Long Distance Trails

Through Forests and Ridges: Conquering the Pacific Northwest Trail

POSTED ON October 12, 2022 BY Ralph S.


Introduction

Welcome to the enchanting world of the Pacific Northwest Trail, a wilderness odyssey that spans diverse landscapes, from the rugged peaks of Glacier National Park to the misty coastal wonders of Olympic National Park. This National Scenic Trail, stretching over 1,200 miles (approximately 1,931 km), is a tapestry of natural beauty that beckons both seasoned hikers and intrepid adventurers alike.

In this blog post, we’ll delve into the heart of the Pacific Northwest Trail, exploring the untamed wilderness that unfolds across its remarkable length. As we traverse through glacier-carved valleys and dense forests, the journey promises not just a trip but an immersive wilderness experience—one that resonates with the echoes of the Pacific Northwest’s majestic landscapes.

Join us as we navigate through the pristine solitude of national parks. Along the way, we’ll shed light on the crucial role played by the Pacific Northwest Trail Association in preserving and maintaining this extraordinary path, ensuring that future generations can also relish the awe-inspiring beauty it offers.

Whether you’re a seasoned backpacker seeking a new challenge or a nature enthusiast yearning for a genuine wilderness experience, this exploration promises to be a captivating journey.

History of The Pacific Northwest Trail

Pacific Northwest Trail

In the annals of American outdoor exploration, the Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT) stands as a testament to vision, perseverance, and collaborative effort. The genesis of this iconic trail can be traced back to the early 1970s when a group of forward-thinking individuals envisioned a continuous path that would traverse the stunning landscapes of the Pacific Northwest.

The concept gained momentum, and in 1977, Congress designated the Pacific Northwest Trail as one of the country’s picturesque trails, a recognition of its potential to showcase the region’s diverse natural wonders. The Pacific Northwest Trail Association (PNTA) emerged as a key player in bringing this vision to life. Committed to the preservation and maintenance of this remarkable trail, the PNTA became the driving force behind its development.

Through the years, the PNTA has played a pivotal role in coordinating the efforts of volunteers, trail enthusiasts, and government agencies. The association’s dedication to maintaining the trail ensures that it remains a pristine corridor for those seeking a genuine wilderness experience.

Over the decades, the trail has evolved, adapting to changing landscapes and the growing popularity of outdoor recreation. Notable events, such as the continuous improvement of trail infrastructure and the implementation of sustainable practices, have shaped the trail into the awe-inspiring route it is today.

Key Facts about The Pacific Northwest Trail

Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) at Harts Pass to the Cutthroat Lake TH near Mazama

  • Location: The trail spans the northern United States, stretching from the Continental Divide in Montana through Idaho up to the Pacific Ocean.
  • Total Length: approximately 1,200 miles (1,931 km)
  • Time to Hike: Hiking the entire length of the trail typically takes around two to three months for thru-hikers, depending on individual pace and weather conditions. Most hikers take an average of 15 miles (24 km) a day
  • Trailheads: Chief Mountain Trailhead (location) in Glacier National Park (eastern terminus) and Cape Alava (location) in Olympic National Park (western terminus).
  • Difficulty Level: Moderate-to-challenging, even for experienced hikers
  • Number of Visitors: While visitor numbers can vary, the PNT attracts a moderate number of hikers compared to more popular long-distance trails like the Pacific Crest Trail or the Appalachian Trail.
  • Establishment Date: officially established as a National Scenic Trail in 2009.
  • Total Elevation Gain: approximately 180,000 feet (54,864 meters).
  • Best Time or Season to Hike: During the summer months, typically between late June and early September. This minimizes the risk of snow-covered sections and offers more favorable weather conditions.
  • Lowest Point: The Pacific Ocean at the western terminus.
  • Highest Point: Cathedral Pass (location) at 7,569 feet (2,307 meters) above sea level

Trail Overview: Difficulty Levels and Route Options

Pacific Northwest Trail

The Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail beckons adventurers with its odyssey through some of the most spectacular landscapes in the northern United States. From the rugged mountains to the pristine wilderness coast along the Pacific Ocean, this trail weaves through seven national forests, seven lake basins, and three national parks (Glacier National Park, North Cascades National Park, and Olympic National Park).

Trailhead to Finish: Route Options

Westbound Thru-Hike: The Preferred Path

Starting at the eastern terminus near Chief Mountain Trailhead in Glacier National Park, westbound thru-hiking is the more popular route. It allows hikers to gradually acclimate to the increasing difficulty levels while reveling in the breathtaking scenery.

Passing through the Selkirk Mountains (location), Pasayten Wilderness (location), and Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, this route culminates at Cape Alava on the Pacific Ocean’s wilderness coast.

Eastbound Thru-Hike: A Solitary Sojourn

While less common, eastbound thru-hiking offers a unique experience. Beginning at Cape Alava (location), hikers traverse the Olympic Peninsula and the rugged Rocky Mountains before reaching Glacier National Park.

This direction provides more solitude, as fewer thru-hikers choose this challenging but rewarding path.

Difficulty Levels: Navigating the Trail’s Challenges

  • Rocky Mountains and Pasayten Wilderness: The trail crosses the Rocky Mountains and several wilderness areas, offering challenges to even the most experienced hikers. With steep ascents and descents, thru-hikers navigate rugged terrain and enjoy panoramic views of the surrounding landscapes.
  • Wilderness Coast and Olympic Peninsula: As the trail progresses westward, hikers encounter the captivating Wilderness Coast and Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. This section introduces coastal trails, sandy shores, and lush rainforests, providing a refreshing change of scenery.

Notable Highlights Along the Way

  • Seven Lakes Basin and Glacier Park: Hikers are treated to the stunning beauty of Seven Lakes Basin (in Olympic National Park) and the pristine wilderness of Glacier Park. The PNT passes through these iconic areas, allowing for moments of reflection and appreciation of nature’s grandeur.
  • Ozette Ranger Station (location): Visitors can also traverse the Ozette Ranger Station, where they will explore the rich cultural and natural history of the area.
  • Okanogan Highlands: The trail traverses the Okanogan Hills (location), a region characterized by diverse ecosystems and breathtaking vistas.

Seasonal Considerations: Best Times to Hike The Pacific Northwest Trail and Weather Conditions

Pacific Northwest Trail River Crossing

Embarking on a thru-hike along the PNT, part of the National Trails System, is a venture into a region renowned for its diverse and unpredictable weather.

Stretching from the Continental Divide in Montana to the Pacific Ocean, the trail’s climate can present an array of challenges and delights throughout the year.

Spring (March to May): Unveiling Nature’s Rebirth

As the snow begins to melt and nature awakens, spring on the PNT offers a stunning transformation. Daytime temperatures typically range from 5°C to 15°C (40°F to 60°F).

Thru-hikers starting from Palmer Lake in Montana may encounter lingering snow at higher elevations, impacting route conditions. Forest Service reports and updates from trail maintainers like Tim Youngbluth are invaluable for assessing accessibility. Always check the trail conditions before embarking on a trip to the trail.

Summer (June to August): Warm Days and High Spirits

Summer heralds the peak thru-hiking season, with temperatures ranging from 15°C to 30°C (60°F to 85°F). This period provides the most favorable weather for a Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail adventure.

Hikers can anticipate clear skies and warmer temperatures as they traverse the diverse landscapes, cross the PNT corridor, and access key points along the route.

Fall (September to November): A Symphony of Colors and Changing Conditions

As fall sets in, the trail undergoes a kaleidoscopic transformation. Daytime temperatures hover between 5°C and 20°C (40°F to 70°F), presenting a mix of cool and comfortable conditions.

Thru-hikers may witness the landscape’s vibrant fall colors, but they should also be prepared for potential rain and changing path conditions.

Winter (December to February): A Winter Wonderland with Challenges

Winter on the PNT can be unforgiving, with temperatures ranging from -5°C to 10°C (20°F to 50°F). Snowfall is common, especially at higher elevations, and trail conditions can become challenging.

Thru-hikes during this season are rare, and hikers must be well-prepared for the colder temperatures, limited access, and potential route closures.

Preparing for All Seasons: Key Considerations

  1. Road Conditions and Updates: Regularly check Forest Service reports, trail maintainers’ updates, and Tim Youngbluth’s insights for real-time information on route conditions and any closures.
  2. Access Points: Plan your route, considering access points and key locations along the trail, ensuring a well-managed hike.
  3. Crossing Points: Be aware of significant crossing points, especially where the PNT crosses rivers or major obstacles. Proper preparation and navigation are essential.

The Best Time to Hike

The best time to hike the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail is between July and September, when the weather is mild and the snow has melted, making the trail more accessible. However, it’s essential to be prepared for unpredictable weather conditions, especially in high-elevation areas.

Be sure to check the local weather forecast and the official trail weather page before planning your hike.

Before You Go: Permits, Maps, and Markers

Pacific Northwest Trail

Before embarking on your trip, it’s crucial to understand the permit requirements to ensure a smooth and responsible hiking experience. Obtaining the necessary permits helps protect the environment, ensures safety, and contributes to the preservation of the trail.

Here’s a comprehensive guide to the permits you may need for your PNT adventure.

Wilderness Permits

  • Glacier National Park: For those starting at the eastern terminus, check Glacier National Park’s official website for information on backcountry permits. Glacier NP Permits
  • North Cascades National Park Complex: If your journey takes you through the North Cascades, review the backcountry permits from the National Park Service. North Cascades NP Permits
  • Olympic National Park (Western Terminus): Hikers beginning or ending their trek at the western terminus must acquire wilderness permits, which can be applied here.

Cross-Border Travel (Canada to the U.S.)

  • International Crossing (Section 1): For thru-hikers traversing the border from Canada into the U.S., check U.S. Customs and Border Protection for relevant entry requirements. CBP: Travel to the U.S.

Special Use Permits

  • Keystone Ferry (Whidbey Island): If utilizing the Keystone Ferry to reach the Olympic Peninsula, check the Washington State Ferries website for ticket information. Washington State Ferries
  • Special Areas and Sections: Some sections of the PNT may pass through areas requiring special permits. Research specific trail sections and consult relevant land management agencies, such as the Forest Service.

Additional Considerations and Planning Resources

  • Pacific Northwest Trail Association (PNTA): The PNTA website is a valuable resource for planning your hike, with information on permits and road conditions. PNTA – Permits
  • National Park Service (NPS): Visit the NPS website for detailed information on permits for national preserves and parks along the PNT. NPS – Permits

Maps and Markers

  • Online Maps: Online mapping tools, such as the Silverlight app available on iOS and Android provide an online map with a trail to follow along.
  • Paper Maps: Consider carrying paper maps as a backup in case of technology failure. The PNTA offers a series of downloadable maps for each section of the trail on their website. The PNTA mapset shows multiple route options in certain areas. 
  • Trail Markers: The PNT is marked with blue and silver diamond markers, as well as signs at key points along the trail. Familiarize yourself with these markers before your hike.

Essential Gear and Equipment

Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) at Harts Pass to the Cutthroat Lake TH near Mazama

When embarking on a thru-hike, it is crucial to have the right gear and equipment to ensure a safe and enjoyable journey through some of America’s most stunning landscapes.

Here are some recommendations for essential gear that every hiker should consider bringing:

  • Backpack: A sturdy and well-fitting backpack with a capacity of at least 60 liters is recommended for a thru-hike on the PNT. It should be able to comfortably carry all your gear and supplies.
  • Tent: A reliable and weather-resistant tent is essential for camping along the trail, especially in national forests or remote sections without established campgrounds. Look for a lightweight option that can withstand wind and rain.
  • Sleeping bag and sleeping pad: A warm and high-quality sleeping bag with a temperature rating suitable for the expected weather conditions is essential. A sleeping pad will provide insulation and comfort while sleeping on the ground.
  • Water filtration: Clean drinking water is crucial when hiking through remote areas, so be sure to carry a reliable water filtration system or purification tablets.
  • Hiking boots: Invest in a good pair of hiking boots that provide support and traction on a variety of terrain, from the rocky continental divide to the muddy trails of the lake basin. We have a guide that can help you choose the correct footwear. Also, don’t forget to choose the correct compression socks for hiking.
  • Bear spray: As the PNT cuts through the bear country, it is recommended to carry bear spray for safety. Familiarize yourself with proper usage before your trip. Also, don’t forget to check out our guide to wild animal encounters on the trail.
  • Maps and navigation tools: While the PNT is well-marked, it is still essential to carry maps and a compass or GPS device for navigation. Familiarize yourself with your route and potential alternate routes in case of closures.
  • Permit: Some sections of the trail may require a backcountry permit, so be sure to research and obtain any necessary permits before your trip.  Also, make sure to check for any permit requirements for camping in national forests.
  • Food and cooking supplies: Plan your meals and carry enough food for the duration of your trip. Consider lightweight and dehydrated options to reduce weight. A compact stove, pot, and utensils will also be necessary for cooking. You can have a look at our 25 delicious backpacking food ideas to know what to include on your trip.
  • First aid kit: Accidents can happen on the trail, so it is essential to carry a well-stocked first aid kit with basic medical supplies and medication. Check out our wilderness first aid basics to know what to consider.
  • Proper clothing: Be prepared for changing weather conditions by packing layers of moisture-wicking and quick-drying clothing. A rain jacket and pants are also crucial items to have in case of rain.

Camping and Overnight Stay

Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) at Harts Pass to the Cutthroat Lake TH near Mazama

Camping along the PNT is a unique and rewarding experience, allowing hikers to immerse themselves in the pristine wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. There are various options for camping and overnight stays along the 1200-mile trail, ranging from designated campgrounds to dispersed camping in national forests.

  • Developed Campgrounds: The PNT passes through several developed national forest campgrounds, providing amenities such as restrooms, picnic tables, and potable water. These campgrounds are often located near trailheads and make for a convenient overnight stay option. Several developed national forest campgrounds are also available near the trail corridor.
  • Dispersed Camping: For those looking to truly rough it in the backcountry, dispersed camping is allowed in most national forests along the PNT. This means setting up camp at least 200 feet away from any water source, using Leave No Trace principles, and following any additional guidelines set by the forest. Click this link to learn more about dispersed camping in national forests
  • Backcountry Camping: The PNT also offers numerous opportunities for backcountry camping in designated wilderness areas, allowing hikers to truly immerse themselves in nature. For instance, wilderness camping permits are required for all overnight stays in the Olympic National Park wilderness (backcountry) year-round. Visit Olympic National Park’s website and our Permits and Fees page for more information.
  • Private Campgrounds and Lodges: For a more comfortable and luxurious overnight stay, there are several private campgrounds and lodges located near the trail. These options offer amenities such as hot showers, laundry facilities, and even restaurant meals.

Alternative Overnight Stay Options: A Thru-Hiker’s Toolkit

  • Trail Angels and Hosts: Connect with trail angels and hosts along the PNT. These generous individuals may offer a place to stay, a hot meal, or assistance with resupply.
  • Community Centers and Hostels: Investigate community centers and hostels in trailside towns. These can provide affordable accommodations and a chance to connect with fellow hikers.
  • Hotels and Motels: In more populated areas, explore the option of staying in hotels or motels for a rejuvenating break.
  • Local Trail-Friendly Establishments: Some local businesses are trail-friendly and may welcome thru-hikers. Check with these establishments for potential overnight accommodations.
  • Private Lands: It is also important to note that camping along the PNT is not allowed in some areas due to land ownership or sensitive ecosystems. Be sure to research and plan your camping locations accordingly.

For more information, check out the official trip planning page to learn about all the available camping options while venturing deep inside the forests.

Resupplying and Refueling: Surviving the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail

PCT at Methow Pass

One of the unique aspects of thru-hiking the PNT is that it passes directly through ten trailside communities. This means that resupplying and refueling along the way is relatively accessible, making it easier for hikers to carry smaller packs and not have to rely solely on their supplies.

Trailside Communities and Resupply Points

  1. Ozette: Found at the starting point, along the scenic Olympic Peninsula, Ozette provides an opportunity to resupply and appreciate the coastal beauty.
  2. Oroville: Located at the midpoint of the PNT in Section 5, Oroville serves as a key resupply point. Thru-hikers can access essential amenities and restock for the journey ahead.
  3. Bonners Ferry: As you approach the western terminus, Bonners Ferry offers ample resupply options, allowing hikers to prepare for the final stretch.
  4. Eureka: Another significant resupply point near the end of the trail, Eureka, offers a variety of services and amenities for thru-hikers preparing for the trail’s final stages.

Download the trail towns mapset to see other towns where to resupply and refuel.

Strategies for Successful Thru-Hiking

Here are some strategies to help thru-hikers have a successful trip when it comes to resupplying:

  • Research the communities: Before starting your hike, research each of the ten trailside communities to determine which ones have grocery stores or other resupply options. This will help you plan your route and estimate how long your supplies will last.
  • Resupply in bigger towns: Some of the larger towns along the PNT, such as Oroville and Port Townsend, have larger grocery stores and more resupply options. These may also be good places to take a rest day or stock up on any additional gear needed.
  • Send resupply boxes ahead of time: If you have specific dietary restrictions or preferences, you may want to consider sending yourself resupply boxes to certain towns along the trail. This will ensure you have the food and supplies you need.
  • Consider alternate resupply options: In some remote sections, there may not be any stores or services available. In these cases, consider reaching out to trail angels or local businesses for support in resupplying.
  • Be mindful of pack weight: While it may be tempting to carry more food and supplies with you at all times, be mindful of your pack weight and try to keep it manageable. This will help prevent injuries and exhaustion on the trail.
  • Flexible Planning: Remain flexible in your resupply plans. Trail conditions, weather, and unexpected challenges may necessitate adjustments. Be open to adapting your itinerary as needed.
  • Support local businesses: When resupplying in trailside communities, consider supporting local businesses by purchasing from them instead of larger chain stores. This helps contribute to the local economy and supports those who live along the PNT.
  • Connect with Fellow Thru-Hikers: Exchange information and experiences with other thru-hikers on the trail. Insights from those who have already passed through certain sections can be invaluable for planning resupply points.

Additional Resources

  • Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail Association (PNTA): The PNTA website offers resources and information on resupply points, local services, and community support. PNT Resupply Planner
  • The PNT Town Guide, by Melanie Simmerman, and the PNT Guide by Tim Youngbluth are other important sources of information to help you plan a successful resupply strategy.

Getting There: Directions and Transportation Options

Pacific Northwest Trail Getting There

The Pacific Northwest Trail can be accessed from various points along its stretch, depending on where you plan to start your thru-hike. The two primary trailheads are the eastern terminus near the town of Oroville, Washington, and the western terminus at Cape Alava on the Olympic Peninsula.

Here’s a comprehensive guide on how to get there and move around.

Nearest Airports: Gateway to the Trail

The nearest major airports to the eastern and western terminals of the PNT are Spokane International Airport (GEG) and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA).

Eastern Terminus (Montana):

  • The nearest major airport is Spokane International Airport (GEG), serving eastern Washington and northern Idaho.
  • From the airport, you can arrange private shuttles or use local transportation options to reach the trailhead.

Western Terminus (Olympic Peninsula):

  • Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) is the primary gateway for those starting on the Olympic Peninsula.
  • Transportation options from SEA to trailheads include private shuttles, rental cars, or public transit up to Cape Alava.

Getting to the Midpoint: Oroville, Washington (Section 5)

Reaching the midpoint of the PNT in Oroville, Washington, located in Section 5, involves a combination of public transit systems:

Bus and train connections:

  • Buses can be both a convenient and eco-friendly option for getting closer to the midpoint. Greyhound buses have stops in nearby towns such as Oroville, Colville, and Kalispell. Amtrak trains also run to various towns along the trail, including Sandpoint, ID; Whitefish, MT; and Wenatchee, WA.
  • Train services, where available, can also be integrated into your journey, providing scenic travel to your destination.

Keystone Ferry Access: Starting Point on Whidbey Island

For those commencing their journey from the Keystone Ferry on Whidbey Island:

Getting to Keystone Ferry:

  • Drive to the ferry terminal or use local transportation to reach Keystone.
  • The Keystone Ferry operates between Port Townsend and Coupeville, providing a unique and picturesque route to the Olympic Peninsula and Whidbey Island

Trailhead Transportation: Bus and Private Shuttles

  • Bus Services:
    • Public buses operate in various regions along the PNT, offering a cost-effective means of reaching trailheads.
    • Research regional transit options and schedules to incorporate bus travel into your itinerary.
  • Private Shuttles:
    • Private shuttle services cater specifically to hikers and outdoor enthusiasts, providing a direct and convenient option for transportation to trailheads.
    • Check with local shuttle services for availability and schedules.

For more details, check out the trail’s directions and transportation page.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the Pacific Northwest Trail is a dream destination for nature lovers, hikers, and outdoor enthusiasts seeking to immerse themselves in the beautiful wilderness of the Pacific Northwest region.

It’s an adventure that requires proper preparation, tenacity, and fortitude, but in the end, it’s worth every single step.

If you’re up for the challenge, pack your backpack and hit the trail.

For additional enjoyable destinations, see our page on long-distance trails. Continue from this point forward.


RALPH S.

Ralph S. is the founder of Silverlight, an avid hiker and trail runner he enjoys spending time outdoors, riding his motorcycle and swimming at the beach when he's not busy replying to customers or developing new Silverlight gear.

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