If you are seeking a new challenge and a Goliath hiking trail to test your abilities and to see new sights, you have undoubtedly thought about two of the great trails in the US: The Pacific Crest Trail (also called the PCT) and the Appalachian Trail (also called AT). These two mega-trails are a part of what is called the Triple Crown Trails, which include the PCT, AT, and the Continental Divide Trail (CDT).
The PCT and AT are located on the far sides of the country (the Pacific Crest is located on the west coast and the Appalachian is located on the east coast), and they offer hikers nationwide the ability to take on a great challenge to increase their hiking skills, fitness, confidence, and personal sense of accomplishment.
However, it is very important to do your research before choosing which trail is best for you to start with. The Pacific Crest and the Appalachian Trails have many differences including environmental features, weather, difficulty level, and a host of other important differences. Every hiker is unique and has their own strengths, and it is best to choose the right trail to challenge yourself while remaining safe and acknowledging your limitations.
Below we will inform our readers of the differences between the PCT and the AT, so you remain safe, healthy, and find the perfect challenge for you to start with. First, it is important to acknowledge whether you are more of a novice, intermediate hiker, or an expert as you read. This will make a difference in how each trail will treat you and which one you will find the most exciting.
*For information on essential hiking gear, hiking snacks, and hydration, follow the links to our comprehensive articles below:
- The Top 7 Best Hiking Backpacks: http://hikinggear.org/top-7-best-hiking-backpacks/
- Top 5 Essential Gear for Day Hikes: http://hikinggear.org/top-5-essential-gear-day-hikes/
- Top 5 Most Popular Snacks for Long Hikes: http://hikinggear.org/top-5-most-popular-snacks-for-long-hikes/
- How Much Water to Carry for a Hike: http://hikinggear.org/how-much-water-to-carry-for-a-hike/
There are many factors to take into consideration before choosing a trail, including:
- Length of Trail
- The Season/Time of the Year
- Snow, Water Levels
- Weather Conditions
- Environmental Challenges
- Fitness Level needed to complete the trail
- Mental Fitness needed to complete the trail
- Directions of Travel/Etiquette
- Planning/Gear Needed
- Water Supply on Trail
- Resupplying on Trail
Many of these factors can be researched at home (such as trail etiquette and cost) based on what concerns you the most, but we will cover as many as we can here for your convenience.
The Appalachian Trail (AT)
Let us begin with the Appalachian Trail (AT). If you are more of a novice or intermediate hiker, you will find that the AT will have a lot more people on the trail that can help you along the way should you run into any confusing trail signs or encounter any problems due to lack of experience. It is common for hikers to begin with the Appalachian Trail, so you will be among other beginners when you start your trek. That being said, it is very much in your favor to learn as much as you can about the trail you intend on taking on before you arrive.
For the most part, you will not see any large changes in terrain on the Appalachian Trail—it is essentially trees, forest areas, and more trees. This is perfect for hikers who love to trek through forest regions rather than dry desert regions.
The terrain on the Appalachian Trail is often rocky and covered in roots. There are no switchbacks on the trail, which can make climbing difficult at times. The terrain of the AT travels through deciduous forests for the majority of the length, but sometimes you will encounter cattle fields and croplands. The White mountains contain coniferous forests of alpine regions.
Overall, it takes around five million footsteps to walk the length of the trail, which crosses eight national forests, state and local parks, as well as six national parks. The Appalachian Trail travels through an amazing 14 states, including the following: Main, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia.
As for the elevation, the AT’s gain and loss is nearly 100,000 more than the Pacific Crest Trail, at 917,760 ft. The highest point is the Clingmans Dome, at 6,643 ft. and the lowest point can be found on the Hudson River at 124 ft.
The length of the AT is 2,180 miles. As one of the few nationally challenging long-trails, the AT is not easy. Only twenty-five percent hikers who begin this hike finish it.
Physical and Mental Strength
Physically, the Appalachian Trail is a bit more difficult physically than the PCT, but some experienced hikers figure them to about the same.
Mentally, however, the AT it is easier than the Pacific Crest. This is extremely important to consider if this is your first time choosing between these two monster trails.
With more people on the trail with you, resupply stations closer than the PCT, trail registers, and distances between towns being smaller (around 3.5 days vs PCT’s 5 days), the Appalachian Trail is recommended to start off with before taking on the mentally challenging Pacific Crest.
When it comes to navigating your hike, the Appalachian Trail is definitely the easiest by far. This is perfect for beginners or those who want to try out a challenging hike for the first time without being afraid of misreading a map and ending up in the middle of nowhere.
The hiking window for the Appalachian Trail is very large, as opposed to the PT’s recommended windows for North and Southbound hikes throughout the year. Most hikers begin their Northbound hike in March and finish by October. Many finish much sooner, but this depends on the closing of Mount Katahdin, due to snow conditions. South bounders begin in June or July depending on the level of snow, and they finish in November.
For first-timers, these time-frames may be shocking, but remember that any hike as large as the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail are significant hiking challenges that must be properly prepped for, planned out, and committed to mentally and physically.
The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT)
The Pacific Crest Trail is around 500 miles longer than the AT, at 2,655 miles in length. Crossing through three states, the PCT passes through California, Oregon, and Washington, making up the west coast of the US.
The elevation change is less than the AT, but the highest elevation point is significantly higher than the AT’s Clingman’s Dome. The highest point of the Pacific Crest Trail is Forester Pass, which lies at 13,153 ft. above sea level. Make sure that as a hiker, you have trained and are ready for such high elevation climbing. The lowest point of the PCT is 140 ft. at Cascade Locks, Oregon.
The PCT route passes along 25 national forests, 7 national parks, 3 national monuments, and 33 federally-mandated wildernesses.
The Pacific Crest climbs over an incredible 57 mountain passes and trails into 19 major canyons. Passing more than 1000 lakes, including the three deepest in the nation, the PCT is excellent for hikers who are looking for an extreme challenge and want a variety of environments to hike through and exceptional views along the way.
This trail has a better grade and tread than the Appalachian Trail, but the PCT requires more water and points between resupplies are longer.
Physical and Mental Strength
Mentally, the PCT is tougher for many because the days are long and the weather is more extreme. There are also a lot less fellow hikers on the trail (as opposed to the Appalachian Trail) and you must camp wherever as there are no shelters. The solitude for such a long journey is difficult for some hikers, but for many, this is what they seek. Make sure you reflect on your needs mentally and physically before taking on the Pacific Crest Trail. It is not just a physical journey, but a mental one as well.
There are certain months that are recommended to hikers depending on if you plan on a Northbound or Southbound hike through the Pacific Crest Trail. For a Northbound thru-hike, April to late September is the normal window. For Southbound hikes, it is recommended that you begin in late June or July and finish in the October to November months.
The monetary cost of the AT and PCT are around the same and depends on many different factors. You can spend anywhere from 3K to 8K on either trail, depending on the gear you purchase, food, your methods of travel, hotel stays, and the amount of money that you end up spending in the trail-side towns. Note that the AT does have more towns along the trail, so there is a chance you could spend more money due to the many opportunities.
Since the AT is easier to navigate, the PCT isn’t terrible, but is not as consistently marked as the AT. You will have to follow your maps and instincts to keep on track.
As stated before, the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail are both very challenging and time-consuming commitments that as a hiker, you must take seriously. Respect the trail, because these treks are not for those who do not take hiking seriously. They take planning, determination, mental strength, fitness, and time. It is not only a labor of love but of accomplishment.
Realize that most hikers will have different experiences while hiking. To some, trail conditions, length of the trail, and elevation are matters of preference, so while one hiker may find one trail difficult, the another may favor it.
When planning your trip to the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail, make sure you take into consideration the time of year, the weather and snow/rain levels, your current fitness, the direction of travel, what you will pack, your gear, your elevation toleration, and cost, among other factors.
While there are plenty of differences between the AT and PCT, there are also similarities. They are both hiked by great people who share your love of adventure great challenges. The strangers you meet will provide you with the mental and even physical support you need to get through whatever trail you choose. This camaraderie is very important in conquering your mind as well as conquering the trail.
As a thru hike, it will be hard. You will love it and you will hate it. You will feel hungry, sun burned, and need a shower more often than not—but this is the challenge you are looking for. No matter which trail you decide is right for you, the struggle will be worth it and will change your life and how you experience. This is not an adventure most people take in their lives, so be proud of your determination and every step you take towards your goal.