Washington state provides some of the best hiking and backpacking in the country
Despite what the last few weeks of weather might lead you to believe, it is now spring in Washington state.
For many of us here in the great Pacific Northwest, the end of the long, gray, wet of winter and the onset of spring means two things. Firstly, we remember we don’t actually hate life, it just wouldn’t stop raining and we were pretty grumpy about it.
Secondly, spring means hiking and backpacking season has come at last.
With two mountain ranges to choose from and vibrant ecosystems varying from thick rainforest on the Olympic peninsula to the dry, craggy canyons of Eastern Washington, our state is world-famous for its outdoor attractions.
As I have been fortunate enough to explore many of these regions throughout my adult life, I think it’s only right that I pass on a few recommendations for you all to enjoy this year.
Swan Creek Trail:
Distance: 4.8 miles roundtrip. Gain: 325 feet. Difficulty: Mild.
Starting very local and very easy, this beautiful river valley is only a 15-minute drive from campus. This is an excellent trail for beginners and is perfect for those who lack proper transportation to more remote areas.
The trial follows Swan Creek for a while before you eventually reach a series of short yet steep switchbacks which take you up to the top of the ridge. The views won’t match what you might see up in the mountains but the valley itself is filled with old-growth and second-growth deciduous trees which make this trail particularly stunning in the fall.
Lena Lake Trail:
Distance: 7.2 miles roundtrip. Gain: 1300 feet. Difficulty: Moderate.
Located on the eastern edge of the Olympic National Park and just off the Hood Canal, this one will be harder for beginners but is manageable for most. There is a serious stretch of switchbacks initially, yet once you pass these the rest of the hike is a breeze. Along the way, there are many imposing rock formations left over from volcanic activity and avalanches. The lake itself is beautiful, great for swimming and provides many camping spots.
For those who want more of a challenge, Lower Lena Lake provides an excellent base camp for the more strenuous Upper Lena Lake and The Brothers peaks. The Brothers require legitimate climbing experience and gear and should be taken on with caution and respect.
Ancient Lakes Trail:
Distance: Depends. Gain: Depends. Difficulty: Depends
This one is a “choose your own adventure” kind of hike. Located near the Columbia River Gorge and the small town of Quincy. This Eastern Washington ecosystem will bring out your inner Old West frontiersman as you scramble over craggy rocks, stroll through wide open plains of wildflowers and sagebrush and revel in star-filled skies to the sound of a coyote’s call.
If you stick to the lowlands around the several lakes scattered around the park, the difficulty is next to none. Yet surrounding these lowlands is an impressive array of high canyon walls carved out by Ice Age melting.
For those of a more daring disposition, there are many trails that lead up into the cliffs and you will be absolutely amazed at the kinds of things you find up there. Up in the cliffs, you can stroll along the edge of 400-foot cliffs and look out at the lowlands and the Columbia River gorge below. The wildlife is more abundant than you would think for such an arid region; marmots and coyotes are a common sight, as well as lots of birds of prey such as hawks, eagles, and owls.
Although the upper cliff regions are spectacular, this environment is extremely dangerous if you are not careful. The rocks are extremely sharp; one slip and you can be seriously hurt. Rattlesnakes are native to this region, so be sure to always check where you are stepping. Many of the trails become narrow catwalks that provide only minimal safety from falling hundreds of feet. If you choose to explore the cliffs, do not do so lightly. Treat this region with the utmost respect.
Finally, due to the arid environment, even the smallest twig provides essential nutrients for plants and animals. If you want to make a fire, bring your own wood, and spare the natural vegetation.
Distance: 32 miles. Gain: 6000 feet. Difficulty: Extreme, (This almost killed me.)
Finally, my all-time favorite hike as well as one of the best experiences of my life. Located in the South Cascades, this trail circumnavigates Mt. Saint Helens. You can begin this journey at either the Climber’s Bivouac trailhead in the south or the Windy Pass trailhead in the northeast.
Mt. Saint Helens erupted in 1980. Hiking this trail allows you to experience every inch of an ecosystem in recovery. Each of the many valleys you will pass through is recovering in its own way, wooded glens give way to open fields of wildflowers. Blackened lava beds glisten in the sunlight as the mist of waterfalls and rivers dance between the rocks. You will be awestruck at the power of a volcanic eruption as you see a landscape torn and broken in massive heaps of rock. Boulders the size of two-story buildings are miles away from where they should be, and impact craters filled with debris are constant obstacles for even the most experienced backpacker.
Be advised, clean water sources are few and far between, and trail conditions vary as much of this recovering ecosystem is fragile and subject to change. Many people do not complete this trail. While there are certainly more difficult hikes around, this is one of the more serious in the state and should not be taken lightly. That being said, this is the proudest achievement of my hiking career. The three days I spent pushing myself to absolute exhaustion were some of the most spiritually fulfilling of my life. For those with confidence in their abilities and experience in backpacking, I could not recommend this experience enough.
Like any exercise, hiking isn’t easy, and backpacking is even harder. Yet with my experience, I can promise it’s worth the effort. Humankind was not meant to live out its days between four, sheet-rocked walls. We spent much of our history in wide open spaces, with mountains and trees being our only boundaries. Something shifts deep inside of us when we spend a few days and nights out in the uncomfortable, wild and beautiful open world as our ancestors did.
So get out there this summer, sweat so hard you’ll want to burn your T-shirt. Pretend you are Frogger as you hop logs to cross a river. Have a few beers with some friends at the top of a cliff and talk about a dope rock you found. Scamper up a ravine, fall in a puddle, skin your knee. In the end, you might just find that you are less worried about things than you thought you were.