Wild: Cheryl Strayed’s top things to see on California’s Pacific Crest Trail

Reese Witherspoon’s new movie Wild sees her play Cheryl Strayed, an inexperienced backpacker who braves America’s Pacific Crest Trail to rid herself of a destructive lifestyle

Stuck in a cycle of heroin abuse and promiscuity, Cheryl Strayed went on a journey of more than 1,100 miles, from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to the border of Washington State.

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“Travelling is gritty, real, self-help. It’s a physiological, emotional and physical experience,” explains Strayed to RadioTimes.com, “At the darkest moment of my life I decided to go on a walk of 1,100 miles. I knew somewhere deep inside of me that it was a journey that could save me and bring me back.”

Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club) and co-written by Nick Hornby and Cheryl Strayed, Wild sees Witherspoon play her most gritty, vulnerable and physical part to date.

“It’s the hardest movie I’ve ever made in my life,” says Witherspoon. To play Strayed the Walk the Line actress went make-up free, carried a weighted backpack and shot on location in sweltering and freezing weather conditions.

“It’s very real,” explains Hornby. “A lot of that is Jean-Marc insisting on it being real. He said to Reese, ‘there will be no make-up’. The way Reese tells it is that she thought, ‘I know that look, the no make-up look, you can do that with make-up’. But he said, ‘no, no, no, nothing at all’.”

Not being allowed a mirror at any point during the shoot was the least of Witherspoon’s worries. “[Vallée] didn’t think the pack that she was carrying was heavy enough,” reveals Hornby, “he filled it properly, and she had to carry it. Details like that were really effective in the making of the film, she is very raw in it.”

After losing her mother, Cheryl Strayed entered into a downward spiral of drug use and lewd behaviour, until she literally walked away from her demons, through momentous desert, forest and mountainous scenery. “Travelling is an ancient human experience, that’s why it’s so powerful,” explained Strayed. “People who don’t even know they are going to travel to be healed end up being healed. Travelling is so transformative.”

Novice trekker Strayed had a close encounter with a wild bear during her epic walk, crossed a treacherous snow-covered mountain with minimal equipment and ventured through the desert in 40-degree heat. Along the way she met various hikers, car drivers, and people who gave her advice, and kept her going. 

“If you’ve ever lost your faith in humanity, go hike on a trail. You will meet people from all walks of life, you are different in real life but you are same on that trail and there’s an unconditional generosity that comes with that.

“All along the Pacific Crest trail, there are amazing, beautiful spots. Much of the majesty of the trail is that when you look up there’s a coyote in the distance or an eagle soaring overhead.”

Strayed offers up her top five spots to see on the Pacific Crest Trail:

1. Crater Lake

Six hundred and fifty five metres deep and six miles wide, Oregon’s incredible crater was formed after a volcanic explosion thousands of years ago. Now, wild flowers flank the crater and boats offer trips along its shimmering water in the summer months. “It’s so beautiful and astounding,” explains Strayed, “it’s one of those sites that take your breath away.”


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2. High Sierras

In the 270 miles between Mount Whitney and Sonora Pass, granite monoliths soar to 4267 metres high. Outdoor lovers can camp in the wilderness beneath these humbling peaks, mile-deep canyons and lakes. “The High Sierras and Mount Whitney are so high up you really do feel like you’re in a world that humans don’t occupy,” explains Strayed, “In this alpine environment, you experience how small we are.”


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3. Mojave Desert

Between the hot Sonoran Desert and the cooler and higher Great Basin Low, you’ll find the Mojave Desert. Barren in some places, lush in others, hikers will spot volcanic formations and dry weather shrubs such as Joshua Trees, sage and creosote bushes in this dramatic vista. “The Mojave Desert was beautiful and sometimes lacked beauty,” explains Strayed, “it’s discreet and punishing.”


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4. The forests of Washington and Oregon

The National Forest and protected wilderness around Washington and Oregon includes the Columbia River Gorge and Indian Heaven Wilderness, filled with 150 small lakes, ponds and marshes, and is scattered with huckleberries and blueberries. “The great verdant forests of Washington and Oregon of the Pacific Northwest are so wet that the plant life is gothic, like it’s from a fairy tale,” says Strayed, “You could imagine Hansel and Gretel walking out of the forest.”


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5. Mount Hood

Fifty miles southeast of Portland sits Oregon’s highest mountain, a stratovolcano home to 12 glaciers and six ski resorts. “Mount Hood is visible from my studio in Portland,” explains Strayed, “every time I look at it, I remember that I walked it during my PCT trek.”

Watch Wild in UK cinemas from January 16  and visit California with Radio Times Travel, click here for more details.


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Visit California with Radio Times Travel, see here for more details