1200 Miles – Pacific Northwest Trail

Pacific Northwest Trail Map

A Brief History. . .

In 1970,  just after Congress designated the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail as National Scenic Trails,  Ron Strickland had an idea: a wilderness trail across the Pacific Northwest from the continental divide to the ocean.  With constant exploration, networking and promotion, Ron was able to turn the idea into reality, with a lot of help from his friends.  In 1977 the Pacific Northwest Trail Association was formed and the first through hikers had their adventure.

PNWTrailLogoIn 1980, in response to a Congressionally mandated study, the Forest Service and Park Service published the Final National Scenic Trails Study Report.  The report concluded: “It is overwhelmingly evident that development of the trail is neither feasible nor desirable.”  Strickland had other ideas and proceeded to work with his growing legion of supporters to develop the trail anyway.  The effort overcame complaints of disturbance to grizzly bear, disturbance to fragile alpine soils, disturbance to ocean beaches and the 1980 estimated price tag of $39,000,000 to $106,000,000.

The Trail was finally designated by Congress in 2009.  It wasn’t until September 2015 that the Secretary of Agriculture finally established an Advisory Committee to advise the Secretary, through the Chief of the Forest Service, on management of the Pacific Northwest Trail in Montana, Idaho, and Washington.


Unlike the Pacific Crest Trail,  the Pacific Northwest Trail does not track primarily through alpine and sub-alpine terrain along the tops of mountains.  Since it extends from the Continental Divide in glacier National Park on the east end to the ocean at Cape Alava on west end, travelers will experience alpine terrain and much, much more.  In 2002, Erik Burge, then the education coordinator for the Pacific Northwest Trail Association, put it this way:


“The Pacific Northwest Trail user might encounter a grizzly bear, a herd of black angus cattle, active volcanic peaks, hay fields, abandoned mine shafts and 7-11 convenience stores. A herd of mountain goats, a pod of Orcas, star fish, porpoises, car auto dealerships, housing developments, trains, supertankers, white water rapids, hikers, road cyclists, mountain bikers, ranchers, loggers, cowboys, truckers, skateboarders, motor-cross bikes, four-wheelers, logging trucks, clear-cuts and 20-foot surf to name a few.”

The PNT at Blanchard Mountain in the Chuckanut Mountains of northern Washington By Pierre Nordique from Seattle (On the Pacific Northwest Trail) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The PNT at Blanchard Mountain in the Chuckanut Mountains of northern Washington
By Pierre Nordique from Seattle (On the Pacific Northwest Trail) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The trail covers:

  • 239 miles in the Rocky Mountains
  • 345 miles in the Okanogan Highlands
  • 267 miles in the North Cascades
  • 139 miles in the Puget Sound Area
  • 223 miles on the Olympic Peninsula

Clearly,  your experience will be diverse!

Hiking the Trail

While there are a lot of options for day and section hikes,  through-hiking the trail makes for the grandest adventure.  Most through-hikers start at the east end in June or July as soon as the high passes in Glacier National Park become navigable.  The idea is to make it across the hot, dry Inland Empire before it gets overly hot and over the Cascades before the first snowfall.  The fastest hikers can cover the trail in 40 days, but most people take up to twice as long – it all depends on how fast you hike, how many rest days you take and so on.  So far only 10 or 20 people are through-hiking the trail each year.  It will be considerably more lonesome that the Appalachian Trail!   For all kinds of ideas and advice,  check the Through-Hiker FAQ.

Planning the Future of the PNT

Creating the Advisory Committee kicks off the next step – development of a comprehensive plan for the trail.  The Forest Service is the lead agency for this plan.  The plan is to include:

  • Specific objectives and practices to be observed in the management of the trail
  • Protection plan for the long-term future of the trail
  • Development plans for potential future enhancements

Horseshoe Basin

The view from Sunny Pass, at the edge of Horseshoe Basin, 8100 foot Armstrong Peak rising in the distance.
By Nwcamera1 (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Key among the latter will be finding a way to get the trail off of the many roads it currently uses.  About 30% of the trail is along roads.

The Forest Service, with advice from the Advisory Committee will also need to determine how the various land managers, communities, and recreational users will work together to improve and protect the trail for the benefit of the hikers as well as communities.  The product will be a management plan for the trail and an Environmental Impact Statement that evaluates the impacts of the plan.  The planning process is a couple of years behind the original schedule and officially starts with the first Advisory Committee meeting in October, 2015.  It will take at least a couple of years to complete the plan, assuming the Forest Service is allocated sufficient funds and focuses on the effort.

More Information

Pacific Northwest Trail Guide: The Official Guidebook for Long Distance and Day Hikers

Pathfinder: Blazing a New Wilderness Trail in Modern America

Pacfic Northwest Trail Association

Forest Service: Pacific Northwest Trail

Background information

More Background Information

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