Are you curious about the wonders of the Pacific Northwest Trail? This shareable infographic breaks the PNT down by the numbers. But the raw facts hardly begin to tell the whole story of the PNT. Let’s take a closer look at what makes the trail so special, starting with another fun fact:
The longest roadless stretch on the PNT is found in one of the most remote and rugged wildernesses in the lower ‘48 — and is the third longest in the national trails system. Altogether, the PNT travels for 166 miles across three designated wilderness areas. In the Pasayten Wilderness, the PNT spans 116 unbroken miles before crossing the dam at Ross Lake National Recreation Area — and for another 50 miles across the Stephen Mather and Mount Baker Wildernesses.
The longest roadless stretch on the Pacific Northwest Trail
is found in one of the most remote and rugged
wildernesses in the lower ’48
Impressive old growth forests of red cedar, Douglas fir, and western hemlock can be found along the PNT. These special groves are protected by the Salmo-Priest, Stephen Mather, Mount Baker and Daniel J. Evans Wildernesses. Olympic National Park is home to the largest Douglas fir, yellow cedar, western hemlock, mountain hemlock, Englemann spruce, and grand fir in the world!
Did you know? The North Cascades contain the largest concentration of glaciers in the lower ‘48. From the trail, it is possible to see deep crevasses, cirques, icefalls and caves in these alpine ice sheets. One the east end of the trail in the Rocky Mountains, glaciers are quickly receding due to climate change. Remarkably, these glaciers will vanish from Glacier National Park in the next few decades.
“Hardy PNW hiking” has always been a part of the character of the Pacific Northwest Trail. In the most rugged and remote areas, thru-hikers must bushwhack through forests and scramble across granite ranges to reach the next section of singletrack trail. With its east-west orientation, the PNT climbs steeply against the grain of seven distinct mountain ranges between the Continental Divide and the Pacific Ocean.
After winter snow retreats, delicate alpine plants burst with miniature wildflowers along majestic high altitude trails. By late summer, blueberry bushes turn hillsides crimson and bring hungry bears into sunny meadows to feast. Help spread the word–Alpine heather, a favorite of John Muir, can endure the harshest of environments but it cannot withstand careless visitors. This fragile plant is easily crushed by boots, packs and tents and can take up to 1,000-5,000 years to establish as a successful colony.
Over thirty miles of the PNT is located on the shores the Pacific within Olympic National Park. Rocky shores, sandy beaches, slippery ocean-polished boulders and tide pools make up the coastal route. Visitors must time the tides and use ladders and ropes to scale rocky headlands to reach the western terminus at Cape Alava.
The sagebrush parklands found in the Okanogan Highlands defy expectations of the Northwest with a climate that nears desert conditions– one favored by herds of bighorn sheep and ponderosa pine. Taking in these wide open spaces on their own terms, or in between the dense rainforests and alpine trails which proceed them, deepens one’s sense of the diversity of environments and ways of life found along the 1,200 mile trail corridor.
Much of the PNT is characterized by complex mountainous terrain. The east-west orientation of the trail climbs against the spines of several ranges stretching from Canada across the international border, which the trail roughly parallels. Nearly three quarters of the PNT stays as far north as it can, passing through areas that are inaccessible to most visitors all but a few short months each year.
Fire lookouts were once an important tool for fighting wildfire. Today, most of these historic structures have been retired, but those that have survived nature’s toll offer backcountry visitors incredible panoramic views and possible lodging. Some can be reserved in advance while others may serve as historic monuments, or even as rugged first-come, first served emergency shelters.
The PNT travels through some of our wildest public lands; these special places are home to animals iconic of wilderness, and a few species found nowhere else, such as the Olympic Marmot. Awe inspiring species, like grizzly bears, wolves and moose, are common in the eastern ranges. On the opposite end of the pathway, harbor seals, orcas, and otters can be spotted from coastal trails.
The PNT wends across wilderness landscapes and onto historic main streets — some communities fall directly on the trail corridor, while others are short distance away. From rugged mountain towns, to historic seaside cities, the diverse communities visited by the trail provide a peek into the lifestyles and cultures unique to the Northwest.