What you can learn from a really long walk
Two hikers just set the only known times on the country's newest state-spanning trail system
What if you could spend a full season hiking to more than a dozen hot springs, photographing petroglyphs, and camping in the most remote wilderness in the lower 48? Well, you can do all that and more, thanks to a new thru-hike created by Ras and Kathy Vaughan.
Full-time adventurers, the Vaughans, married for 22 years, have made a habit of setting only known times where they establish never-before-recorded routes. They call themselves Team UltraPedestrian, and they named their new trail the UltraPedestrian (or UP) North Loop. The thru-hike combines parts of four established long trails to create a 2,600-mile loop through the best of the Northwest.
The idea for the trail came about after the couple looked at a map of America’s long-distance trails and realized that there was a near complete loop in the upper-left corner of the country, created by the Pacific Crest, Pacific Northwest, Idaho Centennial, and Oregon Desert Trails. Longtime residents of Washington State, the Vaughans had hiked sections of the PCT and PNT before, but the Idaho and Oregon trails offered something fresh. “The Oregon Desert Trail and the Idaho Centennial Trail were both completely new territory,” Kathy, 52, said when I spoke with her and Ras, 47, about a month after they’d completed their 174-day journey.
They plotted the details of the UP North Loop for a year before embarking on the journey, spending more than 100 hours poring over official trail maps, satellite imagery, and GPS tracks. Ultimately, they created a purist GPS line to follow and shared it on their website.
They decided to begin the hike on an isolated stretch of land between the Idaho Centennial and the Oregon Desert Trails. “The other three trails—the PCT, PNT, and ICT—all overlap each other, so it’s a seamless connection from one to the other,” Ras says. “But the Oregon Desert Trail just floats ... out there in between the ICT and the PCT.”
To navigate this remote section, they relied on a track conceived of by thru-hiking triple crowner and Oregon Desert Trail coordinator Renee “She-Ra” Patrick, who had mapped the route using extensive research. The catch: neither she nor anyone else had actually hiked it before. Even on paper, the Vaughans knew it would be rough, requiring a 35-mile water carry between sources and a possible 200-mile food carry. (A friend ended up being able to drop a resupply for them midway.) Their first day on trail, Ras carried a 72-pound pack, primarily full of food and water, and struggled through tall sagebrush and dry, dusty heat waves. Monsoons hit them every afternoon like clockwork for nearly two weeks.
Not all of the Vaughans’ challenges have been of the human-versus-nature variety. In 2017, while attempting to complete another only known time by yo-yoing the Grand Enchantment Trail in the Southwest, Kathy started experiencing symptoms of high blood sugar and was later found to have Type 1 diabetes. The UP North Loop was the first major undertaking since her diagnosis and the longest thru-hike of her career. Steep climbs in Washington left her shaking and sweating as a result of low blood sugar. While high blood sugar was dangerous for her long-term health, anything too low could be instantly fatal. She learned to monitor how she felt and react accordingly, and she also traded in much of her dehydrated meals for heavier fresh ingredients from towns. She injected herself with insulin twice daily using alcohol swabs for sterility in a dusty tent. “Each time we changed the terrain we were in, or the climate changed or the elevation, my numbers would fluctuate again,” Kathy says. “It was a constant area that I needed to pay a lot of attention to.”
Of course, not every day was brutal. The couple spent hours soaking in natural hot springs in Oregon’s Owyhee Canyonlands and swimming in the Burgdorf Hot Springs in central Idaho. In Washington, Kathy said, the Goldmyer Hot Springs, near Snoqualmie Pass on the Pacific Crest Trail, were magical. “You actually step into a narrow cave in the top pool,” she says. “You feel like you’re in a womb.” They lodged with hunters near the Wilderness Gateway Campground in Idaho, staying in cozy canvas tents with wood stoves. A detour took them on a 55-mile walk along an abandoned railroad. “[It] turned out to be one of the most special sections of the hike,” Kathy says.
Their biggest disappointment happened in central Idaho after coming off the Lolo Trail. They’d intended to follow the Idaho Centennial Trail to the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness through to the Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness, the largest wilderness in the contiguous United States. But the area had been hit hard by snow, Kathy was out of blood-test strips, and their weather window for completing the circuit was running out. So instead they routed around the wilderness areas, completing the trip at lower elevations.
That means the purist line the Vaughans conceived of is still up for grabs, although they hope that people will take their route as a guideline and then make it better—linking more hot springs, passing by more petroglyphs, seeing even more remote wilderness. “It’s easy to get caught up with these artificial lines that we’ve drawn, whether it’s Washington or Oregon or Idaho,” Ras says. “But when you connect it all on foot, and you find these hot springs and lava flows, you realize that there’s this geological underpinning to the entire area.”
Though much of the loop is rugged and less than ideal from a scenic perspective—it includes at least 200 miles of road walking and several areas with limited water resources—Ras hopes the planned improvements on the Oregon Desert and Idaho Centennial Trails over the next handful of years will encourage people to try out the circuit. Kathy is hopeful it could off-load some of the traffic that the big three thru-hiking trails have seen in recent years. But mostly, they’re glad they had the opportunity to see their home region, one step at a time. “You don’t know what the American Northwest is really like until you do something like this,” Ras says.