The so-called Triple Crown trails are America’s three great north-south hiking trails: The Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail. Which one is the longest? Most scenic? Most difficult to hike? The three trails are difficult to compare, but the following statistics and facts summarize the basics for backpackers contemplating hiking one, two, or all three of these great trails.
Hiking the Appalachian Trail
- Length: 2,175 miles.
- Starting and ending points: The A.T.’s southern terminus is atop Springer Mountain in northwest Georgia. Its northern terminus is atop Katahdin, the highest point in Maine. It is the only one of the three trails to start and end on top of a mountain.
- States crossed: Fourteen. The A.T. crosses Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia,
- Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.
- National parks on the trail: Great Smoky Mountain National Park (Tennessee); Shenandoah National Park (Virginia).
- Other highlights: The trail community on the Appalachian Trail is one of its great surprises and rewards.
- Because so many hikers attempt the trail, an entire trail culture has sprung up, making an A.T. hike as much a social experience as a wilderness trip.
- Estimated thru-hiker attempts per year: There are approximately 1400 annual attempts, although the number varies from year to year, depending on factors including the economy and trail publicity. Approximately 30 percent succeed.
- Most common direction of travel: Northbound, starting in March or early April.
- Notable thru-hiking challenges: The terrain is much more difficult than the modest elevations of the eastern mountains (rarely above 6,000 feet) would suggest. The trail is often not switch-backed, and sometimes goes straight up and down mountains, requiring rock scrambling and elevation gains that can exceed 20 percent (more than 1,000 feet in a mile). Summer temperatures can be uncomfortably hot.
Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail
- Length. 2,650 miles
- Starting and ending points. The P.C.T. starts at Campo, California, on the Mexican border. It ends at the
- Canadian border at Manning Provincial Park in British Columbia.
- States crossed: Three: The P.C.T. crosses California, Oregon, and Washington.
- National parks on the trail: Kings Canyon, Sequoia, and Yosemite National Parks (California), Crater Lake national park (Oregon). The trail skirts the edge of Mt. Rainier National Park (Washington).
- Other highlights: Premiere mountain scenery and wilderness hiking.
- Estimated thru-hiker attempts per year: Between 100 and 200. The completion rate varies widely, depending on the climate conditions in any given year. (Late lying snow in the High Sierra can make it difficult, and sometimes almost impossible, to hike the P.C.T. in one year).
- Most common direction of travel: Northbound starting in late April.
- Notable thru-hiking challenges. Desert heat and lack of water in southern California require hikers to be fit enough to handle big miles at the outset. Snow and ice in the High Sierra may require the use of ice axes. To thru-hike in one year, hikers must average between 18 and 20 miles a day.
Hiking the Continental Divide Trail
- Length: The complete route of the C.D.T. has not yet been determined; Hiker reports put it between 2,500 and 3,100 miles, depending on the route selected.
- Starting and ending points: Antelope Wells, New Mexico on the Mexican border (Some hikers start at Columbus, New Mexico, and follow an alternate route recommended by Continental Divide Trail Society founder Jim Wolf). The official northern terminus is at the Border of Glacier-Waterton International Peace Park on the Montana-Alberta border.
- States crossed: Five. The C.D.T. crosses New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana
- National parks on the C.D.T.: Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado), Yellowstone National Park (Mostly in Wyoming), Glacier National Park (Montana).
- Other highlights: The trail passes through many important sites from all periods of western American history.
- Because it is still so unfinished, hiking is a true adventure, requiring more wilderness skills and experience.
- Estimated thru-hiker attempts per year: Fewer than 50 people a year attempt the C.D.T. in its entirety; most of them have previous experience on other long-distance trails.
- Most common direction of travel: Southbound, by a small margin, starting in early June. Northbounders start in April.
- Notable thru-hiking challenges: The trail is not complete, so it requires route making and route finding skills, including a map, compass, and G.P.S. To complete the trail in one year requires high mileage (at least 18 – 20 miles a day), and the ability to cope with snow in Colorado (northbounders) or Montana (southbounders).
- Desert conditions are harsh in New Mexico and Wyoming’s Great Divide Basin. Because there are so few thru-hikers, the trail community and support services for hikers are both very limited.
These three great long-distance hiking trails are as different from each other as the three regions of the country and mountain ranges they traverse. All are difficult to complete in one season; all have their rewards, and a thru-hike of any one of them is sure to be the adventure of a lifetime.