Some things are worth the wait. And the Pacific Northwest Trail—connecting the Continental Divide to the Pacific Ocean—is one.
First conceived in 1970 by Ron Strickland (a colorful Massachusetts conservationist whom BACKPACKER once branded a “pulpit-pounding evangelist”), the PNT dream rode the crest of the 70s-era backpacking boom. Then, in June 1980, it crashed when a Congressional study decreed “it is overwhelmingly evident…the trail…is neither feasible nor desirable.” But Strickland rallied supporters—swinging axes and pulaskis—to work toward making the PNT an on-the-ground reality. And in the past seven years the PNT benefited from a happy confluence of changes: support from each Washington congressman and senator, renewed public interest, and a new leader of the Pacific Northwest Trail Association, the passionate yet diplomatic Jon Knechtel. Thirty years after Congress’s snub, the 2009 Public Lands Omnibus Management Act designated the PNT a National Scenic Trail. It had entered the pantheon.
This instant 1,200-mile classic starts in Glacier National Park at Upper Waterton Lake, then punches west through the Rockies, Selkirks, North Cascades, and Olympic Mountains to Olympic National Park at Cape Alava, the westernmost point of the Lower 48. My assignment: Find and hike the PNT’s finest 100-plus miles, a distance that fits within most standard vacations. I ponder the options, an embarrassment of riches, and I decide to call Strickland himself. The PNT’s godfather, who has hiked major sections every year for 30 years, points me to a 120-mile roadless stretch, the Lower 48’s longest such track outside of the John Muir Trail. It crosses Washington’s remote Pasayten Wilderness, from Cold Springs Camp to Ross Lake. Strickland sums it up in one word: “magnificent.” I’m sold, and after hiking it, I’m convinced, under any criteria, this ranks among the finest two weeks of trail in the country, if not the world. And here’s why: