What is the Pacific Crest Trail? (And Other Frequently Asked Questions)

While many hikers who stumble across this blog will probably already know what the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is, most of the friends/family/random strangers that I mention the trail to don’t seem to have heard of it. I thought I’d use this post to formally introduce the PCT, and to answer some of the questions I am most commonly asked when I tell people about it.

The Pacific Crest Trail is a U.S. National Scenic Trail that runs 2,650 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border to the U.S.-Canada border. The trail crosses through 3 states: California, Oregon, and Washington, following the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges. Along the way, the trail passes through 25 national forests and 7 national parks, as well as countless other wilderness areas.

PCT map

Map courtesy of the USDA Forest Service

In order to complete a thru-hike of the PCT, a hiker must walk the entire length of the trail in a single trip. The climate, terrain, and environment that a hiker will experience on such a trip varies widely as the trail progresses. The PCT runs through 6 out of 7 of North America’s ecozones, providing a testament to how varied the experience is.

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Views from the trail in Southern California

Most hikers start in California and walk north towards Canada, although there is a smaller group that starts at the Canadian border and walks south. This means that most hikers begin their trek with 700 miles of desert in Southern California. Hot sun, rattlesnakes, desert scrub and chaparral, and the welcome shade of trees in the higher elevation areas such as the San Jacinto Mountains.

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Vasquez Rocks in Southern California 

From here, there is a rather abrupt shift as the trail enters the incredibly scenic Sierra Nevada mountain range of Central California. Here, hikers will cross through Kings Canyon National Park and Yosemite National Park, and will hit the highest point on the PCT: Forester Pass, with an elevation of 13,153 feet. In this section, hikers can also take a side trail to the summit of Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states with an elevation of 14,494 feet. In direct opposition to the desert section, water is plentiful here, as the trail winds past an abundance of alpine lakes and springs. Even in the lowest of snow years, hikers will usually encounter some amount of snow in this section.

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Forester Pass

As the trail exits the Sierras and enters Northern California, the climate becomes hotter and drier once more. In this section, hikers trek through Lassen Volcanic National Park and experience a shift in geologic setting from the granitic Sierras to more volcanic rock and soils.

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Trail through the Scott Mountains of Northern California

After traversing the length of California and experiencing the wide variety of environments it has to offer, hikers enter a new state: Oregon. This section is filled with many lakes and volcanoes, including Mount Hood, Mount Jefferson, and the Three Sisters. Hikers will also pass through Crater Lake National Park, a highlight of the trail.

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Mount Hood

The final state northbound hikers will encounter is Washington, and the rugged Northern Cascades range. Here, hikers travel through North Cascades National Park, the highly anticipated Goat Rocks Wilderness, and many other scenic areas, before arriving at the Canadian border and the northern terminus of the trail.

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Old Snowy, Washington 

Now that you have a general idea of what hikers experience on the Pacific Crest Trail, you probably have come up with several questions regarding the process of thru-hiking. Here are some of the most common questions I am asked when I tell people about the PCT:

How long is it going to take?

The average PCT thru-hike takes between 4 to 6 months to complete. Hikers generally begin their journey around the month of April and finish sometime around September. This timeline is fairly rigid, as there is a small window of time where weather conditions allow the trail to be hiked comfortably and safely. If hikers start too early, they risk encountering winter conditions in the mountainous regions of the trail in Southern and Central California. If they start too late, or take too long to finish, they’ll be caught by the nasty winter storms of the North Cascades.

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Ansel Adams Wilderness in Central California

You’re going to be totally isolated from civilization for 4-6 months?!

No. Although the PCT does pass through many areas of wilderness, hikers are often not far from civilization. The proximity to human settlement varies along the trail, with hikers hitting a trail town every 2-3 days in Southern California, to possibly going a week or more without seeing a hint of civilization in the Sierras or Washington. Trail towns play a huge role in a thru-hike, and are almost as big a part of the experience as the trail itself. Town is where hikers go to get food (a lot of food), a shower, and possibly a bed to sleep in for a night or two.

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Trail through Ansel Adams Wilderness

Are you bringing a phone? Will you have service?

Yes, most hikers do carry a cell phone. Many rely on these devices for navigation and obtaining information about the trail ahead, and there a number of apps that serve this very purpose. Similarly to the proximity to civilization, cell service varies along the trail, with some sections having steady reception and others being total dead zones.

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Three Fingered Jack, Oregon

You’re prepared to spend 4-6 months alone?

While there are sure to be many moments of solitude, hikers on the PCT are rarely totally alone. The number of people attempting to thru-hike the PCT grows with every year, and although the crowd thins as the trail progresses, the beginning of the trail has actually been described as “crowded”. Even if you have a moment of hiking alone, if you stopped and sat down in the trail, it likely wouldn’t be long before another hiker found you. Many hikers start the trail solo, but few spend the whole time alone. Instead, people find themselves forming “trail families”, or groups of people that hike/camp together. Most hikers form important life-long friendships with people they meet along the trail.

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Misty Washington

What are you going to eat? Are you going to carry 6 months worth of food right from the beginning?

See my post on trail food here. And no, carrying enough food to supply an entire thru-hike is probably impossible. That’s a long time, and hikers eat a lot. Enter the all-important trail town (see above). When hikers visit town, they will resupply on food using either the local grocery store, or a package of food they mailed to the post office. Therefore, hikers only need to carry enough food to get to the next town (usually 2-7 days worth).

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Views from the trail in Washington

And there you have it. You are now acquainted with the basics of thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. If you have any questions that weren’t addressed in this post, sound off in the comments below!

*Note: All photos taken from Wikimedia Commons under the Creative Commons license. Links to the source in image captions.

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