I feel like before we started this trail we were always asking people who had done both to compare them. Or asking people who had done the PCT to somehow compare it to a trail they had never even seen… Bottom line is we wanted the deets on what it was going to be like, and even though people did their best explaining those similarities and differences everything still seemed shrouded in mystery. Now that we are here my eyes are wide open. So I will attempt to shed a little light on a comparison that seems hard to nail down. Also keep in mind, we are hardly a month into our hike, so anything I say now is completely subject to change.
There is no doubt about it, the trail is completely different. I doubted this could really be true when people assured me it was. But let me tell you, the PCT is FLAT. I mean, not really, you descend and ascended lots of thousands of feet, but the PCT does it in a way that feels pretty flat. In the last month I can think of two kinda climbs and they were nothing compared to the climbs we endured, day in and day out, on the AT. On the AT it took us weeks to work up to a twenty mile day, out here you can put one in during your first week, probably more if you are fit.
On the AT you rarely got to see where the trail was taking you. Basically you looked for the tallest mountain around and pointed to it and that was a pretty good guess. The AT was fairly direct, tried to hit every peak imaginable, and you never really knew where you were in terms of the landscape thanks to all the trees. Out here you can see the trail for MILES stretching away in front of you. This is both cool and infuriating. It sucks at the end of the day when you think the end is right around the next bend and instead, when you turn the corner you seen the trail continuing to contour up the next hill and you swear loudly at it. The trail that never ends. It is a daily experience to round a corner and see the trail, fourteen or fifteen miles a way on a mountain off in the distance. We are becoming experts on knowing how far away something is. If you can see it you will probably be walking on it by day’s end, that seems to be a good rule of thumb. Even when something looks incredibly far it is usually a lot closer than you assume.
Then there is the meandering. The PCT meeeeeeanders. Which is great because it makes things nice and flat, but when you want to get into town it can be infuriating. The day we went into Julian for examples we could see the road but when we looked at our phone app it was saying we still had fourteen miles of hiking. FOURTEEN?!? We couldn’t believe it. The road looked so close, how could it possible be that long? Well, because the PCT has to go back into every little wash and contour every single ridge, that’s why. The AT would never stand for such nonsense, if there was a place to go it would pretty much head over every possible obstacle to get there, but it would get you there in a straight line.
The PCT does not summit mountains. It goes near summits but it doesn’t seem to have summit fever. In fact, to summit San Jacinto you have to take an alternate route. The AT made a concerted effort to hit every single peak it could, pinging you this way and that way to get them all in.
I don’t know if it is the time of the year or the pace we are going but I am not going to lie, we haven’t seen nearly as many people out here as we did on the AT. Supposedly fifty people started on our day and fifty people started the day before and another fifty the day after… And every day before and after for weeks. And yet we have seen none of that bubble. Part of that is the way people camp out here. Everyone is much more dispersed because the campsites are small and spread out. Most campsites only accommodate one to two tents, occasionally you will find one that works for six tents. This works to spread people out, and then everyone tends to bunch up in town. We had seen hardly anyone until we reached Warner Springs, where we were shocked to see a city of tents. On the AT we camped alone one night in five months, we have already camped alone a couple of times out here.
The people out here seem content with this set up. So far there are less large groupd and less of a push for everyone to find tight knit circles of friends. People seem to hike together and find friends and hike ahead and circle back. People are friendly but many people seem very happy to be doing their own thing. People are even chiller when it comes to trail names, so many people out here don’t have them yet, and I remember on the AT there being this incredible pressure from other hikers to pick one right away. I actually feel out of place for having a trail name already.
Trail towns on the PCT seem just as hiker focused, if not more so, than trail towns on the AT. Maybe it is because the whole hiker craze is still relatively new out here but there is so much buzz surrounding the PCT, there are signs at all the stores welcoming us, restaurants offering specials, trail Angels stocking water caches, people opening their homes up all along the trail. Trail Magic may have stated on the AT but the PCT has adopted it with fervor and they are doing it quite well.
On the AT, at least the year we did it, there weren’t any real crazy detours. There was one around a lake, with posted signage upon arrival on how to get around. When we got there it was easy to take the signed detour and we were back on trail in no time. There was another in Maine that we decided to walk through because people had said it wasn’t hard to follow. The PCT is a different beast when it comes to detours, thanks to the massive fires we have over here on the west coast. We have already walked around one detour and skipped a closed section that the PCTA recommended people shuttle around. Coming up we have a detour around an endangered species closure, an option to detour around an area with Poodle Dog Bush, and another fire detour. A detour sucks because it often involves a lot of road walking, which is hot, hard on the legs, and scary with all the cars whizzing by. What sucks even more though is when a detour option isn’t offered, like the Lake Fire section of closed trail. Having been extreme purists on the AT (we didn’t even slack pack) it is really hard for us to accept that sometimes, on this trail, you have no choice but to act like certain sections of trail don’t exist. That whole “continuous trail of footsteps” concept isn’t always 100% possible to stick too. And that is hard for us. Something else to grapple with, trying to figure out what it really means to be a thru hiker. Meanwhile people yellow blaze all around us, skipping sections of trail like crazy. I wonder what they think.
The trails are very different, but so far that doesn’t mean better. We are at that point in our relationship with the AT where we are nostalgic and defensive of it. Diehard PCT lovers will say things like: You hiked the AT? Why would you do that? (Someone actually said this to us). It was our first, and it will always be our first, and there is something special about that. But this trail is beautiful and diverse in a way that the AT can’t touch. It is exposed and tough and wild, as where the AT felt safe and sheltered and fun. I can’t believe we have already been out here for almost a month. We are already a fifth of a way through this incredible journey and I feel like I am just starting to get a feel for things. I am just starting to settle into the rythym and rhyme of hiking again and learning the moods and movements of the PCT. Time flies by so fast, even when you are taking it day by day. No matter what trail you are hiking that is true.