Flip-flop and long section hike ideas

The Pacific Crest Trail is for everyone. From day hikes to overnight backpacking trips, and longer, there are a lifetime of ways to enjoy the PCT. It’s not just about a thru-hike. And in fact, traditional northbound or southbound thru-hikes have hit sustainable capacity limits. It makes a lot of sense to think about seeing the trail in other ways.

Flip-flops for quieter trail experiences

A flip-flop has you starting somewhere in the “middle”. You’ll head one direction, reach the end, and then return to your starting point and head the other way. Flip-floppers will generally have a less crowded experience, both in town and on the trail. You help reduce damage that occurs when too many people are in the same place.

flip flop the pct

Photo by Justin “School Bus” McCormick

There are many ways to flip-flop

You’ll look to start after the snow has largely melted, likely in early to mid-July. Some ideas:

  • Head north from the Lake Tahoe region. Conveniently, Tahoe Truckee Area Regional Transit (TART) runs from Truckee (Amtrak and Greyhound from Reno, Sacramento or San Francisco) to Olympic Valley and the west side of Donner Lake. From both bus stops, short trails lead to the PCT. Time your start so that you’re not walking on snow – the climb to the Sierra Buttes, about a week in, can hold steep snow slopes if you are early.
  • Head north from Chester, Calif. If you want to split the trail in even halves, and start at one of the most favorable early season spots, Chester is a good option – especially if friends or family are driving you as public transit to Chester is limited. On day two, you’re heading into Lassen Volcanic National Park where higher elevations hold snow (usually through June) but it’s generally fairly flat terrain. Leaving the park, you’ll find yourself on one of the first sections in Northern California to melt every winter: the Hat Creek Rim, and onwards towards Castella. Beware that if you’re too early, you’ll find steep and challenging snow a day or two north of McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park.
  • Head north from Burney, Calif. Sage Stage services Burney. Just north of town, the higher elevations between Red Mountain and Grizzly Peak can hold snow to late June. Otherwise, the region between Burney Falls and I-5 should be snow free around mid-June. Don’t underestimate this section if there is still snow. You’re probably better off starting from Chester if that’s the case.
  • A three-leg itinerary starting with the desert first. If you really want to start in the spring, there’s a flip-flop for that, too! It’s a bit more complicated, but Kern Transit stops at Walker Pass.
    • First: Walker Pass, CA to Mexico
    • Then: Ashland, Oregon to Walker Pass
    • Finally: Ashland, Oregon to Canada

    This idea has roughly the same timing as a traditional northbound thru, but in Southern California you’ll reach the tallest, snowiest mountains later so the snow has more time to melt. You’ll also go through the Mojave Desert earlier when the weather is more likely pleasant.

  • Head north from Ashland, Oregon or the Oregon/Washington border. We’re mentioning these together as they typically require the same start dates (early July?) as snow takes longer to melt in the Cascades. It’s really your call whether you want to hike both Oregon and Washington before flipping, or just Washington. Starting at either of these places can mean less snow travel than starting at the northern terminus, and both locations are serviced by public transit.

Plan your trip carefully. Every year we see people start their hikes too early. As is typical in the mountains: winter is snowy, snow persists into early summer and summer is beautiful at high elevations and hot at low elevations. Most people wait for dry summer trail. Snow begins melting quickly in May, and the trail is usually mostly snow-free by early to mid-July. Learn more here.

pct sign in a tree

Photo by Justin “School Bus” McCormick

Permits for flip-flops

If each leg of your trip is 500 miles or more, and it’s a single continuous trip, you’re likely eligible for a PCT Long-distance Permit. And if not, you can get local permits. Long-distance flip-flop permits are essentially two or more long-distance section hikes on one permit. Many of these trips start at locations that don’t have per-day limits on the number of permits available. Your permit will only be subject to the overall limit of 8,000 total long-distance permits per year, and the limit of 1,400 section hike permits that can travel across the John Muir Trail.

A long section might fit the bill

If the logistics of a flip-flop sound like too much, consider just picking a long section. What are you most looking forward to seeing? Is there a region you’re excited about?

By hiking sections, instead of the whole trail in one year, you can experience the PCT when conditions are their best.

Any of the flip-flop ideas would make a great section. You could do the northern half of the trail from Chester to Canada one year, and then come back the next summer to hike from Chester to Mexico.

The PCT’s historic segments

The Pacific Crest Trail started out as a “system of trails” and the idea that they’d link together across the United States. Some of these trails existed on the ground, and some were mostly on paper. Each historic segment would make for a superb trip. Clinton C. Clarke described them from north to south in his pioneering work. Today, most portions of these historic segments have become the PCT, but in places you can still find the original route.

  • Cascade Crest Trail: Canada to the Columbia River (505.5 miles)
  • Oregon Skyline Trail: Columbia River to California (456.5 miles)
  • Lava Crest Trail: Oregon to Donner Pass (538 miles)
  • Tahoe to Yosemite Trail: Meeks Bay on Lake Tahoe to Yosemite (186 miles)
  • John Muir Trail: Yosemite to Mount Whitney (211 miles)
  • Sierra Trail: Mount Whitney to Tehachapi Pass (208 miles)
  • Desert Crest Trail: Tehachapi Pass to Mexico (566.5 miles)

PCTA is here to help

We hope this helps with thinking through your planning. We love helping people connect to the trail, so please reach out if you need help planning a trip.

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