The Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail, known for its wild character and remote location and iconic landscapes, becomes more popular every year. Intuitively, we know that only a small percentage of people using the trail take months off from work or school to travel along its entire length. The vast majority of PCT users are out for short trips: day hikes and horseback rides, weekend backpacking or horseback riding trips, or maybe for a week or two.
How many people use the PCT?
We’d love to know exactly how many people use the Pacific Crest Trail. Probably hundreds of thousands or more than a million people use the PCT each year—if we were to count every person who steps on to some section of the trail. We just don’t know and there’s no feasible way to count them all.
Because of the length of the trail, the fact that it crosses three states and numerous local, state and federal jurisdictions and the wildly different ways in which people use it, it’s very difficult to figure out how many people hike and horseback ride on the trail every year. No one has tackled that project yet.
The most popular trailheads are used by thousands of people on a holiday weekend. Some of the marquee hikes in the world, the John Muir Trail, Rae Lakes Loop and Jefferson Park are along the PCT.
In future years, we hope that a recreation survey can be done for the trail.
Long-distance permit numbers
Long-distance users, defined as those traveling 500 miles or more in a single trip, are a small percentage of the trail’s total users. These travelers may receive the PCT long-distance permit. It should come as little surprise that few people take months off to hike or ride their horse for extended periods along the PCT.
It should be noted that a high percentage of permit holders do not follow through with their trip plans. Changing life circumstances, motivations, injuries and other factors interfere with many people’s plans.
In 2016, long-distance hikers and horseback riders came from all 50 states and 41 countries and territories.
How many people thru-hike the PCT each year?
Starting late in each summer, we hear from hundreds of people that have completed the trail. The table below represents the number of people (both thru-hikers and section hikers and horseback riders) that have told us that they’ve finished the trail in a given year. It’s important to note that these numbers are self reported, meaning that they are not a true count of PCT completions, both because finishers who don’t bother to report their completions are not counted and PCTA does not verify anyone’s claims of completing the trail. For more data, take a look at the 2,600 miler list.
A concentration of long-distance hikers in southern California
Naturally, long-distance hikers start around the same time each spring. A maximum of 50 permits are issued each day for long-distance hikers and horseback riders starting at or near the Mexican border. Concentrations of hikers starting at the Mexican border in spring have significantly increased and impacts to fragile desert resources are a concern. In the past, large numbers of people would start on the same day, and relatively few people started the day before or the day after.
The Pacific Crest Trail passes through a fragile desert ecosystem and continues on through many more sensitive locations. Because of the general scarcity of water, vegetation and organic soils, desert lands at the southern terminus are particularly susceptible to damage and are slow to recover. Traveling lightly on the land, in this case, spreading out and not gathering in very large groups, allows all of us to act on behalf of the places and wildlife that inspire – in deserts and beyond.
Here is a graph that charts the distribution of long-distance hikers starting at the Mexican border during the spring.
When will new numbers be released?
Permit numbers will be published at the end of each calendar year. This lets us release final numbers. Thru-hikers sometimes start as late as August heading southbound and we continue to issue permits for the entire trail through June and July. Section-hike permits continue to be issued well into the fall for people hiking long sections in southern California.
How about historical data?
Before 2013, long-distance permits were issued to groups of up to eight people and while we know how many permits were issued, we do not know for how many people were associated with each permit; so permit numbers prior to 2013 are an unreliable gauge of PCT use. Since 2013, we’ve improved our monitoring to capture more information on the total number of users by requiring that each long-distance hiker or horseback rider obtain a permit.
Help protect the Pacific Crest Trail experience
Thank you for protecting and stewarding this wonderful trail! It is our shared passion that will keep the Pacific Crest Trail the high quality experience that it is. Read more about how you can minimize your impact.
Large numbers of people have impacts, even more so when they’re all grouped together. Real, negative impacts are noted. Highlighting three:
- Improper disposal of human waste is a problem on the PCT
- Social campfires in Southern California, where wildland brushfires start easily and spread all too close to homes
- Water source concerns – big gatherings build ever larger campsites at water sources. Plants in rare semi-riparian areas get trampled and have no time to recover. Wildlife that depends on the water becomes even more displaced. Notably, the rare arroyo toad’s breeding season overlaps northbound thru-hiker season. In recent years, some previously closed campgrounds were re-opened during “toad season” for thru-hikers. It’s important that thru-hikers travel lightly so this access remains and frogs can breed.