If you are like me and in the very early stages of planning a PCT thru-hike, then you may be wondering just how many people you will encounter out on the trail. Has the trail become so popular that you may or may not experience true wilderness? Let’s dig into some facts and find out!
So, is the PCT crowded? The PCT can feel crowded depending on which month you start and in which direction. The Pacific Crest Trail Association estimates that somewhere between 700 and 800 individuals attempt the complete thru-hike each year, with a 60% completion rate. The trail is more crowded going northbound from the Mexico border as opposed to southbound starting from the Canadian border. And the busiest starting date for northbound hikers is mid April.
Which Direction Is More Crowded? Northbound vs Southbound PCT
Northbound – According to the Pacific Crest Trail Association, over 90% of thru-hikers head northbound. Therefore, this can be much more congested than heading southbound. A northbound hiker will start in the southern point in Campo, California (along the US/Mexico border) and head north towards Canada.
This trail can be quite crowded for northbound hikers. Due to the concentration of people, towns and restaurants along the northbound route. The start can be quite busy and the campsites very full. This is the path to take for a ‘social’ hike. It is the more ‘traditional’ choice of thru-hikers.
The best time of year to start this hike is between March and May. Start dates usually depend on what the weather is like in the major snow areas on the trail, which are the Sierra (mile 720 to 1,100) and the Northern Cascades, Washington (mile 2,400 to Canada).
A hiker should plan for his/her ‘entering into the Sierra’ date sometime after June 1st. If it is a low to average snowfall year, most hikers should plan to be at Kennedy Meadows South (around mile 702) by June 15th.
Once in Washington, a hiker should strive for a completion date around the beginning of October, before the snow falls in the North Cascades. If still in this area after the snow starts, a hiker can fall victim to hypothermia, not to mention avalanche hazards and a very difficult (possibly dangerous) trek along the snow-covered path.
Northbound hikers will often experience parts of the trail with very warm weather conditions. It can become extremely hot in southern California. By the time a hiker reaches Washington, however, it can change from warm to cold overnight! This is considered the better option, as a hiker has approximately three and a half months of favorable weather going Northbound as opposed to only two and a half months heading Southbound.
Northbound hikers also have the advantage of getting their ‘trail legs’ before reaching the Sierra. This means, a hiker can use the first seven hundred miles to get in shape before traversing the roughest areas of the PCT, with steep terrain and dangerous slopes.
Northbound hikers have better access to water, as rivers are more likely to not be flowing later in the year in Southern California. As well, most trail stores are open to Northbound hikers (to restock supplies), provided they don’t head out too early in the season.
Northbound hikers will also have no problem crossing the Canadian border from the northern terminus in the United States as long as they have a Canada PCT Entry Permit.
In conclusion, northbound hikers have more pros than cons when it comes to weather and other environmental factors along the PCT. They also have the added social benefit of travelling the same direction as more than 1600 hikers at the same time! This undoubtedly makes the trail more crowded. This also means that trail towns, restaurants, resupply stores and campsites will be quite busy along the way but that may be a pro or con depending on your personal preferences.
Southbound – Most hikers head north, so, southbound is likely to be less crowded. A southbound hiker will start in the northernmost point of Washington and just over the border into Canada. And head south towards Mexico. Usually not the traditional path chosen by thru-hikers. More people should consider going southbound as the chance for solitude and reflection is greater.
In general, most hikers heading southbound will begin in the northern terminus somewhere between the end of June and the end of July. This depends greatly on the amount of snow remaining from the previous winter in the northern Cascade mountains. Once on the path, a thru-hiker should reach Kennedy Meadows South (mile 702) by late September to early October, completing the hike at the southern terminus by mid-November.
Southbound hikers are not as affected by the summer heat as Northbound hikers but should be prepared for snow travel at the beginning. They are also likely to encounter steep terrain and dangerous slopes at the start, requiring mountaineering skills in order to navigate the section safely.
Access to water is more difficult for Southbound hikers. Many southern California water sources dry-up come fall, making it harder for a thru-hiker to get water along the trail. Water caches may be closed (or empty) in the fall and early winter months.
As Southbound hikers reach the Sierra later in the season, they also run the risk of resupply stores being closed for the season. A hiker therefore needs to be well-planned and well-prepared, ensuring sufficient supplies (food, water, fire-starters, etc.) are packed in advance.
Southbound hikers will also need a permit stating that they will be starting at the US/Canada border instead. They can apply for a free PCT long-distance permit with the Pacific Crest Trail Association sometime in January.
When hiking Southbound, there is usually less than one hundred hikers heading in the same direction at the same time. Therefore, this becomes more of a solo journey rather than a ‘social’ hike. If peace and solitude are what you seek, then this is the route to take.
Southbound hikers are also less apt to deal with bugs and insects along the way, as the central California area of the trail is well known for terrible mosquito and bee attacks in the early part of the season.
In conclusion, Southbound hikers are more likely to face environmental and weather challenges along the way, as opposed to northbound hikers. It is less crowded on Southbound route which makes it great for a hiker in search of tranquility. Which direction you take depends entirely on your personal goals and thru-hiking skills.
The Best Month to Start Hiking the PCT
Most northbound thru-hikers start the PCT between March and May, with the best time being somewhere between mid-April and early May.
Southbound thru-hikers, however, generally start the PCT in June or July, with the best time being somewhere between the end of June and the middle of July.
How Many People Actually Complete the PCT?
The Pacific Crest Trail Association estimates that 700-800 hikers attempt the trail each year with approximately 60% actually finishing it!
Can’t Do the Entire Thru-Hike? Here’s The Top 3 must-See Sections
If you cannot fathom the idea of hiking the entire distance of the PCT, consider instead going on a section or day hike to enjoy one of these three amazing scenic areas:
Sky Lakes Wilderness – Sky Lakes Wilderness in Oregon is the epitome of outdoor beauty. With its aquamarine pools and glacial lakes, it is absolutely breathtaking! A line of volcanic rock is visible as you admire the Cascade Mountain views. This section of the PCT is 28.7 miles and is best to ‘take in’ between May and September.
Lassen Volcanic National Park – This is located on the PCT between Badger Flat and Little Willow Lake. Here you can observe beautiful forested areas, the Twin Lakes, and the meadow at Badger Flat (which boasts an amazing view of Lassen Peak). This section makes up 18.3 miles of the PCT and should be visited between June and September.
John Muir Trail – This is the most famous sub-section of the PCT named after the 19th century naturalist who founded the Sierra Club. It is a 221 mile trail that goes through Yosemite National Park, Sierra National Forest, Inyo National Park, Kings Canyon National Park and Sequoia National Park. This section is incredible and best travelled between July and September.
Is the PCT longer than the Appalachian Trail? The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is 489 miles longer than the Appalachian Trail.
How much does it cost to do the Pacific Crest Trail? The Pacific Crest Trail Association estimates that thru-hiking the trail (including the cost of gear and end-to-end expenses) could cost anywhere between $4,000 and $8,000.
Related content: Is Thru-Hiking Lonely?