How to Get to the PCT Southern Terminus
The original version of this post was written by Samantha Olthof. A lot has changed since the pandemic hit, so we’ve updated and adapted this resource to keep up with the times.
After months of anticipation and preparation, the first real hurdle of thru-hiking is getting your well-prepared gear and your (maybe) well-trained body to the starting line. Thru-hikers come to the trail from all over the US and, increasingly, all over the world.
Most PCT thru-hikers (and many section hikers) hike northbound from the PCT Southern Terminus located in Campo, California. This terminus is adjacent to the US/Mexican border and about 55 miles (by road) from the San Diego airport, where most hikers fly into. Getting to Campo from San Diego is not too difficult thanks to public transit, shuttles, or established trail angels around the San Diego area.
How to Get to the PCT Southern Terminus in Campo
Your PCT Permit
Before you get to the Southern Terminus, you must have a permit. If you intend to hike more than 500 miles continuously, you need to get a PCT long-distance permit. If you’re doing less than 500 miles, check out this page for more information about region-specific permitting.
There is a quota of 50 permits long-distance permits available per day during March-May for trips beginning south of Sonora Pass. This includes all NOBO thru-hikers. There is a quota of 15 permits issued per day for trips that start at the Canadian border from mid-June until the end of July. The first round of NOBO long-distance permits (35 per day) are generally released in October or November. The final 15 NOBO permits per day, and all of the SOBO and section hiking permits, are released in mid-January. Check out the FAQs for up-to-date information on permit release.
Most NOBO thru-hikers try to choose start dates between March 15 and early May (April 15 was the average start date for NOBO hikers in 2019). This timing is meant to get NOBOs to Kennedy Meadows South— the start of the High Sierra— at the optimal time to balance snowmelt in the mountains and heat in the desert.
Further Reading about PCT Permits
PCT Southern Terminus Shuttle LLC is a new shuttle that picks up twice a day (9:30 a.m. and two p.m.) from the Old Town Transit Center in San Diego. It is run by Paul and Dee, two experienced thru-hikers who have completed the PCT, CDT, and a plethora of shorter trails.
This is a one-stop shop for all your pre-trail errands, making stops at San Diego REI, Campo Green Store, Campo Post Office, and Camp Lockett Event & Equestrian Facility (CLEEF), where PCT hikers can camp for free the night before beginning their hike. All this for $50 total, or less than the cost of an Uber. They don’t have a ton of space, so make sure to book your seat early.
From the airport, you can get to the Old Town Transit Center via the “San Diego Flyer,” a free electric shuttle that runs from the airport to the Old Town Transit Center every 20-30 minutes from 4:45 am to 12:30 am.
Depending on where you are in San Diego, it will be a 40-60 mile drive, depending on if you’re going to Campo or straight to the PCT Southern Terminus. The price will likely end up being somewhere in the $60-100 range.
El Cajon Transit Center to the PCT Southern Terminus
Note: The bus to Campo does not run on weekends.
The #894 bus runs from the El Cajon Transit Center Monday to Friday. It leaves from the El Cajon Transit Center at 8:30 a.m., 11:45 a.m., three p.m., and 5:45 p.m., and costs $8. Exact change is required. A detailed schedule can be found online here, or you can download the Moovit app to keep track of bus schedules and any potential delays. The trip will take around one hour and 45 minutes.
Make sure to tell the driver that you want to be let off at the PCT stop at Forest Gate Road, about two miles from the Southern Terminus. There you will find the Campo Green Store, which sells backpacking food and stove fuel canisters.
Getting to the El Cajon Transit Center
The first step to get to the PCT Southern Terminus from anywhere in San Diego via public transportation is to get to the El Cajon Transit Center.
From the Santa Fe Depot
The Santa Fe Train Depot is the meeting point for commuter and intercity land transportation in San Diego. You can get to the El Cajon Transit Center on the Green Trolley Line or the Orange Trolley Line to the El Cajon Transit Center. There are transit options every 15 minutes between five a.m. and 11 p.m. on weekdays, and every 30 minutes on weekends. Buy a $2.50 ticket at the kiosk; change is available. The trip from the depot to El Cajon Transit center should take around an hour.
From the Airport
For a video illustrating this route, check out Marmalade‘s thorough explanations. Take bus #992 from either airport terminal. It runs every 15 minutes on weekdays and every 30 minutes on weekends. It costs $2.50, and you will need exact change. Get off at the Santa Fe Depot, about a ten-minute ride away, and follow the instructions above. The entire trip from the airport to the depot should take around 90 minutes.
From the Greyhound Bus Station
There is a very active Facebook group of PCT Southern Terminus Trail Angels where hikers can request rides and local trail angels can offer rides. You can also use it for any other questions or concerns you have about the start of your PCT journey. Just remember to be polite, and if you can, offer to pay for gas!
Scout and Frodo
For the past 15 years, thru-hikers have been ferried to the PCT Southern Terminus by two of the most famous trail angels, Barney and Sandy Mann (AKA Scout and Frodo), and their army of loyal volunteers. They do not charge to stay there, nor do they accept monetary donations (though you can buy one of Scout’s books if you want). They do encourage hikers to support the PCTA.
You cannot just show up at their house! After getting your permit and booking your travel, be sure to register on their website and follow all of the instructions there. You also need to email them AFTER filling out the form. Read the instructions closely.
Scout and Frodo are hosting a maximum of 20 hikers per night in 2022 between April 8 and May 9. They are currently requiring hikers to be fully vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19, and guests are expected to wear well-fitting N95 or KN95 masks while inside. Scout and Frodo have some extra masks available for hikers without one.
Public transit in San Diego is improving, and you can now take Bus #105 or the Blue Line Trolley to Scout and Frodo’s house from the airport, Amtrak, bus depot, or downtown San Diego. For directions, see here.
The other great part about staying there is the wealth of experiences of the other hikers getting ready to start their hikes. There will be first-time thru-hikers, Triple Crowners, and everyone in between. If you want a gear shakedown or advice to soothe your pre-hike nerves, there will likely be someone there who can help you.
2022 could be the last year that Scout and Frodo will be accepting hikers before a well-earned trail angel retirement. The pair had planned to retire after the 2020 season, but as the pandemic thwarted them from helping hikers in both 2020 and 2021, they have decided to host this year on a limited basis.
Where to Stay
In San Diego
If you are taking the PCT shuttle to Campo, there is an E-Z 8 Motel and a Motel 6 a short walk from the Old Town Transit Center, as well as a selection of hotels, motels, and hostels at a variety of price points.
Camp Lockett Event & Equestrian Facility (CLEEF) allows hikers to camp for free. They are located only a half-mile from the Southern Terminus. Donations are appreciated and can be given through their website. They have flush toilets and a water spigot.
Campo Green Store also allows PCT hikers to camp for free behind the store, charge devices, connect to WiFi, and use the restroom.
Cowboy camping near the Southern Terminus is not allowed and not recommended, especially due to the prevalence of US Border Patrol in the area.
Featured image: Photo via Kelsey and Cody.
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