pacific crest trail

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For the first time since 2010, I flew out to California last week to attend the Annual Day Zero Pacific Crest Trail Kick Off at Lake Morena County Park. I’d last been there as an aspiring through-hiker, nervously joining hundreds of others to meet new partners, learn about the trail, and check out new backpacking gear. This time I was attending with my partners in app-making, Paul and Alice, and setting up camp in the vendors’ area to show off our apps to through-hikers and visitors.

Setting up the vendor booth in sunny SoCal weather.

Setting up the vendor booth in sunny SoCal weather.

We arrived on Wednesday morning, on a mild, sunny summer day. Other vendors were already beginning to set up, and hikers were already streaming into the campground. We were so busy throughout the Kickoff that we barely ventured past the vendor area. With such great friends as Gossamer Gear, Lightheart Gear, and The Stick Pic, there was no shortage of camaraderie.

Not-so-sunny SoCal weather to show off tents and backpacks in the vendors area.

Not-so-sunny SoCal weather to show off tents and backpacks in the vendors area.

Alice and Ryan

Alice and I getting our game faces on. This is serious business!

Unlike 2010, the Kickoff didn’t seem to be the time when most through-hikers began their hikes. Many such hikers were already as far north as Wrightwood and Agua Dulce, hundreds of miles north. The drought in California has allowed hikers to start much earlier than usual, and to hike further into the north where snow would normally shut them out until much later in the season. Because of the spread, it seems there were fewer hikers at the Kickoff even though there are more hikers overall on the PCT.

Paul and Ryan

Paul and I took shelter from the steady drizzle.

Even with the smaller numbers of hikers, Paul and Alice and I were completely exhausted by the end of the Kickoff, after constantly talking with visitors and demoing our apps to curious hikers for four days. The weather didn’t cooperate, with cold and rain on every day except the set-up day. On our way back to Paul and Alice’s home in Idyllwild, the rain hit harder than it had in months, drenching the parched state and a lot of not-so-parched hikers on the trail.

Hikers stopped by to see the new app features on their way to Canada.

Hikers stopped by to see the new app features on their way to Canada.

Despite the fact that I was a little sick before Kickoff, and the exhaustion pushed my recovery down by a few days, I had a wonderful time out there. Paul and Alice and I have been working together on Guthook’s Guides for almost five years now, but the crazy thing is that I haven’t seen them since 2010 when we parted ways in Manning Park, British Columbia. This was my first trip out to the PCT, and my first time seeing them, since then. We spent the next few days talking plans and programming, coming up with some great ideas for the future. I’m already looking forward to next year, when I’m pretty sure I’ll make a trip out west once again. Until then, Happy Trails to the PCT Class of 2015!

The Class of 2015 getting their picture taken at Lake Morena.

The Class of 2015 getting their picture taken at Lake Morena.

 

If you’ve been on the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail in the past few years, and thought, as I have, “there are a lot of people out here,” you’re not wrong. You may have also heard that crowds on these trails increased after popular books like “Wild” and “A Walk In The Woods” were published. This is also quite true. But few people have gone further than to show anecdotal evidence of this. Luckily, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy has been keeping track of this trend for decades– since long before Bill Bryson set foot in Amicalola Falls State Park.

The ATC was very helpful in sending me some graphs to show the trend of increasing hiker use on the Appalachian Trail. The first graph shows the number of people per year who applied for the 2000-miler certification (whether as section hikers or through-hikers). You’ll see that the numbers generally climbed slowly from the Sixties through the mid-Nineties, with a few jumps after National Geographic published a book and an article about the Trail.

Number of 2000 Milers on the Appalachian Trail by year.

Number of 2000 Milers on the Appalachian Trail by year. Graph courtesy of ATC.

Once “A Walk In The Woods” was published, the numbers jumped by more than 50% over two years. What surprised me, though, was that those numbers started to fall after only a few years, and continued to fall until around 2008. Since 2008, though, the numbers have grown steadily. The graph mentions the National Geographic film on the Trail released to Netflix in 2009, but I would also argue that the increasing prominence of hiker blogs and social media online has spurred the increase as much as any traditional media. But that’s an argument for later.

The previous graph tells how many hikers finish the Appalachian Trail each year, that’s not the full story. Conventional wisdom says that about one-third of hikers who start the AT each year will finish. Another graph provided by the ATC shows the number of people who start the trail each year (this number is probably not 100% accurate, but it’s as accurate as we can get, and the trends mirror the number of finishers, so it’s probably quite good).

Number of hikers starting the AT from Georgia by year. Graph courtesy of ATC.

Number of hikers starting the AT from Georgia by year. Graph courtesy of ATC.

Again, I was surprised to see that the numbers of hikers dropped between 2000 and 2007 (apparently my year on the AT was the least crowded of the new millenium! Who knew?) before skyrocketing again. So will numbers spike after the “A Walk In The Woods” movie comes out this summer? My money says yes. And will the numbers gradually decrease for several years after? My guess is that if the numbers do fall after that spike, they won’t fall to pre-2014 levels unless something big changes in the management of the trail, the culture of hiking, or some other major external factor.

So what about the Pacific Crest Trail and “Wild”? The PCTA doesn’t give out numbers as readily as the ATC, but I put together what I could. A recent post on their blog reports that 2013 and 2014 were record years for thru-hiker permits issued, at 1042 and 1468, respectively, but what did things look like before? I went to their 2600-Miler list and counted entries going back to 1995 and compiled this graph. See if you can tell which year “Wild” was published.

PCT Finishers by year.

PCT Finishers by year. Graph was created in December 2014, so the 2014 number is actually now 432, about the same as 2012.

Reviews for the film “Wild” were much better than for the film “A Walk In The Woods”, including nominations at the Golden Globes and Academy Awards. Also, “Wild” was released in the winter, while “A Walk In The Woods” won’t see wide release until after through-hiker season is well underway.

So if you’re concerned about crowding on any of these trails, the next few years will be crucial. As the PCTA says in the above blog post, “Education Is Key”. Make sure your fellow hikers know how to protect the ecosystem around the trail, the physical treadway of the trail, and the culture surrounding the trails. Hopefully we can all enjoy the pleasures of a through-hike without crowding out the fun.

Is it too early for 2015 PCT hikers to make a High Sierra hiking plan? Probably. We took a look at historic High Sierra snow pack data, as gathered by the California Department of Water Resources  (Station ID: BGH) at Bighorn Plateau. The snow depth at the Bighorn Plateau station (Google map) has been measured since 1949.

The chart below plots snow depth each year from 1990 to February 2015. You will see 4 bars in each group (except 1996, which is missing March data), representing the snow depth in February, March, April and May for that year.

Sierra Historic Snow Pack

Although February snow level tends to be a decent predictor of May snow, you should notice that you cannot reliably predict the May snow level based upon the February data. Just take a look at 1991 and 2013 to convince yourself of that.

So far 2015 looks like it may be a low snow year, but it’s too early to tell.

For your entertainment, here is all data, from 1949, taken from the Bighorn Plateau station. If you tackled the High Sierra in 1983 or any of the other big snow years, it would be interesting to hear from you in the comments.

Sierra Snow Pack 1949-2015

 

Paul (“Tangent”) here. After Guthook identified the steepest parts of the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and Continental Divide Trail, I started wondering about the overall slope, or grade, of these trails. Using south to north elevation data at the tenth-mile level, I evaluated percentage slope from point to point, then binned the data according to various cut-off values.

All data is south to north.

Here are the results:

Percentage of CDT, PCT, AT with various slope values

As you can see, the AT has a greater overall percentage of “non-flat” hiking than the other two Triple Crown trails: 59% of the AT has a grade of at least 5% uphill or %5 downhill. Compare that to 53% for the PCT and 46% for the CDT.

A further analysis of the extremes shows that the PCT is very well-graded, with only about 2% of the trail at greater than a 15% grade uphill or downhill. The AT, on the other hand, is composed of 11% of extreme slope. That’s over 200 miles of some very tough hiking!

Percentage of PCT, CDT, AT with 15%+ slope uphill

Percentage of PCT, CDT, AT with 15%+ slope downhill

And for you data geeks, here is a scatter plot of the slope distribution for the three trails (multiply the x-axis by 100 for percentage values):

Slope Distribution for the CDT, PCT, and AT

Last year, I found a forum thread on Whiteblaze with a debate about “what is the steepest climb on the Appalachian Trail?” I thought about it for a while, then decided I might use my elevation profile data for the AT, plus my programming knowledge, to analyze the climbs of the AT to come up with a good estimate of what really is the steepest part of the Appalachian Trail.

My method for measuring the steepest climbs requires a little bit of explanation: the program broke the trail down into 0.5 mile segments (initially 1.0 miles, but I decided 0.5 would give better results), including overlapping segments (0.0 to 0.5, 0.1 to 0.6, 0.2 to 0.7, etc.). It first sorted through all segments to find the largest elevation change in any segment, then discarded any overlapping segments (if 2.0 to 2.5 was steeper than 2.2 to 2.7, the latter was discarded). Shortening the length of a measured segment might provide a more accurate measure of the absolutely steepest climbs, but I had to make a cut-off somewhere, since if we looked only at 0.1 mile segments we might just find flukes in the elevation data, like a single ladder that climbs over a boulder.

More recently, I applied the same measure to the PCT as a fun way to compare the two trails. Obviously, the steepness of the two trails doesn’t entirely reflect the challenges, but it’s fun to look at. Also, since my apps have the same vertical exaggeration for all elevation profiles, we can look at the profile of the AT and PCT and really see how they compare.

Here are the results:
Edit: Bobcat requested I run the numbers for the CDT as well, so I’ve added them as of 1/6/2015. The Overall gain/loss is calculated only with the CDT Proper, while the steepest climbs include the various alternate routes as mapped by Bear Creek Survey.
Overall elevation gain/loss on Appalachian Trail: 917,760′ over 2185.3 mi (avg: 420’/mi)
Overall elevation gain/loss on Pacific Crest Trail: 824,370′ over 2668.8 mi (avg: 309’/mi).
Overall elevation gain/loss on Continental Divide Trail: 917,470′ over 3029.3 mi (avg: 303’/mi).

Fifth Steepest Climbs on the Triple Crown:

PCT #5: Mono Creek toward Silver Pass (a section of 550' in 0.6 mi)

PCT #5: Mono Creek toward Silver Pass (a section of 550′ in 0.6 mi)

AT #5: O Joy Brook to the Tableland on Katahdin (2100' in 1.4 mi, with a 860' climb in 0.5 mi)

AT #5: O Joy Brook to the Tableland on Katahdin (2100′ in 1.4 mi, with a 860′ climb in 0.5 mi)

CDT #5: The climb to Grays Peak Summit in CO (about 800' in 0.8 mi)

CDT #5: The climb to Grays Peak Summit in CO (about 800′ in 0.8 mi)

Fourth Steepest Climbs on the Triple Crown:

PCT #4: Descent from Smedberg Lake (725' in 0.9 mi)

PCT #4: Descent from Smedberg Lake (725′ in 0.9 mi)

AT #4: Mt Garfield's North Shoulder (970' in 0.6 mi)

AT #4: Mt Garfield’s North Shoulder (970′ in 0.6 mi)

CDT #4: The descent from Knapsack Col in the Knapsack Col alternate (1400' in 1.3 mi)

CDT #4: The descent from Knapsack Col in the Knapsack Col alternate (1400′ in 1.3 mi)

Third Steepest Climbs on the Triple Crown:

PCT #3: Descent into Stubblefield Canyon (900' in 1 mi)

PCT #3: Descent into Stubblefield Canyon (900′ in 1 mi)

AT #3: Galehead Hut to South Twin (1130' in 0.8 mi, with about 900' in only 0.5 mi)

AT #3: Galehead Hut to South Twin (1130′ in 0.8 mi, with about 900′ in 0.5 mi)

CDT #3: The climb to South Peak on Columbus Gila alternate (1900' in 1.8 mi)

CDT #3: The climb to South Peak on Columbus Gila alternate (1900′ in 1.8 mi)

Second Steepest Climbs on the Triple Crown:

PCT #2: Near Surprise Creek, WA (about 700' in 0.6 mi)

PCT #2: Near Surprise Creek, WA (about 700′ in 0.6 mi)

AT #2: Asquam Ridge to Kinsman Notch (2200' in 1.7 mi, with one 930' climb in 0.5 mi)

AT #2: Beaver Brook Shelter to Kinsman Notch (2200′ in 1.7 mi, with one 930′ climb in 0.5 mi)

CDT #2: The descent from Temple Pass to Temple Lake on Cirque of the Towers alternate (900' in 0.6 mi)

CDT #2: The descent from Temple Pass to Temple Lake on Cirque of the Towers alternate (900′ in 0.6 mi)

Steepest Climbs on the Triple Crown:

PCT #1: Old Snowy Mountain (about 700' in 0.6 mi)

PCT #1: Old Snowy Mountain (about 700′ in 0.6 mi)

AT #1: Pinkham Notch to Wildcat E (2000' in 1.5 miles, with one 1000' climb in 0.5 mile)

AT #1: Pinkham Notch to Wildcat E (2000′ in 1.5 miles, with one 1000′ climb in 0.5 mile)

CDT #1: The climb to Parkview Mountain in CO (1400' in 1.1 mi)

CDT #1: The climb to Parkview Mountain in CO (1400′ in 1.1 mi)

Here is my original response on Whiteblaze with more detailed AT results.

What are your reactions to this silliness?