You’re on a hike when a sudden movement catches your eye. The adrenaline surges as two things cross your mind: Was that a wild animal? Am I about to be eaten? 

Spotting creatures in the wild is a hugely rewarding part of spending time outdoors. Fortunately, most animals in the Pacific Northwest aren’t aggressive, and if you’re lucky enough to see something rare, it will likely be a highlight of your season. 

Fall is an excellent time for hikes in the high country, and an ideal time to spot wild animals. The snowpack is low so you can access the highest hikes and the tallest peaks. And the animals that live there are rushing to prepare for the long winter ahead, so there’s a flurry of activity. 

There’s no guarantee you’ll see animals on a given hike, but knowing what to look for will certainly help your odds.

Here’s a starter guide to some of the coolest mammals that live in the high reaches of our state — what they’re like, where they live and a few locations where you might see them. 

Olympic marmots, the largest species of North American marmot, were spotted by the author from a trail near Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park. (Courtesy of Jeff Layton)
Olympic marmots, the largest species of North American marmot, were spotted by the author from a trail near Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park. (Courtesy of Jeff Layton)

Marmots

Cute ranking:

Fear factor: 0

What they are: The size of a small dog, marmots are the largest members of the squirrel family and can weigh more than 20 pounds. Washington has three species, with the largest variety in the nation living exclusively in the Olympic Mountains. Before hibernation, they dine on seeds, grasses, berries and a variety of other vegetation. When danger approaches, they whistle warnings to their comrades and duck into rocky dens. 

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Status: Common at high elevations

Habitat: Marmots thrive on mountainous slopes with rock debris, especially when meadows are nearby.

Good hikes: Around Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park, the Pacific Crest Trail, hikes around Paradise at Mount Rainier

A warning about wild animals

• Most of the animals on this list are shy and won’t go near humans. But if you do see one of them, appreciate them from a distance, don’t try to touch or pet them, and certainly don’t try to feed them.
• When in mountain goat territory, dispose of your grey water and urinate on hardscape like rocks or the goats will tear up the soil.
• When camping in bear territory, use a bear bin or hang your food on a bear wire.

Keep your eyes and ears open for pikas when hiking in rocky alpine terrain. (Courtesy of Jeff Layton)
Keep your eyes and ears open for pikas when hiking in rocky alpine terrain. (Courtesy of Jeff Layton)

Pikas

Cute ranking:

Fear factor: 0

What they are: Pikas are a rabbit cousin that could fit into the palm of your hand. They are tailless, egg-shaped mammals with tiny round ears that eat a variety of grasses, lichen and mountain flowers. They bellow a loud warning “peep” that’s disproportionate to their size. Pikas are extremely sensitive to warm weather and won’t survive in temperatures above 78 degrees.

Status: Fairly common at high elevations

Habitat: Keep your eyes and ears open whenever you encounter rocky alpine terrain. Pikas live in small holes among rocky talus slopes or boulder fields near meadows. 

Good hikes: Same as marmots

The author poses near a mountain goat that approached him while he was hiking in the Enchantments. It’s important to retain a safe distance while observing wild animals or taking photographs. Layton was watching the animal from the trail from a distance before it got closer to him. (Courtesy of Jeff Layton)
The author poses near a mountain goat that approached him while he was hiking in the Enchantments. It’s important to retain a safe distance while observing wild animals or taking photographs. Layton was watching the animal from the trail from a distance before it got closer to him. (Courtesy of Jeff Layton)

Mountain goat

Cute ranking:

Fear factor: 5 (can be pushy)

What they are: Mountain goats are larger than domestic goats, with short horns, beards, stocky front shoulders and a shaggy white coat. Their feet have sticky inner pads surrounded by cloven hooves that can splay, along with sharp dewclaws that give them excellent traction. They are vegetarians and known to be salt junkies, so they will raid campsites looking for grey water and even urine.

Status: Commonly seen in some high-mountainous regions. Non-native but present in the Olympic Mountains.

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Habitat: To avoid predators, mountain goats take refuge on steep cliffs, rocky terrain and talus slopes above the tree line. Look for tiny splotches of white dotting impossibly steep cliffs.

Good hikes: Ingalls Peak, Colchuck Lake and throughout the Enchantments

Wolverine sightings are rare. This one was photographed with a trail camera in the Baker Lake region. (Courtesy of Ryan Gaither)
Wolverine sightings are rare. This one was photographed with a trail camera in the Baker Lake region. (Courtesy of Ryan Gaither)

Wolverine

Cute ranking:

Fear factor: 7 (can be fierce)

What they are: The largest member of the weasel family, wolverines are the size of a medium dog with a pair of yellowish bands running from shoulder to tail. Stocky, strong and fierce, wolverines are primarily scavengers but can take down prey many times their size. Their feet are like snowshoes with fur that is frost-resistant, so they spend much of their lives in the snow. They live by scavenging and stealing food from bears and wolves, so look for them near a carcass.

Status: Very rare in the Northwest. Report all sightings to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Habitat: Wolverines can travel over a huge range in a single day. They take difficult routes over mountains, often skipping game trails and going straight up and over the crest of mountains. They love the cold, so look for them bounding among glaciers and on mountaintops.

Good hikes: Glacier Peak Wilderness, Anderson and Watson Lakes Trail near Mount Baker.

How a simple trail camera led to an epic wildlife discovery
Grizzly sightings are exceptionally rare in Washington state. The author photographed this one in Denali National Park in Alaska. There are also grizzlies in Canada. (Courtesy of Jeff Layton)
Grizzly sightings are exceptionally rare in Washington state. The author photographed this one in Denali National Park in Alaska. There are also grizzlies in Canada. (Courtesy of Jeff Layton)

Grizzly bear

Cute ranking:

Fear factor: 10 (possibly the most intimidating creature on Earth)

What they are: Perhaps no other creature evokes more fear than a 1,200-pound grizzly. They’re enormous animals, with fierce talons on their front paws and a jaw meant for crushing. They can be any shade of brown and are distinguished by a large hump on their shoulders.

Status: Exceptionally rare in Washington state. Report all sightings. (Black bears are the more common species within Washington state.)

Habitat: Grizzlies have historically lived in Washington, although there haven’t been confirmed sightings in several years. If they are in the state, they will probably have wandered in from Canada, so your best locations are in the mountains near the border. 

Good hikes: There are unconfirmed rumors of sightings around the White River valley south of the Glacier Peak Wilderness and on hikes in the Salmo-Priest Wilderness. Pasayten Wilderness is another good option. Realistically, your best chances are in Alaska or B.C.’s Great Bear Rainforest.

Martens are a rare sight, but may be seen in the high country among conifer forests. (Getty Images)
Martens are a rare sight, but may be seen in the high country among conifer forests. (Getty Images)

Martens

Cute ranking: 10 

Fear factor: 1 (can be naughty)

What they are: Members of the weasel family, martens are the size of a small house cat with a bushy tail and small, round ears. They are agile and hunt among conifer forests or on the ground for small mammals, birds and insects. They’re active day and night, but are shy and rarely seen.

Status: Threatened and sensitive to deforestation and development.

Habitat: Martens are most commonly seen in the high country among conifer forests, but they can also be seen at sea level.

Good hikes: Alpine Lakes Wilderness, Snow Lake Trail near Snoqualmie

Lynx spottings are rare, as their population varies from year to year. (Getty Images)
Lynx spottings are rare, as their population varies from year to year. (Getty Images)

Lynx

Cute ranking:

Fear factor: 3 (intimidating but shy)

What they are: A medium-size member of the cat family, lynx are larger than bobcats but smaller than cougars, with long legs, a black tip on their tail and tufts of fur on the ends of their ears. They have oversized paws that allow them to travel in snow. Lynx specialize in hunting snowshoe hare, so their numbers rise and fall with the hare population.

Status: Very rare in the Northwest. Report all sightings.

Habitat: Lynx live in high-elevation forests, especially in areas that receive plenty of snow. There must be an adequate snowshoe hare population to support them.

Good hikes: Barnaby Buttes and hikes around Profanity Peak near Republic