The average Pacific Northwest hiker would like nothing more than to spend the whole summer in the woods on multiday backpacking trips. But for most of us with busy lives, those opportunities are few and far between.
While there’s a time and a place for huge expeditions or through-hikes, it’s far more likely that our forays into nature will come in the form of quick little day trips or side excursions.
Maybe your parents are in town, you’re new to the sport or you have young children still getting the feel for the trail. In any case, you want a short hike — and you want a lot of bang for your buck.
If that’s the case, then these trails are made for you. They offer short hikes with a payoff that’s sure to dazzle. Plus they won’t leave you feeling exhausted come Monday morning.
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Where: Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, near Riffe Lake
Distance: About 4 miles round trip
When: Best in spring and after a heavy rain
Cathedral Falls, on the Goat Creek Trail, is a victim of its location. The only reason it remains little-known is because it’s inside the Mount St. Helens monument in a region that was virtually unaffected by the blast.
It might seem weird to visit the Mount St. Helens area and not even see the volcano. But once you discover this amazing location, you’ll forget all about the eruption that made the park famous.
The hike follows fairly flat terrain among old-growth trees, crossing little brooks and streams that seem to pop out of the hillside every hundred yards or so. Keep your eyes open for toads and hummingbirds that also use the path as their natural highway.
The big payoff happens when you round the corner and see a waterfall that looks like fine sugar pouring over a cliff. But unlike most waterfalls that offer a single vantage point, this one drops over a cavern, allowing hikers the rare opportunity to walk behind the falls.
First you pass under a dripping line of water at the edge of the cliff and then you’re behind the falls itself, feeling its spray and dodging drips that emit from cracks in the ceiling of the cave.
Northwest Forest Pass required. Driving directions: wta.org/go-hiking/hikes/goat-creek-2
Where: Makah Indian Reservation, near Neah Bay, at the northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula
Distance: About 1.5 miles round trip
It’s no small effort to reach the northwest corner of our state, but once you get there, few hikes offer so much over such a short distance.
Due to the perpetually wet conditions (it is a rain forest, after all), much of the hike travels on raised boardwalks that meander around mossy trees, making it feel like the path was built by elves.
After a short stroll through verdant old-growth forest, you begin to hear the sound of pounding waves and catch glimpses of raw ocean scenery. Little platforms afford views of sheer cliffs where cormorants and tufted puffins catch updrafts and leap from nests built into rock crevices.
When you reach the final outlook, you’ll feel like you’re perched on the edge of the world. In every direction, gnarly seamounts and rugged headlands endure pounding Pacific Ocean waves. Sea otters and sea lions hunt amid swirling carpets of bull kelp that roll like rag dolls in the surf.
Makah Tribe Recreation Pass required (available at several locations in Neah Bay, see makah.com/activities.
Big Four Ice Caves
Where: Mountain Loop Highway, 26 miles east of Granite Falls
Distance: About 2.2 miles round trip
Stop at the Big Four picnic area for stellar views of the namesake mountain, and explore the wetland ponds on a boardwalk trail before following the flat path to the base of the mountain itself. There you’ll find a very rare sight.
Winter avalanches cause giant snowfields to build up at the base of the 4,000-foot Big Four Mountain. And during the summer months, melt water and steady warm air erode the base of the ice.
For a brief time, exotic ice caves appear where the trail ends. The size and complexity of the caves change from year to year — sometimes it’s a single cavern, other times there are networks of rooms, but they’re always deep blue and emit a refrigerator-like breeze.
It’s a constantly changing environment, so don’t be surprised if you see calving on a warm day.
While it’s tempting to walk right up to the ice, you should stay out of the caves entirely and well away from the snowfield. Cave-ins are frequent, and a young girl was killed here in 2011 when a chunk of ice broke free and slid down the slope.
UPDATE, JULY 6, 2015: A visitor was killed and five others injured when tons of ice and rock collapsed near the mouth of the caves during a record heat wave. The area is closed indefinitely.
Northwest Forest Pass required.
Where: Off Stevens Canyon Road, Mount Rainier National Park
Distance: About 2.6 miles round trip
When: Late July to September
Campsites at Snow Lake are some of the most sought-after locations within Mount Rainier National Park. As a day hike, the trail is fairly easy making it a spectacular opportunity for hikers with a wide range of abilities.
As you set out, you’ll be hiking away from Rainier (don’t forget to look behind you for jaw-dropping views). You’ll pass meadows crawling with adorable pikas and marmots on your way to Bench Lake — which would be its own park if it were anywhere else — but here it’s merely a place to dip your toes for a few minutes.
The big payoff comes when you see Snow Lake for the first time. You won’t believe that water could be so blue or clear. Several vantage points allow for postcard-perfect views, with craggy peaks studded with mountain goats in the background, and a little shoreline peninsula brimming with wildflowers and huckleberries.
National Park admission: $15 per vehicle.
Where: Off Highway 2 near Stevens Pass
Distance: About 9 miles round trip
For a bit more of a challenge, this trail is up-up-up through old-growth forest and seemingly endless switchbacks. It’s a bit of a leg burner, but just when you start to wonder if it’s going to be worth it, you reach a notch between two ridges and understand why it’s called Surprise Lake.
You’ll rub your eyes and realize you’re standing at the edge of a glorious alpine lake with crystal clear water, surrounded by a quintessential amphitheater of granite mountains.
It’s a great destination for a short backpacking trip, especially if you can scramble up the RV-sized boulder on the edge of the lake — which is flat enough for a picnic or can even serve as a unique campsite. It’s also the perfect springboard for a morning jump into the lake’s bracing water.
Driving directions: wta.org/go-hiking/hikes/surprise-lake-1
Follow Seattle-based freelancer Jeff Layton at www.MarriedToAdventure.com.