Iconic American Trails: The Triple Crown
The trail system in the United States is an underrated national treasure. The vast expanse of wilderness, National Parks, and National Forests are an indispensable gift of protected lands, and the trail system created and maintained by toiling volunteers and coalitions allows us to see those places without the disturbance of industry and encroaching urban sprawl. The trail lets us feel as wild as we think we are inside. It lets us step out of our busy, messy, and confusing lives to experience a joy that only comes with nature’s chaotic harmony.
Some trails are more popular than others, and some are not so well known. Some go on for thousands of miles and some are just as long as an afternoon jaunt. The Triple Crown of Hiking consists of the three most well-known long-distance hikes in the continental U.S: The Appalachian Trail, The Continental Divide Trail, and The Pacific Crest Trail.
The Appalachian Trail: 2,200 miles
The Appalachian Trail is easily one of the most popular trails and is consistently completed by many avid hikers and backpackers each year. Its northern terminus is at Mount Katahdin in Maine, and its southern terminus is at Springer Mountain in Georgia. The trail goes through a total of fourteen states: Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Georgia.
The Appalachian Trail is a ‘hiker’s only’ trail except in a few portions, which means backpackers won’t run into horses or mountain bikers throughout their journey, only other hikers and backpackers. There are also many shelters and camping areas along the trail, along with towns close by for frequent resupply.
Generally, the Appalachian Trail has more hikers each year than either the Continental Divide Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail, and is much less remote. It’s highest point of elevation is 6,643 feet, and most of the trail is in dense green forests. Despite its low levels of elevation, it has many steep climbs over mountains instead of switchbacks, so is considered physically more difficult than the other two trails of the Triple Crown.
The Continental Divide Trail: 3,100 miles
The most challenging overall and the longest of the Triple Crown is the Continental Divide Trail. The southern terminus as at the U.S.-Mexico border at the Crazy Crook Monument, and the northern terminus is at Waterton Lake in Glacier National Park, Montana. The highest point of elevation is Grays Peak in Colorado, and it is the only trail of the Triple Crown that goes through grizzly bear territory. This trail is not as well marked as the other two trails, and it is recommended that hikers bring GPS navigation and are able to read a map and compass.
Most thru-hikers begin at the U.S.-Mexico border, starting in the spring, and they follow the warm weather northbound as summer thaws the mountain snow and warms the northern states.
The trail passes through New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, along the Idaho-Montana border, and ends at the Montana-Canada border. The Continental Divide Trail is by far the most remote and the most wild trail of the Triple Crown. Hikers can often go days or weeks without seeing other hikers or backpackers. It does not have the overt social atmosphere of the Appalachian Trail, and most who attempt to thru-hike are well-seasoned and experienced backpackers with their gear and routine finely tuned.
The Pacific Crest Trail: 2,650 miles
Made popular by Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, the Pacific Crest Trail runs through California, Oregon, and Washington, cutting through some of the most beautiful landscape in the country. This trail is considered to be somewhere in between the highly social and popular Appalachian Trail, and the remote and more dangerous Continental Divide Trail. Perhaps this trail is a happy medium. There are plenty of hikers, but not so many that it feels over-crowded. There are not very many shelters along the trail, but there are congregations at water points where “trail angels” help out weary backpackers.
The highest point of elevation on the Pacific Crest Trail is 13,153 feet at Forester Pass. The southern terminus is at the U.S-Mexico border in Campo, California, and the northern terminus is at the U.S-Canada border in Manning Park, British Columbia.
Completing the Triple Crown
Off the record, it is estimated that about 600 thru-hikers have completed the Triple Crown, although only 334 have been formally recognized. That’s not a very big number. Even the most seasoned and experienced hikers and backpackers face a tremendous challenge if they want to complete all three of the trails in their lifetime. Not only is it a great feat of physicality, but each trail takes roughly six months to complete, possibly longer. Not many people can make that kind of time commitment, as jobs and family responsibilities inevitably come first.
Each of these three Triple Crown long-distance trails presents its own array of challenges, wildlife, and stories to be told. But whether you complete one or all three of these iconic American trails, the reward of completion will be well worth the trials that come with each one.