Hiking in Idaho’s Sawtooth Valley
Ras and Kathy Vaughan wanted to blaze a trail — sort of.
As longtime backpackers, they were frustrated by the culture of fastest possible times and the growing numbers of people on popular routes like the Pacific Crest and Appalachian trails. Instead, the Washington couple wanted to try routes that hadn’t been hiked before.
Rather than clear an entirely new trail, the Vaughans sought out less-established trails with lower traffic and, perhaps, opportunities to be creative. Looking at a map of the country’s major trails, something stood out to them.
“When we were looking at all these long trails, this loop just jumped out at us,” Ras told the Statesman in a phone interview. “Once we saw that possibility, it took on a life of its own.”
What they saw were four trails: the Pacific Crest Trail, the Oregon Desert Trail, the Pacific Northwest Trail and the Idaho Centennial Trail. They envisioned a 2,600-mile route that looped the Northwest, starting outside Boise and finishing in a long stretch down Idaho’s backbone.
Some of the routes overlapped seamlessly, while others only very nearly connected.
The Vaughans set out to connect them.
Creating the UltraPedestrian North Loop
The pair started on May 14 near Hammett, Idaho, 60 miles southeast of Boise in Elmore County. It’s part of the Idaho Centennial Trail, 90 miles from the southern endpoint, and the closest the ICT gets to the Oregon Desert Trail, which begins near the Idaho-Oregon border at Lake Owyhee State Park.
“The Oregon Desert Trail just sort of floats out there by itself. It doesn’t quite touch the others,” Ras said.
From Hammett into the Owyhee Canyonlands, the husband and wife followed a GPS trail devised by Renee Patrick, coordinator for the Oregon Desert Trail.
“It had occurred to people to link (some of these trails), but Renee had never actually touched foot to those connecters,” Ras said. “Nobody knew if the connections even worked.”
As they approached Little Jack Canyon, it became clear that the connections wouldn’t quite work. The plotted points through the chasm were simply too steep or occupied by rattlesnakes.
“What looked like it would work on satellite, when we got there, there was no way,” Ras said.
Through careful climbing, the Vaughans crafted a route to the bottom of the canyon and back up the far side.
“I’d never been near anything like (Little Jack Canyon) in my life,” said Kathy. “It felt very remote, and we got a real feeling for what it was going to be like crossing that desert.”
From there, Ras and Kathy trekked 750 miles along the Oregon Desert Trail to its intersection with the Pacific Crest Trail near Bend, Oregon.
Returning to Idaho
The Vaughans took the popular Pacific Crest Trail farther west, another 400-plus miles. Near its endpoint in Northern Washington, the PCT links neatly to the Pacific Northwest Trail, a 1,200-mile route from the Washington coast into Montana.
As the Pacific Northwest Trail crosses the Idaho panhandle, it intersects with the Idaho Centennial Trail — nearly 900 miles north of where the Vaughans began hiking.
That’s where the couple began the final portion of their loop, following the Centennial Trail through the Sawtooths, the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness and the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.
“(We got) this taste of Idaho that we hadn’t had,” Ras said. “We’d camped here once or twice, but Idaho was really this big, interesting question mark for us ahead of time.”
Their descent through Idaho coincided largely with the fall hunting season, and the Vaughans said most of the people they encountered along the way were hunters or fishermen. At times, they found themselves in hunting camps to collect boxes of supplies their friends had dropped off with locals.
“To be received and welcomed by those hunters was such a great experience,” Kathy said. “We never would have expected that to happen.”
What they didn’t see were other backpackers. In fact, Ras said, though they’re tight with many others in the hiking community, they hadn’t even heard much about backpacking in Idaho.
“It just seems like people should be talking about Idaho,” he said. “We walked the state, and you’d think we’d have our fill of Idaho, but it just whetted our appetites.”
Finding yourself nowhere
After walking more than 2,600 miles, the Vaughans finished their trek Nov. 5 near Hammett, where they began six months earlier. A month later, they told the Statesman they think the route — dubbed the UltraPedestrian North Loop after the couple’s blog — could be the future of thru-hiking.
“Even a couple of decades ago, you had to be almost a cartographer to create these trails,” Ras said.
Now, thanks to GPS and mapping tools, it’s easier to connect routes and connect with other hikers. Ras said he’d be disappointed to see the North Loop become as rigid a route as the Pacific Crest Trail, for example. He said the lack of traffic and maintenance along the trail is part of the adventure.
“There are so many possibilities to be creative,” Ras said. “If you just want to follow a trail, that’s not what you’re going to be doing. You’ll be following, then looking for a trail, then creating or bushwhacking one.”
The Vaughans hope that won’t deter potential hikers from the trail. The “ultrapedestrian” monikor is not just a nod to their own adventures but an acknowledgment that anyone can enjoy hiking with some planning and precautions.
“It’s not that we’re extraordinary athletes or anything,” Ras said. “(Being outside) is fundamental human nature.”
The real requirement for hiking a trail like the North Loop is mental, Kathy said, especially along the most remote stretches.
“You have to have experience and a level of comfort knowing that you’re just ... nowhere,” she said.
If you go
▪ If you follow Ras and Kathy’s route exactly, it totals 2,634 miles. It took the Vaughans six months of continual hiking to complete. To match their pace, expect to cover about 15 miles per day.
▪ You’ll need to prepare for resupplies of gear and food, sometimes in very remote locations. Read more on resupply strategies here.
▪ The first 30 miles of the trail have no water source. The Vaughans started off carrying more than 10 liters of water.
▪ Wildlife — including predators like grizzly bears and mountain lions — is abundant on the trails. Trail guide websites recommend carrying bear spray and knowing proper methods for safely storing food.
▪ The route traverses some very remote areas (such as the Frank Church Wilderness) where trails can be overgrown. You should be a strong navigator and bring appropriate tools to ensure you don’t get lost.
▪ You may go 50 miles or more between towns, campgrounds or other outposts. Plan ahead to have enough supplies between stops.
▪ Be prepared to carry a pack containing clothing, a tent, a sleeping bag, food, water, first aid supplies, flashlights, navigation tools, a knife and various other items. Find a suggested pack list here.
▪ Each trail has an online guide, and all but the Oregon Desert Trail offer section-by-section information, including stopping points and potential hazards. Read up on the Pacific Crest Trail, Pacific Northwest Trail and Idaho Centennial Trail at their respective websites.