Have you ever dreamed about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada?
Are you ready to start a journey that may change your life?
If the answer is “Yes”…
Let’s explore the trail!
Our guide will help you not only conquer one of the best long-distance hiking trails, but do it in the safest way possible.
I. Discover the Pacific Crest Trail
In total, the Pacific Crest Trail length is 2,650 miles. The total trail elevation gain/loss is near 315,000 feet. The PCT traverses three states: California, Oregon, and Washington.
Like other long-distance hiking trails, the PCT is divided into separate sections: 18 sections in California, 6 in Oregon, and 5 in Washington (29 in total). The average section length is 91.7 miles.
You can find PCT sections, trail mileages, and resupply locations on the free Pacific Crest Trail map from Magellan.
According to the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA), nearly 90% of PCT thru-hikers are NOBOs. So let’s begin our PCT northbound hike!
a. Southern California
The Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike from south to north starts in Campo, a small town on the Mexico border.
Most hikers and riders begin their hike from Mexico to Canada in May. Over the first 40 miles, the trail traverses Lake Morena County Park to Mount Laguna. Here you’ll find the Laguna Mountain Lodge and the Laguna Post Office, the first resupply points along the trail.
When planning your hike, please note that in May the temperature in the Laguna Mountains may drop below zero.
Further on, your path cuts through Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, skirts the San Felipe Hills, crosses the Cleveland National Forest Mountains, and ascends the backbone of the San Jacinto Mountains.
Here you will overcome the highest point of the PCT in California at 9,030 feet.
Then you need to go down San Gorgonio Pass (1,190 feet). After San Gorgonio Pass, you need to overcome two mountain ridges.
Along much of the way, the trail passes through a shady forest. You will pass by Big Bear Lake and Arrowhead Lake. Your path lies between the mountains of San Bernardino and San Gabriel.
Following the trail is the Mojave Desert.
To the west of Mount Baden-Powell, the PCT descends and crosses the Sierra Pelona. The trail follows north through the hot and dry pass of the San Andreas Fault and the western part of the Mojave Desert.
Further, you will pass Tehachapi Pass and enter the Sierra Nevada.
The Southern California section ends at Walker Pass (5,246 feet).
b. Central California
In Central California, you will pass through the crest of Chimney Peak Wilderness. Then you’ll cross Kern River South Fork near Kennedy Meadows.
On Mount Whitney, the John Muir Trail joins the PCT. Both trails share one track to Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite (8,690 feet).
Along the route, the PCT crosses several passes above 11,000 feet: Forester Pass (13,180 feet), the highest point on the entire trail; Glenn Pass (11,926 feet); Kearsarge Pass (11,709 feet); Pinchot Pass (12,090 feet); and Mather Pass (12,082 feet). After Sonora Pass (9,620 feet), the path descends to between 7,000 and 8,000 feet.
c. Northern California
The Northern California section requires a journey through the volcanic terrain.
You will traverse Donner Summit (7,200 feet). On the way through the southern Cascades, the PCT crosses Lassen Volcanic National Park and Lassen Peak (10,457 feet).
Next, you will travel through Hat Creek Rim to Mount Shasta (14,179 feet).
After Mount Shasta, the trail turns west and crosses the Sacramento River at an altitude of 2,130 feet.
Further, the PCT enters the Trinity Alps and Castle Crags State Park.
The trail passes through the Marble Mountains and descends to the Klamath River (1,370 feet). Then you will climb again to the crest of the Siskiyou Mountains and turn east. The trail enters Oregon near Siskiyou Summit (4,310 feet).
The Oregon PCT section is fairly short and, at the same time, it’s the easiest section of the trail.
North of Mount Shasta, you will cross Mount McLoughlin (9,499 feet). Then you will pass by picturesque Crater Lake, traverse Mt. Thielsen (9,184 feet), and see a grouping of three volcanic peaks known as the Three Sisters: South Sister (10,363 feet), Middle Sister (10,047 feet), and North Sister (10,085 feet). You’ll also pass Mount Jefferson (10,463 feet) and Mount Hood (11,249 feet).
Then you will have to cross the Columbia River into Washington via the Bridge of the Gods.
The Washington section of the PCT is home to the North Cascades.
This part of the trail begins on the Columbia River, near the Bridge of the Gods. You will rise from the Columbia River Gorge into the Indian Heavenly Desert. Next, you’ll overcome Mount Adams (12,276 feet).
The Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail crosses Goat Rocks Wilderness and Packwood Glacier. After passing Chinook Pass, you will see Mount Rainier (14,410 feet).
After Chinook Pass, there should be a relatively light section of trail to Snoqualmie Pass.
In the North Cascades, you should expect ascents to passes and descents into deep canyons. The PCT traverses the Alpine Lakes, Henry M. Jackson Wilderness, and Glacier Peak Wilderness. Then you will cross the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area and pass North Cascades National Park and the Pasayten Wilderness.
Your Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike ends at Manning Park in British Columbia, right along the US-Canada border (3,800 feet). Do not forget to get permission to cross the Canadian border before beginning your journey.
II. Plan Your Hike
A successful Pacific Crest Trail hike depends on your quality of planning and your willingness to stop and get off the trail at any time.
Let’s get ready for the hike together!
It does not matter whether you’re going to section-hike or thru-hike, resupplying is the first thing you should take care of.
You may be wondering…
What resupply options do I have? Fortunately, there are quite a few.
- Buy as you go. Most Pacific Crest Trail sections are in proximity to grocery stores and supermarkets. In some cases, however, the choice of food will be limited to gas stations and snack shops. This is especially likely in small towns with few residents.
Pros: You’ll be supporting local communities; you can maintain your diet; you will avoid monotonous trail food.
Cons: Some stores are quite expensive; not all stores have a special stock for PCT travelers.
- Mail drop. In total, you will find about 100 PCT resupply points along the way. They are usually 40-100 miles from each other. This means that you can expect to carry a 4-10 day stock.
Pros: You can maintain your gluten-free, vegan, organic, or another strict diet; you will save time in the city (many points are right on the path); some lodges and hotels have flexible pick-up hours; if you don’t open a box, you may send it for free to another stop.
Cons: You might have to spend extra time and money if you arrive after the post office closes; you’ll need a partner to send boxes, since they can only be stored up to 30 days; mail drops can be more expensive than buying in local stores due to the cost of postage.
- Mixed strategy. You can combine the previous two strategies: buying food in large towns and supermarkets and sending yourself boxes in more distant places.
Pros: You can add or remove items before sending the box; you’ll avoid unnecessary journeys to remote resupply points; you won’t need to shop at lackluster stores or look for more suitable grocery stores.
Cons: If you make shipments often, the cost of your hike can grow significantly.
Here are some great sites that you should use when planning your hike:
- planyourhike.com. Here you’ll find a detailed list with Pacific Crest Trail resupply points, mailing addresses, and resupply advice.
- pctplanner.com. This is a great online hike planner that allows you to arrange your section or thru-hike. You need to enter your start date, start and end points, hiking pace, and expected number of hours of hiking each day. Once you enter this information, you’ll get a detailed plan for your trip with timing and resupply locations.
- postholer.com. Another great resource for hike planning, this website has maps, PCT resupply information, and hikers’ blogs.
- pctmap.net. You’ll find here free detailed Pacific Crest Trail maps: both section and general. You may print the maps or download them to your smartphone.
Planning your transportation is as important as your resupply strategy.
Most PCT sections are accessible only by private transport. Public transport and private shuttle services can be used in many cities near the trail.
It is important to know that some roads may be closed due to environmental conditions. Therefore, before you go, you should contact the local land agency. Remember that online maps are not always correct.
So, let’s figure out how to get to the southern and northern terminus of the PCT.
Getting to the southern point is easy. From the center of El Cajon, take bus No. 894 to Campo. The bus runs twice a day and costs just about 5 dollars. You can also hire a taxi if you prefer.
The northern terminus is more difficult to reach than the southern one. The official northern terminus is located next to Manning Park in Canada. Remember that crossing the US-Canada border through the PCT is illegal.
If you finish your journey in Manning Park, then you’ll need to use a Greyhound bus or private shuttle to get home.
If you do not intend to cross the border, the best option is to get to Harts Pass and hike 30 miles to the north.
Also, you can always ask Trail Angels for help. They can take you to and from the airport, bus station, and trail. Some of them also offer lodging in their homes.
When planning your Pacific Сrest Trail hike, do not forget the number-one rule: you can always interrupt your journey, stop, and turn back.
We’ve picked up several resources that will help you get on and off the trail:
- Greyhound Bus Lines and Amtrak. Here you will find an up-to-date bus schedule. Use this website to plan your transportation to and from the PCT southern terminus as well as Manning Park.
- San Diego Metropolitan Transit System. Find the bus schedule to get to Campo, CA, from San Diego or the El Cajon Transit Center.
- Classic Mountain Cabby. This is the only private shuttle service in Washington that serves under a special permit with the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.
- Catlin Flying Service. You can hire a private plane to and from the Lost River Airport, which is just 12.8 miles away from Harts Pass. Up to 5 hikers can use this option for only $215/hour. MasterCard, Visa, and American Express are accepted.
- trailangellist.org. On this detailed list of Trail Angels, you’ll find their emails and phone numbers.
When you’re going for a hike, it’s important to take care of the permits in advance. If you plan to hike less than 500 miles, you can get a temporary permit at local agencies. Some areas do not require any permission for camping; for others, it is mandatory: National Forest Wilderness Areas, National Parks, Desolation Wilderness, California State Parks, Crater Lake, North Cascades National Parks, etc.
If you are planning a thru-hike, you should get the PCT Long-Distance Permit. It is free, and permissions must be obtained in person. If you are traveling with a group, then each member of the group must have his or her own permission. These permits assume overnight use. Remember, however, that it does not cover the park entrance and other fees.
For long-distance hikers, only 50 permits are available per day. You can apply for the 2018 permit from November 1, 2017, to January 17, 2018.
Please check these links before starting your hike:
- recreation.gov. On this site, you can make reservations for most national public lands before the beginning of your trek. You can also reserve Whitney Portal permits if you are interested in the section hike of the John Muir Trail/PCT or the John Muir Trail thru-hike (southbound). Permissions are issued using a lottery system.Applications are accepted from February to mid-March. After the lottery, starting on April 1, you can make an online reservation up to 2 days before your trip begins.
- nps.gov. If you are thinking of doing the sectional PCT hike along the JMT/PCT corridor from the northern border at the Happy Isles, be sure to get your Yosemite Wilderness Permit reservations. They are available up to 24 weeks before your trip. On this site, you can also apply for a permit to hike in the North Cascades National Park and Crater Lake Park.
- PCT long-distance permit. If you decide to do a long-distance hike (over 500 miles), obtain a free thru-hike permit. The Pacific Crest Trail Association issues permits for NOBO hikers.
- fs.usda.gov. Some territories require additional permits: Pamelia and Obsidian Limited Entry Areas. Apply to camp in these areas at the USDA Forest Service website.
- preventwildfireca.org. To camp in California and use open fire on public or private lands, you need to get a California Campfire Permit. You can apply online at the California Wildland Fire Coordinating Group.
III. Check Your Gear
The main secret to a successful PCT thru-hike is light gear and equipment.
You may be wondering…
What kind of hiking gear do I need?
Fortunately, The Mountaineers have developed the Ten Essentials list, which is relevant not only for the PCT but for other trails as well:
Besides what’s given on this list, there are a couple of things that can come in handy when traveling:
- Signaling devices. A whistle can be useful if you fall behind your group or get lost in the woods. An avalanche transceiver, as a rule, can come in handy during a winter hike, as it is used to find buried victims. A handheld radio will help you connect with basecamp or your hiking group in places where there is no cellular or mobile connection. A mobile or cell phone is also useful in case of emergency.
Do not forget that devices cannot 100% guarantee your safety. If you know that a dangerous part of the path lies ahead and you are not sure of the environmental conditions or your own actions, then it’s better to go back, wait, or even get off the trail. This will not mean defeat. You can always continue your journey in the future.
- Insect repellent. This is essential for every spring, summer, or autumn hike. Wilderness areas are home to mosquitoes, blackflies, biting flies, no-see-um gnats, chiggers, ticks, and other insects. You should consider wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants and/or using insect repellents.
Where should you buy Pacific Crest Trail gear? We recommend that you check these websites:
- Amazon.com. You’ll find here all the gear you will need during your hike, from backpacks and shelters to repellents and whistles.
- Gossamergear.com. Another great online shop, this shop offers hiking gear designed especially for hikers.
- Rei.com. Check this website for high-quality hiking gear as well as useful information for hikers.
- Backcountrygear.com. This shop offers gear from top manufacturers along with free 2-day shipping for orders of $200 or more.
- Zpacks.com. This shop provides ultralight hiking gear and has free shipping on orders over $100.
IV. Avoid Threats
During any hike, hikers can face a variety of threats. So let’s find out what dangers might have you trapped along the PCT.
You may meet rattlesnakes, coyotes, deer, raccoons, martens, foxes, minks, badgers, beavers, bobcats, and, of course, bears. Bears are attracted to food left unattended by hikers.
The wearing of bear canisters is required in many parks: Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park, Yosemite National Park, Inyo National Forest, Sierra National Forest, Stanislaus National Forest, Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, Lassen Volcanic National Park, and North Cascades National Park.
Besides bears, you may also encounter poisonous plants like Pacific poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum, also known as Western poison oak) and Poodle-Dog Bush (Turricula parryi or Eriodictyon parryi):
- Pacific poison oak is a plant with triple leaves. The shape of the leaves is similar to leaves of the ordinary oak. Their color varies depending on the season: bronze in February and early March, bright green in April and May, yellow-green and red from June to mid-July, and pink or red from the middle of July to October. Toxicodendron diversilobum can cause dermatitis with colorless bumps, inflammation, blistering, and severe itching.
- Poodle-Dog Bush is another poisonous plant that exists mainly in Southern California. This is a shrub with long, narrow leaves; bell-shaped purple, lavender, or light-blue flowers; and a rank smell. Like Toxicodendron diversilobum, Turricula parryi can cause a severe allergic reaction when touched—from dermatitis to respiratory distress.
To protect yourself in the habitats of these plants, you should wear a long-sleeved T-shirt and pants. Try to avoid touching these plants even with clothes on, as the poison can remain on articles of clothing and get on your skin when you touch them.
In addition to poisonous plants, bears, and other wild animals, many hikers may face various health issues along the trail. And although the number of Pacific Crest Trail deaths is small, every traveler should carefully consider his or her own health risks.
The PCT is a rather difficult path for hikers due to the lack of water resources. This problem is especially relevant throughout the California sections.
In some places, you will have to travel 20-30 miles from one source of water to another. This means that you should physically prepare to carry large amounts of water.
At the same time, too much water may be waiting for you in the form of rain, snow, flooded rivers, etc. So before starting, be sure to check the Pacific Crest Trail water report, which is compiled from volunteer reports.
Although there are many waterway conservancy organizations in America, their efforts cannot 100% prevent the pollution of rivers, lakes, and other water resources. So, for your safety, you must take additional care to purify your drinking water.
Hikers have several options for water purification:
- Boiling water for 5 minutes (if you are at an altitude of more than 10,000 feet, add 1 minute for every additional 1,000 feet)
- Water filtration
- Chemical treatment
- Ultraviolet water treatment
All of these water treatment systems can be purchased from online stores. We have selected several options for water filters and treatments:
- Aquamira Water Treatment. This system uses a very well-known chemical agent for water purification based on chlorine dioxide, which kills up to 99% of known bacteria and microorganisms. One package allows you to clean up to 30 gallons of water. Cleaning takes from 15 to 30 minutes, depending on the state of the water. Price: Starts at $14.21
- Quantum™ Rapid Purification System. One of the newest UV water treatment systems, the main advantage of this system is its speed. In just 2.5 minutes, you can clear 99% of known bacteria from 1.05 gallons of water (4 liters). You can count on up to 3,000 treatments with the RapidUV™ Reservoir. The system runs on four AA batteries (which need to be purchased separately). Price: $69.95
- Sawyer PointOne Squeeze Water Filter System. The Sawyer PointOne Squeeze Water Filter System is a lightweight water filtration system—weighing only 0.2 pounds. You can be sure that bacteria, parasites (Giardia, Salmonella typhi, etc.), and protozoa will be destroyed. Price: $29.97
- LifeStraw Steel Personal Water Filter with 2-Stage Carbon Filtration. This system is an excellent lightweight water filter weighing only 4.2 oz. The filter cleans 57 oz. of water per minute—not only eliminating protozoa and bacteria but also heavy metals, herbicides, pesticides, chemicals, and unpleasant odors and tastes. Price: $42.34
- Katadyn Pocket Water Filter. A powerful water filter, this system is designed to purify 13,000 gallons of water at a speed of 1 quart per minute. The system weighs 2 pounds. Price: $270.00
During your PCT hike, you will be away from towns and hospitals. And knowledge of first aid basics can guarantee your survival in extreme situations. Many agencies offer special courses for first aid.
For example, the American Red Cross teaches the basics of first aid to both adults and children. In the Red Cross courses, you will learn what to do with bone fractures, wounds, burns, etc.
Wilderness Medicine courses from the National Outdoor Leadership School provide training for backcountry emergencies. You will learn about first aid for various fractures; overheating and hypothermia; insect bites; and cardiac, respiratory, abdominal, and neurological emergencies.
You can assemble your own first aid kit or buy one ready-made on Amazon:
- All-Purpose First Aid Kit with 299 Pieces. This complete first aid kit contains medications, treatments, bandages, tools, and supplies. The kit includes 299 pieces and weighs only 1 pound. Price: $12.80
- Small First Aid Kit for Hiking. The contents of this medical kit are packed in a waterproof bag made of durable nylon. All items are organized by category, which will shorten the time necessary to find the right tool or product. The kit weighs 1 pound. Price: $34.95 (free shipping)
- Northbound Train First Aid Kit for Camping. One of the most lightweight first aid kits, it weighs only 11 ounces and does not contain any medications. Price: $19.97
- First Aid Kit Survival Kit. This 174-piece first aid kit contains medical trauma supplies and emergency survival tools: emergency blanket, aluminum whistle, compass, fire starter, and outdoor folding knife. The kit weighs 14.4 ounces. Price: $27.99
- MediCare Deluxe First Aid Kit. This 115-piece first aid pack contains medical trauma supplies and weighs 1.1 pounds. Price: $12.99
V. Pacific Crest Trail Books and Guides
Each trail is unique, as is the experience of each hiker. No matter whether you have already completed the trail or are just going to section-, day-, or thru-hike the PCT, we are sure that these books and films will be of interest to you:
- Yogi’s PCT Handbook 2017-2018. This book is the comprehensive Pacific Crest Trail guide book. In the first part of the book, you will get useful tips from experienced PCT hikers and learn backpacking and hiking basics. The second part of the book contains information about the trail and towns near the trail. Price: $40.00
- The Pacific Crest Trail: Exploring America’s Wilderness Trail. This book was published in October 2016 by Mark Larabee (PCTA Managing Editor) and Barney Scout Mann (PCTA Board Member). You will learn about the trail’s history and get to know the beauty of the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada. You will also find many illustrations, historical photos, and documents to explore. Price: $34.00
- Pacific Crest Trail Data Book: Mileages, Landmarks, Facilities, Resupply Data, and Essential Trail Information for the Entire Pacific Crest Trail, from Mexico to Canada. This complete path guide will be useful both in preparation and during your hike, whether you’re going two and a half miles or the full two and a half thousand miles. You will find information about PCT resupply points, water sources, campsites locations, and more. Price: $7.82 for paperback, $7.43 for Kindle ebook
- Pacific Crest Trials: A Psychological and Emotional Guide to Successfully Thru-Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Thru-hiking is always a trial—and the first trial is psychological. In this book, you will learn how to avoid the most common emotional and psychological issues faced by hikers on this 5-month hike. Price: $14.99 for paperback, $7.99 for Kindle ebook
- Tell it on the Mountain–Tales from the Pacific Crest Trail. This remarkable documentary film was shot by six thru-hikers and narrates about the trail itself, as well as the people on the trail and life in the wild. Price: $19.93 for DVD, $14.99 for Amazon Video
Of course, this is far from a complete list of films, books, and stories about the path from Mexico to Canada. Nevertheless, perhaps they will help you make your hike through the entire length of America.
Have you ever hiked the PCT? Tell us about your experience in the comments below!
VI. Bonus. Pacific Crest Trail FAQ [Infographic]