What is the Pacific Crest Trail?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 10 September 2019
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The Pacific Crest Trail, also called the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail or PCT, is a 2,650 mile (4,240 km) hiking trail running from the American-Canadian border to the American-Mexican border. The PCT is one of the United States’ premier trails, and is the second longest hiking trail in the nation. Since its opening in 1968 the Pacific Crest Trail has attracted hikers from around the globe, providing variable scenery and adventurous challenges.

Since the 1930s, various hiking groups lobbied the US government to create a border-to-border trail in the western part of the country. In 1968, due to the efforts of hikers Clinton Clarke and Warren Rodgers, US Congress recognized the PCT as part of the National Trails System. In 1993, the trail was officially finished and opened, although hikers had been using it for decades.

The Pacific Crest Trail is divided into five regional sections, Southern, Central, and Northern California, Oregon, and Washington. In Southern California, the trail passes through desert scrubland, the Anza-Borrego National Park, and through parts of the Mojave Desert. The Central California section winds through the storied Sierra-Nevada Mountains and across Yosemite National park. Once reaching the Northern California trail, glaciated mountains become the volcanic remnants of the Cascade mountain range, and highlights include the majestic Donner Summit and Mount Shasta.


As the Pacific Crest Trail travels through Oregon, much of the hiking is through dense forest. Hikers pass by Crater Lake, the deepest lake in the United States. The PCT also crosses Oregon’s largest and most active volcano, Mt. Hood. Features of the Washington section of the Pacific Crest Trail include Glacier Peak and the enormous mountains of the Northern Cascade Range.

According to the PCT Association website, approximately 300 people per year attempt a thru-hike of the trail, with a 60% success rate. The first thru-hiker is a matter of some debate. In 1971, a young man named Eric Ryback claimed to complete the trail, but several witnesses claim he accepted car-rides during his hike, thus negating his claim. The first female thru-hiker to successfully complete the trail is believed to be a woman named Mary Carstens, in 1972. In 2004, a man named Scott Williamson completed a round trip thru-hike of the trail, covering 5,300 miles (8,480 km) in 197 days.

If you would like to attempt a hiking of the Pacific Crest Trail, it is important to prepare carefully and obtain a doctor’s certification of good health. The trail is relatively safe, but is a natural environment with many potential hazards. As the trail avoids many populated areas, restocking of supplies should be planned before you begin your hike.

In the Southern Californian section of the PCT, desert environments can lead to severe dehydration and possible death. Wild animals are common sites along the trail, and while most are harmless, you may be confronted with rattle snakes, bears, mountain lions and coyotes. Some experts recommend always hiking with a friend, particularly if you are a beginner. Safety in numbers is a valuable rule on the trail.

Although the trail is protected nationally, additional funding and volunteers are always needed to maintain the Pacific Crest Trail in good condition. Opportunities to help keep the trail up include donating money or helping at conferences or in Trail Association offices. If you are a hiker, remember to use biodegradable products and not to litter on the trail. Taking simple steps can help the PCT remain clean and maintained for future hikers to enjoy.


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