Are you looking to hike a section of the Pacific Crest Trail? Maybe you need to stretch the legs for a short weekend getaway hike. Or maybe you feel like getting outside and walking for a full month or two away from the city life.
If I had to pick just one section from the below, I would hands-down pick Trout Lake to White Pass. There are no words to describe how stunning this section of trail is, especially during the summer months. Plus, Trout Lake, Washington might just be the best small town no one is talking about.
Below are a 7 of my favorite sections along the PCT, regardless of the distance you are wanting to cover.
1. Trout Lake, WA to White Pass, WA
Mileage: 66 miles
Pros: Ah, Washington. Is there anything better? Well, it depends on who you ask, but one thing is for certain: This section hike will take you through Goat Rocks Wilderness, which has jaw-dropping views. Period. As you’re walking towards the open sky, you can see Mount Rainier (on a clear day) in the distance.
Right from the start of the hike in Trout Lake, you’ll get to skirt around Mt. Adams. The entire 66 miles offers a solid taste of Washington scenery. You’ll end your hike at White Pass, where you can fill up on chips, ice cream, and pizza.
Cons: Snow has a tendency to linger in this area. Make sure to go when the snow has melted so that typically means in September. You’ll want to double-check because unless you have extreme experience in the snow, this exposed section is no joke in dicey conditions.
2. Bridge of the Gods to PCT Northern Terminus – All of Washington
Mileage: 505 miles
Pros: Quite honestly, the entire state of Washington on the PCT is beautiful. I’ve often heard it described as a different type of “blissed-out” feeling than hiking across the Sierras… I’ve heard people describe the terrain and views as more “raw.” And I would absolutely agree.
If you time the weather right, you’ll feel as if you’re floating in the sunshine along the trail, regardless of how steep the terrain is up and around the mountains. The hiking on the PCT in Washington is HARD. While the climbs aren’t usually long compared to other sections on the trail (think less than 5 miles), they are steep.
You’ll gain a few thousand feet in just a matter of a few miles. For some people, this type of workout is a plus. If that sounds too much for you, I recommend reconsidering your section hike.
Cons: If you hit bad weather, you’re going to be soaked in cold, harsh rain. For some people who are from the area or used to those conditions, it isn’t a huge deal. But if you aren’t used to wind and rain and cold temperature and weather perfectly suited for hypothermia, you want to make sure to hike in September.
This is when it tends to be the driest, but of course, this can always change depending on how wet a season shapes up to be.
3. Kennedy Meadows, CA to Mammoth Lakes, CA
Total Mileage: 204 miles
Pros: This hike starts at the entrance to the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Still not sold? You get to hike some of the best passes the Sierra has to offer – Forester, Kearsarge, Mather, Glen, and Mt. Whitney, to name a few. This section of trail is iconic and drops you off in Mammoth Lakes, a great town for an endpoint to a hike.
Cons: You will definitely need a permit for this section hike, specifically if you want to summit Mt. Whitney, which might be difficult to get if you don’t have much flexibility on when to begin. If you don’t care to summit Mt. Whitney and are fine just walking past it, then you might have an easier time getting the appropriate permits.
4. Cajon Pass, CA to Wrightwood, CA
Total Mileage: 28 miles
Pros: This is a great section for a weekend getaway on the PCT. You could technically hike this section in either direction. If hiking uphill is what you’re into, go northbound on the PCT. How much uphill? More than 8,500 feet of gain in those 28 miles. This is the most elevation gain on the entire trail in a 28-mile section.
You get to end your section just before the lovely town of Wrightwood, CA, complete with a bakery. Oh yeah, and starting at Cajon Pass, you’ll get to be at the most famous McDonald’s on the PCT.
Cons: There isn’t a ton of water or camping options in those first 19 miles, so get ready to walk uphill for a long while before being able to refill on water and call it a day.
5. The California Desert – Campo, CA to Kennedy Meadows, CA
Total Mileage: 707 miles
Pros: People who have thru-hiked the PCT will tell you a mixed-bag of reviews about this section. I personally loved the desert. I think that’s worth saying (writing) again: I loved the desert section of the PCT! I’m from North Carolina, so I had never hiked in a desert that looked like the Mojave before.
I had never seen a sky like that before (if you’ve spent time already in the desert wilderness, you know what I’m talking about). I had never experienced over 100 degree days followed by 40 degree nights. I had never hiked in 50+ mile per hour winds that almost blew me off the trail. If a challenge is what you’re looking for, hiking the desert section of the PCT is a solid option for you.
One of the cool parts about hiking in the desert section, is you get to hike up and over Mt. San Jacinto, where you’ll descend the steepest amount than any other descent on the entire PCT – just close to 7,000 feet in 16 miles.
Cons: It’s hot, especially if you hike in May. I wouldn’t advise hiking later than early May. If you leave in April (which is probably best in hopes of avoiding snow), it will be both cold and hot. In fact, there might even still be some snow in some parts. There will be days when the sun is shining down relentlessly. There are also rattlesnakes. It’s a tough environment.
6. Shelter Cove, OR to Elk Lake Resort, OR – Three Sisters Wilderness
Total Mileage: 77 miles
Pros: This hike takes you through the Three Sisters Wilderness, which is worth every step to of those miles. It’s an easier section that is appealing to the eyes and a great option if you only have a week or so to spare. Ending in Sisters, OR, it’s truly a unique town and is a short drive away from Bend, OR.
Cons: A few miles in this section take you over some lava rocks, which is a pretty unique experience, but it can be a very hot section and the rocks can make your feet sore.
7. Seiad Valley, CA to Bridge of the Gods – All of Oregon
Total Mileage: 491 miles
Pros: This takes you through the entire state of Oregon along the PCT. There are ponds after ponds after ponds. The hiking is enjoyable, with the terrain being more rolling than steep. You’ll get to stop and visit in so many pleasant Oregon towns. And of course, you’ll walk by Crater Lake!
Cons: Truthfully, it’s difficult to think of a con to this section. With the exception that the climb out of Seiad Valley is long and steep. But then the remainder of the section through the state of Oregon takes you across more gentle elevation gains and losses. You’ll get your climbs and elevated heart rate, but it won’t be nearly as taxing as any section hike then say, in Washington or the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Here’s a good tidbit for you – You can almost be guaranteed to have a great section hike anywhere in Oregon and Washington. You can literally pick a point along the trail where you want to start, decide how many miles you want to hike during your trip and start hiking north or south. Oregon and Washington are really enjoyable sections of the PCT with a lot to offer in the way of views, terrain, and trail towns. Overall, both these states provide a solid experience on the PCT.
A note on permits:
While half the trail can be hiked without a permit, some popular destinations will require a permit for your section hike. You can find more about permits here.
Already decided on your section hike and need more direction on where to begin? The Halfmile app and Atlas Guides app (previous Guthook) are extremely thorough apps to help you know where to camp, get water, resupply, and of course, road crossings. No matter which section you choose, hiking on the PCT almost guarantees you to have a great time.
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Carly Moree is the Owner & Founder of Rocky Mountain Hiking Company. She was the first woman to attempt the men’s unsupported record on the 223-mile John Muir Trail/Nüümü Poyo. She is the co-author of the popular thru-hiking book Pacific Crest Trials, and has hiked and run thousands of miles on trails, including the Grand Canyon rim to rim to rim, both the Pacific Crest Trail and Appalachian Trail, and the Tahoe Rim Trail. Her work is featured in REI and Larabar and she is the co-host of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s podcast Unlikely Stories.