Budding leaves, tiny mushrooms and spongelike mosses herald the new season, which officially starts this weekend.
Editor’s note: The spring equinox, the start of the new season, is officially at 9:30 p.m. PDT on Saturday, March 19.
DARRINGTON, Snohomish County — I’m trying to scratch my hiker’s itch. No, not that kind — the kind that has me hungry for a warm summer trail and leafy forest greens.
All the budding trees and flowers in Seattle have me thinking it might be fun to hit the trail again. Most trails in high-country locations will be under feet of snow for months to come — but in the foothills, there are glimmers of the warm season ahead.
On coastal routes, lakeshores and lowland trails, there’s plenty to entertain your wandering soul. That is, if you know where to look and you dress for any kind of weather.
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The Old Sauk River Trail, near Darrington, is an often-overlooked stroll along a roaring mountain river. Even in the dead of winter, it’s a hyper-green platter of lichens and mosses. In the spring, this little pocket of rain forest explodes with trillium and devil’s club, among other early-season delights.
It’s easy enough for any level of hiker (6-mile round trip — plus a 1-mile ADA accessible loop), yet impressive enough that even veteran hikers will appreciate it.
Details of the season
In the spring, the prolific mosses suck up downpours and puff up like sponges. Huge chains of lime-green Methuselah’s Beard gently sway from evergreen tree branches, occasionally falling in a stiff breeze.
There are signs of new life, but it takes a slower pace to appreciate them. My wife, Amanda, is terrific at spotting things at the macro level, which is good because spring hiking is all about finding those tiny details.
While I’m busy looking at the wide valley and chattering river, Amanda will notice the mushrooms that are no bigger than the head of a pin, or fuchsia-colored buds right in front of my face.
On the side of a dead log spanning the trail, she shows me a squishy orange organism like a tiny living gummy bear.
I’ve noticed that kids are also good at spotting things that are tiny. Get a kid looking for small details on a spring hike, and before you know it, they’re catching frogs and pointing out colorful little insects.
One of the more impressive sights you won’t overlook: the half-dozen downed trees across the trail. Whenever we scramble over one of them, we’re thankful we aren’t hiking in a windstorm.
Some upturned root balls stand taller than a person — an awesome reminder of how much a forest can change in a single winter.
When winter backslides
I’ve been on this same trail in early spring after cold air has swept down from Canada, transforming the rainforesty undergrowth into a frozen world. When that happens, it creates a short-lived collision of the seasons.
Sodden moss will freeze into organic ice sculptures.
Ground that is saturated with inches of rain will expunge frost flowers — delicate feathery formations that resemble cotton candy and dissolve the moment you touch them.
Northward-facing valleys such as the Sauk River have limited sun exposure, so even in the spring you can often find sharp, plate-like rings of ice around the river rocks
On our most recent visit, the rain was blowing sideways as we drove through Darrington, but once in the forest, the air was calm and the curtains of moss seemed to soak up the deluge.
Part of the fun of early-season hiking is the unpredictability of the season.
Amanda and I romped around in our ski gear, reminding one another that when you hike in the spring, there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing decisions.
If you go
Lowland hikes to explore this spring
Old Sauk River Trail: The trail has two entry points, 3.6 miles and 5.4 miles from Darrington, just off the Mountain Loop Highway. A Northwest Forest Pass is required to park. More details, courtesy of Washington Trails Association: wta.org/go-hiking/hikes/old-sauk
Boulder River: Also near Darrington, this is another Mountain Loop favorite. It travels 8.6 miles round trip with several waterfalls pouring from the rock face to entertain you as you hike. wta.org/go-hiking/hikes/boulder-river
Murhut Falls: Following a former logging road, this is an easy-grade hike with a big payoff. It starts near the Hood Canal community of Brinnon on the Olympic Peninsula. Pass through 1.6 miles round-trip of new growth, blooming rhododendrons, mushrooms and moss until you reach a roaring waterfall blasting with spring runoff. When giant trees fall upriver, they frequently become lodged in the neck of the falls. wta.org/go-hiking/hikes/murhut-falls
Wallace Falls State Park: A 5.6-mile round-trip trail just off Highway 2 near Gold Bar, this is one of Washington’s classic hikes. Near enough to Seattle to be convenient (and crowded), deep enough into the mountains to feel like you’re truly in the woods, and low enough to be snow-free in early spring. And the payoff: a huge, thundering waterfall. wta.org/go-hiking/hikes/wallace-falls
Hoh River Trail: Spring is the prime time to visit Olympic National Park’s iconic rain forest. When summer crowds arrive, the prolific mosses are usually dried out, but now they’re puffy and vivid. The Hoh River and Hall of Mosses trails are full of wonders: unbelievable curtains of dappled moss and some of the largest trees in the state. The coastal climate means it’s one of the first places to witness spring’s rebirth. $20 park entry fee. wta.org/go-hiking/hikes/hoh-river and wta.org/go-hiking/hikes/hall-of-mosses
Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge: Follow raised boardwalks and short little paths through a river delta. The refuge, recently renamed in honor of the late Nisqually Tribe leader who championed salmon resources, is a birder’s favorite in any season, but the last week in March may be the best time for spring migrant birds. Expect to see migrating bald eagles and the return of Rufous hummingbirds. Five miles of round-trip hiking. $3 entry fee for up to four adults. Details: 1.usa.gov/1RmSnuR or wta.org/go-hiking/hikes/nisqually-nwr