Hikes & Trails

The Triple Crown of Hiking: The Ultimate Thru-Hiking Challenge

POSTED ON March 13, 2024 BY Ralph S.


Introduction

The Triple Crown of Hiking encompasses three of the most iconic long-distance trails in the United States: the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), the Appalachian Trail (AT), and the Continental Divide Trail (CDT).

A thru-hike of all three trails, totaling over 7,800 miles (12,553 km), constitutes achieving the Triple Crown. Completion within a single calendar year earns the distinction of the Calendar Year Triple Crown.

These trails offer diverse terrain, breathtaking scenery, and unique challenges, attracting adventurers from around the globe. Thru-hikers immerse themselves in months-long journeys, traversing mountains, deserts, forests, and wilderness, experiencing the raw beauty of nature and forging enduring connections with fellow hikers.

The allure of thru-hiking lies in the profound sense of self-discovery, resilience, and accomplishment it offers.

Pursuing the Triple Crown embodies the pinnacle of long-distance hiking achievement, symbolizing the ultimate test of endurance, determination, and love for exploration. Earning this prestigious hiking award signifies not only physical prowess but also a deep reverence for the wilderness and the transformative power of the trail.

Most triple crowners will start with the AT, then do the PCT, and lastly, the CDT, which is considered to be the most challenging of the three, due to limited resupply options, the longest distance, and the highest elevation gain.

Key Facts About the Triple Crown of Hiking

Enjoying the view from the Pacific Crest Trail north of Rainy Pass. USDA Forest Service photo by Bob Wick.Enjoying the view from the Pacific Crest Trail north of Rainy Pass

  • The American Long-Distance Hiking Association West (ALDHA-West) is a community geared towards celebrating long-distance hikers and notably honors the hard-earned achievements of those who have completed all three trails with the Triple Crown of Hiking Awards.
  • Heather Anderson (AKA Anish), renowned in the thru-hiking community, etched her name in history as the first woman to conquer the Triple Crown in a single calendar year, achieving this monumental task in 2018.
  • Joining a rare breed of hikers, Brian Robinson stood as the pioneer to attain this feat, being the first person to complete the Triple Crown within a calendar year in 2001, redefining the realms of endurance and courage in the wild.
  • A significant number of CYTC (calendar-year triple crown) finishers opt for a “flip-flop” strategy, tackling each trail in segments at different times of the year to accommodate weather and trail conditions.
  • To be hailed as “Triple Crowners” is no less than a knightship in the domain of long-distance hiking, a distinguished accolade ALDHA-West bestows on those persistent adventurers who have traversed the collective mileage of the Triple Crown trails.
  • Surprisingly, fewer than 400 hikers have received the Triple Crown of Hiking Awards since its inception, attesting to the towering challenge and dedication required to join this elite club. That is less than the number of people who have been to space.
  • The Triple Crown trails cross through a combined total of 22 states, featuring a dizzying variety of ecosystems and terrains that bear testament to North America’s vast and raw natural beauty.
  • A true test of tenacity, thru-hikers collectively ascend and descend millions of feet in elevation, equivalent to summiting Mount Everest multiple times, making the Triple Crown one of the most arduous adventures in trekking.
  • The Continental Divide Trail alone brushes against five U.S. states, incorporating parts of the Rocky Mountains, posing arguably the wildest and most demanding segment of the Triple Crown.
  • The Triple Crown awaits as the ultimate pilgrimage for hiking enthusiasts, demanding not only physical prowess but also deep pockets of resolve, and, upon completion, offering an unparalleled sense of fulfillment that resonates far beyond the trails.
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Appalachian Trail: Conquering the “Green Tunnel”

Saddleback Mountain II. Appalachian Trail in Maine

  • Location: Springer Mountain in Georgia (location) to Mount Katahdin in Maine (location), traversing 14 U.S. states.
  • Total Length: Approximately 2,180 miles (3,510 kilometers).
  • Avg. Time to Hike: 5 to 7 months.
  • Difficulty Level: From easy stretches to challenging terrains.
  • Total Elevation Gain: over 515,000 feet (157 km) over the entire trail.

The Appalachian Trail (AT), known as the footpath of the people, ignites a thousand journeys from its southern terminus at Springer Mountain, Georgia. This is where most hikers take their first step along a path that promises both physical exertion and spiritual renewal. Enveloped by a lush canopy affectionately dubbed the “green tunnel,” the trail whispers tales of ancient Appalachia, setting the stage for an adventure through verdant forests, over mist-covered peaks, and across clear, babbling streams.

As one journeys northward, the AT offers a medley of experiences, stitching together the histories and landscapes of the 14 states it crosses. Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, considered the psychological midpoint, marks a significant milestone for many thru-hikers. Here, feet tread paths steeped in Civil War history, and eyes gaze upon scenic vistas that have inspired poets and artists alike.

Upon reaching the northern terminus at Mount Katahdin in Maine, hikers are greeted by a titan of rock standing tall against the sky. This terminus symbolizes the culmination of an epic odyssey, a testament to the perseverance and fortitude formed over 2,180 miles.

Pacific Crest Trail: From Desert Floors to Alpine Peaks

Pacific Crest Trail

  • Location: Mexico to British Columbia, Canada
  • Total Length: approximately 2,650 miles (4,265 kilometers)
  • Avg. Time to Hike: 5-6 months at 14-17 miles (22-27 km) per day
  • Total elevation gain: from approximately 420,880 feet (128 km) to 490.000 feet (149 km)-this is equal to climbing Mount Everest more than 16 times.

The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) beckons adventurers with a siren call, spanning from the sun-scorched terrains near the U.S.-Mexico border in California to the verdant forests at the approach of the Canadian border. It is a trail of contrasts and endurance, beginning in the small town of Campo (southern Terminus), and culminating over 2,650 miles (4,265 kilometers) northward, near the town of Manning Park, British Columbia (northern Terminus). The southern terminus, marked by a modest monument, presents the arid landscapes of the Mojave Desert, challenging hikers with the extremes of heat and aridity.

Hikers experience the beauty and isolation of the high Sierra Nevada, the volcanic peaks of the Cascade Range, and the lush rainforests of the Pacific Northwest. This blend of environments presents a unique set of challenges, from navigating snow-packed trails in the mountains to enduring long stretches without water in the deserts. One would traverse steep inclines and descents, with the route’s numerous mountain passes demanding resilience and determination.

With elevation changes equivalent to climbing Mount Everest multiple times, the trail tests one’s physical limits.

Continental Divide Trail: The Crown Jewel of Remote Wilderness

Continental Divide. Two Medicine Glacier N.P.

  • Location: Between Mexico and Canada 
  • Total Length: approximately 3,100 miles (4,988 kilometers)
  • Avg. Time to Hike: 5-7 months
  • Best Time to Hike: April – September (from North to South).
  • Overall elevation gain/loss: Around 917,470 feet ( 280 km) over 3029.3 mi (avg: 303 feet/mi) throughout the entire trail

Spanning the backbone of the American West from the deserts of New Mexico to the glacial peaks of Montana, the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) offers a trek through America’s most rugged and picturesque landscapes. Hitching the continental crust, it begins in the boot-shaped bootheel region of New Mexico, a land brimming with a history as deep and complex as the layers of the Earth itself. The southern terminus, located at the Crazy Cook Monument (location), is a remote and symbolic starting point for hikers embarking on their northbound journey.

As one advances along the trail, hikers navigate the Rocky Mountains, crossing through five states; New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. The path is a testament to nature’s diversity, offering an immersive walk through arid desert landscapes, dense forests, and alpine tundra.

The challenges posed by navigating the Continental Divide Trail are as varied as the terrain it crosses. The trail often presents itself as a route rather than a clearly defined path, requiring strong navigation skills, especially in remote wilderness areas.

The ascent to the trail’s northern terminus at Glacier National Park, at the border with Canada near Waterton Lake (location), culminates the journey as hikers traverse cliffs and rocky ridgelines, reaffirming the trail’s reputation as one of North America’s most challenging and rewarding long-distance hikes.

Preparing for the Ultimate Thru-Hike in The Three Trails

Hiking gear

Preparing to tackle the Triple Crown of Hiking requires meticulous planning, specialized gear, and a resilient mindset to navigate the challenges of each trail and the varying seasons encountered throughout the journey.

Here’s what hikers need to consider:

  • Seasonal Considerations: Thru-hikers must adapt to the changing seasons, from the snow travel of the Pacific Crest Trail in spring to the sweltering heat of summer on the Appalachian Trail and the potential early snowstorms of fall on the Continental Divide Trail.
  • Physical Conditioning: Building endurance and strength through long-distance walking and hiking in diverse terrain, including steep mountain climbs and rugged trails, to prepare the body for the rigors of trekking.
  • Gear Selection: invest in high-quality, lightweight gear tailored to the specific demands of each trail, including good-quality hiking socks, a lightweight tent, a warm sleeping bag, and reliable navigation tools.
  • Mental preparedness: developing resilience, determination, and a positive attitude to overcome obstacles, such as inclement weather, challenging terrain, and the psychological toll of long-distance hiking.
  • Logistical Planning: organizing resupply points, permits, transportation, and accommodations along the trail, as well as coordinating support from friends, family, or trail angels.
  • Trail Etiquette and Leave-No-Trace Principles: Understanding and adhering to trail etiquette and Leave-No-Trace principles to minimize environmental impact and contribute to the preservation of the wilderness.
  • Emergency Preparedness: carrying essential safety gear, including a first-aid kit, emergency shelter, and communication devices, and knowing how to respond to medical emergencies, adverse weather conditions, and other potential hazards.

The Triple Crown Achievement: What it Means to Complete All Three

Completing a thru hike

Completing these trails is not merely a physical conquest but also a transformative journey. Many hikers describe the trek as half a challenge and introspection, leading to profound personal growth.

The sense of accomplishment is immense; to complete the triple crown in one calendar year is to have truly mastered the art of the long trail.

Here’s what achieving the Triple Crown means:

  • Sense of Accomplishment: Thru-hiking each of the three trails individually is a remarkable feat on its own. Completing all three signifies an unparalleled level of dedication and perseverance.
  • Rare Status Among Hikers: Only a fraction of long-distance hikers ever undertake the challenge of the Triple Crown, let alone complete it. Those who do join an exclusive group of elite adventurers known as “Triple Crowners.”
  • Emotional Fulfillment: The journey of thru-hiking each trail, enduring the physical and mental challenges, and witnessing the breathtaking beauty of diverse landscapes culminates in an overwhelming sense of accomplishment and fulfillment.
  • Mastering Various Terrain and Conditions: From the snow travel of the PCT to the rugged wilderness of the CDT and the lush forests of the AT, completing the Triple Crown showcases a hiker’s ability to navigate diverse terrains and weather conditions.
  • Completing the Whole Thing: Thru-hiking the Triple Crown isn’t just about conquering individual trails; it’s about committing to the entire journey, from start to finish, and embracing the challenges and joys each trail offers.

Conclusion

The Triple Crown of Hiking, a prestigious accolade in the thru-hiking community, captivates the spirits of adventurers eager to embark on an extraordinary journey through the Pacific Crest Trail, Continental Divide Trail, and Appalachian Trail.

It’s an endeavor that requires an unparalleled commitment to traverse North America’s most rugged and scenic landscapes.

Completing the Triple Crown is not just a physical conquest. It embodies a transformative quest marked by seasons of snow travel, the camaraderie of fellow long-distance hikers, and profound personal introspection.

Don’t plan your next adventure before checking out our Hikes and Trails Guide for more inspiring treks


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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