Masterpiece Trails: Sky Walk

Get the story behind the Kendall Katwalk, Pacific Crest Trail, Washington—and how to see it yourself.
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Get the story behind the Kendall Katwalk, Pacific Crest Trail, Washington—and how to see it yourself.

WHEN THE PCT WAS DESIGNATED a National Scenic Trail in 1968, planners agreed to move the existing hiking route north of Snoqualmie Pass closer to the Cascades’s crest. But how to cross the rugged spine of 5,784-foot Kendall Peak without creating a route too difficult for heavily laden thru-hikers and horsepackers? The answer: dynamite. Crews blasted a sidewalk in the sky straight across Kendall’s east face. Elmo Warren, the Idaho-based lead contractor for the project, called it “the hardest piece of trail ever built.”

Though Kendall was located in a wilderness study area (now the Alpine Lakes Wilderness), the local authorities decided there was no alternative to using machinery and explosives to complete the route. After building the trail up to the ridge, Warren and his crew installed camp in the summer of 1976 at Gravel Lake, just north of what would become the Katwalk. They mule-packed in 1,000 feet of steel cables to secure workers and equipment on the precipitous job site, then marked the route along the cliff face by dropping beer bottles full of red paint from a helicopter. Workers rappelled off the ridge and bored holes for dynamite with an 80-pound gas drill. By the end of the summer, a 4-foot-wide trail cut straight across the 50-degree cliff, with an 800-foot drop below—and no guardrail. In today’s dollars, the Katwalk cost about $42,000 per foot; at 600 feet long, that’s $25.2 million you’re walking on.

The hike
From the trailhead by Snoqualmie Pass, the route to the Katwalk ascends through old-growth fir and hemlock forest for about 4 miles to steep meadows, known as the Kendall Gardens for the profusion of trailside Indian paintbrush, columbine, penstemon, and other alpine blooms (peaking in July). After crossing the ridgeline to the east side, the trail reaches Warren’s exposed traverse—a simple stroll if it’s snow-free and you’re not afraid of heights. Like a mountaintop fire tower, this manmade attraction is a destination in itself, and most who do the popular 5.5-mile, 2,700-vertical-foot hike to the Katwalk simply admire the views and turn around. Make it an overnight by continuing another 1.5 miles to designated campsites near Gravel or Ridge Lakes (no permits). In the morning, you’ll have the Katwalk all to yourself.

Trailhead 51 miles east of Seattle on I-90 (Snoqualmie Pass West exit); 47.428251, -121.413651; Northwest Forest Pass required ($5/day; $30/annual) Season Wait until mid-July for a snow-free Katwalk and peak wildflowers. Contact (425) 783-6000; fs.usda.gov/mbs