You moved to Seattle and have an inkling to explore outside of the city. But don’t know where to start? You’re not alone. I meet people new to Seattle that find out that I’m outdoorsy. I then get peppered with questions about hiking. I realized there is some learned knowledge, and I want to share some tips and resources for hiking in Seattle.
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Where to start: How to choose the right trail
In Washington, there are plenty of resources to help you choose a hiking trail. I’m not going to give you much details as you can find an in-depth article on how to choose a hiking trail. Though, I did want to mention some Washington-specific things to know.
Know before you go: Trails and mountain conditions
When I first moved here, my first hike was Granite Mountain in June. Little did I know, snow lingers at higher elevations until mid-summer depending on the snow year. I learned fast that even the lower elevation hikes can have snow.
Not only do trails hold snow, but mountain passes close throughout the winter. Before you solidify your plans, you may want to check road closures on national park or forest sites in addition to snow level reports. Recent trip reports, like on WTA or Gaia GPS, are helpful to help you understand the trail conditions, which leads into how to choose a hiking trail.
Right before you start hiking, many trail signs offer updates to trail conditions or tips for hiking by season with recommended gear. Read through the signs before you leave the trailhead.
What’s your fitness level?
I’m from Pennsylvania. Needless to say the hiking is different as you tend to roll through the elevation gains and losses. Being fit will make your hike more enjoyable in Seattle, so start with lower elevation gains and distance and work from there, similar to training for a marathon. You can’t run 26 miles without training.
Before you leave home: Use online and print resources
You know you want to hike but are having a hard time sifting through all the information.
Websites and blogs
A quick Google search will provide endless content and sites. What are reliable sources to gather information on Washington hiking? Below are some of my favorite sites to reference as I research and start my plans.
Washington Trails Association
In Seattle, you’re lucky. Washington Trails Association provides an interactive map and filters to find hikes and usually are more up-to-date than guidebooks. They also have an app. Filter hikes based on distance, difficulty, and mileage, as well as read through trail descriptions and recent user trip reports for trail conditions.
Use their blog (or other local blogs, like mine) to find the trendy seasonal hikes or staff recommended trails. In the fall, you might want to find a hike to see the vibrant orange larches. Don’t forget to follow WTA on your favorite social media platform for more inspiration (it’s the best way to sift through the endless choices of hiking trails).
Gaia GPS – Hike Search
Ok, you’ve found a hike. Now, you need a proper map of where you’re going. Enter Gaia GPS. The new Hike Search feature allows you to explore various hikes in an area with a main difference: It doesn’t only give you the trailhead location and trail description but the GPS track as well. Hike Search is community-generated, and users can add hike descriptions and trip reports. Another helpful tool and available online and as a mobile app (iOS and Android). Check out the best Gaia GPS map sources to use for hiking.
Once on the trail, use the app to track your progress and pace.. Sign up and pay an annual subscription to download maps offline and unlock hundreds of map layers. Here’s a guide on how-to use Gaia GPS.
Technical climb websites
Mountaineers and Summit Post provide more technical hikes, including scrambles and mountaineering routes. A quick search on either will give you plenty of beta, or information, on the route you’ll need to help plan the best you can.
Sometimes, the internet can be flooded with information. A handy guidebook can help you narrow down your search for popular hikes. Pick a popular one and try to meet new friends on the trail. You can find guidebooks on Amazon, the Mountaineers, or a local outdoor store.
National Park Service, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and State Park websites
Washington’s public land includes state parks to national forests to wilderness areas. Knowing the differences can be important for parking and backcountry permits.
Use the land management websites and learn the rules, regulations, permits, trail conditions (and closures), road conditions, etc.
Sifting through all the pages may be hard to keep things straight. When all else fails, call the ranger station and talk to a human for their tips and advice. I mean who else knows the park better than one that works there and spends time talking to visitors and staff.
Weather: NOAA, Mountain Forecast, and Cliff Mass blog
In the mountains, weather can be different than in the city.
Check the weather forecast every day leading to your hike as well as right before you leave.
Weather.gov, or NOAA, is my go-to source. I like to take screenshots of the forecast that show not only the high and low temperatures but also the wind speeds and precipitation volume.
Mountain Forecast is helpful if you’re looking for localized weather at elevation levels. Though I find it to be less accurate. But what weather forecast is?
My tip is to use a few weather sites at first and find the one that fits your needs and style.
You can find a detailed blog post on how I use weather forecasting to plan for my outdoor adventures.
I subscribe to Cliff Mass’s blog. He goes share the storm cycles and has ample local knowledge on weather patterns in the PNW. I highly recommend reading his book as well since Washington has various micro-climates, or areas with localized weather from deserts to mountain crests to high alpine.
What to pack
If you’re new to hiking, the best option is to find a popular hike and test your gear, especially your hiking shoes. Pay attention to what others are doing on the trail. What gear are they wearing for the conditions?
A waterPROOF rain jacket will make all the difference if the mist from low-hanging clouds starts to stick to your clothing. Bonus points if the jacket has pit zips for ventilation. Rain jackets also work as a wind layer when you hike in the alpine, or above the treeline.
I’ve found that Gore Tex shoes (and outerwear) come in handy when hiking in the PNW. With many stream and river crossing and rain, you never know when you’re feet will want a little extra protection to stay dry.
At the trailhead: Washington permits
Depending on what land management you’ll looking to hike, make sure to have a parking permit for your car before you go or when you get to the trail head (pay for a day pass). Use a Northwest Forest Pass or Interagency Annual Pass (aka a National Park Pass) to park within National Forests and Parks. However, if you’re hiking in a State Park, you’ll need a Discover Pass at the trailhead.
Navigation: Don’t forget a map and compass
Even though I rely on my phone for navigation, I tend to print a paper map for my longer trips to ensure if my phone dies, or falls in a river, then I have a backup with a compass. However, having a map and compass won’t be useful unless you know how to use them. REI has map and compass classes you can sign up for. I highly recommend an in-person, hands-on class. If not, here are some decent articles on using a compass or reading a topo map.
On the trail: Leave-no-trace
This one really applies everywhere, but it is important to call out for anyone new to hiking.
Pack-it in and pack-it out. What does that mean? Don’t leave your trash in the outdoors. You wouldn’t want me to come to your house, hang out, and leave my litter in your yard would you? Toilets can sometimes be found at trailheads and isn’t a place for your trash either! If you have to “go” on the trail, make sure you bring a (or two) zip-lock bag with toilet paper and carry the used paper out with you. You don’t want to touch your own pee. Do you think others want to as well?
Make sure you stay on the trail and learn and follow leave-no-trace principles to keep nature pristine for future generations.
Join a community of outdoor enthusiasts
Meet or join social outings and learn from others. Sometimes, gasp, you don’t have service when hiking on the trail, so you can meet people the old fashioned way: by starting a conversation.
Below are a few ways to tap into the local knowledge base and make friends along the way.
Clubs, meetups, and events
Join a local club or MeetUp. You’re new to hiking chances are you aren’t alone. The best way to learn is to do. Some of my best friends were met from outdoor forums or group activities. Join a Facebook Group that offers various get togethers (hiking and informational ones) throughout the year.
The Mountaineers is a good resource, where you can pay for classes or join. They host talks, fundraisers, and film screenings (local retailers do as well, like REI, Feathered Friends, and Ascent Outdoors) about hikes or expeditions.
Speaking of social media, if you find the right people to follow or groups to join, you can gain inspiration from their outdoor adventures, especially if they share the location. Below are some communities to start with.