US officials are taking a big step forward with a 1,200-mile hiking trail stretching from the Continental Divide to the Pacific Ocean.
The U.S. Forest Service is accepting comments through Oct. 30 on a comprehensive plan for the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail, which begins in Glacier National Park in Montana, runs through northern Idaho and ends in Olympic National Park. in Washington.
The Forest Service aims to complete the plan by the end of 2023. It is a key document that will give state, federal, and tribal land managers a guide to developing the non-motorized trail along its entire length. length. Currently about a third of the trail is on roads and some portions in remote areas require trailless bush hiking.
“I love what it could be,” said Jeff Kish, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Trail Association. “The bones are there, but we still need to flesh them out.”
The comprehensive plan, he said, “gives us the opportunity to preserve what makes the trail so special.”
The trail was first proposed and traversed in the 1970s, with a handful of additional early adventurers making the trek in later years.
Congress approved the trail as the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail in 2009, making it the 11th trail added to the National Trails System which includes the Pacific Crest Trail, Appalachian Trail, and Continental Divide Trail.
Kish, who completed the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail in 2014, estimates fewer than 1,000 hikers have completed the route which includes significant elevation gain and loss as it passes through mountainous areas. In recent years, he said, about 75 people a year have attempted to complete the course, although not all are able to complete.
Completion and approval of the full plan and potential changes along the trail may increase hikers. The plan would look at the number of hikers the trail can accommodate and things like the location of campgrounds.
Kish noted that currently many hikers might choose not to attempt the trail because much of it is along roads.
The Forest Service will use the feedback to develop a draft comprehensive plan and environmental assessment this winter that will be released to the public in the summer of 2023. The agency by December 2023 aims to sign a notice of decision for the trail and implement implement the overall plan. Feedback will also help the agency determine the type of experience hikers want, trail conditions, and future management.
Portions of the hiking trail are also open to cycling and the use of pack and saddle animals.
According to the Forest Service, the trail now includes 576 miles traversing land it manages, 237 miles of private land, 217 miles of National Park Service land, and 89 miles of state land.
Private land poses a challenge because private land can change owners and landowners can cut off access.
About 700 miles of the trail are cross-country on hiking trails or on foot along beaches. The trail uses 438 miles of existing road, of which 135 miles are on paved roads. But the road sections should be replaced with non-motorized trails to achieve the goals of a National Scenic Trail. With a complete plan completed, land managers would have a document to facilitate this process.
In northern Idaho, there is a 7-mile gap where hikers must hike Forest Service land and land managed by the Idaho Department of Lands. The comprehensive plan could also help with these types of areas.
Among the goals, the Forest Service said in its scoping document for the overall plan, is to complete and maintain a full-length, non-motorized trail that will “maximize the outdoor recreation potential of the Pacific Northwest Trail by providing premier settings and a nationally significant opportunity for long-distance hiking that complements or enhances opportunities for other compatible trail uses, especially the use of pack and saddle gear and the bicycle, if applicable.
In all, the trail passes through seven national forests, three national parks, and portions of the Colville Preserve and the Swinomish Preserve in Washington.
From the Continental Divide in Montana, hikers who manage to finish eventually end up on the beach in Olympic National Park.
“You spend the summer walking west until you literally can’t take another step west,” Kish said.
–The Associated Press