Outdoors Blog

Hiking couple makes pitch to revitalize Idaho Centennial Trail

Clay Jacobson and Kelly Bussard hiked the Idaho Centennial Trail last summer. Now they’re advocating for improvements to the rugged trail.
Clay Jacobson and Kelly Bussard hiked the Idaho Centennial Trail last summer. Now they’re advocating for improvements to the rugged trail.

Clay Jacobson of Boise has hiked the Appalachian Trail, a 2,160-mile route from Maine to Georgia, and the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,650-mile trek from Mexico to Canada.

So he sees no reason that Idaho can’t make its 900-mile trail from the Nevada border to the Canada border into another thru-hiking destination.

But he learned firsthand last summer that the remote Idaho Centennial Trail — named the state trail as part of a centennial celebration in 1990 — is far behind its famous counterparts.

“It’s more of an idea than a trail,” Jacobson said, “but I came away convinced that it’s very possible. ... The missing piece of keeping this trail going is the need for a care-taking organization. All these trails that are successful have a group of people working hard to make sure the trail survives and improves. It’s going to come down to people who care about the trail and want to see it grow.”

Jacobson is one of fewer than 10 people to thru-hike the ICT, which is to hike it end to end. His girlfriend, Kelly Bussard, accompanied him for about 400 miles of the trip before she had to return to college.

They are making presentations around the state about their journey, the hardships they faced and the potential they found in a unique trail that runs through the heart of Idaho.

They gave two presentations this week at REI in Boise and are scheduled to speak again March 23 in Ketchum (6 p.m., The Community Library).

Jacobson also has started a website dedicated to the trail: idahocentennialtrail.org.

Between the website and the meetings, he has heard from many hikers interested in tackling at least part of the ICT. He also connected with leaders from the Idaho Trails Association (a non-profit that performs volunteer trail maintenance around the state) and the Selway-Bitterroot Frank Church Foundation while on his trip.

“It’s been amazing,” Jacobson said of the interest.

The ITA and Selway-Bitterroot foundation are partnering on a weeklong trail project to clear fallen trees and other impediments on a 13-mile stretch of the ICT along Marble Creek in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. Supplies will be packed in by animals — that’s how difficult maintenance is for parts of the trail.

“Right now, a lot of it is jungle-gym style over downed trees and timber,’ Jacobson said.

The ICT faces many challenges, from the difficulty of maintaining it to the lack of information because so few people have hiked it to the ongoing lack of funding for trail maintenance in Idaho. But there’s never been a better time to create a marketable thru-hike with the popularity of Cheryl Strayed’s book, “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail,” and the ensuing movie starring Reese Witherspoon.

Jacobson, 31, grew up in Kuna and didn’t know about the ICT then. He wants to see future local kids hike the trail after high school graduation, something he witnessed on the Appalachian Trail.

“The Idaho Centennial Trail unfortunately is kind of being left behind,” Jacobson said. “... Now is a perfect time to launch this thing off the ground. It’s a unique hike amongst America’s long-distance hikes. It has the biggest wilderness area. The best part about it is it’s right here in our back yards in places we all go and care about.”

Jacobson and Bussard, 26, put together an entertaining presentation that is part Jacobson’s expertise and part Bussard’s self-deprecating humor. She had never “hiked a mile or an inch” before the ICT trip.

“If you’re up for a challenge, this is screaming your name — really,” Bussard said.

Some highlights from their talk:

— Jacobson: “It’s a long-distance hike that shows what Idaho is all about — big wilderness, beautiful mountains, long stretches of desert.”

— The desert stretch from the starting point near Jackpot, Nev., is treacherous. Jacobson’s group started June 30, which proved a mistake. The temperature was over 110 degrees and even though he had spread water jugs every 20 miles along the trail they scrapped that part of the hike. “It was a pretty awesome first day of hiking,” Bussard joked. Jacobson came back after he finished in North Idaho and knocked out the desert stretch in three days, carrying 9 liters of water. The trail includes a 90-mile stretch without a water source.

Jacobson thought he could have made it through the desert stretch even in the heat. His companions weren’t so sure.

“They all felt like we were going to die,” he said.

“It was a real possibility,” Bussard said.

— Jacobson calculated that the trail includes 90,000 feet of elevation gains. The low point is at 1,900 feet and the high point is at 9,200 feet, but there’s a lot of ups and downs in between.

— The trail should take most hikers between 6 weeks and 3 months, Jacobson said. But some have hiked the entire trail by breaking it into sections over several years. Or, he said, the trail presents plenty of opportunities for short backpacking trips or day hikes.

— The trail touches 10 national forests, crosses many of Idaho’s major rivers and passes through two major wilderness areas. “To get in there and experience the skeletal system of Idaho’s geography is a special experience,” Jacobson said.

— Bussard on the lack of signage: “When you’re out in the middle of nowhere ... and it’s been a couple days since you’ve seen a sign, you start doubting things pretty quickly. ... It’s peace of mind. It’s really needed for a trail like this. Even in the really tough spots, if I were to see a sign, I would have felt 100 percent better.”

— Jacobson navigated with a GPS, paper maps and digital maps on his phone. Still, it was a guessing game at times because trails had moved or been obliterated. “You use all the information you have and still you have to answer your own questions while you’re out there,” he said.

— Bussard on the overgrown portions of the trail: “You can get through this trail. As hard as it gets, I did it. Anyone in this room can do it. I’m not saying I went through it without crying a few times ... .”

— Both raved about the people they met along the way, including some in places that neither they nor the other person expected to encounter another human. They also caught up with some rafters. Bussard hitched a ride for 7 miles at one point. “I really gained a lot of faith in humanity and respect for the wilderness,” Bussard said.

— The worst climb covered 6,000 feet of elevation in 4.5 miles. “About the gnarliest climb I’ve ever seen in my life,” Jacobson said.

— The best hiking on the trail, Jacobson said, was the Clearwater and St. Joe forests section in North Idaho near the Montana border. “If I was going to do one week’s worth of this trail, it would definitely be this section,” he said. “There are views into Montana and alpine lakes everywhere.”

— Jacobson had to walk on a paved road for 80 miles in North Idaho because of fires. He finished the hike 8 miles short of the Canada border because the area was closed for a fire.

— Jacobson hopes to reach out to people in the thru-hiking community who can hike the ICT even in its current state to get it better known.

— Jacobson carried a 35-pound backpack. He could have gone lighter. “I’m sorry,” Bussard countered, “I wanted a tent.”

— An audience member asked Bussard how often she wanted to quit: “Funny you ask. All the time. Every time I saw people or anything I wanted to get out of there. Every single time. Fortunately, I had Clay there who had experience of what you get out of long-distance hikes. This is something that’s hard while you’re doing it but so rewarding when you’re done. ... I missed 500 miles. I wish I could have done it. You will want to quit — if you’re a human, I feel like — but it’s really worth it. I have so much more confidence in what I’m capable of doing now. I am going to finish the last 500 miles. I’ll slowly try to eat away at it. A lot of people have been doing sections of this trail for years. That’s probably what my destiny is going to be with this trail.”

— Along the trail, the couple saw moose, elk, deer, bears, bighorn sheep, a pack of wolves and one rattlesnake.

— Jacobson completed the trail in 2 1/2 months.

— Jacobson’s next big quest is the Continental Divide Trail, a 3,100-mile trail from Canada to Mexico that dips into Idaho for 180 miles. That would give him the triple crown of hiking (the Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails are the other pieces). Bussard is interested in trying the Pacific Crest Trail to see what an established long-distance trail is like.