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? Successful completion of the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and Continental Divide Trail comprises the thru-hiking triple crown. Hiking these three trails entails over 7,900 total miles, over 1,000,000 total feet of ascent and descent, and travel through no less than 22 states. As of 2018, only 396 people have been recognized with accomplishing this incredible feat.
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 Crown Jewel – Triple Crown
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 Appalachian Trail (AT)
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.
Thru-Hiking the AT
- Estimated length of time: Five to seven months
- Southern terminus start: Hiking from south to north is the most popular direction for thru-hikers of the AT. The average trip is six months, so timing is critical. It is not just the weather conditions at the starting point you must consider but also the anticipated weather at the finishing point six months later. For these reasons, most hikers start in late March or early April with the hope of finishing by mid-October.
- Northern terminus start: Southbound thru-hiking of the AT is recommended for experienced hikers only because the route starts with the highest peak and most significant elevation climb. It then proceeds to the longest stretch without resupply towns (the “100 Mile Wilderness”). The earliest start date is June 1 due to weather conditions in Maine, which means a likely December arrival in Georgia.
The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT)
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.
Thru-Hiking the PCT
- Estimated length of time: Four and a half to five and a half months
- Southern terminus start: The overwhelming majority of thru-hikers start their journey in California and work their way north. The typical start time is late spring to avoid trekking through Washington in dangerous, life-threatening snowy conditions. What this means, however, is that you will deal with the scarcity of water in the deserts and high temperatures in the mountains of Southern California.
- Northern terminus start: Starting in the mountains of Washington poses a challenge because of the enormous amount of snow and ice that may still be on the ground well into late spring. Southbound thru-hikes on the PCT typically begin in June or July, and packing ice climbing gear is advisable. Late fall snowstorms in the Sierras are also a possibility.
The Continental Divide Trail (CDT)
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)|
Thru-Hiking the CDT
- Estimated length of time: Four to five months
- Southern terminus start: Heading northbound on the CDT is the more popular choice among thru-hikers. Typical start times are mid-April to mid-May with a target arrival at Glacier National Park by the end of September. A later start would put you in Montana in late fall when the threat of severe snowstorms and avalanches is greater.
- Northern terminus start: Thru-hiking from north to south is less popular because it usually requires a later start time (mid-June to mid-July) to allow for snow to melt and trails to clear. Hikers will encounter the more difficult portions of the trail at the beginning but will be rewarded in the later stages when cooler, autumn weather prevails in the high deserts of New Mexico.
Which Triple Crown Trail is the Hardest?
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.
Do You Have What it Takes?
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.
Final Thoughts on the Thru Hiking Triple Crown
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!
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