16 Fascinating Facts About the Pacific Crest Trail
Whether you’re hiking for a day or setting out on a five-month hike from border to border, the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is an incredible opportunity for adventure. It’s one of the three National Scenic Trails that make up America’s Triple Crown, along with the Appalachian Trail and the Continental Divide Trail, which are esteemed company indeed. Deserts, forests, alpine meadows, snowy passes… the PCT has it all, with stunning scenery no matter where you set foot along the path.
Just how long is the PCT? How many people thru-hike the trail? Why do most people thru-hike northbound? What are the highest and lowest elevations? If you’d like to learn more about the trail, or if you’d like to test your existing knowledge, then the following 16 fascinating PCT facts are for you.
1. The PCT is 2,650 miles long and traverses three states.
Designated alongside the Appalachian Trail as a National Scenic Trail in 1968, the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail begins at the border of Mexico and travels through California, Oregon, and Washington to reach Canada.
2. No one is sure who first proposed the idea for the PCT.
While no one can be sure who originally came up with the idea for a border-to-border trail, the earliest record suggests that Catherine Montgomery shared the idea for the trail with author and mountaineer Joseph T. Hazard in 1926. Other prominent contributors to the creation of the PCT are Fred W. Cleator, who outlined the Oregon Skyline Trail and initiated plans for a similar trail in Washington; Clinton C. Clarke, who organized the Pacific Crest Trail System Conference in 1932 and is known as the “father” of the PCT; and Warren Rogers, who scouted the route for the PCT.
3. A thru-hike takes an average of five months.
While mileage varies considerably between individuals, most thru-hikers take roughly 4.5 to 5.5 months to complete their journeys. Not only does it take several months, but a thru-hike also requires a significant financial investment.
While the most bare-bones hike could be achieved on as little as $3,000, this is far from the norm; most thru-hikers take advantage of restaurants and lodging during town stays, and these expenditures add up. Other cost considerations include (but are not limited to) traveling to and from the trail, resupplying trail food, purchasing and replacing gear, and having money set aside for emergencies.
According to the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA), a typical hiker spends between $8,000 and $12,000+ on a thru-hike.
READ NEXT — Pacific Crest Trail Thru-Hiker Gear List
4. The thru-hike completion rate is low.
How many people attempt to thru-hike the PCT, and how many actually finish? Nobody knows for sure. The PCTA does keep records of hikers who report completed thru-hikes, but the catch is that these are only the thru-hikes that have been reported.
Regardless, the number of people who complete a thru-hike is relatively low. Data from the PCTA reported 4,728 thru-hiking permits issued in 2022. Their number of reported completions (total number of reported completions, not just from 2022) is 9,422. That’s not a lot!
5. Thru-hikers have a limited weather window.
Snow travel doesn’t just slow hikers down; it can also be dangerous. Freezing temperatures, avalanches, and challenging river crossings are some of the risks involved with being on the trail too early or too late in the year. The typical start dates for both northbounders (NOBOs) and southbounders (SOBOs) are calculated to provide the best chance of avoiding hazardous winter conditions.
NOBO hikers usually start in mid-April to early May, while SOBO hikers begin later, from late June through early July.
6. Fewer than 5% of hikers go southbound.
Because SOBOs begin the PCT in the challenging terrain of the North Cascades, it’s important for them to be in good shape right away. Not only that, but reaching the northern terminus of the PCT is a logistical challenge. Entering the US from Canada along the trail is illegal, so SOBOs hike 30 miles north from Hart’s Pass to reach the terminus and then hike 30 miles back the way they came. Hikers going from Canada to Mexico also have a somewhat shorter window in which to finish the trail if they want to avoid winter conditions in the Sierra.
7. The trail boasts incredible ecological diversity.
The PCT crosses 26 National Forests, 7 National Parks, 5 State Parks, and 4 National Monuments. It also passes through six of the U.S.’s seven eco-zones: alpine tundra, subalpine forest, upper montane forest, lower montane forest, upper Sonoran (oak woodlands and grassland), and lower Sonoran (the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts).
8. The trail’s highest point is Forester Pass.
At 13,200 feet, the Sierra Nevada’s Forester Pass is the highest point on the PCT. The southern approach to the pass includes a challenging snow chute that often holds snow late into the year.
The trail’s lowest elevation is in Cascade Locks, Oregon at 170 feet above sea level. Home of the annual PCT Days festival, Cascade Locks is the last town in Oregon for NOBOs, where they cross the Bridge of the Gods into Washington.
9. There is an annual PCT festival.
Located at the Marine Park of Cascade Locks, Oregon, “PCT DAYS celebrates and promotes hiking, camping, backpacking, and outdoor stewardship and offers a bit of something for everyone, whether you are an outdoor enthusiast or new to outdoor recreation.”
10. Thru-hikers can take a side trip to Mount Whitney.
At 14,505 feet, Mount Whitney is the highest peak in the lower 48, and while it’s not on the PCT, it’s close enough for PCT hikers to take a side trip to the summit. Many hikers start early to catch the sunrise at the top.
11. The PCT nearly touches the three deepest lakes in America.
Any guesses as to which ones we’re talking about? Here’s another clue: there is one in each state that the PCT passes through. Although the trail doesn’t actually touch any of them (or even come within a stone’s throw), hikers will likely be treated to grand views of the three deepest lakes in America. They are Crater Lake (1,949ft), Lake Tahoe (1,645ft), and Lake Chelan (1,486ft).
Bonus fun fact: At just 1,100ft in elevation at the surface, parts of Lake Chelan are actually below sea level.
12. The PCT is also an equestrian trail.
The entire trail is open to horseback riders. Due to logistical challenges, only a handful of people have ever successfully completed a thru-ride. Managing food and water for horses for the entire trail is a massive undertaking. The PCTA shares the fascinating story of Don and June Mulford, the first couple to thru-ride the PCT in 1959.
13. Thru-hiking the PCT requires a long-distance permit.
Unlike the AT and the CDT, thru-hiking the PCT requires a long-distance permit, and competition for these limited permits is fierce for hikers hoping to start from the southern terminus during peak season. They are released in two phases each year on a first-come, first-served basis and are limited to a total of 50 hikers per day in order to reduce the human impacts on the fragile desert environments of Southern California.
For thru-hikers cooking over a camp stove, a California Fire Permit is also required, and thru-hikers planning to cross the border into Canada need a PCT Entry Permit as well.
READ NEXT — How To Score A PCT Long-Distance Permit
14. The longest waterless stretch is north of Tehachapi, CA.
When it comes to water sources, it’s no surprise that the deserts of Southern California present a significant challenge. Thru-hikers often carry anywhere from four to eight liters of water at a time (I met one hiker who carried ten liters). The PCT’s longest waterless stretch, located north of Tehachapi, is 35.5 miles long.
There are several water caches throughout the desert that are maintained by trail angels, but hikers are highly advised not to rely on these as there is no reliable way to know how much water is still available.
15. PCT thru-hikers will climb almost a half-million feet.
Concrete numbers don’t really exist, and the official route of the PCT changes slightly every year, but hikers who walk the whole trail will amass roughly 490,000 feet of elevation gain. This number is nearly equal for SOBOs and NOBOs, though the former will climb about 1,000 feet less. A drop in the bucket.
16. Southern California is home to the infamous poodle-dog bush.
With beautiful lavender flowers and long, sometimes drooping leaves that give it a “fluffy” appearance, this plant appears harmless enough. Don’t be fooled. If you happen to brush against the bristly hairs at the base of the flowers, they can cause a reaction similar to or worse than poison oak, and the resulting blisters can last more than two weeks. In extreme cases, the plant’s oils can cause severe respiratory distress. Generally, you’ll know when poodle-dog bush is around: it gives off a powerful odor similar to marijuana.
And there you have it: a snapshot of the iconic western adventure known as the Pacific Crest Trail. For more PCT facts, thru-hiking guides, and general information, visit the Pacific Crest Trail Association at pcta.org.
Featured image: Photo credit Diane Duffard. Graphic Design by Chris Helm.
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