For most of us, going for a hike means a day trip to a local mountain for a lovely journey in the wilderness. A more serious outing for a few days would qualify as backpacking. There is an ultimate hybrid of these two activities known as thru-hiking, which refers to successfully hiking one of several long-distance trails within a specified period (often one year or less).
What is the thru hiking triple crown? The triple crown for thru hiking is completing the big three hiking trails within the United States. This includes the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail. Each trail has its own difficulties and preparations to be successful at completing.
In this article, we closely examine each of these iconic trails to learn about their unique attributes and the challenges of hiking them. In so doing, you will have a deeper understanding of how difficult it is to conquer just one of these trails, let alone complete the thru-hiking trifecta.
The National Trails System Act of 1968 set in motion the establishment of a system of public trails on a national level. In enacting this law, Congress created four classes of trails: national scenic trails, national historic trails, national recreation trails, and side and connecting trails. Of these, the most prominent are the scenic trails that are headlined by the Big Three Trails: the AT, PCT, and CDT.
The thru hiking triple crown consists of trail completion on the Pacific Crest Trail, Continental Divide Trail, and Appalachian Trail. Between them these trails travel through 22 states within the US while covering close to 7500 miles. The combined elevation gained while hiking all the Triple Crown is more than if you decided to climb Mt Everest 41 times.
Although it is the shortest in overall length out of the triple crown, the Appalachian Trail traverses the most states (14). It also has the most significant aggregated gain and loss in elevation at 464,500 feet, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.
To put this last figure into perspective, this would be the equivalent of eight round trips up and down Mount Everest for a 2,193-mile hike.
|Year Established||Length (Miles)||Number of States Traversed: 14||Northern Terminus||Southern Terminus|
|1968||2,193||(From North to South) Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia||Mount Katahdin in Maine||Springer Mountain in Georgia|
As the oldest established national trail, the AT is by far the most heavily traveled. The trail itself winds through sections of the United States that are home to nearly half of the American population.
Partly because of the dense population of the areas it traverses, the Appalachian Trail receives over 3 million visitors each year, and more than 3,000 hikers attempt to thru-hike the AT with roughly 25% succeeding.
The AT is one of the best maintained and clearly defined trails thanks mainly to the efforts of an army of volunteers.
For thru-hikers, towns are scattered throughout the length of the trail and which makes resupplying accessible every few days of hiking (except for one stretch). There are also more than 200 three-sided shelters (basically three walls and a roof) positioned every ten or so miles along the trail.
Although it only traverses three states, the Pacific Crest Trail runs border to border, from Mexico in the south to Canada in the north. Like the AT, the PCT is one of the oldest established trails and is well marked and clearly defined so that straying off-trail is not a concern.
Because it was trailblazed with horses in mind, the inclines are generally not as steep and treacherous as the AT.
|Year Established||Length (Miles)||Number of States Traversed: 3||Northern Terminus||Southern Terminus|
|1968||2,650||(From North to South) Washington, Oregon, California||Manning Park, Washington (at the Canadian border)||Campo, California (near the Mexican border)|
However, thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail does mean enduring potentially severe weather conditions ranging from extreme heat in the Southern California deserts to blizzards and whiteouts in the High Sierra and Cascade mountain ranges.
Much of the PCT runs at 5,000+ elevations, and a significant chunk exceeds 7,000 feet above sea level, so ice and snow may be a concern throughout much of the year.
As its name suggests, the CDT runs along the Continental Divide, which separates east from west in the U.S. and is responsible for water draining from western inclines to the Pacific Ocean and from eastern slopes to the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.
In the U.S., the Divide is comprised of the Rocky Mountains while the entire Continental Divide runs from Alaska down to South America.
Among the Big Three, the Continental Divide Trail is the longest at 3,100 miles, but the trail itself is only 76% complete; because of this, thru-hikers must carefully navigate around private lands without straying too far off course.
Although its lowest point is 4,000 feet above sea level, there are significant stretches without reliable sources of water, particularly in the Great Divide Basin of Wyoming.
|Year Established||Length (Miles)||Number of States Traversed: 5||Northern Terminus||Southern Terminus|
|1978||3,100||(From North to South) Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico||Waterton Lake in Glacier National Park, Montana (near the Canadian border)||Crazy Hook Monument in the Big Hatchet Mountains, New Mexico (near the Mexican border)|
Among seasoned thru-hikers and triple crowners, there does seem to be a consensus that of the Big Three, the Pacific Coast Trail is the least difficult (this is not to say that it is the “easiest” because none of them are easy in the slightest bit) to complete.
This is mainly attributed to the relatively mild inclines, fairly consistent weather conditions, reliable trail markings, and manageable resupply stops.
The real debate is whether the Continental Divide Trail or the Appalachian Trail takes the crown as the most challenging leg of the triple crown. The CDT poses a greater challenge from a physical aspect as well as logistics.
While the AT does have formidable physical obstacles, including inclines so severe that they must be scaled with ladders, it is also the most well-developed of the triple crown trails.
The availability of shelters and the presence of other thru-hikers lends a community feel to the Appalachian Trail, which, coupled with the availability of resupply stops, lessens the difficulty level ever so slightly.
Thru-hiking is a journey (and a rather long one at that). At a minimum, a thru-hike of any of the triple crown trails will require several months of trekking through the wilderness with the perseverance to log mile after mile day after day.
It is a significant financial investment as well, as each thru-hike can cost you from $4,000.00 to $8,000.00. All of this goes to show that triple crowners are a special breed indeed.
A triple crown hiker is someone who successfully completes the entirety of all the big three trails. This is quite an achievement and for some can take a decade or more to accomplish, to prove how difficult it is the tracking body only has a list of 396 people who submitted the accomplishment!
Checking on the only "official" source of completion on all three trails it shows that by the end of their 2018 application period, the ALDHA-West had recognized a total 396 Triple Crown Awards.
While there is more than likely more than this only these people have submitted their completion to a record keeper. This is why a triple crown attempt means so much to me, 396 total people, ever, have completed this attempt!
The American Long Distance Hiking Association or (ALDHA-West) is the group who present the award for completion of the Triple Crown when applied for. The award is given is a plaque and includes a personalized poster if the hiker would like one.
Their is no official tracking so a report is based on the honor system and that you have completed the end to end hikes on each trail. Additionally they place no "qualifiers" on completion, like youngest, oldest, etc.
I am working on the plan for completing my personal triple crown but believe it will take roughly 5 years to accomplish it all with the amount of required time off and freedom from life and family needs.
This is no small undertaking and should be expected to dominate your life and thoughts as you will be reading, learning, and building your strategy to walk for thousands of miles. I can't wait to start and its not planned to start for almost a year from now, maybe two with this pandemic!