The national scenic trail’s northern leg offers some of its grandest views. Here are some trail veterans’ favorite stretches.
Who better to ask, I figured, than the dusty fellow with apparent legs of steel churning toward my latest view-filled perch, a spot near 5,904-foot Suiattle Pass on the Pacific Crest Trail, deep in Washington’s Glacier Peak Wilderness.
“So,” I asked Northbound Nick as we shared the beyond-Imax scene at Mile 2550 of the PCT, the national scenic trail stretching from Mexico to Canada, “where have you found the best scenery?”
With a few twists of the wrists, Nick waved the tips of his hiking poles inches above the trail. “Right here,” said Nick, a Londoner who had been walking the trail for four-plus months. “This area, this state, has some of the most incredible sights I’ve seen on the trail.”
He got no argument from me. And to think: A tall stack of postcard views still lay ahead for Nick, from the sweeping panorama of the Picket Range seen from little-visited Lakeview Ridge to the nonstop stretch of deep-valley views along a stairway-to-hiker-heaven between Slate Peak (near Harts Pass) and Windy Pass.
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It’s what keeps people coming. In 2015 the Pacific Crest Trail Association, which helps oversee the 2,650-mile trail, issued 2,808 thru-hike permits and documented 626 successful finishes, the latter a record total.
Guidebook authors Doug Lorain (“Backpacking Washington”) and Mike Woodmansee (“Trekking Washington”) both cite the 61.2-mile stretch between Rainy Pass on the North Cascades Highway (Highway 20) and the Canadian border as their favorite section of the Pacific Crest Trail within Washington.
Author Craig Romano, whose latest project is a full revision of the essential in-state trail compendium, “100 Classic Hikes in Washington” (which includes several bite-size excursions to choice parts of the PCT), picks the 88-mile section from Stevens Pass to Suiattle Pass as his favorite.
“Miles and miles of meadows,” says Romano, almost swooning at the memory. “Kodak Peak. White Pass, Red Pass. And the trail is well-graded, so you can just kick into gear and cruise the miles, going back and forth across the crest, west side, east side. It’s just incredible.”
A trio of buddies, Mike McCarty, of Issaquah; Doug Peterson, of Kent; and Steve Gerken, of Newcastle, this summer will complete an eight-year project to hike the entire PCT within the state, piece by piece. McCarty, a buyer at REI, loves the trail section that hugs the base of Mount Adams, particularly where Killen Creek crosses the trail on the peak’s north side.
“That’s probably my absolute favorite place on the trail,” McCarty said. “Around Killen Creek you have a big pond, a huge, open field of wildflowers, waterfalls, and Adams is so close you could touch it. You can look around and see Rainier and the Goat Rocks. It’s fantastic.”
Jack Haskel, a trail-information specialist for the nonprofit, terrifically informative Pacific Crest Trail Association, based in Sacramento, Calif., has seen it all, having hiked the entire PCT in 2006, including the 505 miles within Washington.
Like every thru-hiker who is asked to name favorites, Haskel mentions the indisputably awesome High Sierra of California as an epicenter of “wow.” Washington? It’s right up there.
“Gosh, it’s equally stunning and pretty,” Haskel says. “In Washington some of my favorite places are designated wilderness: Goat Rocks Wilderness, Alpine Lakes Wilderness, Glacier Peak and the Pasayten. Those are just incredibly stunning places.
“It’s not fair to leave out the rest of it,” Haskel says, forever a PCT diplomat. “I typically talk about the High Sierra, then you hit the chain of stratovolcanoes, going over the shoulder of each one from Mount Lassen all the way to Glacier Peak. It’s just fantastic hiking.”
The best (and not)
So what sections are the trail’s best in Washington? I’ve hiked more than two-thirds of the state’s PCT miles, making repeat visits to prime sections, and my “best-of” list is a four-way tie (details in a moment).
Others offer tips on least-favorite stretches. Lorain considers two sections marginal: from the Oregon border north to Mount Adams (where first power lines, then heavy forest, diminish views, though the Indian Heaven Wilderness west of Trout Lake rates applause), and a long stretch of miles south of Snoqualmie Pass.
“A lot of checkerboards,” McCarty says of Snoqualmie Pass south, referring to patches of intermittently harvested forest. His threesome walked the 22 miles between Stampede Pass and Interstate 90 as a long, call-of-duty day hike. A ray of hope: A land sale announced in March could lead to a rerouting of part of that trail. Good news, says McCarty. “For about five miles south of Snoqualmie Pass, it’s crappy trail,” he says.
Now my idea of the good stuff:
• Mount Adams (Forest Service Road 23) north to White Pass (U.S. Highway 12), 66 miles.
The westside portion of Mount Adams’ Highline Trail also doubles as the PCT and is, as McCarty correctly points out, a gorgeous area. Bonus: This portion of trail is relatively level for miles.
The section’s showstopper, though, is the Goat Rocks Wilderness and the rocky, barren, narrow path the PCT follows over the shoulder of 7,880-foot Old Snowy. Though harrowing to people uncomfortable with heights and steep drop-offs, this section’s sky-high views northwest to Rainier and south to Adams are memory-makers.
In “Trekking Washington” Woodmansee outlines a good game plan for catching three of the region’s major highlights (Cispus Basin, the climb to Old Snowy and Shoe Lake): a 30-mile, one-way push from remote Walupt Lake to White Pass. The downside: A required 50-mile car shuttle that runs through Packwood, with more than a third of the drive on dirt road.
• Snoqualmie Pass (I-90) to Stevens Pass (U.S. Highway 2), 71 miles.
Due to the almost legendary appeal of the Kendall Katwalk — a narrow stretch of trail that was dynamited into existence along a steep granite slope six miles north of Snoqualmie Pass — a bazillion curious urban day hikers have been able to claim they have experienced at least a taste of the Pacific Crest Trail.
With its big views, not-so-easy approach (2,600-foot elevation gain) and hint of danger, a hike to the Katwalk (starting at the PCT trailhead just north of Exit 52 on I-90) is a worthwhile teaser to what makes the PCT so appealing.
More treasures lie farther north: the rugged Chikamin Ridge and Park Lakes; bedazzling Spectacle Lake (often approached by overnight backpackers from Cle Elum); Cathedral Rock; Deception Pass, the knockout view of Glacier Lake (with Glacier Peak looming far to the north) from Pieper Pass.
A one-way, pass-to-pass jaunt is great fun for low-weight, high-speed backpackers searching for a challenge. I once covered the 71 miles in three days, another time in four. Even if you take the customary seven days, it’s a rewarding way to get an in-depth look at Seattle’s next-door mountains.
• Stevens Pass (U.S. 2) to Rainy Pass (Highway 20), 127 miles.
The longest and toughest section of the PCT, with multiple lung-busting climbs and sharp descents, may also be its prettiest. As Romano says, the meadows (and berry patches) along this stretch are uncommonly lovely. From Kodak Peak north to White Pass and Red Pass, the PCT sends hikers soaring along a towering ridgeline.
And the hits just keep coming. “When you start at Stevens, Glacier Peak is constantly up ahead, like a beacon, luring you in the entire way,” Romano says. “It’s the wildest of the Washington Cascade volcanoes. After miles of meadows, you come to Red Pass, and Glacier is suddenly right in your face.
“Beyond Red Pass, now you go through alpine tundra and past a cinder cone (White Chuck Cinder Cone) that’s one of the coolest cinder cones outside of Lassen Volcanic National Park. Then you swing around Glacier Peak and head up to Fire Creek Pass and eventually Miners Ridge and Suiattle Pass. It’s just a great area.”
The 2014 reopening of the Suiattle River Road (Forest Service Road 26) north of Darrington has restored easier westside trail access for shorter trips to the region.
For fit, ambitious hikers, a smart approach for nearly seeing it all is to park a vehicle at Stevens Pass, shuttle a second car to Chelan, then ride a boat to Stehekin. Next, take a national park bus to the High Bridge junction on the PCT and hike 108 miles south. (Whoa.) Plan for eight or more mind-blowing days.
• Rainy Pass (Highway 20) to Canadian border, 61 miles.
The most common introduction to this area is the day hike from Rainy Pass to gorgeous, 6,800-foot Cutthroat Pass (10 miles round-trip, 2,000-foot elevation gain). Tip: Venture even farther north, to Granite Pass, and take in the long-distance view of Golden Horn and mighty Tower Mountain.
Or drive the primitive, winding, not-for-the-timid Harts Pass Road (built in 1893; recently reopened after a rockfall was cleared) to Harts Pass and either walk south to expansive Grasshopper Pass, or north 3.5 miles to Windy Pass while gawking at the high-density cluster of peaks to the west, including imposing Azurite Peak and Mount Ballard.
Trying to make a one-way push from Canada’s Manning Provincial Park (eight miles north of the U.S.-Canadian border) is complicated. Better to bite off sections using the trailheads mentioned here.
IF YOU GO
The Pacific Crest Trail Association website (pcta.org) abounds with information, including reports on trail conditions.
Take advantage of the free, downloadable maps available at pctmap.net.
For your smartphone, download Halfmile’s PCT, an invaluable (and free) app that lists landmarks, water sources and campsites with mileage and elevation.
Road and trail problems
Known road issue: Forest Service Road 23, 12 miles south of Randle (Cowlitz Valley Ranger District), was washed away during a winter flood and will not reopen this year, complicating a drive to Mount Adams.
Known trail issues:
• Work is planned in the south end of the Glacier Peak Wilderness on the trail between White and Red passes; the North Fork Sauk Trail (a well-traveled westside access route to that area) will be closed July 27-Aug. 4, 2016, says Gary Paull, wilderness and trails manager of the Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest. Much work is needed north of that area, he says, particularly where a substantial hole has opened near where the now-closed Milk Creek Trail meets the PCT. Ranger Matt Riggen points out that improper disposal of human waste has become an issue and encourages hikers to educate themselves about correct methods before heading out on the trail, or any trail.
• Last year’s major fire in the Stehekin/Holden area along Lake Chelan’s west end that temporarily closed the PCT did not damage the trail, says PCTA’s Jack Haskel.
• A 50-foot bridge over the South Fork of Lemah Creek (3.5 miles north of Spectacle Lake in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness) has been missing since the winter of 2008-09, and no funding is available to replace it anytime soon, says John Morrow, lead wilderness ranger of the Cle Elum Ranger District. Also beware of thin tread on Chikamin Ridge roughly five miles north of Kendall Katwalk, and an always-difficult jumble of runoff and loose rock south of Deception Pass known as the Mount Daniel Ford.
“Pacific Crest Trail: Oregon and Washington,” by Jeffery Schaffer and Andy Selters. This installment in a three-volume guide to the PCT from the Wilderness Press has been periodically updated since the series was first published in 1974.
The Mountaineers Books, of Seattle, will soon roll out its own multivolume guide to the trail. The Washington book, by Tami Asars, will be released in September.
“100 Classic Hikes in Washington,” by Craig Romano
“Backpacking Washington,” by Doug Lorain
“Trekking Washington,” by Mike Woodmansee.