Thru-Hike the Pacific Northwest Trail

The Pacific Northwest Trail is the most rugged, wild, remote, and challenging trail in the States.

The 1,200-mile Pacific Northwest Trail is not to be taken lightly. This massive trail runs from the Continental Divide to the Pacific Ocean, starting in Glacier National Park and passing through three national parks and seven national forests along the way. It can be classified as one of the most scenic long trails in the world, but also one of the most adventurous.

It’s remote, rugged, and requires expert route finding. Sound fun? We think so, too.

We caught up with Jeff Kish, Executive Director of the Pacific Northwest Trail Association, to learn more about the trail.

How did you become involved with the Pacific Northwest Trail Association?

I didn’t follow a traditional path into my role with the Pacific Northwest Trail Association (if there is such a thing), but a background in small business administration, a passion for the Pacific Northwest Trail, and being in the right place at the right time were all important steps.

My first introduction to the National Trail System came in 2012, when I decided that I would try to hike the Pacific Crest Trail.  Prior to that, I was a clothing store owner in Portland, Oregon.  Business was good.  Life probably looked pretty good from the outside too, but internally, I had grown restless and felt increasingly more unfulfilled by the direction my life was taking.  That spring, I sold the business and most of my things, and hitched a ride down the west coast, all the way to the Mexican border.  Five months later, I crossed into Canada, and I was hooked on long-distance hiking.

The trail runs from the Continental Divide to the Pacific Ocean, starting in Glacier National Park and passing through three national parks and seven national forests along the way.

In 2014, I couldn’t ignore the itch any longer, and found myself on the Empire Builder, traveling from Portland to East Glacier.  After a night in Brownie’s Hostel, I was on the shuttle to the Belly River Trailhead to begin the Pacific Northwest Trail.  That summer was an adventure unlike any I could have imagined, and nine weeks later, I was wiggling my toes in the sand of Washington’s Wilderness Coast, obsessed with the Pacific Northwest Trail.

As luck would have it, ALDHA-West was hosting their annual Gathering a week later at a mountaineer’s lodge not too far away.  It seemed like the perfect place to decompress after the summer I’d just had, so I drove out to spend the weekend with my tribe.

At the Gathering, I met Teresa Martinez, who is the Executive Director of the Continental Divide Trail Coalition. She let me know about the federal advisory committee that was forming for the PNT, and encouraged me to apply.  I was nominated to represent recreation interests, and approved by the Secretary of Agriculture the following year.  In my role on the committee, I got a taste for the planning and management side of the national trails system, and I made a lot of important agency and NGO contacts along the way.  When the Pacific Northwest Trail Association announced the job opening, it felt like it was meant to be.

The PNT just celebrated its 40th anniversary. What are some of the big changes to the trail over the years?

Planning for the Pacific Northwest Trail began in 1970.  Over the next six years, a primitive version of the route was cobbled together between the Continental Divide and the Pacific Ocean, using pre-existing infrastructure between the two terminuses.  That was the birth of the “practical route.”

Planning for the Pacific Northwest Trail began in 1970.

Since early on in the development of the PNT, there has been a version of the trail, and a vision for it. The practical route, and the ideal one.  With the help of other PNT pioneers and enthusiastic locals along the trail corridor, Ron Strickland laid out the earliest version of the trail by the mid 1970s.  In 1977, the first five thru-hikers completed end-to-end hikes of the PNT and proved the route.  The Pacific Northwest Trail Association was incorporated that spring.

Much has changed in the time since.  A lot of people have put a lot of work into the trail.  I’ve been floored by the contributions of some of our volunteers, but I understand the passion.  With their help, the Pacific Northwest Trail Association has spent the last 40 years making the “ideal” practical.

The biggest change that has come to the trail has very little to do with the dirt we’ve moved around though. The PNT started as one man’s dream. The most impressive progress has been how many others have come to share it. The dream became a grassroots movement, and that movement changed history.

After receiving Millennium Trail designation in 2000, and three separate National Recreation Trail designations in 2002, 2003, and 2005, the PNTA set its sights on the ultimate prize—the “holy grail” of trail designations—to join the pantheon of the National Scenic Trails.

In 2008, legislation was introduced to Congress to designate the PNT. On March 25th, 2009, Congress passed the bill, and on March 30th, the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009 was signed into law by Barack Obama, designating the PNT as the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail.

The act assigned the trail to the Department of Agriculture, to be administered by the United States Forest Service. That’s when the PNT really hit the big time.

Is the trail fully finished or will it continue to evolve in the coming years?

We have a long way to go. Most national scenic trails do. With limited public funding, agency budgets literally going up in wildfire flames, threats to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and a myriad of other challenges, it will be decades before the Pacific Northwest Trail reaches completion.

But that doesn’t mean that now isn’t a great time to hike it. When I thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, I found myself in awe of those who had “hiked it back when.”  Now is the time to be that person in PNT history. To hike the trail close to its most primitive state. To exercise your brain as well as your legs. To really accomplish something extraordinary.

To hike the trail close to its most primitive state. To exercise your brain as well as your legs. To really accomplish something extraordinary.

I attended a presentation that was given by three long-distance hikers a couple of weeks ago.  I listened as they described a trail that was difficult to navigate, perforated by road walks, and occasionally dead-ended at no-trespassing signs.  That kind of description might strike a chord with some of today’s PNT thru-hikers, but it came from Dave Odell, Toby Heaton, and Debbie Otten, who were sharing their stories of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in the 1970s.

The PCT was one of the first two trails to be designated as a national scenic trail in 1968, and those three hiked it a similar number of years “post-designation” as we find ourselves with the PNT today.  The amount of work that has been accomplished on the crest trail in the time since is an inspiration.

You worked hard to develop an entire new map system for 2017. What kind of monumental effort went into this and where can interested hikers find these maps?

Creating a new set of maps for a 1,200-mile trail is a monumental effort!  It involved stitching together thousands of pieces of track and waypoint data, and then referencing a variety of maps and databases to verify it.  It took months of researching trail conditions, tide levels, permits, rules, regulations, and a variety of logistic concerns across seven national forests, three national parks, a BLM district, and a mix of state and private lands.

Our goal was to make the trail more accessible, while also preserving some of its challenge and mystery.  We wanted to inspire users to feel confident enough to venture out on the PNT, but we didn’t want to coddle them.  We wanted to curate the information so that our users would have the tools that they need to safely chose their own adventures, but we didn’t want our biases to influence them.

Finally, we knew we’d have a captive audience with this resource, so we took great care to make the most of the opportunity.  The results include a title block that reinforces page-specific messaging about bear safety and LNT principles.

Our goal was to make the trail more accessible, while also preserving some of its challenge and mystery.

The project wouldn’t have been possible without some significant volunteer contributions.  Most notably, one of our members quit his job a couple months before setting out on his own Pacific Northwest Trail adventure in order to help us out.  He logged nearly 200 volunteer hours working directly alongside our staff to bring those pages to life.  Thanks Davinci!

Readers will find the maps available in a variety of formats, for free, at pnt.org/maps

When considering a long trail thru-hike, many people turn to the PCT or the AT. What makes the PNT a special alternative?

Mile for mile, I believe the PNT to be the most rugged, wild, remote, and challenging trail in the States.  It’s probably the least developed, and we like it that way.  There’s no hand-holding.  The wrinkles haven’t been ironed out.  The landscape is untamed, and the PNT hiker is forced to confront their place in the natural world, one that includes grizzly bears, wolves, mountain lions, and other creatures that go bump in the night.

When I finished the PCT, I said to myself, “That was a world-class hike!”  When I finished the PNT, I said to myself, “That was a world-class adventure!”

The PNT is against the grain, both literally and figuratively.  Instead of meandering along the spine of a single mountain range, it ascends over seven.  It’s a trail for those who march (and march and march) to the beat of their own drum.

When I finished the PCT, I said to myself, “That was a world-class hike!”  When I finished the PNT, I said to myself, “That was a world-class adventure!”

What should people who hike the PNT expect in terms of route finding, re-supply availability, etc.

Route finding is one of the most difficult challenges on the PNT at this time.  In most areas, signs and markers have yet to be hung.  Intersections are rarely intuitive.  In an era when less than 25% of National Forest trails meet the agency’s own standards for safety and quality recreation, some trails have gone unmaintained for extended periods of time.  In a few places, there is no trail at all.

Resupply is a lot easier.  In fact, it’s easier than most other trails. There’s a natural rhythm to the PNT.  It starts low, then climbs up over the crest of a rugged western range before descending down the other side into a fertile river valley and along the main street of an historic old-west town.  The pattern repeats until the trail disappears into the lapping waves of the Pacific.  Some hikers walk the entire trail without ever getting into a car.  It’s not hard to do.  The towns are often small, but if you’re not picky, they have everything you need. If you are, you can mail yourself a package.

How much of the PNT is affected by fires at the moment?

The PNT got hit pretty hard this year, especially east of the Cascades. We have fires burning along the trail in all three states.

Rain will return to the Northwest soon, and then the fires will go out. Snow will follow shortly after. We’ll probably have to wait until next June for the snow to melt before we’ll be able to fully assess the damage.

That’s one of the unique challenges that we face in maintaining the Pacific Northwest Trail—an impossibly short season to get things done.  Our east/west orientation means that we can’t chase “summer” up and down the trail throughout the year. Our northern latitude and big mountains mean things freeze early and stay frozen late. The window to work is now poised to slam shut on us, and it wont open again for another nine months.

As far as the hikers go, it could have been much worse.  Everybody has been accounted for.  Many made it through before the fires started.   We worked really hard with local land managers to develop reroutes for every fire, and all of our hikers were able to maintain connected steps if they wanted to.  Most of the fires were started by lightning strikes, and no human-caused fire was sparked by a PNT user.

I’ve watched the PCT burn this summer too. It’s been tragic. Comparatively speaking, I think we’re going to come out of this OK.

Do you have a favorite section of the PNT?

That’s like asking a parent if they have a favorite child. The answer is “yes,” but I’m not telling!

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