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WHOMP. High up in the mountains, I hear glaciers rumble as they shift. It sounds eerily like thunder—even on this bluebird day. In my mind, I think back to standing in the crater of Mount Hood watching the fumaroles, the feeling of steam on my face and smell of sulfur: I come to a stark realization.
These mountains are alive.
After six years of guiding in the Pacific Northwest, I’m still humbled. Hiking in Washington is foreboding, but also powerfully beautiful. Verdant rainforests and rolling steppes set the foreground for an ageless alpine landscape carved from an explosive past. It’s a place of ecological intensity, a land of contrasting extremes, and a perpetual reminder I’m at Mother Nature’s mercy.
With its vast scenic diversity and the allure of the wild unknown, Washington is home to some of the best hiking and backpacking in the world.
Washington is Nothing Shy of Spectacular
Geographically speaking, the Pacific Northwest (PNW) covers 250,000 square miles across Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and parts of British Columbia, Canada. Though no official borders exist, the region is bound between the coastal waters of the Pacific Ocean and the Rocky Mountains to the east.
The PNW has a landscape found nowhere else in the world. Its diverse ecosystems include rolling grasslands, lush rainforests, and vast alpine tundra linking a network of glaciated volcanoes. For someone like me who grew up in urban Massachusetts, the contrast in scenery is shocking.
Wilderness newbies welcome
Washington is considered the heart of the PNW. With 31 designated wilderness areas spanning 4.3 million acres, there’s more than a lifetime of adventure—most of which you can only reach on foot.
Fortunately, there’s easy access to an extensive trail network and established guiding operations. It’s the ideal location for venturing into the backcountry without any previous experience. In addition to hiking and backpacking, Washington is known for its backcountry skiing, which makes it a great place to visit during any season of the year.
One of the most rewarding parts of my job as a guide is watching newcomers adapt to life on the trail and discover that part of themselves that lives out there in the wild. From day trips to multi-day excursions, there’s options for beginners and experienced hikers alike. I’ve outlined some of the best hikes in Washington below.
1. Mount Rainier
The first rays of sun hit the summit of Mount Rainier before anything else. At 14,410 feet above sea level, it’s the tallest peak in the state and regarded as the undisputed icon of the Washington landscape. Ringed with ancient forests and wildflower-studded meadows on the fringes of a sprawling metropolis, it’s an impressive sight to behold.
A Mountain Under Threat
Mount Rainier—known as Tahoma to the Indigenous people of the Puyallup tribe—means “Mother of all Waters”. As the birthplace of five rivers, the Indigenous people have long acknowledged Rainier as a critical life source.
For how long is another question. The amount of snow the mountain receives each winter is directly related to the amount of water that will be available in the coming year. With glaciers shrinking due to global warming, the reduced snowpack disrupts the flow of mountain streams. Many of them are drying up entirely.
Declining snowpack isn’t the only threat. Mount Rainier is listed as a Decade Volcano, one of 16 volcanoes worldwide with the greatest potential for catastrophic damage if it erupts. Were Mount Rainier to explode, it would be deadly for those living in the immediate vicinity. Scientists explain that its glaciers could melt instantaneously due to the heat and major debris flow would have repercussions all the way to Seattle. Bottom line: Visit while you have the chance. Mt. Rainier might not be around forever.
Walking in Wonderland
In 1899, the area encompassing Mount Rainier was established as the country’s fifth national park. It sits on the ancestral lands of seven different Indigenous tribes, still respected as the mountain’s sacred caretakers. Today, people from all over the world come to visit, whether it’s to experience some of Washington’s best rock climbing areas, go for a hike, or just take in the views.
If the idea of being on an active volcano doesn’t excite you, the scenic hiking around Mount Rainier National Park might. With easy, paved loops to multi-day treks, there’s an adventure for everyone.
The Wonderland Trail is among the best experiences in the park and one of top backpacking trips in the country. With 22,000 feet of cumulative elevation gain over the course of 93 miles, this epic multi-day hike takes you on a 360-degree traverse around the base of Mount Rainier.
It’s a strenuous hike that demands backpacking experience and logistical planning. You’ll need to secure wilderness permits in advance and plan where to cache your food.
One of my favorite backpacking trails: The Northern Loop
For something less intense, consider the Northern Loop, a 32-mile trek that gives you a taste of the area.
It’s best to start at Sunrise and head out on the Sourdough Ridge trail toward Frozen Lake. After a day of hiking up steep switchbacks, you’ll pop out of dense forest onto an alpine meadow called Windy Gap.
The meadow feels remote in a way not a lot of other places do. There are wild blueberries for picking, mountain goats strolling by, and fields of Pasque flowers, making me feel like I’m walking into a Dr. Seuss book. It’s my favorite place in the entire world.
When you are near the mountain, on it, it feels really alive. That is really humbling.
1. Mount Rainier - Good to Know
Wonderland Trail and Northern Loop
Alpine meadows and coniferous forests
Vehicle $30 for 7 days. Visit Recreation.gov for overnight camping permits
Fly into Seattle and rent a car
The Wonderland Trail can often get crowded so the Northern Loop is a great alternative
Mount Rainier is the most glaciated peak in the continental U.S., making it a great mountaineering destination in its own right, or as training for larger objectives
2. Olympic National Park
Olympic National Park is located in the Northwestern part of Washington, covering the majority of the Olympic Peninsula. With an uncanny overlap of forest, mountains, and sea, it’s a unique climate zone and boasts some of the best hikes in Washington.
A Different Kind of Paradise
Primarily a temperate rainforest, Olympic National Park is packed with some of the most dense, mossy, and mystical landscapes I have ever seen. Thick old-growth forests are covered in dense green clumps and fungi from floor to canopy. Lush rivers weave between their massive roots, shimmering where rare sunbeams penetrate.
The park is surrounded on three sides by a moody coastline characterized by jagged rock formations. Large groves of coniferous trees grow on the beach, a dramatic transition from forest to sea. The beaches of Olympic National Park are often cold and shrouded in mist, but give way to stellar views of the looming Cascade Mountains on clear days.
Choose Beaches, Mountains, or Both
Olympic National Park is perfect for day hikers. A plethora of quality out-and-back trails boast beautiful views a short distance from the trailhead.
One of my favorites is Hurricane Hill. This moderately challenging 3.4 mile trail takes you up above the tree line to some amazing alpine vistas. If you prefer beach scenery, head to Cadillac Beach. It offers the perfect combination of sweeping coastline, jagged rocks, and beach camping.
To backpack in Olympic National Park, it’s best to have some previous experience. Long distances between campsites and limited exit points to the main road demands some logistical decision making.
On the plus side, if you’re a seasoned backpacker looking to escape the crowds, it’s easy to do. With some planning, backpacking here can be a sacred experience. I recommend starting in the Hoh Rainforest where you can create your own route from a network of interlacing trails and campsites.
You have rainforest and the coast, amazing rock formations, beautiful coniferous trees right up to the sand; you can feel like you’re in two places at once.
2. Olympic National Park - Good to Know
Hurricane Ridge Trail and Cadillac Beach
Beach, dense forest, and mountains
Campground: Glacier Meadows
Vehicle $30 for 7 days. Visit Olympic National Park Service for permit options
Fly into Seattle. The easiest way to get there is to rent a car. You can use the Washington State Ferries to cross the Puget Sound and you can take the Dungeness Bus Line, operated by Olympic Bus Lines or the Clallam Transit System to go by bus.
It’s very wet and rainy so make sure to bring appropriate gear
Biking and swimming
3. North Cascades
Welcome to the Wild
The North Cascades National Park is ruggedly sublime—if you crave picturesque mountain ranges, crystal alpine lakes, and some of the best hikes in Washington far from major towns, you’ve come to the right place.
When I’m in the North Cascades, I feel part of the ecosystem instead of just a visitor. Unlike many other national parks, the wildlife here is abundant and easy to spot. It’s an intimate experience I recommend for everyone.
Choose your own adventure
Setting up a backcountry basecamp is the best way to backpack the North Cascades. Rather than moving to a new campsite every day, haul in your supplies to a central point and explore from there.
This allows you to move light and fast during long day hikes without having to lug all your gear. I prefer this style of backpacking because the alpine terrain in the North Cascades is so technical. Even short trips often require complicated logistics.
If you’re looking to day hike, the routes are spectacular—just make sure you get to the trailhead early. Some of my favorites include Cascade Pass Trail and Maple Pass Loop, both of which meander to high elevations through alpine meadows abundant with wildflowers and flanked by sharp peaks.
When to visit: Things to consider
Late summer in the North Cascades is the best time to visit. The snow has melted, water is plentiful, and trail conditions are in their prime.
However, over the last five years, the fire season is an increasing concern. Fires typically occur near the end of August or in September, but with a changing climate, they are now happening throughout the year.
When backpacking in the North Cascades I feel like I’m part of the abundant ecosystem instead of just a visitor.
3. North Cascades - Good to Know
Cascade Pass Trail or Maple Pass Loop
Alpine and coniferous forests
Rooms: Ross Lake Resort (right outside the park)
Camping: Colonial Creek North Campground
Permits are required through the North Cascades Park Service. There are no entrance fees!
Fly into Seattle and rent a car. There really isn’t an easy alternative
Make sure to have the right gear and your logistics dialed because it’s a remote area
Mountaineering and rock climbing
4. Mount St. Helens
Tick Tick… Boom
When Mount St. Helens erupted on May 18th, 1980, it became the deadliest volcanic eruption in U.S. history, unleashing one of the largest landslides ever recorded. Today, it remains the most active volcano in the Cascade Range.
The volcanic activity has reconfigured the landscape: flowers and small plants grow from damaged, ashen earth, invoking a sense of rebirth. It’s a perfect contrast between life and death and demonstrative of the land’s volatility.
Not Your Average Day Hike
With its dramatic landscape, Mount St. Helens is an epic place for day hikes—and there are a few worthy backpacking routes, too. Running over 50 miles through the northwest side of the park, the Boundary Trail connects with many other trails along the way. It’s a worthy day hike or backpacking trip—you choose how far you want to go.
The Mount St. Helens Trail takes you to the summit and is one of the area’s most noteworthy hikes. It’s best done during the summer months when you don’t have to carry snow gear. You will need a healthy combination of endurance and motivation, though. Trekking through the loose, ashy sand near the summit is hard work but makes you feel like you’re walking on the moon (I imagine).
You don’t have to just go up. You can head below ground via the Ape Cave Trail, which takes you through a lava tube formed over 2,000 years ago by thermal erosion. Just don’t forget your flashlight!
Visiting Mount St. Helens is a tangible way to experience the power of volcanos and capabilities of the natural world.
4. Mount St. Helens - Good to Know
The Boundary Trail, Mount St. Helens Trail, Ape Cave Trail
Volcanic and alpine
Fees: $15 per family. Climbing Permits go on sale March 1st at Recreation.gov
Fly into Seattle and rent a car
Obtain all necessary permits ahead of time
The Worm Flows is a popular winter mountaineering that involves a scramble of 12 miles with 5,700 feet of gain
5. Columbia River Gorge
Wet and Windy
The Columbia River Gorge is situated on the border between Washington and Oregon in the southernmost part of the state. A distinctive snaking river and wet, windy weather distinguishes this park from others on this list.
You can find world-famous waterfalls throughout the dense rainforest, lending to water-laden air so thick it can feel like you’re walking in a cloud. Although waterfalls are the main attraction, they’re not the only one. Groves of enchanting, old growth forest line either side of the gorge, giving the area transcendent vibes.
When the conditions are right, wind surfers and kiteboarders flock to the river, and in the summer, you can catch the spectacle of their colorful kites dancing in the breeze. Strong winds make for more turbulent waters, fueling an energetic environment that draws surfers and onlookers to the river banks.
Canyons, cliffs, and cascades
Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced hiker, there’s a trail for you in the Columbia River Gorge. The best treks are long, single-day outings, with options ranging from easy jaunts to extended endeavors that wind through narrow canyons, along cliffsides, and below cascading waterfalls.
My favorite hike is Dog Mountain, a 6.5-mile loop located on the Washington side of the gorge. The trail winds through wet, mossy forest and up into the alpine, giving way to sweeping vistas of the river below, into Oregon, and Mount Hood in the distance.
It’s hard to plan backpacking trips here due to the terrain. If you’re determined, consider a point-to-point trip through towns along the way instead of campgrounds.
5. Columbia River Gorge - Good to Know
Forest, alpine, and river
Hotel: The Society Hotel
$5 entrance fee. No permits needed
From Seattle or Portland. Rent a car is easiest. In the summer, Columbia Area Transit offers a bus between Portland and Hood River, the Skamania County Transit stops at popular trailheads from Vancouver, WA, and the Columbia Gorge Express provides further options
It’s often raining and snow can still be found in the early summer months
Kitesurfing and windsurfing
Get Close to Mother Nature
Washington is home to some of the most diverse, dramatic, and humbling terrain in the country. Its landscape is truly alive—characterized by smoldering volcanoes, shifting glaciers, and an ever-changing watershed.
Likewise, hiking in the PNW brings you face-to-face with Mother Nature in a way other places can’t. With a well-established trail network and guiding organizations that make the backcountry accessible—regardless of experience level—I can’t conjure a reason not to check out the best hikes, or any other adventures in Washington.
As we come to a close, like at the end of every trip, I like to take a moment to thank the mountains, and to thank the wilderness for letting me be in its presence. I’m thankful for the experience and to be reminded once again that, in the best way, I’m nothing compared to nature.