Home How-to How to choose a hiking trip in Washington

How to choose a hiking trip in Washington

by Amanda Phillips

Hello, lovely hiking friends. Today I thought I would walk you through the steps I take when planning a day hiking trip in Washington State. There are so many resources that it can get overwhelming, but on the flip side, not doing enough planning can get you in some sticky situations.

This weekend is particularly special as Saturday, September 30, 2017 is National Public Lands Day. The day is designed to celebrate conservation and enjoyment of the country’s public lands. And Washington has some of the best public lands out there! Here are the 10 steps to go from sitting at your computer to enjoying nature on Washington’s trails.

1. Check the weather and narrow down your geographic regions.

Washington is big, with lots of mountain ranges, a coastal region and half of it is classified as desert. All of this means that any given weekend, there may only be a few spots that are safe to venture to. And an even smaller list that will not be miserable, wet and rainy. Luckily, that also means that there usually some pockets of workable weather on even the bleakest of weekends.

The first site I open when picking a hiking trail is the National Weather Service Mountains Forecast Page. This map lets you click-through to generalized mountain areas. This allows you to get a broad idea about the weather in different regions and ultimately rule-out the areas that are less than ideal. In the summer, the entire region is often sunny and perfection. In the spring and fall, sometimes only Salmon La Sac for two months can save you from the downpour.

Note: All of these recommendations are for low-land hiking. There are many more considerations when snow is a factor, including winter storm warnings and avalanche danger. 


NOAA’s Mountain Forecast Page

2. Check your parameters

Before I open any of my inspiration resources, I like to jot down a few parameters so I know which hikes I can automatically discount. Some of the things I try to think about are:

  • Mileage? Elevation gain?

Consider the time-factor of high-mileage hikes and the physical factor. With my shin splints, going above a certain grade meant physical pain, so I spent a lot of time this summer calculating the average slope. Setting a hard limit before I looked at hikes helped me avoid hikes that would cause a re-injury.

  • Drive time?

The amount I am willing to drive for a hike is constantly changing. Consider how long you are willing to stay on the road. Are you willing to drive for more hours than you will be on the trail? Consider if you can add ferry times or excessive traffic crossing passes in the summer.

  • Permit or pass type?

You may already have a pass and want to make sure to pick a hike that the pass will cover. This can help you narrow down your hike if you know the wilderness area you want to stick to.

  • Am I bringing a doggo?

There are dog-friendly hikes in Washington, but there are also a lot of trails that are unsuitable for dogs. If you know ahead of time that you will be bringing a dog, that can help narrow down hikes significantly.

  • Seasonal goals, wishes?

Lastly, sometimes I narrow hikes based on seasonal features. For example, in the summer I will prioritize hikes that have wildflowers. Last week’s hike came from the desire to see some golden larches, which have a short season. If you know there are special, time-specific features, that can help narrow down trails.

Washington’s wilderness is incredibly diverse. Sometimes I narrow hikes based on wanting something different from the week before. For example, a weekend spent at a low-land lake made me want to spend the next weekend in the high alpine.

3. Get Inspired

Once I have an idea of my parameters it is time for the fun part: looking for inspiration. The first place I check is my notebook, where I keep a running list of hikes I am interested in.  Next, I have a visual bucket list via Instagram’s collections feature. As I see areas that I would like to visit on my Instagram feed, I add it to my various inspiration folders. Sometimes this helps me find a specific hike, or decide what style of a hike I am interested in.

I also search Instagram using different wilderness or national park location tags. If I already know the wilderness area I want to explore, this can help me find trails to visit or avoid if it looks like it has been really busy.  Lastly, I follow specific Instagram accounts that seem like they are always going beautiful places. Some of my favorites right now are angexploring, hellomynameisbrad, and ellieljohnson.

Next, I head to WTA’s trip report section to browse what people have done recently, as it can be a good measure both of what is doing well seasonally and if any trails are going to be extra crowded. On Facebook, I take part in several groups, including Washington hikers and climbers, and PNW outdoor women. Often people post about hikes they have done and enjoyed, and it gives great insight into current conditions. These communities are really useful because you can interact directly with other hikers and ask specific questions about the trail. You can also pose questions to the group as a whole, if you want to crowd-source some of your research.

Lastly, sometimes I browse AlltrailsOutdoor Project, and The Mountaineers.





Outdoor Project 

The Mountaineers


Washington hikers and climbers

PNW outdoor women


4. Narrow it down

After this step, I try to have a list of 3-4 hikes that fit all of my previously outlined parameters. Sometimes I am really good at this and come up with 3 solid options. Sometimes I am terrible and enter the research phase with 11 hikes that I somehow want to complete all on the same day…

Do your best to narrow them down to a manageable number, as that will help you with step number 5.

5. Research

Once I have a few hikes in mind, I pick a few to research a little more heavily.

  • I read the most recent trip reports on WTA to see the conditions.
  • I search the aforementioned Facebook groups with the hike to see if anyone has been there recently.
  • I check the national parks or national forest page to see if there are any closures.
  • Lastly, and importantly this summer, I check the fire map to see if it is too close to any wildfires.

Then I google the hikes on my short list and the word blog to see if I can find some blog posts of the hike we are going on. This helps me find alternate routes, specific conditions and get further inspired. Sometimes it can also be great to find places to eat after hiking.


US Wildfire Activity Web Map

6. Pick the One

I officially decide which hike is the chosen one and exit out of all the other tabs, otherwise, I will spend all night searching for the perfect one. I recently realized I pick my hikes in a terribly backward way where after I find a hike, I need to read about all hikes I am not going to do so that I don’t miss an even more perfect hike. This is madness. Do not do this.

7. Check the weather again

Remember earlier how I said that I like the mountain forecast page because you don’t have to be super specific? Now is the time to be specific. I head to weather.gov to find the weather in my exact location. You can type in exact GPS coordinates, which can help planning and packing your gear. If there are significant elevation changes in your hike, make sure to center a location at the trailhead and at the max elevation gain. Weather can be extremely different one ridge over, planning for the trailhead is significantly different from planning for lunch at the summit. If your hike is taking you to a summit, the Mountain Weather Forecast page can also be really useful.



Mountain Weather Forecast

8. Figure out your permit

There are a bunch of different wilderness types in Washington including National Parks (we have 3!), state parks, national forest land, tribal lands and more. Each wilderness category has a different permit, some overlap and it is different when there is snow. It can be hard to keep it all straight, but using the wrong permit can lead to a ticket at the trailhead. These are just the passes to park your car at the trailhead, if you are going to spend the night, each wilderness area has a different system for overnight permits, including some available at a trailhead and others that require entering into a competitive lottery. For all hikes in Washington, you just need a parking pass not a permit, except in a few rare cases.

Here is a breakdown of Washington’s most common permits:

Discover Pass: 

Discover Pass is for state parks, or state-owned lands.  It costs $30.00 for the year, or $10.00 for a daily pass.  The pass can be shared between two vehicles, but only used at one vehicle at a time. Some popular hikes using the Discover Pass are Mt. Si, Wallace Falls and Deception Pass.

NW Forest Pass

Northwest Forest Pass is for federal lands, excluding national parks. Like the discover pass, it costs $30.00 a year or $5.00 for a day pass. As of 2017, NW forest pass is linked to two license plates. I find this is the most useful pass for Washington, and the one I recommend if you are only going to purchase one. We have a lot of spectacular wilderness that uses the NW forest pass, including most of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, Gifford Pinchot Wilderness, and Olympic Wilderness. Some dayhikes on this blog that use the forest pass are Blue Lake, Boulder River, and Middle Fork Snoqualmie

Olympic National Park/Mount Rainier National Park/North Cascades National Park

Each of the national parks has a pass to visit the park. They are usually $15.00/car and they are valid for a week.  There are also $30.00 annual passes to individual parks. This is handy if you reside close to an individual park, and think it is unlikely you will visit the others. However, they are all amazing and why limit yourself? Which is why there is the…

America the Beautiful

The greatest pass of them all. This pass is $80.00 annually and covers all national parks, national wildlife refuges and covers the NW Forest Pass for WA. This is an awesome pass if you plan on leaving WA to explore other national parks. If you had to purchase an annual pass for each national park and a NW Forest Pass it would cost double the price of the America the Beautiful Pass. Plus it feels patriotic in the best of ways. My annual set-up is an America the Beautiful and sometimes an annual Discover Pass if we end up doing one of the hikes that require it. Some dayhikes that use America the Beautiful pass on this site are Glacier Basin and Summerland and Panhandle Gap (plus all of the hikes with the NW forest pass).

 No Passes! Anarchy!

There are trails in WA that don’t require any pass. Places like Discovery Park in Seattle has some sweet trails and is 100% free. It might feel frustrating to pay money to go to the woods, but these wilderness areas have been hit with repeated budget cuts.  Taxes + passes do not come anywhere near the actual costs to keep these wilderness areas available to the public. Northwest forest passes are only required in places with a developed facility like a toilet.  I have recreated in areas without toilets and 100% I will buy a pass every year if it means there are toilets at the trailhead. I love these wild areas and even if I may not use an annual pass enough to make it “worth it”, I think there is tremendous value in supporting these areas.

9. Print a topo map and save instructions to your phone, tell someone where you are going.

Often guidebooks have simplified maps, but when you are heading on the trail, a topographic map is necessary. A topo map will show elevation, the trail and significant features. There are many excellent paper maps, and I usually purchase a green map for each national park because we use them so often, but I always turn to caltopo. Caltopo is an awesome online mapmaker that allows you to make a pdf of individual areas. You can zoom in as close as you like, or zoom it out really far. I like two views, one for route-finding on the trail, and a view that shows more of the surrounding area in case I was off-trail and attempting to survive. I like to print a copy of each map for every person in my hiking group and make sure each of us has a copy on our phones.

In addition, I like to download the WTA descriptions of the hike. Most of the time, the map is sufficient, but it can be nice to have a description as well. If I am taking new hikers on the trail, I usually print the trail description, but at this point, I rarely reference it after I leave the car. But that might partly be because I read it about 60 times before going to bed the night before.

Lastly, make sure someone knows where you are going. There are a bunch of templates to fill out, but the basics are to tell someone where you are going and when you should be home. Make sure to tell them the trailhead, your car and if you are really on top of your game, text them a photo of you before you leave with your hiking gear on. Rescue teams need to tell rescuers what to look for and if someone at home knows the color of your jacket and beanie, that can help.

10. Hike your hike baby!

You have done all the work for a safe and enjoyable hike! This does not guarantee anything, as the only true thing about hiking is that everything can change, but at least you set yourself up for success. Enjoy the incredible experiences Washington has to offer, you won’t regret it! See you on the trail!

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Lori July 9, 2018 - 3:43 pm

Hi Amanda!

This was a very helpful read, as we are fairly new to Washington and learning about all of the awesome places to explore. Thanks for taking the time to write this!

I am curious where the second photo from the bottom (above the beach photo) was taken. It’s beautiful!


Amanda Phillips July 9, 2018 - 4:37 pm

Hi Lori,
I am glad to hear you found it helpful! The picture with the buildings is from the Monte Cristo ghost town near Mountain Loop, and the picture with the swimming hole is from Marten Creek Falls (there is a trip report about it here https://everytwopines.com/2017/07/19/marten-lake-otter-falls/). Thanks!


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