The Pacific Crest Overland Route
Mar 06, 2020
No one buys a truck camper like the Nimbl Evolution without at least one dream trip in mind. A vehicle like this begs to be tested – to be baptized in muddy river crossings, jostled across rugged mountain terrain, and navigated through narrow, technical paths. It’s meant to be lived in until it is as much a part of your journey as the places it takes you. The more new adventures and challenges you undertake, the more the world opens up like a map on your dashboard.
This doesn’t mean you have to cross any oceans for the overland journey of a lifetime. The U.S. alone has enough natural beauty and back roads to keep even full-time travelers on the road indefinitely. Wilderness routes like the Pacific Crest Trail are just beyond the back gate of the nation’s largest metro areas. Easy to access, they remain wild and offer the same tests of outdoorsmanship that they have for hundreds of years. For many overlanding fanatics, the Pacific Crest Overland Route is one that must be done.
The Pacific Crest Trail
The 2,650-mile Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail, which begins at the Mexican border in California and follows the Sierra Nevadas and Cascades through Oregon and Washington to Canada, is a classic example of a back-door wilderness adventure. For generations, thousands of people have thru-hiked this iconic trail each year, with countless more enjoying shorter portions on day hikes and camping trips.
The PCT’s lesser-known sister trail, the Pacific Crest Overland Route (PCOR), takes a similar path over the west coast’s highest mountain ranges. Following dirt roads and trails whenever possible, the overland route courses through famous locales and little-known wilderness. Driving it is a chance to experience how much of the West is still hidden behind its cities, farms, and freeways. California, Oregon and Washington boast some of the nation’s largest wilderness areas and a combined 13 national parks, most of which are clustered around the Pacific Crest.
While the Pacific Crest hiking trail is an established part of the American narrative, the overland route’s stories are just beginning to be told.
Anyone who has ever taken an off-road trip knows the journey begins long before you turn on your engine. Outfitting a vehicle to conquer any dilemma while keeping things tight, light, and liveable is time-consuming work. It’s also part of the fun. When planning, remember that constant change – in elevation, climate, and road conditions – is both this trail’s greatest challenge and the best reason to drive it.
On foot, the PCT takes the better part of a year (with careful timing) to hike in one go. The overland route can usually be completed in 1-2 months, depending on the time of year and the number of detours and extended stops you include in your journey.
Although it follows the same mountain ranges as the footpath, the PCOR offers an entirely different way to see the Western United States. Overland drivers have more freedom to reroute as they go along, and can begin the trail from North or South (over 90% of hikers travel northbound due to late snows in the mountain passes).
Still, drivers on the PCOR experience some of the same difficulties as the hikers on the trail. You should be prepared to meet and maneuver snowy mountain passes, the mud, foliage and felled trees of the Pacific Northwest, and the sand and arid heat of California’s southern deserts. The dramatic shifts you’ll experience in elevation, climate, and terrain will demand a full toolbelt of recovery gear, saws, and emergency supplies.
When to drive the Pacific Crest Overland Route
Timing a Pacific Crest Overland drive depends on how much ground you plan to cover. Fall is the best season for completing the entire trail at once. This helps in mitigating the chances of extreme heat, cold, and storms. Southern California’s summer temperatures are uncomfortable at best – and often deadly. And snow shuts down many of the northern roads from late fall through early spring. The Pacific Northwest route is navigable for more of the year. Although rain and melting snow can contribute to mud and washed-out roads. Whenever you decide to go, look at weather and road conditions in the days and weeks before you start.
Pacific Crest Overland Route Segments
Overlanding America’s westernmost mountain belt in one clean, rough-and-tumble sweep is every bit as romantic as it sounds. But this kind of adventure requires a full-time commitment to the road for at least six weeks.
Travelers with less time on their hands can tackle the trail in segments. If you were to stick a pin into every possible starting point and backroad along the Pacific Crest, you’d have a map too full of holes to read. Shorter trips can begin and end at large West Coast towns or cities. But those who want to eventually complete the entire trek can divide it cleanly by region or state
Between the Canadian border and the top of the Sierra Nevadas, the PCOR’s route through Oregon and Washington takes travelers along a grand tour of almost the entire Western Cascade Range. The Pacific Northwest is home to iconic scenery – verdant, mossy forests, mountains, lakes, and rivers – along with unique geology and wildlife. Driving through old-growth rainforests and dormant Cascade volcanic zones, you’ll experience the heart of this diversity and beauty, often in glimpses through the PNW’s quintessential mist.
The Cascades divide Western Washington’s temperate coastal rainforests from the East’s harsher, more arid regions. Overlanders can expect a taste of both climates, though most driving time takes place on the wetter side of the range. The route runs through or close to all four of Washington and Oregon’s splendid national parks, along with more secluded forests and agricultural regions.
Clocking in at about a week of travel per state, the Pacific Northwest segments of the PCOR adventure can fit neatly into a shorter schedule . While there is something special about driving Oregon and Washington together to take in the entire Cascade panorama, each state has its own flavor and adventures to offer if you only have time for one.
At a glance
- Travel Time: around a week
- Landmarks and detours:
- Mt. Rainier National Park
- North Cascades National Park
- Olympic National Park
- Seasonal rain, mud, fog, and snow
- Felled trees and dense overgrowth
- Steep climbs and elevation changes
The Washington Segment follows the curved Cascade spine between Canada and the Columbia river. For southbound drivers, the trail begins in North Cascades National Park near the Canadian border and the PCT’s northern terminus. Bellingham (A ferry port between the contiguous U.S. and Alaska) and Seattle both make excellent jumping-off points if you choose to begin or extend your PCOR drive beyond the U.S.
With more paved routes through the wilderness than Oregon or California, Washington is ideal for people new to Overlanding or traveling on a tighter schedule. The lush wilderness is studded with small towns under the shadow of Rainier and the Cascades. These open up easy detours for those wishing to veer onto the beaten path and explore Seattle or the Washington coast.
At a glance
- Travel Time: around a week
- Landmarks and detours:
- Mt. Hood
- Crater Lake National Park
- Klamath Lake
- Seasonal rain, fog, mud, and snow
- Felled Trees and dense foliage
- Stretches of poorly-groomed road
Pacific Oregon showcases how tightly-knit civilization and wilderness can be. Its reach of the Pacific Crest Route begins East of Portland. Then it ends south of Klamath Falls in Keno, on the CA border. The road strings together scenic byways, steep mountain climbs, inviting small towns, and some of the world’s most unusual geography. There are more miles off-pavement than in Washington’s path over the mountains, demanding more so more forethought and preparation. Still, the overall route is a smooth one with manageable distances between fuel sources. .
From Mount Hood to Klamath Lake, Oregon’s Cascades offer a continual spread of visual drama. As you wind your way through the highest parts of the state, you’ll have chances for day trips. This includes the state’s famously savage coast or its arid, less-explored wilderness east of the mountains.
In southern Oregon, the 33-mile rim drive loop around Crater Lake has some of the most astonishing views in North America. The U.S.’s deepest lake is well worth it. It appears as if by magic after a long climb up and around the side of the 7,700 year-old volcano. The alpine air and deep, icy-blue waters invite travelers to stay a bit longer and take it in from every possible angle
At a glance
- Travel Time: 2-3 weeks
- Landmarks and detours:
- Mount Shasta
- Lake Tahoe
- Mammoth Lakes and Devil’s Postpile
- Yosemite National Park
- Death Valley National Park
- Poorly graded roads
- Long distances without fuel
- Extreme temperatures and climate shifts
Between the imperial Mount Shasta and the Algodones Dunes [Photo] just north of the Mexican border, the PCOR’s California segment is a chance to challenge yourself, your preparation skills, and your vehicle as you experience the West’s glorious diversity. As you wind your way from Northern California’s pine forests through the Sierra Nevada and the Central Valley into the wastelands and Josha tree groves of the Mojave (or the other way around), you’ll find yourself wishing the trip was longer.
Long stretches of poorly-maintained, seldom travelled trail are punctuated by picturesque small towns and endless potential detours. From Lake Tahoe to the Salton Sea, the constantly-shifting, stunning geography is brimming with history, and the cultural payoff is just as rich as the natural.
A two-week minimum trip nearly 1500 miles in length, the California segment is easily the trail’s most formidable stretch. The PCOR’s challenges change by the region. California has more shifts in climate, weather, elevation, and terrain on offer than Washington and Oregon combined. Driving it is a chance to experience the West’s diversity like nowhere else. However, it also requires the most rigorous preparation. Be ready for stretches of almost 300 miles without a fuel stop. Furthermore, pack the same gear you would bring to drive the entire Pacific Crest route.
Overlanding is a lifestyle where every trail leads to another, giving the opportunity to change your life mile by mile. Driving the Pacific Crest Overland Trail is an incredible opportunity. It is chance to see yourself, your vehicle, and America’s landmarks in a new way with Nimbl.
Some of the Overland community’s greatest stories and information caches are available thanks to the Overland Journal and its online avatar, Expedition Portal. Chris Cordes, Expedition Portal’s Senior Editor, details his experience on the Pacific Crest Overland Route in this story, complete with fuel stop information and detailed routing suggestions (courtesy of Hema Maps).