6 Days, 80 Miles: Backpacking a Wild Section of the Pacific Northwest Trail

Enjoying a warm cup of coffee near Loudon Lake, along Washington's Boundary Trail.
Enjoying a warm cup of coffee near Loudon Lake, along Washington's Boundary Trail. Laura Lancaster
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“Has it ever snowed on your birthday before?”

My husband’s question broke the tension. We were camped near Cathedral Lake on September 1, at mile 26 of the Boundary Trail, an 80-mile, 6-day section of the larger Pacific Northwest Trail that stretches 1,200-miles from Glacier National Park in Montana to the Olympic Coast in Washington State.

Having both hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 2014, we’d experienced a heavy wanderlust beginning to creep back into our day-to-days, so we decided to try out a section of one of the lesser known National Scenic Routes.

The section we chose is nestled in Washington's Pasayten Wilderness, just on the other side of the Cascade Range’s rainshadow and east of North Cascades National Park. We started from the official beginning of the Boundary Trail at the Iron Gate Trailhead, 20 miles northwest from Loomis, WA, before meeting up with the Pacific Northwest Trail near Horseshoe Meadow, 6.5 miles away. Over the next four days, the two trails overlapped, and we hugged the border between Washington State and Canada, often only a half mile to the north, before turning south at the Pasayten River for the final two days and 25 miles to reach our pickup location at Hart’s Pass.

Snow accumulating outside the tent.
    Laura Lancaster
Snow accumulating outside the tent. Laura Lancaster

But Hart’s Pass was still a long way away on that second night, and with the snow coming down hard, we wondered if we had bitten off more than we could chew. We were also nervous because while the first leg of the trail had been well-maintained and clearly signed, an eastbound PNT hiker had told us earlier in the day that the route would significantly deteriorate after Cathedral Lakes.

We rigged our sleeping pads and quilts together into a makeshift double bag and huddled together while looking at the maps, taking stock of our options in case we needed to bail out midway on the hike. As soon as it was dark we fell asleep to the barely perceptible sounds of snow accumulating on top of our tent.

The snow line visible above the trees along the Boundary Trail.
    Laura Lancaster
The snow line visible above the trees along the Boundary Trail. Laura Lancaster

We got lucky on this trip: the next morning revealed that we had camped only 300 feet above the snow level. We were careful after that to plan our remaining days to end at lower elevation, and eventually finished our section hike on schedule at Hart’s Pass.

But that second night had set the tone for the rest of the trip. Basic expectations about backcountry travel were pushed to their limits on this section of the Pacific Northwest Trail: The path on the ground will match the map in my hand (spoiler: it didn’t). We aren’t the only ones out here hiking this trail (we went two full days at one point without seeing another person). September 1st is still summer (not necessarily in the North Cascades).

A trail sign along the Boundary Trail.
    Laura Lancaster
A trail sign along the Boundary Trail. Laura Lancaster

Part of what makes this trail a special experience is how vividly it demonstrates the tug of war between man and nature to keep routes like this open at all. Sections of the Boundary Trail are freshly maintained and easy to follow while others have been almost completely swallowed back into the earth by fire, erosion, and time. We could see where blowdowns had been cut back from the trail over the years, but there were still hundreds and hundreds of fresh logs to scramble around and over during 20+ miles of trail during the third and fourth days of our hike.

Bridges were blown out at every major crossing, and others just concrete supports.

What used to be a bridge is now a gnarled carcass of wood.
    Laura Lancaster
What used to be a bridge is now a gnarled carcass of wood. Laura Lancaster

At times, the trail became a faint shadow that we followed by feel as much as sight, with an occasional cairn to keep our spirits up.

At others, it would abruptly disappear.

A burned out section of the Boundary Trail.
    Laura Lancaster
A burned out section of the Boundary Trail. Laura Lancaster

For some, the challenges of this hike will outweigh the rewards. But if you’re looking for something wilder, far from the grid and away from the crowds of the Olympics or Alpine Lake Wilderness area, then this might just be the trail for you.

Hike this trail for its wide open spaces, winding mountain ridges, expansive vistas, and remote stands of trees. Standing on Bunker Hill on the fourth day, the high point of the trail and the midway point of our hike, my husband and I watched a landscape that had bright blue skies and storm clouds and rain and sun and snow all at once. Fortunately for us, the clouds broke when we reached the top and the sun shone brightly down. We knew we were staring out at Canada, but this deep in the backcountry those manmade distinctions shifted to the background and we felt that we were staring out at endless, untouched wilderness. Then the weather shifted again and in a matter of minutes it was snowing. Time again to get to lower elevation.

Heading onto a 'trail-less' section of trail.
    Laura Lancaster
Heading onto a 'trail-less' section of trail. Laura Lancaster

For my husband and I, even after hiking thousands of miles together, this was also a trail that taught us about our limits. How good our route-finding skills were. How fast we could travel in rougher terrain. Our capacity for having non-stop wet shoes and socks.

Toasting one another with hot buttered rums after we reached Hart’s Pass never felt more earned.

Plan Your Hike

  • Mileage: 80 miles
  • Permits: Self-register at the trailhead.
  • Daily average: My husband and I comfortably average 20 miles a day over average terrain, but managed only 15 miles a day on the Boundary Trail. Plan for slower days than you would normally to account for the rougher conditions.
  • Gear: This is not the trail to test out your new ultralight tent. You may go days without seeing another person on this trail, even during the high season. Bring gear you trust, and be ready for any and all weather. You will likely do some damage to your shell layer while scrambling over blowdowns in the rain (or snow), so I recommend carrying lightweight, inexpensive Frogg Toggs.
  • Maps: Maps are a must. Get Green Trails Maps 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, and 50. That being said, it appears to have been some years since these maps were last updated, so be aware that some manmade landmarks are no longer there. This includes the cabins along the Pasayten River, as well as a short section of trail leading south on the west side of the river, which has disappeared entirely. After the crossing, check at your maps and travel south beneath the embankment a couple hundred yards from the river and you’ll find it again within a half mile. The five miles of trail leading to the Ashnola River also appear to have been rerouted since these maps were last updated.
  • Navigation: Unless you are very comfortable with cross-country navigation, I highly recommended that you bring a GPS with you. It is possible to hike the trail without it, but this will provide considerable peace of mind.
  • Transportation: Travelling east to west seems to be most common, so as to avoid ending (and possibly having to hitch) out of the more remote Iron Gate trailhead. This means that getting to the Iron Gate trailhead will be the toughest logistical challenge of your hike. I recommend that you start currying favor with your friends and family several months in advance. Despite it’s remote location, the Hart’s Pass trailhead and campground is fairly popular, and it’s a safe bet that you’ll be able to hitch out, especially if you time your hike to end on a summer weekend. Alternately, an extra 25+ miles of relatively straightforward hiking south on the Pacific Crest Trail would allow you to exit at Rainy Pass.
  • Exit strategy: We followed the conventional wisdom on this hike and left the Boundary Trail just after the Soda Creek crossing and headed south to the medley of trails that intersect near the ranger cabins at the abandoned Pasayten Airstrip, foregoing the section of the trail that has a long history of disrepair out to Ross Lake. Another option would be to follow the Boundary Trail out to Castle Pass where it connects with the Pacific Crest Trail, which would also give you an opportunity to take a short detour (3.7 miles one-way) to the remote northern terminus of the trail.
  • Pacific Northwest Trail hikers: PNT thru-hikers are like rare birds—seeing one out in the wild is a real treat. And unlike the more popular Pacific Crest Trail, there isn’t a strong trail magic culture along the PNT. If you can, bring along a small treat to share in the event you meet a thru-hiker along the trail.

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