reach it).
There is a restaurant here called the Seiad Cafe (map) located at the general store/post office/RV park where they have a food challenge, the Pancake Challenge. It’s advertised as five pounds (2.27 kg) of pancakes, but after having seen it myself, I would wager it’s far more.
The challenge? Straightforward – eat all the pancakes.
The Seiad Valley Pancake Challenge is not particularly interesting beyond the novelty of seeing a huge stack of pancakes. You should in no way feel obligated to participate in or witness the Seiad Valley Pancake Challenge. If you hike straight through without stopping, you’re not missing much. Two stars.
Eight points for the difficulty of this side quest due to the massive amount of food it requires you to put into your (probably malnourished) stomach. Apparently, and not surprisingly, very few people have completed this challenge. It’s an absurd amount of pancakes.
Five points for inconvenience for the pancake challenge since you need to be in Seiad Valley during the cafe’s opening hours and you’ll probably not feel great after attempting (or completing?) it.
Maximum stupid points for the Seiad Valley Pancake Challenge. Zero reason to do this. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if this side quest disappears at some point as the amount of waste generated by the leftover pancakes is likely an embarrassing amount.
It’s easy to get excited when planning a Pacific Crest Trail hike and imagine you’re going to do ALL THE THINGS. However, the reality is often different from the idealistic plans you make beforehand.
Oftentimes, you’ll be exhausted from hiking, and the thought of venturing off the PCT or adding any complications to your thru-hike will seem like madness. That said, other times you may be inspired to put in some extra effort and get some bonus XP.
Have a Pacific Crest Trail Northern California side quest that you believe is worthy of making this list? Know of a NorCal side quest that more PCT hikers should be taking advantage of?
Leave a comment below or get in touch!