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From Desert to Mountains: The Adventure of Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail

The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is a bucket-list hike for many outdoor enthusiasts. Some set out to complete this grueling journey for the feeling of accomplishment. However, quite a few adventurers search for something deeper within themselves.

Today, we’re lacing up our hiking boots and heading out. We’ll look at the PCT and help you decide if it could be your next adventure.

So grab your walking stick, and let’s get started! 

It Is The People | A Pacific Crest Trail Film

What Is the Pacific Crest?

The Pacific Crest (PC) is a 2,650-mile mountain crest running through the western United States. It starts at the Mexican border, travels through California, Oregon, and Washington, and ends at the Canadian border. The trail runs parallel to the Pacific Ocean and is ripe for adventures.

It features the highest points of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Range mountain ranges. It is a natural divide between the western states and the Pacific Ocean. When it comes to majestic peaks, deep valleys, and inspiring wilderness areas, it doesn’t get much better than the Pacific Crest.

Pacific Crest Trail trail marker
Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail is a challenge, but well worth it.

The Pacific Crest Trail Guide for Thru-Hikers

The Pacific Crest is home to the Pacific Crest Trail. Management is a partnership between the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), National Park Service (NPS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), California State Parks, and the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA).

This incredibly famous path attracts adventurers worldwide. This once-in-a-lifetime experience requires traversing deserts, forests, and alpine meadows. The breathtaking mountain landscapes provide the perfect backdrop for an expedition.

How Do You Access the Pacific Crest Trail?

There are hundreds of access points along the PCT. These access points can be found at major road crossings, trailheads, campgrounds, and other locations where the trail intersects with established roads or trails. Some access points are easily accessible by car, while others may require additional hiking or transportation to reach. We have hiked many portions of the trail that runs along other trails that have easy access trailheads as well.

The official southern terminus of the PCT is located at the U.S.-Mexico border, on the outskirts of Campo, California, which is approximately 20 miles (32 kilometers) southeast of the city of San Diego.

The official northern terminus of the PCT is located at the U.S.-Canada border, on the edge of Manning Park in British Columbia, Canada. It is approximately 8 miles (13 kilometers) north of the small town of Hart’s Pass, Washington.

The best way to locate these access points is to use trail maps, guidebooks, and interactive maps. There are some spots where public transportation is available to and from the trail, but these are few and far between.

View along the Pacific Crest Trail
Hike through California, Oregon, and Washington along the Pacific Crest Trail.

What Is the Difficulty Level of This Trail?

Many consider the Pacific Crest Trail as one of the most challenging hikes in the country. However, very few hikers set off to conquer all 2,650 miles in one epic adventure. The difficulty level varies by the section and the individual’s hiking experience and physical fitness.

You must be ready to handle various possible situations. The most common obstacles include steep ascents and descents, uneven and rocky terrains, and constantly changing weather. Don’t underestimate the higher elevations of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges. They require a tremendous amount of strength, endurance, and preparation.

Hikers on the PCT will also face a wide range of weather conditions, including extreme heat in the desert sections and cold temperatures in high-altitude mountain passes. Dealing with weather variations and potential storms adds another layer of difficulty.

Because of the large desert sections, resupply and water sources can be a challenge as well. Proper planning is crucial for resupplying food and water along the trail, as some sections have long distances between resupply points. This logistical challenge requires careful consideration and can impact hikers’ physical and mental well-being.

Is the PCT Harder than the Appalachian Trail?

There are very few hikers who have completed the PCT and the Appalachian Trail (AT). However, they generally feel that, despite being approximately 500 miles shorter, the AT is much more difficult.

The PCT is much more remote, which makes resupplies challenging. To be successful, it’s essential to plan these strategically. Some segments require carrying as many as two weeks of supplies. Talk about a heavy backpack!

On the other hand, on the AT, you’re constantly going up and down. While it may be shorter, the AT has nearly 200,000 more vertical feet than the PCT. While neither is a walk in the park, the Appalachian Trail can do a serious number on your knees.

Pro Tip: Learn more about How Long Does It Take to Hike the Appalachian Trail?

Is The PCT Harder than the Continental Divide Trail?

The Continental Divide Trail (CDT) is arguably one of the most challenging in the United States. While the PCT and the CDT have their challenges, the CDT is the most difficult. If you only consider distance, the 2,650 miles of the PCT is approximately 500 miles shorter than the 3,100 miles of the CDT.

Both are incredibly rugged and challenging. The CDT tackles some of the roughest sections of the Rocky Mountains. However, the PCT has significant changes in the Sierra Nevada and Cascade ranges. In addition, they both have the potential for unpredictable weather conditions.

Where the CDT takes the cake is in its remote and isolated areas. Access points tend to be fewer and far between on the CDT and require even more careful planning than the PCT. The logistics of navigating can require an enormous amount of planning.

Man hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail
Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail is not for beginner hikers and is quite strenuous.

How Long Does It Take to Hike the Pacific Crest Trail?

If you aim to traverse the entire Pacific Crest Trail, leave your calendar empty. For the average individual, it takes approximately five to six months. This requires an average of roughly 15 to 25 miles daily.

However, if you’re up for the challenge, you can try for the Fastest Known Time (FKT) for the PCT. Josh Perry, a 27-year-old explorer, set the record in August 2022 by completing the entire route in 55 days, 16 hours, and 54 minutes. Perry averaged an astounding 48 miles per day during his adventure.

How Many People Have Completed the PCT?

Approximately 700 to 800 people attempt the Pacific Crest Trail annually. However, roughly 60% are successful. Since the PCTA started tracking in 1952, there have been more than 9,400 successful thru-hikers. Additionally, 112 of those have done it more than once.

However, this number is constantly changing. If you want the most up-to-date listing, you can visit their 2,600 miler list. Could your name be the next on that list?

What Is the Best Segment of the Pacific Crest Trail?

Many consider a 147.5-mile segment of the PCT in South-Central Washington to be the best. This section runs from Mount Adams to Mount Rainier. It runs through the Goat Rocks Wilderness, revered for its natural beauty.

The elevation in this area is approximately 6,000 feet. However, massive peaks surround you. If your trek is during the summer, you’ll navigate a large meadow of wildflowers. Because of the relatively flat landscape, the rocky slopes and dramatic landscapes provide nearly perfect views.

Personally, we love the section through Kings Canyon and Sequoia as well. Really every section offers incredible beauty of it own. Weather conditions and time of year also have a huge impact of how much you are going to enjoy any given segment, so there really is no “best” part.

Pacific Crest Trail trail sign
Before you hit the trail, make sure you get all the permits you need.

What Permits Do You Need to Hike the PCT?

Before packing your bags and hiking the PCT, you must acquire a few permits. If not, you could face some issues once you hit the trail. The three permits you should obtain are the PCT Long-Distance Permit, the California Campfire Permit, and the Canada PCT Entry Permit.

Are all of these permits requirements? Absolutely not. However, having them makes the trip much easier. Instead of acquiring permits from several land management agencies, you only have to worry about obtaining these three permits. While they may not be easy to acquire, they’re worth it.

Some state that the permitting process is one of the most stressful parts of the entire experience. To acquire a permit means picking a start date and then applying. However, the PCTA can only allow 50 permits daily. With such a short season, these permits can go incredibly fast.

When Is the Best Time to Hike the Pacific Crest Trail?

When you consider that hiking the PCT can take five to six months, when you start is crucial. However, it depends on whether you’re heading north or south. In general, northbounders start sometime between mid-April and early May. On the other hand, southbounders will begin between late June and early July.

Choosing when to start can be tricky. If you start too early or too late, you could battle snow, ice, and other hazardous conditions. Trust us; it is already challenging enough. You don’t want to make it any more difficult. 

Pro Tip: We talked timing your PCT hike in our article Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail: Where Does the Time Go?

Tent set up on Pacific Crest Trail
Prepare to spend five to six months on trail when hiking the PCT.

How Much Money Should You Budget for This Hike?

Unfortunately, hiking the PCT isn’t free. However, it can be done for less than most people’s general cost of living and is sometimes considered a privileged homeless adventure. It typically costs around $1,500 to $2,000 per month. This generally covers the standard expenses like lodging, food, and other miscellaneous items you’ll need.

However, you can’t forget you’ll also need to buy gear. Most hikers will spend about $2,000 to $3,000 on these supplies. You want to get lightweight equipment that can withstand the rugged environment.

Tips for Thru-Hiking the PCT

Thru-hiking the PCT isn’t an easy task. As a result, it will require you to do a high amount of research. It’s vital that you study techniques and maps for the area. You want to know what to expect and plan your stops and resupplies accordingly. As they say, failing to plan is planning to fail.

The right gear is essential. You’re likely not to make it a fraction of the way if you don’t have the right equipment. You want to evaluate everything you’ll carry from head to toe. While it might be painful to see the cost, it’ll be even more painful on the trail. You either pay the price at the register or on the path.

One of the best pieces of advice we can give is to connect with others. Whether section or thru-hikers, you can learn something from anybody. They may know a technique or information that could help you in your adventure. The community can be an invaluable resource and help you succeed.

Pro Tip: Ditch these 10 Overrated Camping Gear Items That You Really Don’t Need on your PCT adventure.

How To Plan a Thru-Hike - PCT Logistics, Tips and Tricks

Conquer the Pacific Crest Trail

Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail can be an incredible experience. Through the highs and lows, you’ll discover that you’re much stronger and capable than you ever imagined. However, it’s not something you can take lightly. Make sure you spend plenty of time preparing yourself mentally and physically. If you do, you can join a rather prestigious club.

Would you ever hike the PCT? Tell us your thoughts in the comments!

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About Cait Morton

Co-Founder, Logistics Queen, Business & Content Manager, and Animal Lover

An Upper Peninsula of Michigan native (aka a Yooper), Caitlin is the organization, big-picture, and content strategy queen of our operation. She keeps everything orderly and on track.

With a background in Business Management, she supports and helps channel Tom’s technical prowess into the helpful content our readers and viewers expect. That’s not to say you won’t find her turning wrenches and talking shop – RV life is a team effort. She keeps the business and the blog moving forward with a variety of topics and resources for our audience.

Believe it or not, she is rather camera shy, though she co-hosts the Mortons’ personal videos and The RVers TV show.

Caitlin’s passion lies in outdoor recreation and with animals. Some of her favorite things to do are hiking, biking, and getting out on the water via kayak, SUP, or boat.

She also loves the RV life due to the fact that you can bring your pets along. Sharing information about safely recreating outdoors with your whole family – pets included! – is very important to her. Because of this, Caitlin spearheaded the launch of HypePets in 2023.

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