Tag Archives: Washington

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.


Get out and enjoy the Cascades!

Flett Glacier Summer Skiing

I’m in the hunt for my first year of Turns All Year (getting 12 consecutive months with at least one day of skiing) and August/September are always tough. Fortunately, I may have found my new summer stash (a HUGE upgrade from the crowded, suncupped Muir Snowfield) – namely, the Flett Glacier in the Mowich Lake area of MRNP.

Our group of four arrived at Mowich Lake around 9am on a busy summer Sunday, loaded the skis on packs, and hiked the very pleasant 4.5 miles along the Spray Park trail (and off trail) to the toe of the Flett Glacier.

The glacier appeared to be more like a permanent snowfield, at least from the headwall straight down. To the right there were some crevasses on one of the lobes of the glacier. We didn’t bring glacier gear though.

After a pleasant skin up fairly smooth August snow, we evaluated conditions on the 45 degree headwall. There was some rockfall coming down from the cliffs on the left and right so pay attention to where you hang out and consider a helmet for the scramble to the top.

I stayed behind while the others braved a loose scree slope to traverse up to the headwall (looped around to the east, passing in front of Observation Rock before gaining the top of the face). There were some melted out rocks which everyone shredded around with some ease (but don’t fall right now…)

The view down into Spray Park above Cateye Lake was stunning. How have I never been in this corner of the park before?

The headwall skiers reported that the skiing lower down on the glacier was the most fun and I agree. These were good turns, period – not just “good for August.”

We happily lapped 1000′ of the lower glacier (to the foot of the headwall) again and snow conditions remained smooth and fast for us in the late afternoon. Then came 4.5 more miles of very pleasant ski carrying through Spray Park. Please be kind to the meadow!


The mountain sure looks pretty from this angle.

Thanks Brian for organizing a great trip!

Mount Rainier via the Disappointment Cleaver

Mount Rainier via Disappointment Cleaver route


9000’+ gain

This post represents two milestones: I recently had the opportunity to summit Mt. Rainier for the first time, and this is my 100th post on the Blog! I couldn’t have picked a more fitting trip.

We ascended via the easiest route on the mountain (the DC route) but Rainier is not an easy mountain and it was a significant challenge I’ll remember for a long time.

My team of 4 independent climbers geared up at the Wilderness Information Center at Paradise on Friday morning at 6am in order to get in line for a permit on the Ingraham Glacier – which we scored the last of!

We set off from Paradise at 7:30am or so, gaining over 2500′ on dry ground until we hit the Muir Snowfield for the last few thousand feet to our first rest stop, at Camp Muir (elevation 10,200′). We grabbed some food, rested for a bit, then roped up for travel across the mellow traverse on the Cowlitz Glacier.

After reaching the dry rocks on the other side (Cathedral Gap) we shortened the rope with Kiwi coils and continued up the loose but manageable switchbacks. Soon we stepped onto the heavily crevassed Ingraham Glacier for the final couple hundred feet to camp.

Continue reading Mount Rainier via the Disappointment Cleaver

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

Mount Adams ski descent

Mt. Adams


6700′ gain

I’ve done Adams twice before and its outstanding south ski slopes have turned it into what I hope is an annual pilgrimage for me. Both times I chose to climb/ski it in a day instead of camping over – both of these are brutal due to the long drive from Seattle and the very large amount of gain. This time we elected to camp and I think it was a good variation.

David and I arrived at Cold Springs campground in the early afternoon on a Saturday and struggled to find parking, per usual. I think backcountry skiing has gotten more popular even in the short time I’ve been doing it myself. We lifted our heavy packs and started out walking on dry ground, for around an hour until we hit the around the mountain trail. We transitioned shortly after and started skinning up Suksdorf Ridge (the winter route, skiers right). We gained, gained gained elevation  and I could tell my conditioning wasn’t what it was last year – thankful that we were breaking up the climb into two days. However, my new Dynafit Denali touring skis and bindings were a huge weight improvement over my old set. It was especially apparent on such a long ascent.

After a few hours we made it to our campsite at around 9000′ on Suksdorf Ridge, among rocks overlooking the ‘lunch counter’ area. We could see the massive south slopes that we would ascend the following day. We also considered descending the Southwest Chutes route, but that would involve carrying over our overnight gear and the high snow level made the traverse back to the trailhead a bit of an unknown.

The campsite was gloriously scenic as the sun set that night.

St. Helens:

Continue reading Mount Adams ski descent