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The Lowdown on the Triple Crown of Hiking

11/6/17 by Lisa Maloney

Want to know who's the best of the best—or, perhaps, the most persistent—in the hiking world? Look no further than the Triple Crown of long distance hiking, a nifty plaque and personalized poster combo that you can earn by hiking all three of the United States' premier long-distance trails. Put the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail together, and you're talking more than 7,900 miles of walking across 22 states, with one million feet of elevation gain thrown in for fun.

Only some 260 people have claimed the Triple Crown since its inception in 1994—most of them everyday folks who simply step onto the trail one day and then, for reasons only their own, simply keep walking.

For example, there's Eric Ryback, generally considered to be the first Triple Crowner, who didn't claim his prize until 2008. He hiked the AT in 1969 at 16 years old, is credited with the first thru-hike of the PCT in 1970, and then a hike of the CDT in 1972—all, apparently, just because it was there to be done.

Or consider Lauren Reed, who hiked the Appalachian Trail as a graduation present to herself and just kept going, and Reed Gjonnes, who at 13 became the youngest person to take the Triple Crown, in a series of back-to-back thru-hiking summer vacations with her father.

The Trails (and Trials) of the Triple Crown

As any thru-hiker will tell you, the hard part isn't getting started—it's leaving trail life behind once you're done. Here's a look at the vitals on all three trails that lure unsuspecting hikers into Triple Crown territory.

The Appalachian Trail

Triple Crown of Hiking Appalachian Trail
Only one out of four hikers who attempt the AT actually finish it. McDowell Crook

The most traveled of the Triple Crown trails, the AT runs more than 2,180 miles through 14 states, starting at Springer Mountain in Georgia and ending at Mount Katahdin in Maine. Fully half the country's population lives within a day's drive of the AT and many roads cross it, but a thousand-foot buffer helps preserve the trail's wilderness character. It runs through more than 60 protected parks and forests and draws thousands of thru-hike attempts every year, but only one in four aspiring thru-hikers actually make it the entire distance. 

More than 270 camp shelters are scattered along the AT's length, and a handful of parks require thru-hikers to have entry or camping permits.

The Pacific Crest Trail

Triple Crown of Hiking Pacific Crest Trail
The PCT runs 2,650 miles from Mexico all the way to Canada. Jeff Moser

The PCT is 2,650 miles of vast wilderness landscapes from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon, and Washington, taking hikers through long, waterless stretches in the south before ascending to trace the often snowy spines of the Sierra Nevada and Cascades mountains further north.

Nobody knows exactly how many people use the PCT, but the number of thru-hike permits has climbed steeply in recent years—thanks, no doubt, to exposure from Cheryl Strayed's best-selling memoir-turned-movie Wild. In 2013 just over 1,000 thru-hike permits were issued; in 2015, there were almost 2,800. Thru-hikers can get by with just the one long-distance permit, but section hikers doing fewer than 500 miles at a time will need to secure permits for each park they enter.

The Continental Divide Trail

Triple Crown of Hiking Continental Divide Trail
The Continental Divide Trail is 85 percent complete. Bureau of Land Management

In a very real sense, the CDT is still under construction; as of 2015, it's about 85 percent complete. Backcountry navigation skills and a little cleverness are all you need to stitch those pieces into a glorious and brutal 3,100 miles from Mexico to Canada along the peaks of the Rocky Mountains.

Altitude may be an issue for some hikers: Almost the entire CDT is above 5,000 feet in elevation, and you can expect to spend quite a while above 10,000 feet, including a jaunt up 14,270-foot Grays Peak in Colorado. Only about 150 thru-hikers try this trail each year, and just a few dozen actually make it. You'll need to secure permits for Rocky Mountain National Park, Yellowstone National Park, and Glacier National Park as you go.

Plan Your Strategy

Triple Crown of Hiking
Whether you go solo or with a group, you're sure to make friends on the trail. Gabe Rogel

One of the most famous thru-hikers is public speaker and endurance adventurer Heather "Anish" Anderson , who claimed the Triple Crown in 2006 and also happens to hold the records for fastest self-supported hiker—man or woman—on both the PCT and the AT. She shared a couple of tips for beginning thru-hikers by email, just before she headed out the door for another backcountry adventure.

"Have a plan, and yet be willing to completely deviate from it," Anderson wrote. "The magic of the trail and serendipity are some of the most beautiful parts of any long distance hike." Just as important, test all of your gear before you hit the trail. "The last thing you want to be doing in a rainstorm is trying to figure out how to set up your tent for the first time," she said. "Trust me, I've done this!"

Speaking of plans, most hopeful Triple Crown hikers start with the Appalachian Trail, which is the easiest in terms of supply logistics. By the time you cross the 100-mile wilderness in Maine, you'll have your thru-hiking game nailed and will be ready to tackle the PCT next, followed by the CDT. All three trails are best hiked heading northbound starting in April or May, and usually take about six months to complete.

You'll encounter a few surprises on any hiking trail, but long thru-hikes pack more challenges than most. Still, some of those surprises are pleasant ones: Anderson, for example, was taken aback by the overwhelming kindness and generosity of total strangers, often referred to as "trail angels" in hikers' parlance, that she discovered on her first thru-hike. Trail angels are part of the bigger phenomenon of "trail magic" that hikers often speak of. On the flip side, many newbie hikers are shocked to realize that you can easily spend $1,000 a month on food, accommodations, transport (to get around trail closures or diversions), and gear as you hike. If you're thrifty, plan ahead, and make smart gear purchases from the start, you can cut that number in half.

But perhaps the biggest surprise—and the biggest prize—is the chance to discover what really moves you forward. For Anderson, it's the understanding that she is the most fulfilled, content, and happy when she's on the trail. For Strayed, it was coming to terms with the death of her mother, the end of her marriage, and the start of a new, self-reliant life. For you ... who knows? The understanding will come naturally, just like a trail name or the kindness of strangers.

Originally written by RootsRated for Marmot.