Good Things Come in 3’s: The Triple Crown Experience
Posted on 01 October 2021
Over 7,500 miles. Nearly 400 days. 22 states. Three trails. One man. Between June of 2014 and October of 2018, I set out to complete the highly coveted Triple Crown challenge. And no, we are not talking about the famous horse races. The Triple Crown of Long-Distance Hiking that is. The Triple Crown of Long-Distance Hiking is recognized by the American Long Distance Hiking Association-West as hiking the entirety of the 2,186-mile Appalachian Trail, the 2,650 mile Pacific Crest Trail, and the 3,100 mile Continental Divide Trail. As of now, there are less than 500 recognized individuals in the world to have completed this monumental task. On October 31st of 2018, I became one of the few.
How was I inspired to take on the most difficult challenge in the hiking world? It all started with a small hike over spring break during my freshman year of college. That’s when I did my first serious multi day hike on the Appalachian Trail. My dad and I completed a section from Duncannon, PA where the trail crosses the Susquehanna River to Boiling Springs, PA. In those couple of days, I became intrigued by the old footpath meandering through the forest; rocks pockmarking a somewhat spongy earth, lookouts atop of vistas, long ridges, misty valleys, and a realization that I wanted more trail. A lot more.
During the next couple of years, I section hiked all of Pennsylvania’s 230 miles of trail. By the beginning of my senior year of college, I decided that I wanted to thru hike the entirety of the Appalachian Trail. All 2,186 miles of it. I also wanted to hike southbound from Maine to Georgia in which only about 10 percent of hikers attempt this route. During my thru hike of the AT in 2014, in a comfy hostel in Monson, Maine, I had a revelation. I had just come out of the 100-mile wilderness. The most remote section of trail. I was soaked to the bone from rain, scraped up, and injured from carrying my 47-pound pack. There was an edition of backpacker’s magazine that featured the Triple Crown. Within a couple minutes of reading that article, I knew what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it.
My plan for hiking all three major north-south long-distance trails in America was to start the Appalachian Trail right after college in 2014. I planned to hike the PCT in 2016 and the CDT in 2018. To plan for successful thru hikes such as these, one must spend countless hours poring over maps, mapping routes, determining what gear/food one should bring, and figuring out logistics. A general timeline is necessary to avoid snowpack and winter weather. If I had not planned as much as I did, I would probably not have completed the Triple Crown or I would have perished in my pursuits.
Here I will give you a sneak peak of what it was like to hike each trail.
The Appalachian Trail
I started the 2,186-mile Appalachian Trail on June 2, 2014. When my parents dropped me off at the base of Mt. Katahdin, I was the most anxious I had ever been in my entire life. Top that off with the high-pitched frequency of buzzing mosquitoes and scurrying of mice (I later found out that the mice had chewed a hole in my peanut m&m’s which ticked me off). When I got to the summit of the mountain and officially started my thru hike, I soaked in the views, and I got a fleeting feeling that everything was going to be alright.
The Appalachian Trail is the most physically demanding of the three. In most places, there is almost know gradual gradient of the uphill sections. Kudos to the ATC for making this trail so intense. The most difficult section of the trail for me was Maine. It was a plethora of rocks, roots, bogs, and…well you guessed it. Bugs. After Maine, the trail was practically a cake walk. I will admit it was an emotional roller coaster in PA because I reunited with my family and then had to leave them a short while later to continue my trek. My first thru hike took me 143 days. I touched the monument on Springer Mountain in Georgia on October 22, 2014.
The Pacific Crest Trail
I started the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail on June 22, 2016. To prep for the higher elevation, I trained in the Chugach Mountain range of Alaska in the winter while I was living there full time. The Pacific Crest trail is my favorite trail to this day. I walked through a variety of landscapes from temperate rainforest, to barren mountains filled with lava rocks, to the high Sierra mountains, to desert. I really loved the fact that this trail was relatively wide open in contrast to the “green tunnel” that is the Appalachian Trail. I also loved the fact that the trail was smooth and graded for horses. Much less physically demanding than the AT but logistically harder. Sometimes, I wouldn’t see humans for 150 miles. It had more of a remote wilderness feeling. Also, the worst feeling in the world is running out of water with no water for the next several miles. Side note: Extra water weight on your back is worth the pain. I completed the trail in 132 days on October 31st, 2016. Two down, one to go.
The Continental Divide Trail
The last trail I attempted was the 3,100-mile Continental Divide Trail. Known as the “build your own adventure” trail, this footpath has official alternates that you can take to lengthen or shorten your trek. My trek was 2,700 miles long. I did not start my journey until July 2, 2018. The northwest part of Montana got record snows and the snowpack was almost unfathomable. I traveled many miles of snow-covered mountain passes. Thank God for apps like Gut hook that allowed me to navigate across the giant white blanket of Glacier National Park.
On this trail, I have had several shortcomings. On a rainy day in Colorado, I got hyperthermia to the point where I was delirious. A knee injury almost ended my trip altogether. I also endured mental hardship that nearly destroyed me. If it was not for the help of family, friends, and above all else, God, I would not be where I am today. On October 31st, 2018, I completed the Triple Crown of Long-Distance Hiking by touching the monument at the New Mexico/Mexico border. It was done. I had hiked 122 days to complete my final thru hike. Over 7,500 miles of hiking across 22 states.
If somebody were to ask me how I did it, I would simply reply humbly, “I just put one foot in front of the other and repeat.” You can follow my crazy adventures by visiting my blog site at jacobfish.com. God Bless.
Jacob Gilliland works at TCO Fly Shop's Boiling Spring location and is happy to serve all the fellow hikers that walk in the door. If you have questions or want to learn more about the Triple Crown, feel free to reach out to Jacob through his company email here: firstname.lastname@example.org