10 Fascinating Pacific Crest Trail Facts

Beautiful Vista of Mount Hood in Oregon, USA
Summer view of the sunset over Mount Hood in Oregon, U.S. jose1983 / Getty Images

The Pacific Crest Trail is the crown jewel of West Coast hikes, stretching roughly 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada. It spans the entire length of California, Oregon, and Washington, passing through 26 national forests, seven national parks, five state parks, and 33 federally mandated wildernesses.

Pacific Crest Trail map

Pacific Crest Trail Association

Despite being slightly longer than the Appalachian Trail, the PCT has a similar completion rate. The Pacific Crest Trail Association estimates that 700 to 800 people attempt to thru-hike it each year, and about 15% to 35% (versus the AT's 25%) actually succeed. Indulge the explorer within you and learn more about this wonderful path with the following 10 facts about the Pacific Crest Trail.

1. The Pacific Crest Trail Takes Five Months to Hike

According to the Pacific Crest Trail Association, it takes the average hiker about five months to walk the full 2,650 miles. Rarely, it says, do people stay on the trail for six or more months due to the snow that blankets portions of it in early spring and late fall.

In order to walk the full trail within the snow-free season, hikers have to cover about 20 miles per day. Northbound hikers (NOBOs) usually start in mid-April to early May, while southbound hikers (SOBOs) begin later, from late June through early July. 

Hiker enjoying a mountain view in Goat Rocks Wilderness, Washington

Mint Images / Getty Images

2. It's Divided Into 29 Sections

Hiking the PCT is a vast undertaking, but it seems more manageable when divided into many smaller pieces. The authors of the widely used Wilderness Press PCT guidebooks break it down into 29 sections — 18 in California, six in Oregon, and five in Washington. Each is labeled with a letter, with the alphabet restarting at the border of California and Oregon. The average length of each section is 91 miles. 

3. Less Than 5% Hike Southbound

The reason most hikers begin at the Mexico border and head north is partly because hiking southbound is somewhat of a logistical nightmare. Firstly, the Pacific Crest Trail Association itself says that crossing into the U.S. from Canada on the PCT is illegal — so, already, SOBOs know they won't technically be able to scale the entire trail (at least not in order). Secondly, SOBOs catch the worst of the weather conditions along alpine portions of the trek. They must carry heavy ice axes and crampons and be skilled in mountaineering before attempting such a feat. Even then, avalanches are more of a risk.

4. Terrain Varies Dramatically Along the PCT

Crater Lake, PCT
View of Crater Lake from Llao Rock, Oregon.

James Parsons / Pacific Crest Trail Association

The PCT traverses six of the U.S.'s seven ecozones: alpine tundra, subalpine forest, upper montane forest, lower montane forest, upper Sonoran (oak woodlands and grassland), and lower Sonoran (the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts). Such geographical diversity requires calculated packing and an especially heavy load, considering the additional layers and heavy-duty snow gear needed for wintry conditions, plus the extra water needed for long stretches of arid desert.

5. Plants Are More Threatening Than Animals

No successful PCT hiker leaves the trail without having come face to face with black bears, rattlesnakes, mountain lions, and more, but the most dangerous thing they encounter is rarely an animal. Besides snow, dehydration, and giardia (a parasite caused by drinking infected water), poisonous plants are one the greatest threats to safety on the trail. Poodle-dog bush and poison oak abound — sometimes enveloping whole portions of the path. They may not kill you, but rest assured they'll ruin your hike.

6. Hikers Go Days Without a Water Source

Vasquez Rocks, PCT
Vasquez Rocks, on the Pacific Crest Trail in California.

Dean Young / Pacific Crest Trail Association

Northbound hikers begin the long journey with an unforgiving 700-mile trek through a bone-dry desert. Hikers often go 20 to 30 miles (a day or two, on average) with no water source, all while walking in 80- to 100-degree temperatures. The longest waterless stretch is 35.5 miles, north of Tehachapi, California.

To stay hydrated, hikers will avoid activity during the heat of the day and take electrolytes. Overindulging at water sources can result in a condition called hyponatremia, which occurs when the sodium level in blood is too low.

7. The PCT Features Almost 60 Mountain Passes

Person hiking on the PCT in mountains, Washington
Hiker approaching the southern boundary of the Glacier Peak Wilderness on the PCT, Washington.

Tyler Farr / Pacific Crest Trail Association

The PCT crosses over an impressive 57 major mountain passes. That's not to say that it summits as many peaks, but many hikers do opt for short side trips to noteworthy summits, such as the highest peak in the contiguous U.S., Mount Whitney (14,505 feet). The total elevation gain of the PCT is estimated as 489,418 feet.

Passes along the trail include Forester, Glen, Pinchot, Mather, and Muir in the California High Sierra, and Chinook, Stevens, and White in Washington's Cascade Range. Its highest point is Forester Pass, at 420,880 feet.

8. Part of It Doubles as the John Muir Trail

The John Muir Trail is an iconic 211-mile route that passes through Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia National Parks in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The trail, founded by the late father of national parks himself, passes through the pristine, 232,000-acre Ansel Adam Wilderness on its way from Yosemite to Mount Whitney. It runs in conjunction with the PCT for 170 miles.

9. It's Also an Equestrian Trail

Horse on the Pacific Crest Trail in Oregon

Colleen McNally / Pacific Crest Trail Association

Hikers and horses coexist on the PCT — and, in fact, people have completed the trail on horseback. "Not very many," the Pacific Crest Trail Association says, but "pure thru-rides" are attempted once every few years. Riding 2,650 miles on a horse comes with its own set of unique challenges. Equestrians must anticipate long stretches without grass or water and must skip certain resupply stops because there are no stables.

10. It Crosses the San Andreas Fault Three Times

San Andreas is the famous fault line that spans almost the entire state of California, extending about 800 miles from the Mexican border to Cape Mendocino. Locals know it as the fault line that could one day produce "the big one." The PCT crosses it three times in the San Andreas Fault Zone of Southern California.

Fortunately, hikers face little risk of a major earthquake occurring — this portion of the San Andreas Fault has produced only two known "big ones," in 1812 and 1857.