Many of us are familiar with the Pacific Coast Trail, the 2,600 mile hike that stretches from the Canadian border to the Mexican border. But there is another attraction, the Pacific Northwest Trail (or PNT), that passes right through our backyard.
Covering 1,200 miles from the Great Divide to the Pacific Ocean, it also starts at the Canadian border, in central Montana. It crosses through seven national forests and three national parks before winding its way to its terminus at Cape Alava, between La Push and Neah Bay. And the organization that oversees the trail, the Pacific Northwest Trail Association (or PNTA), is headquartered just south of us, in Sedro-Wooley.
“A guy named Ron Strickland came up with the idea for the PNT in 1970. He first thought of it when reading a guidebook on a hike in the North Cascades,” says Executive Director Jeff Kish. “The author was in the Pasayten Wilderness and he says ‘Tomorrow, the Pacific Ocean!’”
It was a joke—Pasayten is in the Okanogan National Forest, at least 200 miles from the coast—but it made Strickland think, ‘What if you really could hike to the Pacific Ocean from here?’
That spark has fueled decades of dedication, including both footwork and networking. “Through the early and mid-1970s, he traveled all along the length of the trail corridor and met with local stakeholders to discuss the idea, and see if they had comments about where the trail would ideally go,” says Kish. By 1976, he had a preliminary route and in 1977 he founded the Pacific Northwest Trail Association. “And that same year, the first five people hiked the trail from end to end.”
The PNTA continued working with locals through the 1980s and ’90s, building support groups to adopt and maintain sections of trail. “It wasn’t until the 2000s that the trail was actually designated,” Kish says. “PNTA was successful in getting a bill introduced in both the House and the Senate in 2008, which was approved by Congress and signed into law by President Obama in 2009.” It was then that the PNT became what is known as a National Scenic Trail.
But that didn’t mean the trail was finished. When the title is granted, the private organization partners with government offices to create a Comprehensive Management Plan, and to continue to perfect the route. “We have one really big challenge, especially in the Whatcom and Skagit area,” says Kish. “When the trail was originally laid out, we had so much public land—until you get out of the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest; you get to the Puget Sound area, where you’re crossing the I-5 corridor, and you end up having a lot more private land you have to deal with.”
They are talking now to the Department of Natural Resources about getting the trail out of Skagit County, where it crosses timber company land, and into more of Whatcom County. “They have an uninterrupted corridor of land between Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest and State Route 9, and when you get across the 9, you get back onto their land again,” Kish explains.
Kish clearly values the local organizations that team up with the PNTA, as well. “One of the most passionate groups for trail maintenance in this area is a group called SWITMO, which stands for Skagit-Whatcom-Island Trail Maintenance Organization, and they put thousands and thousands of hours into local trails.
“A lot of those people were previous board members of the PNTA that wanted to focus locally, on building and maintaining trails,” Kish says. “Back Country Horsemen, both of Whatcom and of Skagit, support a lot of the work that we do. We also work with a lot of the larger organizations that people are familiar with, like Washington Trails Association.”
Partnerships within the local community are vital to PNTA. As a non-profit organization, the PNTA is open to both members and donations, and volunteers are always welcome. There are opportunities to travel into the wild, where workers are given tools and the infrastructure needed to spend some time in the back country cutting trails. But locals can help out closer to home as well, by advocating for the trail.
There are constant opportunities for the public to have their voice heard as far as how our public land—both state and federal—are managed. So pay attention when there’s forest planning, or the DNR is doing a recreation plan.
“If you’re interested in getting involved, contact us, because we have our finger on the pulse of everything that’s going on, and can tell you about opportunities to get involved,” says Kish. “It can be as simple as sending a letter, or showing up to a public meeting and raising your hand, and saying ‘What about the PNT?’”