Posted on September 20 2018
I’m thrilled that you are interested in hiking the Pacific Crest Trail! I can tell you from personal experience that your life will never be the same after spending an extended period of time in the wilderness hiking. So when should you begin your hike?
The short answer: the most common time to hike the PCT northbound is April - September. April is a good time to start at the southern terminus in Campo, California. Most thru-hikers who finish at the northern terminus near Manning Park, British Columbia, Canada, do so in August or September. Southbound thru-hikers typically begin early-July and finish in the fall. Continue reading to learn why these are the safest dates for thru-hiking the PCT.
All about Northbounding (NOBO) the PCT: Hiking the PCT is considered a seasonal activity due to the extreme environments the trail passes through. The first 700 miles wind through the western fringes of the Colorado Desert, part of the Sonoran Desert, and across the Mojave Desert. This translates into hot days where a hiker typically experiences daytime highs of 100+ ℉/38+ ℃, even during the spring. This is not every day, but it happens frequently and can last for a week or more. As a result, it is generally considered unsafe to hike across these deserts in the summer months. By June temperatures in the deserts can reach as high as 115 ℉/46 ℃, and natural water sources are scarce. Therefore beginning the trail before June is highly recommended.
Mixed within these first 700 miles of desert are the small mountain towns of Mt. Laguna, Idyllwild, Big Bear, and Wrightwood. All of these towns have annual snowfall. Both Big Bear and Wrightwood have local ski resorts. For thru-hikers, this means lots of cold and potentially dangerous hiking conditions when the trail could be covered in snow for months and temperatures may not rise above freezing for long periods of time. Therefore you don’t want to start the first 700 miles too soon.
Most snow in the first 700 miles of Southern California can be avoided by beginning no earlier than mid to late-March. If beginning this early, I recommend planning weeks of hiking with days no longer than 10-12 miles because you don’t want to arrive at the Sierra Nevada Mountains (Miles 700 - 1157) too early. It is also highly likely that if starting in mid-March you will encounter a spring snowstorm or two; if it’s been a typical snow year, an ice axe and crampons or microspikes will be needed to walk across Fuller Ridge north of Idyllwild. There is an alternate that bypasses the worst of the snow if you choose to take that and avoid the icy/snowy ridge.
The southern Sierra Nevada Mountains, beginning north of Kennedy Meadows at Mile 702, are home to Mt. Whitney 14,505 ft/4,421 m, the highest peak in the contiguous 48 states. Just a day’s hike north of Mt. Whitney is Forester Pass (13,153 ft/4,009 m), the highest point on the Pacific Crest Trail.
The Sierra Nevada Mountains are exquisite, but they can be very deadly as well. Every year more than a dozen hikers, climbers, and other recreational tourists lose their life in these unforgiving mountains. Many of them drown in raging creeks and rivers. Some slip off of steep icy slopes. Avalanches are also a risk in many areas. The dangers are real and should not be trivialized because you have hiked 700 miles without any major incidents. However, proper planning can mitigate the majority of these risks.
Traditionally early-June is considered “safe” to enter the mountains. However during high snow years, mid-June may be better or in low snow years, perhaps hikers can safely hike through in mid-May. Every season there are indeed hikers that enter the mountains in May. They are with a group and everyone carries and knows how to use an ice axe and crampons. Mid-season you may only need microspikes and later, no traction devices at all. Everyone should weigh their experience, training, and risk tolerance to determine the best time for them to enter the mountains.
An average thru-hiker takes approximately 6 weeks to hike from Campo, the southern terminus, to Kennedy Meadows, the gateway to the Sierra. Many hikers take 7 or 8 weeks and some only 4 to 5 weeks. But there’s no reason to be in a hurry early on your PCT journey as this leads to overuse injuries even in the healthiest of hikers. Once getting through the Sierra, thru-hikers need to keep moving.
The urgency is the snow in the northern Cascade Mountains in Washington. Winter arrives earlier there than anywhere else on the PCT. August is prime time in the Cascades. September is anyone’s guess. In 2013, the first big snow came in mid-September creating conditions that were unsafe for thru-hikers to continue. This forced many hikers off the trail before completing their thru-hike. Around 2012, it was completely the opposite - hikers were still finishing way into October!
Tradition stands to reason, if you want to complete your thru-hike in a single season, you need to plan to arrive at the Canadian border near mid-September. Often you can hike into early October, but there’s never a guarantee with Mother Nature. She may drop several feet of snow in September.NOBO Recap: NOBO thru-hikers should plan to start no earlier than mid-March and no later than mid-May. If beginning in March plan to go very slow. If beginning in mid-May plan to hustle through the first 700 miles to avoid the extreme heat of the Colorado & Mojave Deserts in June. Begin the Sierra sometime in June. Arrive at the northern terminus by mid-September. Hopefully the information above helps all of you considering a northbound (NOBO) thru-hike.
All about Southbounding (SOBO) the PCT: Now it’s time to take a look at southbound (SOBO) thru-hiking. If you cannot start northbound before mid-May, consider going southbound. SOBOers typically begin their trek in early-July. This is because of all the snow in the northern Cascade Mountains. The northern Cascades typically hold their snow until sometime in July. Those beginning their SOBO trek before most of the snow has melted face treacherous snow traverses in numerous areas. In the northern Cascades, the PCT is often dug out of the side of steep mountain sides with long runouts filled with trees below. Avalanches are common because of the steep terrain and warming temperatures; therefore it’s best to avoid the worst of the conditions and wait for most of the snow to melt off into early-July.
In a low snow year, hikers may be able to start as early as mid to late-June, however this is considered very early and unlikely. During a high snow year, thru-hikers may not start until mid-July. Once beginning southbound, thru-hikers need to keep a steady pace from the get go. Their biggest concern is making it south of the Sierra Nevada Mountains before winter sets in beginning in October. Of course this date varies, but with the southern Sierras having the highest passes on the PCT, it’s safest to not take the risk and get trapped in an early storm. Plan to get out before the snow arrives!
After the Sierra, the southern California mountain towns listed near the beginning of this article are your next concern. However, usually the snow does not begin until late-November or even into December and are not considered to be a limiting factor in hiking southbound. The nights will get cold as you move deeper into fall. The deserts experience freezing temperatures as well as the southern California mountains.
SOBO Recap: SOBO thru-hikers should plan to begin in Washington in early/mid-July keeping a steady pace to reach the southern Sierras (~2000 miles from Canada) by early October.
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