By Lindsey Leffelman
From Maple Pass in the North Cascades to High Divide on the Olympic Peninsula, loop hikes are popular among day hikers and backpackers alike — and for good reason! On a loop, every step forward offers a new view to appreciate. You can experience something different and exciting for the entire trip; there’s no long slog retracing your steps at the end of the day. Loops also mean you don’t need to arrange a car shuttle on longer trips. With so many perks, it’s easy to see why some of the most beloved trails in Washington are loops.
One more advantage of loop hiking: You can let your imagination run wild if you are up for the challenge of creating your own loop. By connecting existing trails, incorporating a bit of (responsible) off-trail travel or adding in a short jaunt on forest roads, you can create a one-of-kind loop just for you. Developing your own loop requires some out-of-the-box thinking, a hefty dose of research and a bit of an adventurous spirit. The tips below will help guide you as you plan your self-created loop hike.
Set your intentions and get creative
Before you can focus on the specific details of your self-created loop, you have to be able to see the bigger picture. This comes from setting your hiking intentions. Do you want to go on a day hike, an overnight trip or a multi-night backpacking adventure? Which region are you most interested in visiting? What type of scenery are you hoping to see?
Once you have a purpose in mind and have narrowed down the locale, you are ready to get creative. Using paper or digital maps, start mentally exploring the trails in your desired area. A large-scale map of the forest, national park or recreation area is a great starting point. Begin by looking for areas that have some intersecting trails; you’ll have the best chance of creating a viable loop in a location with trails that already interconnect. Consider overall distance, elevation gain and landscape features as you begin to piece together a potential route.
You will likely need to think beyond the circle as you create your route, too. When most people hear the word “loop,” they immediately envision a circle, but loop hikes can take on many shapes. As you are looking at maps, don’t expect a perfectly circular path to jump out at you. Zigzags, crisscrosses, and twists and turns are par for the course when solving the loop hike puzzle.
From here, a more detailed map, like those produced by Green Trails Maps, will be needed to hash out all the details of your route. While it is certainly possible to assemble a loop hike entirely from existing trails, there are times when you need to follow a less conventional approach. Forest roads may not make for exhilarating hiking, but they can help you connect nearby trails. If you have the navigational skills to take on some cross-country travel, going off-trail can be a practical way to link trails together. (But keep in mind regulations and Leave No Trace principles.) Some innovative thinking is all it takes to construct a loop of your own design.
Do your research
Once you have a solid idea of the route you would like to follow, it’s time to get down to the nitty-gritty details. Start by listing the individual trails that make up your loop, and research each segment. Take time to find out what trail conditions are like, what permits (if any) are needed, potential water sources and campsites, and land use regulations, such as camping or off-trail travel restrictions. If any sections of your loop happen to be on forest roads, make sure to research road conditions and possible closures that could impact your trip.
WTA’s hiking guide and trip reports are great places to start compiling this type of data. Don’t forget to check out the land manager’s website for information, too. A phone call or visit to the nearest ranger station is also a good idea.
As you are conducting your research, it is also worth it to spend some time developing a bail-out plan. If something goes wrong on trail — the path becomes impassable, the weather turns or you become injured — make sure you’ve thought about options for getting out quickly. On a day hike, this could simply mean retracing your steps instead of completing the full loop. On longer backpacking excursions, it might mean researching other intersecting trails that could get you to help faster than backtracking or finishing the loop. The more you know ahead of time, the more relaxed and confident you’ll feel heading into your trip.
Hit the trail
After all your research is complete, it’s time for the best part of creating your own loop — hiking it! As always, make sure you have packed the Ten Essentials, follow the standard rules of trail etiquette and adhere to Leave No Trace principles.
If you created your loop to include portions of cross-country travel or forest road walking, be sure to respect the land and take safety precautions. For off-trail travel, navigation is key. Make sure you have the map-and-compass skills necessary to find your way without a clear-cut path or signs to follow. Be a good steward of the land by walking on the most durable surface you can and spreading out from the rest of your party so multiple footsteps aren’t trampling the same plants.
On forest roads, it’s important to stay alert and be visible to others. You’ll likely hear tires crunching on gravel before the driver notices you, so be proactive in ensuring you are out of harm’s way. Wear a bright hat or bandanna, move far to the side when cars approach and make eye contact with the driver. Don’t be surprised if passing motorists stop to make sure you’re okay; it’s pretty rare to see hikers on the road.
After you’ve completed your one-of-a-kind loop, share the experience with others. Post a trip report to WTA’s website, and then start planning your next loop hiking adventure!
Spend time exploring your options on a map to find the loop trip that fits your need. This one map offers a range of hikes in the Horseshoe Basin area:
1. This loop is 11 miles on trail, with a road walk (2) to connect back to the trailhead.
3. This lollipop loop, which starts at the Long Swamp Campground, covers just under 22 miles and likely requires a bit of careful navigation.
4. This loop is also about 22 miles and follows some lesser-used trails. A road walk is required at the end.
5. By using the next map, it’s easy to build loops that could allow a few days to a couple of weeks' worth of exploring.