Fair weather hikers rejoice! You don’t need to hang up your hiking boots during the rainy season thanks to our rain shadows. What’s a rainshadow? It’s an effect caused by mountains capturing rain clouds on their windward slopes; then wringing them out leaving the leeward slopes dry. It can be quite dramatic like on the Olympic Peninsula. There coastal towns such as Forks receive over 120 inches of annual precipitation while Sequim located 65 miles west on the other side of the Olympic Mountains receives only 18 inches of annual precipitation.
With prevailing westerly winds and a predominantly mountainous terrain, there are rain shadows of varying degrees throughout the Northwest. Seattle sits in one. So does the Tri-cities—Victoria too. Atlanta, Miami, and Tulsa all receive more annual precipitation than those Northwest cities thanks to rain shadows compliments of the Cascade and Olympic Mountains.
Mark Twain once quipped about the finicky New England weather, that if you don’t like it—just wait a minute. Here in the Pacific Northwest, if you don’t like the weather, just head for a rainshadow! Here are six great winter hiking destinations promising pockets of sunshine and dryness during the rainy season.
- Ebey’s Landing
Whidbey Island, Washington
Details in 100 Classic Hikes Washington
Stroll across emerald fields, climb coastal bluffs towering above a crashing surf, and wander along a beautiful beach set against a backdrop of snowcapped Olympic Mountains. A National Historical Reserve, the 17,400-acre Ebey’s Landing protects undeveloped coastline, rare Puget Sound prairies, important wildlife habitat, and historic farms, sites and structures.
To capture the Landing’s full essence try this 5.6 mile lollipop loop beginning from the Prairie Overlook. Hike past a 1850s homestead now serving as a visitor’s center; then continue across verdant lawns towards Admiralty Inlet. The Olympic Mountains majestically rise in the background. Reach the edge of the prairie and turn right climbing golden bluffs rising 300 feet above the Sound. Look for eagles perched in ghostly snags. And stare directly below at Perego’s Lake—a bird rich lagoon formed by a narrow spit.
Then descend the bluff and head south on the beach. Scan the coastal waters for birds, seals, and perhaps a whale. Follow a trail back up to the prairie and close the loop.
- Deschutes River State Recreation Area
Columbia River Gorge, OR
Details in Day Hiking Columbia River Gorge
The wild and scenic Deschutes River is one of Oregon’s grandest waterways. Its confluence with the Columbia River just a few miles east of The Dalles is protected within a delightful state park. Here you’ll find several miles of family friendly trails along the Deschutes River and across sun-kissed desert-steppe. It’s quite a different scene than from the river’s headwaters in the snowy Cascades near Bend.
Three trails run parallel with the river, while another one takes off for the hills high above. Mosey out and back or make a loop. Named by French-Canadian fur traders, Riviere des Chutes (River of waterfalls), the Deschutes lives up to its name. Follow the Blackberry Trail to Moody Rapids. Then take the Riverview Trail to a spectacular overlook above a series of roiling rapids. For an adventurous loop, continue upstream to the Ferry Springs Trail and take it; steadily climbing to the springs and an excellent view down to the river valley. Then descend on an historic wagon road constructed in the 1860s returning to the paralleling river trails which will bring you back to your start.
- Badger Mountain
Columbia River Plateau, WA
Details in 100 Classic Hikes Washington
A well-known landmark in Eastern Washington’s Tri-cities, this open peak grants horizon spanning views from the sunny Hanford Reach to snowy Cascadian volcanoes. Three trails ascend this beloved peak above the Columbia River allowing for a satisfying loop or a stunning ridgeline traverse.
The Canyon Trail which starts on the mountain’s northeastern slopes right in Richland is the most popular. The Skyline Trail from the east is another way up—and combined with the Sage Brush Trail makes a nice loop with the Canyon Trail. The approach from the west offers a wilder approach as it ascends slopes away from the city.
While Badger appears barren from a distance, a walk on this mountain in early spring reveals a different scenario. Wildflowers are profuse and dazzling along this peak. And the views are breathtaking anytime of the year from the Yakima and Columbia Rivers just below all the way to Mounts Rainier, Adams and Hood in the distance. And of course there are exceptional views too of Southwest Washington’s Tri-cities spread out below.
- Dungeness Spit
Olympic Peninsula, WA
Details in Day Hiking Olympic Peninsula
One of Washington’s best saltwater strolls, the Dungeness Spit protrudes over five miles into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The longest coastal spit in the continental United States, you can hike along this narrow strip of sand, dune and beached logs all the way to a lighthouse that has been keeping guard since 1857. Lying within the Olympic rain shadow, the spit receives less than 20 inches of rainfall annually, making it one of the best winter beach walks in the Northwest.
Start by following a trail through cool maritime forest descending to the beach. Hike as far as you want but don’t forget to pack your binoculars. The bird watching is supreme. Over 250 species have been recorded on the spit and in Dungeness Bay, including many that are endangered or threatened. Watch ships ply the busy waters of the strait. And look for seals keeping a curious eye on you.
- Gowlland Range
The Victoria area offers scores of provincial and regional parks graced with hundreds of kilometers (or miles if you prefer) of trails. Canada’s fittest city is also blessed with temperate winter weather compliments of the Olympic rain shadow. For one of the most dramatic hiking experiences within the Capital District, head to the sprawling Gowlland Tod Provincial Park located just south of Brentwood Bay and world famous Butchart Gardens. The largest natural area on the Saanich Peninsula, this 3,000-acre park along the Tod Inlet and Gowlland Range harbors over 25 kilometers of trail.
A breathtaking trail traverses the Gowlland Range providing breathtaking views into a dramatic 1,300-foot fjord. Start this challenging hike from the McKenzie Bight Trailhead. After dropping into a lush ravine to a rocky coastline, start a grueling climb to a near-hidden waterfall. Then clamber up and over several summits including Jocelyn Peak which teeters high above the sparkling waters of Finlayson Arm. Continue along the fjord’s edge to Holmes Peak. You can go farther up and over steep Mount Finlayson to Goldstream Provincial Park if you haven’t been challenged enough.