Category Archives: Hiking

How to Start Hiking in Washington

Friends and colleagues ask me all the time about how they can get into hiking safely. But Seattle interns and new hires, this post is for you! Hiking here in the Cascades may be very different than hiking back home (it was for me, coming from the Midwest).

It’s easy, and over time one can build up a base of experience to move from easier to the most challenging hikes in the area. But there are a few prerequisites to hike responsibly.

Understand the risks:

Almost every day of hiking in the mountains can be a mellow experience but things can go wrong. Hypothermia (exposure), falls on snow or rock, and snow avalanches kill several Washington hikers every year. You can mitigate these hazards and other less common ones with common sense, selection of appropriate trails, equipment, and knowledge.

Find a friend:

It’s much safer (and more enjoyable) to enjoy the wilderness with one or more other people! Even better, find a mentor or someone with outdoor experience to show you the ropes. I gained experience by joining the Wasatch Mountain Club when I lived in Utah – the Mountaineers would be a good choice around here and they have a strong hiking program – no “mountaineering” required.

Find a trail:

You can locate great trails on the Washington Trails Association hike finder map. The homepage will also recommend seasonally appropriate hikes. In general, elevation gain is more challenging than mileage. Washington’s trails change a great deal from month to month, and snow can make trailhead access impossible and backcountry travel much more serious – WTA trip reports can help you check conditions in advance. Most high country trails melt out by June – July depending on the area.

You will likely need to purchase a pass to park at the trailhead and in general the WTA hiking guide will tell you which one you need. You may not be able to purchase one early on weekend mornings so plan a couple days ahead.

On National Forest trails in Washington, the Northwest Forest Pass ($30) is often required. On WA State Park land, you’ll need a Discover Pass ($30 plus vendor fee). Both are good for 12 months from date of purchase. Mount Rainier National Park and Olympic NP have separate daily and annual entrance fees. If you think you’ll visit more than one national park and plan on purchasing the NW Forest Pass anyway, you can purchase the annual America The Beautiful pass ($80) at one of the national parks – that will work on all federal land and works everywhere the NW Forest Pass is also accepted (but NOT for the Discover Pass / WA State Parks!)

Get the 10 essentials:

The Seattle Mountaineers developed the Ten Essentials list and it remains a tried and true minimal set of equipment carried by responsible day hikers. This is the bare minimum that anyone should carry when venturing onto anything but the shortest forest or mountain trails. It should fit into a small bookbag or daypack.

  • Navigation (map and compass)

First: navigation tools don’t work unless you have the skills to interpret your surroundings. Get a real compass (with declination adjustment) and learn how to use it (or take a class to practice your skills). You can print custom topographic maps for free using CalTopo. I always hike with a paper map as a backup but often use the Gaia GPS app ($20) for my iPhone and download maps of the area before I leave cell service (TopoMaps+ is a good free alternative).

  • Sun protection (sunglasses and sunscreen)

Particularly critical if venturing onto snow, believe it or not.

  • Insulation (extra clothing)

I generally carry enough clothing so that if I had to spend the night out I could survive (if not comfortably). Generally, in the cascades this always includes a waterproof jacket and either a fleece or a lightweight puffy jacket, even in summer. Give yourself some margin – water and wind can chill you in a hurry and the Cascades supply both in great amounts.

There’s a saying – “cotton kills” – because cotton clothing cools the body when wet and can contribute to hypothermia. If possible, find synthetic or merino wool hiking clothes.

  • Illumination (headlamp/flashlight)
  • First-aid supplies

I always carry gloves, ibuprofen, some sort of blister treatment such as moleskin, some small bandages, and something to cleanse wounds like alcohol swabs and antibiotic ointment. I also carry Benadryl/diphenhydramine in the event that someone in my party gets a sting or allergic reaction. For longer trips I carry a bigger kit. I only ever end up using blister supplies.

  • Fire

Even if I carry a lighter I keep matches in a small waterproof canister.

  • Knife

I keep a small but sharp single blade. If I’m skiing or might need to repair anything I take a small multitool.

  • Nutrition (extra food)
  • Hydration (extra water)
  • Emergency shelter

I have to admit I could do better on this one. For dayhikes I typically rely on my clothing outerwear to keep me dry in an emergency. In winter conditions I carry a shovel and have the skills to build a snow shelter (this has been a lifesaving technique for several people I know when caught out in bad weather).

Pick your footwear:

I often hike in running shoes, but if you are concerned about the possibility of rolled ankles or if you are doing a rugged hike, you may consider purchasing hiking boots. Don’t let a lack of hiking boots hold you back from moderate summer hikes though.

On the other hand, waterproof boots are almost a necessity for snowy or wet spring hiking. The top features I look for are:

  • Good fit (a store like Second Ascent or REI can help – Mountaineers members get 10% off at SA)
  • Gore-Tex waterproof membrane
  • Light weight (don’t get very heavy, full grain leather backpacking boots or mountaineering boots)

And treat yourself to a pair of wool hiking socks – your warm, blister-free feet will thank you.

Check the weather:

While mountain weather can change rapidly, it’s important to have an idea of what to expect. Weather.gov has the most accurate, location-specific forecasts. You can pick an exact spot on the topo map and it will calculate altitude-appropriate temperatures (it gets about 2-3F colder per 1000’ of elevation). There is an excellent forecast generated specifically for Mount Rainier NP here.

Leave a plan:

Let someone know where you are going and when you expect to return. Tell them to contact the county sheriff of the location you are hiking if they don’t hear from you after your return time.

Go!

Get out and enjoy the Cascades!

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Cutthroat Pass and Winthrop

In early July, my friend from Michigan, Nick, came to Seattle for a visit on a long road trip. Last time we hiked together was on Mt. Timanogos in Utah! I figured since he already had plans to visit Olympic and Mount Rainier National Park, I’d show him a little bit of our least-visited, third national park: North Cascades.

Unfortunately the weather was a little bit cloudy for us as we climbed toward Cutthroat Pass, a high mountain pass with trail access located just east of Washington Pass on SR-20. I didn’t realize until the trailhead that the Cutthroat area is not really in the park boundary. Nevertheless, any day in the North Cascades is a good one. We hiked along easy trail to Cutthroat Lake, occupying the head of the valley, and snapped a couple of photos before beginning the well-graded switchbacks up to the pass.

We soon broke out into the open, alpine terrain that makes north central Washington so beautiful. This area would be ridiculous in fall – I’ll need to come back and visit or maybe move a little bit east to the Pasayten Wilderness for a more extended trip.

We met up with the PCT at the pass and walked along it for a mile or so before encountering some lingering firm snow slopes that we elected not to cross over. Instead, we enjoyed the views with lunch and watched as the cloud deck pulled up a little bit and afforded some views of the local granite peaks.

Continue reading Cutthroat Pass and Winthrop

Desert Hiking in Vantage

Andrea is in town this week and had never been to a desert before, so I figured that this was the time of year for that kind of adventure. We headed eastbound on I-90 through the Kittitas Valley, stopping in Ellensburg to avail ourselves of a wine tasting Groupon before continuing along to Vantage (a bit over 2 hours total).

Crossing the Cascade crest at Snoqualmie, one can sense a dramatic change in the landscape as the next two dozen miles roll by. Dense Douglas and silver fir forest transitions to drier, more open stands of Ponderosa pine. Passing through the city of Cle Elum, the forests turn to grassland and alfalfa fields. The contrasting ecological regions are a consequence of the Cascade rain shadow, where Pacific moisture rises on the west slopes and falls out as precipitation near the passes, drying out the air before it makes it to the other side. East of Ellensburg, the rain shadow effect is at its strongest, producing an arid shrub-steppe landscape straight out of a Western movie. It may not technically be a desert but it sure looks like one.

Our first stop was in the Gingko Petrified Forest State Park, where we enjoyed the polished petrified wood specimens at the interpretive center for a few minutes before heading out on the trail. The trail started north of the visitor center on Recreation Road, crossing mostly BLM land I think (trailhead description here). The terrain was open and afforded good views of the Columbia River and lots of wildflowers. We saw a few mountain bikers but nobody else.

Continue reading Desert Hiking in Vantage

Abiel Peak

Abiel Peak

5365′

Class 3

Abiel Peak is a fun scrambling peak off of I-90. I attempted this two ways – once in a failed attempt to see if we could finish an unusual route from Annette Lake, and one the easy way from the PCT.

Abiel from Annette Lake – The Hard Way (Sep 12)

On an overnight camping trip at the lake, a friend and I tried to scramble up the rugged, tree covered west ridge of Abiel by gaining a saddle in a talus-filled ravine southwest of the lake. We ambled around to the southwest edge of the lake, left the trail, and travelled on open talus to the steep treeline at the westerly of two saddle points on the ridge. This one looked more open and less forested than the east saddle point, but it turned out to be a bad move. The terrain was steep, loose dirt with very few hand and footholds. We found it too dangerous to continue and turned around. I bet the more easterly saddle marked on the map would go but we haven’t tried it; nonetheless, it was a fun adventure.

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Looking at the talus gulley from Annette Lake’s north shore
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Silver Peak on the ascent

Continue reading Abiel Peak

Ingalls Lake Larches

Long distance bites, but it means that every time I get to see Andrea it’s like a mini vacation. Fortunately, the timing of her September visit couldn’t have been better since it corresponded to the “turning” of the larches – Washington’s deciduous conifer – into their characteristic bright yellow in the autumn. But first, some photos from a quick day trip to Whidbey Island, including Ebey’s Landing and Fort Casey:

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Right then, onto the beautiful scenery:

Ingalls Lake Larches

This hike starts from the trailhead at the end of the Teanaway Road, accessed through Cle Elum on the east slopes of the Cascades. This is one of my absolute favorite areas (see this trip in the early spring on skis), but I haven’t yet been up in the autumn to see the larches. The trail is pretty straightforward with some moderate elevation gain and there are plenty of trail guides out there, so I won’t go into much detail.

The trail ascends to Ingalls Pass by traversing along some steep hills but the trail has good tread (sketchy in snowy conditions sometimes though). There are good views of Esmeralda Peak from here but no larches yet.

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Esmeralda Peak before reaching Ingalls Pass

Once we reached Ingalls Pass, the larches were ablaze on the other side of the ridge on the cooler, north facing slopes.

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First glimpse of larches

The grove of larches extends all the way to the slopes of the Ingalls Peaks. We ambled through this section taking lots of photos. They don’t really capture the “Dr. Seuss” effect of the oddly shaped trees in the grove.

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Love the autumn sky


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As we neared Lake Ingalls, the weather started to move in a little bit and the light didn’t capture the color of the trees as well. They definitely contrast better against blue sky.

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Mt. Stuart reflecting pool

However, the low hanging clouds interacted with the terrain in interesting ways. I’m pretty happy with this next shot for some reason.

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Weather coming in over the Stuart range – from the shores of Lake Ingalls

It started to drizzle on us at the lake. We ate our lunch, called it a day, and headed back for the car.

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Clouds rolling in