The Pacific Crest Trail, often abbreviated to PCT, is a long-distance hiking trail that runs along the west coast of the USA.
It is America’s second longest trail, stretching 4,270 kilometres from Mexico to Canada through the states of California, Oregon, and Washington.
The trail is divided into 30 sections with 18 of those falling in California, seven in Oregon and five in Washington – averaging 145 kilometres each.
Although it is possible to complete sub-sections, adventurous hikers take on the challenge of the full, high route that winds through the Sierra Nevada and Cascade ranges.
The PCT is the westernmost and second longest component of the Triple Crown of Hiking and is part of the 11,000-kilometre Great Western Loop.
FIrst designated a National Scenic Trail in 1968 and officially completed in 1993, each year there are slight changes to the trail to provide better treadway, include more scenery or to divert away from natural threats such as wildfires.
A few years ago the PCT was made famous by the film ‘Wild’, which starred Reese Witherspoon and is based on the true story of Cheryl Strayed who took on the trail with little hiking experience as a way of dealing with great personal loss and grief.
- Witness some of America’s most scenic and varied terrain, ranging from scorching deserts to snowy mountains and everything in between.
- One of the continent’s longest and toughest through-trails.
- The route is mostly through National Forest and protected wilderness with very little time spent near roads or civilisation.
The starting point of the PCT lies in the town of Campo, California, right by the Mexican border. The closest major cities to the in and out points are San Diego in the south & Bellingham in the North – both with international airports, train and bus stations.
San Diego is 72 kilometres west of Campo and is a good point to find all of your last-minute necessities at one of the many outdoor recreation stores.
The easiest way to access the start point at Campo is driving via Highway 94, but this is not a good option for anyone driving themselves as there will be nowhere to leave your car long-term.
The San Diego Metropolitan Transit System buses run to Campo four times every weekday or alternatively you can grab a taxi. Long-distance hikers are also invited to request rides from the San Diego network of volunteer trail angels – a group that pick you up from the airport, bus or train station, host you in their home and then drive you to the Southern Terminus.
From the finishing point at the northern end you can leave from Bellingham International Airport or if you have crossed into Canada it is easiest to depart from Vancouver airport.
The trail is 4,270 kilometres and takes almost the entire snow-free season to trek. Depending on your speed and when you start, this means hiking for up to five months.
Elite and experienced athletes have finished the PCT in as little as two months but this would involve averaging over 50 kilometres per day.
If you’re not able to commit to five months but still fancy a challenge, there are shorter trips available on one of the many local loop trails that surround the PCT.
Grade and difficulty of the walk
The two main challenges of the PCT are the high elevation and the sheer distance of it. Having said that, it is easier to put in big miles on the PCT (versus the Appalachian Trail) because of the relatively easy terrain.
Each year around 300 hikers take on this trail with just over half actually completing it.
The Pacific Crest Trail should not be undertaken without substantial hiking experience under your belt, even if only in the form of numerous practise walks.
You must be comfortable walking sustained distances over consecutive days, all whilst carrying food and gear, often at altitude.
Water scarcity can also be problematic and there may be times where you will hike as far as 50 kilometres to find your next water source, so physical fitness is important to help you endure the desert climate.
There are three permits that every PCT thru-hiker must obtain before commencing the trail:
- PCT Long-Distance Permit
- California Campfire Permit
- Canada PCT Entry Permit (only needed if you plan to cross the Canadian border)
You should apply for your PCT Long Distance Permit through the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) as soon as you have chosen a start date. Under U.S Forest Service legislation, the PCTA is only allowed to issue 50 long-distance permits each day, meaning that during peak season it can be highly competitive.
These permits are released twice yearly – 35 permits become available in November and the remaining 15 in January.
Guided or Self-Guided
Due to the length of the trail, it is not feasible or economically viable to undertake the trail as part of a paid tour group with a guide. Thanks to the abundance of information online, it is relatively easy to plan your itinerary and go self-guided.
It is advisable to hike the Pacific Crest Trail during the snow-free season to ensure all high points are passable without mountaineering equipment or crampons.
Most northbound thru-hikers start mid-April through to early May, whilst southbound hikers can start in late June through to early July.
While it is possible to hike the Pacific Crest Trail in either direction, roughly 90% of all hikers start the PCT at the Southern Terminus of Campo and hike north to Canada. This is down to seasonal weather patterns and trail conditions.
Planning your trek can be time-consuming so don’t leave it to the last minute. Your itinerary should be based around choosing resupply locations, determining how many days of food are needed between these points, projecting arrival dates at each location based on your walking speed and adjusting your hiking times based on terrain.
The number of days it will take you from one resupply location to the next will vary dependent on your hiking ability and the weather conditions you encounter but will range between two and six days. In between these points it is up to you where you will rest, refuel and camp.
If you suffer at altitude, allow yourself extra time to cross the higher passes.
Below we have listed the most popular resupply locations and distances in kilometres from the previous point.
- Campo (start point) to Mt. Laguna – 69.0km
- Warner Springs – 109.0km
- Idyllwild – 112.0km
- Big Bear City – 154.7km
- Wrightwood – 144.2km
- Agua Dulce – 143.2km
- Tehachapi – 161.3km
- Kennedy Meadows – 228.4km
- Vermillion Valley Resort – 280.5km
- Tuolumne Meadows – 105.4km
- Sonora Pass – 123.0km
- Echo Lake Resort – 122.6km
- Donner Pass – 97.7km
- Belden – 214.2km
- Old Station – 142.3km
- Castella – 207.3km
- Seiad Valley – 252.0km
- Ashland – 103.8km
- Crater Lake – 169.6km
- Cascade Summit – 128.1km
- Sisters – 124.1km
- Government Camp – 181.5km
- Cascade Locks – 87.4km
- Tuolumne Meadows – 105.4km
- White Pass – 238.3km
- Snoqualmie Pass – 158.7km
- C. Manning Provincial Park (end point) – 142.9km
Accommodation along the PCT is a combination of camping, hostels, motels, hotels and backcountry lodges. Depending what combination of these you opt for, you should expect to spend at least $1,000 USD a month once on the trail.
In between the resupply locations mentioned above you will almost always be camping wherever the terrain is most suitable.
Hikers are required by the PCT Association to “leave no trace” by camping at least 200 feet away from water sources and trails and taking all litter with them.
As the trail passes through small towns there are plenty of options from hostels to hotels to relax and recuperate, spending a day or two to enjoy modern comforts. Whilst it is possible to power through, you should build in rest days to give both your mind and body a break.
Accommodation options are usually varied enough to suit different budgets, particularly if you are sharing a room and will offer a chance to do your laundry.
In terms of restocking supplies you have two options. Either “buy as you go” if you are not picky or are happy to hitch a bit further off the trail to reach bigger shops, or sending mail drops ahead to spots that do not have a large re-supply selection.
Before you commence the PCT, take some time in San Diego to soak up the Californian sun on its golden beaches, go whale watching, check out the world famous San Diego Zoo or party in the Gaslamp Quarter.
Once you’re on the trail there is no shortage of outstanding scenery but many people also choose to build in a few extra days around the national parks.
As you escape the desert and reach central California you enter the shaded canopy of the Sierra National Forest, which leads to the Ansel Adams Wilderness and then on to Yosemite National Park where you can view El Capitan, Half Dome and Yosemite Falls. In this section you hike the John Muir Trail, widely regarded as the most beautiful section of the entire Pacific Crest Trail.
|Skills Required||Hiking, Walking|
|Starts at||Campo, CA 91906, USA|
|Finishes at||Manning Park, BC V0X 1R0, Canada|
|Length of route||4270 Km|
|Average time to complete||90 - 150 Days|
|Possible to complete sub-sections||Yes|
|Highest point||4010 metres|
|Equipment needed||Camping equipment, Trekking gear, walking boots|
|Countries visited||United States, Canada|