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The Fix Is In: After Nearly 8 Years, the Pacific Crest Trail is Repaired in Washington

The breech, at last, is mended.

Nearly 8 years after a huge flood destroyed a major bridge on the Pacific Crest Trail within Washington's Glacier Peak Wilderness, a new route and new bridge are officially open to PCT hikers and stock teams.

On Sunday, Sept. 11, in a Promontory Point/Golden Spike kind of moment, members of 2 trail crews cut the final 60 feet of trail to connect the existing PCT with a new 3-mile approach trail that leads to an equally new 270-foot bridge that crosses the fast-flowing Suiattle River—the most substantial river crossing northbound PCT travelers encounter since the Columbia River at the Oregon-Washington border.

"We're happy it's all finally in place," said Dawn Erickson, district trail coordinator for the Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest said Tuesday (Sept. 13) as she inspected the bridge and the approach trail. "We hope people will begin to use it."

Trail workers who have been applying finishing touches to the 3-mile southside approach trail (the bridge itself was mostly installed late last fall) say 2 brothers from Maryland found their way to the new trail and bridge on Sept. 4. During their stint on the trail that began in late August, those 2 hikers were the first they noticed to walk the new route.

The "old" and "new" routes split apart just before (south) of a bridge that crosses Vista Creek at 2,877 feet. Richard Combs (trail name: Cisco) of Livermore, Calif., wandered onto the new route on Monday (Sept. 12), drawn to the broad, freshly cut tread on his left. "Here I see this red ribbon and a 5-foot-wide trail, so I take it," Combs told me Monday.

"After a mile or so I notice I'm heading in a different direction, and I start thinking that it's really just some access trail to a road or town, so I'm going to have to turn around and go back," Combs said. "Then this woman appears, this magic woman and her wheelbarrow (trail worker Krista Thie of Twin Oaks Construction in White Salmon, Wash.), and she tells me I'm on the new trail, that I'm really in the right place. That was good to hear."

Gary Paull, wilderness and trails coordinator for the Mount Baker Snoqualmie district, says temporary signage is in place where the "new" and "old" PCT routes meet; permanent signs, he estimates, will probably go in next spring.

A Longer Route, But to a More Flood-Resistant Bridge Site

Combs' experience, meanwhile, capsulizes the good and the not-exactly-ideal aspects of the new bridge and rerouted trail.

Good news: The new route and bridge means an arduous official detour route that has steered hikers to the east side of Glacier Peak (over some difficult terrain and up 3 miles of dirt road) is no longer necessary.

Not-as-great news: The new route lengthens a PCT hiker's journey by about 5.5 miles. At 2,320 feet, the new bridge is also lower in elevation than the Skyline Bridge (2,798 feet), requiring some additional climbing.

Why is this? The new bridge site was chosen because the foundation of the new bridge could be installed on bedrock that juts into the river from both banks, a rare occurrence on the Suiattle.

As explained in this special REI Blog report published a year ago, a huge storm in November, 2003, sent a churning buzzsaw of logs, rootballs and debris roaring down the Suitattle, scouring the river and utterly demolishing the 265-foot Skyline Bridge (the previous river crossing) as it flowed west.

"That was some storm," says longtime trailbuilder Russ Pfeiffer-Hoyt, who operates South Fork Construction Co. out of Bellingham, Wash. "The Skyline Bridge had taken a lot of battering over the years. There was a storm in the winter of 1980-81 that sent a lot of trees down the river, but it only broke off some handrails off the bridge. The 2003 storm was something different, something a lot more destructive."

Erickson and Paull made plans to replace the bridge at another site about a half-mile downstream from the Skyline Bridge site, but a November, 2006, storm triggered another huge flood that significantly widened the river channel at the new site. The expanded gap made installing a bridge at site impractical.

That led to a helicopter flyover above the Suiattle in search of a new crossing site. When exposed bedrock on both sides of the river in a single location was spotted, it became the obvious choice to locate a new bridge—even though a longer walk would be required for hikers.

"It's the river," Erickson said with a shrug. "It's prone to huge, destructive floods, and that made this the most practical location to install a bridge."

The New Distance Explained

How much longer is the new route? Paull spells it out:

• Northwest from the junction of the "new" and "old" PCT routes near Vista Creek to the new bridge: 3 miles.
• North from the new bridge up to what has been the east-west Suiattle River Trail (No. 784): 0.25 mile.
• East to the junction with the Miner's Creek Trail, which is also the existing PCT: 3.75 miles. Total: 7 miles.
• Deduct from that the combined 1.5 miles of river approach trails on either side of the site of the former Skyline Bridge and the total is 5.5 miles. "So you have an additional 5.5 miles of PCT magic on your trip," Paull says, trying his best to put an optimistic spin on the number. "There's more to enjoy."

The map below (provided by the Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest office) shows how the path of the PCT has changed. The black line shows the existing PCT. The red line represents the the rerouted trail (on both sides of the Suiattle River) to the new bridge site. The light green line (a little hard to see) shows the approach routes to the former Skyline Bridge site. The dusty red line indicates the portion of the original PCT that, as explained later in this post, is now part of the Upper Suiattle Trail (No. 798).

New PCT alignment

The new, longer route does have some upside. Thie, who operates Twin Oaks Construction with her husband, Daryl Hoyt (and was joined on this project by Daryl's brother, Russ, a fellow trailbuilder quoted earlier in this post, and their son Avery), says the new approach trail passes through an attractive section of old growth forest less than a mile from the bridge on its southside approach. The grove is a short distance southwest of a footbridge that crosses small Noname Creek. "It's just beautiful in here," she said.

Paull estimates the cost of the entire PCT repair project (new Suiattle River bridge, new approach trails and repair work at 7 other flood-damaged PCT water crossings) at $1.1 million, paid for with emergency repair funds made available by the Federal Highway Administration. He points out that the new trail provides easier access to the trail that leads to gorgeous Image Lake, a popular destination among Northwest hikers that is not on the PCT. With the old PCT, anyone interested in visiting the lake had to backtrack close to 2 miles to reach that trail junction.

The Future of the Existing Trail

What will become of the existing PCT? The "old" PCT from Vista Creek to the Skyline Bridge approach spur will now be considered part of the Upper Suiattle Trail (No. 798), which wraps around the north and east slopes of Glacier Peak.

That trail provides access to 3 little-used trails: Gamma Way (No. 791, leading up Glacier Peak's northside Gamma Ridge), Dusty Ridge (No. 786) and Triad Creek (No. 792), which leads to the Suiattle River (where no bridge exists) and then heads up to Buck Creek Pass. "Very little maintenance is expected on any of these trails," Paull says. The approach trails to the former Skyline Bridge site will be abandoned.

Campsites? A nice camp remains on the east side of Vista Creek (though a creek crossing is required to reach it), and Paull says another good camp lies just upstream from the old Vista Crossing on the west side of Vista Creek. 

Will one be placed on the new approach trail? "We may establish a new camp along the new trail, but want to see how people use the new trail before we build sites," he says. "We've done that before, then nobody uses them."

A Little Work Remains to be Completed

Some touchup work is still needed along the new approach trail. "There will be some clean-up, stake removal, moving more clearing debris away from the trail," Paull says. "We do have a puncheon (boardwalk) to build in the old growth and some log removal on the PCT further up Vista Creek and in Miners Creek."

Up until now in 2011, many if not most PCT thru-hikers have spurned the difficult detour and instead followed the original route and crossed the Suiattle via fallen logs.

Midwest thru-hiker Elinor Israel, whom I met while hiking the PCT near White Pass about 2 weeks ago, sent me a report of her early-September log-crossing near the Skyline Bridge site via email:

"The Suiattle had a very large blow down that spanned the width of the river that wasn't too far from where the original bridge was, though we didn't see it. Getting to the log we followed a makeshift trail (perhaps 1/4 of a mile long) on the beach and stone cairns, presumably put there by other hikers, and climbed up onto the log.

"The other end of the log was lodged below the bank at the other side and we had to climb up about two feet to get on flat ground. Then we bushwhacked up about 100 feet till we reached a switchback instead of hiking back 1/4 of a mile down the beach to where the trail began. It was fairly easy and we have no regrets doing it, though I was a little scared/cautious while crossing the log since the river was raging below and some of the bark was peeling off. I've fallen into a creek previously so I'm now a little wary of crossings. Adam (Elinor's trail companion) says it was no problem for him."

So, PCT hikers now have options other than the much-disliked detour. Paull hopes most thru-hikers will grow to appreciate the new route and bridge despite the extra steps added to the walk to Canada.

Paull, who has been involved in the project since it start, sums up his feeling about the new trail being opened in one word: "Relieved!" he says. "All of the work was completed without any serious injuries to any of the crews despite the remote nature of the work, use of explosives and helicopter work.  The work was also completed very close to the original cost estimate made in 2005. Many thanks to all of the forest service folks and partners who helped make this happen."

Finally, after 8 years, the Pacific Crest Trail detour is finally decommissioned. PCT hikers, that's reason to rejoice.

Note: This post contains updated distance information provided by the Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest office. The new PCT alignment extends the route by 5.5 miles. This post originally reported the Forest Service's initial calculation of 5 miles. 

Posted on at 9:58 PM

Tagged: PCT bridge, Pacific Crest Trail, repairs and reroute

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Dennis P

I have been following some thru hikers who just encountered this new addition and were very confused due to the lack of proper signage. Hopefully someone will put some of the PCT markers on this new trail soon. I think they will gladly trade the extra milage and climb for not having to cross that river on a slippery log.

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