Friends are visiting Seattle from late June to early July. They recently asked:
I was wondering if there were a few places that you could recommend for some epic hiking. Your flickr account is filled with gorgeous photos of spots that are easy to get to from Seattle, so deciding based on photos seems daunting. We’re thinking of doing three days of hiking (and we’d stay in a cabin overnight) in one or two locations. We’ll have a rental car also. We’re just looking for gorgeous scenery, and up to a moderate level of hiking difficulty. Are there 4 or 5 favorite hikes that fit this that you’d recommend?
This is a challenging time for planning a hiking trip. Some years, the northwest will have warmed up months earlier and the snow will be gone. Other years, many of our favorite trails may still be covered in snow. So, unless you are prepared to deal with snow, you need a base with some different options. There are a few that should fit that bill. Read on for some suggestions of areas to stay and corresponding hikes.
There are some good options in both the Cascades and the Olympics at this time of year. We’ll cover each. When we discuss hikes, we’ll link to the Washington Trails Association website. This non-profit does advocacy and trail maintenance, and their website is a great resource for up-to-date trip reports on trail conditions and the conditions of the roads required to reach them. Check the site for the latest reports before going, and, if they help you, consider donating. We’ll also link to Sean’s photos from these hikes. You’ll see some very snow-free 2015 photos; you should know that winter 2015 was atypically warm and mild.
Note that most hikes in this description require a Northwest Forest Pass, which you can buy as a day pass online or buy an annual pass at a forest service office. America the Beautiful passes are also honored. See WTA descriptions for pass requirements.
Hikes and towns in the Cascades generally fall along highways running into the mountains or through the passes. From north to south, WA-542, WA-20, Mountain Loop Highway (WA-530), US-2 (Stevens Pass), and I-90. There are additional options down by Mount Rainier (WA-410 and US-12) and Mount Saint Helens (WA-504).
Staying in a town in one of the passes — along US-2, WA-20, or I-90 — can put you close to several good options. It also limits you to the hikes in that pass, unless you want a longer drive. Towns on either side of the Cascades can give more options, since you can often get to hikes in a few different passes without too long of a drive. So, what are some good options?
I’d probably rule out WA-542 if booking ahead. There are some fantastic day hikes up there — we enjoyed a week of hiking in the Glacier / Mount Baker area in late August a couple of summers ago — but I just wouldn’t be confident the trails will be melted out. The North Cascades Highway (WA-20) may suffer the same challenges.
First, don’t discount Seattle. Yes, the drives can be a bit longer, but hikes along Mountain Loop Highway, I-90, and US-2 are accessible within 2-3 hours each way. See below for descriptions.
At the base of Mount Si (WTA) and recognizable to Twin Peaks fans, North Bend makes a good option for a gateway to hikes along I-90. North Bend is 30 miles east of Seattle, and has plenty of restaurants and grocery stores. Some possible June day hikes include:
Melakwa Lakes. 8.5 miles round trip, 2500′ elevation gain. Walk through the forest and then climb steeply along the sides of a a gorge and past a waterfall to reach two blue alpine lakes. The lakes are often, but not always, melted out by early July. Beware of the Denny Creek crossing in high water. For even more outstanding views, you can extend this hike by climbing up Melakwa Pass, beyond the upper lake. You also can add an easy 2 mile round trip to Franklin Falls (WTA) from near the same parking area. WTA description | July 2007 photos (including Franklin Falls) | July 2015 photos (including Melakwa Pass).
Snow Lake. 7.2 miles round trip, 1800′ elevation gain. This is one of the most popular lake hikes in Washington, and for good reason. An easy to moderate hike brings you to an enormous lake in a spectacular bowl of mountains, lined with forest. To avoid crowds, start early, especially on weekends. We suggest dawn. If you have the energy and time, you can extend this hike by continuing along the lake shore. If climb past the lake, you will eventually reach the smaller Gem Lake and a trail up Wright Mountain. The full extension is around 14 miles, with considerably more elevation gain. The boot path up Wright Mountain can be hard to follow and crosses over a boulder field with wobbly footing. WTA description | mid-July 2015 photos (including Gem Lake and Wright Mountain).
Granite Mountain. 8.6 miles round trip, 3800′ elevation gain. Granite Mountain features outstanding 360º views and a fire tower at the top, but you have to work hard to get there. The trail switches back — seemingly endlessly — on switchbacks. Much of the trail is exposed and facing south, offering steadily improving views and meaning that it tends to melt out early. In July, the upper third of the mountain is covered in bear grass, dotted with purple lupine. WTA description | July 2014 photos.
Mount Defiance. 11 miles round trip and 3584′ elevation gain. Similar and nearby to Granite Mountain, the route to Mount Defiance passes by Mason Lake. The summit does not have a fire tower. WTA description | March 2015 photos (reminder: winter 2015 was uncharacteristically warm).
Lake Ingalls. 9.0 miles round trip (more if you walk around the lake), 2500′ elevation gain. This one is more of a haul from North Bend — about two hours — but worth it. It’s also probably the hike I’ve done most in the pacific northwest, other than Serene Lake (see below), even with the 2.5 hour drive. The hike begins up a broad, gentle grade, and then climbs steadily up to Ingalls Pass. As you climb, you can see Rainier and Adams to the south. At the pass, you are greeted with views of the distinctive and spectacular Mount Stuart. The trail descends slightly, passing through Headlight Basin, eventually climbing back up to Ingalls Lake. This picturesque lake sits in a bowl of almost red rocks and is backed by Mount Stuart. As you hike, keep your eyes out for serpentinite, which is a smooth and almost waxy-feeling green rock here. We’ve done this one with some snow on it, though check trip reports for trail conditions. WTA description | mid-July 2015 photos | October 2013 photos | September 2010 photos.
The first thing you should know about Leavenworth is that it’s a faux-Bavarian town. Every building is done up in German style, which creates some architectural oddities when integrated with chain architecture. Also, you can get decent baked goods, spätzle, and schnitzel. The second thing to know is that it’s located on the east side of the Cascades, along US-2. Even when Seattle is rainy, Leavenworth can be sunny. It’s a good jumping off point for hikes on the eastern side of US-2 and you can get down to the Teanaway area. We’ve also found good rental accommodations in Leavenworth and nearby Peshastin.
Some possible late June or early July hikes include:
Colchuck Lake. 8 miles round trip, 2280′ elevation gain. There’s a good chance that if you’ve seen a photo of a lake in the Cascades, it’s Colchuck. The trail begins with a very gradual climb. After a trail junction, the trail crosses Mountaineer Creek, skirts a boulder field, and climbs steeply. As you climb, you start to get views, and soon arrive at the lake. Usually the route to the lake is snow-free by late June. WTA description. You can also make this a longer hike by adding in a detour to Lake Stuart.
Lake Ingalls. Described above. From Leavenworth, it’s about a 1h 45 minute drive to the trailhead, passing over Blewett Pass on US 97. Also consider stopping at Liberty Ghost Town, which you’ll nearly pass coming or going from Leavenworth.
Lake Serene (1 hour 15 minutes), Wallace Falls (1 hr 30 minutes), Beckler Peak (1hr 20 minutes), Lake Valhalla (50 minutes) and other US-2 hikes, described below.
On the west side of the Cascades, along US-2, and located conveniently for Mountain Loop Highway, Lake Stevens may also make for a good base. It is also located conveniently for commuting to Everett (home to Boeing’s wide body production, among other things), so it will feel more suburban than rural. That’s good if you want lots of options, but not great it you want a mountain destination. For a more rural option but still with good options for food, you could consider staying in Granite Falls. That makes US-2 hikes farther, but Mountain Loop Highway hikes closer.
We cover the Mountain Loop Highway hikes in this section, and the US-2 hikes further below. Unfortunately, Mountain Loop Highway trailheads seem particularly susceptible to car prowls, so don’t leave anything in your car.
Goat Lake. 10.4 miles round trip, 1400′ elevation gain. Large mountain lake set in a bowl among Mountain Loop Highway peaks. This hike is a good rainy day option, as the grade is easy and the route is tree-covered. We have actually yet to be here on a clear day. Goat Lake can be accessed via a drier upper trail or a lower trail that parallels scenic Elliot Creek, making for a nice loop. WTA description | July 2016 photos | July 2010 photos.
Lake 22. 5.4 miles round trip, 1350′ elevation gain. Lovely mountain lake set against Mount Pilchuck. The trail passes through old growth forest and climbs along a beautiful cascading stream. This beauty draws tremendous crowds, especially on weekends, which fill up the parking area and overflow parking at a nearby picnic area. WTA description | May 2015 photos | July 2010 photos.
Heather Lake. 4.6 miles round trip, 1034′ elevation gain. Lake 22’s equally beautiful yet less popular neighbor. The main drawback of Heather Lake is that the Lake 22 trail follows a prettier set of cascades, but the easier parking and reduced crowds are a huge plus. WTA description | May 2016 photos | May 2015 photos.
Mount Dickerman. 8.2 miles round trip, 3950′ elevation gain. A steep climb offers excellent views of the Mountain Loop Highway peaks. Snow often lingers until late June or early July. We’re comfortable enough on snow that this has been fine for us. Traction devices can help, but know your own limits. When snow lingers, however, there are often overhanging cornices in the summit area — do not venture out on them. WTA description | Late July 2010 photos
Gothic Basin. 9.2 miles round trip, 2840′ elevation gain. Sadly, the odds of this one being melted out in June are small — the trail faces to the north, and so the snow on it just does not melt as fast. Worse, as it starts to melt, several dangerous snow bridges form. If you are lucky to find it melted out, though, Gothic Basin is a must-do. The trail leaves from Barlow Pass and follows the old road toward Monte Cristo. You’ll have to cross the Sauk River on logs. Well before the Monte Cristo townsite, the Gothic Basin trail departs to the left. It begins gradually climbing and then gets much steeper. Views begin, and then you eventually enter a rocky bowl filled with tarns. Follow cairns to Foggy Lake and views of Del Campo and Gothic Peaks. WTA description | August 2015 photos | September 2010 photos.
Monte Cristo Ghost Town. 8.0 miles round trip, 700′ elevation gain. A mostly easy hike along an old mining railroad route to the Monte Cristo townsite. For much of the route, the trail follows — and at one point crosses on logs — the Sauk River. WTA description | June 2010 photos.
Towns along US-2
Staying along US-2 will limit your options to hikes along US-2, unless you want to drive further. However, you’ll be right in the mountains and your drive time to those hikes won’t be so long. My parents stayed in Index for a trip last summer and enjoyed it, but restaurant and food options can be a bit thinner or further than in larger towns. Potential early season options include:
Lake Serene. 8.2 miles round trip, 2000′ elevation gain. A hike that captures much of the best of the Cascades. The trail leads through forest, and after about 1.7 miles, a side trail leads to Bridal Veil Falls. These falls drop a total 1300 feet over several tiers; the tier at the end of the spur trail drops 205 feet. The main trail climbs further, to the lake. A short trail around the lake leads to a large lakeside rock named “Lunch Rock” for obvious reasons. Note that the trail is closed until 1 July 2018 for nearby logging. WTA description | April 2016 photos | February 2015 photos | September 2013 photos.
Wallace Falls. 5.6 mile trail to several waterfalls in a state park. Overall, grades are easy and the waterfalls are beautiful. Every year, someone goes past a railing and falls in, often to a tragic end. Stay behind the railings. WTA description | September 2015 photos.
Beckler Peak. 7.6 miles round trip, 2240′ elevation gain. A relatively easy to access hike on a well-graded, recently rebuilt trail. The peak offers views of the Wild Sky Wilderness. WTA description | September 2014 photos.
Lake Valhalla and Mount McCausland. Lake Valhalla features a sandy beach and is towered over by pointy Lichtenberg Mountain. Mount McCausland lets you view Lichtenberg and the lake from above while also offering views through the trees to Glacier Peak and other surrounding mountains. Each destination is a 7-mile round trip hike on its own (with 1800′ of elevation gain for Mount McCausland’s summit and 1500′ of elevation gain for Lake Valhalla). Combining them, though, gives you the best rewards for your effort and brings the total to about eight miles and maybe 2000′ of elevation gain. WTA – Lake Valhalla | WTA- Mount McCausland | September 2015 photos.
The Olympic Peninsula, to the west of Seattle, is also worth a visit. Would probably consist of more, smaller hikes or walks that let you best see the Peninsula’s diversity. We like Port Angeles as a base on the Peninsula — there are some good restaurants, a farmer’s market, and a variety of lodging options, including VRBO and AirBNB, with views out over the Strait of San Juan de Fuca. You also could stay over in the Forks area, out by the coast. That’ll be closer for the Hoh Rain Forest and beaches, but longer (~2 hours) to our favorite hike in the Olympics, Marmot Pass.
Marmot Pass. 11.5 miles round trip, 3489′ elevation gain. Follow the Upper Big Quilcene river through the forest for a while, before emerging on slopes covered in wildflowers. The climb is steady but overall gradual and the variety of scenery is fantastic. At the pass, you can see into the heart of the Olympic Mountains. The trailhead is a little more than an hour from Port Angeles, but this is also doable as a (long) day from Seattle. WTA description | June photos | August 2007 photos | July 2007 photos.
Dungeness Spit. The Dungeness Spit is is a narrow strip of sand and rock, extending into the Strait of San Juan de Fuca from near Port Angeles. A short walk through the forest leads to viewpoints of the spit, and then a short but steep descent to the coast. You can walk as far as the lighthouse (closed to visitors) near the end of the spit, an 11 mile round trip, but even short explorations are rewarding. This is easier at low tide. WTA description.
From Port Angeles, you also can drive up Hurricane Ridge Road into Olympic National Park. The road itself offers good views of the Olympic mountains, and you can also take several small trails from road-end for more views.
Waterfalls. There are three good waterfall walks along the north side of the Olympics, each with their own accompaniment. From east to west, the first is Madison Falls, a 0.2 mile paved walk (WTA description). You can also drive further up the Olympic Hot Springs Road along the Elwha River for further views, including of the now-removed Glines Canyon Dam. Next are Marymere Falls, 1.8 mile loop (500′ elevation gain) to two viewpoints of this waterfall (WTA description). The trailhead is also along the shore of Lake Crescent, which is worth a stop. Finally, the 48′ Sol Doc Falls are located in an old growth forest. You can reach them on an easy 1.6 mile round trip (200′ elevation gain) hike from the trailhead at Sol Doc Hot Springs.
Hoh Rain Forest. Within the Olympic National Park, there are several options for exploring the Hoh Rain Forest. The shortest is the 0.8 mile walk through the Hall of Mosses (WTA description). For a longer day, you can take the mostly level 10.6 mile round trip (700′ elevation gain) hike along the Hoh River Trail to a turnaround point at Five Mile Island (WTA description).
Beaches. The are several scenic beaches on the Pacific Coast. My favorites so far are Rialto Beach, where you can do a 4.0 mile hike to the Hole in the Wall arch, and Ruby Beach, where you can also walk along the coast for miles.