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Pacific Northwest Trail: A Lesser Known, But Awesome Thru-Hike

Pacific Northwest Trail: A Lesser Known, But Awesome Thru-Hike

Hiking next to glaciers, through old-growth forests, and foraging berries – does that sound like what you’d like on a thru-hike?  The Pacific Northwest Trail has all these things and more!

If you’ve caught the thru-hiking bug and have finished your triple crown, this trail is definitely for you.  On the flip side, if you want a more remote, “shorter” thru-hike, you can also do this as a first thru-hike (with a high learning curve).

I thru-hiked the Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT) in the summer of 2016 and I LOVED it.  To this day, after 18,000 miles, it’s one of my favorites.  We foraged huckleberries, wild blueberries, blackberries, thimbleberries, and salmon berries for 1200 miles through grizzly country to the ocean.

If all of this appeals to you, read along to discover why you should do your own Pacific Northwest Trail thru-hike!

Pacific Northwest Trail Map & Basic Info

Pacific Northwest Trail Map from Gaia GPS covering Washington, Idaho, and Montana.
Pacific Northwest Trail Map

The Pacific Northwest Trail stretches roughly 1200 miles from Glacier National Park to Olympic National Park.  Or, more eloquently from the Continental Divide to the Pacific Ocean. 🏔️ ➡️ 🌊

PNT Thru-Hike by the Numbers:

  • Roughly 1200 miles
  • 3 National Parks
  • 2-3 month thru-hike (for most people)

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Pacific Northwest Trail FAQ’s

Where does the Pacific Northwest Trail Start/End?
The eastern terminus is inside Glacier National Park at Chief Mountain. The western terminus is inside Olympic National Park along the coast near Lake Ozette.
What states do you hike through?
You’ll hike through Montana, Idaho, and Washington.
What’s the best season to thru-hike the PNT?
Summer! You’re very dependent on snow melting in the northern Rockies and Olympic Mountains. (As well as the many mountain ranges in between along the Canadian border.)
What direction do most people hike?
Westbound. Most hikers begin in Glacier NP and hike to the Olympic NP.
Which National Parks does the PNT hike through?
3 – It travels through Glacier National Park, North Cascades National Park, and Olympic National Park.
Do you need a permit(s) for the PNT?
Yes and no. Unlike the Pacific Crest Trail, the Pacific Northwest Trail does not have a catchall permit. You DO NEED separate permits to go through all the National Parks. More below.

National Parks on the Pacific Northwest Trail

Snow covered mountains, conifer trees, and trail on the Pacific Northwest Trail
Glacier NP Views

In 1200 miles, you get to hike through 3 National Parks!  You do need permits to overnight camp in all three.  However, walk-up permits are available if you are flexible. 📝

What is the biggest tip for walk-up permits? Be kind to the rangers and be flexible with your plans.  The rangers deal with lots of high-stress individuals.  Don’t be one of them.

Glacier National Park

After thru-hiking the Continental Divide Trail, I was stoked to hike through Glacier National Park again. 

Imagine stunning scenery, glacial melt lakes, crisp water, and an amazing array of wildlife.  GNP has it all.  Including grizzly bears. 🐻

Glacier National Park has food storage options for your food to protect it from bears.

If you’re starting here, you can get your permits ahead of time or walk-up permits when you get there.

📝 Permits ahead of time will allow you to usually get the exact campsites you want.  However, no one can predict the snowpack that far in advance and you may start too early if you’re not careful. 

🏔️ On the other hand, walk-up permits help you to figure out a snow-free or minimal snow start date.  However, you may not get the exact campsites you want.

All in all, you’ll hike from Chief Mountain on the northeastern side of the park to the “town” of Polebridge, Montana on the west side. 

Throughout the park, you can take various side excursions to extra waterfalls, the CDT terminus, or Hole-in-the-Wall.

💦 If you have it in you to do a cold plunge…any lake will do!  Most of them are full of barely above-freezing water fed by glaciers! 

North Cascades National Park

Mountain views in North Cascades National Park
North Cascades National Park

You will likely need a 1-2 night permit to get through North Cascades National Park on the Pacific Northwest Trail.  Obviously, it depends on your pace. 

📝 You can get a walk-up backcountry permit for the same or the next day depending on availability. 

We passed through with only one night in the park with a permit for our whole group.

🔥 ⚠️ NCNP had a recent fire cross through it and has damaged the main PNT route.  A large portion closed in 2023.  Make sure to check the current conditions of the trail here to see what you can and cannot do. 

Olympic National Park

Mountain views in Olympic National Park.
Olympic National Park Views

You’ll be in Olympic National Park the longest.  Not only will you traverse the park along stunning ridgelines, but you’ll also get a feel for the rugged coastline. 

📝 If you go eastbound, you can get permits ahead of time.  Or, you can get walk-up permits when you get to a ranger station in the park.

📝 If you’re going westbound, we found our best bet was to camp just outside the park border.  Then, we hiked up onto Hurricane Ridge and hitched out of the park to the ranger station in Port Angeles, WA.

From there, we hitched a ride back into the park and continued until the western terminus.

You can also pick up a bear canister for rent at the ranger station in Port Angeles. 

Yes, you do need a bear canister on the Pacific Northwest Trail in ONP.  It’s mostly for raccoons on the coast and bears in the mountains. 🦝 🐻

While the mountains are amazing, the coastline really stands out along the Pacific Northwest Trail.  You wouldn’t be hiking in the PNW if you didn’t get a coastal portion!

📲 I do recommend you download a tidal app for the PNT coast.  Some areas are distinctly better to hike when you have a low tide.  And some places can be impassible at high tide. I use the free “Tide Now: USA West.”

🪢 You’ll get some trails that go up and over the bluffs.  Those areas are marked with a red and black checkered circle.  You’ll usually find a sketchy-looking shipping rope near it.  The ropes will help you ascend and descend the muddy, loose bluffs.

Difficulty Level 🟦 / ♦

Two backpackers taking in some mountain views.
Hiking Off-Trail

A Pacific Northwest Trail thru-hike would fall in the intermediate to advanced level.

Yes, you could do the PNT as your first thru-hike.  However, you will likely experience a steep learning curve. 

I would say it’s as difficult as the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) but shorter with a better season.  The PNT has many of the same challenges as the CDT: navigation, route choices, grizzly country, and more.

It became easier when Far Out (formerly Guthook) made a guide for the Pacific Northwest Trail.  More on navigation below.

Navigation

🗺️ When I hiked it in 2016, we had a GPS track for Gaia (which was usually ¾ accurate) and paper maps.  The GPS track felt like someone made it from a computer rather than actually hiking the trails. 

Now, Far Out has a more accurate GPS track with crowd-sourced water information. 💦 It will feel like navigating on any of your other major trails like the Triple Crown.  That is, minus having trail markers.  We found so few trail markers, we pointed each one out.

📍 However, like the CDT, you may encounter route options where you can choose your own adventure.  If you have the paper maps from the Pacific Northwest Trail Association, you’ll have more notes on these options. 

Furthermore, some portions of trail receive more maintenance than others.  You might choose a route based on notes that a trail crew just went through thereby making it a more pleasant hike.

➡️ Lastly, I highly recommend adding the Lionshead Ridge route into your Pacific Northwest Trail adventure.  Yes, it’s a long bushwhack.  And, yes, it was a highlight of the entire trail for me.  Do you need to have decent off-trail navigation skills for it…yes. 

Unsure about your off-trail navigation skills? Read this post about how to get better at cross-country navigation.

Resupply Options

Overall, the Pacific Northwest Trail has decent resupply town options at reasonable distances apart. 

⛰️ The biggest resupply gap occurs when you hike through the Pasaytan Wilderness.  Hands down, the Pasaytan Wilderness was crazy awesome and very much a highlight of the whole trail.

If you eat everything, you’ll have no major issues resupplying in the PNT trail towns.  As a vegan, I sent a lot of boxes to get plenty of nutrition-dense dehydrated meals. 📦

📫 The two towns where I feel like anyone would benefit from a mail drop are Polebridge, Montana, and Yaak, Montana.  Polebridge has a bakery, a small store, and a restaurant.  Yaak has two bars and one of them is a “mercantile” with some food. 

Both Polebridge and Yaak occur very early on in a westbound thru-hike.  Therefore, you could package these up yourself and send them immediately before starting if you don’t have a resupply helper elsewhere. 

Pacific Northwest Trail Thru-Hike Take-Aways

This list is an overarching impression of the whole trail.  It’s a mix of things people ask me about after they discover I’ve thru-hiked the Pacific Northwest Trail. 

It also covers a few things that they never ask, but should.

1. You will have incredible remote hiking and a dose of urban hiking.

Thru-hikers using hands free sun umbrellas on Pacific Northwest Trail road walk.
Umbrellas Help for Visibility

No one talks about this very much on the Pacific Northwest Trail.  Your PNT thru-hike will take you through incredibly remote terrain, like the Pasaytan Wilderness AS WELL AS urban terrain on Whidbey Island. 

Hiking the PNW from the Rockies to the Ocean will bring the PNT very close to the Seattle area and all its suburbs.  Make your own fun on the road walks.

⛺️ Once you get toward Puget Sound, you’ll want to start pre-planning your campsites around a) legal places to free camp, b) paid campsites, c) hotels/motels, or d) trail angels or friend’s houses.

It will feel weird and awkward going from areas where the world is your bathroom to having to find a toilet in a business.  And, it will pass as you get into Olympic National Forest and National Park.

2. Despite having the national scenic trail designation, you still must have navigation skills.

Big mountain views on the Pacific Northwest Trail.
Off-Trail Ridge Option

I will always advocate for paper maps as a backup to your GPS maps and tracks.  Anything can happen to your phone, especially in the rainy Pacific Northwest!

🗺️ As more people take on a Pacific Northwest Trail thru-hike, the navigation becomes easier.  I saw this happen firsthand thru-hiking the Continental Divide Trail in 2015 and again in 2022.  In those 7 years, the CDT became a more defined trail in many places just from increased foot traffic. 

Finally, responsible hikers should know at least the basics of how to read a map with topographic lines, orient it in the direction they are hiking, and sightread the mountainous terrain. 

➡️ This is a great trail on which you can practice and hone your navigation skills.  

Especially if you’re looking to the Grand Enchantment Trail or Hayduke Trail later.

3. It’s an underrated trail without many people; if you need community, bring it with you.

Thru-hikers cowboy camping next to a campfire on the Pacific Northwest Trail
Cowboy Camping

Compared to the Triple Crown trails, the Pacific Northwest Trail does not see anything close to the same volume of hikers. 

➡️ ➡️ You’re really only looking at 20-50 people completing the Pacific Northwest Trail per year.

That being said, if you are a hiker who needs a community…bring it with you.

I wanted to thru-hike in 2016, but also felt like I wanted to have a small group.  So, I convinced 3 others who hiked the CDT with me in 2015 to hike the PNT.  The first night, we collected a 5th person and at the 3rd town, we picked up a 6th person.  As one of the only tramilies on the PNT that year, many of the solo hikers joined on for a few days here and there to get a dose of hiker trash.

Basically, if you want a tramily on the PNT, bring it. 

4. You will have some road walks.  Yes, the road walks are trail.  Stop complaining and hike something else if you don’t like it.

People complaining about road walks that are part of a trail is a pet peeve of mine.  If you want a trail that’s ONLY single track, go thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, or the Arizona Trail. 

A lot of newer trails like the PNT don’t have the funding to create a trail of entirely single track.  Furthermore, most of them are trying to get you to hike from point A to point B.  Sometimes, the only path is a dirt or paved road.

Our group took the road walks as an opportunity to walk side-by-side where possible.  We told stories, made up songs, and walked together.  Thus, we made our own fun on the road walks. 

5. Remember your permits and be kind to park rangers.

🌲 National Park rangers deal with a lot of annoying, entitled idiots.  Don’t be one of them. 

Go into their offices and be kind to them.  Know that coming in last minute you will need to stay flexible.

If you feel like you’re compromising too much, ask if anything opens up if you take a zero day. 

6. You’re in grizzly country for a while…take proper precautions.

Two thru-hikers walking across snow next to a glacial melt lake.
Hiking in Glacier NP

Between Glacier National Park and Eastern Washington, you’re in grizzly country. 🐻

This means you need to be careful with your food storage, cooking, and carry bear spray. 

With a little forethought, you can keep yourself and bears safe.  Do some research on grizzly behavior so you know how to interact and give space. ⛺️

Remember, you’re hiking through their habitat and home.  You just hike through.  They live there.

Start by checking out my post on hiking in grizzly country!

Pacific Northwest Hiking Gear: Summer Hiking

Two backpackers hiking next to a waterfall and one uses an umbrella.
Umbrellas are Multi-Use

When hiking in the PNW, there are a few specific gear items you need.  Since you’ll hike the Pacific Northwest Trail in the summer, this list is summer-specific. 

Don’t forget to pack these items on your PNT thru-hike:

  • Shelter…including bug net! ⛺️
  • Ground Sheet
  • Rain Gear (jacket, skirt, umbrella, pack cover) ☂️
  • Bear Spray (for Montana and Idaho) 🐻
  • Fleece or Puffy 🥶

Shelter –

Rain and dew are a thing in the PNW.  We did cowboy camp many nights, but having a shelter would decrease the dew all over your sleeping bag in the morning.  And yes, a bug net! 🦟 During the Pasaytan, we had a night with hardly ANY sleep because we sent home our bug net.  Those midges were relentless. (We currently use a Six Moon Designs Haven.) ⛺️

Groundsheet –

Don’t skimp here.  A groundsheet will protect your gear from the bottom.  With the heavy moisture, it can seep upward from the ground.

Rain Gear –

You’ll have to deal with rain at some point on the Pacific Northwest Trail.  In the summer, you’ll usually only experience passing storms, not the day-long deluges that happen in the winter.  When it rains, the temperatures drop, so you’ll want to have rain gear to stay warm. I hate rain and now don’t mind it with my hands-free umbrella. ☔️

Bear Spray

Montana and Idaho are grizzly country. 🐻 Not something you need for most hiking in the PNW, but bear spray is important for the eastern half of the Pacific Northwest Trail.

Fleece or Puffy –

You’ll want one warm layer.  Most of the summer temperatures in the PNW are pleasant, but when you need it…you need it. 

Final Thoughts: Are You Ready for a PNT Thru-Hike?

Trail on a ridge with mountains, trees, and clouds.
Amazing Views on the Pacific Northwest Trail

The Pacific Northwest Trail thru-hike is ideal for two types of people: those who finished their triple crown and want the next trail AND those with backpacking experience who want fewer people around.

Due to the lack of other thru-hikers, more challenging navigation (despite Far Out), and terrain, it’s an intermediate to advanced thru-hike.

However, it was one of my favorites.  We created one of the best trail families I’ve ever been a part of and we made lasting memories.

If you’re looking for something easier try exploring: the Appalachian Trail, the Arizona Trail, or the Pacific Crest Trail.

If you’re looking for something on par with the Pacific Northwest Trail, try exploring the Grand Enchantment Trail.

Lastly, if you’re looking for something harder, try the Hayduke Trail or the Lowest to Highest Route.

Drop any questions below!