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Epic Backpacking, Epic Transit: A WTA Staff Member's Alternative Transportation Tips

Posted by tiffanyc at Jul 29, 2022 01:45 PM |

Out-and-back and loop hikes make transportation to and from trailheads relatively simple. But what if you’re planning a long one-way thru-hike? One WTA staff member shares her experience using alternative transportation to get to and from a long hike and some tips she has for others looking to do something similar.

Out-and-back and loop hikes make transportation to and from trailheads relatively simple; many hikers just leave a car at the trailhead. There are also a few other relatively simple methods of traveling to and from your hike, like taking Trailhead Direct to some hikes near Seattle. But what if you’re planning a long one-way remote thru-hike, and figuring out transportation to and from your hike is more complicated? 

Andrea Imler, WTA’s advocacy director, found her way around this issue on a backpacking thru-hike a few years ago, and shared some tips for using alternative transportation methods on your own outdoor adventure. 

the route

Andrea plans a longer backpacking trip at least once a year, something around nine days. In August of 2018, she and her partner decided to hike the Great North Cascades Traverse, since she hadn’t backpacked much in North Cascades National Park. 

The two ends of the traverse are at Stehekin and Hannegan Pass trailheads, and the hike links up several different trails. The trek took Andrea from the southeast corner of the park to the northwest corner, and allowed her to explore the park over 105 miles.

View from the trail along the Great North Cascades Traverse. Photo by Andrea Imler.
The Great North Cascades Traverse brought Andrea and her partner all across the North Cascades, along trails surrounded by meadows and immense passes. Photo by Andrea Imler.

It was an incredibly hot week in the North Cascades, and Andrea took every chance she could to cool down in the water. Some of the highlights of her trip included jumping into Ross Lake from Pumpkin Mountain Camp and spending time in a tiny plunge pool under a waterfall.

getting to the trailhead

Of course, taking on this trip meant Andrea had to find a way to get herself to the trailhead near Stehekin, and then somehow get home from Hannegan Pass trailhead; the two locations are over 240 miles apart by car. 

“A lot of people do stuff like this by driving their own car (to one trailhead), and then they have to go back and get their car, and that was not something we were interested in doing,” Andrea said.

Dropping a car off at both ends or getting a ride from one end to the other would have been a logistical nightmare, and at the time, Andrea didn’t have two cars anyway. So she decided to figure out what her other options were.

She found that she actually had plenty of alternative methods of transport for her long trip across Washington State. Among the options she had found were rideshare services, charter and local buses and trains. She also knew she’d be taking the Lady of the Lake ferry across Lake Chelan north to Stehekin. 

The travel decisions Andrea ultimately made were based on timing. She left home the day before the start of her hike to give herself more time for travel. She also waited until the day her trip started to get a permit directly from the ranger station, so she wasn’t committed to a pre-arranged start date in case travel went awry.

North Cascades Stehekin "Red Bus" shuttle, which takes hikers to and from Stehekin and the Pacific Crest Trail. Photo by Andrea Imler.
The iconic North Cascades Stehekin "Red Bus" shuttle takes hikers to and from Stehekin and the Pacific Crest Trail nearby. Photo by Andrea Imler.

Altogether, Andrea’s trip to the start of her hike had six separate legs: A rideshare service from her house to the train station, a charter bus to Wenatchee, a local bus to Chelan (where she stayed overnight), a walk to the Lady of the Lake ferry, a ride on the ferry to Stehekin, and taking the Stehekin “Red Bus” shuttle to the Pacific Crest Trail, her starting point.

getting home

On her way back, she coordinated with friends to catch a ride back home from Hannegan Pass trailhead. Andrea timed her arrival date to the trailhead on a day her friends were doing a trip up to Hannegan Peak. It worked out for everyone: Her friends were able to get a hike in, and Andrea didn’t have to find another, likely more complicated, route to get home. 

“It felt like a lot, but it was totally doable. I don’t feel like it made our trip any more stressful at the beginning,” Andrea said. “Yeah, there are things out of your ability (to control). In the end, it totally worked out for us. If you can get around being uncomfortable with that piece, you’ll have a great adventure and you can get out there even if you don’t have a car or want to reduce the amount you drive.”

tips on using alternative transit for your trip

Now that she’s done it herself, Andrea has a few tips for anyone hoping to take alternative forms of transit to their hike. She also wrote a trip report of her trek back in 2018 with some tips too.

  • Set aside a full day for travel. Knowing how exhausting traveling to the trailhead could be, Andrea reserved an entire day for the major portion of travel from Seattle to Chelan. It took a lot of stress out of the trip, since she wouldn’t have to worry about hiking to a campsite after hours of travel, and if something went wrong getting to the trailhead, she’d have time to figure out an alternative plan. She also recommends having a day set aside after your trip to recuperate, unpack and clean up gear before heading back into your daily routine.

Campsite in North Cascades National Park. Photo by Andrea Imler.
You can cut down on the stress of getting to your campsite on the first night of your trip by setting aside a day to travel to the trailhead, especially if you have a camping permit for a specific day. Photo by Andrea Imler.

  • Research transit schedules. If you’re taking a form of transportation that runs on a regular schedule, like a local bus route, know the schedule and cost of bus fare ahead of time. That way, you know how long you’ll have to wait for the next one if you miss the one you’re hoping to take, and you can make sure you don’t miss the last ride of the day. Additionally, know your way back if you end up needing to head home early.

  • Know how to pay for each leg. Some methods of transportation, like trains or buses through private companies, allow for reservations and payment online. Other methods, like local bus systems, require passengers to pay on the bus with cash. Don’t be left without a ride because you don’t have what you need to pay for it.

  • Think about what you're carrying that you don’t want to hike with. Andrea didn’t want to wear her hiking clothes on her travel day, so she had to decide what to do with her travel clothes. She ultimately decided to donate them in Chelan before her hike. Make sure to consider that you won’t be able to leave things in your car at the trailhead (since you won’t have it), and be prepared to either get rid of them beforehand or carry them during your hike.

  • Make sure you have a way to communicate or a very clear plan if part of your itinerary involves assistance from others, especially on your way back home after your hike since that’s harder to time. Two-way satellite communicators allow you to connect if you aren’t within cell service, and are often a good idea if you’re in a remote setting anyway. Be on the same page with your ride about where and when to meet, and stay in contact if you have the means as your meetup approaches.

  • And most importantly, be flexible. Recognize that you don’t have complete control with public transit. The ferry could stop running because of bad weather. Your bus could be late and cause you to miss the next leg of your itinerary. It could be early, which causes you to miss it. Have a backup trip plan, and try to pick up a permit at your start point instead of reserving it for a specific day in advance for some wiggle room, if you need a permit.

Tell us about your trip

If you end up taking a different way of getting to and from your trip, we want to know! Tell everyone about it by writing up a trip report so others can learn from your experience.


Pam M on Epic Backpacking, Epic Transit: A WTA Staff Member's Alternative Transportation Tips

I'll echo all of Andrea's tips. (Kudos, too, Andrea, for going car-less.) My solution for travel clothes is to mail it from my start point to end point or to/from home, if possible. At minimum, I'd aim for a shower before boarding transit! Long trips seem to lend themselves better to alternate transport than short ones due to the time it takes; and it's all part of the journey. I've hiked most of the WA PCT from Seattle via bus to King Station, train to Portland, bus to Hood River, and pre-arranged PCT trail angel to Trout Lk then three buses back home from Manning. I also did the John Muir Trail in the Sierras via mass transit and a short hitchhike from folks I met on trail. I do find it ridiculous that it's easier getting to and hiking in foreign countries via transit than it is getting to Snoqualmie Pass from Seattle.

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Pam M on Oct 16, 2022 01:03 PM