What Are the Steepest Climbs on the AT, PCT, and CDT?

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).
A graph from the Guthook Guides app showing the fifth steepest climb on the Appalachian Trail.
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).

Fourth Steepest Climbs on the Triple Crown:

PCT #4: Descent from Smedberg Lake (725′ in 0.9 mi).
A graph from the Guthook Guides app showing the fourth steepest climb on the Appalachian Trail.
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).

Third Steepest Climbs on the Triple Crown:

A graph from the Guthook Guides app showing the third steepest climb on the Pacific Crest Trail.
PCT #3: Descent into Stubblefield Canyon (900′ in 1 mi).
A graph from the Guthook Guides app showing the third steepest climb on the Appalachian Trail.
AT #3: Galehead Hut to South Twin (1130′ in 0.8 mi, with about 900′ in 0.5 mi).
A graph from the Guthook Guides app showing the third steepest climb on the Continental Divide Trail.
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).
A graph from the Guthook Guides app showing the second steepest climb on the Appalachian Trail.
AT #2: Beaver Brook Shelter to Kinsman Notch (2200′ in 1.7 mi, with one 930′ climb in 0.5 mi).
A graph from the Guthook Guides app showing the second steepest climb on the Continental Divide Trail.
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:

A graph from the Guthook Guides app showing the steepest climb on the Pacific Crest Trail.
PCT #1: Old Snowy Mountain (about 700′ in 0.6 mi).
A graph from the Guthook Guides app showing the steepest climb on the Appalachian Trail.
AT #1: Pinkham Notch to Wildcat E (2000′ in 1.5 mi, with one 1000′ climb in 0.5 mile).
CDT #1: The climb to Parkview Mountain in CO (1400′ in 1.1 mi).