When there's snow in Washington's mountains and rain and wind everywhere else, enjoy these lowland hikes along forest-sheltered rivers.
With Wetember now upon us, we’re faced with that annual rainy-season decision: Do we stay inside and hibernate for the next six months, cursing the calendar as well as Mother Nature’s bone-chilling rains, icy winds and relentless gunmetal-gray skies?
Or do we tear out into the tempest: to romp in the rain! Play in the precip! Frolic in the fog! Cavort in the condensed moisture coming down from the clouds? (OK, I’ll stop now.)
To me it’s a no-brainer: We get cavortin’! And some of the best places to do so this time of year are on forested, lower-elevation riverside trails. Low-elevation means no snow — or at least less likelihood of snow — and forested means a bit of protection from the rain and wind. And the season’s swollen rivers offer a spectacular centerpiece.
Here are four terrific riverside trails around Western Washington.
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Horseshoe Bend Trail
Just 10 miles to the east of this trailhead, the North Cascades are among the snowiest places on Earth. And a byproduct of all that snow is the rushing, gushing Nooksack River, which squeezes its way through a narrow gorge that’s apparently too skinny for its liking. In its eagerness to empty itself into Bellingham Bay, the river blasts over car-sized boulders and yanks down whole trees and chunks of land.
Cutting through moss-hung forest of the Big Three — firs, cedars and hemlock, not to mention big-leaf maple and more — the Horseshoe Bend Trail traces the thundering river for about 1.2 miles.
“It’s gorgeous,” said Bellingham’s Beth Snowlee, on a recent jaunt with 3-month-old daughter Sable, and dogs Shaggy and Lu Lu.
“It’s flat — or mostly flat — you can park right there on the highway and this time of year, you usually won’t see anyone else.”
While the trail boasts river views almost the entire way, continue for about a mile to reach views of the eponymous bend in the river.
“There’s an overlook there where you have these wide-open views of the surrounding hills above the river. Sometimes down low you’ll see a heron poking around in the water,” Snowlee said.
Getting there: Head east from Bellingham on Highway 542 (Mount Baker Highway) to Milepost 35.4, about two miles east of Glacier. Obvious parking area on right side of highway. No Northwest Forest Pass required.
Duckabush River Trail
Located on the west side of Hood Canal, near Brinnon, Jefferson County, on the Olympic Peninsula, this trail reopened four months ago after a nearly yearlong closure due to a 1,300-acre forest fire.
“When forest crews arrived this spring, they found three-and-a-half miles of the trail under a mess of blackened debris and mud,” says Susan Elderkin, Communications and Outreach director for Washington Trails Association (WTA).
“It was too unsafe to open to the public.”
Forest Service fire crews along with WTA volunteers spent two weeks restoring the trail: removing downed logs and limbs, moving loose rocks and more. In July, the trail reopened to the public.
An arterial into the heart of the Olympics, the Duckabush River Trail enters the Brothers Wilderness Area about a mile from the trailhead after a gentle warm-up on an old railbed through mossy, drenched (likely) forest. Reach the Duckabush River at about the two-mile mark, hearing its roar long before you see it.
Continue for another half-mile to a terrific viewing spot where the river, overhung by massive firs and cedars, powers its way past roiling whitewater. Though the trail continues for almost 20 more miles and involves significant climbing, this makes for a nice turnaround spot.
Getting there: Drive Highway 101 (from north or south) to Milepost 310 and turn west onto Duckabush Road. Follow for six miles and turn right onto Forest Road 2510-060. The trailhead is just ahead. Northwest Forest Pass required.
Old Sauk River Trail
Like the Horseshoe Bend Trail, this Mountain Loop Highway gem hugs a winding river just about the entire way. And what a river it is — the Wild and Scenic Sauk, which boasts vital spawning habitat for salmon as well as a veritable buffet table for hundreds of bald eagles who flock here each winter.
About three miles long, the forested, mostly flat trail features trailheads at either end and thus, with two cars, can be made as a point-to-point walk. Though significant logging has taken place in the past, stretches of majestic, old-growth forest still stand, mostly on the northern end — the Darrington end — of the trail.
Getting there: Head south from Darrington on the Mountain Loop Highway for 3.5 miles to reach the trail’s north trailhead. Continue about three miles farther for the south trailhead.
Lime Kiln Trail
Near Granite Falls
Along with a peaceful exploration of the powerful Stillaguamish River, this 3.5-mile trail offers a sort-of historical scavenger hunt. Following stretches of the old Monte Cristo Railway, the forested pathway — part of Robe Canyon Historical Park — is peppered with numerous artifacts from its mining and railroading past: rusted buckets, broken bricks, old stove parts, bed frames and more. Not to mention the old lime kiln, a 20-foot-high stone structure, for which the trail is named.
From the trailhead, reach the river in a little more than a mile; the old lime kiln is about a mile upriver.
Getting there: Head southeast from Granite Falls on Menzel Lake Road for about one mile and turn left onto Waite Mill Road. Bear left in a half-mile onto a gravel road; follow signs for the trailhead, just ahead.
Mike McQuaide is a Bellingham freelance writer and author of “Day Hike! Central Cascades” (Sasquatch Books). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org