The Continental Divide Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail are both long-distance hiking trails connecting the Mexican and Canadian borders of the United States. Every year, a class of hopeful thru-hikers sets out on (what is many times) a once-in-a-lifetime journey with the hopes of completing the entire distance of either the CDT or the PCT. So if you’re only budgeting enough time in your life to be a homeless dirtbag for one of these trails, which should it be? Which trail is better? Which trail should you hike? Which trail will fill that huge void in your soul and bring you the inner peace that you so desperately crave?
The Continental Divide Trail. You should obviously hike the CDT. It’s no contest. Here’s why you’re going to hike the CDT and forget about the PCT.
It’s Not Overcrowded
It’s nice for a trail to have a community, but the Pacific Crest Trail is quickly losing its charm and becoming a victim of its own success. For nearly three consecutive months there are fifty hikers starting every day from the southern terminus. You’ll be lucky to have a campsite to yourself or to find a suitable place to poop without tripping over a dozen cat holes on your way through the bush. Sure, it’s nice to have company once in a while on the trail, and having a small community is nice, but the PCT is more like a thru-hiker conveyor belt than a trail. And once you get into areas more popular with day hikers or weekend warriors? Forget about it. What a mess. On the Continental Divide Trail, you will have none of these problems. You’ll never find yourself wishing there were fewer people around (except maybe in some Colorado towns) and you’ll never feel like your grand wilderness adventure is being encroached upon by hoards of other hikers. That’s right, you can poop with peace of mind on the CDT.
You Can Start When You Want
The Pacific Crest Trail, as a result of becoming more and more crowded each year, has implemented a quota at the Southern Terminus and up to fifty thru-hikers are issued permits for each day. This may sound like a lot, but when you consider that there were over 4,500 northbound thru-hiking permits issued in 2018, the 50-hiker per day limit presents a problem. That many permits works out to more than 90 days of 50 thru-hikers per day starting at the southern terminus. If you don’t get a permit for the date (or dates) you are hoping for, you might end up having to do some logistical gymnastics to stay compliant. The Continental Divide Trail, on the other hand, has no such quota. You can show up at the southern terminus and start hiking when you damn well please. Just one more reason the CDT beats the PCT.
There’s Real Wilderness
Sure, the Pacific Crest Trail has some beautiful wilderness areas, but they’ve become so impacted with tourists, weekend warriors, and day hikers, that it’s now wilderness Disneyland out there. The PCT is basically a West Coast tourist highlight reel while the CDT is getting you out into some truly pristine and untouched wilderness. You’re not going to be confronted with signs of humans at every turn. In fact, there are some areas on the CDT where you’ll be hard-pressed to find any signs of civilization at all. On the Continental Divide Trail, you’ll hike through some of the greatest wilderness that nobody you know has ever heard of (and we should probably keep it that way).
There’s Tons of Wildlife
Pacific Crest Trail wildlife is the younger sibling of Continental Divide Trail wildlife. On paper, you might be able to compare the animal offerings of the PCT and the CDT, but in reality, you’re going to see a lot more wildlife hiking the CDT. Sure, there might be moose in Oregon and Washington – somewhere. But on the CDT there are moose everywhere. Not to mention wolves, coyotes, foxes, mountain lions, beavers, porcupines, bobcats, pronghorns, elk, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, black bears, grizzly bears, and more. Despite Pacific Crest Trail hikers spotting the occasional animal, the Continental Divide Trail is where wildlife thrives.
It’s a Real Aventure
On the Continental Divide Trail, you can follow the “official CDT” or you can splinter off at any number of intersections to create your own unique CDT adventure. Want to hike the Gila Alternate, the Wind River High Route, and the Colorado Trail? There’s a route for that. Want to start and end somewhere with easy access to a road? There’s a route for that. Want to just say “fuck it” to 87.3 mi / 140.5 km of trail in the middle of Montana? There’s a route for that. No two CDT hikes are alike which is one of the things that makes hiking the CDT such an adventure. Hiking an alternate route into or out of town on the Pacific Crest Trail can get you chastised by the PCT purists out there and will make you feel more guilty than adventurous.
The Landscape Is Hugely Varied
The Continental Divide Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail both stretch from Mexico to Canada, but the CDT offers up a far more diverse landscape than the PCT. You being in the desert – not this high-altitude chaparral crap on the PCT – you’re hiking for nearly 100 mi / 160 km through a shadeless and waterless desert. Then you hit the Gila National Forest and are hiking through an incredible hot spring-filled canyon. Then you’ve got the high desert, then the San Juan Mountains, then the Rocky Mountains, then the Great Divide Basin, then the Wind River Range, then Yellowstone and the Tetons (depending on your route), and then rolling hills and mountains of Idaho and Montana before finishing up in Glacier National Park. Meanwhile, the PCT has a section without a lot of water, followed by mountains, followed by less cool mountains, followed by lots of lakes and boringness, followed by a couple more rainy mountains before Canada.
The Hikers Know What’s Up
The Pacific Crest Trail has been flooded with first-time hikers who think that watching the movie Wild and a bout of existential angst somehow uniquely qualifies them to be thru-hikers. Sure, some of these people may end up being successful, but a lot (if not most) of them will not be successful in their thru-hikes. Meanwhile, the Continental Divide Trail is largely made up of hikers who have experience and who know what they’re doing and what they’re getting themselves into. If you want to learn instead of mentor, if you want to hike with veterans instead of rookies, if you want support and encouragement instead of complaints and doubt, then you want to hike the CDT. Step away from the kids’ table and go play with the grownups.
You Get To Walk Ridges
Ridge walking is epic and on the Continental Divide Trail, you’ll get to do this plenty. On the Pacific Crest Trail when you go over a pass it’s typically (if not always) the highest point that you go over. This means that when you’re fortunate enough to be hiking in the mountains, you’ll largely just be dipping in and out of valleys. Meanwhile, on the CDT, many of the passes that you hit will be low points, meaning that you will likely be hiking a ridge down to and then up from said pass. True, being in the mountains is cool, but being on the mountains is better.
Towns Aren’t Crowded
One of the things you might not think about before a thru-hike is the impact thru-hikers have on towns. On both the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail, hikers pass through some very small and remote towns. Sometimes there may only be one or two hotels or grocery stores – if any. This generally isn’t much of a problem, but when you have a bubble containing hundreds of thru-hikers moving through a town on any given day, accommodation can quickly fill up which could mean no sleeping in a bed or bathing for you. An overabundance of thru-hikers in a town can also lead to some misbehaving asshats giving the locals a bad image of thru-hikers. On the CDT, where people know what they’re doing, this is not much of an issue. However, with the inexperience of many hikers on the PCT, the same can’t be said.
The Continental Divide Trail may not be as well-known as the Pacific Crest Trail on a large scale (and this is a good thing), but among hikers, the CDT is largely regarded as the more challenging of the two trails. If you want to fuel your thru-hiker superiority complex and take your thru-hiker status to the next level, then adding the CDT to your list of accomplishments will take you a lot further up the “thru-hiker d-bag ladder” than a trip on the PCT. The PCT is generally considered to be less challenging than not only the CDT but the Appalachian Trail as well. After hiking the PCT you’re basically still the same nobody that you were before setting out on your disappointing journey of unfulfillment.
I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention, but since you’ve made it this far I’ll assume you have been. The only logical conclusion you can draw when examining the differences between the Continental Divide Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail is that the CDT is definitively the better of the two. Sure, the PCT has its charm, and examined in isolation it may seem to be a good option, but when you add the CDT to the mix it, the PCT just can’t stand up.
Agree? Don’t agree? It doesn’t matter. But if you feel the need to share your opinions, I welcome you to leave a comment.