NORTHPORT, Wash. – When the national scenic trails system was created four decades ago, the goal was to build a walking path across the United States.
That goal has come closer to reality with President Obama's signing of a bill creating the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail and two others. They are the first such trails designated in 26 years.
"The dream of a transcontinental pathway across America is 1,200 miles closer to reaching fruition," said Ron Strickland, a former Washington resident who first proposed the Pacific Northwest trial in 1970.
The trail will eventually run from Glacier National Park in Montana to the Pacific Ocean at Cape Alava in Washington. Portions of the trail have existed for centuries, and for the past three decades the nonprofit Pacific Northwest Trail Association has been gradually improving the route and erecting a few signs.
The federal designation means money will be provided to connect all portions of the trail, build bridges and other improvements, and to erect signs and access points along its length, said Jon Knechtel of the association.
"I anticipate that within 10 years, this will gain the same popularity as the Pacific Crest Trail," Knechtel said.
The Forest Service will manage the trail, but "there is no structure or organization as yet," said Tom Knappenberger, a spokesman for the agency in Portland, Ore.
The trail is located in some of the roughest, most mountainous and emptiest country in the nation, along the Canadian border. It passes through three national parks - Glacier, North Cascades and Olympic - and seven national forests.
It is the only national scenic trail that connects two others - the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail - meaning a person could hike from near the Mexican border, up to North Cascades National Park, east to Glacier National Park, and then down to the Mexican border again.
A contiguous cross-country trail from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans was the dream of President Johnson and Interior Secretary Mo Udall when they created the national trail system in 1968. But the eight existing trails developed independently.
Now that dream is only 900 miles short of reality, said Strickland, who lives in Bedford, Mass.
He would like to see the remaining miles designated in time for the 50th anniversary of the National Trails System in 2018.
After conceiving the idea for the PNW trail, Strickland worked tirelessly to raise funds, recruit volunteers, cut brush and lobby politicians. He also wrote the first guide for hiking the trail, after making his first thru-hike in 1983.
The PNW trail was created March 30 as part of a public lands bill that also created the New England National Scenic Trail and the Arizona National Scenic Trail. They were the first additions to the national scenic trails system in more than two decades, and bring the total number of such trails to 11. The Appalachian Trail is the best known.
While the trail is well-marked and well-used in portions of western Washington state, mostly in state parks, for most of its route it is primitive.
At Northport, seven miles south of the Canadian border, the trail can be accessed at the edge of the local landing strip, and followed up into the Selkirk Mountains. There are no markers, but maps are available at the trail association's web site.
Northport is a former mining town along the banks of the spectacular Columbia River. The 300 residents provide services for people traveling across two nearby border crossings, and also to hunters, fishers and other outdoor enthusiasts.
Boosters of the trail contend it will be a boon for isolated communities like Northport and Metaline Falls, Wash., Bonners Ferry, Idaho and Eureka, Mont. But even people in communities along the route are not exactly sure what to expect.
"I've heard of it," said Curt Balcom, owner of Rivers Edge 1 Stop of Northport. "It would be good for my business."
But Balcom acknowledged that local businesses know almost nothing about the trail, have no maps or other written material, and aren't even sure exactly how to find it.
Knechtel, of Burlington, a retired supervisor at timber giant Weyerhaeuser, got involved in efforts to create the trail in the 1970s.
In the past six years, the trail has seen an increasing number of hikers who travel the entire distance, perhaps 30 to 50 a year, he said. In a few popular areas, more than 1 million people per year walk on the trail, he said.