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Two Years After the Dixie Fire, Towns That Relied on Pacific Crest Trail Hikers Are Still Struggling

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A sign among trees says "burn area, enjoy with caution."
A sign still warns hikers about the dangers of the Pacific Crest Trail, which was damaged by the Dixie Fire in 2021.  (Fred Greaves for KQED)

When Brenda and Laurie Braaten were preparing to retire, they knew they wanted to live closer to California’s iconic long-distance hiking trail — the Pacific Crest Trail, known fondly as the PCT. It runs the length of California, 2,650 miles, from Canada to Mexico. After sussing out a few different properties, they settled on one in Belden, about a mile up the road from the trail.

Belden is a small town on the western edge of Plumas County, nestled in the northern Sierras. It was first constructed as a railroad town and is now known for its recreational opportunities, including fishing and, of course, hiking.

Once the Braatens moved in, they became “trail angels” — that is, people living near the trail who help thru-hikers with things like rides to the post office, meals and sometimes even shelter. They helped sick and injured hikers and have treated everything from trench foot to giardia. They loved it.

“I find kindred spirits much more readily in the hiking community than I would in any other social venue,” Brenda said.

an older woman in long pants, a t-shirt, and a hat, hikes up a trail
Brenda Braaten hikes along the Pacific Crest Trail near where she lives in Belden, California, on Sept. 13, 2023. (Fred Greaves for KQED)

Then came the Dixie Fire, which burned nearly a million acres in northern California in 2021.

The Braatens remember staying up all night, watching from their living room as the fire came over the mountain and dropped down closer and closer to their house. Finally, they decided to evacuate.

“It’s a miracle that Cal Fire kept this house standing because everything along that road burnt to a cinder,” Brenda said.

After three weeks, they returned to their home and a transformed canyon. Instead of lush, green forest, the land was charred black with dead trees as far as the eye could see.

“It’s always in your face that, yeah, that tree is dead, that’s dead,” Brenda said.

And they’ve hardly seen any hikers in the two years since the fire.

“This will not be on anybody’s radar, particularly after people post on Facebook, TikTok or whatever social media, ‘Oh, this was a burned-out section. It was hot. It was nasty.’ Who’s going to want to come here?” Brenda said. “When Laurie and I hiked this section in 2004, it was the prettiest place in the universe.”

The Dixie Fire nearly wiped this section of the PCT off the map. But with a lot of work, the trail has mostly been repaired and reopened within a year—even if many of the trees around it are still dead.

Their town of Belden, though, hasn’t been so lucky.

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Hikers increasingly ‘cherry-pick’ the PCT

The Braatens are two of only a handful of people who live in Belden full-time. It’s a tiny town made up of a motel and bar, an abandoned schoolhouse and an RV park. Despite the charred landscape, the area is still stunning. The North Fork Feather River flows through the center of town, carving a canyon, and train tracks run along the mountainside.

The PCT trail also cuts through town, making it an easy place for multi-day hikers to stop for a rest and to resupply.

In a normal summer, the sole bar in town would be full of PCT hikers, stocking up on supplies and fueling up on burgers and tater tots. On the day I’m visiting, I’m lucky to encounter three of them.

I could almost smell them before I saw them. They plopped down their big backpacks and settled in at the bar, where they eagerly ordered three cheeseburgers and a round of beers.

The trio met in Canada at the beginning of their hike. They split off, hiked solo for about 600 miles, and met again before hiking through the Dixie Fire burn scar. Those 100 or so miles were rough.

“It’s quite miserable,” said Jonathan Horwitz, one of the hikers. “For one, there’s no shade, so on days like today, when it’s very hot and you’re sweaty, there’s no place to take a break and have a rest. Every time you want to sit down, it’s ashy and your hands just get black and your clothes just get black. And when you set up camp, you get everything — your jackets, your tent — dirty with ash.”

A lot of hikers aren’t willing to put up with those conditions. In fact, Horwitz said they started up in Canada with a group of about 30 hikers, and now there are only five. The rest skipped over the burn scar section.

This type of hiking — skipping over burned-out or inconvenient sections of the trail — is called “cherry picking.” And it’s becoming increasingly common, necessary even, along the PCT.

looking down from above on an exposed part of a trail with burned trees in the background
Hikers are increasingly skipping burned sections of the Pacific Crest Trail, like this one outside Belden, California. (Fred Greaves for KQED)

“We are now saying, really for the first time in our history, that doing a continuous thru-hike of every mile of the trail from beginning to end is almost impossible,” said Scott Wilkinson, content development director with the Pacific Crest Trail Association.

Just in the last year, sections of the trail have been closed due to fires, record snowpack in the Sierras and even a hurricane in southern California. These disasters, fueled by climate change, are transforming California’s iconic trail.

“For years, that’s been the famous journey that people from all over the world come here to do,” Wilkinson said — hike the entire length of the trail. “People plan for years of their lives. It’s a very big deal.”

a burned log across a small river
The charred remains of the Indian Creek Bridge, which was burned by the Dixie Fire. (Fred Greaves for KQED)

Knowing how to survive as ‘Canyon people’

Now, with more hikers skipping over the burn scar, Belden is struggling to survive. The rural town only has so many revenue streams, and people here depend on the annual flood of thru-hikers each summer to sustain them throughout the year.

“It’s not always a money-making proposition; sometimes it’s a losing proposition,” said Ivan Coffman, owner of Belden Town Resort and Lodge.

Coffman estimates that he sees an average of about 3,000 hikers each year. However, this year, he’s only seen about 500.

“We certainly did have to cut down on our hours,” he said. “Normally, we would have two bartenders and two waitresses and a cook. And right now, we have one or two people doing all that.”

The reduced hours have been hard on the employees that remain.

“It’s a lot of money going out the window,” said Tabetha Burton, the bartender, waitress and cook. “I work seven days a week now; I have no days off. I’m a single mom, I got to make sure that I have everything paid for.”

This is not the first time Burton has faced wildfire-related hardship. In 2020 — one year before the Dixie Fire — her house burned down in the Bear Fire. So, she bought a trailer and set up at the RV park in Belden. The Dixie Fire displaced her again. But she said she’s determined to stay, in part because she loves the community here.

“It’s its own entity, that’s for sure,” she said. “It definitely welcomes anybody.”

Burton calls herself a “canyon person.” She said it’s nice to be away from crowded cities, to have more freedom and bask in the natural beauty. Plus, she enjoys meeting hikers who come from all over the world.

a building with a red roof sits among trees alongside a river
The Belden Town Hotel and Resort on the south side of the North Fork Feather River. (Fred Greaves for KQED)

Despite the dwindling number of hikers coming through and the corresponding decline in income, Belden is figuring out a way through. Construction workers fixing Highway 70 through the canyon keep the motel in business. The road was damaged in a series of landslides caused by intense rain after the fire.

Belden also hosts music festivals throughout the summer. These are not small-town, intimate folk festivals — they are big electronic dance music raves where thousands of visitors descend on the tiny town and camp out for days.

“Economically, it’s a good thing for the whole county,” motel owner Ivan Coffman said.

Forging on, despite setbacks, is what it means to be a “canyon person,” Brenda Braaten said.

“To me, a canyon person is somebody who is of a mindset of ‘pull yourself up by your own bootstraps,’ kind of independent,” she said. “The community will come together, and we will solve our problem.”

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