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Originally published Monday, February 16, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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National scenic status sought for Pacific Northwest Trail

The Pacific Northwest Trail, an often-overlooked route from Montana to the Pacific, is awaiting designation as a National Scenic Trail. It's part of a lands bill awaiting approval by the U.S. House, which would give the trail better maintenance, funding, signage and greater visibility.

Seattle Times staff reporter

SAMISH OVERLOOK, Skagit County —

Who would guess that each step on this trail, high above the saltwater of Puget Sound, is connected to the Continental Divide, more than 1,200 miles away?

Spots like this one on the Pacific Northwest Trail, perched high above Chuckanut Drive outside Alger, Skagit County, are what make this one of the most scenic trails in the world. Long one of the state's better kept secrets, the Pacific Northwest Trail may soon join the ranks of the country's premier hiking trails, as a National Scenic Trail.

The designation is sought in a sweeping public lands bill pending before the U.S. House of Representatives, and is intended to bring better maintenance, funding, signage and visibility to the trail, which stretches from Glacier National Park in Montana to Cape Alava, winding through three national parks — Olympic, North Cascades and Glacier — and seven national forests.

Along the way, hikers take in the Rocky and Selkirk mountains, the Pasayten Wilderness, the North Cascades and Olympic Mountains, ending at a wild beach on the Pacific Coast.

Designation would bring national recognition to the trail, and put it among its better known peers including the Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails.

"It's a trail of magnificent scenic beauty, certainly of national importance," said Jonathan Guzzo, advocacy director of the Washington Trails Association in Seattle, which backs the designation, as do a range of county and city government officials and outdoor recreation groups, including the Mountaineers. National Scenic Designation would also create a 1,000-foot protected corridor for the trail, where logging and other commercial uses would be prohibited.

More than 70 percent of the trail passes through lands already protected by parkland or wilderness designation. The bill, S. 22, passed the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly last month, with Sen. Maria Cantwell as the prime sponsor. In the House, Rep. Norm Dicks is leading the charge for designation, with support from trail advocates.

"It's our northernmost trail, and goes through some extremely scenic areas that are worthy of protection," said Fran Troje, chairwoman of the Recreation Access Committee of the Mountaineers. "It's already there, and by giving it protected status, we assure it will remain a resource of beauty and recreation."

The trail is a compendium of pieces of other trails under the jurisdiction of various entities, including the state Department of Natural Resources, US Forest Service, National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management and other agencies.

Its route travels through everything from wilderness and remote backcountry to logging roads. In some instances, the trail leaves the woods altogether and takes users along public roads. Trail advocates hope to relocate those pieces and get hikers back into the woods.

The trail still needs work — about four miles of it are a flat-out bushwhack through open country.

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"You can't believe it, it's been going on so long," said Ron Strickland, formerly of Seattle and now of Boston, who has been doing volunteer work on and promoting the trail since the 1970s.

"When I started hiking it, plenty of it was bucking the brush," Strickland said.

The trail gets about 30 through-hikers a year, tackling its entire length. But individual stretches, such as the piece through Deception Pass, will see 1.5 million hikers a year.

The trail is open only to nonmotorized use. Regulations vary, but many segments are open not only to hikers, but also horses, mountain bikers and dogs — even off-leash.

Ruth Ittner, 90, a lifelong mountaineer and unofficial godmother of the Iron Goat Trail, agreed the trail deserves national scenic status.

"I like trails," said Ittner, who knows the power of the outdoors to enrich lives, whether in small doses of day hikes, volunteering to work on trails, or epic adventures, like hiking a major through trail end to end.

"The changing of lives, and the meaning it has when people have dropped everything and hiked the trail and come to peace with themselves, that is what life is all about," Ittner said.

The bill also includes a measure to authorize the National Park Service study to create an Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail from Missoula through Washington to the Columbia River Gorge.

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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