Heading South on the Inland Northwest Trail

Spring in the Inland Northwest, when many hikers are itching to get out on some snow-free trail, is a good time to look south. Places like Hells Canyon, the Wenaha River, the Rapid River, and other more difficult to access trails along the Salmon River can get a little more traffic between March and May when the weather warms up down in the canyons, but you can always find many miles of trails virtually deserted during their prime season.

Along the Wenaha River Trail

Along the Wenaha River Trail

In 2013, I spent some time thinking about the best way to thru hike the 1,500 miles of the Inland Northwest Trail (INT) from end-to-end—a trip that would take the average hiker four or more months—and came to the same conclusion: head south first. Heading southwest out of Spokane on the Fish Lake Trail and then the Columbia Plateau Trail towards Pasco, WA sometime in late May to early June would make the most sense for a bunch of reasons.

Blue Mountain canyons

Blue Mountain canyons

Thru-hiking the INT this direction would give the high ridges in the Blue Mountains and the Wenaha Tucannon Wilderness enough time to shed their snow before traversing east towards the Grande Ronde River and Hells Canyon. Starting a thru-hike of the entire INT route from Spokane south to east then north and finally west back to Spokane rather than the other direction would make for more mild early summer temps while hiking through the cactus and rattlesnake rich canyons of northeast Oregon and would also give the even higher elevation trails of Central Idaho and NW Montana’s Cabinet Mountains more time to melt off. The whole trail could easily be thru-hiked the other direction; it just seems that south-to-north would make for a more enjoyable hike.

Wenaha Tucannon Wilderness

Wenaha Tucannon Wilderness


Round Butte Trail 7-12 068

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A Wild New Path: Day Hikes on the Inland Northwest Trail

One of the challenges of promoting a long-distance hiking trail is that your audience for such a project is typically a pretty small group of people, especially if the focus is on thru-hiking.  For instance, at a presentation I gave on the Inland Northwest Trail (INT) at the Spokane REI store last week, not a single person in the room, myself included, had ever thru-hiked one of America’s long-distance trails end-to-end in a single season.  A couple people, however, had section hiked the PCT or the PNT, taking several or more years to complete their hikes.  I’m guessing that the idea of day-hiking or weekend backpacking smaller sections of a long trail over a number of years would appeal to even more outdoor minded folks.

Stevens Lake, North Idaho

Promoters of the Idaho Centennial Trail, a long-distance trail spanning the state from Nevada to Canada, have long encouraged Idahoans to make it a lifetime project to visit Idaho’s most scenic backcountry places.  I want to take the same approach with the INT and encourage and inspire people here in the Inland Northwest to make it a personal or family goal to hike the whole trail over a number of years.  Taking more time to hike a long-distance trail in pieces has the advantage of allowing more time for lingering and enjoying the experience and exploring sites, side trails, and other adventures along the way.

Little North Fork Trail, North Idaho

The INT is especially suited for day hikers and backpackers interested in hiking the trail in sections since the route is a giant loop around the Inland Northwest that is never more than 2-5 hours from Spokane.  The October issue of Out There Monthly, a Spokane, WA based outdoor recreation magazine, highlights several day hikes along the INT route, including both well-known and lesser known trails.  If you’re in Spokane, pick up a copy or check it out online and then take advantage of the mild fall weather to enjoy a piece or two of the INT.

Lake Pend Oreille, North Idaho

As promised in the article, here are a few more day hikes along the INT that make for great early and late season trips.  Always take good maps, a compass, and a GPS unit on any of these hikes, and don’t rely on these very basic directions and route descriptions:

Binarch Creek Trail, #220: At the southwest end of Priest Lake, this trail starts low and climbs up along the creek and ponds to near the Idaho/WA state line in the Selkirk Mountains.  Great place to see moose, black bears, and other wildlife.  Take Hwy 57 north from Priest River, ID  and look for Binarch Creek Road #639 on your left a couple miles past the turnoff for Coolin and the east side of Priest Lake.  Head up road #639 and veer left at the fork and continue a short distance to the trailhead.  The trail starts on an old road and has been maintained by Backcountry Horsemen volunteers in recent years.

Upper Priest River Trail #308: Classic Inland NW hike up the Upper Priest River through an old-growth cedar forest.  Fall is typically a good time to see a strange and colorful mushroom display on the damp forest floor.  More info and directions: http://www.fs.fed.us/ipnf/rec/activities/trails/d8upriest308.html

Lakeshore Trail #504 (on Sullivan Lake): Fall colors around northeast Washington’s Sullivan Lake and on the slopes of Hall Mtn can be gorgeous if you time it right.  The trail along the east shore of the lake is mostly flat and an easy out-and-back day hike.  More details and directions:  http://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/colville/recreation/camping-cabins/recarea/?recid=67934&actid=33

Derrick Knowles

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Route Finding the INT Across the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness

Between Troy, MT south of the Pacific Northwest Trail in NW Montana and the system of trails heading north from Thompson Pass to near Trout Creek, MT, the current proposed Inland Northwest Trail (INT) route traverses the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness, where I’ve always hoped a relatively non-technical “hiking”  route across the wilderness area would be possible.  After several summers of failing to squeeze an attempted traverse into my weekend warrior hiking schedule, Friends of the Inland Northwest Trail volunteer Ken Vanden Heuvel told me about his own plan to attempt the traverse that he had been scheming over for quite some time.  While I wanted to join him on the trek, INT route recon missions elsewhere, and my own plans to find the best route across the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness, were eating up the bulk of my vacation time.  Thankfully, Ken seems to thrive on challenging, long solo hikes in the middle of nowhere, and he followed through with his plans to attempt the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness traverse this summer.  The following story is Ken’s account of his adventure. (Derrick Knowles)

Ken on the trail

 Route Finding the Inland Northwest Trail across the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness

I’ve lived in the Inland NW since the fall of 2008.  During my vacation to explore the area to decide if I wanted to move here, one of the hikes I did was to Little Ibex Lake in the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness (CMW) of NW Montana.  The setting of this lake is so picturesque and peaceful, I immediately fell in love with the Cabinets and couldn’t wait to move.  Since then, I’ve been back to the CMW many times.  The Wilderness is full of mountain lakes, streams, wildflowers and wildlife.  I’ve encountered wolves, bears, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, marmots and pikas.  I’ve heard elk bugle. I’ve followed the tracks of mountain lions and bobcats in the winter.

Sugarloaf to Snowshoe A peaks

The CMW is very rugged.  Many trails go in to a lake or a peak, but do not continue over the ridges or passes to trails in adjacent drainages.  Several drainages have no trails at all.  This drove me to explore beyond the trail into the high basins, untrailed lakes, and unnamed peaks.  These explorations have led me to discover many places which have become my favorites.  One of these is St. Paul Pass with its idyllic mountain streams and magnificent views overlooking Rock Lake and its surrounding peaks.  This lake and pass should be visited by all hikers in the Inland NW for an experience they won’t forget.  Unfortunately, this area is under threat from 2 mines that could drain these alpine lakes and streams.  I hope the INT can be routed through Rock Lake to bring more attention to the treasure it currently is, and not for the treasure beneath it.  See the Rock Creek Alliance (http://www.rockcreekalliance.org/) and Save Our Cabinets (http://www.saveourcabinets.org/) for more information on these mines and how to help protect the CMW.

Over the years, as I studied the Wilderness map and all the places to explore, I thought how great it would be to traverse the Wilderness and do so with enough time to really enjoy it.  I decided this summer was the time to do it.  I took 2 weeks vacation for the traverse.  I knew it was going to be an adventure and a challenge.  The CMW cannot be easily planned from a topographical map.  What looks like a good route on a map may not be possible once you get there.  Some of the ridges are steep and jagged.  Because of this, I knew I might run into dead ends or have to drop out of a drainage and come up the next.  But that’s all part of the adventure and excitement.

The weekend before I started the hike, I placed a food cache near the center of the Wilderness.  While doing so, I made another side trip to the lake where it all began, Little Ibex Lake – the 5th time I’ve now been there.  Some of the ridges were still holding the remains of their winter snow cornices and patches of snow were still present on the north slopes, but the wildflowers were really starting to bloom.  My plan was to take notes along the way, documenting my route and making recommendations for a possible INT route across the wilderness and of course to have fun and stay safe.

Traverse of the North Half of the CMW

Unfortunately, my attempted traverse of the entire wilderness area from north-to-south didn’t go as planned. I completed the north half of the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness traverse, but I started to get some tendinitis in the knees and had to drop out at the halfway point.  The knees were overstressed from some steep side routes I took with the heavy pack, but I still managed to have a fantastic time.  I ended up spending 6 nights in the north half, every one of them in the beauty and peacefulness of the CMW under clear, starry skies.  Dawn arrived with the calls of the Clark’s Nutcrackers on the ridges and the squeaks of the pikas on the talus slopes.  I enjoyed many sunrises and sunsets with the mountains ablaze and their reflection on the lakes.

Parmenter Lake

The route through the north half is greatly aided by a long ridge trail as part of the large trail complex near Libby, MT.  This trail provides stunning views to the many lakes below and peaks above, past the Cedar Lakes, Dome Mountain, Parmenter Lake, the many untrailed drainages and lakes, and Sugarloaf Mountain towering above.  The crown of the Wilderness, Snowshoe and A Peaks are always in view, drawing ever closer, with the Blackwell Glacier draping the slopes of Snowshoe.  The trail ended at the Sky Lakes, but the ridge above these lakes is accessible and the high basin beyond is a paradise of small streams and bogs, where I saw a mountain goat and some mule deer.  Beyond this basin is a ridge walk around to Gus Brink Mountain and Vimy Ridge/Vimy Lake at the base of A Peak.  I did not complete the full ridge walk because I took a route down to Klatawa Lake below, but the section of the ridge that I skipped looked very manageable.  As for the trip down to Klatawa Lake, it is one I’ll never forget.  The route was steep and challenging and the reason for the tendinitis.  The lake was one of the wildest places I’ve been to, with no recent sign of humans at the lake and the sounds of wildlife everywhere in the dense brush on the slopes surrounding the lake.  Only game trails to follow around and up out of the lake through tall thickets of false huckleberry.  Back up to the ridge, the shadows of Gus Brink mountain hold a lot of late season snow and there is a large bog with black pools and heavy elk traffic.  After spending my last evening on Vimy Ridge, it was an easy hike down 4000′ to a trail along the North Fork of the Bull River where I exited and hitchhiked to my car.

Upper Cedar Lake

Next Year the South Half Beckons

I look forward to doing the southern half next year, which will be more challenging since it doesn’t have the long ridge trail.  For that trip, I will stick to the main route and save some of the steep off-trail explorations for another time with a lighter pack.  My route across the southern half of the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness will head up the Middle Fork of the Bull River to Little Ibex Lake, over to Lentz Peak and a hopeful ridge hike around to the slopes of Elephant Peak before dropping to St. Paul Pass and Rock Lake, then up and over to Wanless Lake and out Swamp Creek.  If this is too difficult, some forest roads may aid in bypassing some segments.

Happy trails,
Ken Vanden Heuvel

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Welcome to the Inland Northwest Trail

The Inland Northwest is a land of contrast.  Within a 2-4 hour drive in different directions from Spokane, the region’s de facto capital, you can be hiking subalpine peaks in the Rocky Mountains; dodging rattlesnakes in Hells Canyon, the deepest gorge in North America; or walking beneath ancient old-growth cedar trees in a lush temperate rainforest.  It’s normal for many of us who live here and love the outdoors to bounce around these very diverse landscapes without giving it too much thought: the Frank Church Wilderness one weekend, the Columbia Plateau Trail the next.  The Imnaha River Trail in Hells Canyon, then maybe Upper Priest River a few weeks later.  Desert to mountains, sagebrush to devils club.

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Now imagine linking up all of these incredibly different places into one long, 1,500-mile loop (starting and ending in Spokane) that could be walked in one summer-long thru-hike or section-by-section over a period of years.  Five years ago, I started dreaming about such a route.  Soon the dreaming turned to scheming over maps and guidebooks.  Then long exploratory hikes to see what certain sections of old trail looked like out on the ground.  Eventually I became convinced that such a route was not only possible, but, because of all of the incredibly scenic and varying landscapes the trail would pass through, that it would be an amazing addition to the world of long-distance trails.  By then I’d started calling the route the Inland Northwest Trail (INT) and soon decided to form a Friends of the Inland Northwest Trail group to help get the route established and ready to hike (read more about the story here).  Today I’m launching this web site and plan to write regular blog posts here to provide updates and share stories and photos from the trail.  This summer, I’ll be out on the INT with friends and volunteers fine tuning the route whenever I can and am starting to write a guidebook for the trail.  Thanks for your interest in the INT and for visiting our site.  Please check back often for updates and consider supporting this all-volunteer trail effort.

Derrick Knowles, INT Founder


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