Trails for everyone, forever
By Craig Romano
I have hiked more than 40,000 miles in my life. I’ve hiked for fun and for work and for fun work! I was a backcountry ranger in New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest and a guide in France and Spain’s Pyrenees Mountains, before becoming a trail guidebook author. I have hiked in some spectacular places over the years — from Quebec’s Chic Choc Mountains to Chile’s Torres de Paine National Park to national parks around the world. Yet some of my favorite hiking destinations — and some of the most stunning landscapes I’ve seen— are right here in Washington.
What makes Washington one of the best places to hike? It’s the state’s incredible geographical diversity coupled with its extensive and well-maintained trail networks (thanks in large part to WTA). And like Washington’s trails, I can go on forever about the virtues of hiking in the Evergreen State. So let me elaborate a little on just what makes Washington so great.
With just a few exceptions, Washington pretty much has it all when it comes to landscapes and ecosystems. Hit the trail in five major mountain ranges: the Cascades, Olympics, Selkirks, Blues and Kettle River Range. Wander around active volcanoes and through deep canyons, sprawling coulees and tight lava tubes. You can hike along a rugged coastline, mighty rivers, massive lakes, wildlife-rich estuaries and bays and to thousands of sparking alpine lakes. There are sand dunes, rolling hills, plateaus, prairies and sprawling alpine meadows to explore. Meander through primeval temperate rainforests, alpine tundra and arid sun-kissed shrub-steppe.
Washington is home to three national parks that highlight some of the most stunning scenery in the nation. Mount Rainier was established in 1899 as our fifth national park and features the state’s highest and most iconic summit. There are more than 260 miles of trails, including the 93-mile round-the-mountain Wonderland Trail. Olympic National Park, which is a sprawling 920,000-plus acres, protects a backpacker’s paradise with more than 600 miles of trails leading to remote wildlife-rich valleys, ridges, mountaintops, wild coastlines and some of the country’s largest remaining tracts of old-growth forest. The North Cascades National Park complex (which includes the Ross Lake and Lake Chelan national recreation areas) covers some of the most rugged and remote alpine country in America. Head out on its more than 400 miles of trails and experience a wilderness adventure with excellent chances of encountering some of the state’s largest and rarest mammals.
Washington is also home to several other national park units, including Ebey’s Landing National Historic Reserve, with its gorgeous coastline and blufftop trails and San Juan Island National Historic Park, with trails traversing coastal prairies and leading to quiet coves.
Washington contains seven national forests (Olympic, Gifford Pinchot, Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie, Okanogan-Wenatchee, Umatilla, Colville and Kaniksu) encompassing more than 9.2 million acres. From Olympic, with its moss-shrouded rainforests, to Umatilla, with its sunny, forested canyons, you can travel thousands of miles of trails. A national forest can be found within a short driving distance of all the state’s population centers. And in addition to their extensive trail networks, these forests (like the state’s national parks) offer scores of developed campgrounds.
Washington has almost 4.5 million acres protected within 31 units of the federal wilderness system. These wilderness areas are found within all of the state’s national parks and forests, as well as on some Bureau of Land Management land and a national wildlife refuge. Their total acreage places Washington fifth among the states in total land in wilderness. From storm-battered islands to glacier-cloaked peaks to sun-scorched dunes, these 31 wilderness areas protect some of the most wild and ecologically diverse lands in the world. All but a couple of them can be visited by trail. Each wilderness has its own unique attributes and allures. The 420,000-plus-acre Alpine Lakes Wilderness protects more than 700 sparkling backcountry lakes. The sprawling half-million-plus-acre Pasayten Wilderness along the Canadian border offers ample opportunities for solitude. The 560,000-plus-acre Glacier Peak Wilderness protects the wild country surrounding Washington’s most remote volcano. Northeastern Washington’s Salmo-Priest Wilderness is home to some of the state’s last grizzly bears. And Southeast Washington’s Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness teems with Rocky Mountain elk.
Aside from our state’s national parks and forests, we have three national monuments, too. Head to the San Juan Islands National Monument to hike across prairies and bluffs offering unsurpassed shoreline scenery and breathtaking views of the Olympic Mountains and British Columbia’s Vancouver Island and Gulf Islands. At the Hanford Reach National Monument, hike across an arid landscape of towering white bluffs and sand dunes along the largest free-flowing non-coastal stretch of the Columbia River. And you will be awed by the 200 miles of trails in the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. The 32-mile Loowit Trail circumnavigating the volcano is classic and the hike to St. Helens’ summit is iconic.
Washington has five active volcanoes — each offering its own unique hiking experiences. Hike the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier. Make the nontechnical but grueling climb to Washington’s second-highest peak, 12,280-foot Mount Adams. Explore the 1980 blast zone of Mount St. Helens or climb it and witness the growth of a glacier within its crater. Set out on a multiday wilderness excursion to Glacier Peak, the state’s most wild and remote volcano. Or amble on the wildflower-shrouded ridges of Mount Baker, Washington’s snowiest volcano.
Washington contains more than 180 glaciers — more than half of all the glaciers in the Lower 48. Plan a hike to admire some of them, including the sprawling Blue Glacier on Mount Olympus at the end of the Hoh River Trail. Or hike along the Carbon River in Mount Rainier National Park to the massive Carbon Glacier, located at an elevation of just 3,500 feet, the lowest in the continental United States.
More than 70 miles of the state’s Pacific Ocean coastline is protected within Olympic National Park. In Washington, it’s possible to backpack along the ocean and have a wilderness experience. And Southwest Washington’s Leadbetter Point offers 8 miles of wild beach to hike at the tip of a peninsula that shifts with the tides, currents and storms.
Hike on an island in Washington. The state’s Salish Sea is dotted with them, from one of the largest islands in the Lower 48 (Whidbey) to one of the most charming archipelagos in America (the San Juans).
Washington is home to the intriguingly named channeled scablands. A series of canyons, coulees, mesas and bluffs in the arid shrub-steppe heart of the state, they were shaped by ancient massive floods. The best way to experience them, of course, is by trail. Time your adventure to marvel at blossoming wildflowers or migrating sandhill cranes.
There are only a few places on the planet that boast temperate rainforests — New Zealand, Chile, Alaska, British Columbia and Washington. Hike one of Olympic National Park’s rainforests through stands of spruce, cedar and hemlocks that nearly rival California’s redwoods when it comes to age, size and girth.
And while Washington is known as the Evergreen state, with its firs, cedars and hemlocks, the state also contains its fair share of deciduous trees, too. The Columbia River Gorge is graced with stands of elegant Garry oaks scattered among stately ponderosa pines. The oak forests are supermarkets for wildlife. Other stately hardwoods, bigleaf maples, black cottonwoods, aspens and Oregon ashes also grow in Washington and make their presence known in the autumn. That’s also the time when western larches and alpine larches (the latter only grow in a few areas in the country) shroud entire mountain sides in gold. It’s a magical time to hike the state.
Washington is dissected by the mightiest river west of the Mississippi River. And while the Columbia River offers excellent paddling opportunities, it also can be appreciated via trail. Hike along the river at its wide mouth at Cape Disappointment State Park, where it dramatically cuts through the Cascades at the Columbia River Gorge, and in the heart of the state at the Hanford Reach, where it bends among towering white bluffs.
Washington is laced with many historic trails reflecting its culturally and ethnically diverse heritage. Throughout the state, vestiges of trails that were once main travel corridors for Indigenous people, pioneers, immigrants and explorers can still be hiked. Along these trails, relics of the past tell stories of conflict, heartbreak, success, new beginnings and endings of ways of life. They are great trails to reflect upon the past, assess the current time and contemplate the possibilities for the future.
Washington is home to some of the country’s grandest creatures. Take to the state’s backcountry for the chance to see mountain goats, bighorn sheep, elk, moose, black bears, grizzly bears, lynx, gray wolves, pikas, fishers and wolverines. Hike the islands for the chance to witness gray whales and orcas.
Two of the country’s long-distance national scenic trails traverse the state. The Pacific Crest Trail winds for more than 500 miles in our state, from the Columbia River to British Columbia along the spine of the Cascades. The Pacific Northwest Trail travels 900 miles west to east from the Pacific Ocean to the Idaho border, traversing some of the loneliest backcountry in Washington.
Washington’s thriving cities are great places to hike and some of the finest urban parks and urban tail systems within the country can be found in them. Hike Tacoma’s Point Defiance Park’s old-growth forests, Seattle’s Discovery Park’s coastal bluffs, Spokane’s Riverside Park’s basalt canyon, Vancouver’s Renaissance Trail along the Columbia River and the Tri-Cities’ Badger Mountain for wildflowers and horizon-spanning views.
And lastly and perhaps most importantly, the state fosters an active, inclusive, growing and dynamic community of hikers and outdoor recreationists. Washington is home to first-class hiking clubs and organizations like the Washington Trails Association and The Mountaineers; and scores of conservation organizations which continue to work hard to preserve our state’s natural resources, wild places, special trail systems, and outdoor way of life. If I haven’t convinced you yet to why Washington is one of the greatest places to hit the trail — then perhaps it’s time you take a hike!
Craig Romano is a guidebook author, craigromano.com.