It’s that time again, when we go comparing trails. Now that we’ve at least walked in all the states along the CDT, I would say it’s fair for us to give a little insight to the uniqueness of this trail by comparing it to others. I will probably miss some differences or similarities, but here are the ones that stand out to me.
While the water in Southern California was scarce, the water in New Mexico was even less plentiful. It could be because we started in NM so late, but we also started the PCT late. I would say that there were more water caches maintained on the PCT, which certainly helped in dry stretches. Both trails have a rough start for northbound hikers who have to go for multiple 25+ mile waterless stretches at a time. Since NM the water has been great, with just a few random spots of little or no water, but the PCT was like that too.
As I sit in a town of 105 people that I had to hitch to on a gravel road, I think this trail is slightly more challenging in resupplies. Towns are a bit further from the road, a little harder to get to, but some are just as small as the PCT. We did the PCT so differently in that we never hitched to a town, so we did food carries of 250 miles at a time. Now we go 100-150 miles but have to hitch. We also mailed ourselves good food the entire way so we haven’t had to depend on the small selection in most of these small trail towns.
This one is a biggie. While the AT is accessible to over a million people, the CDT is just the opposite. There is no one out here but us hikers, with the exception of Colorado and a few small patches in other states. The trail simply isn’t that accessible, and to be honest, isn’t that pretty in a lot of sections around towns. In New Mexico, we went 27 days before seeing another hiker. I’m not sure you could go 27 hours on the AT without seeing another person. But, the people we do meet who are randomly on the trail or the people in town, are all good people. The PCT is sort of a mix of the two trails. It has other users besides thru-hikers, the trail is accessible yet separate from big cities, and quite a bit of it is scenic throughout.
They are all hard. How about that for a comparison? While the AT doesn’t have huge mountains, much of the trail is rocky and rooty, making for harder hiking, and it constantly goes up and down. The elevation changes may not be major, but there are enough of them to tire you out. The PCT and CDT have sections with huge climbs and descents, but also have relatively flat, fast sections. Where the PCT goes up high at times, it goes back down. The trail stays very high for long stretches at a time here, making for exposed walking on the divide, exposed to sun, to lightning, and lots of wind. Being above treeline for so long makes for some harsh trail, being exposed to the elements and often without water for a long time.That being said, all three trails are hard for all different reasons.
It rained on us for 11 days straight in Pennsylvania on the AT. It didn’t rain on us for the first 64 days on the PCT, and even then, we only had rain for 5 days total out of 109. It hasn’t rained on us that much here on the CDT, but the weather is volatile, with thunderstorms rolling in on a lot of afternoons, which means lightning while we walk along exposed ridges. My favorite weather is certainly the PCT because if you hike it fast enough, you don’t get much of the shoulder seasons when there is the possibility of colder, wetter, and snowier weather. I am very scared of lightning so this aspect of much of the CDT has stressed me out a bit. And with such high elevations much of the time, we have some chilly nights.
Our average mileage for the PCT was 25 a day, 22 a day for the AT, and so far is about 28 a day here. But the miles are easiest to come by on the PCT. The trail is mostly smooth tread and there are switchbacks to get up and down climbs. The rougher terrain on the AT makes for slower miles and the absolute lack of tread out here makes miles difficult to come by. For example, we left Lima on Wednesday and had 105 miles to make in about 3 days or less. It’s nearly impossible to count on making miles out here because we don’t know if there will be any actual trail to walk or if we will have difficulty navigating. We took a half day too long in this section and missed our PO deadline. With the PCT and the AT, with the exception of a few sections like the Sierras and the Whites, if we put in the time, the miles will come. With the CDT, we can put in the time and the effort, but its not a given that the miles will come. The trail is just so unpredictable, which makes planning tough. I have had to be flexible beyond belief, and anxiety got the better of me in Colorado, but I’m getting better.
This is one lonely trail, and I’m not even hiking alone. It’s hard to describe just how desolate the trail feels almost every single day. As I’ve learned to say, there is no eject button. Once we leave a town, there is no getting out of the woods until the next town a hundred miles away. On the AT you can get to a road which leads to a town almost every day. The PCT is more remote than the AT, but the trail has many more users than the CDT.
That’s all I have for now. There are a few more things I could compare that stem from those big differences, but those are the big ones for me. Overall this is the hardest trail I’ve done because there is so much route finding. We never needed a map or GPS on the other trails and we get lost daily out here. It is hard to stay positive when we are walking on the trail and suddenly the tread disappears and we pop out into a meadow with no signs to show the way. That happens a lot but we’ve gotten better at dealing with it. Still, I miss the dependable white blazes of the AT and the smooth tread on the PCT, but I’m trying to embrace the often trail-less CDT, while at the same time telling myself I will be volunteering to do some serious trail building here in the future.