Tell me if this sounds familiar.
It’s a beautiful spring day and you decide to hit the mountains for a fabulous weekend of hiking and camping. When you arrive at the trailhead, you may notice the lack of cars in the parking lot — but no matter, you’re an early-season hiker, and it means you’re one step ahead of the crowds, right?
But an hour into your hike you learn why you’re the only person “smart” enough to be hiking in the mountains in May.
A patch of snow blots out part of the trail.
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If you’re like me, you push on anyway, sinking to your knees, and desperately hoping the drift is a one-off anomaly. But the next time you see snow it’s more than a drift. In fact it totally obliterates your trail. That’s the point when you admit your weekend camping trip has been foiled by a sea of slush.
After a few bad experiences like this, I learned that spring is generally a terrible time for hiking in the high country. The best summits are still snowbound (sometimes until July) and many low-elevation trails have washouts or aren’t yet clear of downed trees.
But don’t despair, Washington. Good outdoor options really do exist for early-season hikers with itchy feet. Here are three good options with year-round access and a good chance of wowing you this spring.
Boulder River, Mountain Loop Highway
The Mountain Loop Highway is an often-overlooked close-to-home option for trekkers. Most hikes leave the valley floor and shoot up to high summits, but Boulder River is an exception.
The relatively flat trail meanders along the Boulder River, ducking in and out of old-growth forest, while popping out occasionally for impressive views of waterfalls that seem to squirt out of the side of a cliff.
The trail is especially good for those new to hiking or backpacking, as it’s a great sampling of a Northwest trail: moss-coated tree branches, raging rapids, happy little creeks, log bridges, and hollowed out trees the size of small rooms.
While many tackle this hike as a day trip, a handful of nice camping spots exist along the riverbank about four miles into the hike, near the trail’s end. Due to the fact that it’s not a steep climb, it’s a popular hike for newbies or kids.
If you go: From Arlington, drive east on Highway 530 to Milepost 41 and turn right on French Creek Road (Forest Road 2010). Drive 4 miles to the trailhead. Northwest Forest Pass required.
Dungeness Spit, Sequim
When it rains it pours, except if you’re in a rain shadow — and then, not so much. Sequim’s location just northeast of the Olympic Mountains makes it a great destination for sun seekers (or those hoping to get less-wet) because the mountains “catch” the spring downpours that soak the region.
The Dungeness Spit on the north coast of the Olympic Peninsula juts five miles into the Strait of Juan de Fuca just south of Vancouver Island. An easy upland trail leads hikers along a bluff to the region’s big draw: miles of pristine beach hiking along the narrow strip of land. To one side of the spit, you have rolling waves, orca whales and otters. The other side is a protected wetland home to myriad nesting shorebirds.
Along the beach, clamber over huge driftwood logs, keep your eyes open for seals and play Indiana Jones with whips of bull kelp that wash ashore. At the end of the spit, a historic lighthouse built in 1857 is open to the public, but don’t underestimate how long it will take to walk there. Hiking five miles through sand and loose cobble is exhausting. But even if you don’t make it to the finish, don’t be discouraged. At Dungeness Spit, the joy is in the journey.
If you go: Take Highway 101 to Sequim and turn north on Kitchen-Dick Road. Drive 3 miles to the Dungeness Recreation Area. Entrance fee $3 per family. The sand cliffs are a big temptation for kids, but they’re unstable. No dogs are allowed due to the sensitive bird nesting grounds. Car campground near trailhead.
Goldmyer Hot Springs, Middle Fork Snoqualmie River
The sublime Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie River basin, near North Bend, seems too good to be so close to Seattle.
A network of trails and Forest Service roads braids through a gorgeous lowland valley that’s high enough to feel like the mountains, yet low enough to stay snow-free most of the year.
May is the season of waxy new undergrowth that provides endless macro-level exploration. Through peek-a-boo views, the forest appears smoky as it exhales moisture. In the rain it’s beautiful. In the sun, it feels like you’re walking in a dream world.
Follow fisherman trails to casual riverfront campsites (which can often be found just off the road). Offshoots to higher trails such as Snow Lake and the Dutch Miller Gap give you opportunities to test the early-season hiking gods.
By far, the best not-so-secret highlight to this region is Goldmyer Hot Springs. Overseen by a private trust (which limits users to 20 per day), the spring’s hot water pours from a triangular cave into a series of cooler pools. Surrounded by a mossy embankment near a roaring waterfall, the springs are the ideal setting for a long soak after a hike.
If you go: Take Interstate 90 to Exit 34. Turn north on 468th Avenue Southeast and drive .6 miles, and then turn right on Middle Fork Road. Go left on Forest Service Road 56 and drive 11 miles. Northwest Forest Pass required. There are multiple trailheads so bring a good map. Reservations are essential for Goldmyer Hot Springs. Entrance $15 per person/camping $5 per person. www.goldmyer.org.
Seattle freelancer Jeff Layton has traveled to more than 75 countries as a journalist, photographer and tour leader. He blogs at www.MarriedToAdventure.com.