The backpackers of today do not differ much from the hippie backpackers of the '60s and '70s who were looking to travel cheaply, for long periods of time, and with as few material possessions as possible. Whether you are strapping on a pack and setting out across Europe or bundling together a sleeping pad and lightweight cookware and heading up a mountainside, there is an almost addictive compulsion to existing solely on what you are able to carry.
Backpacking is an education and a lifestyle as much as it is an activity, and it does not take long to see why the Pacific Northwest is a backpacker’s mecca. Glaciers dominate the high country while meadows with undulating grass give way to subalpine lakes and old growth forests. Beach hikes, cliff lookouts, and herds of roving Roosevelt elk invite further exploration. Most backpacking hotspots are located within the North Cascade Mountains and Olympic National Park, but the adventurous and determined hikers will find trails just about anywhere.
Tips: Plan for entrance fees, park passes, and camping permits. Also be aware that you may be in protected wilderness areas. Treat your surroundings as the fragile ecosystem that they are and help preserve the natural beauty by leaving no trace.
Information: No entrance fee • No backcountry permit camping fees • Northwest Forest Pass (required at most trailheads): $5.
This stately range extends from British Columbia all the way south to northern California and contains over 140 designated backpacking sites in Washington State alone. The snow-laden peaks are a winter wanderer’s paradise, with over 300 glaciers and more than 300 lakes and ponds that crystallize in delicate patterns when the temperatures plummet. Mt. Rainier is the towering jewel of these mountains, the tallest stratovolcano state with at 14,411 feet. The Big Four Ice Caves, located on Big Four Mountain in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, are a popular destination for hikers eager to see the result of water and warm winds on snow drifts along the mountainside.
Top North Cascade Trails:
Wonderland Trail: This strenuous 93-mile trail around Mt. Rainier takes you above the tree line into high-alpine areas, through valleys and meadows filled with wildflowers in the spring, and across countless rivers. Because of its high altitude and proximity to the Pacific Ocean, the trail is usually covered in snow through the end of July. Late summer is the best time to hike. Be prepared for a total cumulative elevation gain of 22,000 feet. Average hiking time is one to two weeks.
McAlester Pass/Rainbow Lake Loop: Subalpine lakes are the appeal of this forested trail. Ledges along the south-facing slopes afford views of Lake Chelan, the longest lake in the state (55 miles) and the third deepest lake in the country (1,486 feet). The snow is usually gone by the first day of spring, making spring and summer the ideal backpacking seasons. Depending on your starting point, the trail is between 31.5 and 35.3 miles round trip. Average hiking time is four days.
Devil’s Dome Loop: Like the Wonderland Trail, much of this high-elevation mountainous trail is snow-laden until late summer. Ross Lake, Jack Mountain, and the Pasayten Mountains are several landmarks around which you’ll navigate along the way. Round trip is 40.4 miles, and the average hiking time is four to five days.
Information: Entrance fee per vehicle: $15 • Camping fee: $10 - $18 (depending on season) • Overnight permit: $5 plus an additional $2 per person per night.
Covering 633,677 acres, this World Heritage Site and Biosphere protects over 73 miles of Pacific coastline and draws 40,000 backpackers every year—and with good reason. As of 1988, 95% of Olympic National Park is designated wilderness and is home to some of the world’s largest trees. The west side of these mountains receives upwards of 12 feet of rain annually, making the region a temperate rain forest. The east side lies in what is known as a “rain shadow” and sees just over two feet of precipitation each year. Hikes cover a vast range of terrain, from beach walks to alpine treks. The area’s most magnetic attractions include scenic Hurricane Ridge, Sol Duc Falls and Hot Springs, and the Hoh Rainforest.
Top Peninsula Trails:
Hoh River Trail: The first 13 miles of this well-maintained trail are fairly flat, but turn steep for the final four and a half miles to Glacier Meadows. The terrain varies from easy to moderate, and the stunning views of Mt. Olympus, Blue Glacier, the Hoh River, and surrounding forests are proof that you don’t have to embark on a grueling trek to be greatly rewarded. Best hiking months are late June through September. The average hiking time for this 34.6-mile round trip is three to four days.
High Divide Loop (Seven Lakes Basin): Mid-July through September is the ideal time to head out on this moderately difficult trail through old growth forests, and subalpine meadows. Frequent views of Mt. Olympus will keep you motivated for the 18.2-mile round trip, as will the numerous lakes and abundance of elk, deer, and bears. Average hiking time is two to three days.
Other Top Backpacking Destinations
The Enchantments: Located within the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in Wenatchee National Forest, the Enchantments are a series of granite mountain peaks and turquoise glacial tarns. Though technically in the Central Cascade range, the Stuart and Wenatchee mountains are close enough to make you feel you are a part of them. Most backpackers start at the Snow Lakes trailhead near the town of Leavenworth, and hike ten grueling (elevation gain of 6,000 feet) to the base of the Enchantment mountains. You’ll share the 18-mile round trip with curious mountain goats, marmots, and black bears. Permits are needed to camp overnight. Average hiking time is 2-3 days.
Kettle Crest Trail: While you won’t find glaciers or spindly crags along this series of trails in the northeastern corner of the state, you will find open forests and expansive meadows. There are over 110 miles of path stretching 40 miles from the Colville Indian Reservation all the way north across the Canadian border. The White Mountain fire in 1988 charred 20,000 miles on either side of the trail, and today the scenery showcases lush green sprouting from parched black. The best seasons for hiking are late spring through mid-autumn. Numerous camping opportunities and miles of maintained trails allow you to dictate the duration of your trip, with the option to turn around at any point.
- Backpacking Destination Websites:
- • North Cascades: www.nps.gov/noca/index.htm
- • Olympic Peninsula: www.fs.fed.us/r6/wenatchee
- • Wenatchee National Forest: www.fs.fed.us/r6/wenatchee
- • Kettle Crest Range: www.wta.org/go-hiking/hikes/kettle-crest-north
- Gear Outfitters/Rentals:
- • Brown’s Outdoor Inc. in Port Angeles (includes rentals): 360-457-4150, brownsoutdoor.com
- • REI in Bellingham, Lynnwood, Issaquah, Redmond, Seattle, Kennewick, Spokane, Tukwila, and Tacoma: 1-800-426-4840, rei.com
- • Patagonia in Seattle: 1-800-638-6464, patagonia.com
- Wilderness Camping Permits:
- Camping permits are required for all overnight stays on the Olympic Peninsula and may be obtained at the following locations:
- • Wilderness Information Center in the Olympic National Park Visitor Center: 360-565-3100
- • Quinault Wilderness Information Center: 360-288-0232
- • Olympic National Park/Olympic National Forest Recreation Information Center in Forks: 360-877-7566
- • Staircase Ranger Station near Hoodsport: 360-877-5569