How to Thru-Hike the Pacific Northwest Trail (with Map) - Greenbelly Meals

Pacific Northwest Trail Guide


An interactive map of the Pacific Northwest Trail and a guide to plan your thru-hike.

© Briar Angelique


TRAIL OVERVIEW


Length: 1,200 miles

Time to hike: 2-3 months

Start and End Points: 

  • Chief Mountain, Glacier National Park (Eastern Terminus)
  • Cape Alava, Olympic National Park (Western Terminus)

Highest Elevation: Cathedral Pass, 7,569 feet

Lowest Elevation: Olympic Coast, 0 ft

Total Elevation Gain/Loss: 205,211 ft

The Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT) runs from the Continental Divide in Glacier National Park to Cape Alava, the westernmost point of the lower 48, on the shores of the Pacific Ocean. The trail was envisioned by Ron Strickland in the 1970s with the first recorded thru-hike completed in 1977. In 2009 it was designated a National Scenic Trail making it one of the youngest trails in the National Parks system. 

Less than 100 hikers attempt a thru-hike each season. Coupled with the fact that the trail passes through undeveloped, rugged and remote terrain and it’s no surprise that a thru-hike of the PNT can be a very solitary experience. Most hikers hike westbound starting in Glacier National Park in late June or early July and finishing on the Pacific coast in early September.  

Due to the young and evolving nature of the trail there are many alternative routes to choose from as well as large sections of roadwalking. Unlike the Triple Crown trails, the PNT runs east-west going over many mountain ranges. Because of this, long steep climbs and descents are hallmarks of the PNT.

To Print PDF: Step 1) Expand to full-screen view (click box in top right-hand corner of the map). Step 2) Zoom in to your desired map section view. Step 3) Click on the three white vertical dots and then "Print Map" from that drop-down menu.


PLANNING YOUR THRU-HIKE


When to Go: Timing, Weather and Seasons

The best time to hike the PNT is from late June to late September. Snow is the limiting factor on both ends of the hiking season regardless of the direction of travel. The Rocky Mountains in the east and the Olympic Mountains in the west can both hold snow as late as mid-July. Fall snows can start again as early as mid-September on both ends of the trail. The PNT has a page dedicated to monitoring the snowpack which is an essential resource for planning your start date.

Hiking the PNT, you’ll encounter almost every type of climate. From snowy mountains and alpine meadows in Montana to lush forests and lakes in Idaho. Hot, dry deserts in eastern Washington followed by immense cedar forests in the Cascades, ending with the temperate rainforests and tide pools on the Olympic Peninsula. Hikers should be prepared for temperatures around freezing and above 100F in almost every section. 

Fires have been increasingly common in the West. The entire PNT is susceptible to fires, especially east of the Cascade Mountains. Peak fire season is August. 


Alternative Routes

Because of the young nature of the PNT there are many alternative routes to choose from ranging from a few hours to a few days in length. The distinction between alternate and official is less clear than more established trails. In some cases the PNTA recommends the “alternate” where the “official” federally approved route is unmaintained or undesirable. Popular alts are:

  • Original High Route (section 1) - Often snow-covered through late July, this route involves more cross country travel, scrambling and high views. It skips the town of Polebridge meaning a long section without resupply.
  • Nortwest Peak (section 2) - Involves class 3 scrambling and route finding but stays above the treeline longer than the primary route.
  • Lion's Head Ridge (section 3) - Avoids some of the Lion’s Creek bushwhack. This “climbers route” involves class 3 scrambling and route finding on an exposed ridge.
  • Cascade Cutoff (section 7) - Goes through the town of Concrete, WA along an old rail trail ending in Sedro-Woolley, the headquarters of the PNTA. It puts you closer to towns and is easier than the primary route, which involves bushwhacking through logging land.
  • Grand Pass (section 9) - Shorter, more elevations gain/loss. Stays higher along the ridgeline and stunning passes but involves more road walking and skips the scenic Elwha Valley.

© Marte Conradi


Getting There: Transportation

Getting to and from the start and end of the trail is a major challenge of the PNT. A whole article could be written on the subject as it has vexed many thru-hikers.

  • Eastern TerminusChief Mountain: There are no shuttles to the trailhead. The best option is to arrange a private ride or hitch-hike. Arrive in Glacier National park via Kalispell Airport on the west side or Amtrak on the east side of the park.
  • Western Terminus—Cape Alava: It is a 3-mile walk from the coast to Lake Ozette Campground and the Lost Resort. Arrange a ride to meet you here or try to hitch out Port Angeles to hook up with public transportation.

Due to the small number of hikers, hitch-hiking may take longer than on other popular trails.


Direction to Go: Eastbound or Westbound?

Hikers almost exclusively travel westbound, adhering to Ron Strickland’s original vision for the trail to follow “a drop of rain” from the Continental Divide to the Pacific Ocean. Most resources, guides and the scant blazes are labeled for the westbound hiker. 

© Justin Sprecher


Permits 

There is no permit for the PNT itself but the three National Parks the trail crosses through require permits. You can apply for permits ahead of time but most hikers find it easier to apply in person. In Glacier you must acquire permits from a backcountry ranger station. North Cascades National Park and Olympic National Park have special allowances to let PNT hikers register over the phone. For North Cascades, call for permits in Oroville, WA. And for Olympic, call from Whidbey Island or Port Townsend, WA.


Navigation: Maps and Apps

Navigation skills are essential when thru-hiking the PNT. There are very few blazes, sometimes hundreds of miles between them. Locals often do not know the trail exists or think you’re looking for the PCT. 

The Guthook app is a useful tool for navigation and hiker comments. However, the official route changes each season and Guthook may not have up to date GPS tracks. The PNTA publishes a mapset each season to reflect any changes and is the most accurate navigation tool.

Tim Youngbluth publishes the “Pacific Northwest Trail Digest” each season which corresponds with the PNTA mapset. It provides useful descriptions of the trail, alts and notes from past hikers. Melanie Simmerman publishes the “Pacific Northwest Trail Town Guide”. This includes information, maps and facilities for each town and trail angel contact information. Both are available in print and ebook.

Special navigation challenges on the PNT:

  • Bushwacking: There are many short to medium bushwhacks, the most famous being the Lion’s Creek “rite of passage”. This 7-mile bushwhack through dense steep forest will take an entire day. On bushwhack sections, use your best judgement on how to proceed and do not necessarily follow the red line.
  • Hiking with a tide: On the Olympic coast, there are many points that can only be passed at low tide. Hikers will have to adjust their schedule, potentially hiking at night, to cross these points. Learn how to read a tide table and make sure to get the tide tables from the rangers at Olympic National Park.
  • Phone service: Mobile phone reception is spotty to non-existent for most of the PNT. Make sure maps, guidebooks, etc are printed or downloaded and available offline.

© Justin Sprecher


Packing: Gear and Clothing

You’ll encounter almost every kind of weather on the PNT, sometimes only days apart. From snow to 100F+ heat, wind, sun, and hail. Be prepared for rain, it is the Pacific Northwest after all! 

A standard ultralight thru-hiking gear list is the best place to start. Here are some modifications specific to the PNT:

  • Sleeping Bag/Quilt (20f or Lower): It can dip below freezing anywhere on the trail any time of year. Many sections can also be quite damp, decreasing loft and effectiveness of down.
  • Bear Spray: Needed in Montana through Northport, WA. Good peace of mind to have. Some hikers carry it the whole way for black bears.
  • Ursack or Bear Canister: highly recommended in grizzly country. A bear canister is required on the Olympic Coast and parts of the Olympic Mountains.
  • Ice Axe and Microspikes: Depending on start date, these might be required in Glacier National Park. Mail them home at the end of section 1 in Eureka, MT.
  • Compass: Very few blazes, long bushwhacks and cross country travel make this a handy item to have.
  • Reflective Clothing: There are many road walks, sometimes along busy highways with narrow or no shoulders. A piece of bright clothing ensures drivers see you.
  • Bug Net: Not needed all the time but nice to have. You can also use it to strain dirty water before filtering. 

Where to Sleep: Camping, Shelters, and Hostels

Most of the PNT is on National Forest land where dispersed camping is free and no permit is needed. Remember to follow Leave No Trace principles when dispersed camping. Permits are required in Glacier NP, North Cascades NP, and Olympic NP. 

There are a few areas—notably the Puget Sound (section 8)—where the trail runs through urban areas and private land. Plan ahead to end your day at a Washington State Park that offers hike-in campsites on a walk-up basis. 

In sections 1 and 2, there are many fire lookouts, some reservable and some walk-up. These are a quintessential PNT experience. If you can stay in one, you won’t regret it!

Melanie Silverman’s Pacific Northwest Trail Town Guide lists popular stops and trail angels for each town. Hiker favorites are the North Fork Hostel in Polebridge, MT, Feist Creek Resort in Idaho and the Washington Hotel in Metaline Falls, WA.

© Justin Sprecher

Spending the night in a fire lookout.


How to Resupply: Food, Water, and Towns

The official route runs directly through a number of small towns making resupply relatively easy. The network of trail angels on the PNT is a small but dedicated bunch. They often offer shuttles, accommodation and a place to mail resupply packages. Because the PNT is a patchwork of existing trails, there is often a road crossing, trailhead or roadwalking section every 3-4 days if a hitch was needed. The exception is the 160 miles section from Oroville to Ross Lake Resort which is almost entirely in remote wilderness areas. Ross Lake Resort is a boat-in only resort that allows hikers to mail a resupply box for a $20 fee. There are no resupply options at the resort, just a handful of snacks for purchase. 

In most seasons, water is common along the trail. An exception being sections 4 and 5 when the trail travels approx 200 miles through the desert of eastern Washington.  


Sights: Nature and Wildlife 

The vast number of landscapes the PNT travels through means a huge variety of wildlife. Grizzly bears, black bears, mountain lions, rattlesnakes, elk, moose, picas, osprey, eagles, salmon, mountain goats, and wolves can all be seen. On the coastal section, ocean life such as starfish, anemones and crabs are common in tidepools. Whales and orcas can be seen spouting in the distance.

Bear spray is recommended for grizzly country, sections 1-3. Black bears inhabit the entire trail and food hanging with an Ursack or PCT technique is required. Bear canisters are required in parts of Olympic National Park. A handy chart of food storage regulations is provided by the PNTA.

Along with animal life, the scenery is also very diverse. Alpine sections above the treeline, dark dense cedar groves, wide-open grasslands, and desert, cool lush rainforests and coastal beach hiking all provide an immense variety to the hike. There is even an urban section passing through small towns and along county roads.

© Justin Sprecher


SECTIONAL OVERVIEW


The PNT is broken into 10 sections. Each section is unique but generally speaking, there are 4 major climate zones.


Sections 1-3: Eastern Mountains

Rugged mountains, alpine meadows, and lush forest define the start of the trail. The trail travels up, over and through the Rocky, Whitefish, Purcell, and Selkirk ranges. After leaving Glacier National Park, it’ll be a surprise to run into other hikers, thru-hikers or otherwise. Lookout towers dot the mountain tops.


Sections 4-5: Desert Highlands

The trail leaves the snow-capped mountains but by no means is less rugged. Even though it’s only a few miles south of the USA-Canada border, the temps often reach 100F+. Water is scarce. Hot exposed sections through grassy cattle country and long road walks can test one's will.


Sections 6-8: Cascades Mountains

The trail climbs back into the mountains starting with the alpine paradise of the Pasayten Wilderness. Many epic views are found in this section with Devil’s Dome a highlight. Giant cedar groves fill the narrow valleys. Here, the PNT shares 13 miles with the PCT, where you’ll likely see more hikers than you have on the entire trail in just one day. The section ends with urban hiking in the maritime climate of the Puget Sound.


Sections 9-10: Olympic Peninsula

Starts in the charming town of Port Townsend which you arrive at by ferry. From there it heads straight through the heart of the Olympic Mountains, climbing to alpine lakes and descending lush fern choked valleys. The final section provides the most unique hiking of the PNT as you navigate tides and walk the beach to the westernmost point in the lower 48, Cape Alava, to finish the trail.


RESOURCES


Pacific Northwest Trail Association 

Pacific Northwest Trail Digest by Tim Youngblueth (updated each season)

Pacific Northwest Trail Town Guide by Melanie Simmerman (updated each season)

PNT Snowpack

PNT Facebook Group



joshua johnson writer photo

By Justin Sprecher (aka "Semisweet"): Semisweet is a Wisconsin-based thru-hiker, adventurer and digital storyteller. You can find him exploring the upper midwest on foot, in a canoe and on a bike.
About Greenbelly: After thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, Chris Cage created Greenbelly to provide fast, filling and balanced meals to backpackers. Chris also wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail.

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