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Weird Weather, Low Snowpack: What to Expect in an Unusual Early Hiking Season

Posted by Loren Drummond at Mar 13, 2015 07:05 PM |
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We're likely to be feeling the impacts of the warm weather and low snowpack all year long. But for now, enjoy the warmer temperatures and early explorations using these seasonal hiking tips.

Whether you've been out on the trails yourselves, or just been reading about conditions in trip reports, there is no doubt about it: this hiking season is just different than in years' past.

As we've hiked and read your trip reports, we've been amazed by how many trails reaching up into the Olympic Peaks or along the Kettle Crest have been spotty or even clear of snow. The North Cascades Hwy. is looking to be plowed and reopen mid-April. On recent sunny weekends, it feels like the entire hiking community has come out of hibernation early to stretch our legs.

As you head out on trail, take a despondent skiier or snowboarder along with you (a hike might cheer them up) and use a little extra caution. It's an odd season, and we'll need to rely on each other to stay safe and updated on the fast-changing conditions.

Some idea of what to expect and tips for staying safe:

Less snow, more ice

"The snow alternated between soft and mushy (step, step, posthole...step, step, posthole) and slip-and-slide icy, and it was present in its' varying states the entire way up." That an excerpt from Ponder and Muse's Rachel Lake trip report, where they also describe several vehicles getting stuck trying to reach the trailhead.

  • Still snow. There is a lot less snow in our peaks this year, sure, but it is still up there. If you're thinking of testing the season in the high country of the Cascades (4,000+ ft elevation), go fully prepared and have the skills to manage snow conditions, and fast-changing ones at that.
  • Traction devices seem to be the recommendation of the month in trip reports. There is a lot of ice on trails right now, and if you're only hiking in tennis shoes, it's probably best to turn around when you hit snow. Alternatively, stay off the steep icy slopes altogether and catch the early flower blooms on lower-elevation trails.

Icy trail Bandera
Icy trail near the summit of Bandera Mountain on March 2. Photo and trip report by Paul Kriloff.

Rough trails and roads

Trails and roads that aren't used to seeing much traffic this time of year may be in pretty rough shape. Budgets and prior-year calendars often set trail crew and ranger staffing, so no one has been out to clear and repair most trails or forest roads.

  • When you go, expect the trails and roads to be in rougher shape than you might be used to later in the season.
  • Trees will be down, and early warm, wet weather has meant erosion on trails used to being tucked in under a blanket of protective snow.

Toilets and trash

"The outhouses were locked, and many, many people have tromped into the woods behind them and left a stinky pile of poo and toilet paper," reported playapixie last week from Lake Serene.

With no staff to do the unscheduled work, trailhead privies, backcountry toilets and trash cans may also not be open or emptied.

Campsite Rachel Lake
If you are going to camp, make sure to Leave No Trace. Photo of camp at Rachel Lake by Ponder.

Weather and water crossings

Weather conditions can change quickly any day of the year in the mountains, but particularly in the spring. The snow that we did get has also been melting. Snow melt and heavy rains can swell streams quickly, even in the course of a day hike. (Last month, a sudden swollen stream stranded 3 hikers overnight on the popular Lena Lake Trail.)

  • Every hiker should carry rain gear and several layers of warm clothing, and anticipate changing the layers often to combat rain, wind, sweat and mists from waterfalls.
  • Step carefully across creeks and streams, and anticipate possible flow changes before crossing.

More wildlife, including bears, out and about

Due to unseasonably warm weather, bears are on the move early this year, prompting state wildlife managers to remind the public about ways to avoid conflicts with black bears.

Rich Beausoleil, bear and cougar specialist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), said the department has already received reports of black bear activity in King and Chelan counties and coastal areas.

"Black bears usually start making appearances in mid-to-late April, but warm weather can cause them to stir earlier," Beausoleil said. The spring diet for black bears consists mostly of herbaceous plants, from emerging grasses and sedges to horsetail and various flowering plants.

Go hiking, have fun and help each other out

From water sources to wildlife, bugs and wildfires, we're likely to be feeling the impacts of the warm weather and low snowpack all year long.

But for now, enjoy the warmer temperatures and early explorations. Go find some wildflowers. If you're used to having local trails to yourself this time of year and sharing has you feeling like a bit like a bear just out of hibernation, head a little farther afield to seek your solitude.

Most importantly, help us and each other out by continuing to file trip reports about how things are changing out there!

Steamboat Rock March
Steamboat Rock trip report by White Noise.