Because many of my readers are terrestrial (not star) trekkers, today I thought I would write about a very special outdoors topic, the Triple Crown of American long distance hiking – the Appalachian Trail, Continental Divide Trail, and Pacific Crest Trail. Together they run approximately 8,000 miles (12,800 km) across 22 States and through some of the most beautiful, diverse terrain on Earth. I have not gone the entire distance, but I have hiked portions of all three trails, which were exhilarating experiences.
The three great treks are part of America’s extensive National Trails System. Created by act of Congress in 1968, the system comprises 11 stunning National Scenic Trails (including the three in the Triple Crown), 19 significant National Historic Trails, and more than 1,200 National Recreation Trails. A trail can only be designated as Scenic or Historic by a specific act of Congress.
Doing the entire Triple Crown is a notable achievement, accomplished thus far by only 178 hikers (by the last count I was able to find). Each autumn the American Long Distance Hiking Association West holds an event at which folks who completed the last leg of the Triple Crown that year are awarded plaques and otherwise feted. Below I briefly discuss each of the three trails and give you a glimpse of what awaits you along the way.
Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail
More than 2,660 miles (4,300 km) long, the Pacific Crest Trail runs from the Canadian border to the Mexican border through breathtaking stretches of the States of Washington, Oregon, and California. Conceived in 1932, the trail passes through six of North America’s seven distinct eco-zones (including alpine, old-growth forest, high desert, and low desert), as well as more than 60 national parks, national monuments, national forests, and wilderness areas.
… majestic volcanoes such Rainier and Whitney, more than 1,000 lakes and tarns, large waterfalls, and geological marvels like the San Andreas Fault, Devils Postpile National Monument, and Vasquez Rocks.
The route takes you through beloved Yosemite National Park, iconic Crater Lake, Sequoia National Park, the remote Northern Cascades, Lassen Volcanic National Park, Glacier Wilderness, Columbia River Gorge, Alpine Lakes Wilderness, and Mt. Rainier National Park.
I’ve hiked on parts of the trail in each of the 3 States that it spans, and I recall each mile bringing something new and breathtaking. What struck me most was the extraordinary diversity of scenery, climate, and wildlife.
I am particularly partial to the vast, stark beauty and profusion of unexpected life of the Mojave Desert stretch of the trail as it passes through Southern California toward the Mexican border.
Many of the most beautiful segments of the trail are within easy driving distance of San Diego, Los Angeles, Palm Springs, San Francisco, Sacramento, Portland, or Seattle, making them readily accessible for day trips or weekend adventures if you can’t devote the average of five months required to do the complete trail. (The fastest “thru hike” on record took a mere 59 days, 8 hours, and 14 minutes.)
For more information about the Pacific Crest Trail, advice re planning a trek, and additional photos, take a look at the websites of the Pacific Crest Trail Association and the U.S. Forest Service (which cares for this trail).
Continental Divide National Scenic Trail
Established in 1978, the Continental Divide Trail runs 3,100 miles (5,000 km) along the Rocky Mountains through five States – Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico — from the Canadian border on the north to the Mexican border on south, offering some of the most stunning scenery on Earth. As it passes through Colorado, the trail reaches an elevation of more than 14,000 feet (4,300 m).
The trek takes you through vast wilderness areas, pristine forests, flowering high deserts, and iconic natural preserves including Yellowstone National Park, Glacier National Park, and Rocky Mountain National Park.
Along the way you can ford streams, hunt (in season), fish in crystal blue lakes, ski across snow fields, stop to explore cultural treasures such as ancient Native American cliff dwellings, and enjoy the towering snow-capped peaks.
You will see iconic denizens of the American West such as buffalo, bald eagles, wild horses, grizzly bears, elk, and praire dogs as well as a profusion of other wildlife.
Particularly unique is Triple Divide Peak in Montana. Depending on where it hits, rain falling on the Peak can drain into the Pacific Ocean, Atlantic Ocean, or Arctic Ocean, all vast distances away.
The entire trek takes five or six months depending on your pace. You can go by foot or on horseback, and dogs are welcome. For folks who like to be first, I don’t believe that an equestrian has yet ridden the entire trail, and there is nothing quite like long-riding through the Rockies.
For more information about the trail, what to see and do along the way, and how to plan your trek, check out the websites of the Continental Divide Trail Society, the National Park Service, and Paul Magnanti’s Quick and Dirty CDT Guide. There are also a variety of first-hand accounts of the trek online and in bookstores, including Jennifer Hanson’s Hiking the Continental Divide Trail.
Appalachian National Scenic Trail
The oldest of the jewels in the Triple Crown, the Appalachian Trail runs 2,190 miles (3,525 km) through pristine forests, misty mountains, wilderness areas, and a few small towns in 14 States, from Mount Katahdin in Maine to Springer Mountain in Georgia, within easy drive of some of the most densely populated urban areas in the United States. It passes through Pennsylvania not far from my hometown of Mahanoy City, and I remember first hiking a segment while in junior high school.
Conceived in 1921 by forester Benton MacKaye, constructed by private citizens, and completed in 1937, the Appalachian offers both grand vistas and intimate paths through dense forests. It takes you from high alpine to lowland terrain teaming with diverse wildlife including moose, elk, bears, coyotes, foxes, wolves, bobcats, wild boars, raccoons, porcupines, deer, hares, rabbits, squirrels, opposums, skunks, wild turkeys, and grouse.
Perhaps because it was built by groups of local citizen volunteers, the Appalachian is designed to be hiked and enjoyed by anyone, whatever your skills or time availability. You can enter and leave from any point along the way, dogs are permitted on most of the trail, and there are more than 250 shelters and a large number of camp grounds for your use. Because of occasional proximity to or intersection with local roads, you can often hike into town for provisions.
For more information about things to see or how to plan a trek, check out the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and the Appalachian Trail pages on the National Park Service website. If you are interested in hiking the entire trail, keep in mind that the record time to beat is 46 days, 11 hours, and 20 minutes.
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As I said at the outset, these three legendary treks are only part of a vast system of many hundreds of interesting, enjoyable, and often exhilarating trails in the United States. There really is something for everyone whatever your particular interests, hobbies, location, physical condition, or schedule. Browse the user-friendly website of the National Trails System to see for yourself the diversity of options available.
History buffs should consider the 19 National Historic Trails including the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail (a 175-mile cultural trek along the coast of the big island of Hawaii), Iditarod National Historical Trail (the 1,000-mile mail trail across Alaska), Alabama’s Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail (covering landmark civil rights sites), Trail of Tears National Historic Trail (which tracks the forcible relocation of the Cherokee people across nine States), and Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail (which follows the path the iconic explorers took to the Pacific Ocean).
Pick a trek or two, load your backpack, lace up your hiking boots, and come help us celebrate the “Decade for the National Trails,” a nationwide program of stewardship, capacity-building, and recreation leading up to the big 50th anniversary (in 2018) of the passage of the National Trails System Act of 1968.