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Thru-Hiking the Pacific Northwest Trail

Savannah Leja aka Jetfighter is adventurer who likes to hike long trails. In this guest post, Savannah writes about her experience along the 1200 mile Pacific Northwest Trail as she trekked from the Continental Divide to the Pacific Ocean. Follow Savannah and her hiking partner Caveman for more Thru-hiking and Bedrocking inspiration.

Hiking the Pacific Northwest Trail was hands down one of the most ridiculous and exhilarating adventures of my life so far. Its 1200 miles of sheer rugged wilderness, from the Continental Divide to the Pacific Ocean, was humbling and awe inspiring. Being the northernmost national scenic trail in the U.S. and just a stones throw from Canada, it has the shortest hiking season. Summer arrives late and fierce in Glacier National Park, and the Olympic rainforest can become miserably wet and cold by early October. I made it my goal to start in July, with micro spikes and an ice axe, then finish by the end of September, about 3 months total.

Before hiking the PNT, one of the things that most excited me was that it is a young connector trail. Beginning in Glacier National Park the PNT uses existing trails, forest service roads, paved roads, and bushwhacking to cross diverse landscapes. Since its inception in 2009, only 50 people a season attempt to hike its entirety. After my thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail in 2016, I couldn’t wait to get my feet back on another long trail. The natural rhythm of walking is meditative: connectivity with the earth beneath my feet; letting go of the daily routine for the unpredictability of the trail; fully submerged in the reality of the Wilderness.

With so many trail alternates and possibilities, the PNT felt like an exciting opportunity for solitude, adventure, and serious backcountry. After choosing to hike this trail based on their website’s basic description, I launched into what I found to be an entertaining and challenging planning process. Collecting three National Park permits, gear choices, selecting what maps and guidebooks to use and which towns to resupply in, consumed my mind in my free time.

One of the other decisions I made was to hike with a guy I had met on the PCT the previous summer. Caveman hiked in Bedrock sandals, and that totally blew my mind. We had met near Mt. Hood in Oregon about 2000 miles into the PCT, and were immediate pals. We banded together with a few friends and hiked the majority of Washington together. I could see his long legs rock hopping effortlessly up mountains in his little flip flops, and admittedly was jealous. I had been wearing trail running shoes for thousands of miles, and was not convinced that sandals were the right footwear for me yet, but I wanted to give them a real try.

The PNT proved to be a worthy challenge with over 1000 miles across extreme terrains and bushwhacking through thick forest. Caveman wore his Bedrock Cairns all summer, and I was able to watch him crush miles over passes and through some gnarly bushwacks. So for the final 500 miles I was honored to try Bedrock’s second generation Cairns, the Carin 3D Pro! This sandal features a more engaging footbed and a Vibram Megagrip sole. I had grown up incessantly tripping and banging my toes. So after making the choice to wear open toed sandals, I thought of my mother’s constant worry about my feet. I knew I would need to be extra aware and cautious when in the backcountry.

The first two days I started wearing the Carin 3D Pros  it was cold and sunny. I wore my injinji socks in my sandals for the first few miles just to warm my feet up. After hiking in the same trail running shoes for 3000 miles I felt exposed, and closer to the earth.

Even with a full food bag from town, it felt like I was missing something. It took only a few miles for my body to adjust to the new sandals. By mid day I was running rocky ridges of the North Cascades with a grin fixed to my face, joyfully hopping through streams without wet socks or stopping to take off shoes, and never feeling a hot spot from sweaty feet. By evening my legs were tired, the new muscles in action were spent from hours on the trail. Hot dinner, lots of water, and some sleep was all they needed.

The third day was even colder and we woke up with crystallized condensation on our rainfly. During this section we had been hiking harder than normal, and eating a lot too. So when I realised I had only a one day supply of food left, and our next resupply was 30 miles away, we knew what we had to do. Caveman, who had three thousand miles of Bedrockin’ experience, slipped into his sandals and crushed the day. For me it was a grueling 30 miles, rewarded with some of the most breathtaking views of the entire trail. Walking through rocky fields of golden grass along the top of the Cascades, jagged peaks pierced the blue sky in every direction and the Nohokomeen Glacier on Jack mountain looked close enough to touch.

Far below I could see Ross Lake’s silty water. I knew this was the final destination for the day and would need to keep moving if we wanted to make it in time for our box. 15 miles to go and my feet and legs were still feeling strong.  After descending down a few thousand feet to the lake I decided to switch to my shoes for the final stretch. I was becoming tired and grumpy, I didn't want to hurt myself because I was being careless. We ended up making it to the resort to get our box just in time. I even charmed us a fisherman to give us a ride to our campsite which was still further up the trail. By the time our tent was set up and water had been collected, we were both toasted. I climbed into the tent and lovingly rubbed my feet with callus building balm, then slipped on some cozy socks. This became my routine and my feet had never been happier.

With my pronating ankles plus the weight of my pack (25-30 lbs with food and water), I had been worried I wouldn’t find enough support in my 3Ds, On the contrary, the slight arch support provided day long comfort for my ankles, and in suit, my knees and back. The strength in my ankles grew without the crutch of a shoe or superfeet. The minimal foot bed and Vibram megagrip, gave me increased stability and traction in comparison. I rolled my ankles less then I would in shoes or boots because I was closer to the earth.

I had also been concerned about the exposure of my toes, and found the edge of the sandal to provide enough cushion if I did kick a root or rock. In addition, as Caveman wisely told me, switching to sandals taught my eyes to choose the best place for my feet to land. Instead of stepping anywhere, I learned to naturally choose the most level or soft place. This reduced a lot of long term strain on my legs and feet.  Going from 1mm trail runner to a zero drop sandal, I found to be easier then I had expected. My fears going into the experiment were soothed with happy feet and rock solid callouses.

I carried my shoes for another 150 miles and only wore them one other time before I tossed them in the trash, rather ceremoniously in Concrete, WA.

On the Olympic coast, 3 months after we left the continental divide, we stood on the western most point in the continental U.S. Iconic sea stacks lined the coast as far as we could see. The sheer beauty of Washington’s rugged coastline left me feeling humbled. The final 30 miles of the PNT tested us and our Bedrocks. Our hiking was dictated by the tides, sinking into sand, climbing with ropes on muddy overland passes, slipping over dangerous barnacle covered rocks, mixed with end of trail emotions and breathtaking sunsets. The Carin 3D Pros were the perfect sandal for this section of the trail for me because I was able to have wet or sandy feet without a worry. I climbed with dexterity over rocks and slippery trees. The traction on the megagrip was still going strong after 500 miles.

The end felt strange.  There was no man-made marker acknowledging that anyone may have made this a destination from the Continental Divide. But we didn’t need it.  We sat on the beach in silence for a long time. The sun warmed my skin as we listened to the seals barking, and the waves crashing on the shore. The feeling of accomplishment and uncertainty overwhelmed my senses and I felt a strange satisfaction. The sea air was cool and I could feel the goose bumps growing. We gathered our things and finished the 3 miles out to the parking lot.

To be a part of the Pacific Northwest Trail in its youth and to meet the people of the communities was an honor. My faith was restored in humanity again and again through the kindness of folks I met along the way. Walking through some of the most rugged and rural territory in the country in Bedrocks, was truly an exhilarating experience.

All photos taken by and property of Lucas Trautman and Savannah Leja.

2 Responses

Patti Palmer

Patti Palmer

July 04, 2022

Thanks for the informative, inspirational post! Haven’t hiked yet but I sure want to, and you’ve allayed any concern about my pronating feet and my worry about slipping.

Mark Roberts

Mark Roberts

April 29, 2019

Great article!

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