As one of America’s youngest National Scenic Trails, the Pacific Northwest Trail is loved for being a little rough around the edges. Compared to the longer-established “triple crown” trails many decades its senior, the AT, PCT and CDT seem polished to natural perfection.
Although many of today’s visitors find charm and adventure in the Pacific Northwest Trail’s wild and rugged character, the trail may only get better in the years to come.
Despite the challenges of working on the trail during the Covid-19 pandemic, the PNTA and our partners made significant progress toward that goal this season. While many trail-based organizations were impacted, and even sidelined by the pandemic, the PNTA made adjustments to our Performance Trail Crew program that helped our crews work safely — and operate near 100% capacity during our 2020 season.
Not only were we able to perform our annual maintenance of the PNT, with the help of our partners and volunteers we were also able to make several enhancements to the trail that will improve access and help protect some special places for generations to come.
1. Pasayten Wilderness
In some respects, our 2020 season in the Pasayten Wilderness was like any other. Our youth crews began work in mid-June when snow flurries are still common, and they worked until summer’s end when snow fell on the high country again. By their seventh hitch of the season in September, PNTA crews had logged-out nearly 100 miles of trail.
Yet, 2020 also stands out as a turning point in our work to restore the PNT in this special place.
Just two years ago, visitors faced over a thousand fire-blackened snags brought down by the Diamond Creek Fire. With hundreds of new logs falling in the ghost forests along the trail every winter, it has taken a heroic effort to just keep up with our annual log-out work before the bulk of Boundary Trail visitors arrive each year.
After a big push in our 2019 season, PNTA and our partners established a successful log-out regimen, the forest floor has shown some encouraging regrowth, and we’ve been able to devote more resources toward protecting the trail bed in the designated Wilderness.
Our crews’ tread work and drainage construction will go a long way toward helping to restore the walking surface from the secondary effects of wildfire. In addition to falling trees, trails in burned areas may have a host of problems, like fast-growing brush, erosion, standing water, and ankle-spraining cavities hidden beneath the ground.
The work completed on the Boundary, Devils Ridge and Andrews Creek Trails will help protect them from nature’s toll, and make them more accessible to hikers and horseback riders alike.
With the help of volunteer packers with the Back Country Horsemen of Washington, our work this season will ensure access to all who work, ride and play in the Pasayten Wilderness.
2. Park Butte
The multi-use Park Butte Trail swells with hikers in summer months. It also carries teams of mountaineers to climbing routes on Mount Baker and is loved by equestrians for its alpine scenery and access to other horseback riding trails on the mountain.
While National Scenic Trails may be famous for showcasing destinations like the Park Butte Lookout, the PNT is also loved for all of the quiet places it visits in between, like the less explored trails south of Mount Baker.
Just a few years after it was designated a National Scenic Trail in 2009, the PNT suffered a series of washouts along the quiet banks of the South Fork Nooksack River. The trail’s deteriorating condition had a big impact on visitors and long-distance hikers over the next few years.
In our 2020 season, with the help of our partners, PNTA crews completed work on a multi-year project to restore 16 miles of the PNT to National Scenic Trail standards.
Beginning in the summer of 2015, with the help of the US Forest Service and Northwest Youth Corps, PNTA trail crews began work to rescue the trail along the South Fork Nooksack River. The new trail was designed to be horse and mule friendly and boasts a cedar stockbridge, one mile of new tread, and the reconstruction of another two miles of trail — all built to equestrian standards.
In the intervening years, PNTA trail crews also worked to restore the nine mile stretch of the PNT to the north, including portions of the Elbow Lake and Bell Pass Trails. In addition to brushing and log-out, they focused on tread and drainage care to protect the PNT from heavy seasonal rain and snow.
This summer, working closely with the Back Country Horsemen of Washington, PNTA crews helped to build and replace new stock-friendly puncheon walkways and turnpikes on the Park Butte Trail. Their work will help ensure that the PNT will safely carry two and four-legged visitors on their adventures around Mount Baker for years to come.
3. Clackamas Mountain Trail Reroute
This section of the PNT passes through open rolling sagebrush parklands that stand in pleasant contrast with the many ecosystems found on the trail. In the fall, vast forests of towering Ponderosa pine and western larch make for a spectacular and colorful trip.
In this rural part of Washington, cattle range on private ranches and public lands. While exploring these hills, visitors to the American West may discover the hiking trail’s doppelganger: the cowpath. These game trails are not built, but pounded into the earth by herds of free-ranging heifers. When networks of cowpaths crisscross hiking trails, they can make them tricky to follow.
Starting in 2018, PNTA began work on a deep restoration project of this nine mile stretch of the Pacific Northwest Trail on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. Near the top of the climb, the trail was hammered by a severe windstorm in 2018 that brought down dozens of big trees along the trail and caused extensive damage in the area. The following summer, our youth crews began work to restore and realign the tread of the PNT from storm and cattle damage.
This season, our partners with the Tonasket Ranger District made another important contribution to the effort by constructing a footbridge across Cougar Creek and rerouting the PNT a comfortable distance around a private parcel at Cougar Creek Road.
Now hikers and horseback riders alike can enjoy great loop hikes from the Sweat Creek Picnic Area west of Republic, Washington. PNT thru-hikers can also connect their steps between Republic and Oroville with greater confidence and peace of mind.
4. Wildhorse Spring – Whistler Canyon Reroute
Located a few miles southeast of the city of Oroville and the midpoint of the PNT, the Whistler Canyon Trail is loved by hikers and equestrians alike. On a clear day, visitors can climb to the canyon rim to take in sweeping views of the orchards in the Okanogan River Valley two thousand feet below, and take in the distinctive peaks of the Pasayten Wilderness in the distance.
In 2018, a local PNTA Performance Crew worked with the Tonasket Ranger District to reroute the PNT to one of Whistler’s side shoots: Wildhorse Springs. The crew worked their way west from Wilcox Trailhead (mile 568) to connect decommissioned Forest Road 010 to the old Wildhorse Springs trail— pruning back woody brush, digging fresh tread, and installing drains and grade reversals along the way.
In the 2020 season, work was completed and the Wildhorse Spring Trail is now officially part of the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail!
This realignment of the PNT— part of the Mount Hull Restoration Project— gives the trail its own non-motorized corridor. The top portion of Whistler Canyon FR 100— the part this realignment circumvents— is open to high-clearance vehicles.
The new route of the PNT will offer visitors a quiet, high-country ramble through open Ponderosa forest, before it descends into a shady ravine that leads toward Whistler Canyon.
5. Kettle Crest Trail system
While the Pacific Northwest Trail is known for climbing against the grain of mountain ranges, in the Kettle River Range, the PNT changes course and joins the high country journey in Northeast Washington’s crown jewel trail system.
The scenic Kettle Crest Trail draws cyclists, runners and backpackers from near and far for good reason. Visitors can explore over 44 miles of continuous tread in an area that boasts some of the tallest peaks in Eastern Washington.
The Kettle system is also loved for its extensive trail network off of the crest. More than a dozen feeder trails ferry visitors toward the ridgeline trail— providing endless opportunities for week-long and done in a day non-motorized adventures.
This summer, PNTA crews rehabilitated several of these feeder trails and built new sustainable tread along a popular portion of the Kettle system south of Sherman Pass.
The 1,200 mile Pacific Northwest Trail extends the Kettle system another six miles north from Deer Creek Summit, wending through an area impacted by the 54,000 acre Stickpin Fire in 2015. This September, a PNTA-led volunteer crew restored the PNT through the snag forests around Dry Mountain (mile 436) where parts of the route had become impassable to all but the most adventurous hikers. The dedicated crew of volunteers and staff worked to clear 121 logs from the route, pruned back thick brush, and repaired damaged tread to make it an easier go next season.
Five miles to the south, PNTA crew leaders guided a ten-person Northwest Youth Corps crew on the Taylor Ridge Trail (mile 443). Together they restored 2.5 miles of the fire-damaged side trail and replaced waymarker signs along the route leading to the crest.
Near the Snow Peak Cabin (mile 471), another PNTA-led volunteer crew made a lasting contribution to the Kettle system. To bypass a steep and deeply eroded area, the crew cleared and constructed 800 feet of new tread. The new route of the PNT climbs the contours of Snow Peak at a more sustainable grade, and will help protect water quality in the Kettles by moving the trail away from a sensitive spring.
PNTA Performance Crews also rehabilitated two feeder trails through areas showing signs of recovery from the 2015 Stickpin Fire. On the Leona Trail (mile 450), crews built 45 feet of new turnpike across a muddy seep, and they restored the Ryan Cabin Trail (mile 448) which was overgrown with thick brush.
By the seasons’ close, PNTA trail crews, partners and volunteers worked together to restore the Kettle Crest Trail system and ensure that it will remain accessible to visitors for years to come.
Thanks to your support and the work of these #YouthCrewHeroes and volunteers, our work to enhance and protect the Pacific Northwest Trail has continued, even through these difficult times.
If you are in a position to make a financial gift to help safeguard this young National Scenic Trail and support our trail stewardship programs, please consider becoming a PNTA member today.
Even a small gift can help enhance the PNT and aid the #YouthCrewHeroes that protect it.