For those of you who are still getting your bearings on the long-distance trail situation, here is a quick rundown on the state of these trails in the US. There are three big, beloved, well-known long-distance trails in this country: the Appalachian Trail (connecting Georgia to Maine), the Continental Divide Trail (connecting Canada to Mexico via the Rocky Mountains, staying very close to the actual continental divide), and the Pacific Crest Trail (connecting Canada to Mexico, through California, Oregon, and Washington). You may know somebody who has hiked one of these. I would guess that you almost certainly know someone who knows someone who has hiked one of these. If you know me, you probably know I hiked one of these, so my supposition is at least true for the people I know. Bill Bryson’s book A Walk In The Woods is about the Appalachian Trail, Cheryl Strayed’s book Wild is about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, and to my knowledge no one has written about hiking the Continental Divide Trail yet because so many fewer people hike that trail than the other two. All three of these trails are long, but they are not all finished. The AT and the PCT are, for the most part, completed trails. The CDT is not: only about 70% is complete, official trail. The remaining 30% follows dirt, gravel, or paved roads, or travels cross-country without a trail.
Those three form a sort of perfect trifecta of long-long, mostly complete trails, and as a group are referred to as the triple crown of the long-distance trails in the US. There are lots more long trails though: the Colorado Trail, the John Muir Trail (in the Sierras of California, sharing tread with the PCT most of the way), the Arizona Trail, the Hayduke Trail (in Utah, Colorado, and Arizona), the Florida Trail, and more! Lots of trail to choose from, in varying lengths from around 800 miles to well over 2,000. People make entire sweet lives out of hiking on long trails, bouncing down one and right onto another. There are even international long trails that having waxing or waning popularity with US hikers. Right now the Te Arora Trail in New Zealand has been been getting attention, and some trails in Europe have had their fans in the past.
The Pacific Northwest Trail is a short long trail, shorter than the PCT, AT, or CDT, but on the long end of the other long trails mentioned above. The Pacific Northwest Trail came as an idea into Ron Strickland’s head in the seventies, and has since become recognized by Congress as part of the National Trails System. As a trail, the PNT is incomplete. Even as a route, there is quite a bit of undefined, unofficial wandering that takes place. Sometimes there is official route that follows pre-established trails, sometimes the official route follows dirt or logging roads, and sometimes it plunges into back country bushwhacks. Sometimes hikers take so many alternates they hike more on other trails than on the official route itself. Unlike other long-distance trails, the PNT still lives strong as an idea, as in: start at Chief Mountain Customs at the US/Canada border in Glacier National Park, and end at Cape Alava on the Washington coast. Except you don’t have to start or end precisely there. It’s more of an -ish. Start there-ish. End here-ish. Walk inbetween.
One interesting note about the geology and geography of the continental US. Our major mountain ranges tend to run north/south because of how subcontinental plates interact with each other. The triple crown trails follow the long mountain ranges that identify the seams of the interactions (more or less). The PNT, by contrast, plunges in and out of very distinct mountain ranges, starting in the Rocky Mountains, ending at the Pacific Ocean, and crossing the Selkirk Mountains, Kettle River Range, Cascade Mountains, and Olympic Mountains along the way. One consequence of this mountain range philandering is that the route travels between protected land in the mountains via unprotected land inbetween them. There is a lot of logging, mining, and road-building in the Pacific Northwest. This route takes it as it is.
Stats on the Pacific Northwest Trail:
Length: 1200 miles (ish, depending on what alternates a hiker chooses).
States: Montana, Idaho, Washington.
National Parks: three. Glacier National Park, North Cascades National Park, Olympic National Park.
Wilderness areas: lots.
Number of hikers that thru-hike it each year: very few. As few as one or two in some years, and up to ten in others.