Pacific Northwest Trail:
The PNT weaves for nearly 1250 miles from the crown of the continent in Glacier National Park in Montana to the coast at the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. The PNT is one of 11 National Scenic Trails in the U.S. and is the brainchild of trail visionary Ron Strickland who, nearly 40 years ago, conceived the notion of having a diverse and unique trail span and highlight the Pacific Northwest region from the 'crown to the coast.' The PNT is a most recent addition to the National Scenic Trails system and the PNT adorned the title in 2009.
The PNT is no easy trail. Because the PNT meanders just underneath the Canadian border and spans east to west, a narrow weather window is present in almost every hiking season. Timing the seasons and beating the snow, or waiting for the snow to melt, can pose a difficult task in completing such a lengthy journey in one fell swoop. Wildfire, bushwhacking, navigation, mosquitoes, inclement weather, high water crossings, wildlife (such as grizzly bears and moose), and remote country are all concerns and make the hiking season feel even tighter. All this aside, the infamous overgrown sections of trail of times past have seen some TLC in recent years. From friends who have hiked the PNT prior to me, I noticed a considerable amount of ease in bushwhacking and log-crawling. This, to be honest, made the hiking feel easier than what I expected.
The trail is still in a young state, meaning that a continuous trail tread is a work in progress, where long road stretches tie together large areas of scenic public lands. These road stretches curve around any private land areas that pose a continuity hindrance. That being said, the route has multiple opportunities for extended jaunts into the wilderness. The primary route and alternate routes can make your journey longer or shorter, more physically demanding or less taxing, and lends to a sense of ownership in one's thru-hike.
The PNTA, the organization that advocates access of resources for all, organizes trail maintenance, and works in cooperation with land agencies to promote, maintain, and support this National Scenic Trail, has done a stellar job in promoting the meaningfulness of a long distance hiking trail in a region and place. The PNT goes through small and rural towns in western Montana and eastern Washington which provide the long distance hiker with a sense of community. With this in mind, and to my surprise, folks along the trail really know about the PNT. I had not uncommon experiences where folks would roll on up to me on a road and ask if I was on the PNT. In towns, residents knew what you were doing. Trail angels and other resources in and around towns provide the hiker with comfort, community, and inclusiveness. For full information on the PNT, including preparation, resupply info, permit info, wildlife prep and awareness, trail support, trail conditions and closures, maps, detailed sections info, and shuttles and transportation to either termini, among a ton more of info, follow the link to the PNTA website here.
Here's the basic stats:
Termini: Chief Mountain Portal/Belly River trailhead in Glacier National Park in Montana in the east; Cape Alava on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington.
States: Montana (close to 300 miles), Idaho (close to 50 miles), and Washington (close to 900 miles).
Season: mid-June (depending on snow levels) to mid-September (depending on when the cold and snowy weather returns).
Length: ~1248 miles (depending on the year the overall mileage may change depending on closures and with the potential of refining the trail with partners and land management agencies).
Elevation loss/gain: 230,440ft gain, 235,729ft loss
Average duration: 68 days for an average time, according to the PNTA website. (I completed my '21 thru hike in 41 days)
Direction: Most seem to go east to west, although a small number of folks go the opposite direction)
# of hikers per year: Anywhere between 65-80 potential thru-hikers.
Now that I have the most basic info out of the way, below will be a summarized account of my overall thoughts and feelings of my 2021 thru-hike of the PNT. Afterwards, in a separate post, I will describe my experience in sections based on my town resupply and itinerary. In that sense, I can pick the highlights in a more streamlined version while aspiring hikers can follow my itinerary loosely.
I finally arranged some time to tackle the PNT after initially planning to hike this route in 2014. I think I kept pushing it off because more attractable and more challenging routes were available for me to hike, as the impending lingering thought of major road walking hindered any really true advances in planning the route after 2014. Lo and behold, after hiking the Great Basin Trail again this past Spring of '21, I had an ample space of time to arrange a long hike on a popular long distance trail. I had not been on any real popular long distance trail in a thru-hiking fashion since '16, some 5 years back when I completed both the PCT and CDT back to back. Towards the end of the GBT loop in early June, while having so much fun just walking and feeling all the feels one gets from a long hike, I wanted something more socially connected in a hike. I mulled over a couple long trails but ultimately came up with the PNT as my next adventure revolving around 3 reasons: something new, something popular, and something I could hike in an efficient and expedient manner. All that in mind, after the GBT I dialed in an itinerary that would put me close to 30 miles per day, shipped out a couple of packages for resupply, arranged my travel, and set loose on the trail on July 8th.
The biggest reason I enjoyed the PNT was hiking 2/3 of the trail with Oracle (Nik Massey). Nik was on his first long distance thru-hike of some considerable length. However, despite not having a long resume, he was so far advanced in his training, his hiking philosophy, and his gear than most experienced backpackers. This dude really prepared and practiced his hiking style and method beforehand that he essentially hit the trail at full steam. I'll be honest, I was thoroughly impressed. I enjoyed his gentle character, his forethought and thoughtfulness, his willingness to push himself and test his systems while still being grounded, and his overall zeal for long distance hiking. He asked questions galore and we spent hours on end talking about ultralight topics, thru-hiking strategies, training, diet, gear, resupply, other long hikes... you name it. I felt honored to hike along the PNT with someone with so much enthusiasm and humility.
Overall, the PNT is fun. Really cool towns, some incredible wilderness sections, and an incredible way to end a long trail at the coast. To actually sum up the trail personally to me, I describe the PNT as a string of pearls--- incredible pearls tied together with a cruddy string. Where the trail is good it is great; where it is a road slog it is shitty. I put a positive spin on these road slogs---easy miles, even though some of the road connections felt forced, like, in a way, just to make a vision connect. I would pop in some podcast and hike 3.5-4mph. But really, the road slogs went quicker than expected because of the threat of fire closures around Oroville and eastern Washington. I'll get to that later.
I understood why the route would be routed on roads to connect wilder places. Private land and urban areas in some areas are hard to avoid. However, because of this forced-connected feeling I often wondered why the theme of the 'crown-to-coast' motto was so important when ultimately the PNT, in my opinion, highlighted the state of Washington. I believe I am nitpicking here. I understand that. Glacier does not feel like the Pacific Northwest to me. It is the crown of the continent. Now, one could argue I am nitpicking a name, let alone a place, but I would counter that the theme of a trail matters. In the end, the PNT felt like a trail highlighting the state of Washington (which is awesome, by the way!). I am probably too harsh in my sentiments and that is probably because I am now a gatekeeper and route creator of the Great Basin Trail where I had a certain vision in creating that route, namely a thematic route and one that would and should be worth hiking twice.
I absolutely loved the Selkirks, the Kettle Crest, the Pasayten and North Cascades, and the whole Olympic Peninsula. Usually two reasons revolve around why I hike a route: connection and immersion. The places noted above had both characteristics intensely with the Pasayten and the North Cascades having the longest stretch of an immersed time in the wilderness and in between towns. The length of the Boundary Trail proved to be an incredible stint in the wilderness meandering just underneath the border of Canada. Other than about 15 miles of trail that had around 600 downed logs across the trail the conditions were so much better than I expected and that section became so enjoyable to string some high mileage days together.
Two of my least favorite included the paved road walking sections of eastern Washington all the way to Oroville, over 100 miles in all, and the urban areas around the Puget Sound. For the long paved road sections of eastern Washington, the expediency through this area was catapulted by the threat of closures and potential wildfire. Heavy smoke smothered the views, the excessive heat suffocated the air, and one was left to just let the feet rip their way through the area. For the Puget Sound, at first the urban areas and walking along the inland coast felt so novel and cool. Then, that novel feeling wore off as the ever-presence of cars, jet fighters, lack of camping, houses and roads just wore thin. There was some cool spots and and some fun times like stealth camping in the communities like a coyote to the network of trails on Anacortes Island to the Whidbey Island coast. Would I walk those sections again? Easy answer: no.
The threat of wildfire and closures loomed for most of the length of the trail. State agencies began looking at closures to preempt any human-caused fires and more losses to communities. Smoke was constant from day 2 of my hike and lingered incessantly for nearly a month. It became normal for me to expect smoke and to be okay with it. Overall, the smoke was mostly a visual eye sore than anything physically afflicting. But, the threat and presence of fire goaded me along, pushed Nik and I forward. I have dealt with similar issues before on other long hikes---from going through areas illegally, to halting a thru-hike, to hiking faster, to flipping--- I feel like I seen it all.
Albeit the presence of fires remained omnipresent this season, the nerves of agencies, the public, and hikers tingled at a seemingly all time high. I felt this tingling of nerves, too. No doubt the nerves were valid and legit. Nevertheless, rather than flip or skip sections, I chose not to panic and push miles until I could not. As with other times in my hiking career, I chose to gather as much information for myself from the appropriate agencies rather than from the hiking herd. I would see things for myself rather than react from what the group or whole was doing. Nik had a similar mindset, which I think lends to him being grounded and independent. We hiked from Northport onward as word of impending closures loomed ahead. Rather than 'go around' we would strive for 32-35 miles per day. We would respect closures, especially the imminent threat of a fire closure if they occurred. But as long as detours existed around an area we would continue in connected steps.
My theory in the threat of these closures: if I am going to come back to hike a section of this trail it will be to come back to something worthy. So, those eastern Washington high desert road sections I would quickly get through. These sections are not worthy enough to come back to, while the Pasayten would be, in my opinion.
In the end, we got through connected and continuous. All the effort made the trip pretty rewarding. Like I said, the PNT is a pretty fun trail. Good trail community, great trail where the trail is great, variety in scenery and diversity in landscape, this PNT is well worth the long hike.