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The Big Three at a Glance
A primer on the AT, the Pacific Crest, and the Continental Divide. By Jim Gorman


Photo: McAfee Knob on the AT
McAfee Knob on the AT

The Classic One
The Appalachian Trail
Somewhere in the 2,174 miles (3,499 kilometers) between Springer Mountain in Georgia and the bare, windswept summit of Mount Katahdin in Maine, the Appalachian Trail levels off and runs free of rocks for a stretch. If you find the spot, let us know. While it's not the longest, highest, or even the most scenic of America's trio of long trails, the AT is hands down the most rugged. It approaches every mountain with an Easterner's hard-charging bluntness, damn the knees or hearts broken along the way.

While physically tough to hike, the AT remains in essence a beginner's trail. Copious huts for shelter, trail blazes for guidance, and towns for resupply see to that. Built in part by the Civilian Conservation Corps, hiked by your grandfather's peers, and tended by generations of volunteers, the AT is where untold numbers of outdoors people first experienced nature on its own terms.

Hike the AT and you rarely hike alone, or far from civilization, even in the depths of Maine's 100-Mile Wilderness: An estimated four million people set foot on some portion of the AT each year. Yet it's the community of 2,000 or so thru-hikers questing to hike the entire trail—many times more than the number attempting the two other big trails combined—who give the AT its lingo and colorful cast of characters. It's this mobile community, lurching along at two miles (3.2 kilometers) an hour, that truly defines the Appalachian Trail.

The Next One
The Continental Divide Trail
Like the mountains it traverses, the Continental Divide Trail is raw and untamed. The route tracks the backbone of the nation, running from the Chihuahuan Desert at the Mexican border into the mountains of northern New Mexico and the still higher alpine zones of Colorado, then down to the desert of Wyoming and on toward Canada, with a collector's eye for many of America's crown jewels: the Wind River Range, Yellowstone, the Bob Marshall Wilderness, and finally Glacier National Park.

That's the loose plan, at least. Some 30 years after being conceived, the CDT is still only 70 percent completed. To a degree unheard of on the Appalachian Trail, route-finding is a daily, if not hourly, necessity. One thru-hiker reports locating only a single CDT marker during 150 miles (241 kilometers) of hiking in Idaho. In some sections, the next hiker might not come along for weeks.

Beyond solitude, the CDT presents natural obstacles in biblical measure: fire, drought, high altitudes, lightning bolts, snow—even, occasionally, plagues of locusts. Factor in the scarcity of towns for resupply, and a thru-hike adds up to an experts-only undertaking. But you needn't be an expert to reap the rewards of the CDT. In a day or a weekend on the trail, casual hikers can see landscapes of immense scale and wildlife in abundance: elk, mountain goats, moose, bison—and perhaps even those standard-bearers of true wilderness, the wolf and the grizzly.

The Wild One
The Pacific Crest Trail
Here's the beguiling secret about the Pacific Crest Trail: Despite the route's extremes of climate—from deserts to glaciers—it's a relatively easy hike. Switchbacks and a trail graded for use by horses means backpackers on the PCT can cover twice the ground in a day as their counterparts on the Appalachian Trail. And the two principal mountain ranges the PCT travels, the Sierra and Cascades, enjoy the most benign summer weather imaginable for ranges that top 12,000 feet (3,658 meters).

Yet the trail does traverse extreme environments like nothing seen back East. Long stretches in the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts of southern California require hikers to tote at least a gallon—more than ten pounds (4.5 kilograms)—of water. River crossings and icy passes in the High Sierra demand specialized skills. And the length of the trail—nearly 500 miles (805 kilometers) longer than the AT—and a short season require thru-hikers to stick to an aggressive pace.

Yet the effort is well worth it. The PCT is the most beautiful and varied of the mega-trails. More than one-third of it lies in pristine and striking wilderness areas—there's one remarkable stretch in the High Sierra where hikers encounter no roads or vestiges of civilization during two solid weeks of hiking. And along its 2,600-mile (4,184-kilometer) length the trail crosses deserts and old-growth forests, alpine zones, glaciers, and volcanoes. In total, it passes through nearly every type of landscape America has to offer.

For the complete guide to America's Grail Trails, including three spectacular maps, pick up the June/July issue of Adventure.

Photo courtesy of David Muench


Articles
From the print edition, June/July 2004

Grail Trails: The Appalachian, The Pacific Crest, and The Continental Divide
- The Big Three at a Glance
Off the Face of the Earth: Holocaust survival in the underground labyrinths of western Ukraine
Southbound on the Mekong: The pristine mountain jungle, ancient Khmer ruins, and sacred Buddhist caves of tiny Laos
Health: A World of Hurt: What's ailing the next generation of outdoor athletes


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June/July 2004



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