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Rattlesnake Ledge. Photo by Harley Pan.

A Trail System at Work

Trail networks — which form endless loop and thru hike possibilities — can help us create the hiking experiences of our dreams | By Rachel Wendling

Last summer, Jan Miksovsky went for a walk outside his front door in Seattle. Three days later, he arrived at the Pacific Crest Trail in Snoqualmie Pass.

This route may sound familiar to folks living in the Puget Sound or Central Cascades. Most of us have driven it. But Jan, an avid hiker and trip reporter, wanted to see this route in a new light. So, he set out to explore this space between his home and the so-called backcountry by foot  using a series of interconnected trails that traveled between the two.

This kind of journey might be one that Seattle, Tacoma or Vancouver hikers have considered in passing, but never thought possible. However, thanks to Washington's wealth of public lands and robust trail networks, it isn't as hard as you might think.

A peek into Jan's hiking route. A series of urban and soft-surface trails connect these two points. Photo by Jan Miksovsky.

Drawing Connections

A sustainable trail system is full of connections — and building those connections is a big part of our work at WTA. Trails connect hikers to the landscape. They connect trailheads to destinations. And perhaps most literally, they connect to each other to form a vast network of routes and experiences. 

These diverse trail networks — which form endless loops and thru-hike possibilities — enable hikers to create the hiking experience that best suits their wants and needs. Whether you want a short, interpretive trail to explore with your family, a longer out-and-back trek with a breathtaking vista, or a multi-night backcountry excursion — trail connections can help make it happen.

Jan's multi-day trek to Snoqualmie Pass wove through plenty of familiar favorites, including popular day hikes like Rattlesnake Ledge and Coal Creek Falls, well-loved biking trails like the Cascade to Palouse Trail and the I-90 Trail, and of course our state's premier backpacking trail — the Pacific Crest Trail. Many of these trails are enjoyed individually by hikers, bikers, and backpackers, but it's not as often that we see them linked up as a part of the greater trail network.

This 70-mile hike had a simple but ambitious goal: Walk from the front door of my home in Seattle all the way to the Pacific Crest Trail at Snoqualmie Pass, staying on dirt trails as much as possible,” Jan begins in his trip report. “It’s a testament to the work of Washington State, the communities along the way, and organizations like WTA that, except an initial 6 miles of sidewalk, nearly the entire route is on well-signed dirt trails.”

Rattlesnake Ledge. Photo by Nicole Prukop.jpeg
Rattlesnake Ledge is popular for a reason — this classic view was one of the best sights along Jan's route. Photo by Nicole Prukop.

To craft his route, Jan used resources like WTA's Hiking Guide and Google Earth to link up trails that historically have not always been used together as a thru-hike. And as it turns out, connecting those trails wasn't as hard as you might think. Thanks to Washington's wide array of public lands, as well as the work of land managers, nonprofits and volunteers, our trail networks are primed for these sorts of adventurous trips.

"I think that was part of what was exciting to me, realizing how many of these trails are so accessible to people living in Seattle and on the Eastside."

“I was blown away that it was as easy as it was," Jan said. "I was able to fill in about 96% of the route without any real work  it became a matter of choosing which option I want. Tiger Mountain has a bunch of ways to get across it  so it was almost an embarrassment of riches. I think that was part of what was exciting to me, realizing how many of these trails are so accessible to people living in Seattle and on the Eastside."

For most of us, a route like this isn't high up on our weekend hiking list. After all, it’s easy enough to jump in a car and drive 50 miles down I-90 to the heart of Snoqualmie Pass. But, without stopping to look around, there's a lot you might miss. And for Jan, getting up close and personal with this space was a big motivation for his hike.

"I've been to Snoqualmie Pass a hundred times and I just never really thought about the fact that those nearby peaks have names, and there is a sequence to them," Jan said. "Now when I drive up there, I can say ‘that’s Cougar and Squak and Tiger and Rattlesnake and Washington.’ There's this whole chain of them. Going past it at a walking pace and looking at a topo map forces you to acknowledge that geography in a way that you don't end up doing if you're racing through it at 70 miles an hour on I-90. It makes it feel a lot more intimate. Having hiked the Washington PCT, now when I'm flying into Seattle and I’m crossing the Cascades, I'm looking to see if I can recognize anything and it just makes the land more familiar to have walked it."

Tiger Mountain Trail. Photo by AlpsDayTripper.jpeg
The trails on Tiger Mountain are a common getaway for folks living in Seattle and the Eastside. Photo by AlpsDayTripper

Taking this trip at a walking pace also brought up another question that had been gnawing at Jan — at what point does the transition to "wilderness" begin after walking outside one's front door? It's easy to put your neighborhood and a trailhead into two distinct boxes  one urban, one wild  separated by a drive. But those distinctions become a bit more blurred when you experience the transition between the two by foot.

“You tend to think of the Wilderness as this place that's sort of out there — that's far away, that's some other place — and there's only one way to get there, which is a car. You get into your car and you drive there and now you're in the wilderness. The thing that this misses is the interface between them. I think that there's an effect that's very real. By thinking about the Wilderness as this “other” place and your home as being in an urban or suburban environment, I think that disconnects you from the wilderness," Jan said. "I can’t remember the quote, but someone I read last year talked about the belief that you can't appreciate nature unless you're standing on a dirt trail or some natural surface. They said, if you can't appreciate the beauty of nature because your feet are standing on asphalt — that's pretty odd. If you're looking at Rainier, it's just as beautiful whether you are on trail or pavement, you just have to stop to notice it. I like the idea of exploring the interface between the ‘urban’ and ‘wild’ boundary and recognizing that there isn’t a hard boundary between it.”

"I like the idea of exploring the interface between the ‘urban’ and ‘wild’ boundary and recognizing that there isn’t a hard boundary between it.”

Jan has hiked across much of Washington's backcountry. He's hiked the 500-mile stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Columbia Gorge to the Canadian Border, as well as a few major sections of the Pacific Northwest Trail, which runs from Glacier National Park in Montana to the coast of Washington and briefly intersects with the Pacific Crest Trail. These trails are incredible in their own right  they're National Scenic Trails for a reason  but it wasn't until after Jan completed his hike from the front door that something clicked.

Lodge Lake. Photo by HesperosFlown.jpeg
Lodge Lake is a peaceful retreat right off the PCT south of Snoqualmie Pass. It may be part of a 2,650-mile-long trail, but it also makes a great day hike for families. Photo by HesperosFlown.

"When I came down a pass on the Pacific Northwest Trail and first stepped onto the PCT, it occurred to me that on past occasions I had hiked from my house to the PCT and I had hiked on the PCT from Snoqualmie Pass to this same spot, just south of the Canadian border. So, by some sort of transitive property of hiking, I have laid down this trail of footprints from my house all the way to Oroville in Eastern Washington," said Jan. "At some point, I'd love to make a map in Google Earth of the network of trails that I've crossed in Washington — because they're connected."

While Jan's hike may not be for everyone (70+ miles over three days is no joke), his trip is full of inspiration that we can take with us on any hike — especially this summer as we are all looking toward local hiking adventures to fill our weekends.

Rather than treating trails as isolated lines on a map with definitive start and end points, we can treat them as one piece of a bigger picture — with options to extend them, connect them, loop them up, or cut them short. (And, it never hurts to remind ourselves that we can find nature and the feelings of wilderness anywhere — regardless of if we've driven to a trailhead or simply walked outside our front door.)

To make trips like this possible, we must maintain a healthy and sustainable trail system that meets the needs of all hikers. WTA has been doing trail work for decades — and as we choose where and how to devote the work of our volunteers, we always keep the bigger picture of the full trail system in mind. Systems with diverse experiences — ones in which people can self-select the trail or trails that they want — help us all hike in harmony and spread out among the vast number of routes. Through our campaigns — Trail Next Door, Trails Rebooted and Lost Trails Found — we are working at every level (from on-the-ground trail building to supporting maintenance funding in Congress) to ensure that the trails in our neighborhoods and the trails deep in the backcountry are ready for us.