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America’s Newest Long Trail

Don't have time to hike all 1,200 miles of the Pacific Northwest Trail? No worries: Our scout pinpointed the finest two-week stretch.

>> It keeps you on your toes.
Every adventure sport—from skiing to kayaking—has a saying that goes something like this: “If you aren’t
falling/swimming/bleeding/gasping, you aren’t trying hard enough.” For backpacking, I’d say the same is true if you don’t get lost, wet, cold, or sore once in a while. Without challenges, you won’t progress. The PNT brings three big ones: navigation, weather, and terrain.

The first day delivers stiff routefinding puzzles almost instantly. Four of us (myself, my wife Sandy, and two friends, Jan Hawkins of San Diego and Shani Eshet from Israel) leave Cold Springs Camp perched at 6,000 feet. The lone PNT symbol we pass near the trailhead is the only one we’ll see for eight days. Two hours from the trailhead, we march a half mile in the wrong direction, mis-crossing Olallie Creek at mile 4.1. Cumulatively we have nearly 20,000 backpacking miles under our belts, but regardless of maps, GPS, and expertise, we catch a PNT sucker punch—seduced by good-looking trail. Our route, in fact, is the lesser-traveled one.

It’s still day one, and the trail’s gone missing. Again. Midafternoon, above Snowshoe Meadow, at mile six, the tread morphs into a muddy, upslope bushwhack. We chase a faint game path that disappears into a jackstraw of wind-felled trees. A broken limb pickpockets tent poles from Sandy’s pack. We crest the open flank of Goodenough Peak but still can’t locate legit-looking trail. We keep heading west, and at mile seven, we’re thankful to reach the Pasayten Wilderness sign and renewed good trail.

Near our route’s midpoint, with fresh thoughts of trail miles that fizzled, faded, reappeared, and vanished again as if brought in by rabbit ear antennas, we find a poignant, weathered note, ripped from a notebook: “I hope you have a better time finding trail across the Pasayten than I did.” Sadly, the author didn’t leave advice about this junction—a confounding jumble of paths that easily lures us south. My advice: Take the northernmost branch.

I can’t believe it’s August. More than a few days bring weather patterns that bat for a full cycle: hot sun, cooling mist, cold hail, and three types of snow (sleet, graupel, and fat flakes). And one morning at 5:30 a.m., near Rock Pass at mile 88, my wife and I burst out of the tent to bolster guylines that are flailing in gale-force winds and sleet.

The PNT dives over a series of rugged crests running north-south. Seesawing from one river valley to the next, it showcases 1,000- and 2,000-foot climbs mixed with descents maxing out with this knee-jarring, 5,200-foot drop in 7.2 miles to Ross Lake. 

The trailside vegetation changes as we hike through different microclimates. From day one’s sparse yarrow, low lupine, and dwarf sage in this range’s rainshadow, we plunge from Devil’s Dome into a wilderness pummeled by biblical rains. Eighty inches fall annually at Ross Lake. Late in the trek, the trail courses through dense thickets of big-leafed devil’s club, lady ferns, huckleberries, and bearded moss. Better have a killer shell.

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