Top Ten Summer Hikes in the Northwest
The Pacific Northwest is a hiking Mecca – people who live here know that getting out to explore the great outdoors is part of our identity. Many of us northwest dwellers keep a pair of hiking boots by the door, ready to be donned at at the drop of a hat, whenever adventure may call.
With all the options available, it’s hard to know where to spend our precious summer days. That’s where this list comes in. It’s a bold statement, I realize, ‘The 10 Best Summer Hikes in the Northwest,’ but I’m comfortable with that. As a long-time Northwest resident and avid adventurer, I can tell you with confidence that these are best of the northwest’s summer offerings. They should be on your bucket list, whether you live here or not. They are iconic, or breathtaking, or both. They are not all achievable at the drop of a hat, but they are all achievable by the active, but not necessarily elite, hiker. Some might take planning for future summers, some might take planning for future weekends. Most of them are not for kids, or dogs, and none of them are particularly easy – but when you are in the PNW, it’s likely you’re not that into easy anyway.
1. The West Coast Trail, Vancouver Island, British Columbia. No list of PNW hikes would be complete without the WCT. It fits nicely into the iconic and breathtaking category. It also fits pretty neatly in the strenuous compartment – the trail boasts 47 miles of rugged trail, vertical ladders, cable cars and rope assisted tidal crossings. The West Coast Trail is located on the West side of Vancouver Island – hikers spend much of the trek lulled by crashing waves, hiking on soft sand. A typical journey takes between 7 and 10 days, and there are no points of exit or entry once you’ve started the trail. It’s likely to be raining at least part of the journey, so come prepared for the wet. All the turmoil is worth is though – the West Coast Trail is often cited as one of the best hikes in the world, let alone the PNW. Backpackers brave enough to tackle the trail are rewarded with unparalleled left coast views, showers in mighty waterfalls, boulder forests, giant old growth behemoths, whale sightings and the kind of solitude that only comes with tough hiking. The West Coast Trail is open only in the summer (it’s virtually impassable at other times because of intense coastal storms) and permits are required for the trail. This is one you’ll have to plan for, permits are limited and on a lottery system. This trail is not for the faint of heart nor the novice; a solid understanding of tide tables and backpacking skills are must haves.
2. Mount Pilchuck, Granite Falls, Washington State. Mount Pilchuck is a summer tradition where I come from, and the hikes humbling elevation gain paired with unbelievable panoramas are welcomed every year. Pilchuck is one of the easier hikes on this list – it’s about five miles round trip and doesn’t require any special preparations. Unlike other mountainous hikes in this region, the relatively high elevation starting point makes Pilchuck a quick trip. This trail starts out like many other Washington hikes, winding mildly through the forest, but quickly changes to more mountainous terrain. Much of the hike is spent traversing a ridgeline, the eventual spire of a summit in full view. Dramatic slabs of rock, full views of Mt. Baker, Mt. Rainier and the Olympics set the scenery apart. The restored fire lookout at the summit is a welcome respite after the climb. It’s best done in the summer because snow can linger on the the summit into August, check the trail conditions before you go. This trail can get busy, especially on warm summer weekends, so come prepared to share.
3. Watchman Peak Trail, Crater Lake National Park, Oregon. Visiting Crater Lake is an absolute must-do. It’s an accessible natural wonder for everyone, but if you’re able, making the journey up Watchman Peak Trail solidifies the experience. Crater Lake is popular, yes, but the tourists flock here for good reason. The lake is nestled into deep mountainous peaks, has the most crystal clear blue waters you’re likely to experience, and is fantastically mysterious. Watchman Peak Trail is short (1.6 miles out and back) and steep. Because it’s so quick, older kids (or adventurous kids) can likely make this trek as well. The top offers panoramic views of Crater Lake, a fire tower, and a perfect spot to have a picnic while enjoying the views. If you do get a chance to visit Crater Lake, soothe your achy muscles in natural hot springs after the trip at nearby Umpqua Hot Springs. The hot springs are about 32 miles from the National Park, and are some of the few left that haven’t been commercialized. The steamy pools sit high above the North Umpqua River, with a perfect view of Surprise Falls. There is a very short .3 miles jaunt to the springs. The hots springs are busy and nudity is frequent.
4. Blanca Lake, Steven’s Pass, Washington State. Blanca Lake is one of many serene lakes nestled into the Cascades, but none quite compare to it’s stunning vibrant blue color. The hike is fairly short – 7.5 miles round trip – but steep; you’ll gain 3300 feet. The steep switchbacks are worth it though, if you head up in the summer huckleberries and a refreshing dip in the glacier-fed lake await you.
5. South Coast Wilderness Trail -Toleak Point, Olympic National Park, Washington State. Olympic National Park is another of Washington State’s wild wonders, and is best experienced from the trail (rather than a drive in your car). This 2-3 day hike takes backpackers through the coastal rainforest (the most biologically dense place in the world), up and down several ladders and along the sea-stacked coastline. A relatively accessible backpacking trip, the South Coast Wilderness Trail doesn’t currently have a reservation system but hikers do need to obtain a permit in Port Angeles. The Washington Coast sees a lot of rain (it is a rainforest, after all) but the summer months are the driest and most enjoyable time to make this trek. A tide table and backpacking skills are necessary.
6. The Chief, Squamish, British Columbia. Not too far from the bustling city of Vancouver, BC lies the formidable Stawamus Chief, one of the largest granite monoliths in the world. The hike itself is short and sweet, (well, steep), and offers hikers three different peaks to conquer. If you choose to tackle all three, the hike takes about 5 hours, completing South Peak takes just 3. The trail is complete with stairs, bubbling creeks and eerie granite overhangs. The real adventure awaits at the top – hikers use chains and ropes to scramble up the peak, especially through some tight crevasses. If that sounds like a lot of work, rest assured that there is nothing like standing on top of the rock, enjoying the view of Howe Sound and the surrounding landscape. Hikers should come prepared for a tough hike – wear sturdy shoes and bring plenty of water.
7. Summerland, Mt. Rainier National Park, Washington State. If I had to sum up this hike in one word it would be: wildflowers. Even if I had a few more words, I wouldn’t be able to handle describing the dramatic landscape you explore on this day hike. Summerland is an iconic mountain meadow – the flowers alone are worth your 8 miles, round trip. The Summerland trail is an accessible portion of the much larger Wonderland Trail, which winds around the base of Mt. Rainier. If you only have one day to spend hiking around the mountain (rather than the 10 it takes to finish The Wonderland Trail) spend it here. The mountain looms ahead of you for most of the trip as you cross rivers and streams. Waterfalls burst out of the hills, marmots frolick in the grass, and, no joke, I’ve seen baby mountain goats tumbling through the fields. Resist the urge to leave the trail and sing “The Hills are Alive.” There will likely be snow lingering, especially if you decide to venture beyond Summerland to Panhandle Gap. Check the trip report before heading up, bring appropriate footwear and hiking poles if you’re headed beyond the meadow. This is Rainier’s most popular day hike (understandably) so get an early start.
8. The Enchantments, Leavenworth, Washington State. For many Pacific Northwest Dwellers, a multi-day trek in The Enchantments is a life-time bucket list experience. Not only are The Enchantments, well, enchanting, access to certain campsites is blissfully restricted. The Enchantments lovingly refers to The Enchantment Lakes, a group of glacially carved, granite surrounded mirror-clear lakes connected by feisty creeks. The lakes are set high in the Central Cascades, so they are surrounded by rocky peaks and astounding scenery. Mountain goats abound, and based on my experience, are pretty cheeky. Unlike many backpacking trips around the PNW, hikers in The Enchantments can hike in, set up camp for a few days and treat their remaining days like day hikes from a base camp. Trekking around is also an option, but careful planning is required to ensure backpackers are staying in their designated zones. A competitive lottery system exists during the busy summer months for permits, and specific permits are issued based on different camping zones. This is not a hike for total beginners – go with a plan and backpacking gear.
9. Mailbox Peak, North Bend, Washington State. If you prefer to really earn your 360 degree views, Mailbox Peak is the hike for you. Your thighs will burn during the four miles of steep switchbacks that bring you to the top of the peak, it’s a 9.4 mile trip all together. Thankfully, the old trail (which caused countless injuries and erosion on the mountain) to Mailbox Peak has been replaced with a safer option, though it’s not any easier on the thighs. The actual hike doesn’t stand out with amazing views – it’s just hard. Hikers who plan to summit Mt. Rainier often use the trail to train, if that helps put the 4000 feet of gain into perspective. The noteworthy part of the hike is the triumphant finish. Go on a clear summer day for unparalleled views of the surrounding Issaquah Alps, and don’t forget to put a parcel in the famed mailbox at the top.
10. Black Tusk, Whistler, British Columbia. Black Tusk is likely the most iconic peak in the Whistler area and looks impossible to summit, even as you climb closer and closer to the top. The black rock juts out of the earth at a dramatic angle, as if a behemoth rhinoceros is fighting under the surface. Visible from almost every spot in Whistler, Black Tusk is, frankly, terrifying looking. Don’t let that hold you back, though, the hike is well worth a little excitement. Technical as it looks, summiting Black Tusk doesn’t require any technical skill, just some time (11 hours to be exact). Though you can finish the hike in a day, many hikers choose to make it an overnight adventure, hiking first to the gorgeous Garibaldi Lake to overnight before continuing on the next morning. The trail to the top takes you through Taylor Meadows, up a large scree slope and eventually on the crumbly black rock of which the mountain is made. There is debate about the safety of the final ascent up a steep chute – you’re experience will have to guide your judgement. Not up for debate is the stunning view from the top, you’ll be above other peaks, on top of the world.