Pacific Northwest Trail
The Pacific Northwest Trail is the newest National Scenic Trail in the country. Originally designed in the 1970’s, it was only in 2009 that it became a federally recognized walking path. The section of trail that I hiked was from Upper Priest Lake in Idaho’s Panhandle, all the way to Waterton Lake in Glacier National Park. I followed the “old” PNT, which traverses ridgelines and features bushwhacking, a more rugged path than the new official route.
The Old Pacific Northwest Trail
The original trail was made in the 1970’s to highlight the most remote and rugged regions of America’s Pacific Northwest Region. The route, specifically Western Montana and North Idaho, traverses lightly traveled mountain ranges and forgotten about hiking paths. The original creators sought a footpath through lightly traveled terrain that showed off the ruggedness of America’s Northwest region. To this day, the original path still features much of the solitude the founders sought to capture.
Three Tips To Hiking The Original Pacific Northwest Trail
1. Embrace The Bushwhack
Do not think this route will be well maintained or marked. While there are miles of Forest Service road to take, climbing ridgelines and summiting mountains are generally off the beaten path. Allow yourself time for the backcountry, in some sections, I was happy to make 1 mile an hour.
2. No trail maintenance
The new federal designation means more trail markers and more maintenance but not on the old route. If you decide to do the original trail, bring a compass and a trustworthy GPS device. I have found Gaia GPS* to work wonderfully on my smartphone. Be mentally prepared for miles without markers and trust your maps to hike in the correct direction.
3. Solitude and Beauty
There are plenty of hikers on the PNT and you will cross paths with many while following Forest Service roads. However, deciding to take on a bushwhack puts you where few, if any people are. Do not expect to run into people out there, you are alone – enjoy it!
How Remote Is The PNT?
In the Selkirk Mountains, there is a famous bushwhack that traverses the range. It was here, in the midst of bushes, shrubs, and melting snow, that I stumbled – quite literally – onto a smartphone in a waterproof case.
I gave the phone some juice and turned it on, it was over two years old. I ended up calling the guy and mailing it back to him. That’s how brutal this trail can be. There are not a lot of people in the backcountry.
Eureka, MT. A Must Stop Trail Town
Less than 200 miles from Glacier National Park is one of the most hiker-friendly towns in America. Eureka, MT is an oasis, especially for those hiking west to east. The majority of thru-hikers start in Glacier (east to west) which means their appreciation of a trail town is much less than those of us crawling through the forest for a few weeks. I admit my own bias having just finished the Idaho Centennial Trail before embarking on this section.
The Chamber of Commerce has a grassy lawn, free showers, and electrical outlets in the center of town. A 24/7 gas station is located across the way and they have a great microwave to complement their selection of hot pockets.
Ten Lakes Scenic Area
Left off the official Pacific Northwest Route is one of the most beautiful sections of trail in the west. Small alpine lakes, less than a mile south of the Canadian border, make up a National Forest scenic area named, Ten Lakes Scenic Area. Deep blue lakes, views of Glacier National Park, and West Slope Cutthroat trout await any hiker who dares this section.
The secret? The trails are manicured and feature engraved stone trail markers. Whoever moved the PNT away from this section has no idea what they are doing.
Time to Backpack the Pacific Northwest Trail
From remote bushwhacks to wide open Forest Roads, the PNT is a trail of extremes. The section from Idaho to Glacier National Park is beautiful and remote. Any hiker can choose to make this section as difficult, or as easy, as they choose.
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