In the world of long distance hiking, the Triple Crown is King. While many hikers stick just to small day hikes or short overnight backpacking trip, the brave among us venture out for months at a time to trek extraordinary distances and reach new heights.
These hikers, take on long-distance adventures, aptly named “thru-hikes” and earn the moniker of “thru-hiker” for their efforts. Many thru-hikers start out on “shorter” trails, like the Colorado Trail or the Long Trail, but most eventually hope to test themselves on one of the ultimate North American thru-hikes: either the Appalachian Trail (AT), the Continental Divide Trail (CDT), or the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).
These three hikes traverse significant portions of the United States from north to south and bring hikers to some of the most remote and scenic areas the country has to offer. Alone, they are a feat unto themselves, but together, they are a jewel of the long-distance hiking world, properly known as the Triple Crown
Although the vast majority of thru-hikers manage to complete just one of these magnificent trails, those who complete the Triple Crown must walk almost 8,000 miles across 22 states and gain nearly 3 million feet of elevation. These hikers follow in the footsteps of Eric Ryback, who, in the early 1970s, completed the first Triple Crown before two of the three trails were even fully established.
Currently, the American Long Distance Hiking Association (ALDHA-West) recognizes a total of 396 successful Triple Crown hikers, which even includes people like Heather “Anish” Anderson who have hiked the Triple Crown twice!
If you’re keen to join the ranks of these trail-hardened hikers, the first thing you’ll need to do is research as much as you can about each of the trails to increase your chances of success. To help you out, we’ve compiled the ultimate guide to the Triple Crown, which includes everything you need to know to get from point A to point B and enjoy yourself along the way. Let’s get to it!
Pacific Crest Trail
- Length: 2,650 miles
- Start Point: Campo, CA
- End Point: Manning Park, British Columbia, Canada
- Elevation Change: 824,370 feet
- Highest Elevation: 13,153 feet, Forster Pass
- First Person to Complete: Eric Ryback, 1970
- Average Number of Hikers: ~500 completed hikes
- Estimated Time to Complete: 4-6 months
Made popular by Cheryl Strayed’s bestseller, Wild, the Pacific Crest Trail travels through some of the most diverse terrain of any of the Triple Crown hikes. Starting at the trail’s southern terminus at the US-Mexico border, the trail tests hikers right away in the heat of the Sonoran Desert.
After traveling through a seemingly endless and dry landscape, PCT thru-hikers eventually reach the foothills of the famed Sierra Nevada mountains. Luckily, the PCT is graded for hikers and horse packers, so frequent switchbacks make the steep climbs manageable as one hikes through the scenic alpine.
Eventually, a northbound hiker will find themselves in the lush green temperate rainforests of the Cascade Mountains as they make their way toward Canada. In the northern Cascades, scenic ridgelines and alpine glaciers add to the beauty of the terrain before reaching the trail’s northern terminus.
In the Sierra Nevada, thru-hikers need to carry bear canisters to store their food and should be cognizant of the potential dangers that bears, mountain lions, and other large mammals can pose. These large mammals exist in the Cascade Mountains, too, so carrying bear spray and taking appropriate precautions is critical.
Francis Tapon, Triple Crown hiker and the first ever hiker to do a round trip of the CDT, reminds would-be thru-hikers that wildlife tends to pop up when you least expect it on the trail. Besides these fun encounters, however, Francis says that some of the most annoying wildlife on the trail are the mosquitos and biting flies that swarm hikers in camp.
The terrain of the PCT is incredibly diverse and so is its weather. The southern section of the trail is a desert, so hikers need to be prepared for a dry heat that can easily reach 100°F at midday in the summer but will drop close to freezing at night.
In the Sierra and Cascades, temperatures tend to be colder as the elevation rises. Depending on the previous season’s snowfall, snow and ice may be abundant on the trail and hikers may need to be prepared for freezing temperatures at night.
Food and water
Thru-hiking the PCT takes a bit of logistical foresight. While on the trail’s southern section, hikers will be challenged to find water and will need to stop at every possible water cache and even carry their own water over long distances. Triple Crown hiker Paul Mags highly recommends that hikers do not count on water caches being available, but rather that they fill up on water whenever they can, even going as far as to carry extra water when the terrain demands it.
When it comes to food, PCT thru-hikers really need to plan ahead. While there are towns near the trail, hikers cannot rely on them for abundant grocery stores for a rest day stop. Rather, thru-hikers need to send their own food to supply points along the trail and should be prepared to carry food for 100+ mile stretches on a regular basis.
For the most part, the PCT is well marked, but it is not nearly as well traveled as the AT, so it poses its own challenges. The first danger that a northbound hiker faces is the heat and dryness of the southern California desert, which can easily create the perfect conditions for deadly heat stroke in the unprepared trekker.
As one moves north and out of the desert, the primary concern is not of water and heat, but of snow and wildfires. Forest fires are common in the Sierra and Cascades during the summer and fall months and they can close trails or make it difficult to breathe through the thick smoke. Colder weather in these mountain ranges can bring snow and ice even in the summer months, so microspikes, ice axes, and warm clothing are a must when trail conditions are poor.
- Length: 2,190 miles
- Start Point: Springer Mountain, Georgia
- End Point: Mount Katahdin, Maine
- Elevation Change: 917,760 feet
- Highest Elevation: 6,643 feet – Clingman’s Dome, Great Smoky Mountain National Park
- First Person to Complete: Earl V. Shaffer, 1937
- Average Number of Hikers: ~900 completed hikes
- Estimated Time to Complete: 5-7 months
The oldest and most well-traveled of all of the Triple Crown long-distance trails, the AT’s terrain is dominated by abundant deciduous forests in the south and by rugged alpine and conifers in the north.
Built in the 1900s before trail builders cared much about gradual switchbacks and erosion mitigation, the Appalachian trail has more elevation gain than it’s two sibling trails, despite being 500 miles shorter than the PCT and 800 miles shorter than the CDT. As Triple Crown hiker Liz “Snorkel” Thomas says, “it seems like the trail was purposefully routed over every possible hill.”
The southern terminus of the AT starts in the National Forests of Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee, which are dominated by rugged woodland and some of the highest peaks on the entire trail. Here, thru-hikers reach their highest point at Clingman’s Dome before the long wooded stretch through the Shenandoah Mountains of Virginia and West Virginia.
Once hikers reach the mid-Atlantic states, they get a short reprieve from the higher elevations as they cross low ridges, farmland, wetlands, and boulder fields on their way to New York. After New York, hikers turn north into Vermont’s Green Mountains, which are known for their mud and dense forests.
In New Hampshire, thru-hikers get to enjoy stunning views in the White Mountains before traveling through Maine’s hundreds of miles of remote wilderness. Finally, thru-hikers arrive at the summit of Mount Katahdin, the highest mountain in the northeast – a worthy reward for an arduous journey.
Much of the trail is spent in the notorious “green tunnel” of east coast woodlands, but frequent summits and scenic overlooks provide ample vistas for a trail-weary thru-hiker. Steep climbs and few switchbacks make the AT a physically demanding feat and a true accomplishment for the thru-hiker.
Despite being fairly close to some of the largest metropolitan areas in the country, the AT is frequented by wildlife. Bears are a common sight on the trail, so hikers have to be prepared to hang their food or store it in bear canisters at night.
Other mammals, like deer and bobcats, are often spotted along the trail but pose minimal risk to hikers. In the northern sections of the trail, particularly in Maine, hikers may encounter moose, which can be as dangerous as bears and deserve an equal amount of respect.
The most dangerous wildlife on the trail, however, is the tick. Particularly in the summer, ticks are abundant throughout the AT and can carry a whole host of nasty diseases, particularly Lyme, that can cause long-term health problems. Hikers should also be prepared for swarms of mosquitoes and biting flies along the northern sections of the trail.
Unlike the CDT and the PCT, the AT actually has fairly predictable weather. The spring often brings significant rain while the summer months tend to be warm and humid, especially on the southern end of the trail.
Despite this, hikers need to be prepared for snow and cold in the spring and fall months. Both Georgia and Maine can experience significant snowfall and the damp cold certainly warrants some serious consideration into bringing cold weather gear.
Food and water
The AT is the least remote of the Triple Crown trails and boasts numerous towns within a close walk of the trail. The trail itself actually crosses public roads more than 500 times, so hitchhiking or walking to town is fairly straightforward. Because of this, hikers rarely need to carry more than 5 days worth of food, which is great for keeping packs light on those steep climbs.
For the most part, water is quite abundant and reliable on the AT, so hikers can generally find water when they need it during a hiking day. The AT is also home to over 250 shelters along the trail, the vast majority of which are near water and are great for camping.
Although much of the AT isn’t anywhere as remote as the CDT or the PCT, the trail is home to its own set of dangers. Wildlife is always a concern on trail, and the AT is no exception. The tick is perhaps a hiker’s biggest wildlife issue and appropriate precautions should be taken to minimize exposure to ticks in the warmer months. Nightly tick checks are a must for any AT thru-hiker.
Lightning storms, severe flooding, and early or late season snow also pose dangers on the AT. Hikers on the AT need to be prepared for a variety of conditions regardless of the seasons.
Finally, since the AT is so well-traveled, there is a significant risk of waterborne illness along the trail. The vast majority of waterborne illnesses in the remote parts of the United States are caused by the contamination of water by improperly buried human waste. Hikers should be prepared to treat their water to reduce the risk of illness and should frequently wash their hands with soap and water. Proper Leave No Trace practices are critical for the long-term health of this popular and well-loved trail.
Continental Divide Trail
- Length: 3,100 miles
- Start Point: Crazy Cook Monument, Big Hatchet Mountains, New Mexico
- End Point: Waterton Lake, Glacier National Park, Montana
- Elevation Change: 917,470 feet
- Highest Elevation: 14,278, Grays Peak, Colorado
- First Person to Complete: Eric Ryback, 1972
- Average Number of Hikers: ~80 completed hikes
- Estimated Time to Complete: 4-6 months
The aptly named Continental Divide Trail follows the great Continental Divide through five states in the Rocky Mountains. As National Geographic tells us, a Continental Divide is a geologic ridge or boundary that physically separates a continent’s main river systems into different watersheds. In the United States, the primary Continental Divide – the Great Divide – separates the water that runs toward the Pacific Ocean from the water that travels east and ends up in the Atlantic.
As one might imagine, a trail that travels along this Great Divide is rugged and challenging. Starting in the desert of New Mexico, a CDT through hiker must first gain significant elevation as they make their way up to the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Once there, a thru-hiker can make numerous side trips to climb some of Colorado’s famous 14ers (mountains over 14,000 feet).
From Colorado, the trail traverses the Great Basin of Wyoming and offers some stunning scenery as one walks through the Wind River Range and toward Yellowstone National Park. After leaving behind these memorable landscapes, thru-hikers trek along the Idaho-Montana border in “Big Sky” country before finally ending in Glacier National Park along the US-Canada border.
The CDT is remote and wildlife is abundant. Starting in New Mexico, rattlesnakes and lizards are common throughout the desert so thru-hikers need to understand the dangers of venomous reptiles and what to do if one gets bitten.
As one moves north, black and brown bears are a common occurrence as are mountain goats, wolves, mountain lions, and wolverines. The CDT thru-hiker’s main concern, though, isn’t a large mammal, but the incessant and overwhelmingly aggravating mosquito, which will attack and bite in droves, particularly in the Wind River Range of Wyoming.
The weather on the CDT is equally, if not more varied, as that on the PCT. Like the PCT, the CDT starts out in the desert, so 100°F dry heat is to be expected in New Mexico. Snow on the trail is fairly common, especially early season in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado.
Much of the trail is at high elevations and on exposed ridgelines, so hikers need to be particularly wary of lightning, hail, and high winds, especially on a summer afternoon. Late season hikers can expect snow to fall in the high elevations and for cold that persists for days or weeks on end.
Food and water
The CDT is the most remote trail of the Triple Crown, which adds a whole new level of difficulty and stress to an already challenging thru-hike. According to Triple Crown hiker Brad McCartney, water on the CDT can be a bit hit or miss. While one expects the desert of New Mexico to be dry, many don’t take into account the fact that the high ridges of Colorado, the Great Basin of Wyoming, and the ridges of Idaho and Montana have little to no water, too.
When it comes to food, McCartney strongly suggests sending supply packages to oneself ahead of time. Although there are some towns along the trail, they often only have small general stores filled with processed food but few nutritious alternatives. Proper planning is critical on the CDT for any thru-hiker.
Unlike the PCT and the AT, the CDT is not a fully marked trail. It’s estimated that only about 76% of the trail is actually marked, so the CDT is really more of a “route” so solid navigation and off-trail travel skills are key. Getting lost or delayed due to an inability to navigate could be a serious threat on the CDT.
Like the PCT and the northern parts of the AT, however, snow is a serious concern on the CDT. Along the Great Divide, snow on the trail is frequently deep and potentially dangerous. According to Triple Crown hiker Quoc “Double Magic” Nguyen, complete snow generally starts around Ghost Ranch, NM (mile 560) and ends around Lake City, CO (mile 830) in the spring months but can persist at higher elevations throughout Colorado and Wyoming well into the summer season. Snow on the trail means that hikers need to carry warmer gear, know how to use an ice axe, and be skilled at winter navigation.
All that snow on the CDT means that the innumerable rivers along the trail will be swollen and difficult to cross. Triple Crown hiker and AT record holder Liz “Snorkel” Thomas argues that avoiding dangerous river “fords” is one of the best reasons to set out on a CDT hike in mid-summer. But it’s important to remember that starting the CDT in midsummer means encountering more snow on the northern parts of the Trail.
Finally, much of the CDT is at some pretty high elevations. Although many hikers will acclimatize well, there is always a danger of acute mountain sickness, or AMS, when above 6,000 feet. Hikers on the CDT should be aware of the effects of high elevation on the body and should be prepared to turn around if they’re feeling ill.
At the end of the day, a single thru-hike of one of the Triple Crown trails is nothing short of a true feat of mental and physical ability. Anyone who undertakes a single thru-hike or who attempts to complete all three trails needs to be self-sufficient in the face of adverse conditions in remote environments.
Proper research is essential to a successful Triple Crown hike, regardless of one’s previous outdoor experience. Each of the Triple Crown trails brings its own unique challenges but they all reward thru-hikers with outstanding views and the beauty of the wilderness that one can only find in the backcountry.