Four Hikers Attempt the 900-Mile Idaho Centennial Trail 

The lost trail spans the length of the state

Page 2 of 6

Making Plans

Jacobson, 30, has lived a vagabond life. In the past decade he's ridden freight trains across the country; hiked the entirety of both the Pacific Crest and Appalachian trails, logging nearly 5,000 miles between them; and worked as a wildland firefighter. In the winter, he operates lifts at Bogus Basin Mountain Recreation Area.

After finishing the PCT in 2010, he set his sights on a much more obscure hiking challenge: the Idaho Centennial Trail.

The 900-mile trail begins on the Idaho-Nevada border by Murphy Hot Springs, weaves from the canyonlands and foothills of southern Idaho into the Sawtooth Wilderness, through 600 miles of the Frank Church-River of No Return and Selway-Bitterroot wildernesses, and along the Continental Divide Trail on the Idaho-Montana border. The trail ends near Priest Lake, not far from the U.S.-Canada border.

"I would guess 10 people have thru-hiked it," Jacobson said. "In history."

Thru-hiking has enjoyed a boom, fueled in part by Cheryl Strayed's bestselling memoir about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, Wild, and its film adaptation starring Reese Witherspoon, as well as Bill Bryson's book, A Walk in the Woods, chronicling his time on the Appalachian Trail.

Jacobson wants to show those same opportunities exist within the Gem State.

"Thru-hiking isn't the mentality here," he said. "It should be. We have a huge trail, we have desert sections and wilderness sections and incredible scenery unparalleled by these other big trails."

click to enlarge KELLY BUSSARD
  • Kelly Bussard

Hikers on the ICT face a challenge bigger than distance: much of the trail is lost.

Established in 1990 as part of the state's 100th birthday, large sections of the trail haven't been maintained since. Jacobson said some of the trail in the Frank Church probably hasn't seen hikers—or trail crews—in more than a decade.

Leo Hennessy, the Non-Motorized Trails Program manager for Idaho State Parks and Recreation, said there isn't any money to maintain it.

"I would love to hire some staff to work with the Forest Service to cut trees and work on the trail, but my boss says, 'Leo, you don't have the money to do that. Do something else or you'll be out of here,'" he said.

Instead, he focuses on things that bring in money to his department, like yurt rentals in Idaho City and pay-to-park cross-country ski areas. His budget is "gutted," he said.

Hennessy said Jacobson's estimation of how many people have successfully thru-hiked the ICT is high—Hennessy thinks it's closer to seven or eight. By comparison, 650 people thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail and nearly 2,500 people attempted it last summer alone.

The Idaho Centennial Trail doesn't attract that kind of attention.

According to Hennessy, the trail is managed by the Bureau of Land Management in the desert and the U.S. Forest Service in the mountains, but neither agency has the funds to send in trail crews.

Getting a crew into the remote wilderness is hardly effective anyway, he said. It takes three days by horseback to get to the trail, then a crew may spend two days working, then take another three days getting out.

"And we only did three miles of trail work," he said.

It's not possible to keep up with the amount of work the trail needs, either. Hennessy said every big storm, washout, avalanche or fire causes more trees to fall across the trail. Because of fires burning in Idaho's wilderness this season, "those trees are going to fall for the next 20 years and there will be hundreds [of downed trees] every year," he said.

The solution lies with the United States Congress, and Hennessy wishes it would give the Forest Service enough money to keep up with both wildland firefighting and maintaining recreational opportunities.

Part of Jacobson's goal in tackling the trail is to raise its profile and help make the case for more maintenance. With a degree in English, he decided to gather all the information he would need to write a guidebook. He figured if he could start laying the groundwork, other hikers would follow.

Hennessy pointed out that because of the way the trail changes every year, a guidebook won't stay accurate for long, but it's something he would tell interested hikers to pick up. Trouble is, even with more attention, he doesn't think the trail will get more maintenance.

"We can't even get to trails that outfitters and guides use, where people are paying big dollars. We can't even get those trails maintained," Hennessy said. "We need millions."

Hennessy said he hopes to make his own thru-hike out of it when he retires in the next few years. So far, he's done about three-quarters of the trail in sections.

"We had these great plans when we created the Idaho Centennial Trail," Hennessy said, "but no money to do them. The Centennial Trail isn't the most important. I'm doing this on the side to keep the thing alive."

The four set out June 30 with the goal of doing just that. They planned to reach Canada by Aug. 22.

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