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A dusting of snow and the last of the fall color. Photo by Larissa Grieves

Step it Up: Fabulous Fall

With a little careful preparation, you can enjoy some of the best hiking all year | by Lindsay Leffelman

With shorter days and cooler weather, summer is fading into fall. Throughout the summer, you have built up a lot of hiking momentum and strength. Now, as the days grow shorter and the weather cools, it may seem like your hiking adventures will have to be put on hold, but don’t be discouraged. There is no need to let autumn’s arrival prevent you from hitting the trails! In fact, there are some distinct advantages to fall hiking. Changing leaves add a pop of color, summer crowds have dissipated and biting bugs are now long gone. Simply put, autumn is a delightful time to take a hike in the Pacific Northwest.

Welcoming Fall on the trail. Photo by Jessica Alvarado-Lepine.jpg
Welcoming Fall on the trail. Photo by Jessica Alvarado-Lepine.

Of course, as with any season, there are some specific challenges associated with hiking at this time of year. The daylight hours are noticeably dwindling, giving you less time each day to be on the trail. Mountain weather becomes highly unpredictable as winter nears, and winter conditions arrive at higher elevations sooner than many people realize. Fall is also the peak of hunting season, so personal safety is critically important. However, with the right preparation, these risks can be mitigated, and you just may find that fall is your favorite time to explore outdoors.

There are some stunning locations, bursting with fall color, that can be reached with just a few miles of hiking. 

Shorter days

The later in the fall that you go hiking, the wiser you will need to be about choosing your trails. Unless you want to hike in the dark, you might be hitting the trail later in the morning than you would in the summer, and you’ll need to get off trail earlier. With those considerations, choosing an appropriate trail is a must.

In the fall, consider selecting trails that are a bit shorter in length. There are some stunning locations, bursting with fall color, that can be reached with just a few miles of hiking. Blue Lake in the North Cascades, Naches Peak near Mount Rainier and Geyser Valley in the Olympics all clock in at under 8 miles roundtrip and make exceptional autumn hikes. For other ideas, search WTA’s online hiking guide and narrow your results using the “fall foliage” filter.

 Fall has arrived in the North Cascades. by Jason Prater, Shoreline, WA.jpg
Larches are well known for the golden yellow hues they bear in the fall. Photo by Jason Prater.

Unpredictable weather

During fall, mountain weather can change quickly. You may start your hike enjoying the sun on your face, but mountain storms with rain or snow can roll in before you even notice the clouds. With the right planning, you can avoid the potential dangers generated by unpredictable weather conditions.

Plan ahead and prepare is one of the Leave No Trace principles and it certainly applies to fall hiking situations. Yes, the weather can be unpredictable, but you can take steps before you leave home to make your trip just a bit more predictable by researching weather, road and trail conditions. The National Weather Service offers a mountain forecast, which can be pinpointed to the exact area you are hiking, not just the nearest town. It is also a good idea to check the state Department of Transportation website for information about road conditions over mountain passes. Additionally, you will want to check trail conditions by reading WTA trip reports or contacting the local ranger station. Armed with this information, you can decide whether your intended destination is a wise choice or best to save for another time.

Having the appropriate gear for the conditions is also imperative for safety, as well as personal comfort. Any time of year, you should equip yourself with the Ten Essentials. When keeping the unique circumstances surrounding autumn hikes in mind, it is best to give some of those essentials extra attention.

  • Extra layers: With unanticipated storms and cold fronts being a possibility, be sure to pack some extra warm layers and rain gear in your pack.
  • Headlamp: With early sunsets, it is important to carry a headlamp and extra batteries with you just in case you find yourself still on the trail after dark.
  • Extra food: When the weather is chilly, our bodies need to consume more calories. Toss a few extra bars in your day pack to make sure you have the energy you need to tackle the trail.
  • Poles and traction devices: Though not technically part of the Ten Essentials, having hiking poles or traction devices for your boots can come in handy if you encounter snow or ice on the trail.

Ideally, you won’t need any of these items while on your autumn excursions, but if you do, you’ll be thankful that you were prepared.

Breathtaking fall colors at Yellow Aster Butte. by Julia Anderson, Bellingham, WASHINGTON.jpgBreathtaking fall colors at Yellow Aster Butte. Photo by Julia Anderson.

Hunting season

August through November are prime hunting months, with October being the pinnacle of hunting season. While it can be unsettling to see a hunter hiking up the same trail as you, it is important to remember that the vast majority of hunters are incredibly responsible and friendly, and they have the same right to access public lands as other recreationists. Unfortunately, accidents do occur, so taking some basic precautions can give you greater peace of mind when hiking during hunting season.

First and foremost, wear bright colors. A lot of hiking gear is designed in neutral earth tones. Make yourself stand out from the scenery by wearing a jacket, hat or backpack that will make you noticeable. Tying a brightly colored handkerchief to your pack is another option. If you hike with a dog, it is advisable to keep your pooch on a leash that has a brightly colored cloth or ribbon affixed to it in order to avoid your pet’s being mistaken for a wild animal. In addition, talking, whistling or humming while you hike will alert hunters (and animals) to your presence.

There is no need to let autumn’s arrival prevent you from hitting the trails.

If, even with these safeguards in place, the thought of sharing the trail with hunters makes you uneasy, consider hiking in an area that is off-limits to hunting. Most U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management land is open to hunting, but all national parks and many state parks prohibit hunting.

Make good choices

Regardless of your level of preparation before hitting the trail, your best asset when hiking is your own common sense while on trail. If trail conditions worsen, the weather suddenly changes or you feel unsafe for any reason, trust your instincts and turn around. The chances of needing to turn back are slim, however. It is much more likely that you will be able to enjoy many relaxing and refreshing days experiencing the splendor of autumn hiking.

This article originally appeared in the Sep+Oct 2017 issue of Washington Trails Magazine. Support trails as a member of WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.