Few Hikers Do the Pacific Northwest Trail. Should It Stay That Way?

Montana’s Yaak Valley was one of the most remote places Emma Vigers had ever set foot. Tucked into the corner of the Idaho state line and the Canadian Border, this heavily forested region offered the type of solitude Vigers had been looking for in a thru-hike. She was just a few weeks into her trek along the 1,200-mile Pacific Northwest Trail, which connects the Continental Divide in Montana to Washington’s Olympic Coast. At dusk, Vigers and her hiking partner were plodding uphill toward a mountain summit, when they noticed a large set of grizzly paw prints underfoot. Reluctant to continue walking, they decided to stop and make camp. Vigers would spend the remainder of the evening wondering if they truly were alone.

Thru-hikers like Vigers should certainly be bear aware on the PNT, but some say it’s the grizzlies who are most at risk. A local conservation group known as The Yaak Valley Forest Council (YVFC), claims thru-hiker traffic threatens the area’s small, isolated population of 25 grizzlies.

“We don’t have any bears left to spare,” says Rick Bass, a nature writer and founding member of the YVFC. Bass has been advocating for the Yaak Valley for decades, even writing a book that speaks to the solitude and vulnerability of this remote region. “Being a place so far off the map, nobody knows to even protect it,” he says.

Only about 60 to 70 people currently attempt to thru-hike the PNT each year, but activists worry the trail will experience the type of growth that has plagued other popular routes. Some long-distance trails like the Arizona Trail and Pacific Crest Trail have seen over a 90 percent increase in thru-hikers in the last decade. Upwards of 3,000 people attempted to hike the Appalachian Trail this year. According to the YVFC, numbers like this would have a devastating effect on the grizzlies.

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