The Pacific Crest Trail, also known as the PCT, is America’s second longest trail, stretching from Mexico to Canada through the states of California, Oregon, and Washington. Adventurous hikers looking for a challenge will take the high route through the Sierra Nevada and Cascade ranges and witness some of America’s most scenic and varied terrain—from scorching desserts to snowy mountains—along the way. Whether you decide to thru-hike the PCT or enjoy its beauty in sections, here is everything you need to know to prepare for this life-list wilderness adventure.
Want to kick-start your thru-hiking skills? Take our Thru-Hiking 101 class, featuring expert long-distance hiker Liz “Snorkel” Thomas.
What Is the Length of the Pacific Coast Trail and Where Does It Start and End?
The Pacific Crest Trail is 2,650 miles long (4,265 kilometers. Starting in Campo, a small town on the United States-Mexico border, it goes through California, Oregon, and Washington before reaching its northern terminus at the United States-Canada border in Manning Park, British Columbia.
The trail is divided into 30 sections: 18 sections in California, 7 in Oregon, and 5 in Washington. The average length of each section is 91 miles.
You might find other sources reporting numbers that are slightly lower or higher than 2,650 miles, and there are two reasons for that discrepancy:
- The trail gets rerouted every year to provide better treadway, better scenary, or to move the trail away from threats such as wildfires, which can add or subtract up to 10 miles.
- The trail has only been mapped with consumer-level tools, so the data sets don’t provide a truly accurate length. The Pacific Crest Trail Assosiation thinks that 2,650 miles is the closest accurate measure.
What to Expect When Thru-Hiking the PCT
- Obviously, you’re not going to carry all of your supplies and food with you when you start out. In fact, you won’t carry more than about 10 days worth of food at any time during your trek, and you’ll often have much less. Before you leave, you should ship resupply boxes to resupply towns along the way. These boxes include the clothes and gear you’ll need for the next leg of your trip as well as some food items. You will also send yourself resupply boxes loaded with food while you’re on the trail.
- One month you’ll walk in 110 °F weather (44 °C) and the next you’ll be treading through snow in temperatures under 20 °F (-6 °C).
- You’ll sleep in your tent in the wilderness for the larger part of your thru-hike, but once in a while, you’ll enter towns along the trail and spend a civilized night in a motel or hostel.
- Of all the things to be scared of on the PCT, bears and mountain lions are the least of your worries. Lightning strikes may have you running for cover; bees in Northern California and Oregon may sting you as a reminder that you’re walking through their territory; rattlesnakes make frequent appearances; unyielding bikers might run you over; and butt chafe might strike at any moment. On the other hand, running into bears isn’t common, and mountain lions even less so.
- Once in a while, you’ll travel long stretches (25-30 miles) before encountering a water source. This isn’t only true of desert sections either. The Hat Creek Rim in Northern California is a 30-mile hike between reliable water sources. Fortunately, selfless hikers and local residents, known as “trail angels,” leave unused water jugs in water caches along the trail, which you can use them to refill your bottle. However, don’t rely on these caches: Always carry at least 2 liters of water when going through the desert or through areas without reliable water sources—more in extra-long dry sections. On most parts of the PCT, you will drink from streams.