The Pacific Northwest Trail and Why I Chose It for My First Thru-Hiking Experience

The Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT) is one of the youngest National Scenic Trails in the US, designated in 2009. The 1,200-mile trail roughly follows the Canadian border from the Continental Divide in Montana to the westernmost point of the continental US on the Washington coast. On the way the trail passes through some of the most remote wilderness in the Lower 48, crossing several mountain ranges and passing through seven national forests, five state parks, and three national parks.

PNT overview map.

The Pacific Northwest Trail Association (PNTA) estimated that about 100 people attempted to hike the PNT last year. Of those, 28 people completed the trail. Less than 300 hikers have finished it since it was first hiked in 1977.  In fact, so few people hike this trail every year that previous thru-hikers report sometimes walking for days on end without meeting a single person, be it other thru-hikers, section hikers, or day hikers.

The PNT is still in its infancy as a National Scenic Trail and hasn’t had the time yet to develop into a highly maintained trail like some of the more established national scenic trails. Most of it is still unmarked and bushwhacking and scrambling in dense forest and rocky areas with no path are apparently considered part of the PNT experience. According to most people who have attempted it, strong navigation skills are essential if you want to succeed. This gives the PNT a reputation for being one of, if not the, most challenging of the National Scenic Trails.

Bushwhacking in the Selkirk Mountains. Image courtesy of the Pacific Northwest Trail Association. Photo by Tyler Yates.

These seem to be the main reasons why surprisingly many people have advised me not to attempt the PNT as my first thru-hike since I wrote my first post about it. People have asked me why I don’t go for a more established trail where there will be more safety in numbers, and why I try to do the most challenging thru-hike of the Lower 48 with no previous thru-hiking experience.

So why am I attempting the PNT as my first thru-hike?

Honestly, I decided to hike the PNT for the same reasons people are warning me against it. I’m pretty introverted and I prefer hiking alone. I love feeling lost in nature, and I love knowing that everything is completely up to me, my own skills and my experience. The Pacific Northwest Trail Digest sums it up perfectly: “The things Pounce loves most about the PNT are exactly what makes it so challenging—isolation, navigating through trail-less sections, the huge sense of adventure, and needing to be 100% self-sufficient. There are no bail-outs on this trail!  And, of course, there are incredible views.”

In short, the PNT is a celebration of wilderness and solitude according to those who know the trail, and that’s all I can hope for from a long-distance hike. Walking for days on end without meeting a single person sounds wonderful, and being surrounded by wilderness far from anyone or anywhere else sounds even better.

And on top of all of that it sounds like a great adventure.

For more information about the PNT:
PNT Wonders by the Number

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Comments 2

  • James : Apr 26th

    My wife and I are senior citizens and chose PNT for our first longer distance hike in 2017. We do have considerable hiking experience though. We hiked from Shi Shi Beach a couple miles out of Neah Bay then east bound to Glacier Park. It was grand. We met several solo women hiking and wonderful people along the entire trail. Our daughter hiked the PCT that year. We think you will do fine. Have fun.
    Be sure to check in with Jeff Kish and Eric Wohlberg at the PNTA office in Sedro Wooley WA. They will encourage and assist.
    Honeydew and Canteloupe

  • James H : Apr 27th

    I’m glad you picked this trail, Marti. I never knew it existed myself until a few weeks ago. I’ve been watching thru hikers for months on YouTube, The Triple crown trails seem to get all the attention while the Pacific Northwest seems to be ignored, except for brief mentions on the northern tier of the PCT.

    Section 8 of the trail goes through Whidbey Island, Fidalgo Island and almost up to Bellingham. You’ll get to experience Fort Casey, Fort Ebey, Ebey’s Prairie, and Deception Pass State park. I spent half my childhood on Whidbey and plan to hike section 8 in 2020. Before the trail was signed into law I was hiking some of these very areas on elementary school field trips in the 1980’s. Good luck and enjoy!

    James – Former Islander


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