A reader reached out to me last week, requesting I do a follow-up post to my “Acclimating to the Pacific Crest Trail” article. While this blog piece does break down the differences between the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails relative to the beginning of my hike, it does not provide a comprehensive report of my consensus on both the trails as a whole.
I felt silly, I’ll admit, because the question of the differences seems so redundant to me at this point. “Which trail was your favorite?” seems to be a question naturally paired with “Which one was harder?” These questions are hard for me to answer, but I do my best. For my readers, I’m happy to try. But first, here is my comprehensive breakdown of the trail’s most important elements.
The additional 450 miles on the PCT may seem intimidating, but I think most who attempt both trails will find they took similar lengths of time. For me, the PCT only took four extra days. It is likely that hikers will up their mileage on the PCT, or down their mileage on the AT, depending on what order they do the trails, since the PCT is much easier to stride on.
If you’re someone who used state-line crossings as motivation on the AT, prepare to do some huge miles on the PCT if this is still going to fuel your drive, because there are only two of them, and for northbounders, seventeen-hundred miles have to be hiked before they can even think about exiting California.
An Appalachian Trail thru-hike is a fairly clean-cut accomplishment: you hike 2,194 miles from terminus to terminus. If you skip parts and claim you thru-hiked, your claim is disingenuous. On the PCT, the definition of a thru-hike is debated. I consider it an attempt to hike as much of the trail as possible in one season, but if over 500 miles of the trail is closed due to fire closures, as this was the case for most of September this year, is it still a thru-hike? I don’t know. I think for me it would be a to-be-continued venture; the triumphant end would be absent.
It is often miscounted how many miles extra have to be hiked to get into civilization from the PCT, especially in the Sierra. My hike required about seventy to a hundred extra miles. In this case, these miles more than made up for the skip of the Lion’s Head fire closure in Oregon, an unfortunate seventy mile skip, the only section of the PCT I didn’t walk. I went home content, though, knowing I had hiked at least 2,653.6 miles, Guthook’s mileage count.
The AT goes up and down way more. This is a fact versed hikers know well and hikers tethered to western America are often surprised to find out, dismayed if they had plans to head out east, I have found. Finding an agreed-upon estimate of elevation change on these trails is impossible. This is not to my surprise. After all, these trails have incredible lengths, measurement systems vary, and the credibility of reporting sources is difficult to establish.
For this reason, I used my intuition to find two numbers that had a difference which sounded right to me. Wikipedia reports the PCT has a total elevation change of 420,880 feet, or an average of 158 feet per mile. Appalachian Mountain Club reports that the AT has 515,000 feet of elevation change (the statistic I always boast on), or an average of 234 feet per mile. In essence, the AT has 94,000 more feet in elevation change than the PCT, which sounds about right to me.
The AT leads a path of short and steep climbs while the PCT leads a path of long and gradual climbs. Yet I’ve found hikers tend to complain in equal emphasis about both. Some hikers prefer to hike harder and to get the climbs done quickly. Others prefer an easy climb, even if it does require a longer route.
I’m still trying to figure out what I prefer. One fact is certain though: climbs throw me into a trance. When I climb, time flies. I lost a significant amount of weight on the AT, an amount that is much higher than my loss on the PCT. I like to believe this is because of the extra exertion these steep climbs required.
The PCT is a trail graded for horses. I think equestrians should avoid many parts of the PCT for the sake of their beloved steed, but that’s an article for another day. This grading assures the PCT is a much easier path to walk on overall than the AT. Sure, parts of the PCT are harder than parts of the AT and vice versa, but there are exceptionally more parts of the PCT where hikers can saunter without staring at the ground.
The geology of the Appalachians have made them intrinsically rugged. Millions of years of erosion has caused this range to be embedded with rocks and roots throughout. The soil is also wetter than that of the west coast, so hikers should expect to slip and slide all year, especially in the early spring. As the ingenuity of trail engineering has increased, the difficulty of trails has decreased. The oldest parts of the AT were formed over a hundred years before some of the newest parts of PCT.
With the initial goal of trails being transport, and not leisure, these trail makers had one mission: to make a path. This is why the AT is notorious for its direct routes. The PCT, on the other hand, is known to sidewind and switchback mountains, adding a surfeit of extra miles. To get a feel on this, Interstate 5, an Eisenhower highway that runs from Canada to Mexico, and even crosses the PCT on two occasions, is twelve-hundred miles shorter than the trail.
Because of how much more precipitation there is on the east coast, the AT is commonly regarded as a water-abundant trail where hikers hardly have to carry any water. While the AT may have much more water available than the PCT, I can tell you that it is still no walk in the park. Just like on the PCT, I dealt with the long stretches, some even up to fifteen miles, of drought, especially in the south in the late summer of 2019. I will admit, though, that the availability of water from Massachusetts and up is ample.
Natural water sources in the desert biome of the PCT are an anomaly. When I came across sources, I couldn’t help thinking, “But how?” Before the convenient troughs were adopted onto the trail in southern California, I really don’t know how hikers did it. I spoke to a man who hiked the PCT in the Eighties. He told me that he carried two gallon-sized jugs. Whenever he came across a water source, he filled them both up. That’s nearly seventeen pounds of water.
With the exception of the Sierra and Washington state, the availability of water isn’t great on the PCT, even outside of the desert. When it is readily available, though, it tends to be clean and pristine, flowing from the glacial snowmelt of mountain tops. I don’t advise anyone to do this, but I rarely filtered water in the Sierra or Washington. I was not alone.
If you’re an AT thru-hiking alumni and you plan on attempting the PCT, prepare to establish a new method of pitching your tent. The wind on the PCT can be atrocious, and campsites seldom have the convenience of tree cover. And if you’re someone who was fond of the shelters on the AT and apt to use them, I’m pleased to inform you that there are no shelters on the PCT (okay maybe like a cabin or something every once in a blue moon). Guthook compensates for this by doing their best to mark all sites on the PCT, ones that would likely be unmarked stealth sites on the AT.
If you want to thru-hike and hate rain, do the PCT. The oceanic climate of the Pacific Coast provides dry air, and most hikers are able to avoid the rainy season in Washington if they can finish their hikes before mid-September. The AT is a wet mess compared to this. The humid air of the east coast and rainy seasons of April and May put hikers who wish to stay dry in a real predicament. Cold days were also something I contended with little on the PCT, but frigid nights were common. Just make sure you pack out a sun hoodie on the PCT, because the exposure can be killer.
The AT is the trail of towns. When I headed into Pearisburg, VA, I arranged for the ride to my hostel to show earlier than I arrived. With this in mind and feeling eager to get into town, I opted to walk to the hostel. This would have never happened on the PCT. Trail towns are not only more frequent on the AT than the PCT, but they are also much more proximate to the trail. On the AT, towns tend to be anywhere from on the trail to five miles away. On the PCT, towns average a distance of ten to twenty-five miles from the trail.
The thru-hiking culture of the AT is also significantly more established than the PCT, so hostels, shuttles, and hiker deals that are found in AT towns are sparse in PCT towns. When there were hostels or accommodation to hikers in towns along the PCT, I found that seldom were they holistic. In only two lodges on the PCT was I ever offered loaner clothes, and for this reason I had to go unpreferable (for me and the people around) lengths of time without cleaning my town clothes. You can also expect to cough up a lot more money in PCT towns, because these municipalities are mostly tourist and ski-resort oriented (why else would people want to live in the mountains?).
Since the catastrophic outbreak of Covid-19, the number of people attempting distance hikes has decreased a significant amount. In 2018, a year after Youtube sensation Jessica Mills hiked the PCT, the amount of thru-hike finishers was nearly twelve-hundred, double the amount of the previous year. Last year only eighteen people reported finishing thru-hikes.
This year, the numbers are going back up, with almost four-hundred people registering for the 2,600 Miler list. Regardless of this variance, the AT is a much more popular trail to hike, and the number of AT finishers has more than doubled in the past ten years. Hikers shouldn’t expect the congregational magic of the AT on the PCT. Because the communal spaces at shelters do not exist, hikers are more spread out.
I have heard stories of hikers being overwhelmed with trail magic on the AT. It was so excessive that they had to turn some down. I would like to experience this for a day. Reverting back to the establishment factor of the AT, this is also the reason there is so much more trail magic on the AT.
On the contrary, the lack of accommodation on the PCT leads to a much higher dependency on trail magic. On several occasions I was hosted in town by trail angels, and to be frank, I’m not sure I would have had anywhere to stay if not for this benevolence. There are also prominent and established water caches with hundreds of gallons on the PCT, made possible only by these altruistic people.
From a photographic standpoint, the AT is bland in comparison to the PCT. “A trail that gives more bang for your buck,” as I describe it. The lack of forest and gigantism of the Pacific Crest allows for open and breathtaking views for the majority of the trail. Having said this, the AT does have two holds over the PCT in terms of scenery, in my opinion.
The first is the roundness of the AT mountains. The geology of this range is conducive to sharp and spherical mountains, leading hikers over several peaks a day. The PCT’s high points tend to be passes, or rim crossings that are lower than the relative high point. The second is the seemingly boundless and lush forest of the Appalachian. Some hate the green tunnel. I love it.
The Burning Question
All things considered, the Appalachian Trail was harder. The vexing logistics of the PCT did not compensate for the endless and arduous climbs of the AT, nor did it compensate for the adverse weather. Sure, the Pacific Crest Trail took more time, but my daily exertion on the AT was undeniably higher.
Which trail was my favorite? Neither. Sorry to disappoint, but they were both special in their own ways. The AT is the noble hike, a precedent for lifelong change and enlightenment. The PCT is the wild hike (no, not Cheryl-Strayed wild), a serene, immersed, and postcard-worthy hike. A hike in a more liberated part of the country where you won’t have to look at confederate flags hung from the front porch across the way of the ice cream shop you’re binging at. But for many, the AT is where we begin our journey, and this, beyond everything else, will always be the reason it is special to me.
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Thru-Hiker Finishing Statistics: