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Backpacker Magazine – BACKPACKER.com Online Exclusive
Only have a short time to tackle the Pacific Northwest Trail? Our guide will give you the best the PNT has to offer.
Northwest conservationist Harvey Manning has long championed the Pacific Northwest Trail as a vehicle for drawing attention to great, and sometimes unprotected, wildlands outside the famous national parks and designated wilderness areas of the region. With that in mind, here are eight lesser-known backpacking highlights along the PNT, as selected by Ted Hitzroth, the PNT guidebook's cartographer and early thru-hiker (these selections were seconded by Ron Strickland). The PNT guidebook supplies all the necessary information about trail locations, cross-country routes, and maps.
Montana: Boulder Lakes and Mt. Henry, east of Yaak
In the 1970s, conservationists tried to get these pine-covered mountains designated as wilderness, but their lack of success is evident in the clear-cuts all around. Still, the PNT route feels wild indeed, and offers some of the finest hiking to be found. Don't miss the lookout tower atop cone-shaped Mt. Henry, with views from Tuchuck to the Selkirk Crest. This route is 39 miles one way.
Northwest Peak Scenic Area, west of Yaak
Only 10 miles long, this spectacular section still packs a punch, as most of it is trail-less travel along a ridge above treeline, cresting on 7,705-foot Northwest Peak in one of the most remote parts of Montana. "A wild, wonderful celebration of roadless backcountry," according to the guidebook.
Thoma Creek to Tuchuck Mountain Loop (or West Tuchuck Traverse), Whitefish Mountains
This route passes the locale of two fire lookouts, one standing and one long gone, while traversing pine-forested ridgelines with views east to Glacier National Park and west across endless rolling mountains. Tuchuck (7,751 feet) is the highest point on the PNT. Good trails and moderate hiking with a segment of gravel road to finish make for a roughly 26-mile loop hike. Or hike the Whitefish Range in 20 miles by continuing relatively easily on 6 miles of trail-less travel west of Tuchuck.
Washington: Salmo-Priest Wilderness
Yet more of the PNT's most scenic ridge-walking, but this time along good trails that also penetrate the finest western cedar forest east of the Cascades (some trees have 8-foot diameters), along with western hemlock and the ubiquitous pine trees of the Inland Empire. Traverse the official wilderness in 41 miles, one way, from Upper Priest trailhead to WA 31, north of Metaline Falls.
Kettle Crest to the San Poil River
While shorter segments, some with excellent trails (the 30-mile Kettle Crest Trail in particular), can easily be arranged, this is the place to spend a full week walking endless ridges, high meadows, pine forests, and sage country filled with "get-away-from-it-all peace," according to Ron Strickland. Putting the entire 51-mile distance together involves 6 miles of trail-less travel; avoid those by using roads.
Mt. Bonaparte, east of Oroville
Good and sparsely populated trails follow laid-back ridges on the highest mountain in northeast Washington, 7,257-foot Mt. Bonaparte. Twelve trail-miles through de facto wilderness provide a delightful introduction to sage country and open pine-forest walking. Just plan your water carefully here and throughout the Okanogan.
Cold Springs entrance to the eastern Pasayten Wilderness, via Chopaka Mountain and Goodenough Park
Rejoice in the recent conservation victory that has preserved this exquisite, lynx-inhabited high country forest from the loggers' saws. Ten miles of excellent trails lead through mixed conifer forest and into the alpine country above as the PNT winds its way into the Pasayten Wilderness and toward the high Cascades on the western horizon. From Horseshoe Pass, it's over 100 miles to the next road of any kind-even farther if you catch a boat across Ross Lake.
Idaho: Selkirk Crest, northwest of Bonners Ferry
For those who like it wild and woolly, this long range of granite peaks climbs deep into Canada. The PNT crosses the Selkirks with 15 miles of trail to Ball Lakes, followed by 5 miles of sometimes difficult trail-less hiking and 13 miles of travel on trails and logging roads. The short-distance hiker will find it easier to loop back from Ball Lakes than to arrange transportation from the far end. Either way, this is some of the finest and least-visited terrain on the PNT. - J. Harlin