Long Distance Trails

Exploring the Pacific Crest Trail: A Guide to America’s Iconic Long-Distance Hiking Trail

POSTED ON May 3, 2023 BY Ralph S.


Introduction

For those who love adventure and outdoor experiences, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail is a dream come true. This 2,650-mile-long(4,265 km) trail runs from Mexico to British Columbia, Canada, crossing through three states and some of the most beautiful and varied landscapes in North America. Whether you’re a seasoned thru hiker or a weekend backpacker, the trail has something for everyone. In this blog post, we’ll explore the history and highlights of this iconic trail, as well as some tips for planning your journey.

The Pacific Crest Trail, together with the more popular Appalachian Trail and the less frequented Continental Divide Trail, are also called the “Triple Crown” of thru-hiking. The daring individuals who complete all three trails are considered legends among hikers, the “Triple Crowners” and the ultimate goal and achievement for many long-distance hikers.

Made popular through the film “Wild” starring Reese Witherspoon, it inspired many to attempt thru-hiking the AT or PCT.

Pacific Crest Trail national Scenic Trail

History

The PCT was first proposed in the 1930s by Clinton C. Clarke, a forester for the U.S. Forest Service, who envisioned a trail connecting the West Coast wilderness areas. It was in the 1960s, however, that the route was officially designated and construction began. The trail is now managed by the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA). This non-profit organization works to protect and maintain the trail and provide resources for hikers and backpackers.

Key Facts about Pacific Crest Trail

Length: Approximately 2,650 miles (4,265 kilometers) from Mexico to British Columbia, Canada.

Hiking Time: 5-6 months at 14-17 miles (22-27 km) per day

Elevation change: From approximately 420,880 ft (128 km) to 490.000 ft (149 km)—This is equal to climbing Mount Everest more than 16 times.

Number of Visitors: From 1,000 to 3,000 hikers attempt to thru-hike the trail annually.

Established in: 1968 as a National Scenic Trail and officially completed in 1993

Number of Hiking Trails: One main trail, but it also incorporates various side trails and alternate routes.

Lowest Point: The Oregon-Washington border near the Bridge of the Gods at around 140 feet (43 meters) above sea level.

Highest Point: Forester Pass in California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range at 13,153 feet (4,009 meters) above sea level.

Nature section at the Pacific Crest Trail

Preparing for the Trail: Physical Fitness

Thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail is a transformative adventure that requires careful planning and preparation:

Embarking on a thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail is a remarkable journey through wild and remote regions, where dedicated backpackers challenge themselves to trek the full trail. Thru-hikers join a unique trail family, spending months crossing diverse landscapes and immersing themselves in the untamed beauty of the trail.

Here are the essential tips and resources when planning a visit to the Pacific Trail.

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Plan Ahead and Obtain Permits:

  • Research Permit Requirements: Understand the specific permit regulations and quotas for hiking. The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) provides detailed information regarding permits and their application processes.
  • Secure Required Permits: Apply for the necessary permits, including the PCT Long-distance Permit and any additional permits for specific areas, such as the John Muir Trail (JMT) section.

Route Selection:

  • Study the Trail Guide and Maps: Utilize trail guides, such as the official PCTA guidebooks, and review detailed maps to familiarize yourself with the trail’s route and potential alternate paths.
  • Consider Your Goals and Abilities: Assess your hiking experience, physical fitness, and desired pace to determine how much time you can allocate for the thru-hike. Evaluate the pros and cons of different starting points and decide if you want to include the JMT section.

Resupply Strategies:

  • Plan Resupply Points: Identify key locations along the trail for resupplying food and other essentials. Common resupply points include towns, resorts, and post offices near the trail.
  • Calculate Food and Water Needs: Estimate the number of days it will take to reach each resupply point and plan food quantities accordingly. Research water availability and purification methods to ensure a safe and adequate water supply.

Physical and Mental Preparation:

  • Training and Conditioning: Start a pre-hike training regimen that includes cardio exercises, strength training, and hiking with a loaded backpack to build endurance and strength. Here is our guide on getting in shape for hiking.
  • Mental Resilience: Prepare yourself mentally for the challenges and rewards of a thru-hike. Set realistic expectations, develop coping strategies for tough situations, and nurture a positive mindset. You can find more information on our tips to boost hiking efficiency blog.

Recommended Resources:

  • PCTA Website and Guides: Explore the PCTA website for up-to-date information, trail conditions, and resources. Consider purchasing their official guidebooks or digital resources for detailed trail descriptions.
  • Trail Journals and Books: Read firsthand accounts of PCT hikers to gain inspiration, practical tips, and an understanding of the trail’s challenges and rewards.

It would also be a good idea to know the most common hiking mistakes and how to avoid them to make your experience comfortable.

Trail Overview: Difficulty Levels and Route Options

The Pacific Crest Trail traverses through three states: California, Oregon, and Washington. It passes through the arid deserts of Southern California, ascends into the rugged and scenic Nevada mountains, continues through the volcanic landscapes of the Cascade Range, and concludes in the lush forests of the Pacific Northwest.

It crosses numerous national parks, including Joshua Tree, Yosemite, Kings Canyon, Sequoia, Lassen Volcanic, Crater Lake, and North Cascades. It also passes through national forests, wilderness areas, and protected lands, providing a rich outdoor experience.

Hiking the entire trail is a challenging undertaking, typically requiring several months to complete. Many hikers embark on thru-hikes, where they aim to trek the entire length of the trail in one continuous journey. 

The PCT is well-marked with white rectangular trail markers known as “Pacific Crest Trail diamonds.” It offers various access points and camping options along the way. You can also expect to see an array of wildlife, including black bears, mountain lions, and elk, as well as some of the most breathtaking scenery in the country.

Some of the highlights include:

The Sierra Nevada: This is a must-see attraction known for its jagged peaks, crystal-clear lakes, and iconic scenery. The John Muir Trail, which is also part of the trail, traverses this stunning mountain range.

Crater Lake National Park: The trail passes through this Oregon gem, where hikers can see the deepest lake in the U.S. surrounded by sheer cliffs and a vibrant blue hue.

The Three Sisters Wilderness: Located in central Oregon, this wilderness area is home to three volcanic peaks and a network of serene alpine lakes.

North Cascades National Park: The trail crosses through the heart of this rugged Washington park, where hikers can see glaciers, waterfalls, and wildflowers in the summer months.

The Mojave Desert: This section of the PCT can be challenging due to the extreme heat and exposed terrain, but hikers are rewarded with stunning sunset views of the Columbia River and an otherworldly landscape.

Planning a PCT hike requires careful consideration and preparation. Thru-hikers, who aim to complete the trail in one season, typically start in the spring (April or May) from the southern terminus and trek northward (also called NOBO), reaching the Canadian border in the late summer or early fall. However, many hikers choose to complete shorter sections of the trail over several years. Some key planning considerations include:

Logistics: Hikers need to plan for resupply points for food and water, as well as transportation to and from the trail. The PCTA provides a variety of resources to help with logistics planning.

Sierra Nevada PCT

Seasonal Considerations: Best Times to Hike Pacific Crest Trail and Weather Conditions

Understanding the weather patterns will help you plan a safe and enjoyable backpacking experience.

Southern California (Desert Section):

In the desert section, temperatures can be scorching during the summer months, exceeding 100°F (38°C). So, you can visit in April to early May, or September to October when the temperatures are more moderate, ranging from 70°F to 90°F (21°C to 32°C) during the day, with cooler nights.

Central California (Sierra Nevada):

The Sierra Nevada section is known for its high elevations and alpine environments. Early in the season, snow can still be present, and river crossings may be challenging due to higher water levels. In July and August, temperatures range from 70°F to 90°F (21°C to 32°C) during the day, but can drop below freezing at night, especially at higher elevations.

So, late June to early October (depending on snow conditions) can be an ideal time to trek.

Hiking at the Pacific Crest Trail

Northern California (Cascade Range):

This section can experience a mix of weather conditions, ranging from hot summer days to cooler temperatures at higher elevations. Daytime temperatures typically range from 70°F to 90°F (21°C to 32°C), with cooler nights.

So, try to go in late June to September.

Oregon and Washington:

Weather in the Oregon border and Washington can be unpredictable, with rainfall occurring throughout the year. During the recommended hiking months, temperatures range from 60°F to 80°F (15°C to 27°C) during the day, with cooler temperatures at night. Be prepared for rain and potentially chilly conditions, especially at higher elevations.

Trekking can be comfortable from Mid-July to September.

Essential Gear and Equipment for a Successful PCT Hike

When embarking on a thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, having the right gear is crucial for a safe and enjoyable journey because the trail covers a diverse range of terrains and climates, from the southern border of California to the high Sierra and onwards to Washington.

From backpacks and tents to clothing, footwear, cooking equipment, and navigation tools, ensure you’re well-equipped for this incredible adventure.

Here is a detailed breakdown of essential gear items for PCT thru-hikers, focusing on lightweight and durable options that can withstand the rigors of the entire length of the trail.

Hiking at a trail in PCT

Backpack:

  • Lightweight Design: Opt for a backpack with a volume of around 40-60 liters to accommodate your gear and food.
  • Proper Fit: Ensure the backpack fits your body comfortably and has adjustable suspension systems for weight distribution.
  • Durable Materials: Look for backpacks made from high-quality, durable materials to withstand the demands of the trail.

Tent:

  • Lightweight and Freestanding: Choose a lightweight tent that offers good protection from the elements and can be easily set up and packed away.
  • Weather Resistance: Opt for a tent with a sturdy rainfly and a waterproof floor to handle various weather conditions along the PCT.
  • Consider Size: Balance weight with livability by selecting a tent that comfortably fits you and your gear.

Sleeping Bag:

  • Temperature Rating: Select a sleeping bag with a temperature rating suitable for the expected weather conditions along the trail.
  • Lightweight and Compressible: Choose a lightweight, down or synthetic sleeping bag that provides warmth while being highly compressible.
  • Consider the Fill Power: It’s a good idea to look for a sleeping bag with a higher fill power to provide better insulation with less weight.

Clothing:

  • Layering System: Utilize a layering system that includes moisture-wicking base layers, insulating mid-layers, and weather-resistant outer layers.
  • Quick-Drying and Breathable: Opt for clothing made from quick-drying and breathable fabrics to manage moisture and regulate body temperature.
  • Sun Protection: Carry sun-protective clothing, including a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, and sun-protective shirts, to shield yourself from intense sun exposure.

Footwear:

  • Comfort and Support: Choose hiking shoes or trail runners that provide a comfortable fit, proper arch support, and adequate traction. Check out our hiking boots guide to know the precise footwear for different terrains. 
  • Break-In Period: Ensure you have sufficient time to break in your footwear before starting the hike to minimize the risk of blisters or discomfort.
  • Consider Gaiters: Consider wearing gaiters to protect your feet and ankles from debris, dust, and potential water crossings.
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Navigation Tools:

  • Maps and Guidebooks: It is a good idea to carry detailed maps and guidebooks specific to the trail, such as those provided by the Pacific Crest Trail Association or popular trail guide authors.
  • Compass and GPS: Carry a compass as a backup navigation tool and consider using a GPS device or smartphone app for additional navigation assistance.
  • Water Filtration: Include a lightweight and efficient water filtration system to safely access and filter water from various sources along the trail.

Navigating the Pacific Crest Trail: Maps, Markers, and Trail Etiquette

Effective navigation of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is vital for a successful and enjoyable thru-hiking experience. With its vast expanse covering diverse landscapes from the southern terminus in Southern California to the northern reaches of Northern California, the PCT presents various navigation challenges.

Here, we will explore different navigation methods for the PCT, including traditional paper maps, GPS apps, and trail markers. These methods will help PCT thru-hikers, including northbound hikers, navigate the entire trail, ensuring they stay on course and safely traverse the seven national parks along the way.

Trail Marker along the PCT trail

Traditional Paper Maps:

PCT-Specific Maps: Obtain PCT-specific paper maps, such as those provided by the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA). These maps offer detailed trail information, resupply points, and important landmarks.

Familiarize Yourself: Study the maps before starting your hike to gain a sense of the trail’s direction, elevation changes, and notable features.

Sections and Mileages: Utilize the maps to identify section markers and mileages, allowing you to track your progress and plan your daily hikes accordingly.

GPS Apps and Navigation Tools:

PCT-Specific Apps: Make use of GPS apps specifically designed for the PCT, such as Guthook’s Pacific Crest Trail Guide or Halfmile’s PCT app. These apps provide detailed offline maps, waypoints, and real-time tracking.

Smartphone Navigation: Carry a smartphone with a reliable GPS signal and download the necessary apps and maps in advance. Ensure you have adequate battery backup options, such as power banks, for longer stretches without charging opportunities.

GPS Devices: Consider using dedicated GPS devices that offer navigation features and track your progress along the trail. These devices can provide additional accuracy and reliability compared to smartphone apps.

Trail Markers and Signs:

Sign along the PCT

Blaze and Trail Symbols: Look for trail markers and blazes along the PCT, typically consisting of painted symbols or metal markers affixed to trees or posts. These markers indicate the trail’s direction and provide reassurance that you’re on the right path.

Signposts and Junction Markers: Pay attention to signposts and junction markers at trail intersections or significant landmarks. These signs often indicate distances, trail names, and points of interest.

Pacific Crest Trail Logo: The Pacific Crest Trail Association’s logo, a distinct three-horizontal-line symbol, can be found on signs, registers, and official PCT markers, serving as visual confirmation that you’re on the PCT itself.

Supplemental Resources:

Trail Guides and Books: Carry trail guides, such as the official PCTA guidebooks or popular guidebooks authored by experienced hikers. These guides provide valuable information on trail features, water sources, resupply points, and potential hazards.

PCTA Website and Online Communities: Refer to the Pacific Crest Trail Association’s website for updated trail information, including trail closures or reroutes.

Practice Trail Etiquette:

PCT Safety and Wilderness Etiquette: Guidelines for Responsible Hiking”: Educate readers on safety precautions specific to the Pacific Crest Trail, including wildlife encounters, water safety, weather challenges, and emergency preparedness. Emphasize the Leave No Trace principles and ethical practices to minimize environmental impact.

Exploring Hidden Gems: Off-Trail Side Trips and Detours on the Pacific Crest Trail”: Introduce lesser-known side trips and detours you can explore near the PCT. Include stunning viewpoints, waterfalls, alpine lakes, and other attractions worth deviating from the main trail for.

Medical considerations: A thru hiker needs to be in good health and able to handle long distances and high elevations because the PCT can be physically and mentally demanding. Hence, it’s important to consult with a doctor before embarking on the long and strenuous trek.

Trail sign with important information

Camping and Overnight Stays near Pacific Crest Trail

It’s essential to research the availability of resupply options along the PCT, including store locations, operating hours, and transportation options due to seasonal factors or unforeseen circumstances. Most hikers find it helpful to consult guidebooks for up-to-date information.

Here is a resupply strategy to ensure you have enough food, water, and other essential supplies throughout your journey.

Mail Drops: Mail drops involve sending packages of food and supplies to predetermined locations along the trail. Hikers can plan their resupply points in advance and estimate the number of days it will take to reach each location. Advantages of mail drops include having complete control over the type and quantity of food, being able to accommodate specific dietary needs, and potentially saving money by buying in bulk. However, mail drops require detailed planning, coordination with post offices or other establishments, and reliable transportation to pick up the packages. You can use the USPS postage price calculator to estimate your mailing costs.

Grocery Store Resupplies: Many hikers choose to rely on resupplying at grocery stores along the trail. This strategy offers flexibility, as you can adjust their food choices based on availability and personal preferences. It also allows for a variety of fresh food options. Some towns along the PCT have grocery stores conveniently located near the trail, while in other cases, you may need to hitchhike or arrange transportation to nearby towns. Grocery store resupplies are a popular choice if you prefer spontaneity and don’t want to carry excess food weight.

Town Stops: Town stops involve taking breaks in trail towns to rest, resupply, and recover. You can stay overnight, do laundry, eat at restaurants, and resupply their food and other necessities. Town stops provide opportunities for restocking fresh produce, resupplying fuel canisters, and addressing any gear or health-related issues. Some hikers prefer a combination of mail drops and town stops to balance convenience and variety.

Hybrid Approach: Another strategy is a hybrid approach that combines elements of mail drops, grocery store resupplies, and town stops. You may plan mail drops for remote or less accessible sections of the trail and rely on grocery store resupplies or town stops for more convenient areas. This approach allows for greater flexibility and adaptability while ensuring access to necessary supplies.

Trail section on the PCT

Resupplying and Refueling: Surviving on the PCT

Resupplying, refueling, and surviving on the Pacific Crest Trail requires thoughtful planning and resource utilization along the way. Knowing how to efficiently restock supplies, find sustenance, and stay energized is crucial for an enjoyable experience.

Resupply sections

Here are some key resupply sections with some notable resupply points. But you can find more alternatives here.

Southern California:

  • Kennedy Meadows is a popular resupply point before entering the Sierra Nevada mountains.
  • Tehachapi is another town with several resupply options, including grocery stores and post offices.
  • Big Bear Lake offers several resupply options, including supermarkets and outfitters.

Sierra Nevada:

  • Independence is a town with resupply options near the eastern Sierra.
  • Mammoth Lakes provides multiple resupply options, gear shops, and restaurants.
  • South Lake Tahoe is a major resupply point with abundant options and access to amenities.

Northern California:

  • Burney Falls State Park offers a resupply option near the stunning Burney Falls.
  • Mount Shasta is a town with multiple resupply options, outdoor stores, and accommodations.
  • Etna provides resupply options, a post office, and a few restaurants.

Oregon:

  • Ashland is a trail town with resupply options, gear shops, and lodging.
  • Crater Lake features a resupply opportunity near the iconic Crater Lake National Park.
  • Bend is a major resupply point with ample options, including outdoor retailers and a variety of accommodations.

Washington:

  • Trout Lake is a small town in Washington with a resupply option and hiker-friendly services.
  • Stehekin near Lake Chelan, offers a resupply opportunity and access to a post office.
  • Lastly, Snoqualmie Pass is a highway crossing with resupply options, including a grocery store.

Northern Terminus:

  • Stevens Pass provides a resupply option and easy access to nearby towns.
  • Skykomish is a town with a resupply opportunity, lodging, and a post office.
  • Manning Park, Canada is the northern terminus, where hikers usually celebrate completing the PCT.

Food

When resupplying on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), there are various options for obtaining food along the trail. Here are some of the common food resupply options available:

Grocery Stores: Many towns along the PCT have grocery stores where hikers can stock up on a wide range of food items. These stores typically offer fresh produce, canned goods, snacks, and other grocery essentials. Some popular grocery store chains near the PCT include Vons, Safeway, Albertsons, and WinCo.

Gas Stations and Convenience Stores: Gas stations and convenience stores can be found in some trail towns and provide a limited but convenient selection of food options.

Post Offices: Certain resupply locations rely on sending packages to post offices. Hikers can mail themselves boxes with food and supplies to be picked up at designated post offices along the trail. This method allows for more specialized and customized resupplies. It’s important to check the specific post office’s policies and hours of operation.

Restaurants and Cafés: In some trail towns, there are restaurants, cafes, and diners where hikers can enjoy a hot meal or grab take-out. These establishments can provide a break from trail food and offer freshly cooked meals.

Outdoor Retailers and Gear Shops: Outdoor retailers and gear shops, such as REI, can sometimes have a limited selection of dehydrated meals, energy bars, trail mixes, and other lightweight backpacking foods. While not comprehensive, they can supplement resupplies in towns with limited grocery options.

Hiker Boxes: Hiker boxes are communal collection points typically found at trail angel locations, hostels, or post offices. Hikers can find extra or unwanted food items left by fellow hikers. It’s a great way to swap or supplement your food supply while reducing waste.

Resupply Sources

There are several valuable resources available to help you plan and execute your resupply strategy effectively. Here are a few websites and tools to assist you:

  • Halfmile’s PCT Maps (https://www.pctmap.net/): Offers detailed maps indicating water sources, resupply points, and other essential trail information.
  • Postholer (https://www.postholer.com/): Provides a comprehensive resupply guide with detailed information on resupply options, distances, and trail towns along the PCT.
  • Craig’s PCT Planner (https://www.pctplanner.com/): An interactive tool that helps you estimate your daily mileage, plan resupply points, and create a detailed itinerary.

It’s important to note that resupply options and availability may vary from year to year, so it’s recommended to research current information, consult trail guides, and check with recent hiker updates to ensure accurate and up-to-date details for your planned resupply points.

Getting There: Directions and Transportation Options

Transportation options and availability may vary depending on the region and the specific trailheads you plan to access. Also, parking may be limited at popular trailheads, so be mindful of parking regulations and availability if you plan to leave a vehicle at the trailhead.

Here are some considerations and transportation options for reaching the PCT:

Airports:

If you are traveling from a significant distance, you may need to fly to a nearby airport. The airports closest to the PCT’s starting point in California include:

  • San Diego International Airport (SAN)
  • Los Angeles International Airport (LAX)
  • Ontario International Airport (ONT)
  • Sacramento International Airport (SMF)

For the northern section of the trail, airports such as Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) and Portland International Airport (PDX) in Washington and Oregon respectively, can be convenient options.

Public Transportation:

Once you reach the vicinity of the PCT, you may need to use public transportation to get to the trailhead. Here are some options to consider:

  • Amtrak: The Amtrak train service can be utilized to reach various locations near the trail, including San Diego, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Seattle, and Portland.
  • Bus Services: Regional bus services, such as Greyhound or local transit agencies, may have routes that pass near the PCT or connect to nearby towns. Research bus schedules and routes in advance.

Shuttles and Trail Angels:

Shuttles and trail angels are valuable resources for transportation along the PCT. Trail angels are individuals or organizations that provide hiker support, including rides to and from the trail.

Shuttles specifically cater to hikers and offer transportation services to and from trailheads, airports, and nearby towns. These services often need to be prearranged, so consult guidebooks, online forums, and PCT hiker communities to find reputable shuttle services and trail angels along the trail.

Rental Cars and Ride-Sharing:

Renting a car or using ride-sharing services can also provide more flexibility, especially if you prefer to have your own transportation. Rental cars can be picked up at airports or nearby rental locations. Ride-sharing services like Uber or Lyft may be available in some areas, but their availability could be limited in more remote sections.

Conclusion

The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) offers a magnificent journey spanning from the Mexican border to the Canada border, captivating the hearts of long-distance hikers, including PCT thru-hikers.

Whether you plan on thru-hiking or completing shorter sections of the trail, careful planning and preparation are essential. With the right gear and mindset, however, the PCT is a challenge that’s well worth the effort. So why not lace up your boots and start your own adventure today?

If you liked this post, you can also check out our top-rated hiking trails around the world and National Park Guides for other fun destinations.


RALPH S.

Ralph S. is the founder of Silverlight, an avid hiker and trail runner he enjoys spending time outdoors, riding his motorcycle and swimming at the beach when he's not busy replying to customers or developing new Silverlight gear.

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