We’re wrapping up a westbound thruhike of the ~1200 mile Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT) as part of a group of six lean, tan superheroes. Read our experience hiking through Olympic National Park from the high mountain passes to the 60 mile beach walk to finish our thruhike at Cape Alava.
We woke up on the side of a forest service road with just a couple miles of dirt road ahead of us until we reached single track. After over a hundred miles of “urban hiking” in section 8, we were ecstatic to reach a trailhead and resume walking on dirt. Of course, the trail shot straight up, but we didn’t mind. A steep climb into the Olympics was welcome.
We spent a beautiful day hiking a series of climbs and descents noticing more and more people as we hiked. Our final climb of the day was up Marmot Pass which gave us incredible views of the surrounding mountains. As we began our descent, we noticed a picture perfect campsite with room for just one tent. This was only one of the few nights the whole crew didn’t camp together, but this campsite was too good to walk away from.
In the morning, we caught up with the crew a couple miles down trail and experienced one of our only rainy mornings of the thruhike. Thankfully, the rain was short lived as we climbed up another pass. At the top, we took our morning break in awe of our surroundings. Suddenly, I spotted movement on the ridge in front of us, and we got to watch a bear scale the mountain and saunter along. In a nearby valley, Sean spotted a second bear from the same vantage point. We left the pass in high spirits and continued on.
During the descent, we crossed the official Olympic National Park boundary which requires us to preplan our campsites for permits. As a group, we decided to slow down a little to really soak in our final section of trail which meant we could have a little more leisure time throughout the day.
As we approached Hayden Pass, we decided to follow an alternate route that would keep us up higher and take us to Hurricane Ridge so we could hitch to Port Angeles for resupply. We took the alternate trail towards Lost Pass where we immediately started climbing up 1200 ft in 0.7 miles, one of the steepest sets of switchbacks I’d ever seen. After a short flat-ish section, we gained another 1000 ft in a mile bringing us to the top of Cameron Pass. From the top, we got our first good look at Mt Olympus and its glaciated peak. We lingered for a bit of the sunset before a steep descent into camp.
We awoke with a short day ahead of us as we aimed for the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center to get a ride to Port Angeles. We saw Gusha washing his shorts in a nearby stream. Apparently, he had an overnight visitor. He awoke in the night to find his stuff ravaged through and shiny eyes staring him in the face. After our bear sightings the day before, panic struck. It didn’t take long to realize, though, that it was a deer standing over him. The deer had stolen his hiking shorts and was enjoying a salty treat. In his underwear and headlamp, he chased the deer until he relinquished the shorts while the rest of us slept through what would have been a hilarious event to witness.
We had two big steep climbs to conquer before we reached an eight mile stretch of dirt road. First up, 2000 ft of gain in a mile and half. After a short break at the top, we headed down to start the next pass. In between, a gorgeous small lake called to us for a quick skinny dip to cool off. We were immediately sweating bullets again as we climbed the next one – 1500 ft of gain in a mile and a half. We had incredible views from the ridge but did notice a little haze from wildfires far south from us. A couple miles later, we made it to Obstruction Point trailhead and the remainder of our day was on dirt road heading towards the visitor center. Just as I arrived at the parking lot, the group had managed to get us all a ride. I hopped into the middle of the sardine pile in the back of a pickup truck as we spent the 20 mile ride trying to make each other as comfortable as possible. We decided to stay in town for the night to clean up and take care of our remaining Olympic NP permits the next morning.
We headed to the ranger station on the outskirts of town to arrange our permits for the final few nights of the hike. The ranger who assisted us was incredibly kind, patient, and knowledgeable about what we would need to do. As we approached the coast, it was imperative that we make a plan that would accommodate the tide charts as certain sections were only passable at low tide. With a plan hatched and permits in hand, we started hitching. It only took a few minutes to get a ride up Hurricane Ridge, and we continued on our way.
We started our 20 mile day at noon with a long stretch of sweeping downhill switchbacks that ended on gravel road adjacent to the Elwha River. We stopped to check out the 210 foot tall Glines Canyon Dam which was removed in 2011. Two sides of the dam remain, but it no longer crosses the Elwha. We started a gradual climb up a gravel road and spent the final two miles on a beautiful wide trail which brought us to Olympic Hot Springs. It was dark when we arrived, but we still wanted to go for a dip. The six of us found a natural pool hotter than any hot spring I’d ever been in to take a quick, relaxing soak. What a way to end the day.
We woke early and started climbing right away. We knew this would be our last real day of climbing and big mountain views before we headed to sea level for the remainder of the hike. Our first climb up Appleton Pass was considerably less steep than what we had conquered in the last few days but seemed to take forever to reach the top. We did a quick descent, then headed up our next big climb which gave us incredible views of Mount Olympus and its glaciers as well as several glimmering lakes in the Seven Lakes Basin area. We took a long break before our hike resumed on the ridge. Before we knew it, we started a huge descent and said goodbye to the high mountain passes. We camped in Hyak Shelter for the night reminded of our days as baby hikers on the Appalachian Trail.
We had a beautiful morning in the lush forest and enjoyed the ferns, mushrooms, and moss that decorated the forest floor. Our walk was simple and pleasant as we briefly exited the national park boundary. In the afternoon, we walked gravel road until we hit the 101. From here, we hitched a few miles to Forks for our final resupply. After a bit of town loitering, we made it back to the trail at Bogachiel State Park where the friendly ranger let us camp in the day use shelter. Our lucky streak continued when a couple of PCT long section hikers and trail angels dropped off beers for our evening. Hot showers, town food, and beers are likely the best way to start the final section to the terminus.
We woke up knowing our day was limited to where the PNT reached the Hoh River at the Pacific Ocean. Right past the Hoh, the trail walks along a beach lined by cliffs. The only time it is able to be crossed is at low tide giving us a window between 4:00 – 6:00 am to get out of there. Therefore, we planned to camp right before the crossing and get up extra early to tackle the challenge the next day.
We just had 23 miles ahead of us with relatively little climbing. We got a later start than usual and walked a couple miles on the highway before heading down gravel logging roads. The sky remained overcast all day with a couple intermittent rain drops. Mostly, the walking was uneventful and a little dull as we eagerly anticipated the next day on the beach.
A sprinkle of rain started as we walked adjacent to the Hoh River and reached a trailhead by the national park boundary. We found a lovely campsite in the trees and went to bed early.
In a slight drizzle, we packed up camp and were ready to hike at 4:00 am by the light of our headlamps. Within a mile, we were on the shore of the Pacific Ocean amazed we had walked here from the Continental Divide. We gazed at the cliff walls to our right and an endless ocean to our left. I shuddered to think about the tide coming in. We made a strict no man left behind policy as we rock hopped and climbed over driftwood. At one point, I chose a slightly different direction thinking it would be a little easier to navigate the obstacles. As I climbed over piles of driftwood, I smelled something foul at my feet. Suddenly, I saw bones and realized I had climbed into a decaying whale carcass. Though no tissue remained, the huge bones were a giveaway. I looked up to notice my group getting further away from me. In a slight panic, adrenaline kicked in and I started hopping driftwood like hurtles attempting to escape the smell of decay and the prospect of being separated. Thankfully, I was quickly back in line. We continued to cross slippery rocks and gaze into tide pools filled with anemones, sea urchins, and star fish. The beach finally came to an end with a big bluff and a rope assist for the steep climb putting the sketchy tidal crossing behind us.
Our morning turned to afternoon all in a similar fashion – a stretch of beach walk followed by a short steep climb into a stretch of rainforest. Several ropes helped assist our climbs and descents from the bluff. High tide came in at 1, so we timed our lunch accordingly so we could safely return to the beach.
In the afternoon, we walked into the tiny Quileute Native community of La Push where we loitered at a convenience store, then headed down to the marina to try to hitch a boat ride. The official PNT route crosses the Quillayute River via boat, but there isn’t a public ferry. The option is to find a nice local fisherman to putt you across, or walk 4 miles on highway around. We arrived hopeful, but didn’t find anyone right away. Thankfully within about 10 minutes, a couple of curious fisherman volunteered to take us the five minute ride across. We offered them some cash for their help, but they refused. We thanked them for saving us an hour and a half of walking, and continued on our way up the beach.
We weren’t surprised to see lots of people out on the beach near Hole-in-the-wall camp, a popular destination for weekenders and whale watchers on a Friday night. We continued on, trying to keep our final day as short as possible knowing there was rain in the forecast. We arrived at Norwegian Memorial Camp after some slow rocky miles and setup our final campsite of the journey. Rain started to fall just as we went to bed.
It was just past 4:00 am as we set out on our final 12 miles to Cape Alava, the western most point in Washington and the western terminus to the PNT. As anticipated the rain drizzled on us as we walked. Thankfully, the tide was low and wouldn’t interfere with our day. It was somewhat of a dreary morning, but thankfully wasn’t too chilly or windy. The rocky miles were slow, and we didn’t bother rock hopping. It was pointless to try to stay dry, so we just walked straight through the puddles. Most of us took more than one fall on the slippery rocks as we made our way. I was stoked to see intermittent stretches of sand ahead of us as the rocks were making my feet throb. At one point, I looked up to see what I thought was Gusha and Philly insanely far ahead. I looked again – it must be other hikers. Nope, that’s a bear on a morning beach walk. The crew got to witness the black bear enjoying his morning stroll without a care in the world for us.
As the morning hours ticked away, we took a final morning break as a group with just three miles to go. The walk seemed over in an instant, and we all grouped up to walk the final .1 to Cape Alava together. Not gonna lie, Cape Alava is really nothing special – another beach with a large rock. No monument or really anything denoting the Pacific Northwest Trail. Just a rock and six wet, haggard hikers rejoicing that the journey was over.
All the moisture prevented me from using my touchscreen too much, so I just have a few pictures. But I’ll never forget that moment of being done after battling intense heat, bushwhacks, long road walks, and extreme climbs. After a few pictures, we headed east towards the forest for our extra 3 bonus miles to the trailhead.
An hour later, we were officially done walking, another thruhike in the books. We found ourselves in the middle of absolutely nowhere with the gang. Thankfully, there was a little camp store with coffee and beer which we enjoyed while trying to hitch a ride. With very little traffic, it took about 2 hours to find a ride. We spent our last few minutes together appropriately on the side of the road as “The Six” before splitting up to go on with our lives. As we departed ways, I found myself in a state a shock to say goodbye to our four friends we had spent every minute of the last 54 days with. We literally knew every time each other pooped, what thinking, how feeling, and what doing. It was a terrible way to say goodbye, and I regretted not booking a hiker rehab Airbnb somewhere to spend a last night together.
It took Sean and I two hitches to get back to society at Port Angeles. We grabbed some food and made a sign for Olympia hoping for one ride to get us the 2+ hours drive to visit our friend before flying away back to our van. Within 10 minutes of hitching with the sign, we were super lucky that James and Cheri (I hope I’m remembering those names right!) thought we looked normal enough to pickup and offered us a ride all the way to Olympia. They had just returned from backpacking in the park and were overly nice. The trail provides!! We spent a couple nights in Olympia hosted by our friends Natalie and Josh before Natalie drove us to SeaTac way early in the morning cause she is a dope friend.
Now, let’s get back to that van we’ve been dreaming about…
Wow, Olympic National Park is a backpacker’s dream. It truly has all the natural features you could want – endless mountain views, glaciated peaks, temperature rainforest flora and fauna, plentiful wildlife citings, sandy beaches, fun rope assisted climbs, and sweeping ocean vistas. Dealing with permits and designated camping puts limits on daily mileage, which isn’t too big of a deal, but isn’t the standard hike till you drop game plan that we’re used to abiding by. Nevertheless, we simply had a blast through these sections from busting our butts on the steep high mountain passes to timing our beach crossings with the tide. We got lucky with the ranger in Port Angeles who was incredibly knowledgeable and helped us plot out the days on the beach. Olympic National Park is clearly a trail highlight and finishing the PNT with a 60 mile coastal walk was the most unique finish to a trail possible.
We’re out on a thruhike of the ~1200 mile Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT) westbound as part of a group of six lean, tan superheroes. Read our experience of “urban hiking” on the PNT in Section 8 around Puget Sound.
For my 32nd birthday, my friends agreed to hike 32 miles by my side. We awoke at Pioneer Camp and started the day with birthday blowdowns leaving us with some fresh birthday blood. Woohoo! After a handful of slow miles and a creek ford, we ended up on logging roads and began what would become our longest stretch of road walking yet as we began hiking towards and eventually across Puget Sound. The day was pretty uneventful. Not necessarily the most exciting miles I’ve ever hiked, but easy gravel road walking is a good second choice. Ashlyn being the sweetest thing that she is packed me out dehydrated refried beans for dinner, a true trail delicacy. As our day came to an end, we got our first glimpse of the Sound and those feels of “damn we’ve walked a long way” started to set in. A lovely sunset and camping in close quarters put a lovely cap on our 32 for 32.
We left camp knowing we’d be walking roads all day. The comments in the Guthook App indicated there was a lovely trail angel couple near the tiny town of Alger we would be walking through towards the end of the day. Nathaniel gave Mary a call, and she was quick to offer us camping in her yard on a lake. We made our plan to end our day at their house.
In the late morning, the logging roads ended, and our pavement walk began. Sean had mentioned the pain from his shin splints over the past few days, though he mostly suffered silently. It became quickly apparent that the pavement walk was only going to make this problem worse. Nevertheless, he pushed on in an impressive act of shear grit. Mid day, the route brought us to a small local bar where we enjoyed beers and fried food. From there, a few quick miles crossing the I-5 corridor brought us to Mary and Mark’s beautiful home on Lake Samish. Upon arrival, we were greeted with warmth and kindness and a tray of appetizers and cold beers. Mary had clearly gone out of her way to accommodate our vegan diet and spoiled us rotten. For dinner, she made us stir fried veggies with tofu and rice, then she made homemade cookies that were to die for. As we sat on their porch at sunset, we wondered what we had done to deserve such kindness. The treats were made even sweeter by the fact that Mary and Mark (and family!) were so genuine and down to earth. Our conversations were relaxed and easy – they felt like old friends. We went to bed with happy hearts and tummies.
We woke up early to Mary making us a bagels and avocado, vegan banana bread, lots of fresh fruit, and lattes (!!). So truly spoiled. We reluctantly started another day of road walking west and south. A few miles past her house, we did enjoy a short bit of single track through a beautiful forest. By lunch time, we were back to pounding pavement down a highway thankfully with a large shoulder. The Guthook guide again mentioned an epic trail angel named Marc who was more than happy to help out hikers. Marc seemed happy to hear from his first group of the season, and we arranged for him to pick us up down the route.
As we passed the tiny town of Edison, the local brewery was calling our name for a quick stop at the watering hole. Soon our walk continued, and I was grateful to have phone service to pass the time and a few miles chatting with friends. The route included a short stretch on a gravel nature path around an inlet which eventually led to Highway 20. Here, Marc had agreed to pick us up, and soon we were off.
Marc and his girlfriend Diane arrived at the meetup spot just on time and whisked us away a short drive to his house and “Marc’s Way Cool Barn.” The aptly named barn has been converted to a proper man cave with a full kitchen, couches, tv, and full bathroom. He showed us around and let us have the run of the place instructing us to help ourselves to anything we saw and get showered up before we got in the hot tub. Hot. Tub. He even got a call from a friend who dropped off some locally caught Dungeness crab which he eagerly shared with the 1 omnivore of the group (aka Beef Lips). Marc shared some fun stories with us about his motorcycle travel and legends of the Way Cool Barn. Our night ended with a dip in the hot tub at sunset once again in disbelief at our circumstances. As we were going to bed, we noticed yet another trail angel listed in our guide…
Marc dropped us off right where we had left the route on busy Highway 20. As we exited the car, Sean noticed his hip belt buckle had broken, and the buckle needed replacing. The broken gear was nearly too much to handle on top of the shin splints. I did my best to pull us along as our friends took off ahead of us. It wasn’t our best morning, and the busy road walking didn’t help. I cranked the tunes loud and sang my heart out as cars whizzed by. We followed any road that would take us off the busy highway, but at times the highway walk was inevitable. North of Deception Pass State Park, the realization of how dangerous this walk was set in. We approached the park on a windy single lane highway with virtually no shoulder jumping into the ditch when oversized vehicles rushed by. As we rounded blind spot corners, I truly wondered whether this was with it.
Sean and I left the state park with our only goal being to make it to Oak Harbor to hopefully find a replacement buckle. Thankfully, the shoulder widened, and the walk felt considerably less risky as we watched and heard big fighter jets in training at the nearby Navy base. We got a call from the group indicating that trail angels Rebecca and John would be happy to host us for the night, and John would pick us up and return us to the spot we left off in the morning. I know we’d just been spoiled rotten by trail magic the last two nights, but this day – we needed it. We arrived in Oak Harbor with just a few minutes for me to thankfully find a replacement belt buckle kit, and for Sean to grab a couple MOD pizzas. Our group reunited in John’s truck as we headed to our third trail angel’s house in three days.
Rebecca and John, owners of the Happy House, are proud trail angels and were so happy to help us. They welcomed us into their home eagerly with dinner, drinks, and insight on the permits needed through Olympic National Park. We were stunned when Rebecca offered her sewing machine and our group pack guru Gusha (founder of Nashville Pack) quickly and expertly repaired Sean’s pack. Hallelujah. Our night ended for the second night in a row in a hot tub.
After endless coffee, John bought us back to the places we had left the route, and we resumed road walking. We set ourselves up for an easy day aiming for the 6:15 ferry from Fort Casey to Port Townsend. After hours of road walking, we eventually arrived at the beach for a brief walk on the Sound as we headed towards the ferry. Our easiest westbound miles were upon us as we boarded the ferry and relaxed as we headed to Port Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula. The horizon line of the Olympics had been teasing us for days as we dreamed of our return to single track and hard pushes up big mountains.
Arriving in Port Townsend, Sean and I broke from the group to meet up with the bike-iest people we know, Sophie and Dan, for a quick catch up over dinner. We were sad our meeting was so brief as we walked away towards Lys and Dan’s house. Yep, our fourth night with a trail angel. This time, a couple of legends and bikepacking pioneers. They regularly host bike travelers via Warmshowers.org and occasional hikers like ourselves. They gave us run of the place upstairs while a few cyclists made themselves comfortable downstairs.
Coffee and conversation with Dan made for a delightful morning as we were enthralled by his stories of bike touring Alaska to Argentina in the 70s over the course of three years. Eventually, we reluctantly resumed hiking knowing we had just one big day of road walking left.
The first part of our day was on a series of gravel recreational trails, but eventually we were forced back into Highway 20. Once again, we walked towards oncoming traffic on little to no shoulder while cars streamed by. Occasionally, we moved into the ditch as semis rushed passed. At one point, a very kind and concerned woman pulled over and insisted we hop in the back of her truck. We refused, foolishly, and walked on. After six anxious miles, we reached the intersection of highways 20 and 101 safely, grabbed some soda from a local restaurant, and ambled on down a side road which soon turned to gravel. We rejoiced knowing the huge “urban hiking” section of the PNT was behind us with the Olympics in all their glory ahead. Of course, in true PNT fashion, the series of dirt roads ahead of us required a bit of bush whacking through stinging nettles. Despite the struggle, it felt right sleeping on the side of a forest service road.
Wow, well let’s start with the walking. It just wasn’t that awesome. This section was almost all road walking as we made our way west and south heading to Fort Casey to catch the ferry across Puget Sound to the Olympic Peninsula. Road walking on pavement is especially hard on the feet and joints, not to mention dangerous and dull. It took a lot of will to not hitch through this section as we were informed that many (probably most) do. Suffering through an injury during this section was especially rough for Sean, and I admire his grit and commitment to the grind. We are pretty stoked to have this section behind us and head into the mountains where we belong.
The obvious silver lining of the urban hike was our great fortune with complete strangers who hosted us 4 nights in a row. We remain astounded by their generosity and kindness which included meals, showers, laundry, multiple hot tubs, help repairing gear, rides, and great conversation. Without their blessings, I truly don’t know if we would have walked this entire section. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your kindness!!
We’re out on a thruhike of the 1200 mile Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT) westbound as part of a group of six lean, tan superheroes. Read our experience getting our collective butts kicked on the rugged and challenging PNT in Section 7 through the North Cascades.
After an incredible night’s sleep nestled in the pine trees, we resumed our walk around Ross Lake heading towards the resort to pick up our resupply box. The trail wound through moss covered forest giving us occasional glimpses of the lake. I took a moment to slow down and enjoy some of the easiest miles we’d seen on the PNT. Eventually, we came to a gravel road and walked across Ross Dam. Soon after, we arrived at Ross Lake Resort, one of the only floating resorts in the United States. We eagerly grabbed our resupply boxes and sorted out what we would hike with to get us to Concrete and what we were able to eat right then. The incredibly kind staff let us spend the afternoon loitering on the docks, taking in the views, and even spoiled us with some trail magic treats.
After nearly 8 hours of casual lounging by the lake, we packed up our bags and continued west about 10 miles for a relatively easy day. The entire stretch of trail was through old growth forest with little elevation change. As the soft evening light poured through the towering trees, we found our campsite just outside of the boundary to North Cascades National Park.
With an early start, we resumed our walk through old growth forest decorated with ferns and dripping with moss. It wasn’t too long into our day that the major climbs began. We were thankful that the trail was well made and only a few big blow downs got in our way. Still, the grade of the climb took our breath away in every sense of the phrase. I craned my neck at the seemingly impossible switchbacks in front of me while I sweated my way to the top. Just after noon, we arrived at the top of Whatcom Pass to reap the reward of all of the hard work.
Endless views of mountain ridges surrounded us, but the real star of the show was the Challenger Glacier. We took a long lunch feeling little in the presence of the massive hanging glacier. As hard as it was to pull ourselves away, we knew we still had work to do. We began a big descent down the other side of Whatcom Pass and continued down the PNT. In the late afternoon, we got the fun treat of getting pulled across the river in a cable car. Our final challenge of the day was another big climb up Hannegan Pass, again impossibly steep, which left our shirts drenched in sweat as we finally arrived to camp completely wiped from 10,000 feet of climbing throughout the day. Just before camp, we exited the official boundary to North Cascades NP.
Our morning began with a beautiful descent down Hannegan Pass which eventually ended at a trailhead on a dirt road. After a considerable stretch of single track, we weren’t surprised to resume road walking. We spent a couple hours on dirt before exiting onto pavement as we walked the shoulder up Mount Shuksan towards the Mount Baker Ski Area. We plugged in our tunes and did our best to ignore the endless traffic rushing by on the windy road. Just after noon, we arrived at the ski area and enjoyed views from the base.
We reluctantly resumed walking a couple hours later and were grateful to walk down a trail towards Swift Creek. The views of Mount Shuksan and Mount Baker couldn’t be beat, but the overgrown trail underfoot led to slow miles and more tripping than I’d like to admit. We were thrilled to reach the creek and escape the overgrown trail and the insane amount of biting flies that had been keeping us company. We expected to have to ford the creek, so it was a wonderful surprise when we found a large log bridge and kept our feet dry. The PNT exited the Mount Baker Wilderness Area onto decommissioned forest service roads which put us just a few minutes from Mount Baker Hot Springs. It was an easy decision to end the evening with a quick soak before camp.
We set ourselves up for an easy 9 mile day road walking forest service roads near Baker Lake. It had been a week since our last shower and town day, and we all looked (and smelled) a little worse for wear. Around 9:00, we made it to our road crossing where we could hitch to nearby Concrete. In 2 hitches, we all arrived in town. Food was scarfed down immediately, but there was no lodging available. Despite wanting to stay close to trail, we decided to head to Mount Vernon on the I-5 corridor. We managed to find a ride for all 6 of us fairly quickly to get us 45 minutes away with a sweet Christian couple traveling in their converted bus. After our thank yous and a brief prayer, we parted ways eager to revel in 2 glorious zero mile days
After 250 miles from Oroville, we were desperate to take a real break from the trail. We spent 2 wonderful 0-mile days resting, eating, and doing our best to replace or repair broken gear items. We were thrilled to have our longest stretch between towns behind us as we prepared to set out on the final third of the journey.
Through a series of bus connections and a hitch, we made our way back to trail right where we had left off. Our first nine miles was gradually up forest service roads until we suddenly hit a trailhead swarmed with cars and people. From here, mountaineers can reach the route to summit Mount Baker, a popular weekend trip. We continued climbing towards Bell Pass taking in incredible views of the towering volcano. Past Bell Pass, the crowds thinned to pretty much just us as we continued on the PNT. We ended our relatively easy 20 mile day at Pioneer Camp. This isn’t the official end of Section 7, but I feel like it should be as we left the North Cascades and beautiful Mount Baker behind us.
Section 7 began when we left the Pasayten Wilderness Area and headed directly into the Ross Lake National Recreation Area followed by North Cascades National Park. This is easily one of the best parts of the PNT featuring out of this world views of endless ridgelines, massive glaciers, craggy peaks, old growth forest, and an array of colorful wildflowers. Truly, a hiker’s dream come true. The price of all this beauty? Insane amounts of climbing each day and a heavy pack loaded with food to get you through the wilderness which turned out to be a pretty fair trade.
The trail 15 miles in either direction around Ross Lake couldn’t have been nicer as we wound through old growth forest in awe of the giants that surrounded us. At Ross Lake Resort, we were treated to trail magic and graciously given a spot to lounge in with a spectacular view. Entering North Cascades National Park was where the hard work resumed, but the pay off made it all worth it. Outside of the park boundary, we returned to road walking in exchange for lounging at the ski area with big views of Mount Shuksan and Mount Baker. We even got a dip in some hot springs during this section. Overall – much work, much reward.
We’re out on a thruhike of the 1200 mile Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT) westbound as part of a group of six lean, tan superheroes. Read our experience getting our collective butts kicked on the rugged and challenging PNT in Section 6 through the Pasayten Wilderness Area.
Our day began 24 miles west of Oroville as we continued our long stretch of road walking. Our packs were loaded with 4.5 days of food as we began a long day of climbing. Our first 13 miles included over 6000 ft of elevation gain and was mostly done on dirt forest service roads. Sweat poured as the sun beamed down on us. At Cold Springs trailhead, we officially ended Section 5 and started Section 6. We were thrilled to enter the forest on a winding dirt path after hundreds of miles of mostly road walking. Another big vertical push brought us hiking past a PNT trail crew who we were able to say our thank yous to. Shortly after seeing them, we entered the Pasayten Wilderness area, one of the country’s largest wilderness areas spanning over 500,000 acres. Despite our heavy packs and long day of climbing, we were elated to feel like we were back in the mountains.
After an eternity of climbing, it seemed like the dry high desert of Eastern Washington was a world away, and we were surrounded by craggy peaks across open meadows filled with countless colorful wildflowers. We frolicked our way through sunset arriving at a campsite in the pine trees just as it was getting too dark to see.
We had a stunning start to the day walking among tall trees in the quiet and stillness only mornings can bring. The miles and hours ticked by as we wound our way around Cathedral Peak, an aptly named impressive mountain with thousands of feet of exposed vertical rock wall. We took a serene break at Cathedral Pass to take it all in.
As noon approached, we headed down from the pass eventually leaving intact forest and entering a burn area where we spent the majority of the rest of our day. Just before sunset, we walked on a grassy bald with incredible views of the surrounding peaks. To the south, smoke filled the air as a forest fire was currently ablaze. We stopped to camp unable to leave the view which led to an awkward night of sleeping on the side of hill.
After a sleepless night, we resumed walking through a burn area in cool temps. Since the heatwave and low elevations of Eastern Washington, we had forgotten what it was like to feel chilly. We didn’t make it too far before we started battling blow downs. The pace slowed significantly as the blow down shuffle began. We lunged, heaved, crawled – “dodged, ducked, dipped, dived, and dodged.” This went on all morning until about 2 in the afternoon when the blow downs finally decreased, and we joyfully reentered intact forest. As evening approached, we intersected with the world’s nicest made and well kept trail for the next 10 miles as it coincided with the PNT. We all had a moment of reflection as we walked down the Pacific Crest Trail which everyone in the group has traversed from Mexico to Canada. We were in awe of the incredible views, the memories, the impossible lack of obstacles, and wide rock swept single track. We ended our day at a PCT campsite with a handful of aspiring thruhikers just begining their southbound journey to Mexico.
Our short stretch on the PCT was over before we knew it and we, of course, immediately started hopping blow downs. The morning provided the Pacific Northwest mood we had been seeking. Fog draped the towering pine trees and clung to the mountains providing intermittent views as the wind whipped around the surrounding peaks. Around noon we reached the top of Devil’s Dome. Most of the fog had lifted exposing endless ridgelines and views of hanging glaciers on Jack Mountain. After lunch, we descended the mountain into forest leaving the views from the ridge and the Pasayten Wilderness behind and beginning a seemingly endless series of switchbacks down to Ross Lake. We knew we were in for an easy end to the day when we entered Ross Lake National Recreation Area, marking the end of Section 6, as the PNT hugged the lake shore for about 23 miles. We left about 9 easy miles for us to walk in the morning to Ross Lake Resort.
After a couple hundred miles of mostly walking on roads, we were elated to walk a trail into a wilderness area. The Pasayten was definitely a trail highlight with incredible views of the North Cascades, millions of vibrant wildflowers, sparkling alpine lakes, and hanging glaciers. The only real downside was that maybe 30-40% of the stretch was done through a burn area. The burn did provide views of the surrounding mountains that wouldn’t have been seen otherwise, but it also contained hundreds (thousands?) of blow downs to climb over and set an eerie mood. With each gust of wind, the trees swayed precariously, and we all heard crashes in the distance. As was no surprise, the biting flies and mosquitoes were thick through the wilderness area in mid-July.
In mid-June 2021, we set off from Glacier National Park westbound heading towards the Washington coast on the ~1200 mile Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT) with a group of the most hardcore hikers we know. Check out our experience in Section 4 and Section 5 of the PNT through the Kettle River Range and Okanogan Highlands.
(Links to previous sections at the end of this post.)
We started Section 4 when we left Northport and crossed the Columbia River in the evening on day 19. We ended the day about 6 miles out of town at a developed campground and got up early in the morning to begin a long road walk. Leading up to this campsite, we had walked about a 30 mile stretch of road. From the campground, we still had over 30 miles of road walking ahead of us until we would resume hiking on trail.
We had a lovely 4th of July morning as we walked forest service roads adjacent to a creek. The cool temps faded as morning became noon and the sun beamed down on us. By about 1:00, we had already walked 22 miles and stopped at the Kettle River to swim and siesta. We knew the temperature was pushing triple digits and hiking seemed impossible. We laid around until about 5:00 when we deemed it possible to walk. We sauntered down the road and found a spot to camp by 9:00.
Our morning began early, and we resumed road walking a mix of dirt and overgrown decommissioned forest service roads. After a total of about 60 miles of road walking over the past couple days, we were excited to reach single track despite being in a burn area. The Pacific Northwest Trail coincides for a stretch with the Kettle Crest National Recreation Trail on the east side of Republic. We welcomed the overcast sky and temperatures in the high 70s as we walked through the burn area which provided no shade. In the late afternoon, we finally walked into intact forest as we rode the ridge with incredible views of the Kettle River Range.
In the morning, we were just 7 trail miles from the highway where we would hitch to Republic. Sean and I waited a little over an hour for a ride, but still joined our friends in town by 10:30. It was considerably warmer in town than up in the mountains, and we spent the day tending to our chores, loitering, and waiting out the heat.
The PNT makes a large semi circle around Republic giving hikers the opportunity to access the town from the east, south, and west sides. We resupplied for 60 miles which would take us from the highway crossing east of town to the third access west of town. We heard of a backcountry USFS cabin that was just 4 trail miles past the highway crossing, so we booked it and headed there for the evening. The cabin had a huge porch with chairs, cots inside, and a propane stove. Compared to our standard night, this was glamping and we were stoked.
We started our day sipping coffee while watching the sunrise from the cabin porch, then headed out. The PNT continued to coincide with the Kettle Crest trail for a few miles, providing us some of the nicest section of hiking we had seen thus far. The sky and the ground mimicked each other with soft orange and pink clouds above and mirrored wildflowers below. Our dreamy morning suddenly became a bushwhack as the PNT diverted from the Kettle Crest and connected to a forest service road. Thankfully, it was only a short stretch of wayfinding.
In the afternoon, we enjoyed another stretch of single track as we wound our way down a ridge. We noticed fewer trees and larger piles of dust as we descended confirming were in some of the driest sections of Washington that the PNT traverses. Suddenly, we started following a massive canyon wall downhill, a delightful surprise. Eventually, the trail ended, and we walked a bit of pavement to a developed campsite for dinner. Knowing town was about 28 trail miles away, we decided to walk a bit further to cut down on the next day’s work. After our final uphill climb for the day, we came to an overlook with a magnificent sunset on display. We were mezmorized. Leaving seemed unnecessary and ungrateful.
We awoke early, eager to get our hiking done and head back into the comforts of town. The majority of the day was spent walking forest service roads with a short 1.5 mile section of bushwhacking. We kept the breaks short and the pace speedy. Around 2:00, we had finished 24 miles and stuck out our thumbs for a ride back to Republic where showers, food, and a microbrewery awaited.
Leaving Republic for the second time marked the end of Section 4 and the beginning of Section 5 into the Okanogan Highlands. We knew we had a challenging stretch ahead of us through Sections 6 and 7, so we had breakfast in town and set ourselves up for an easy 21 mile day. We returned to the PNT on single track and busted out a steep climb, but that was most of the hard work for the day. Eventually, we were back on forest service roads for the majority of the walking. In the evening, we arrived at Lake Bonaparte. Our friends dipped in the resort restaurant while we watched several beavers swim and splash in the lake.
We got an early start and began the day with a big climb up Mt Bonaparte. The walk was well graded and pleasant as we watched the color filled sky at sunrise above Lake Bonaparte. The gang got ahead of us and decided to check out the lookout tower at the summit. We continued on our way, running into a trail crew on the walk down working on the PNT which coincided with their winter cross country ski trails. They welcomed us as the first PNT hikers they had seen this season and offered us cherries and nectarines. We walked a few more miles to the tiny community of Havillah where the local church invited hikers to fill up on water and relax inside. We knew we didn’t have too many more miles to do after the church and most of them would be on a road, so we made the easy decision to take an afternoon nap in the air conditioned church. Around 3:30, we continued on our way aiming to get less than 10 miles from Oroville. Shortly after we resumed walking, a woman stopped her car and started handing us each a Gatorade and a big bag of cherries to share. Dreams do come true. We finished our walk around 8:00 with incredible views of the valley below us excited to just have 9 miles to do the following day.
Somehow a 6:00 am start is us sleeping in. We settled into an easy groove as we headed the 9 miles into Oroville. Our walk was easy as we headed downhill and eventually to a highway directly into town. We arrived by 9:30 and were excited to have the rest of the day off in town.
Leaving Oroville, we knew we had a 160 mile food carry until we would pick up our next resupply box at Ross Lake. Gusha and I started scheming to see if there was any possible way to make it easier on ourselves. We came up with a plan to get a ride 24 miles up trail and hike back east bound back into the town of Oroville. The entire 24 miles was a road walk, and it would certainly be under full sun exposure in the 90s. We went to Pastime Brewery for a round of beers and secured a ride in the morning with a friendly local happy to help us out.
Our new friend Frazier arrived at our hotel for a 9:00 am pickup, and we headed 24 miles down the road. We hopped out with light packs and headed eastbound down the pavement that would lead us back to Oroville. The walking was easy, and everyone was in the mood to walk fast and return to our air conditioned room. After a couple hours, we wound our way around beautiful Lake Palmer and were called over to have lemonade and cookies on a local’s porch. We said our thank yous trying to keep our break short and continued pounding pavement. The sun was relentless and the pavement radiated heat as we walked. We took a quick break around 3:00 to get out of the sun by the Similkameen River, but didn’t linger too long. Around 4:20, Frazier drove by in his truck with cold water which was the perfect motivation to get to town faster. Our pace was upwards of 3.5 mph as we pushed back to our cozy motel room. At 5:40 we returned to Oroville thrilled our scheme worked out and the 24 mile road walk was behind us.
For the first time on this trail, I feel like I can say Sections 4 + 5 didn’t have any significant challenges like the previous sections have had. Sections 4 + 5 did, however, have the highest percentage of road walking. Nearly 70% of both sections was a road walk, mostly gravel forest service roads with occasional stretches of pavement. It also included several short bushwhacks and a large burn area. The entire region is markedly dry and arid with high desert features. We noticed more dust, fewer water sources, and abundant sunshine.
Double town access to Republic was definitely a win with town amenities on either end and a short resupply carry in between. Republic was a warm, welcoming trail town with everything we needed condensed into a small town center. We left Republic with another short stretch to Oroville. I don’t really mind the roadwalks, so I consider Sections 4 +5 a nice change of pace from the relentless climbs and major bushwhacks we’ve done in previous sections. But, I am looking forward to getting out of the lower dry elevations and heading west into the North Cascades.
After about 500 miles on any thruhike, I finally start to feel strong. This trail has been no different. The blisters and foot pain I felt at the beginning have faded, and my average walking speed has increased. My PNT experience thus far has seriously increased my tolerance for bull shit, and it’s getting easier to roll with the punches this trail continues to throw at us. Thinking back, maybe I enjoyed sections 4 + 5 so much because they weren’t overly demanding.
We’re out on a thruhike of the 1200 mile Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT) as part of a group of six hardcore hikers. Read our experience getting our collective butts kicked on the rugged and challenging PNT in Section 3.
After a much needed zero day in Bonners Ferry, we started trying to hitch a ride about 15 miles back to trail at 5:30 am. About an hour later, we found a ride for all six of us with Ashlyn and I pretzeled into the trunk. By 7:00, we started our 10 mile mostly flat road walk through colorful alfalfa and canola fields. We had learned of an unprecedented and historic heatwave on our day off and felt the temperature rising as we approached single track. Around 10:30, it was time to start one of our biggest climbs we have encountered thus far on the PNT. Our endless climb, of course, coincided with a burn area providing zero shade for us as we melted our way up the trail. Oh, and there were no listed water sources on the way up, so we carried 3-4 liters each and did our best to ration. Sweat poured and temperatures rose as we gained the ridge. Exhausted, we took our lunch in the smallest sliver of shade we could find.
By late afternoon, we were finally in intact forest. Even at 7000 ft, the temperature had to be above 90°. We had our eyes on the goal of getting to Long Mountain Lake for a quick dip to cool down and refill our water bottles. The lake was about .3 mile and 400 ft downhill and off trail, but the extra effort was so worth it. At the lake trail intersection, we beelined down, the impossibly blue lake drawing us like moths to the flame. We found a perfect rocky spot to jump in the freezing cold water, absolutely elated. Relief engulfed us as we plunged into the water.
We finished the rest of the evening with – surprise – a little more climbing. We were stunned to learn we had climbed 9600 ft in only 18 miles.
We awoke knowing we had a big day ahead of us. We were just a couple miles shy of the beginning of an 8-mile bushwhack (ie literally no trail for 8 miles). There were two options: Lion’s Creek Bushwhack straight down into a valley and a climb back up the other side, or the Lion’s Head Bushwhack, bushwhack and rock scrambling following the ridge. We decided to take the high route, preferring rock scrambling and views to the bushwhack in the valley. We knew we were in for a tough day in either direction.
We started the bushwhack section around 7:00 am. We were in thick forest filled with towering and fallen pine trees and thick willow, blueberry, and huckleberry bushes. Movement was slow as we navigated through, trying to pick the path of least resistance. After our first mile and hour of this, we branched off towards the high route.
Bushwhacking is a slow sport, a test of will and patience. As the hours and miles dragged on, it became apparent that I was failing the test. As we followed the loosely defined route, we began a series of ups and downs that included sections of exposed rock slabs, bushwhacking through the forest, rock scrambling, and a Class 3 sketchy descent. Ankles twisted, hikers fell, screams were released. The sun beamed down on us, temperatures rising to the mid 90s adding yet another challenge to this demanding section. Water sources were truly up in the air through the bushwhack, and we were grateful for any trickle we could find.
We could see Lookout Mountain Lookout far ahead in the distance sitting atop Lookout Mountain, our destination that would end this bushwhack nonsense and where the PNT returns to trail. As morning became afternoon, the Lookout seemed just as far away as it had been hours before as though we hadn’t moved any closer. By lunch at 1:30, we had made it about 70% of the way through, and we were all looking pretty haggard – cut and bruised legs, torn shirts, pants, and shoes, a snapped trekking pole, a little less sparkle in our eyes. After our lunch break, we only had a short stretch left through the bushes, then we exited to rock scrambling up the ridgeline as we approached the Lookout.
Around 3:30, we finally reached our destination drenched in sweat and utterly exhausted. We took a long break in the shade, trying to enjoy the views that we couldn’t appreciate during the trek. We all agreed this had been one of the most difficult days on “trail” any of us had ever experienced. I didn’t take many pictures. I didn’t want to remember.
We left the Lookout overjoyed to return to a steady walking pace on trail. Though the trail was lovely and well graded, I was still ready to be done for the day, but I knew we still had work to do. The trail headed downhill towards Priest Lake, and the temperatures rose as we walked. The heat was relentless even through the evening hours. We were all craving a swim, and considered going a half mile off trail towards a beach. We decided to stick to trail and not add extra miles, and we were handsomely rewarded with a large campsite right next to a creek. Bags were dropped, clothes were stripped, and we all cooled ourselves in the flowing creek in disbelief. The longest 20 mile day of our lives with +6000 ft of gain across treacherous terrain was over.
Our morning began early as we did our best to get some miles in before the heat became unbearable. Our forecast indicated today’s highs would be around 108°. The trail was gentle to us after yesterday’s trials – soft dirt trail covered in pine needles wound through an old growth forest adjacent to Upper Priest Lake. The morning sun cast soft beams of light through the trees and the smell of pine filled the air. Our morning was light and dreamy – an intense difference from the previous day.
Soon, we exited the woods and began a long walk on forest service roads. Considering the heat was forecasted in the triple digits, we opted to take the road walk over the ridge walk. By 11:00, the walking was already becoming unbearable. We stopped a little after noon for a mid-day siesta to beat the heat. What is usually an hour max for lunch became a 3 hour nap. Leaving the shade felt impossible. At about 3:30, we started moving up the road only to refill water and stop again 2 miles later. At about 5:30, we deemed it possible to walk and got into a groove road walking until about 10:30 pm. We only let ourselves sleep for a few hours knowing the early morning hours would allow us to escape the afternoon heat as we headed into the town of Metaline Falls.
We resumed hiking after a short rest at 4:30 am and continued down the forest service road. The walk was easy, but our minds were preoccupied with escaping the heat in town. Around 9:00, we stumbled into a cafe and locked in our plan to take at least one day off in nearby Ione. We also finalized plans with a couple of Trail Angels who were stoked to drive up to Metaline Falls to feed us!!
At lunch time, April and Randy arrived with a cooler full of cold drinks, snacks, salad, and rice and stir fry veggies to grill! Their kindness and generosity was unbelievable and couldn’t have come at a better time. After lunch, we lounged in the grass and took turns splashing ice water on each other as we enjoyed the conversation and digested the food coma. Around 3:30, we said goodbye to our Trail Angels (who had driven nearly 2 hours to bless us) and hitched a ride to Ione. At 4:00, the temperature still read 108° and the same was predicted for the following day. Our two bedroom air conditioned apartment in Ione was a God send.
While we typically wouldn’t have taken a double zero in the first three weeks, we were relieved to escape the heat in a quirky small town motel that featured an ideal two bedroom apartment for six weary hikers. We had a full kitchen, a grocery store across the street, and swimming access in the river a block away. It was the oasis we needed.
After two full days of rest, we all felt like a million bucks as we hitched back to Metaline Falls to resume hiking. Our morning was spent hiking dirt forest service roads up to Abercrombie Mountain trailhead. We switched to single track and followed the trail just shy of Abercrombie summit. The intense heat had broken, and we relished being surrounded by towering pine trees at a higher elevation. In the late afternoon, we switched back to walking dirt roads which eventually turned to pavement. We camped for the night next to a pond infested with mosquitoes.
In an effort to escape the bugs and get to town a little quicker, we left camp early and started pounding the 16 miles of pavement that would take us to the tiny town of Northport. Walking pavement is never that fun, but the miles peeled off as we walked the road adjacent to the Columbia River. By 10:30, we had made it to the tiny town of Northport. Temps were soaring in the 90s, so we spent the day swimming and lounging by the Columbia. Around 6:00, we pulled ourselves away from town and hiked about 6 miles of dirt road to camp.
Wow, this section had some insanely trying obstacles and challenges in and of itself without the heatwave adding another layer of difficulty. Leaving Bonners Ferry, our first day of this section featured over 9000 ft of climbing, a majority of which was done through a burn area with no shade while temperatures exceeded 100°F. The following day, we all agreed, was one of our most challenging days of our hiking careers as we bushwhacked 8 miles at 1 mile per hour. We exited that stretch with torn clothing and shoes, a snapped trekking pole, cuts, bruises, and sweat drenched clothing. After the bushwhack, we were treated to a lovely section of easy trail though old growth forest as we walked by Upper Priest Lake. The magic ended as we headed towards miles upon miles of forest service roads, taking long afternoon siestas in an attempt to survive the heat.
Our trail magic in Metaline Falls and rest in Ione was incredible and desperately needed. Leaving Metaline Falls, I personally felt the best I’ve felt on this trail – no foot pain or blisters, caught up on sleep, and maintaining a faster hiking pace. Hanging out by the Columbia was delightful, but the town of Northport left much to be desired with a tiny grocery store and a lackluster resupply. Mostly, I’m just glad the heat has broken, and we’re able to breathe again.
We’re out on a thruhike of the 1200 mile Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT) as part of a group of six experienced hikers. Read our experience getting our collective butts kicked on the rugged and challenging PNT in Section 2.
With properly taped feet, we left Eureka, MT, and continued west on the PNT. Our first 16 miles of the day was road walking, a mix of dirt and pavement. Road became trail after crossing the Kootenai River, and we started a steep 4000 ft climb immediately. It was a steamy afternoon which left us drenched in sweat as we climbed up the appropriately named Thirsty Mountain and approached the lookout tower. We took a quick break to dry off and enjoy the views and continued a few more miles to camp. Just before heading to bed, a black bear walked by near our camp, but thankfully it spooked easily once it heard us.
Glancing at the elevation profile, I thought we were in for a light day. But I was seriously mistaking. We walked the trail winding through the forest following the ridge, a series of climbs and descents. Sean and I lagged behind the group, and I became frustrated at our relatively slow pace closer to 2 miles per hour than 3. We took our lunch at Vernal Falls, a couple of the guys taking a dip in a swimming hole in an attempt to fight the steamy weather.
After lunch, we began a huge climb that started in overgrown bushes and continued up into a burn area with no shade to cover the blazing sun. We climbed while sweat poured down our bodies. It took about 2 hours to climb over the mountain and halfway down the other side until we could find some shade. We were all pretty beat with all the climbing and temps around 90°, but we walked on grateful for the cool forest. Soon, we exited the trail for a road, and began our evening walk on dirt forest service roads. We stopped for a quick swim in another creek and continued to camp on the side of the road, tired from another long hot day.
We had about 12 miles of road walking in the morning, followed by single track in the afternoon and evening. Philly and Gusha started their day a couple miles ahead of the rest of us, and we spent the day on their heels. They’d leave us time stamps at intersections carved into the dirt or small patches of snow which made for a fun game. The day featured more big climbs which actually came with some pretty incredible views and a lovely display of wildflowers. Towards the end of the day, our group spotted two bears that ran away from us quick when they noticed our presence. Just before camp, we crossed into Idaho from Montana, and we went to bed tired and eager to head to town the next day.
Overnight, a little rain fell from the sky. It was mostly dry in the morning, but ominous clouds filled the sky. We started a big descent that lead down into the valley with rain intermittently falling in us. I spotted another black bear as we came down the mountain, again running away from us quickly. We crossed the Moyie River which brought us to our last big climb before town. We started a steep 3500 ft climb up and over a mountain switchback after switchback, a seemingly endless ascent. The sky had cleared by this point, leaving us drenched with sweat instead of rain. Finally, we started heading downhill and just had 1 more obstacle between us and town – a mile of bushwhacking connecting two trails. We spent about 40 minutes climbing over and around down trees, creating a path through the woods. Our final stretch was dirt road walk to a highway where we waited about an hour on the sleepy road for a ride to Bonners Ferry. With an aggressive start to a challenging trail, we all were excited to take our first day off and catch up on sleep.
With painful feet, we arrived in Bonners Ferry eager for a day off to rest and take care of a few errands. The gang was kept busy relaxing, eating, and trying to take care of problems with gear and shoes. We were only able to get one night in a motel room, and the next day we were given permission to loiter in the motel’s outdoor seating area and camp on their property (thanks, Ed!). Not an ideal zero day, but restful nonetheless. It was in Bonners Ferry we read the news that an unprecedented and historic heatwave was approaching as we took off on Section 3.
Whew, this was another tough section of the PNT. We had our first significant distance of road walk which is easy walking but somewhat boring and tough on the feet. Each day we faced steep long climbs while the temps hovered around 90° without any wind. The climbs tended to coincide with burn areas so much of the effort was done without any shade. However, we were rewarded with an amazing display of wildflowers and a nice section of views from a ridgeline. During a couple stretches, we faced 10-12 mile water carries which weighed down our packs and expended more effort. After 10 aggressive first days on trail, we deemed a zero day in Bonners Ferry necessary.
After riding 2200 miles of the Western Wildlands Route on our bicycles, we stashed our bikes in Missoula (thank you Bicycle Hangar!!), bussed to Whitefish, and met up with the gang in Glacier National Park to begin a 1200 mile westbound thruhike of the Pacific Northwest Trail. This remote and rugged trail hugs the Canadian border traversing from Glacier in Montana out to the Pacific coast of Washington. Here’s our experience from our first footsteps on Section 1 of the Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT).
Sean and I boarded the amtrak in West Glacier heading towards East Glacier and quickly found our friends on board. We were a group of seven, eager to reunite and do the thing we’re best at once again. We had secured the necessary backcountry camping permits required in the national park and everyone’s logistics put us all together on the train. The last piece of the puzzle would be a hitch to Chief Mountain trailhead about 2 hours north of East Glacier. We began the search for a hitch immediately and almost instantly found a ride for all 7 of us about 20 minutes up the rode. We exited hitch number 1 and waited less than 5 minutes for hitch number 2 to pull over. The guys climbed in the truck bed while Ash and I got the joy of spending the next two hours reading assigned Bible verses outloud while our driver focused more on his crazy journal than the road. We snuck some pictures for proof. Hitching is most certainly part of the adventure.
After what seemed like an eternity, we arrived safely at Chief Mountain trailhead and the beginning of our 1200 journey. We snapped some pics, tried to shake the experience of doom and gloom preached by the Seventh Day Adventist, and headed down the dreamy trail. We were in some disbelief how easy it was to get a hitch and that we had all day to casually walk 13 miles.
We walked through meadows soaking up the sites, amazed to be back in Glacier together near where we finished our long journey on the Continental Divide Trail in 2018. We made a stop for snacks at Crosley Lake and arrived at our designated campsite at Mokowanis Junction just in time for a drizzle to start. We scarfed dinner under trees, pitched tents, and drifted to sleep as rain leaked from the sky.
We left camp around 5:30 thankful that the rain had passed. We knew we had a big day ahead of us with 2 huge passes and over 27 miles to get us to our next designated campsite. We were anticipating some snow in the passes that would surely slow us down as well. The rangers that gave our group the permit did so reluctantly, fearful that we wouldn’t be able to navigate the snow or push that many miles. We were on a mission.
The climb up Stoney Indian Pass began immediately up 2500 ft in about 4.5 miles. We cruised through the first two and hit snow for the remaining 2.5 to the summit. Our focus was divided between the task at hand and the unbelievable views. We watched the sun illuminate the cliffs, sparkle off the high alpine lakes, and dazzle the waterfalls emitting a myriad of colors. Soon enough, all of our focus was poured into navigating the snow covered pass. Eventually, after many ice cold creek crossings and guestimating the path of least resistance, we reached the top of Stoney Indian Pass and took a quick break to take in the views before descending the other side.
With a lot more mileage and another big pass ahead of us, we tried to keep any breaks short and started our descent down the pass. We created our own route over snow covered terrain eventually winding our way around Stoney Indian Lake where trail began to emerge from the snow. Suddenly, we were walking trail at a quick pace through the forest. Mosquitos found us quickly during our break which we shortened to escape them. The trail turned north and converged with the CDT. Not too long after the junction, we ran into two hikers heading our way. They told us they weren’t able to pass Waterton River due to a bridge being out and had to turn around. The river was about 5 miles down the trail, and we had too many questions to turn back without checking it out for ourselves. We walked down the trail knowing we might have to retrace our steps.
The next five miles we anticipated would be simple, but we quickly ran into a section of blow downs obstructing our path. Our pace slowed as we did our best to find a route on the buried trail spending at least 2.5 hours to traverse 5 miles.
We arrived at Waterton Lakes just before 1:00 hungry and tired from fighting down trees. We had a lovely and relaxing lunch break as we enjoyed the incredible views of Waterton Lakes that stretches across the US / Canadian border. After lunch, we left to discover what this river crossing was all about.
Initially, the trail brought us to the horse ford path which neither horse nor human could safely cross at this time of year. The river roared downstream at an impossible rate draining the snowmelt from the towering peaks above. Next, we walked a short path to see the bridge. As warned, the bridge was dissassembled. Four suspension cables were in place spanning the rushing river, but the wooden planks were neatly stacked on our side of the shore. We inspected the cables, but the thought of crossing them without ropes or harnesses just wasn’t going to happen.
We trudged on upstream towards Rainbow Falls, our last hope that something upstream might be fordable or that there was another bridge. This effort, too, was unfruitful. We did a final inspection of where Waterton River drains into Upper Waterton Lake, checking if the crossing was swimmable. However, the thought of jumping into freezing water and swimming hard across the river opening with a full pack seemed risky. With heavy hearts, we turned around and headed back the way we came knowing we were up against five miles of blow downs and a snowy pass.
We spent the afternoon and evening retracing our steps. No one was happy about the circumstances, but we did our best to keep our moods in check and tackle the task at hand. Truly, I felt a little let down by the rangers as a bridge out is probably something to tell hikers. I was warned about ten times to bring an ice axe and crampons, neither of which was going to help me cross that river, but no one mentioned the bridge. After a very long day, we returned to Mokowanis Junction camp around 10:00 pm totally wiped.
We woke up early for an easy hike back to Chief Mountain trailhead. Our next objective was to get to Polebridge – somehow – and continue west from there on the PNT. The hike was over before noon, and we started trying to piece together the plan. Thankfully, we meet Yeti an 83 year old hiker who has logged over 35,000 miles of long distance hiking. He agreed to take 4 of us to East Glacier. The remaining 3 hitched a ride quickly, and we all met up there. We resupplied, snacked, and enjoyed Yeti’s wild stories of hiking. He then agreed to take 4 of us an additional 2 hours around the park to Polebridge. Woohoo!! Again 3 others hitched, and by 6:00 pm we were all somehow in Polebridge able to restart hiking the following day. The trail provides.
Sean and I had a moody start to our day fueled by the physical and mental exhaustion from the experience in the park coupled with a lack of sleep. Nevertheless, we began walking about a 15 mile road walk out of Polebridge and into the forest. Almost immediately, the single track was covered with snow, our group being the first to lay the tracks. Our pace slowed as we climbed up the mountain eventually hitting the ridgeline, and we continued to ride the ridge. The ridge ride remained patchy with some sections of dirt followed by snow covered sections. The day presented all sorts of fun obstacles – snow, wet feet, blow downs, and sketchy scrambles. We did our best to end the day early, finding a section of trail that was clear of snow and dry by 8:00 pm.
Our morning began with continuing the ridge ride until we finally came down into the forest. After miles of snow, we were stoked to see a well graded dirt trail. The hours passed and miles ticked by. In the afternoon, we did a big climb. By this point, I was starting to notice the blisters forming on my feet, but I continued to push through the pain. The clouds in the sky cast an ominous tone, and we prayed (literally) to stay dry until we got to camp. The temperature dropped as we climbed, but thankfully only a few drops leaked from the sky. We were eager for our day to be over, but the final 3 mile push to camp was tedious as we climbed up slippery snow covered trail. We arrived at Blue Sky Lake exhausted but proud of our first 30 mile day on the PNT.
We woke up eager to get to town. The morning was chilly, but the hiking was thankfully pretty easy. We spent the first few miles navigating a little snow, and then descended into the woods down perfectly graded dirt trail. Eventually, the trail met dirt road and the final 8 or so miles was a mix of dirt and paved road into town. My blisters were causing some serious pain, and I took to a light jog stance in order to cope. By mid afternoon, we were elated to arrive in Eureka, MT to get some rest and heal our wounds.
Glacier National Park to Eureka, MT – 131.9 Miles
Going into Glacier is always a treat – waterfalls, mountains in your face, sparkling high alpine lakes. It’s a dreamy place to be. We were definitely disappointed that we couldn’t cross Waterton River, but we’re happy that we made smart and safe decisions.
So far, the PNT has been a mixed bag of trying obstacles and a bit of nice trail. We’ve dubbed it as the “say your prayers” or “there will be blood” trail. We’re pushing hard and hurting ourselves, so that’s cool. I think it’s been worth it.
We’ve come a long way from the wall at the Mexican / Arizona border! Check out our experience riding Segment 3 northbound on the Western Wildlands Route (WWR).
We woke up in our room in Ketchum and headed to Backwoods Mountains Sports as soon as it opened eager to get the busted tire replaced and continue riding. The bike mechanics were super friendly, helpful, and eager to get us back on the road. They didn’t have a 29 x 3″ tire, but thankfully a 29 x 2.6″ would do the trick. After a couple hours, we returned to the shop and my bike was ready to go. Sean noticed his brakes were getting pretty weak, so he had the mechanics replace the brake pads which they were able to do on the spot. By 1:00 in the afternoon, our bikes were both ready to continue north.
With a late start, we decided to make it a short day. Just out of town, the route followed a bike path that turned from pavement to dirt. We meandered through several official USFS campgrounds adjacent to the Big Wood River and even stopped for an afternoon nap riverside. After crossing the arid Idaho basin, we were elated to get into the forest with incredible views of the Sawtooth mountains. We ended our short day near Galena Lodge near miles and miles of mountain biking trails.
After a chilly night, we weren’t too eager to start the morning. Eventually we started pedaling, happy that our day began with a big climb to warm us up. Mountains towered above us as we rode through the valley towards the tiny town of Stanley. We got a small resupply at the little general store and followed the Salmon River out of town. After about 15 miles of highway, we turned onto Yankee Fork Road which became gravel almost immediately.
This area was mined in the late 1800s and early 1900s and is littered with history. Along the side of the road were big piles of rocks known as “dredge tailings.” About 6 miles in we saw the massive dredge that has been sitting there unused for about 70 years. We also passed through a few remnants of Bonanza and Custer City, now ghost towns, once populated by miners and families over a century ago.
We were once again happy to start our day with a big climb to shake the morning chill. We followed the Yankee Fork up the pass and then a series of other creeks down the other side. As we descended, we exited the forest into a dry space full of sage brush under abundant sunshine. Soon enough, we were on pavement heading into the little town of Challis.
Our time on the WWR was starting to run out, and our end point was on the horizon. We came to the realization that we actually needed to slow down a little bit, so we took advantage of the opportunity to stay in town. We chose one of the rustic motels and enjoyed a night in a bed out of the wind.
We began our morning with coffee and an aptly named “mountain of hash browns.” (I mean, when in Idaho, eat potatoes, right?) Then, headed out for the first climb of the day. On a dirt road, we climbed up and up with a super steep section near the top that required us to push our bikes. We glided down the other side which led to the second big climb of the day. This one was longer, but thankfully considerably less steep. As we reached the pass, we looked at the guide and realized we had a nearly 45 mile stretch ahead of us that was downhill and flat. The grade near the top required no pedaling. We spent the afternoon and early evening following Panther Creek downstream to where it meets the Salmon River. As we neared the Salmon, cliffs towered overhead as we went through a canyon. The final 10 miles of the day we followed the river to an official USFS campground putting a beautiful end to an incredible day of bike riding.
We woke early with a 5000 ft climb immediately ahead of us. In some ways it was bittersweet as we knew it was our last big climb of the WWR for now. We spent all morning climbing up and up mostly through a burn area. Though the land was scarred, the fallen trees created clearings that allowed us to see the surrounding mountains. Around noon, we reached the top and started gliding down the other side.
Big clouds rolled in and a little rain leaked from the sky. We did our best to keep our lunch break short and continued on our way. The river we were following soon met Painted Rocks Lake, and we exited dirt for pavement as we rode around Painted Rocks State Park. We watched as clouds moved overhead, unsure what would happen. Our ride remained on pavement as we took a side route to the town of Darby which we visited on our Continental Divide Trail thruhike in 2018. Around 5:00, we made it to Darby and stayed at an RV park for the night.
Darby would be our exit point from the WWR for now. When planning this trip, we knew we had adventure number 2 with a specific date we had to be there to meet up with friends. North Idaho and Montana are incredibly sparsely populated with only a handful of cities. Missoula is 60 miles straight north of Darby, so we made that our destination to switch from biking to hiking.
We woke up early in Darby knowing we had about a 50% chance of rain. 15 miles north, we went through the town of Hamilton (where we obviously cued up the Hamilton soundtrack) and noticed a paved bike path adjacent to the highway. We were stoked to get off the highway shoulder and have a buffer between us and the cars going 70+ mph. We cruised down the bike path through a few towns as the clouds clung to the mountain tops and chased us north.
Around 2:00, we arrived to our motel in Missoula proud of our 2200 miles of bike riding that brought us there. The next day we watched the rain pour as we sat dry and cozy in our room.
We spent the following two days tying up lose ends as we prepared for our summer hike! We picked up our backpacks that were shipped to us, stored our bikes at The Bicycle Hangar (an incredibly kind and supportive bike shop in Missoula), and got ourselves ready to start a new adventure on foot. We’ll be back for the bikes and the WWR in a couple months, but until then, follow along here as we return to our roots and tackle another long distance hike.
Wow, this segment was beautiful! We were so happy to return to the mountains after a dry and hot stretch through Southern Idaho. This segment had one of the longest food carries of the WWR at about 160 miles, but water was everywhere. Thankfully, the weather held for us in early June with temps in the 70s in the day at maybe dipping into the high 40s at night.
(miles and elevation gain tracked with Strava)
The Western Wildlands Route (WWR) is a cross country route stretching from the Mexican / Arizona border over 2700 miles north to the Montana / Canadian border. The WWR is 80% unpaved consisting of mostly dirt roads and 4×4 tracks and passes through 4 states on the way – Arizona, Utah, Idaho, and Montana. The route can be traversed either direction, but since we started in late April, we took off from the Mexican border and headed north. Check out more details about the Western Wildlands Route on BikepackingRoots.org
(unless otherwise noted, we are each carrying one of the following)
We have one outfit we ride in and one outfit we carry for camp.
Note: We are riding stoveless.