Q: Isn't the "West Coast Trail" in Canada?
A: Yes, but that's not the only "West Coast Trail."
There is a very well known backpacking wilderness trail on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada called the West Coast Trail. People from all over the world travel to Canada every year to do it, and when one mentions it by name it's generally accepted the trail is this one in Canada. It's about 45 miles in length and managed by Parks Canada.
However, that's in the process of changing because there's also a trail by the same name in the United States. The National Coast Trail Association coined the term "West Coast Trail" in its bylaws in 1995 as one segment of their vision for the "National Coast Trail." Of course, other segments include the "East Coast Trail," "Gulf Coast Trail," "Great Lakes Coast Trail," and other segments that when connected would loop some 10,000 miles around the entire United States! America's West Coast Trail is about 1,800 miles in length and managed a diverse group of jurisdictions.stakeholders, especially government agencies and nonprofit organizations.
Q: I believe I've heard about this trail, but isn't it also called the "Pacific Crest Trail?"
A: No, but people often do confuse it with this completely different trail.
It's easy to get confused since the Pacific Ocean borders the west coast and this other trail's name has the work Pacific in it. In fact, it's also easy to want to replace the word "Crest" with "Coast" and then you have the "Pacific Coast Trail" -- a great name if the "Pacific Crest Trail" didn't already exist, but it does and that would make things even more confusing. So, the National Coast Trail Association coined the term "West Coast Trail."
The Pacific Crest Trail is a long-distance national scenic trail stretching along the spines of the Cascades and Sierra Nevada's and into the Californian desert from Canada to Mexico.
The West Coast Trail is envisioned as a long-distance trail stretching along the coast from the northwest tip of Washington all the way to Mexico.
Q: So, you can really hike a coastal trail along the entire length of the United States?
A: Technically, no, not quite yet because it's not yet complete, but new missing trail linkages are being developed every year. However, as the following miles of existing trail sections and specific hikes attest, it is in a sense possible to "hike" the West Coast Trail.
In Washington about 190 miles of 200 miles exist, in Oregon 350 of 400 miles exist, and in California at least more than half of 1,200 miles already exist. (Figures are approximate.) Its development is being coordinated by a diverse group of stakeholders, especially government agencies and non-profit organizations. Stakeholders include Washington, Oregon and California State Parks, federal agencies such as the US Forest Service, tribal entities such as the Makah Indian Nation, and non-profits such as the National Coast Trail Association, and Coastwalk for the California Coastal Trail. However, although the West Coast Trail is not complete, the Oregon Coast Trail section was declared "hikable" and hiked in 1988, the "Washington Coast Trail" section was hiked in 1992, and an individual and later a small group (1996) did a "Whole Hike" of the California Coastal Trail.
Q: Has anyone ever hiked the entire length of the West Coast Trail?
A: Yes, in sections, but not in one continuous trip.
First, let's make it really clear that we are not talking about walking along Highway 101 and Route 1 along the coast from Washington, through Oregon, and down into California to the Mexican border. Undoubtedly there are many that have tried, and some that have succeeded. Although there is at least one recorded story of someone having walked along the entire west coast, they apparently did not focus on traveling the recreational trail linkages existing at the time. (The impression is they essentially traveled along the coast along a more efficient route most likely using both highway and long stretches of nearby beach.) The vision and reality of the West Coast Trail is not to walk along highways, but on a truly developed recreational trail system with connections along existing beaches, the purpose being to provide hikers with both a safe and quality experience -- a recreational trail experience -- to encounter the scenic beauty, history, and culture of the west coast. In fact, although there are exceptions, walking directly along and adjacent to highways is essentially a working definition of where many of the missing links in the trail still need to be developed. The exceptions being segments where it's either physically impossible, technically unfeasible, or surprisingly, where it may actually enhance the trail experience, to develop a trail segment anywhere other than along Highway 101 or Route 1.
Secondly, sections of the West Coast Trail have been done, specifically along the Oregon, Washington, and California Coastal Trail systems. Author John McKinney actually details his hike of the California Coastal Trail system in his book "A Walk Along Land's End," and a whole hike special event was documented in various mass media in 1996 for this trail. Founder and director of the National Coast Trail Association, Al LePage, hiked the Oregon Coast Trail in 1988, the Washington in 1992 (apparently the first to ever do so and continuously) and participated in the 1996 whole hike group event to finish the California Coastal Trail on his own. LePage has also heard of others who have hiked the Oregon Coast Trail. Therefore, sections of the West Coast Trail have been done, and apparently LePage is the first person to have ever hiked its entire length from 1988 to 1996. (Indeed, since 1996 no one has ever disputed this apparent first, even though media coverage about LePage and special events he's done on behalf of his organization has extended along the west coast from Los Angeles to Seattle. LePage has also given slide show presentations on the West Coast Trail over the years for trail clubs and at REI stores from San Francisco to Seattle without anyone bringing to light that someone else had done so. ) Indeed, there is no documentation nor has anyone ever claimed they were the first to successfully walk this recreational trail system continuously and in its entirety.
Q: But couldn't some Native American have walked the whole west coast before, sometime in the distant past?
A: Although it's possible, it's most likely not probable, and here's why.
Travel north and south along the coast by land, even for relatively short distances, was simply not done. First, in terms of material needs for food, clothing, and shelter the coast essentially provided for these needs at the ocean's edge with permanent villages generally being established at the mouths of rivers. Indians would move inland to collect edible plants, roots, and berries, but had little reason to move north and south. Second, given the ruggedness of the coast in terms of rocky headlands and mountains, travel north and south could be difficult as well. Third, slavery was an institution practiced along the west coast in Oregon to some extent and especially along the northern Washington Coast. let's consider Native Americans. Different tribal groups made their homes along the coast, and neighboring tribes would capture individuals to serve as slaves, and thus traveling too far north or south could be a dangerous venture. Fourth, if any substantial travel north or south was to occur it was usually done in canoes simply because it was most likely easier and quicker than by land, and generally was done to hunt whales and seals. Finally, we know of no written documentation or tribal stories of Native Americans ever making such a continuous journey.
Q: But couldn't some pioneer or miner have walked the whole west coast sometime in the last few centuries?
A: Once again, although it's possible, it's most likely not probable and for many of the same reasons Native Americans didn't travel very far in a north or south direction.
First, it was and is still a very rugged coastline, especially areas like the Lost Coast section in northern California coast, the rocky southern Oregon coastline, and the Olympic Coastal Strip of Olympic National Park in Washington. Second, there was no good reason for a pioneer or even miner to travel the entire length. Indeed, even in terms of early exploration by Spain, Great Britain, and the United States well-documented expeditions only did sections north and south by land. In California major sections of exploration by land was done by Spain and in Oregon by the United States and Great Britain. Most likely due to the presence of rivers, an extremely rocky shoreline further north, and potential attacks from Indians, no such long-distance land-based expeditions along the Washington coast apparently ever took place. Third, travel along the west coast was more easily and quickly accomplished by ship. Finally, we know of no written documentation or stories of pioneers, miners or even of the US Army ever making such a continuous journey.