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Begins: Jun 27, 2012
Date: Sat, Sep 8th, 2012
Trip Distance: 1,170.0
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PLANNING NOTES FOR FUTURE HIKERS
Buck-30's Planning Thoughts For the PNT
2014 Update: I thought I’d reevaluate what I wrote below in 2012. I’m not super focused on the PNT anymore since I’ve already hiked it, but I generally know what’s going on with the trail. The only big change that I know of is that Tim Youngbluth did a new guidebook on the PNT which he basically sells for cost. I think it’s a bit of a work in progress with hikers helping provide updates/corrections, but from what I have seen it looks to be a huge improvement from the old, out of date, original PNT guidebook. Li continues to provide his excellent set of maps. There seems to be a few more thru-hikers, but still not really all that many.
2018 Update: A lot has changed! There have been and are many more hikers. Li and his maps have dropped off the face of the earth. Tim's guidebook has become the go to guide and the PNTA has finally provided a set of maps and a PDF for Avenza. The trail won't be as hard as I described below or in my journal most likely, more hikers, more info, more trail maintenance. There's a Guthook app for god's sake!!
CAVEAT 1: These are my OPINIONS! I'm not always right. What works for me may not work for you. The weather has a big impact on enjoyment and mindset. Things change. trails get better, trails get worse. So read this but don't expect it to be 100% accurate for you.
Before hiking the PNT one theme I had read from hikers was that the PNT wasn't scenic enough for the amount of effort you put out. This concerned me a lot but in my opinion was not true. I've boiled it down to the following main reasons (which may or may not be true for you):
4 Key Tips to Enjoying the PNT:
1) Have enough time: The PNT more than any other trail I've hiked has so many options and alternates/shortcuts that it can be mind boggling. If you are short on time or just want to finish for some reason you will end up shortcutting the whole trail and have a terrible time. Most shortcuts involve exchanging trail for road walks. I always reminded myself that I wasn't hiking the PNT for the most efficient way to Cape Alava. I booked my return plane ticket before I even started the trail and it ended up being the best thing I did. I actually had too much time which allowed/forced me to walk the best parts of the trail even if they were longer. It was nice being "forced" to take my time. Like most thru-hikers I have an inner drive to keep moving forward and some of the shortcuts can be so tempting but something you will regret later. There is a reasonably wide weather window to hike the PNT so use it to your advantage. I noticed that the hikers that tended to complain about the trail overall seemed to have taken a lot of shortcuts that cut out a lot of good miles (for example the orbit around Republic is really nice but a lot of hikers did a huge road walk in/through/out of Republic that cut a lot of miles and is boring).
2) Be Flexible: Take alternates and shortcuts! I know above I just lectured on not doing that but take the one's that make sense. I took a lot of alternates, usually to avoid a known horrible piece of trail but usually they were short and worth it. There's no point in doing a horrible 2 mile forested bushwhack on an old logging road when you could just walk a good forest service road around. In fact, the Official Trail isn't really set anyway so it's always a choose your own adventure and something I loved about the PNT. Practically every section I would look at my high level 100k maps and plot out my route and usually had many choices. And then I would change it up while hiking. Flexibility was key and fun.
3) Be "Information" Prepared This may be my most key tip. There is a lot of good information "out there" but none of it is in one spot. Knowing the better trails to hike made my trip much, much more enjoyable. Simply avoiding a 2 mile forested logging road bushwhack by taking an alternate dirt road around could make or break a day. Neither route would be very scenic so you might as well be on the one that won't kill you. But you have to know in advance. Also, there are many much larger alternates and knowing which ones are more scenic or enjoyable is key. My answer to this was having Li's maps and reading journals from past hikers. I'll talk more about Li's maps later but he has short notes all over his maps comparing choices which are very helpful. I also read maybe 5 other journals and when I read something that sounded really good or really bad I copied it to a Word document. Later I sorted the document into trail order and ended up with a very long document of random observations from past hikers. I found this to be incredibly helpful and I ended up making a lot of good decisions because of help from past hikers. This was actually the majority of my planning. I just accumulated a lot of information (which I will summarize below) and then used it while hiking. I didn't do a lot of detail planning before the trip. I just made sure I had the information so when I needed it, I had it.
4) Pray to the trail gods for good weather: Not much you can do about this one but if you catch some rainy or cold weather in some of the better parts of the trail then not only will those days suck but you'll feel like you worked hard in some of the lesser scenic sections only to have terrible weather in a great section. So pray hard to the trail gods!
MAPS/GUIDEBOOKS, ETC. The following is a summary of everything I know of that is "out there":
MAPS: There are now several sets of maps but hands down, easily the best set is from Li Brannfors. Li hiked the trail in 2009 and his maps using the National Geographic topo software are amazing. He provides them in (around) 35k and 100k levels. They have the Official Route and a zillion alternates. He has a lot of his own notes and notes from around 5 other hikers who have used his maps. I wouldn't even consider carrying any others. The PNTA has published a similar set of maps except they don't have the zillion alternates or hiker notes that are extremely useful. Bravo has also published a set of maps similar to the PNTA's. Li's maps are free and all he asks is that you provide feedback.
GUIDEBOOK: The Guidebook is out of print and about 12 years old (although you can get it as an Ebook these days). Even though it is hopelessly out of date it is the only one out there and still worth having. It was very well written when published and just desperately needs to be updated but it will be at least several years before that happens, if at all. I really like Guidebooks but found myself not using it that much. The "old snag" or "pink flagging" marking the trail 12 years ago probably isn't there anymore! But I would carry it again as the chapter introductions gave a nice overview and Ron is extremely upbeat about everything which is motivating. Bravo also produces about 700 GPS waypoints and a printed set of notes to accompany them that are like a mini guidebook (an example would be "Waypoint XX, cross Road XX, head SW towards trail XX"). I found these to be helpful and kind of a "warning system" that a junction or tricky section might be upcoming. The PNTA's website has an electronic data book PDF for free. I carried it to start but found I wasn't using it and tossed the pages.
GPS: Personally, I would highly recommend a GPS but it is of course not mandatory. There are so many unmarked junctions and confusing places (especially logging roads) that having a GPS was very helpful. Li also provides a GPS file that has a "track" for the entire trail and alternates which is super helpful.
RESUPPLY: Melanie Simmerman has recently produced a town guide for the trail that I would recommend. It was nice to have current town information and especially on some of the spreadout towns it was nice to know what part was best for hikers. Suge also has a website which a lot of good town information but it is about 7 years old. His humor is good though and I used his notes as well. I'm not a big box person and only sent a box to Ross Lake resort which is pretty much mandatory. You would also want one at Polebridge (I had a friend resupply me). Everywhere else I just bought in towns easily.
DELORME ATLAS: I would recommend carrying the Delorme maps cut down to the trail area or equivalent high level maps. These are the "just in case I have to bail maps" and I used them several times on alternates or to get a better picture of what was around me. In my opinion the forest service maps are not necessary.
PNT FORUM/HIKER JOURNALS: There is a lot of very good information on the lightly used PNT forum and there are at least a half dozen journals with enough detail to get good information from. I'd suggest browsing these for current information and a "feel" for the trail.
OTHER: I can't think of anything else significant that I would have wanted or needed.
This is a tough one. First, let’s talk Westbound which seems to be the more common direction of travel and the way the guidebook is written. You have 2 major issues. First, you can't start too early because of snow in Glacier and the next few sections. I started in late June (26th) and had a ton of snow in Glacier, then a ton of snow in the next section (Whitefish Divide, Ten Lakes Scenic area) and still snow occasionally beyond that. It was an above average but not epic snow year and I was very surprised by the amount of snow. I got through Glacier ok with an ice ax and micro spikes, but had to walk a lot of forest service dirt roads around the Polebridge to Eureka section (Whitefish Divide, Ten Lakes) as the ridges had almost total snow cover at 5700' and the trail spends countless miles at 7000' in these areas. There was just too much snow. So definitely do your research before you start on snow levels. The second issue is that if you start too late then you could have Fall snow storms in the North Cascades or Olympics. I don't know the timing of this or what "too late" is, but it exists. Beyond the snow discussed above your next worries are rain and surprisingly heat. I was expecting a lot of cold rain issues and instead barely ever had any rain the whole trip and instead had many, many days over 90 degrees. I'm guessing this was a little unusual but who knows. When you hit the Olympics in late August or September there is always the possibility of cold rainy weather. For an Eastbound hiker I don't know a lot but I do know that the North Cascades can hold snow very, very late into summer. I was crossing snow fields in mid-August so do your research if you are starting out east. And of course Glacier gets Fall snow as well so don't finish too late!
DANGERS AND ANNOYANCES:
This trail is really no different than any other trail except for 2 major things that come to mind. First, this trail traverses more grizzly bear country than any other trail. There are large populations in Glacier, western Montana and Idaho (especially the Selkirks) and a very small population in the North Cascades. I carried bear spray through Metaline Falls (eastern washington) and was glad I did. I felt safer with it especially on those dark, lonely nights! I never hang my food and I hung my food every night through Metaline Falls on the PNT. I hated it but was glad I did. I never saw a grizzly but would carry bear spray again and hang my food as well. With these 2 things I never had any fear. The locals will talk nuts about the bears but I never paid much attention and just smiled. 2nd danger is remoteness/no hikers. Much of the trail is barely hiked by anyone and a simple broken ankle could mean big trouble. There is a very good chance that in many places no one would come by for days or even a week or longer or never. I was never "scared" but it did cross my mind. I would probably carry a SPOT if I did the trail again even though I have never used one before. Just a thought. Beyond that there was nothing "dangerous". I actually saw a cougar but this is extremely rare. Humans, always the biggest danger in my mind, were fine. Everyone I met was friendly and I never had a bad experience. Lightening is always a danger but that is true anywhere. There are not many dangerous river/creek crossings although I had so little rain that I can't comment on if you had a lot of rain what it could be like. Annoyances are plenty. The one's that drove me nuts were mosquitoes and spider webs. Mosquitoes were a problem pretty much the entire trip other than between the mountains and coast at the end. I used 1 small bottle of 100% DEET but mostly wore long pants and shirt when it was real bad, especially for breaks. I even used a headnet for a few breaks which kept me sane. It was always tough to tell when they would be bad. It wasn't always bad but they always came back at some point. Spider webs across the trail and then my face was really annoying on those hot, sweaty days. Since no one else really walks the PNT it was me who always broke them and had to constantly wipe them off my face. So annoying! I never saw poison oak but occasionally there was stinging nettle. With the heat I had I used a couple tubes of suntan lotion as well.
I'm going to assume you know your gear so I'll just mention a few things specific to the PNT: -DEET and a headnet were nice!-Long pants for me were mandatory with the bushwhacks and overgrown trail.-Fully enclosed shelter was also mandatory for me with so many mosquitoes.-I had a warm sleeping bag but it rarely got cold at night. Close to freezing a few times early on and 1 night below freezing in the Olympics.-There aren't a lot of cleared camp spots like the AT or PCT so having a blow up sleeping bad was nice to absorb the crappy ground I sometimes slept on.-An altimeter is nice. You will be climbing a lot!
I have very low standards, never treat my water and never get sick. I rarely had water issues and only had 1 bottle with me and rarely carried that more than 1/2 full. Early on some of the drier ridges I had snowmelt so that helped. Li's maps have water symbols at the few places where there might be a longer dry stretch. Eastern Washington had a 2 week stretch with lots of cows and fouled water sources but otherwise most of the water was pretty good. Water seemed to be the least of my worries on the trail!
This wasn't as big a deal as I expected. Armed with all of the information discussed above I never got lost and rarely found myself off track. Of course, I paid close attention all day and used my map/compass/gps frequently. If you don't pay attention then you will most definitely end up off track a fair bit. The main problem is that the PNT isn't marked (a few markers have gone up but that's it) so you can be on perfectly good trail but if it's not the PNT you want to be on then you are screwed. Occasionally the trail itself is hard to follow but usually it's just the junctions or especially logging roads that can be confusing. There are some cross country bushwhacks but not a ton and some of them can be avoided with alternates if you like. So to me the biggest issue was really just missing a turnoff. There will never be a PNT marker telling you to turnoff so you could walk for miles the wrong way on perfectly good trail or road if you are not paying attention.
I won't write too much since Melanie's town guide is good and I have some town comments in my separate entry on the sections of the PNT. Overall, the towns you will hit are small and friendly. I found resupply to be generally fine. Some towns I liked better than others but that's small town America. East of the Cascades you'll find the conservative folks and west of the Cascades are the liberal folks. East, most people had no idea about the PNT. West, most people did know about it. Resupply was reasonably spaced apart and there are really only 2 big hauls. Through the Pasayten was 150 miles (Oroville to Ross Lake resort where you send a food box) and the Olympics were also 150 miles (Port Townsend to Forks). These are big carries but otherwise 3-5 days was average for me. Lodging is cheaper east of the Cascades and food is better west of the Cascades. People are super friendly on both sides. There are a few towns you have to hitch to if you want to go (Bonners Ferry, Republic, Forks come to mind) but hitching along the PNT is generally easy. The more remote and less touristy the area the easier I found it.
HOW MANY DAYS?
Tough question. Expect about 1100-1200 miles total. If you are an average thru-hiker expect some days to bust out big miles on easy forest service roads and some days to struggle for the teens on hard trail or bushwhacks. There is a ton of daylight in the North in the summer so you can hike a ton of miles if you want to. I had booked my plane ticket before I even started and had to make a guess and ended up with 74 days. This was too much for me by about a week and I hiked extra slow for a while and loitered a lot in some towns. Even with 1 week less I still would have been hiking at only a moderate pace with plenty of town days. Be wary of other hiker journals and make sure you know how many total miles they hiked. Some have hiked the trail is less than 60 days but also cut off a lot of trail with shortcuts (some have hiked in less than 60 days and hiked every mile too). Whatever you do make sure you have enough time. There's nothing worse than rushing to finish a trail that is hard.
TRAIL: There's plenty of trail on the PNT! It won't be marked as PNT though! Overall, I found when I was actually on trail it was pretty good. It wasn't AT or PCT standard but it was perfectly walkable at 3 mph. This was surprising. I thought it would be worse. Usually it was a bit narrow and a bit rocky or uneven or a bit overgrown but it was just fine to walk on. It was rarely terribly steep and seemed to have a PCT switchback grade. Occasionally it was very hard to follow or terribly overgrown but that's the PNT for you!
FOREST SERVICE ROADS: The PNT walks many, many miles on dirt/gravel/grassy old forest service/logging roads. Way too many in my opinion and I'm sure a key focus for many years to come to reduce it. My main complaint wasn't the road but that it was usually in thick 2nd growth forest so pretty boring. Rarely was a dirt/gravel road busy with cars but it was still boring many times. Some of the super old logging roads are nice but then you have the opposite problem, they start to get terribly overgrown.
PAVED ROADS: The PNT walks surprisingly few paved miles (especially before the coast). Because you are typically in a National Forest there usually is at least a dirt/gravel road to walk. There are a few paved road walks but they are fairly limited. The Coast has more pavement as you wind your way down the Olympic Peninsula but at least you will have town food daily!
BUSHWHACKS: Ron's famous quote is "bucking the brush" and you will certainly do some of that. Some are true tailless sections and some are on trail or old logging road that feel trailless they are so bad. There are some infamous bushwhacks (also known as cross country) that you will know about and I'm sure a few that will come as a surprise. Armed with Li's maps and other hiker notes I found it easy to bypass a crappy overgrown bushwhack that was maybe 3 forested miles with a simple dirt road walk around. Neither would be particularly scenic so you might as well take the easier way. Sometimes the bushwhack would be really scenic so I would definitely take it. Sometimes the bushwhack couldn't easily be avoided. Sometimes I didn't even know it was coming. Overall, the bushwhack miles were fairly limited but if they catch you on a bad day you might be frustrated.
ALONE OR WITH SOMEONE?
Well, this is a personal choice but if you go it alone you will be alone most likely the whole way! I saw 2 PNT section hikers. That's it. I rarely even saw day or weekend hikers. However, you will generally see people on a daily basis as the trail almost always crosses forest service roads daily. You'll meet nice people but it's not the same bond as meeting another hiker. The trail is shorter than say the PCT so going it alone for 2-2.5 months was fine for me.
HOW DOES THE PNT COMPARE TO OTHER TRAILS?
It can't really be compared to the AT, PCT or even CDT. Unless you've hiked an incomplete trail that barely anyone else hikes (like the GDT or Hayduke, etc) then it can't really be compared. It's certainly harder than the CDT but because I had as much time as I wanted it never seemed that hard. On the CDT I always felt like I was pushing forward to beat the snow in Southern Colorado but on the PNT I had tons of time which made it seem a lot easier. If I had to hike 5 more miles every day I think the PNT would have felt more brutal.
I won't dwell on this since everyone is different but I wouldn't suggest accepting a ride to skip trail. There are opportunities almost daily to skip trail by hitching and once you do it once or twice a lot of the motivation to keep hiking will go away. Just my personal opinion.
HOW MUCH ELEVATION GAIN IS THERE?
Because you are hiking east/west and not north/south you are going against the grain of the mountains. Instead of long ridge walks you will climb up and over a ton of ridges/mountains to traverse through a mountain range. It's typical to do a 4000'+ climb and then immediately bomb right back down 4,000'. Because I was "only" averaging about 20 miles a day I never had the insane days I heard about. I had a lot of around 5,000' elevation gains day. But if you are hiking 25 miles or more you could easily capture 7000' or more of elevation sometimes.
Occasionally you will get lucky and have an old sheep herder shelter or something similar to sleep in but generally you will just be pitching your tent wherever you please. Camping was generally easy. I tried to avoid busy places like roads. There are a fair number of rustic forest service free campgrounds (car accessible) along the way. I generally never stayed as I'd rather have a quiet night’s sleep than risk people with cars. The Coast can be tougher camping as there are a lot of roads and a lot of people.
The only permits needed are in Glacier NP (always a pain getting sites), North Cascades NP (call from Oroville and they will issue over the phone for free) and Olympic NP (call from Anacortes and they will email you permit).
There are several (more like many) places where you can take shorter or even more scenic routes that cross private property. You have to make your own evaluation. Most landowners don't mind hikers but typically hate the Forest Service and are more worried about poachers, ATV's etc but this doesn't mean you wouldn't have a problem. The main one is the Nighthawk rail route out of Oroville and the Elwha dam walk in the Olympics.
I have AT&T and had cell coverage in every major town (excludes the stops of Yaak and Polebridge and the end at Cape Alava). I also frequently had coverage up high in the mountains near towns.
I use HEET and never had a problem finding it.
Cost is pretty much similar to any other trail. Food will be the biggest cost which is not super-controllable. You have to eat. Most of my resupply's were from medium to large grocery stores and none stand out as terribly expensive. Occasionally you'll want to resupply from something tiny and expensive but that is fairly rare. Lodging is the biggest controllable cost. East of the Cascades expect the cheap motels to be around $ 60 (range from $ 50-$ 70 usually). West of the Cascades prices go up. Expect closer to $ 70-$ 80 or more and full motels on weekends with the tourists. There seemed to be free camping in towns usually East of the Cascades (either formally allowed or informally tolerated). Not so much west of the Cascades. Getting to Glacier can be pricey by the time you get there. Getting home from Seattle should be easier.
GETTING TO/FROM TRAIL:
I don't know a ton about getting to the trail as I had a friend help me but the main airport is Kalispell although I don't know how you get to Glacier from there. The Amtrak goes into East Glacier which is more convenient and there is a Park shuttle from East Glacier to Chief Mountain (about $ 40) where the trail starts. Inquire at lodge in East Glacier for the no reservation shuttle. Before the shuttle though you'll need to hitch to a ranger station to get your permit. Not a great system. Check Yogi's CDT book for better info. if you have access to it. At the end, Cape Alava, there is a small resort store with fresh deli, pizza's and expensive snacks. Stock up as your hitch out could take a while. Best case scenario is you get a ride to Port Angeles which is a couple slow hours but the main tourist hub and most people will be going that way. Port Angeles is super spread out with a million motels. I stayed at the Downtown Motel right next to the transit station. It was nice and cheap ($ 60, share bathroom) and convenient. On the Jefferson Transit website there is a PDF file with details on the 4 buses and 1 ferry that will get you to Seattle for like $ 5 or you can take the Dungeness shuttle which is shorter and easier for about $ 40. If your hitch ends up taking you to Forks or Callem Bay you can catch buses to Port Angeles from these points as well.
Pacific Northwest Trail
The 1200 mile Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail runs from the Continental Divide in Glacier National Park west to the Pacific Ocean at Olympic National Park.
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