Trails for everyone, forever
What they are, why we love them, how to enjoy them safely and which ones to visit.
Every year, almost 40 million people visit Washington’s 124 state parks. With over 400 miles of hiking trails and locations in every corner of the state — from Larrabee State Park in the northwest to Fort Columbia Historical State Park in the southwest, to Crawford State Park Heritage Site in the northeast and Fields Spring State Park in the southeast — these parks provide unique recreation activities for all. Washington is lucky — at 106 years old, our state park system is one of the oldest in the country. Older, in fact, than the National Park system. And though the state is similar in size to Utah, we have just about the triple the state parks. And forget your typical definition of park. Ours are diverse in both in type (cultural, recreational, historical, geological) and variety (marine parks, ocean front, steppe shrub, mountainous, old growth forest to name a few).
No matter what type of outdoor experience you are looking to have, state parks have you covered. No one knows that better than State Park Commissioner Mark O. Brown, who visited all 124 in his first six years as commissioner.
“There’s iconic Native American rock art at Columbia Hills, an astronomical observatory in Goldendale. There’s entire mountains, pieces of significant military history. One of the most complete coastal fortifications left standing at Fort Columbia; one of the most complete lighthouse keep compounds on the West Coast at Cape Disappointment. We have cabins and yurts, mountain top lookouts, campgrounds, lakes, rivers. Unique geological features like Beacon Rock State Park and Steamboat Rock near Grand Coulee.”
Not every park was free, and these lands certainly aren’t free to maintain.
A major source of state funding is the Discover Pass (the other is camping fees), which you need whenever you need daytime vehicle access to a state park (Learn more about what you need to know before going below.) Commissioner Brown noted that 80% of state park’s operating budget is through earned revenue, the number one source of which is from the Pass. The message is clear to him: “People in Washington want state parks.”
Additional key funding comes from the state budget. That’s why in 2019, as in previous years, WTA’s legislative priorities include advocating for the $196 million (operating) and $120.6 million (capital) that state parks need in the state budget requests. These funds would put state parks on the path back to health and help reduce the more than $500 million deferred maintenance backlog for state parks. This funding helps support road and trail maintenance, equipment replacement, park aides and technology upgrades — among other items.
Federally, the U.S. Congress passed and the president signed a sweeping bipartisan public lands bill. Part of this bill included the permanent re-authorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). LWCF funds have been used for the acquisition, development and redevelopment of state parks since 1967 with a property acquisition at Beacon Rock State Park.
Make sure to sign up for our Trail Action Network, where you can stay up-to-date on issues (like funding) that impact our experiences on state parks and trails.
Some of the funding for state parks goes to pay the people that keep our parks running, and running safely. Rick Oakley is the park ranger for Olallie State Park, Palouse to Cascades State Park Trail – West Cascades Section and Lake Sammamish State Park. He’s been a ranger for Washington State Parks for 15 years and worked for Anchorage Parks and Recreation for 7 years prior to moving to Washington. He explained that the duties of Washington State Park Rangers are very different than national park rangers. The National Park Service classifies their rangers either as law enforcement or interpretative. At state parks, rangers are considered generalists.
“We do everything,” Oakley said. “From administrative work to law enforcement, general maintenance like repairs and janitorial duties to education which ranges from interpretive programs like junior ranger to school environmental education to answering questions on trail.”
“It’s a challenge, but interesting. No two days are the same.”
The bulk of ranger work varies by season. During summer — the highest visitor use season — the focus is on visitor protection, patrolling and talking to people as much as they can, “whether it’s answering questions or getting them where they are want to be or enforcing park rules or responding to medical or fire calls or law calls.” In the winter off-season, the focus is on maintenance and getting parks back into shape before busy season starts again. During shoulder season, rangers squeeze in some school programming. No matter what the season, rangers work hard, and the parks wouldn't run effectively without them. Make sure you say hi and thanks when you see them on trail.
Hiking in state parks? Here’s what you need to know and where you want to go.
Spring 2020 update: Currently campgrounds remain closed to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Many state parks are still open for day-use, but be sure to check our Hiking Guide before heading out.
Plan ahead. “I’m always sending visitors to the (WTA) Hiking Guide.”
Learn where you are going and what is expected of you at that location. “It’s going to keep you from being disappointed and safer and out of trouble.”
Stop at the trailhead bulletin board. “It only takes two minutes. The number one thing when I actually stop somebody, and say ‘Hey, why are you engaging in this behavior?’ and they say, ‘I didn’t know.’ At state parks, we focus on making sure that you know, if you just take the effort to look.”
Follow the rules. “Our goal is to make sure all visitors are enjoying themselves and staying safe. The biggest issues we’re having are off-leash dogs and courtesy rules like playing music while hiking, both of which not allowed in state parks.”
It’s good to have a healthy fear of wildlife. “We don’t want you to approach animals but for the most part, they’re going to be a lot more afraid of you.
Remember your Discover Pass.
Don’t assume Google knows directions to trailhead. “Make sure to get proper directions because you don’t want your hike to start off wrong by going to the wrong place. Not only can it put you in a bad mood — it can impact safety.” You can use WTA's driving directions; they're ground-truthed by hikers like you.
Now that you know everything there is know about state parks, it’s time to get out there! But with so many options, choosing where to start can be a challenge. Try sampling one of these favorites. In search of stars? Several state parks make our list of some of the best places in Washington to watch a meteor shower.
Or take the advice of Commissioner Brown (after all, he’s been to them all). Here are some of his favorites:
Want something unique? Check out the astronomical Goldendale Observatory State Park. Set in the hills above the Columbia River, this unique state park heritage site houses one of the nation's largest, most accessible public telescopes. (Note: Goldendale is currently closed for construction. Parks anticapates it to reopen in fall. In the meantime, parks staff is partnering with Maryhill Museum and providing astronomy-oriented programs at Stonehenge nearby.)
History buffs should try one of the least visited, yet one of the most historically significant: Fort Simcoe State Park. Located In the middle of the Yakama Indian Reservation, Fort Simcoe houses a pre-Civil War fort and original buildings. A 0.8-mile interpretive trail takes you up a small hill to the original defense lookout and provides views of the valley below.
Seeking cultural history? Visit Columbia Hills Historical State Park, overlooking the Columbia River, and check out the world-famous Tsagaglalal, (She Who Watches) iconic native american rock art carved into the basalt overlooking the Columbia, overlooking where Native Americans came to hunt and gather for hundreds of years.
Just looking for some plain old fun? Try Mount Spokane — a haven for both hiking in summer and winter recreation. Mark also loves Cape Disappointment (“It has a world class interpretive center that tells the story of Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery. It has an iconic historical lighthouse. Stop at Waikiki beach.”) and Deception Pass (“It’s our most popular state park with over a million visitors per year. It has a little bit of everything — you can rent a house on an island, play on the beach, go fishing, rent a campsite.”).
Commissioner Brown also has some trail suggestions (he’s been on all of them, too). He really enjoys the Spokane River Centennial State Park Trail (“unbelievable”), the Columbia Plateau State Park Trail (“breathtaking”) and the Palouse to Cascades State Park Trail.
Ranger Rick also suggests the Palouse to Cascades. “It’s a heavy-use trail especially in summer, but it’s so long and large that it has a lot of capacity available. It’s a great trail for families.”
Recently, he’s been excited to point hikers toward Dirty Harry’s Balcony, an up-and-coming trail after a huge rebuild by WTA and Washington state Department of Natural Resources (DNR). DNR owns most of the trail, but state parks manages the trailhead (Far Side). “A little more difficult than Rattlesnake Ledge, but still doable for most beginner hikers. It’s unique with gorgeous views both east and west on Snoqualmie Valley.”
As for some of the most popular state park trails? Rick says, in his parks, it's Twin Falls, while WTA’s hiking content manager Anna Roth says Wallace Falls trail in Wallace Falls State Park in north/central Puget Sound and Beacon Rock trail at Beacon Rock State Park in the Columbia River Gorge are some of the most beloved. You won't be alone when you visit, but they are classic Washington destinations.
Be sure to check out the Washington State Parks website for up-to-date closures and news.
And once you finally decide where to go, make sure to share your hiking experience with us by writing a trip report.