I feel like most people I’ve talked to who hiked both the Appalachian Trail (AT) and the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) agree that the answer to which trail is harder is, “they are different trails it’s really hard to compare the two.” That being said most hikers would probably say the AT is more physically demanding while being more comfortable and the PCT is less physically demanding while more mentally taxing. This is strange because the PCT is around 500 miles longer, hell even the abbreviation for the PCT is longer then the abbreviation for the AT! Also, the highest point on the PCT coming in at 13,153 ft is at Forester Pass, with a lot of hikers making the trek to the top of Mount Whitney at 14,505 ft as a side hike, since you pass so close and the AT’s highest peak is only 6,643 ft at Clingmans Dome. How can the AT be more physically demanding, you ask? Well first off it seems to me the AT’s goal is to go straight up every peak along the way from Georgia to Maine while the PCT is graded for pack animals, so even though the summits are higher on the PCT the trail doesn’t go straight up! Well not all the time anyway and it might feel like it does some days, but the fact that I knocked out more miles per day on average on the PCT makes me feel that this statement is true.
Forester Pass Vs Clingmans Dome
How’s the PCT more mentally tasking? It rained the whole time on the AT and I was almost completely drained by mosquito’s. While it hardly rained on the the PCT for 2,144 of the 2,700 miles and I was strolling along this nicely graded path. So what does being more comfortable mean? For example Clingmans Dome can be accessed by a fully-paved and only half a mile long road. This highest point on the AT has an alternative route to the white blazed trail that involves driving most of the way. After spending half an hour searching for the trail head to Forester pass I can only conclude you have to hike in on the JMT/PCT the two trails parallel each other for some distance or drive to Junction Pass and hike over it and then reach Forester pass. It’s all about the access and planning that makes the AT more comfortable and the PCT mentally taxing. The AT hike is basically running from town to town getting beer and resupplies every couple of days. While the PCT involves more planning and longer hitches into town. The ability to resupply is more limited and involves more mail drops and relying on other people to take you to and from the trail heads since towns are farther away. On the AT you’re hitching because you don’t want to walk the 2 miles while on the PCT you’re hitching because it would take another day to walk into town.
It was easier to relax on the AT because you are basically following a beaten path that is hard to miss, while on the PCT snow totally covers the trail and there are more then one set of tracks to follow all taking slightly different paths hopefully to the same place. Its also hard to relax when you are sliding down a hill trying to stop yourself with an ice axe before you pitch into an alpine lake.
“Generally speaking, thru hikers on the PCT go to extreme lengths to cut down on their pack weight. While counting ounces is important on the AT, most typical AT pack weights are more than that of what you would see on the PCT. Even the most popular packs on the PCT are themselves from ultralight brands such as Gossamer Gear and ULA instead of Osprey or Gregory, as seen on the AT. Still, gear choices always vary heavily from one hiker to another.” – Carlie Gentry
The other major difference is the tree corridor you are in on the AT, the scenery is basically the same tree cover above. It’s not until you get to New Hampshire that you are really excited about the next view. Whereas most of the PCT is spent hiking from dramatic view to dramatic view. You also go from desert to rain forest while hiking the PCT with drastic changes in environment. With that being said for me I thought the desert was really challenging physically and mentally. If someone would have asked which was harder while I was still in the desert I would have said the PCT, but the desert is not the whole PCT just part of the experience. There was much more amazing sections to overall experience that is the PCT.
I personally liked the PCT better and would hike all of it but the desert again if given the chance. While if given the chance to hike the AT again I would turn it down, with the exception of New Hampshire and Maine. I disliked the desert so much I am dreading hiking the CDT. I am only slightly nervous of the grizzly bear, but dread having to hike through the desert again!