By the time Memorial Day weekend arrives, we're on the cusp of a season shift. This time of year holds all the promise of a long summer to come, but rain, snow and rough roads and trails remind hikers that spring is still here. At the very time when hikers are feeling the itch to get outside, conditions can conspire to make it tricky.
Never fear. Washington is a year-round hiking destination, and there are plenty of approaches to finding a great trail adventure this season.
Camp With a Reservation
Remember: The s'mores and extra warm clothes if the weather is cold or soggy.
Good for you for planning ahead. Now, you just need to check the weather, pull together your car camping and hiking essentials and find a few snow-free hikes nearby.
- Check the weather. Rain, sun, and even a little snow may be in the mix.
- Make your car camping checklist.
- Find a hike: if you are camping with kids, follow in the footsteps of parents filing trip reports and use our hiking guide to find seasonal hikes near where you're staying.
- Brush up on your campfire safety skills.
Camp Without a Reservation
Remember: Go with a backup plan.
Reservations aren't your style, or maybe this weekend just snuck up on you. No worries. You've still got options, but you've got to be a little flexible.
- First-come, first-serve: You can try to sneak your family out of town early and secure a camping spot at a first-come, first-served campground. If you try for one of the National Forest campgrounds that don't accept reservations, then your plan B can be dispersed camping, if you are comfortable without facilities. But first you need to check conditions and check in with a ranger.
- Learn your land management agencies: While many people may think of National Parks, State Parks or National Forest campgrounds, other kinds of public lands (from federal Bureau of Land Management campgrounds to state Department of Natural Resources campgrounds) may also have some first-come, first-served camping options. Look locally, too. County or city public lands near you may help you find some oft-overlooked beach camping.
Overnight or Backpack
Some tips for finding good early-season backpacking destinations:
- Pay attention to elevation levels when you do your research. Learn where the snow levels are, look at trip reports and talk to rangers to find where you are less likely to end up running into snow. East Bank Baker Lake or, in the North Cascades, the East Bank Ross Lake. As long as the rainfall makes it safe, lower-elevation river hikes of the Olympics are great for early season backpacking.
- Some areas are known for melting out sooner: places like the Dark Divide, the lower Methow Valley, the Teanaway, the Blue Mountains and trails around Lake Chelan/the Entiat all make for better early spring bets than the high Cascades. That said, be prepared for all weather conditions and to encounter snow.
- Looking for more ideas? Master the advanced search features on our website to see where trip reporters have been backpacking or to search for May backpacking destinations for years past.
Visit a Volcano
Remember: Check snow levels.
- Most of Mount Rainier National Park is still under snow, including many of the trails that the still-closed Cayuse and Chinook Passes access. And the popular areas of Paradise and Sunrise are also still out of reach. Try exploring the areas of Longmire and Ohanapecosh, where you can find some low-elevation explorations on the flanks of this mammoth mountain.
- One volcano down the chain, the South Coldwater Lake trail at Mount St. Helens is often one of the first places in the Monument to melt out. (You'll need to check snow levels, at around 4,000 feet at last account, and get a backcountry permit to overnight here.)
Do Some Reconnaissance
Remember: Pack a sense of adventure and file a trip report when you get back.
Wander with a purpose. Perhaps the best way to spend your long weekend is by scoping out some spots for later in the summer. It's always easier to hike or camp someplace you've already been, and a fact-finding mission will get you psyched for a summer of fun.
- Pick a place you've been meaning to check out, and investigate the road conditions, trail conditions and campgrounds. Go prepared to detour widely, turn around a lot, stop frequently to stretch your legs for a mile or two on trails, and check out interpretive sites.
- Pack some good maps, books and a camera. Take a good recreation road atlas (usually only about $20, and 100% worth it for spotting campgrounds or when Google fails you). Taking a hiking guide book with you will mean you are better prepared to safely explore trails in an unfamiliar area. A camera will help you remember things like the parking situation at a trailhead or the best spot in a campground.
- Bring lots of snacks from home. An outing with multiple stops can be exhausting, so keep your energy up so you can check out all the things on your list.
Practice a Skill
Remember: Trail smarts are a life-long pursuit. Always keep learning.
Ask yourself what skill you wish you knew more about, and spend part of the weekend practicing. Whether it is reading a map or hanging a bear bag, practicing in a low-pressure situation is the perfect way to jump-start your brain for summer.
- Prefer learning in a more structured environment? Find a class, club or group to learn from.
- Take a look, it's in a book: LeVar Burton and the Reading Rainbow had it right. Buy or check out a book to take into the field with you.
- Planning to hike with kids this summer? Let them take the lead in planning or leading your day on trail. It will teach them to make good decisions in the future.
- Do you hike with dogs? Make some, or all, of your day on trail a fun training exercise to improve your pup's behavior. Whether you are working on better leash manners, respecting wildlife or emergency recall, hard work now will pay off in more fun later in the season. And yes, old dogs can always learn (or brush up on) new tricks, especially when delicious treats are involved.
Experience Trails a New Way
Remember: The trail community contains multitudes.
Most hikers we know have many passions--from photographers to artists, trail runners to kayakers, anglers to climbers--more often than not, hikers experience the trail in many different ways.
Spring is the perfect time to explore a new interest.
- Curious about trail running? Here are some trails to check out, and a guide to getting started.
- Hike and bike. Bike onto a ferry and explore some island hikes or check out the bike and hike options to be had in someplace like the Stillaguamish Valley.
- Go birding. A familiar trail can be transformed into something new when you go listening and looking for the sounds of birds. Here are a few beach hikes where you some great birdwatching can be found.
- Meet the trail community. Get inspired by these profiles of amazing people who see trails through a unique lens.
Go on a Goodwill Mission
Remember: Giving back to trails will ensure they will be there for your lifetime and beyond.
Structure a hike or weekend around giving back to trails. You won't regret it.
- Volunteer. Sign up for a work party with WTA, write a trip report or lend a hand to another organization doing good for trails you love.
- Pack a trash bag. Many hikers we know carry an extra trash bag (and even plastic gloves) to pack out any trash they see on trail when they hike. Even if this isn't something you want to do on every hiking trip, you could take one day early in the spring to leave the trail cleaner than you found it. You might even just inspire other hikers who see you at it to do the same.
- Go hiking with your family. Sharing a picnic or hike is a refreshing activity that will bring everyone closer together. Pick a trail that everyone will enjoy; sometimes an old favorite is your best bet.
Just Take a Hike!
Remember: your 10 essentials.
From roaring waterfalls to desert wildflowers, ghost towns to hikes within the urban core, there are hundreds of terrific trails to be hiked. Each one offers something unique: from ferns to flowers to pocket views of lakes and mountains.
No need to make it complicated. Just head out there and enjoy.
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