Crowded has a slightly different connotation for the thru-hiking community, who may go days at a time without seeing a fellow hiker, even on relatively popular trail networks. But in recent years, as thru-hiking has gained in popularity (yes, spurred in part by the “Wild” book and movie phenomenon), people who regularly seek solace in the longest of long-distance treks have begun looking for new courses to chart, away from well-established routes.
One of the newest is the UP North Loop Trail, a 2,600-mile buttkicker that circles through the American Northwest, passing through portions of Oregon, Washington, Montana, and Idaho. It connects previously unconnected sections of the Pacific Crest Trail, The Pacific Northwest Trail, the Idaho Centennial Trail, and the Oregon Desert Trail into one great big loop. America’s newest megatrail.
The UP North Loop Trail was routed by Ras and Kathy Vaughan, two passionate thru-hikers who have built their lives around these long-distance treks. Ras has bagged numerous Only Known Times, routes he’s completed that nobody else has, including a double thru-hike of the Wonderland Trail ringing Mt. Rainier, a yo-yo of the Arizona National Scenic Trail, and a sextuple rim-to-rim traverse of the Grand Canyon, among plenty of others. Kathy set the women’s FKT of the Arizona National Scenic Trail, has completed more than 40 ultramarathons, and multiple 200-kilometer Nordic ski-thrus.
In 2017, the Vaughans tried and failed—not an experience to which they’re particularly accustomed—to complete a yo-yo of the Great Enchantment Trail in Arizona. They’d spent more than three months on the trail before weather and logistics began rearing their formidable heads. Plus, Kathy was showing symptoms of an unknown medical malady. They called it quits and disappointingly returned home. Shortly after, Kathy was diagnosed with diabetes.
Wanting a kind of redemptive challenge, the Vaughans began looking for unknown hikes, trails on which they might set not Fastest Known Times, but Only Known Times, routes they could complete that no one else had. Their eyes turned to the northwest.
They’d been poring over maps of the country’s hiking networks when the UP North Loop (they call themselves the “UltraPedestrians,” hence “UP”) started to jump out from the map. It seemed not terribly difficult, save the 2,600 miles of hiking of course, to link the PCT, PNWT, ICT, and ODT into its own loop.
“We easily spent 100-plus hours researching the idea, gathering up GPS tracks from internet sources, mapping out the route, planning resupplies, submitting proposals to sponsors, and parsing every bit of data we could cull from the interwebs and personal connections,” Ras said in an interview. “After breaking a seemingly impossible idea down into pieces small enough that they became possible, we concluded that the UP North Loop was humanly possible.”
It took a year to plan, but finally, the Vaughans had their route at least theoretically dialed. They created a “purist line,” posted it to their website so their followers could see what they had in mind, then assembled their gear.
On May 14, 2018, the couple set out from Hammett, Idaho, hiking south on the ICT. On November 5, they returned to that same spot, after 174 days of occasionally brutal hiking. They’d closed their loop.
“Just as a bunch of us hiker trash were wondering if it could be done, these two just up and did it,” said Scot Forbes, former board member of the American Long Distance Hiking Association. “They’ve given us a route for the ages.”
It was not easy.
Especially when covering the ODT route. The connection they needed to make to join the ODT with the rest of their loop was through unhiked and extremely isolated territory. Ras and Kathy sought help from a coordinator of the ODT, a woman named Renee “She-Ra” Patrick, who knew those lands well and helped them plot their course. The line they chose had never been hiked by anyone, at least to She-Ra’s knowledge, and meant 35-mile water carrying days, and possibly 200 miles between food resupplies. It also meant navigating rugged a landscape full of canyons and occasionally impassable terrain.
“There were times on the trail where I literally shook with fear and got worked up with tears, not knowing if I could traverse the boulder field ahead, or ascend the ramp from the canyon bottom to the rim,” Kathy said. “I didn’t know if I had the skills, or stamina, for some of these challenges.”
Gradually, the couple grew accustomed to solving trail problems, and their worries began to fade. Newly diagnosed as a diabetic, Kathy too was becoming more practiced in insulin delivery, a challenge especially tough when body chemistry is so radically affected by changes in altitude and exertion.
There were plenty of upsides too, though.
Hot springs were found in each section of the loop, thanks to the volcanic geology of that stretch of the country. They found the isolation they sought, occasionally not seeing a fellow hiker for two weeks at a time. They discovered Native American pictographs, hiked along long-abandoned rail lines, and took in views of mountains they’d never before seen.
“The whole route, each section, was so unique from all the others,” Kathy said. “The terrain of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho offers so much untold beauty: deep canyons, sage steppes, the Cascade Crest, ancient cedar groves, rugged river valleys, and small towns rife with history. Ras and I feel like we barely touched this immense landscape. We came away from the UP North Loop with images of a magnificent land and the desire to delve even further into the surrounding wilderness.”
Unfortunately, they were forced to cut their loop short during the last stretch when the weather began a turn for the winter, and Kathy’s insulin levels required more attention than they could offer on the trail. They’d hoped to pass through the biggest continuous wilderness in the country, the Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness, but were forced to re-route around it at a lower elevation.
This means the original purist line the Vaughans plotted is still unhiked. Still waiting.
“While the purist line is still very much up for grabs for a strict first send, our vision is for each hiker to design their own alternates and reroutes to truly make the UP North Loop their own,” said Ras. “If someone wants to hike the exact footsteps of thousands of other people, they can download an app and follow the PCT from Mexico to Canada. But taking on the UP North Loop requires an amount of research, route finding, navigation, and creativity that harkens back to the early days of thru-hiking.”
“We see this as the next great North American thru-hiking challenge,” the Vaughans said. “After covering upwards of 2,600 miles on foot, you end up back at the very point at which you began. But we envision it more as a spiral, than a circle. Hopefully, when you return to your starting point you arrive there on a whole other level.”