The New Northwest Passage

From the Continental Divide to the Sea on the Pacific Northwest Trail
By Ronald Strickland, Pacific Northwest Trail Founder
  |  Gorp.com

Stretching from the Continental Divide to the sea, the Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT) hearkens back to the Northwest Passage, that fabled gateway to the east sought by explorers of old. This 1200-mile route, however, doesn't lead to gold or furs but something infinitely more valuable—true adventure.

The PNT links Glacier National Park in Montana with the northwestmost point of the Olympic Peninsula at Cape Alava, Washington. Deliberately designed for high-altitude enthusiasts, the trail offers superb scenery, solitude, and geographic diversity as it traverses mountain range after mountain range. En route, you'll cross the Rockies, the Purcells, the Selkirks and the North Cascades; meander through the Salmon-Priest, Okanogan, and Pasayten Wildernesses; climb through the North Cascades and Olympic National Parks; and dip your toes in the water of the Columbia River, Puget Sound, and the Pacific Ocean.

The effort to build the PNT has been a 30-year undertaking, which started with linking existing trails and roads. Today, the majority of the PNT is on trails. Though the PNT uses the same white paint mark as the Appalachian Trail, most of its distance is not yet officially blazed. Though most parts of the PNT are easy to follow, a few segments are poorly maintained. So even on official, numbered paths a PNT pilgrim should always be ready with map, compass, altimeter, and the PNT Guidebook.

There's also cross-country travel—a PNT tradition. Approximately six percent of the PNT is cross-country, requiring good map and compass skills. If you tackle these sections, be forewarned: For 30 years, the mantra of the PNT's cross-country travelers has been,"Bucking the brush, that's my pleasure." If it's not yours, you might want to stay on the 94 percent of the PNT that follows trails and roads!

As on most long distance trails, the vast majority of trail visitors are out for one day to a week. But two dozen hardy hikers have completed the entire 1,200 mile trail. Most thru-hikers begin to walk west from the Continental Divide in late June

Here's a promise: If you attempt a thru-hike of the entire PNT, you will encounter snow somewhere during your 100 (give or take) days on the Trail. At Glacier National Park, areas such as Boulder Pass may not melt out until midsummer. In years of heavy snowpack (1982, 1997, & 1999) even Olympic National Park's Low Divide can be snowbound well into July. And in the Pasayten Wilderness, you may encounter snow and hail any day of the summer. Early- and late-season hikers enjoying the soilitude of off-season hiking in April, May, June, September, and October can expect snowstorms.

But it's not all cold and wintery. After leaving Glacier National Park, you can send home your ice axe. And when you reach the Okanogan, where temperatures regularly exceed 100 degrees, break out your bathing suit. The lesson: be prepared to alter your gear as conditions change. And keep up a steady pace: By late September or early October, snow begins to block the Olympic Mountains.

The Pacific Northwest Trail offers such a diverse variety of outstanding hiking experiences that you can easily customize a trip according to your available time and level of skill. Move on to seven superb PNT trips, ranging from a 6.5-mile day-hike in the North Cascades, Washington, to a full-fledged 70-mile backpacking trip in remote northwestern Montana (which can be combined with the described 30-mile hike in Idaho for an excellent 100-mile trip) Of course, any of these trips can easily be extended to include adjoining PNT attractions.


Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 10 Dec 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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