WANDERING THRU | THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST TRAIL

Julie Hotz

VIDEO: Julie Hotz

LOCATION: The Pacific Northwest Trail

Traversing east to west, undulating right beneath the Canadian border is the newest National Scenic Trail in the US, the Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT).

It begins on the east side of Glacier National Park, bisects the Northern Cascades, and ends on the Olympic Wilderness Coast where the Pacific Ocean meets the westernmost point of the 48 contiguous states. Though it is easily confused with Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), which heads north to south for 2650 miles from Mexico to Canada, the PNT runs perpendicular for just over 1200 miles, crossing the PCT in the heart the North Cascades. Unlike many long distance trails, it does not run with the grain of the mountains, but against them, up and over every range, making for incredible amounts of elevation gain and loss over short distances. Though the trail is mapped out, because it is relatively new, not every section is complete. For now, the PNT is strung together with various sorts of trails, from single track, to old Forest Service roads, to paved highways, to overgrown cow paths, to dense vegetation and rocky ledges with no path at all. In this sense, one feels like they are simply walking across America, taking whatever path they find at their feet, to get them across expanses of wilderness, and through small towns and valleys. Additionally, trail alternates and endless fork-in-the-road options at trail junctions are present everywhere, making this trail much more of a “choose your own adventure” hike than a standard route to be followed footstep by footstep. There are very few PNT markers, and the best set of maps can only be acquired by emailing a stranger for the set he made out of a labor of love. Unlike the Pacific Crest Trail, Continental Divide Trail, and the Appalachian Trail which all have hundreds or more attempting to thru hike each year, the PNT is quiet. Very quiet. In past years, there were fewer than a dozen attempts annually. This year saw a surge of PNT hikers, which tipped the scales to perhaps a couple dozen people completing the trail in one season.

 

All these details led me to choose the PNT as my second long distance hike: the solitude, the relatively short length, and the challenges of navigation and terrain. What surprised me most was the variety of landscape, people, and experiences. From western Montana to the Pacific Ocean I experienced 80 degrees of temperature changes, dense and lush rainforests, sagebrush deserts, seascapes and tidepools, dust and cow poop, slow rolling hills and rugged mountains, angry landowners and free loving hippies, and the range of human emotion.

As with any long distance journey, the exact path one sets out on may be redefined while pressing forward. For me this trail was filled with moments of doubt and riddled with injury, forcing me to rearrange my hiking order, separate from my hiking partner, and learn slow, drawn out lessons. I cried in front of strangers, experienced snow, hail, torrential downpours, and dried up springs on intolerably hot days. But all these less comfortable moments made the shining moments stand out even more: the friendships forged in the woods, the kindness of strangers, the majesty of the mountains, the pastel colors of the sage, the sweet smells of the flora, and the curious fauna that shared their home with me. And I’m still learning things months after returning back home from this hike. As the landscapes evolve slowly with the miles that pass beneath one’s feet, the internal revelations become more expansive and applicable with time.

A longer version of this story is featured in our book, Early Hues.