Pondering the Triple Crown Trails: A Thru-hiker tries to Figure out her Favorite by Karen Berger

An unusual site: A trail cabin on the CDT
An unusual site: A trail cabin on the CDT

As any long distance hiker knows, there’s a sort of standard repertoire of questions people ask of hikers who have walked a couple of thousand miles. Boots, bears, and blisters are common topics; so is gear, daily mileage, resupply, and danger. But as a triple-crown hiker, the question that consistently stymies me is this: Which is your favorite trail?

You might as well ask a mother which is her favorite child.

I have no trouble picking out trail highlights: Just for a start, and in no particular order:

  • On the Appalachian Trail: the Whites, the northernmost part Maine, the entire Connecticut section, southern Virginia just north of Damascus, and the Smokies and Balds along the North-Carolina Tennessee border.
  • On the PCT: the High Sierra, the Glacier peaks Wilderness in Washington, the Three Sisters Wilderness and northern Oregon.
  • On the CDT: Wyoming’s Wind River Range, Montana’s Bob Marshall and Scapegoat Wildernesses, and most of Colorado.

And that’s just a start.

But somehow, these don’t add up to a favorite trail. Like children, each one is different; each has a soul. I’ve been exploring that idea lately because I’ve just dived into writing a book on the American National Scenic Trails System, and I’ve been trying to pinpoint what is it that makes each trail unique. Because while they share similar structures, goals, and forms, long-distance trails are, indeed, as alike and as different as snowflakes.

New Mexico, Continental Divide and Miles of Vast Empty Land
New Mexico, Continental Divide and Miles of Vast Empty Land

The Continental Divide: The Wild Child

Let’s start with the CDT, because that’s the first one I hiked. Doing the “hard one” first is unusual, but when you think you’ll only have one trip of a lifetime, you follow your heart. I followed mine to the wild untrammeled mountain experience. I got that and more on the CDT, which I hiked before the formation of the Continental Divide Trail Alliance, before much of the route that is today in place existed on the ground — also before cell phones, before GPS’s, before downloadable maps.

In a sense, the CDT is a photo-negative twin of the Pacific Crest Trail; if we’re sticking with the metaphor of siblings, it is indeed the wild child. Both trails cross a wide variety of eco-zones: Semi-deserts in New Mexico, deserts in southern California; sky islands in both New Mexico and California; mountain ranges with arctic alpine vegetation and 12,000-foot (and higher elevations). On the PCT, you can veer off to climb the highest mountain in California; on the CDT, you can veer off to climb Colorado’s highest peak; both are 14-ers.. Both trails wander through iconic American landscapes: Yosemite in the West, Yellowstone in the Rockies; the Glacier Peaks Wilderness in Washington; Glacier National Park in Montana. Both are bookended by snow-catching mountains in the north and harsh drylands in the south. Thru-hiking either trail requires hikers to maintain a high enough mileage to get through the relatively short snow-free window.

But the CDT remains the problem child of the Triple Crown trails; it remains, in many respects untamed; much of its treadway, where there is treadway, goes through multiple use lands not reserved for hikers (and hence, sometimes not always ideal for hiking). Far fewer hikers attempt it each year compared to the AT and even the PCT; there are fewer trail towns, fewer trail angels, fewer services, fewer resources. For hikers, what this means is this is the quintessential trail for hiking purists, for adventurers, for introverts. It’s not a cookie cutter experience. Depending on the year, and the direction in which you hike, and your start date, and your choice of route, you may not see another hiker.

Much has changed since I first set foot on the CDT in 1990: More infrastructure, more volunteers, more miles of cut trail, more publicity, and yes, more thru-hikers. But none of that, yet, has changed its essential character: It is still the untrammeled heart of wildness.

Appalachian Trail in a southern snow
Appalachian Trail in a southern snow

The Appalachian Trail: Community in the Wilderness

For me, the Appalachian Trail was a comfort-zone. Close to home, familiar since childhood; the white-blazed green tunnel was my first taste of real hiking. I’d backpacked many hundreds of its miles before setting out for my thruhike. The AT is widely considered the easiest of the three trails — shorter by hundreds of miles, lower in elevations, no deserts, no ice-covered passes, shelters to sleep in. Towns where you can resupply are conveniently spaced every few days, enabling lighter packs. There’s a longer window between the pillars of winter, enabling lower mileage days. A green tunnel, a temperate climate — but a simple walk in the woods? Not so much. The old great grand-daddy of long-distance trails is no wuss when it comes to challenges. A friend of mine who joked that in her Colorado home she’d “have to dig a well to get to 5,000 feet” got her butt royally whupped in (relatively) gentle Virginia

That’s the first surprise for many hikers. Some have no backpacking experience when they weigh-in their loads at Amicalola and trudge up the first 8 1/2 miles to the summit of Springer Before they even reach the plaque that announced the official beginning of the trail, some of them consider quitting.

But any even bigger surprise is the existence of a full-fledged trail community, something so long-standing and complex that an anthropologist could write a dissertation on it. It’s got rules and traditions and festivals and celebrities and villains and dress code and language. Sick of the PUDs? Take a Zero. Or you can blue-blaze that section — don’t worry about the white-blazers getting on your case; it’s all about hiking your own hike, dude.

Trail culture can surprise, delight, or dismay. The Appalachian Trail is a place for shared experience, for mutual support, and for plain old fun on the trail. But in recent years the sheer volume of all the extracurricular activity has started to slow hikers down as much as an overweighted pack. A festival here, an irresistible hostel there, a all-you-can-eat- meal here, a must-do diversion there: With so much looming in the foreground, Katahdin can grow smaller and ever farther away.

Are we loving the trail to death? Perhaps — although thru-hikers are a small minority of Appalachian Trail users, they are highly visible, and high-impact, too. And as with any community, there are busybodies and naysayers and rule makers and rule breakers. It’s not what you might come to the woods to find. I think if I did the trail again, I’d start southbound in July, hike mostly through autumn color, and deal with early winter in the southern mountains, thus avoiding the party scene. The Appalachian Trail community may be a nice place to visit — but not everyone wants to live there.

Company on the Pacific Creat Trail, High Sierra
Company on the Pacific Creat Trail, High Sierra

The Pacific Crest Trail: A Sweet Spot in Between

I can’t help it, I think of the PCT as the middle sister, as Goldilocks’s just-right bed, and maybe as the best of both worlds.

The A.T is the older sibling: It’s not only the first to be completed and designated, it’s all responsible and grown up, what with its solid organization and reams of guidebooks and information officers and field offices and fundraisers. By contrast, the CDT is the last of the Triple Crown trails to be designated as a national scenic trail; as the baby of the family, it still sowing its wild oats. Still muddling about with questions like its final routing, it seems still uncertain of what it wants to be when it grows up. The PCT sits in the sweet spot halfway between: Grown-up but not stodgy and mainstream; wild at heart but tame in ways that hikers like — marked trails, reliable guidebooks, trail signage, maintenance, you don’t have to bed down near a stream choked with cattle droppings (as you do so often on the CDT), and there are few places (the south side of Snoqualmie pass comes to mind) where clearcutting devastates the landscape.

It’s also the trail that seems to me to be changing the most: As the number of people who successfully complete the AT grows ever larger, more and more of them bring their East Coast sensibilities to the PCT when they heed the call to go west, young hiker. They arrive with their AT trail names, their expectation of trail angels and hiker fairs, and they find some of this, and create some of it, too — but not all of those eastern habits transplant well in western soil. The PCT is a place where distances are longer, mountains higher, weather harsher; here, the mobile community whose presence looms so large on the Appalachian Tail shrinks to human-scale insignificance.

And that’s the undeniable reality of the PCT: It is too big to be tamed by a community. No amount of development is going to change the fact that in a high snow year, you may arrive in the Sierra in mid-June and be faced with unclimbable ice-covered passes and uncrossable snow-melt-fed rivers. I think that may be what I like most about the PCT: Mark it, guidebook it, raise money for it, throw parties on it; it is still wild at heart.

One more thing about the PCT: It is surprisingly hard even though it is well-marked and obvious, graded for horses, and almost never exceeds a comfortable 10 percent. You don’t have to scramble hand-over feet over miles of rocks as you do on the AT. You don’t have to navigate with no trail at all, as you sometimes must on the CDT. Nonetheless, I found the PCT the most emotionally difficult trail, with its 20-miles stretches between reliable water in broiling hot desert, climbs on snow over 12,000 foot passes, raging rivers, hordes of early summer mosquitoes, the long monotony of California where you realize you’ve walked 1500 miles and you are still in the same state where you started, the sheer length of the thing, which requires consistently high mileage or you’ll never finish before the snows shut the high country. Oh, and in my case: 27 days of rain. These aren’t complaints; they are facts.

On the plus side, this is the trail that goers through the wilderness beloved by John Muir, Ansel Adams, and Chief Justice William O’Douglas. The High Sierra, the volcanoes of the Cascades, the old growth forests of the Pacific Northwest: The PCT lines up one marvel after the other and may boast the most scenery mile for mile.

And the Winner is….

No, I still have no idea. Which would I do again? It depends on the day you ask.

CDT: Montana-Idaho border
CDT: Montana-Idaho border

About Karen Berger

Karen Berger has hiked some 17,000 miles around the world, including thru-hikes of the Triple Crown Trails. She is the author of 12 books on hiking and backpacking, including “Where the Waters Divide” an account of a Continental Divide thru-hike, and “Backpacking and Hiking, a DK Eyewitness Guide” which has been translated into 12 languages. She is currently working on a book about America’s Great Long Distance hiking trails in collaboration with photographer Bart Smith. The book will be published by Rizzoli in 2014. She is the editor of www.Buckettripper.com. Check out Buckettripper’s coverage of international hiking trails at www.Buckettripper.com/hiking-and-climbing. Check out Karen’s hiking books at www.hikerwriter.com.

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  1. As this is Memorial Day I bet lots of people are out hiking rather than reading. I’m the stay-at-home spouse of Earlylite, but love to see the pictures and hear the stories. Based on your post I want to send him out to the PCT for my vicarious pleasure.

  2. Karen, if you had to choose one of the trails to hike again and you could choose only one and you must take that hike, which would it be?

    Just trying to help you pick a fav.

    • Kind of depends on the day of the week, but maybe the CDT just to see how much has changed — it would be a totally different hike today. Plus, I’ve done many parts of the PCT more than once, and the same with the AT, but not with the PCT.

  3. Karen, as a huge fan of your books, I particularly loved this post–a great capsulation of your adventures on the three trails. I agree with your take on the PCT being a challenge emotionally, and I guess that’s why I loved it so much. People often ask me at my readings for my own book which was my favorite part of the PCT, so I can relate to the difficulty of choosing. The sandy expanse of the Mojave, steep snowy mountainsides in the High Sierra, rolling lava fields of Oregon, deep forests of Washington–all are contours of the heart.

    • I have trouble picking a favorite part, too…. Maybe the high Sierra for me. But I also adored the Glacier Peaks Wilderness and the Three Sisters part of Oregon. My hardest emotional part was in northern California — it just seemed like we’d gone so far, and had so far to go – -and hadn’t even crossed a state line yet!

  4. Do you think an AT NOBO can still be completed with out the “culture” being a big part of it? How long you stay it town, whether you sleep at shelters, if you join a group,; aren’t these all choices to be made by the individual? The idea of finishing at Katadhin is such a strong incentive for a NOBO.

    • Yes, but out of season. I actually started a slow NOBO in late January, and was not at all in the hiker culture for the first two or three months. Of course, you have to be able to deal with cold (which I MUCH prefer to heat….) You DO miss some of the deep south spring, although you get it in Virginia. You also mid mid-Atlantic heat, which is awful, and you do the Whites and Maine in summer, which is nice. (Depending on your speed — we went slow on the AT as a counterpoint to our faster PCT and CDT hikes). You’ll miss the NOBO hiker trash culture entirely this way — by the time the other hikers catch up with you (if they do), they’ll be thinned out. You’d have to start by mid-February — people are starting earlier and earlier.

  5. Your old roomie...

    Twas my butt that was kicked 20 years ago on the AT in VA with KB and company… happy memories!

  6. I haven’t hiked any of these trails but if I could do just one it would be the PCT. Not too crowded, not too remote and like you said, perhaps the most (best?) scenery per mile.

  7. What you’ve said about the taming of the CDT is somewhat true. I “chunk-hiked” it in 2010-2012 and noticed more trail infrastructure over just that 3 year period. I’ve always said that when I hike one of the three again it will be the PCT—-with my grandsons when I’m 80. However, I’m starting to lean more toward redoing the CDT and trying to do it all in one go.

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