The right wheather window for thru-hiking the PNT is rather short. Hikers – no matter if eastbound or westbound – usually start between mid-June and mid-July and try to finish by mid September before the first snow storms hit the mountains.
The Pacific Northwest Trail – PNT
Running 1200 miles from the Continental Divide to the Pacific Ocean the Pacific Northwest Trail is known as the most rugged, wild and remote National Scenic Trail in the United States. On its way from the eastern trailhead in Glacier National Park the PNT crosses 3 major mountain ranges and more than 300 miles of the trail lead through designated wilderness areas.
I decided to hike the PNT in 2019 after finishing my last remaining miles on the Pacific Crest Trail. With the three most popular long-distance hiking trails in the US getting over-crowded the PNT still provides some solitude and a real wilderness experience. Providing lots of new challenges attempting a thru-hike of the Pacific Northwest Trail will hopefully take my hiking skills to the next level.
During an extended preparation phase I collected all kinds of information about the trail and I want to sum-up the most essential stuff for fellow hikers on this page!
The PNT in numbers….
In 2009 the Pacific Northwest Trail was designated as a National Scenic Trail by the Congress. But the development of its trail corridor started much earlier in 1970 when Ron Strickland had his first thoughts about the trail. First thru-hikes all the way from Chief Mountain Trailhead in Glacier National Park to Cape Alava on Washington’s Wilderness Coast were reported in 1977. Since then the numbers of hikers increase on this trail. But with roughly 100 thru-hikers in 2017 the numbers are still less than on other National Scenic Trails.
Tha Pacific Northwest Trail crosses through three US states: Montana, Idaho and Washington. On it’s way from the Continental Devide to the Pacific Ocean it crosses the three major mountain ranges of the Rocky Mountains, Northern Cascades and the Olympic Mountains. Furthermore the trail corridor leads through 7 National Forests. Along the way 18 trail communities provide resupply options for hikers.
Things you need to know
I focused on how to get to the eastern trailhead at Chief Mountain in Glacier National Park. From Seattle I will hop on Amtrak’s Empire Builder Train which runs all the way from Seattle to Chicago. After not even one third of the way I will hop off at the small station of East Glacier, situated in Glacier National Park.
From the train station a hike of about 11 miles will take me to the Two Medicine Ranger Station where I will get my overnight permits for Glacier National Park. From there another hike of about 70 miles along the Continental Divide Trail will take me to Chief Mountain, the eastern trailhead of the PNT.
Getting to and from Cape Alava – the western trailhead of the Pacific Northwest Trail – is not less complicated. From Cape Alava it is a 3-miles-hike to Ozette Ranger Station and from there another 26 miles to Clallam Bay. From Clallam Bay it is possible to reach Seattle with public transportation by choosing a variety of busses.
A hiker will encounter various challenges on the PNT. Due to its young age the Pacific Northwest Trail is not as well marked as other long-distance trails and being able to navigate with maps and compass is a must-have skill to ensure route-finding along the way. In some sections the usual footpath even disappears and you will find yourself right in the middle of a proper bushwhack!
The trailconditions will be difficult and demanding as the PNT crosses three major mountains ranges – the Rocky Mountains, the Northern Cascades and the Olympics. Short sections of the trail even require some basic climbing skills.
Leading through pristine wilderness and beautiful scenery the PNT also leads through bear country. Grizzly bears and black bears can be encountered along the trail and proper food storage techniques are required at all times! For most of the trail it is sufficient to hang your food but (as of February 2019) a proper bear canister is required for camping in the Seven Lakes Basin and hiking along the Wilderness Coast (I picked mine up in Forks. Click here to find out more about the rental program from Forks Outfitters).
As stated above the PNT provides various challenges of another kind and as a trail it’s maybe not the best choice for the novice hiker. But even with a backpack full of experience, the PNT will still be demanding and physical as well as mental preparation is essential.
The best training for hiking with a backpack is – as always – hiking with a backpack. Apart from the obvious it is also a good idea to practice your navigation skills, bushwhacking if possible as well as bear hanging techniques.
Go hiking in really bad weather and once on the PNT make sure you know why you’re out there!
Yes, you do! Indeed there are three sections of the trail that require a permit. These are the three National Parks where you have to make reservations for dedicated campsites:
Please follow the links for more information on permits as these are subject to change.
As of the 2019 hiking season the permits for Northern Cascades as well as the Olympics can be arranged by phone call. This is a great special for thru-hikers and please clarify your desired itinerary beforehand.
Your usual hiking equipment should be good enough to keep you warm in any weather. Apart from what you carry on other long-distance trails the PNT requires the right equipment to hang your food and in some areas a proper bear canister. It is also adviced to carry bear spray all the way.
The PNTA provides detailed strip maps for print out on their website. Since the 2018 hiking season Guthook also provides an App for the Pacific Northwest Trail as it is known for many other long-distance trails.
I will carry the printed maps and in addition use the app on my mobile as well as the Pocket Earth Pro App for navigation in and around trailtowns.
18 trail communities along the Pacific Northwest Trail provide resupply options for the hungry hiker. Before heading out on trail I did my homework and consulted google maps in combination with websites of the local communities to get a rough picture of what to expect.
Already the first resupply point along the way – the small town of Polebridge in Montana – seems well worth a visit. The town consist just of a few shops and houses and runs without connection to the public electricity system. Sounds interesting, doesn’t it?
Tim Youngbluth’s Pacific Northwest Trail Digest seems to be the guidebook of choice when it comes to helpful navigation notes. I never read it and somehow I survived and found my way without it!
Another possibility would be the Pacific Northwest Trail Data Book also from Tim Youngbluth. Check out Amazons preview option to find out which one suits you best. Maybe you want both?!
I bought the Pacific Northwest Trail Town Guide by Melanie Simmerman to find out more about resupply options and trail towns along the way. It’s not too bad but to be honest an extended google search will do the same!
- The website of the Pacific Northwest Trail Association is undoubtedly the best resource and a “must-read” for every thru- or section hiker.
- Katherine’s blog provides a daily hiking journal of her journey on the PNT in 2013.
Just leave a comment in the comment section below or get in touch via the contact form. I am happy to help!
Overview of the different sections of the PNT (from east to west):
Glacier National Park to Eureka, MT
Length: 149 miles / 240 km
Eureka, MT to Bonners Ferry, ID
Length: 97 miles / 156 km
Bonners Ferry, ID to Northport, WA
Length: 143 miles / 230 km
Northport, WA to Sweat Creek
Length: 121 miles / 195 km
Sweat Creek to Cold Springs / Loomis, WA
Length: 104 miles / 167 km
Loomis, WA to Ross Lake
Length: 121 miles / 195 km
Ross Lake to Oyster Dome
Length: 196 miles / 315 km
Oyster Dome to Coupeville
Length: 68 miles / 109 km
Coupeville to Forks, WA
Length: 162 miles / 261 km
Forks, WA to Cape Alava
Length: 61 miles / 98 km
Daily hiking journal of my Pacific Northwest Trail thru-hike
1 – Rocky Mountains
2 – Purcell Mountains
3 – Selkirk Mountains
4 – Kettle River Range
5 – Okanogan Highlands
6 – Pasayten Wilderness
7 – North Cascades
8 – Pudget Sound
9 – Olympic Mountains
10 – Wilderness Coast
Where will your next hike take you?
If you are interested in hiking in the European Alps, check out my guide to the Alpine Crossing from Oberstdorf to Meran!