Exploring state parks on the Pacific Northwest Trail
The Pacific Northwest Trail through western Washington state parks provides hikers with scenery and solitude.
Nov. 28, 2018
Many thanks to Andrew Coghill, a Seattle-based writer, teacher and avid hiker for sharing the story and pictures of his summer trek along the Pacific Northwest Trail. Have a great state parks tale to tell? Share your story and photos on our story share page. We might just feature your submission!
The Pacific Northwest Trail through western Washington often remains a mystery.
Where does this 1,200 mile National Scenic Trail find space to maneuver the maze of cities and highways in the densely populated Puget Sound lowlands? The answer lies under our noses, on the wonderfully accessible and well-maintained tread of Washington State Parks.
From its eastern terminus in Glacier National Park beyond the Continental Divide to Cape Alava on Olympic National Park’s Wilderness Coast, the Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT) traverses seven mountain ranges and enters a plethora of public lands including seven national forests and three national parks.
Washington’s state parks host the PNT at six sites: Bay View, Deception Pass, Joseph Whidbey (Note: Joseph Whidbey is closed for the winter), Fort Ebey, Fort Casey and Bogachiel.
It’s always exciting to spy a PNT trail marker. This thunderbird becomes one with the forest on the East Hoypus Point Trail at Deception Pass State Park.
In 2009, the PNT became the nation’s newest National Scenic Trail, one of only 11 in the country. Often mistaken for the older and more established Pacific Crest Trail, the PNT has gained popularity with hikers for its uncrowded tread and never-forget-it Northwest scenery.
Last summer my girlfriend and I spent nine weeks on the PNT, climbing its mountains, meeting locals in nearby towns and witnessing firsthand the fun people have in state parks. Washington state parks, more than any other places we visited, give people seemingly endless ways to recreate and enjoy themselves.
Here is a snapshot of our time on the PNT in state parks, where the trail shrugs backcountry isolation for the conviviality of campgrounds and kite flying.
We trekked the PNT in the traditional east to west direction (although it can be hiked either way), and so arrived first to Bay View State Park on Padilla Bay. We instantly recognized a welcoming family atmosphere in the park. Later, we ate dinner at the beach while watching the sun set behind the San Juan Islands. In the morning, we hoofed it to the nearby Padilla Bay Shore Trail where several great blue herons stood sentry overlooking the peaceful bay.
State parks, roadways and trails on other public lands like Oyster Dome and the Samish Overlook north of Bayview State Park link together to give the PNT a continuous trail corridor through western Washington.
The Anacortes Community Forest Lands delivered us to Deception Pass State Park, the first of four state parks the PNT visits on Whidbey Island. Roaring motorcycles riding to the annual Oyster Run in Anacortes rumbled past as we walked Deception Pass Bridge. We pitched our tent at a walk-in site at Quarry Pond Campground, and in the early morning had the fern-laden East Hoypus Point Trail to ourselves.
Joseph Whidbey State Park greeted us with wide blue skies and a gentle Sunday morning surf. Four friends decked out in Seahawks attire tossed a football. A couple turned their spotting scope in search of birds. And a cyclist enjoyed a break at a picnic table overlooking the vast Strait of Juan de Fuca.
From the Bluff Trail in Fort Ebey, long distance hikers walk the beach to Ebey’s Landing National Historic Reserve and Fort Casey State Park, where the PNT crosses Puget Sound by way of a 5 mile ferry ride to Port Townsend.
The Bluff Trail at Fort Ebey opened to expansive views of the Olympic Mountains. At the gun battery picnic area, a woman practiced yoga on the grass, while nearby two men gazed at the slow arc of their remote-controlled glider. Teenagers ran and laughed on the field. A family walked their dogs. The scene looked staged, as if a PR company had hired actors to sell a healthy, fun-filled day at state parks. But by then we knew no advertising campaign was needed. State parks sell themselves.
While the PNT continued to Ebey’s Landing National Historic Reserve and Fort Casey, we took an alternate route to explore a smidgen of the more than 30 miles of trail in the Kettles Recreation Area, a hot spot for hikers and mountain bikers near Coupeville.
Olympic National Park and its Wilderness Coast won my heart, ensuring many a return trip. Bogachiel State Park’s central location makes it a perfect base camp for unending rainforest and coastal discovery.
Hiking the PNT was an incredibly enriching experience. It connected me to state parks not far from my Seattle home, and introduced me to a world-class trail in my backyard.
Check out the PNT in state parks this autumn and winter. The low elevation trails remain snow free most of the season and the lesser-used trails will only enhance the quietude, a PNT calling card. Keep your eye out for the PNT trail marker—a black and yellow Thunderbird. That’s your clue you’ve solved the mystery and found this elusive National Scenic Trail.
You will know you are on the right track — and trail — when you see markers like this on the path of the Pacific Northwest Trail!
The 1,200- mile Pacific Northwest Scenic Trail passes through several of Washington's state parks gems!
How to find the PNT
Simply put, the PNT doesn’t always look like a hiking trail. Sometimes it’s on a gravel road, blacktop highway, ferry boat or beach. Its advocacy group, the Pacific Northwest Trail Association, is working with partners to create a continuous non-motorized trail corridor. To track down the PNT pick up a copy of Tim Youngbluth’s Pacific Northwest Trail Digest: 2018 Edition. The phone app, Guthook’s Guide to the Pacific Northwest Trail, new for 2018, can steer you in the right direction. Paper map sets can be purchased from the Pacific Northwest Trail Association.
It’s not the PCT
If you tell anyone that you’re hiking the PNT, odds are they’ll think you’re talking about the Pacific Crest Trail. Both trails cover hundreds of miles in Washington State, but each has a unique history, community and character. Learn more about each trail at their advocacy website:
A golden anniversary
2018 marks the 50th Anniversary of the National Trails System (NTS). Together with 11 National Scenic Trails, the NTS also includes National Historic Trails and National Recreation Trails. You can find all three in Washington State. What are you waiting for? Get out there and explore!