How to Get to the PCT Southern Terminus
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, either via public transit or with established trail angels around the San Diego area.
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 thru-hiking permit. If you’re doing less than 500 miles, check out this page for more information about region-specific permitting. The first round of NOBO thru-hiking permits (35 per day) were released on October 29, the final 15 permits per day will be released on January 14 at 10:30 a.m. PST (SOBO permits will be released the same day).
The PCTA only issues 50 long-distance permits per day; most NOBO thru-hikers 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
Trail Angels: 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 helping hikers in 2020 between March 19 and May 17.
You’ll be picked up at the San Diego airport by a volunteer and brought to Scout and Frodo’s lovely home (about a 20-minute drive). There, you can set up your first several resupplies—there are boxes, tape, sharpies, everything you need to assemble your boxes. There are a grocery store and a post office within walking distance. If you’re coming from another country, one of the volunteers will take you to AT&T to get set up with an American cell phone plan. A lot of hikers bring their gear in an old suitcase to protect it while traveling. They’ll take those suitcases to a thrift store once you’re done with it.
You can also mail boxes to Scout and Frodo. This is especially helpful for international hikers who may want to pick up some gear from American retailers, but don’t want to pay exorbitant international shipping fees. You’re coming to San Diego before you start your hike anyway—leave the gear in the country and spend that money on ramen instead.
Americans are welcome to spend one night there, hikers from Canada or Mexico can spend two days, and those from overseas can spend three (if needed). I came in from Canada in 2017 and expected to spend two nights at Scout and Frodo’s getting all my stuff in order. My flight landed in San Diego around noon, and by 4 p.m. I was ready to hit the PCT the next day—cell phone plan activated, resupply shipped, everything. Scout and Frodo’s is a well-oiled, fine-tuned, thru-hiking machine.
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. Unfortunately (for hikers), 2020 is the last year that Scout and Frodo will be accepting hikers before a well-earned trail angel retirement.
If you are planning to head to the PCT Southern Terminus and aren’t able to stay with Scout and Frodo (they can only host 40 hikers a night, so you are not guaranteed a place until you confirm with them), you’ll have to find another way to Campo.
Getting to the El Cajon Transit Center
There are several public transportation options available for getting to the PCT Southern Terminus from San Diego. The first step is to get to the El Cajon Transit Center. If you need to spend the night before heading out to Campo, there is a Motel 6 and a Relax Inn near the Transit Center.
Spending the night close to the terminus is a little trickier because it will likely require some hitchhiking. That being said, there are a few accommodation options near Campo:
- Mountain Empire Campground is 4.6 miles from the terminus (west of Campo on Highway 94).
- Back Country Inn is 15.7 miles from the terminus east via highway 94.
- Boulevard / Cleveland National Forest KOA is 12.2 miles from the terminus.
Cowboy camping near the Southern Terminus is not allowed and not recommended, especially due to the prevalence of US Border Patrol in the area.
From the Airport
You can get to the El Cajon Transit Center from San Diego airport via public transit. First, you get on the 992 at Terminals 1 and 2 from the airport, then transfer to either the Sycuan Green Trolley Line or the Orange Trolley Line. There are transit options every day between 5 a.m. and 11 p.m. This trip costs $2.50 and should take about a 90 minutes, including the transfer.
From the Train Station
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 same Sycuan Green or Orange trolley lines. This trip runs every 15 minutes and takes around an hour.
From the Greyhound Bus Station
The Orange Line runs directly from the San Diego Greyhound Station to the El Cajon Transit Center, and the trip takes around 50 minutes.
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 between 8:21 a.m. and 5:36 p.m. It leaves from the Transit Center at 8:30 a.m., 11:45 a.m., 3 p.m., and 5:45 p.m., and costs $8. 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.
Bus 894 will drop you off at the corner of Highway 94 and Buckman Springs Road near Campo, which is a 3.1-mile walk to the PCT Southern Terminus. However, Scout and Frodo’s website says that you can ask the bus driver to let you off at the PCT stop, called Forest Gate Road. There is a corner store there that sells stove fuel canisters. That stop is only 1.6 miles from the Southern Terminus.
After Scout and Frodo move on from their longtime gig of ferrying hikers to Campo, who knows how the trail angel landscape will develop around the Southern Terminus. Maybe other trail angels will step up to fill the void, or maybe public transportation will become the standard for thru-hikers starting out their journeys. Either way, this guide will hopefully make getting to the PCT Southern Terminus the easiest part of your 2020 PCT thru-hike.
Lead image via
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