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Lay of the Land: 11 Essential Things to Know about Hiking in Washington

Like a decoder ring for Washington's trails, a few tips for for new and new-to-Washington hikers.

by Loren Drummond

When my family first moved to Washington, we eagerly headed out in early June for our first summer backpacking trip. Only after dropping by a ranger station to check conditions did we learn that the trail we had chosen would still be covered in snow. Lots of it. The ranger patiently suggested a lower-elevation alternative, and we ended up having a great time.

We had decades of mountain experience under our belts, so why did we get the season so wrong?

One reason: having grown up in Colorado's higher and drier Rocky Mountains, I didn't know how to read the elevations or seasons in Washington's Cascades yet. When you are used to traveling alpine ridges above treeline at 11,000 feet, it is hard to grasp that you might get the same experience from a 6,000-foot elevation.

Hiking may be a passion you can take with you around the world, but places have their own quirks. Getting to know those quirks, getting a feel for seasons, for the rhythms of wildlife and weather, is part of the fun of learning a new hiking landscape.

Getting the lay of the land isn't something that happens overnight. It takes years, and if you're attuned to nuance, it is something that can span decades. However, there are a few key aspects about hiking here that will come in handy for new and new-to-Washington hikers.

1. Washington has many (very different) mountain ranges

Kettle Crest, North Cascades, Olympics
Left to right: Kettle Crest views by Hayduke, Thornton Lakes in the North Cascades by Rashel, Hoh River Trail in the Olympics by cotiffany001 .

The Olympics, the Cascades, the Selkirks, the Blues.

We are so lucky to play home to so many different major and minor mountain ranges (63 in all, according to USGS). But with that abundance comes a lot of variety: each of those ranges have their own thing going on, in terms of seasons, snow, weather and wildlife. The western ranges (the Olympics and Cascades) tend to be wetter, carry more snow and start their summer seasons later than their eastern counterparts. These are places where rainshadows matter, and can impact access and snow conditions drastically.

Tip: Get to know the many different mountain ranges, read trip reports from years (and decades) past, browse guidebooks, chat up local rangers when you visit, and look to the eastern ranges and east side of the Cascade crest for earlier season trips.

2. Weather changes quickly

Thunderstorm in the Cascade. Photo by Grace Giordano.

One thing about the weather in the Northwest: it is never boring.

When ocean and mountains meet, you'll find it sunny one moment and rainy the next. It may be pouring in Seattle, and hot and sunny at Snoqualmie Pass. Your mid-summer day on trail may start out balmy, and then turn to hail, rain or wind. It could be 70 degrees in Everett, and 107 in Ephrata.

And some mountains (volcanoes) make their own weather. On a June hike in the Dark Divide last year, some colleagues and I hiked with clear views of Mount Adams all day. From a perfectly blue morning sky, it seemed to conjure an entire cloud cover as if from nowhere, gathering wisps into a thick, impenetrable cloud cloak that loomed ominously around the rest of the day.

Tip: Become a weather watcher, and go prepared for anything.

3. Elevations: how high, and why it matters

Crossing a snowfield on Ptarmigan Ridge, on a day of beautiful clouds.

Elevations don't mean the same thing everywhere. But when you begin to learn what they mean here in Washington, you have a shorthand trick for what you might encounter on a trail, both in terms of great habitat and conditions.

In a typical Washington summer, snow can stick around at high elevations (5,000+ feet) forever well into late July. In winter, snow levels are reported by elevation, so finding great trails where you don't need to worry about snow is all about filtering your searches by elevation.

Tip: Pay attention to the elevation stats for the hikes you plan on hiking. What is the high point? How much gain will there be?

4. Our snow and ice is unstable

Melting lake Snow Lake
With so much freeze and thaw in Washington, be wary of stepping out on frozen lakes. Photo by penquin

When lakes really freeze in places like Minnesota, they tend to freeze. That's not the case here in Washington. Because of our mercurial weather and proximity to the Pacific ocean, our frozen features -- lakes, snow, ice caves -- tend to be unstable. And when weather begins to warm in spring (which lasts through June), things get even worse.

For people who do hike or snowshoe across snow in winter and spring, these unstable conditions combine with steep terrain to pose extra hazards, ranging from slick icy trails to collapsing snow bridges to avalanche chutes.

Tip: Stay off of frozen lakes, stay out of ice caves and take an avalanche awareness course if you plan to travel across snow.

5. Trails cross many different public lands, and those lands are managed for different purposes

Camano Island State Park by ejain.

We have a wealth of public lands in Washington, spanning federal, state, counties and cities. Different lands are managed by different agencies for different purposes, so one of the keys to finding your ideal hiking experience is understanding what lands you are best suited to your needs.

Honestly, it can be confusing, but once you sort it all out, knowing your lands can be a kind of decoder ring for figuring out all kinds of things. For example:

    • Want to take your family camping with the security of a roof over your head? State Parks are where you'll find the most cabins and yurts for rent.
    • If you want to hike with dogs, you'll want to stick to National Forest, State Park or most local park trails, because National Parks prohibit dogs.
    • If you aren't comfortable hiking during hunting season, stick to National parks or State Parks, where hunting is largely prohibited.
    • If reliable wildlife watching is your thing, you'll want to seek out National Wildlife Refuges around the state.
    • Prefer not to share your trails with mountain bikes or motorized vehicles? Aim for National Parks or one of our 31 Wilderness areas.

    Tip: When you research hikes, look for the land manager listed (under Map & Directions in our Hiking Guide) and start to pay attention to boundary lines on maps.

    Tip: Different lands also require different passes. If you want the most coverage, a combination of an annual Discovery Pass ($30) for state lands and the America the Beautiful Interagency Pass ($80) for federal lands will cover you for the year. If that's too steep, there are any combination of day or annual passes, as well as many fee-free options or fee-free days.

    6. Almost every time of year is hunting season somewhere

    Orange makes you more visible on trail. Photo by Ryan Ojerio.

    Many of Washington's public lands are open to hunters and anglers, and it's up to hikers to take some steps to help ensure their own safety. August, September and October are the height of hunting seasons in Washington, but some seasons on some lands continue into winter and spring.

    If hunting or hearing gunshots makes you uneasy, choose a hike in a location where hunting is not allowed, such as a National Park or a State Park.

    Tip: Learn your lands, and what is allowed where (see #5) and begin to learn about hunting seasons. If you will be hiking during hunting seasons, take simple steps to stay safe.

    7. Major (and minor) roads open and close every year

    WSDOT Clearing Highway 20 in 2016
    WSDOT crews make the first cut into the snowbank on Highway 20. Photo courtesy WSDOT.

    A few key routes well-traveled by hikers in Washington are seasonal. The North Cascades Highway, Chinook Pass and Cayuse Pass all close in the winter. Once they are cleared of snow in spring (dates range), they open back up to vehicle traffic.

    Other smaller roads may also close or be gated during winter. Artist Point closes because of snowfall, but becomes a popular winter snowshoeing route. Many Forest Service roads are closed and gated to vehicles as well. Their opening dates are also variable, depending on the winter and spring runoff damage. Some passes and roads (like those in Mount Rainier) require chains in the winter.

    Tip: No matter where you are planning to hike, it is a good idea to check road conditions along your entire route before you head out. The best way to know if you can get where you are going is to check with Washington State Department of Transportation (who does a good job with their Twitter feed) and/or the land manager directly.

    8. Hiking is a way of life for many different people

    Kids will love the Cathlapotle Plankhouse at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Ryan Ojerio.

    And has been for 10,000 years. From Washington's earliest residents to the many people who have shaped it in different ways over the years, our wild places have a long human history.

    When you hit the trails, expect to see many different people exploring and using trails for many different reasons, from seeking solitude, foraging, creating amazing art or spending time with family. The trail community is a rich tapestry of people and hiking traditions. That makes our hiking way of life both great and ever-evolving.

    Tip: Be a positive force for keeping the long trail culture of Washington inclusive for future generations. Help your fellow hikers, welcome new hikers to the fold, be a good steward for the trails, and lead by example.

    9. Trail etiquette is a thing

    Hiker stepping aside for horses
    When encountering horses or other livestock, hiker should say howdy and step downhill and off the trail (if it is safe) to let them pass. Photo by Anna Roth

    Like circle swimming laps in a lane, or not wandering onto a soccer field mid-match, there are a few basic rules that help trail users safely share the trails, and keep our wild places beautiful.

    First and foremost, keep the trails better than you found them. Pack out all your trash, including things like orange peels and dog poop bags. Learn how to properly dispose of your own waste, if a bathroom isn't around.

    When you pass other hikers, the hikers moving uphill have the right of way. If you're hiking downhill, step aside and let folks pass. We also share some of our trails with mountain bikes, livestock (like horses, llamas, and pack goats) and motorized vehicles. Learn the guidelines on who goes first, and the best way to step off of trail. If you hike with a dog (or dogs), keep your pups leashed, under control and yield to all other users.

    Once you've mastered the basics, you can graduate to learning about choosing a backcountry campsite when others are around, how many people should be in a single hiking group, the best practices for flying a drone and more.

    Tip: Learn the basic Leave No Trace principles and right of way rules, and put them into practice on every outing. When you're not sure what to do, just ask.

    10. It's not all rainforests and peaks

    Steamboat Rock
    Steamboat Rock. Photo by abertino.

    From the San Juan Islands to sagebrush and sunshine found in Coulee Country, Washington hiking is more than mountains or the famous Olympic Rainforest. Taking a hike can be as easy as finding a great city or county park with trails running through it. And some of those low elevation trails aren't just small nature walks, either. Rail trails can run for dozens of miles, and offer a very different hiking experiences.

    Tip: Explore your local parks, search the hiking guide and sign up for our free email newsletters, Trail News and Families Go Hiking. Check our seasonal suggestions for tips about where to find a great hike, any time of year.

    11. Trails aren't a given

    Supporting WTA means supporting our volunteers. A crew of volunteers spent a week in early June repairing sections of the Wonderland Trail. Photo by Kathy Bogaards.

    We may have a bounty of public lands and trails that travel through them here in Washington. But as much as we may enjoy and use them, their existence is not a given.

    Public lands are supported by public funding, and funding for trails has been slashed in the last 30 years. Even though more people are hitting the trails both close to town and deep in the backcountry, the public funding for those trails is nowhere near enough to sustain the trail maintenance, road repair and basic trailhead facilities (like parking, privies or trash removal) on that trail system. Even National Park entrance fees and passes like the Discover Pass or Northwest Forest Pass barely make a dent in the maintenance needs. Massive wildfire costs are also pulling resources away from basic maintenance.

    But, the situation isn't all doom and gloom. Washington state is waking up to the economic benefits of public lands, and more and more trail users are speaking up for the places they love. Every year, thousands of volunteers help agencies by lending a hand to help repair trails.

    Tip: Learn more about the state of funding for trails, and get involved in our Lost Trails Found campaign.