The Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail, referred to as the PNT, is the rugged cousin of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). This 1,200 mile journey takes you through three national parks and seven national forests stretched along the Canadian border. The hike can begin at either end of the trail (in Montana or the edge of Washington) and usually takes 60-90 days to complete. This is a journey that definitely isn't for the feint of heart, but if you are looking for a secluded trail adventure to conquer, the PNT is for you.
Michael Sawiel, an adventure enthusiast, photographer, designer, and Outdoor Project contributor, hiked the full PNT and gave us some inside tips on his journey. Here's what to expect when you take on the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail!
What sort of training did you do before hiking the PNT?
To be honest, I didn’t train too much physically. I went on a few hikes and overnighters, some with a decent vertical gain and decent length. Basically, I just tried to stay moderately active. To prepare mentally, I reviewed maps, the guide book by Tim Youngbluth, and other resources such as the Facebook user group.
Can you explain how you planned out your trip?
When I was researching the trail, I came across an article written by Jeff Kish for Gear Junkie. I found out that Jeff was a fellow Oregonian and is now the director of the Pacific Northwest Trail Association. I reached out to him to see if he could tell me more about the trail first-hand. When we met in Portland, we talked trail and he gave me an incredible amount of information, recommendations and insight.
The route of PNT was specifically designed to take hikers through small trail towns to aid in resupply. Most trail towns are about five days apart and have post offices. This means you can either buy supplies at each town or send a supply box. The longest stretch without a resupply is ten days in the Pasayten Wilderness and requires a supply drop at Ross Lake, Washington. Initially, I divided my supply drops to every other trail town. If I were to do it again, I would try to buy most of my resupply in the towns and limit the boxes to two or three essential drops. One thing that I would recommend is a *Bounce Box. I would include things that can be used while in a town such as laundry soap. I don’t think I ever forgot anything, however I did forget to claim one of my first supply boxes that had a map set for the next section. I was fortunately able to print that section at a *Trail Angel's house.
*Bounce Box: A box of supplies that you send from one town to the next
*Trail Angel: A person who provides help, transportation, lodging, food to a hiker along their journey
How did you feel in the first few sections of the PNT compared to the last few?
I was extremely nervous, excited, and slow for the first few sections. I was nervous about bears and if I would be able to walk the miles necessary to stick with my plan. After the Montana sections, I was feeling strong both physically and mentally—I was really getting into the rhythm.
The ending was bittersweet. I was glad to finish the trail and see friends and family but I really wanted to just keep going. I enjoyed the simple lifestyle. I’ve found it hard to fit back into “normal” society after the trail.
Do you have a favorite section of the PNT?
I do, however, I don’t like to play favorites. It’s an experience, and I feel a person needs to experience it all and make their own call. There are so many good sections.
much of this trail is on paved or forest service roads. What were your thoughts on that?
There are many miles of paved roads. From forest access roads both new and forgotten, to local roads and state highways. The large beautiful sections of wilderness are stitched together by these paved roads. It’s a necessary evil at this point. Personally, I am not a fan of road walking. I found myself so much happier when I was on actual trails, walking on roads always made me uneasy. I hope as the trail develops there will be less miles of road walking.
After a long day of hiking, what did you do for the rest of the night? Stargaze? Make a fire?
This isn't going to sound amazing, but after a long day of hiking I usually just set up camp and made dinner. After that it would vary depending on weather. Most of the time I would sit in the tent and plan out my next day. I’d look at potential campsites, mileage, water sources, etc. Unfortunately, during my hike, there was a fire ban across the vast majority of the trail; I was only able to have a fire once near Baker Lake in WA.
What wildlife did you see?
I saw quite a range of wildlife. From small squirrels and chipmunks to rabbits, deer, elk, and a few moose. I also saw domestic free-range cattle, sea otters, mountain grouse, golden and bald eagles, a few foxes, some black bears and even a grizzly.
How was traveling through all different environments (mountains, forests, coastlines, etc.)?
Traveling through all the different environments was great. Typically, you spend about a week in each environment and each has it's own set of challenges and beauty. The three national parks that are traversed are absolutely spectacular. The trails are well maintained, marked, and you tend to run into a lot of people. The one difficult part of national parks is that you need to secure a backcountry camping permit at each park. You have to preplan all of your nights before you get there and have to predict when you’ll be entering which is quite difficult.
Do you have a favorite memory from your trip?
There are so many memories from this trip. It is hard to just choose one. Maybe instead of a single memory, I will say that one of the greatest take-aways was the people that I met. There were so many amazing, warm-hearted people out there from all walks of life. I was able to witness the genuine goodness of people. It was truly amazing.
One memory in particular does stand out:
I needed to head into Bonners Ferry, ID to resupply but I had no luck getting a hitch into town. I decided to walk the freeway, 13 miles (which is super sketch btw). As I was walking, I heard a motorcycle startup from a house that I was passing. A heavier-set man dressed in a bright orange construction-type vest with a big white retro helmet on emerged from his driveway riding a small dirt bike. He saw me and asked if I needed a ride. I paused before I answered. I’ve only ridden a motorcycle once - it was much larger and I wasn’t wearing a huge backpack. There was almost no room to sit on this motorcycle. However, since I had no luck procuring a hitch I hesitantly said yes. I awkwardly jumped on the back of his bike, grabbed his waist and away we puttered. This was a well-used, two-lane state highway with a 55/60 mph speed limit. We were cruising at … 35 mph and there was a line of cars behind us. As we passed open fields, he would beep his small high-pitched horn to flush out any possible deer. Can you image this scene?! To this day, I wish I had had the skill and gumption to take a photo or video with one hand while doing this. We eventually made it to a trucker stop where he was meeting friends for breakfast. I joined them for biscuits and gravy then headed into town to find lodging. I will never forget that moment. That experience set the tone for the rest of the journey, if someone offered me help I would accept, no matter what.