This week’s early season snowfall across much of Western Washington sure seems to support most predictions that we are in for a real winter this year. You may have grown a little spoiled after some of our recent past winters with their mild temps and low snowfalls. If you’re a seasoned hiker who has spent many a year here—you know that winter travel in the high country can be extremely demanding, difficult—and downright dangerous. Avalanches, deep snow wells, and hypothermia are all killers and should not be taken lightly.
If contending with these real challenges of backcountry travel in a snowy environment is not your idea of fun, don’t despair. There are hundreds of wonderful snow free hiking options throughout Western Washington. Granted many of them are urban trails, or semi-wild locales near our major towns and cities. But if you’re craving a real wilderness experience in the dead of winter in Western Washington sans snow—it can be done! Below are three generally snow free bona fide backcountry adventures you can do while the high country is shrouded white!
Wilderness beaches have all but disappeared in the continental United States. A few pockets still exist in Maine and on barrier
islands along the East Coast. On the West Coast, California’s Lost Coast is as wild as it was before the 1849 Gold Rush. And here in the Pacific Northwest, the Olympic Coast remains one of the longest wildest stretches of seashore south of the Canadian border.
The Olympic Coast harbors nearly 50 miles of rugged and stunning coastline free of development and roads, offering some of the finest beach hiking in America. The entire wilderness coast from the mouth of the Hoh River to Shi Shi Beach bordering the Makah Reservation also makes for some of best backpacking in the country. And the southernmost 17 miles, which I like to call the Wildcatter Coast, are exceptionally rugged, offering a true wilderness experience.
On this stretch of Pacific shoreline, clamber over daunting headlands and traverse saturated forests. Wander past secluded coves, sprawling tide pools, and magical beaches. Marvel at roving shorebirds harvesting the surf. Awe at crusty rocks decorated in purple and orange by colonies of starfish. Experience amazing sunsets watching a fire red sun extinguished by a furious ocean disrupted by jagged sea stacks and bulky guano-stained bird-incubating islands. And pass relics of the shattered dreams of oil men (hence Wildcatter) who had hoped to exploit this rugged beauty.
Created in 1959 by construction of the Upper Baker River Dam, Baker Lake is the byproduct of flood control and flicking on the lights. Baker Lake is drawn down during the winter months revealing a muddy bed of stumps. Not very pretty. But the lake is not the attraction of this hike. The wild Baker River flowing into it; cascading tributaries feeding it; groves of old-growth giants gracing it; views of Mounts Baker and Shuksan towering above it; and a cool little suspension bridge are the draws of this hike. The Baker Lake Trail is also part of the long distance Pacific Northwest Trail. Do an easy out and back hike from either the lake trail’s northern or southern trailhead—or arrange for a shuttle and do a grand 13.2 mile one way trek.
Several well-established backcountry camps along the trail—busy in the summer—are often void of people during the winter months. Enjoy exceptional views of Mounts Baker and Shuksan from several lakeside bluffs. And marvel at roaring creeks—all crossed by sturdy bridges.
Carbon River Valley
Roam through miles of some of the largest and oldest trees in Mount Rainier National Park. Amble up the Carbon River Valley and try to keep your neck from straining while constantly tilting your head upward admiring towering firs, cedars and hemlocks. Late in the autumn of 2006, heavy rainfall caused the Carbon River to flood and washout large sections of the Carbon River Road. Rather than reopen this prone-to-washouts road, park officials decided to permanently convert it to a trail. The bad news—many popular short day hikes became much longer and the Ipsut Creek Campground was no longer car accessible. The good news is that the Carbon River road-trail makes for a pleasant hike year round and is also open to mountain bikes. The Ipsut Creek Campground is now a wonderful backcountry campground.
The road-trail pulls away from the roaring glacier-fed river at times, but is never far enough away that you lose sound of it. The walking is easy with very little elevation gain. The surrounding forest is stunning—an emerald cathedral of towering ancient conifers. On sunny days, the thick canopy will do its best to keep you well shaded. And on overcast days the layered tree crowns will spare you from a soaking. At about 1.2 miles you’ll come to a junction with the indiscreet Washington Mine Trail.
You want to continue east on the road-trail soon coming upon a channel of the Carbon River. Pass through more groves of impressive arboreal giants and cross Falls Creek on a wide bridge. Continue upriver eventually coming to a bank high above the raging river. Here enjoy excellent views of the cloudy silty pounding river below and of Tirzah Peak across the wild waterway. Just after leaving the open river bank you’ll come to the Green Lake Trailhead (return later in the spring for this great hike). Now 3.1 miles into your hike, you’ve climbed a mere 350 feet. Ipsut Creek—its campground and small waterfall are another two miles away. Savor wonderful riverside viewing along the way.