A big challenge for a prospective thru-hiker is getting to the PCT's Northern Terminus at the US/Canadian border. You'll need to watch snow melt data at Harts Pass, then choose a place to start your thru-hike and figure out how to get there.
WHEN TO START SOUTHBOUND
- Don’t plan to start your SOBO hike on a specific date chosen months in advance. I'll say this again - don't, please don't, pretty please don't, plan your start date months in advance and stick to it without checking conditions (unless you are super experienced). You have no idea how the snow is going to melt. A June 27th start date could be snow free or terribly dangerous, it all depends on the year.
- Flying from Europe? You'll likely buy your ticket months in advance. Just make a plan B if you have to spend 1-3 weeks around Seattle waiting for snow to melt. Low elevation training trips could be a great way to spend the time.
- Of course you have to pick a start date for your PCT permit, but as a SOBO you don't have to follow the exact start date on your permit. You can always leave later if snow conditions are not safe on your proposed start date.
- Instead, watch the NOAA snow levels at Harts Pass - Station ID HRPW1 - and wait at least until the snow level there has reached zero.
- Over the past ten years this date has ranged from June 4th to July 22nd, a huge variation that would easily affect your trip planning.
- Snow experts with proper gear (ice axe and microspikes) often attempt the trail at the date of Harts Pass melt or slightly before. Even when Harts Pass is snow-free there will be significant snow on other parts of the trail.
- Hikers with little to no snow experience should wait 1-2 weeks (depending on weather at Harts Pass post melt) to attempt to start. Microspikes and Ice Axes should be brought as a precaution if you know how to use them. Trekking poles can also be very valuable snow gear as they help with balance during crossings.
HOW TO FIND HARTS PASS SNOW DATA
To pick a start date for a southbound thru-hike you'll have to check the snow depth at Harts Pass. Luckily this data is easy to find. Simply look at the Harts Pass Snow Station Information page for daily updates. There you can see the snow depth in inches and graphs of this year's snow data against historical averages.
SOBO thru-hikers should pay close attention to snow levels in Northern Washington. The best website to check for melt data is the NRCS Snow Data - https://www.wcc.nrcs.usda.gov/snow/
SNOW DATA Websites
The websites we used to make the above spreadsheet screenshot are listed below
- NRCS Website - Generate reports with up to the hour melt data.
- NRCS Custom Reports - Here's the best report for stations along the PCT.
- NOAA Harts Pass Snotel - Best for current day status, graphs.
- NOAA National Operational Hydrologic Remote Sensing Center - The best graphs, very easy to organize by time period.
Relevant Snotel Stations in Washington, from North to South
- Harts Pass or Brown Top - Near PCT Harts Pass mile 2620
- Rainy Pass PCT mile2589
- Lyman Lake near Stehekin mile 2549
- Stevens Pass mile 2461
- Stampede Pass near Snoqualmie Pass mile 2372
- Pigtail Peak near White Pass mile 2292
- Potato Hill south of White Pass mile 2249
- Surprise Lakes near Trout Lake mile 2212
TO TOUCH OR NOT TOUCH
It's impossible to drive to the Northern Terminus of the PCT, and the nearest legal trailhead at Hart's Pass is 30 miles south of the border. So the question is - Do you want to start your southbound thru-hike by going north for 30 miles?
Our advice is - Yes you do! The scenery north of Harts Pass is some of the most beautiful on the entire trail, and proves to be a suitable training ground for bigger challenges to come in Glacier Peak Wilderness. And an extra 30 miles on a hike that's going to last 2,650 miles is a negligible amount. About 70% of eventual thru-hikers go north to the northern terminus before hiking south, and we believe that percentage should be higher.
It's highly inadvisable to attempt to cross into the US from Manning Park, Canada. Yes Manning Park is only 8 miles north of the US/Canada border and would be much easier than any other option, but it's illegal to enter the US in a place other than an official US Port of Entry. While patrol on the border is rare, violators would face up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine. Don't risk jail time or a heavy fine just to save a few miles.
Border Bound Start LOCATIONs
If you decide to hike to the Northern Terminus, most hikers start at one of two places. The first is Harts Pass, a campground and trailhead 30 miles south of the US/Can border. Harts Pass is about an hour north of Highway 20 and the Mazama Village Store, with the nearest towns being Winthrop, WA and Twisp, WA. Early in the season NF-5400, the road to Harts Pass, won't be open. You can check the road conditions here or call the Methow Valley Ranger District for more information. The Harts Pass road is popular with locals so they’re usually pretty good at opening the road quickly once the weather cooperates.
If the road to Harts Pass is closed you'll have two options. The first and most popular is to simply walk up the road for the 10 additional miles to reach the Harts Pass trailhead and then another 30 miles to the border. The second is to start at Ballard Campground and from there take the Robinson Creek Trail #478 up to Slate Pass (right next to Hart’s Pass). An interactive map can be found here while PDF topo maps are here. In 2016 at least one hiker attempted the Robinson Creek Trail and said it was impassable due to downed trees and washouts, so be sure to check trail conditions before your hike.
The second option is Ross Lake (also along Highway 20), where hikers reach the PCT through one of the trails near the lake. The most traveled option starts at Devil's Junction on Ross Lake, which is part of the Pacific Northwest Trail. You can take a water taxi from Highway 20 to Devil's Junction with Ross Lake Resort's Water Taxi. From there the trail climbs 5 miles to Dry Creek Pass, then crosses Devil's Dome, and after another 13 miles joins the PCT at Holman Pass. From there it's 17 more miles north to the border, making it about a 35 mile trip one way. Expect the section on the Pacific Northwest Trail to be overgrown, narrow, and less maintained than the PCT.
NO BORDER TOUCH START LOCATIONS
If you aren't doing the border touch and want to head straight south, you have a wider range of start options. From north to south you can start at Harts Pass, Rainy Pass, or Stehekin. Respectively this means you would miss 30 miles, 61 miles, or 81 miles of the official PCT.
Which spot is best for you depends on your willingness to skip trail and your transit options.
By car from Seattle it's about 3 hours and 150 miles to Rainy Pass, or 4.5 hours and 200 miles to Hart's Pass, or 3.5 hours and 180 miles to Chelan, WA, plus a four hour ferry to Stehekin.
The best options for a ride are the three F's - friends, family, and friendly trail angels. Join the PCT SOBO 2017 Facebook page to see posts from trail angels offering rides to the border. Bert Dodson is the foremost US/Can border trail angel, and charges reasonable prices for rides from the Seattle area. He's usually active and posting on the PCT Sobo page offering rides. Use the Contact Page to ask PCT Southbound for other potential WA trail angels.
It's important to group up as much as possible, as it's a long trip to any of the possible starting points. Reach out on the SOBO Facebook Page if you have extra room in your car and are driving to Harts Pass or another starting location, and do your part to help your fellow hiker.
Hitching, Flying, and Public Transport
It's certainly possible to reach the trail without a car of your own. Most public transport options run through Wenatchee, WA. You can take a Greyound bus or Amtrak train from Seattle to Wenatchee, or an Amtrak train from Chicago to Wenatchee if you are coming from the east. From Wenatchee you can take a LINK bus to Chelan and the then the ferry to Stehekin. Or from Wenatchee you can take a bus to Pateros, WA, and hitchhike the remaining 75 miles to Hart's Pass. This could be great practice for other hitching you'll have to do on trail. From Pateros, hitchhike to Mazama using HW 153 and HW 20 (passing through Twisp and Winthrop), and then from Mazama hitch up NF-9140 to Harts Pass.
A group of two sobos who hitched from Pateros to Harts Pass in 2016 found it to be a relatively easy hitch. They got four hitches and covered the 70 miles in about two hours. Once they reached Mazama they got a hitch to Harts Pass from the second car that passed. This seems like a best case scenario, so plan for more time. Just by word of mouth it's been said that hitching to Rainy Pass from Seattle is much more difficult.
You can also fly from Seattle, WA, to Twisp, WA, which is a town only 41 miles from Harts Pass. You can book a flight with Catlin Flying Service. Using their ride share option flights can be as cheap as $100 per person. Then from Twisp, WA, you can easily hitch or get a ride to the trail.
It's important to remember that once you get to the trail hiking in Northern Washington can be very dangerous. Read more by clicking below.