Pacific Crest Trail in Snohomish County: rugged, rewarding

A wild, rugged and breathtaking trail runs through eastern Snohomish County. It’s steep and remote and offers first-rate views of Glacier Peak. If you want to see those views, though, you have to work for them.

The Pacific Crest Trail is about 2,650 miles long and stretches from Mexico to Canada. The stretch through Snohomish County is among the most rugged.

It traverses the remote terrain of the Henry M. Jackson and Glacier Peak wilderness areas. With feeder trails, the PCT is the primary route through much of the wilderness in Snohomish County.

“It’s a wonderful, expansive section of wilderness,” said Bill Hawley, the regional representative for the Pacific Crest Trail Association in Washington.

Access to the trail got slightly easier late last year when the Suiattle River Road reopened after more than a decade of washout. But to hike all of the PCT in the county still requires a backpack trip of at least a few nights — longer if you’re not up for 20-mile days.

The trail enters Snohomish County about six miles north of Stevens Pass. It’s a beautiful, challenging and very isolated 87.5 miles from there to Suiattle Pass, where the trail leaves the county. Hikers must carry all the food they’ll need for hiking that stretch, which can take from four to 10 days, depending on who’s walking.

From Stevens Pass to Suiattle Pass, heading north, a hiker will gain, cumulatively, 25,000 feet of elevation and descend about 23,000 feet.

“The whole section from Stevens Pass to Stehekin is unambiguously the most challenging section in Washington,” said Barry Teschlog, a volunteer with the Pacific Crest Trail Association. “It’s steep and rugged but it’s beautiful, especially near Glacier Peak. It’s wilderness in every sense of the word.”

Teschlog “through-hiked” the full length of the PCT in 2006. He called that experience “the best summer of my life.”

“Snoqualmie Pass to Canada is the scenery dessert of a through-hiker’s trip,” he said, “and the Snohomish County section is smack in the middle.”

More foot traffic

The trail was officially designated in 1968 and has been attracting more hikers each year. Popularity jumped recently with publication of the book “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed, whose account of a solo hike led to a 2014 movie starring Reese Witherspoon.

Jack Haskel, trail information specialist for the Pacific Crest Trail Association, said that over the years there have been many books, documentaries and newspaper stories about the trail. But nothing had the reach of Strayed’s book.

“The PCT is absolutely fantastic and it should be famous,” he said. “At the association, we were just kind of waiting for a bestselling book to be written about the trail.”

“Wild” has had “a huge impact and inspired people to get out and go hiking and backpacking on the trail,” he said. Still, “the trail is so long it can support a lot of people.”

A backlog of work

Until recently, long stretches of the trail received little maintenance.

While the Suiattle River Road was closed, the trails in the area weren’t maintained because it was too difficult to get crews and tools to them.

This year, though, with the road open again, trail organizations including the Washington Trails Association, the Pacific Crest Trail Association and the Back Country Horsemen have been making up for lost time.

Tim Van Beek, field programs manager for the Washington Trails Association, helped manage the complicated logistics for the backlog of work.

“I think it was a great collaborative effort,” Van Beek said. “It was a lot of work, but oh so worth it.”

There were day-long work parties, followed by week-long trips, each progressing farther down the Suiattle River Trail and along the Pacific Crest Trail.

Besides dramatically improving those sections of trail, the work will make it possible for horses to get deeper in — making it easier for crews to work even farther in following years.

‘Trail angels’

Jerry and Andrea Dinsmore have seen the popularity of the trail grow over the years. The Dinsmores are “trail angels,” people who provide housing or other assistance to hikers. Dinsmores’ Hiker Haven in Baring, a settlement along U.S. 2, is a popular spot for through-hikers to stop and prepare for the next section of trail.

In 2003, Jerry Dinsmore gave a ride to a group of PCT hikers. He told them that he had a campfire back at his place and they were welcome to come enjoy it.

That was the start of the Dinsmores’ work as trail angels. That year, they hosted 12 hikers. In 2013 they saw 388 hikers. Last year, 706 hikers visited. As of last Tuesday, 450 hikers had dropped by this season, and Andrea Dinsmore said she expects many more. The season lasts until snow forces hikers off the trail.

The Dinsmores’ have a bunkhouse for hikers, with beds, couches and a small cooking area. They also have a shower and laundry room. Obviously, they like doing this.

“They’re really nice people,” Andrea Dinsmore said of the backpackers. “Ninety-five percent of them are perfect. You’d invite them into your home. You’d invite them into your grandmother’s home.”

And on the rare occasion they have trouble with a hiker, Jerry Dinsmore said, the other hikers always back him up.

“They don’t want it screwed up for themselves or for others,” he said.

The Dinsmores keep a record of the hikers they meet. When the snow starts to fall, Andrea Dinsmore has hikers fill out a form with emergency contact information and other details, such as the color of their pack, coat and tent. She saves those forms and gives them to search-and-rescue crews if anyone goes missing.

The couple were recognized as American Red Cross Real Heroes last year for their role in helping save a hiker who was caught in an early snowstorm.

‘So, so glad’

Jenny Lutz of Bothell hiked the entire Pacific Crest Trail this summer with her daughter, Rachel Brown of Seattle.

Her trip was disrupted by this year’s ubiquitous fires, which forced her to stop hiking at the North Cascades Highway. Lutz was disappointed to be unable to finish the trail with her daughter so close to the end.

After rain knocked down the fires, the PCT north of Suiattle Pass was reopened. So Lutz took time off work to finish the hike with her daughter.

“I felt really fortunate that I could share that with her,” Lutz said.

People ask her what she’s learned and how she’s been changed by the experience. That’s a tough question, she said, but dealing with the challenges helped improve her already positive outlook on life.

“Maybe it’s hot or maybe it’s a lot of elevation or maybe we had to go an extra six miles for water,” she said.

“I just acknowledged it and let it go and appreciated all the amazing things that are out there. I really just focused on the positives.”

This year, Lutz said she was more excited than ever to get back to teaching environmental sciences at Bellevue High School.

“I’m so glad I did it,” she said of her long hike. “So, so glad. Aside from having my kids, it could very well be one of the richest experiences of my life.”

While through-hikers enjoy the trail at one go, the day-hiking and backpacking options are every bit as grand, said Teschlog, the trail association volunteer. “You can pick your adventure on the PCT, from a few hours to six months.”

Jessi Loerch: jloerch@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3046; www.heraldnet.com/explorenw.

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