Plan Your Perfect Hike: Tips from the Hiking Guide Manager
There's lot of planning that goes into creating your perfect hike or backpacking trip. Get tips from WTA's hiking guide manager to be as prepared as a pro.
When you dream about your perfect hike or backpacking trip, you might picture yourself walking through a sea of wildflowers with the sun on your face, a craggy mountain range in the background. Or camped on the coast, enjoying a crackling campfire under trillions of stars. Maybe you imagine your kids in a meadow, smiling up at you with huckleberry-stained cheeks and fingers. It's easy to visualize the perfect moment on a trail.
But a lot of planning goes into creating those perfect memories. How do you know when the wildflowers will be blooming? Will you be able to see those stars at night or will it be cloudy? Will the huckleberries be ripe enough when you visit?
As the hiking guide manager here at Washington Trails Association, I ground-truth hikes each year, familiarizing myself with as many environments in our varied state as I can. Since I need to visit trails when they're in their prime, what I'm looking for is likely similar to what you're seeking: ripe berries, blooming wildflowers and clear skies.
I use a few tools to make sure I can write up a trail when it's at its best. Here's how I plan my work and personal trips, along with some tips on how to make best use of the tools I mention. Hopefully you'll find them useful.
Find just the right hike: WTA's hiking guide
If you're looking for somewhere to go, our Hiking Guide should be your first stop. Browse it to discover hikes that fit your criteria, like how many miles you want to hike and what you want to see.
While I typically know in advance where I need to go to do research, the Hiking Guide is useful if I have a free weekend and want to spend some time checking out a new place.
The guide is searchable by features. That means you can look for things like waterfalls, mountain views and how long the trail is. If you want to do a hike near Mount Rainier that's five miles long, with less than 1,500 feet of elevation gain, where you'll see wildflowers, you plug all that criteria into the guide and find a whole list of them. (Notice the preset criteria in the left-hand sidebar when you follow that link.)
This is a great place to start planning your perfect outing, but don't stop there.
Check Conditions: WTA's Trip Reports
These are what I use the most, since where I need to go is predetermined by what areas I need to research each year. Trip reports are the first (and last) thing I check when putting together an outing. Start with them to find out when a trail is at its prime, and what you can expect it to look like. Do a final check right before you leave to make sure you can still get there.
If you know where you want to go, but you're not sure when is the best time, trip reports are a good reference point. To search trip reports, simply select the area or trail you want to visit, then scan through trip reports to see what it looks like. For example, if you wanted to hike on the Olympic Coast in May, you can see where people usually go, and what the area looks like at that time.
Trip reports are a wonderful way to get a sense of an area, and also to include in your final conditions-check before you head out.
But if you don't see any fresh trip reports, there are other ways to get your information.
Go Deeper: Ask the Land Managers
While many of Washington's most popular destinations are thoroughly described in our Hiking Guide, some of the less-frequently visited hikes and trails may not be complete yet. (Rest assured, we're working on it.)
If a trail on our site doesn't have much in the way of trip reports or official information, head to the land manager's website. (That's what I do.)
Because they lack adequate funding, agencies like the Forest Service don't have the staff to provide the most up-to-date conditions on each and every trail they manage, but they do often provide updates regarding road and trail closures, especially around wildfire season or coming out of spring, when roads might be washed out by flooded rivers and streams and winter damage on trails becomes evident.
- If you're not completely sure the road to the trailhead is open, it's a good idea to call a land manager, particularly before heading out on a big trip.
There's nothing more disappointing than planning and packing for a big vacation, only to be foiled by a washed out road before even arriving at the trailhead. If in your research, you discover a road is blocked, it's worth filing a trip report to let people know.
Find local knowledge
If the trail isn't managed by a major land manager (the big four in Washington are: United States Forest Service, National Park Service, Washington State Parks and Department of Natural Resources), it may be difficult to determine the rules and regulations of visiting.
Luckily though, local groups, like "Friends of" groups, Chambers of Commerce or Visitors Bureaus may have what you're after. Here are some tips if you really can't find what you're looking for:
- Compare several sources of information. The internet has democratized access to public land like never before, but bad information can spread just as easily as good. Cross-check your sources in order to get a sense of what information is the real deal. Don't use message boards or forums as your only source for information about an area. Keep in mind too that your trail may be known by a variety of names—local trails especially can have several different titles.
- Make contact. As a rule, if land is open to the public, the land manager should provide a phone number as a contact option. Look for one, and call to get details.
- Look for locally-produced maps. These are sometimes available online as PDFs. Local trail networks can be confusing, since signage is not always great. Having a map with you and knowing where you are is very important, so see what you can find online before heading out.
If you're still coming up dry for information about an area, it's possible the land has changed hands and it's no longer accessible to the public. If that's the case, start at square one—our Hiking Guide has thousands of entries, and there's likely to be another option that fits your requirements.
BONus Tip: Understand Washington's Weird Weather
There is a LOT to learn about Washington's weather if you want to. But the main points listed below are the most likely ways your trip could be affected. Will your campsite be snow-free? Is it going to rain during your trip? (Probably at some point.) Can you even get there?
Here are the top four things to know.
One-click weather for every hike. Every hike in the Hiking Guide has a link to the NOAA forecast for that area, and it makes sense to check it while planning, and just before you take off. Look to the left of the Directions area, and see what you're getting into.
Snow sticks around for a long time here. Northwest Avalanche Center (NWAC) reports that many avalanche deaths occur late in the season, when most people think summer is in full swing and the snow is long gone. In reality, while the lowlands may be dry, snow sticks around in the high country, and by May-July, it can get very soft and loose—prime conditions for avalanches.
Roads wash out. Every year. Many of Washington's hiking trails are accessed using our extensive network of logging and forest roads, and these are subject to washouts in spring, when snow melts, swelling rivers that sometimes flood their banks. If you are hoping to do an early-season hike at a remote destination, it's definitely worth doing extra research to be sure that road is open and driveable all the way to the trailhead.
- Conditions change constantly. Even if there's not a cloud in the sky on your way out the door, you might arrive at a trailhead to find it raining. This happens to me a lot, and having gear when conditions change is really important. Plus, it's nice to actually get some use out of your gear. It's annoying to get wet in a sudden storm, knowing you have a perfectly good raincoat sitting at home.