The Pacific Northwest Trail is meant to showcase pristine wilderness, but the portion that passes through Skagit County isn’t living up to the rugged nature of the majority of the trail’s 1,200 miles.
Hikers who walk the length of the trail spend months climbing mountains, scrambling over brush and dodging high tides along the coast as they make their way through Montana, Idaho and Washington. Along the majority of the trail in Skagit County, however, they find themselves walking along many miles of roadways.
For Pacific Northwest Trail Association Executive Director Jeff Kish, the wild parts of the trail are alluring, offering an experience that’s hard for hikers, including him, to pass up.
“On a map I saw the line of where the trail went and I couldn’t imagine a more beautiful place,” said Kish, who was living in Portland when he decided to hike the trail.
He is one of about 300 hikers who have completed the trek between Glacier National Park in Montana and Olympic National Park on the Washington coast.
Kish is also leading the charge for trail improvements through his role with the Pacific Northwest Trail Association – based out of an office in Sedro-Woolley.
The association is responsible for protecting, promoting and improving the trail, which is one of 11 National Scenic Trails in the United States.
Last year, the association created a new website and new trail maps that are available to download for free. The association also partnered with a company that develops trail navigation apps for mobile devices.
Kish said the app was released Friday for Apple devices, and a version for Android devices is expected to be released in June.
He said he’s hoping some of the trail maps will change over time as the association works with public lands managers to get the sections of trail on roads in Skagit and Whatcom counties onto actual trails.
There’s ample room for improvement and while perfecting the trail will likely take decades, the Pacific Northwest Trail Association is devising plans to begin the process.
“The work that needs to be done to complete the Pacific Northwest Trail, it won’t happen in my lifetime,” said the 36-year-old Kish. “But I have a 2-year-old son and I want it to be ready for him to hike it someday.”
A road problem
After winding through Washington’s Okanogan National Forest, North Cascades National Park and Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, the portion of the trail that runs through Whatcom, Skagit and Island counties is largely on forest roads and state highways.
Having hikers on those roads poses safety risks and goes against the grain of the National Scenic Trail concept, which is to connect trails across the country that showcase America’s wilderness.
“This is not that,” Kish said while looking down a gravel logging road that is part of the Pacific Northwest Trail just off Highway 9 north of Sedro-Woolley.
Near the Whatcom-Skagit border, sections of dirt, gravel and paved roads including the highway are part of the trail.
“There’s a lot to fix,” Kish said as several tractor-trailer trucks passed by on the highway.
In other parts of Skagit County, Pacific Northwest Trail hikers must walk along sections of Chuckanut Drive and Highway 20.
Of the 105 miles of the Pacific Northwest Trail in Skagit County, 75 percent are on roads, according to the trail association.
“That’s by far the highest proportion of roads to trails on any section,” Kish said.
The problem is that it is difficult to stitch together a trail between the North Cascades and the Olympics using only public lands.
“It’s this matrix of private and state Department of Natural Resources land in Skagit County,” Kish said. “We’re trying to replace what we have right now because most of it is just roads.”
On the trek through Whatcom and Skagit counties, hikers use a section of Highway 542, which is also called Mount Baker Highway.
Hikers also use dirt and gravel roads to skirt around much of Baker Lake and pass through Alger, use Nulle Road to cross Interstate 5 and get to the Chuckanut Mountains, and use county roads through Edison and Bay View.
Some of those roads are on private property, which comes with additional challenges.
Kish said private landowners and timber companies may allow Pacific Northwest Trail hikers to pass through, but often don’t want the general public to have access and don’t want through-hikers camping on their property. Access to private lands also isn’t guaranteed long-term.
“Just because a landowner says it’s OK now doesn’t mean it always will be,” Kish said, explaining that when a property near Highway 9 changed ownership, it was closed to Pacific Northwest Trail hikers.
The Pacific Northwest Trail Association has pitched ideas to Natural Resources and the U.S. Forest Service for getting some of the trail in this area off roads and onto public land.
Pacific Northwest Trail founder Ron Strickland said these types of growing pains for a National Scenic Trail are not unusual. A similar process of fine-tuning the older Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from Mexico to Canada, also unfolded over many years.
“I started this in 1970 almost 50 years ago, and the next 50 years is about to start,” Strickland said. “My No. 1 priority personally is to keep focusing on the route that we worked out over so many decades, to protect that and where possible to make it even more scenic.”
A partial solution
One idea the association has proposed would reroute the Pacific Northwest Trail onto Natural Resources land in Whatcom County, avoiding the section currently involving Highway 9 and other roads to get hikers from Lyman Hill to the Chuckanut Mountains.
Kish said using more Natural Resources land for portions of the Pacific Northwest Trail could get as much as half the route currently on roads through Skagit County onto trails in Whatcom County, and improve the safety and the wilderness appeal of the trail in this area.
Rerouting the Pacific Northwest Trail through those Natural Resources lands has been discussed by the agency’s Baker to Bellingham planning committee and encouraged in public comments. The committee is analyzing recreation opportunities on Natural Resources land in that area.
Natural Resources Statewide Recreation Manager Tim Stapleton said the Pacific Northwest Trail Association’s vision could be incorporated into the plan the committee is developing, which Natural Resources expects to adopt by winter.
“From a recreation standpoint long-distance trails are very popular and that’s a very popular trail system,” he said.
Strickland said he supports the idea.
“I’m hoping the Department of Natural Resources will really get behind it,” he said.
While the proposal would reduce the amount of the Pacific Northwest Trail in Skagit County, Kish, Strickland and others working on trail improvements said getting the route off roads and into mountain areas is the priority.
“We’re lucky to have part of it in Skagit County,” said Doug Shepherd, a long-time member of the Pacific Northwest Trail Association and the Skagit-Whatcom-Island Trail Maintaining Organization. “It goes by Squires Lake and on Blanchard. It goes to Mount Erie. It’s not like it’s not here even if they reroute that north section.”
Strickland and Kish said the Chuckanut Mountains including Blanchard are a treasured part of the long-distance trek, with the views of Samish Bay being the first glimpse the majority of hikers – who travel east to west – get of saltwater. It’s a sign of how far they have come since embarking on their journey in Montana.
A worthy cause
Although it’s a work in progress, Strickland and Kish said the Pacific Northwest Trail is something special.
“There’s only 11 of them (National Scenic Trails) in the country, so it means a lot to have that designation,” Kish said.
Those who have completed the entire 1,200 miles say the mountain scenery and wildlife is spectacular.
When Kish hiked the trail in 2014, he heard the calls of wolves, saw grizzly bear tracks and had encounters with a mountain lion and rattlesnakes.
He said there’s also national-trail-worthy scenery that’s being missed along the Pacific Northwest Trail due to the use of roads in Skagit County and surrounding areas.
“I’ve seen the whole trail and I’ve also seen really beautiful areas that aren’t part of the trail,” he said. “This area has the potential … We’re not showcasing its best parts.”
An area along the south side of Mount Baker north of Concrete is one Kish would particularly like to see become part of the Pacific Northwest Trail.
“The hiking up there above treeline on Mount Baker stands up to anything I’ve seen anywhere else across all three states (on the Pacific Northwest Trail),” he said. “From where the trail could go, hikers would get a sweeping view which includes Mount Shuksan, North Cascades National Park and Glacier Peak Wilderness.”
Getting the trail into that area is a more long-term goal than the need to get hikers off roads, but could eventually help make Whatcom and Skagit counties more a part of the trail than a pass-through area along the way to Olympic National Park.
Kish and Shepherd said as it is now, many hikers catch a ride from near Concrete to Deception Pass State Park, where they resume their hike.
“It’s a real shame because they miss out on some iconic sections of trail in Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest and they miss the Chuckanuts entirely,” Kish said.
While rerouting the trail as proposed would reduce its presence in Skagit County, it would likely keep hikers from bypassing the Chuckanuts and shoreline areas including the Padilla Bay Shore Trail.
“With these pieces in place we can have a world-class hiking destination. We just have to put the pieces together,” Kish said.
He said he’s hoping more people throughout the country will learn about the trail, hike it and help improve it for generations to come.
“A lot of people don’t know about the Pacific Northwest Trail, even here in Skagit and Whatcom counties where it’s right in their backyard,” Kish said. “There’s 11 in the country, but this is ours.”