Usually snow-free, these Western Washington trails can have special appeal in the offseason. And when others have hung up their boots for the winter, there’s a good chance you’ll find solitude, even on popular trails.
Have you ever tried to convince a dog to go for a walk in the pouring rain? They take a glance outside and give a look that says: You’re kidding me, right?
That’s how most people feel about hiking in the winter. With all the rain, it’s easier to hibernate than gear up for a nature outing. That’s when it’s a good idea to remember the old Scandinavian saying: There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.
If you know where to look, there are pockets in the Northwest where hiking isn’t just OK. Many hikes are actually in their prime right now, says Kindra Ramos, director of communications and outreach for Washington Trails Association.
“With the right gear and preparation, winter is a wonderful time to go outside,” she says. “Waterfalls become more forceful in the rain, or snow can freeze them into works of art. Rain-forest greens of every shade fill your eyes. On a beach walk, the calls of birds contrast to the raging waves.”
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When others have hung up their boots for the winter, there’s a good chance you’ll find solitude, even on popular trails.
Here are some good places to work off those holiday treats and find hikes that shine in the offseason.
Waterfalls sometimes disappoint in the summer. You want a roaring cascade, not a trickle. In the winter, mountains see plenty of snowfall followed by warm snaps that make waterfalls boom. Where to go:
• Wallace Falls: On a recent hike at Wallace Falls State Park, on the edge of the town of Gold Bar, Snohomish County, I saw a good example of this. Starting with a view of the snow-crusted snaggletooth peak of Mount Index, about 8 miles distant, the trail was snow free, but I was never far from the sound of running water as I followed the Wallace River for 5.6 miles round-trip.
Huge sword ferns, waxy salal ground cover and dense evergreen trees made the trail a lush experience.
It’s a good hike for all abilities because there are payoff points along the way.
After just two miles a viewpoint of the Lower Falls is a good turnaround spot for kids and winded hikers. But continue a half-mile further for a close encounter with the panoramic Middle Falls, or another half-mile of switchbacks to stand atop a 265-foot drop at the Upper Falls.
• Sol Duc Falls: An Olympic National Park classic, the short 1.6-mile round-trip trail has plenty of drippy old-growth trees along the way, but the highlight is the raging caldron as the falls tumble through a slender rocky canyon.
The river splits into four channels when the water is high. Bridges and lots of viewpoints make this hike a photographer’s dream. At the end of a chilly day, warm your bones at the nearby Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort.
• Murhut Falls: Murhut Falls, on the eastern flank of the Olympics, might be off the radar for some, but it delivers a big 130-foot punch. Just under a mile of hiking follows a former logging road shrouded by rhododendrons. The roaring cascade funnels into a narrow crevice frequently choked by downed trees tossed like Pick-Up Sticks in the heart of the falls.
When storms slam into the mountains, the western slopes and valleys are doused with feet of rain, creating biologically diverse ecosystems. In the winter copious mosses become nature’s sponges, sucking up rainwater and swelling to unbelievable sizes. Where to go:
• Rockport State Park: Tucked in the North Cascades foothills, Rockport is the inland version of the famous Hoh rain forest (more about that in a moment). Densely packed clusters of old-growth trees look like scaffolding for drippy green mosses. Drapes of enormous Methuselah’s Beard lichen abound along the 3-mile Evergreen Trail, which shows off this small but ecologically rich destination.
• Baker River Trail: This deeply carved river valley is studded with old-growth cedars and colossal boulders. Start along Baker Lake before following the river trail, featuring runoff streams and beaver ponds. It’s a gentle grade with some classic northwest flora and fauna.
• The Hoh: This one might need to wait until later in the season; a recent storm washed out the Upper Hoh Road at Milepost 8. But when you can get there, Olympic National Park’s Hoh rain forest is the most famous in the state, and it’s easily a top-10 hiking destination. A meander along the 0.8-mile Hall of Mosses, or 10.6-mile Hoh River Trail, surveys old-growth trees whose canopies are cloaked with inches of moss. During sun breaks, plants steam with evaporation, creating mysterious clouds.
Oceans have a moderating effect on temperature, so beaches rarely freeze. Winter is the season for storm watching, so if you time your trip to coincide with big storms you can be treated to epic waves, wind and rain. Where to go:
• The outer coast: Take your pick of Washington’s coastal beach hikes. La Push, Second Beach, Third Beach, Rialto, Shi Shi, Ozette — they all have the potential for moody weather and claim dramatic offshore rock formations. Plus winter is the optimal time for beachcombing, when surging waves wash ashore all manner of marine life and floating paraphernalia.
• Dungeness Spit: This Sequim location is a slightly more sheltered beachcombing experience. The narrow 5-mile strip of beach extends like a finger into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Even if you don’t reach the lighthouse at the end you’ll lose yourself among the driftwood, shorebirds and flotsam.
• Deception Pass State Park: In an area surrounded by dramatic cliffs, a picturesque bridge and jumbo trees, beach hikes here are never bad in any kind of weather.
If you go
Be careful out there
Winter is especially prone to changeable weather and challenging conditions. Good rain gear and boots are a must, and layered clothing is the key to staying comfortable and avoiding hypothermia.
Always check with the nearest ranger about current conditions, let someone know where you’re heading, and don’t leave home without the 10 Essentials: wta.org/go-outside/trail-smarts/ten-essentials.