Go Take a Hike at One of These Five Hidden Gems
Experts suggest their favorite socially distant escapes
By Heidi Mills September 8, 2020
This story appears in the July-August combo issue of Seattle magazine and Seattle Business magazine. Subscription information is here.
We asked five local hiking enthusiasts for their suggestions for hikes off the beaten path. Along with specific geographic tips, they also suggested thinking about social distancing by hiking at a time of day when people are less likely to be out, such as just after sunrise or right before sunset. Instead of going on a weekend, play hooky from work on a weekday. And if you can postpone your hiking until fall, September and October provide colorful trails without summer bugs, heat and crowds.
Here are the experts’ selections of day adventures in areas that are lesser known than some of the typical Seattle-area favorites.
Heather Park Trail
Suggested by Tommy Farris, owner and founder of Olympic Hiking Co.
Hurricane Ridge, which Farris dubs “one of the most iconic destinations in the Olympic Mountains,” attracts hordes of travelers seeking sweeping vistas. Heather Park Trail makes you earn your views by hiking to the top. By doing so, you’ll avoid the traffic up Hurricane Ridge Road and crowds at the Visitor Center. It’s about five miles and 4,000 feet of gain to get from the Heather Park Trailhead to Klahhane Ridge viewpoints. For a full-day adventure or an overnight backpacking trip, hike a challenging 12.5-mile loop that takes you from the Heather Park Trailhead to Klahhane Ridge and Lake Angeles. “On a clear day, Klahhane Ridge gives you one of the best views in Olympic National Park,” Farris says. “It is magical up there.” From Seattle, catch the ferry to Bainbridge Island and then drive roughly two hours to the trailhead. Since Hurricane Ridge is one of the first access points to Olympic National Park, it’s a manageable day trip from Seattle. You’ll pass through Port Angeles, where you can grab coffee at the Great Northern Coffee Bar or dinner at the Next Door Gastro Pub.
Trails near Seattle and the I-90 corridor
Suggested by Tor Bell, stewardship and operations director for Mountains to Sound Greenway
For every packed local trail, there’s a hidden gem less traveled. Bell encourages people to get creative, and instead of going to the same five or six trails that we all hit regularly, try something new. Instead of walking or biking on the Burke Gilman Trail, Bell recommends the packed-gravel Snoqualmie Valley Trail or the Palouse to Cascades Trail. “These trails go on for miles and it’s really easy to socially distance on them,” Bell says. “You won’t get 3,000 to 4,000 feet of vertical, but it’s a nice way to explore parts of the county or state you don’t normally see.” The Snoqualmie Valley Trail runs 31.5 miles, from Duvall to Rattlesnake Lake. It goes over a number of railroad trestle crossings and has views of mountains and farmlands. On its southern end, it intersects with the Palouse to Cascades Trail, which heads east all the way to Idaho. The section of trail through the Cascades includes a 100-year-old tunnel at Snoqualmie Pass and sections that pass by Lake Keechelus and Lake Easton.
If rail trails aren’t your thing, try the south side of Squak Mountain. Since access to Squak from I-90 is slightly more roundabout than Cougar or Tiger, it typically receives a fraction of the visitors. Nearby Taylor Mountain also features a network of forested trails and sees far fewer people than its better-known neighbors. “Squak and Taylor won’t get you the grand vistas of Mount Si or Rattlesnake Ledge or Mailbox Peak, but if your goal is to get out and enjoy the woods and nature, it’s a great place to unwind,” Bell says.
If you don’t want to leave the city at all, Bell suggests exploring the staircases around Seattle. Websites such as Seattle Stairway Walks and Seattle All Stairs map out some of the hundreds of public stairways around the city.
Cutthroat Pass and Cutthroat Lake
Suggested by Annette Pitts, executive director of Cascade Loop Foundation and Cascade Loop Association
Spectacular mountain vistas and wildflowers await in the stunning North Cascades. “The North Cascades are the hidden gem of our state,” Pitts says. “It is absolutely pristine and mind blowing. It isn’t called the American Alps for nothing.” Pitts discovered Cutthroat Pass for the first time by accident. She was trying to hike the always popular Heather Maple Pass Loop, which has a trailhead on the opposite side of the highway from Cutthroat Pass. While Pitts is the first to acknowledge the stunning beauty of the Heather Maple Pass hike, she says Cutthroat Pass can be every bit as amazing. Hikers start out under the cover of trees, move up to a subalpine zone and then top out in alpine wilderness. Since Cutthroat Pass follows the Pacific Crest Trail, it tends to be wider, making it easier to pass fellow hikers. Cutthroat Pass is not a beginner hike, as you climb five miles up a pass to an overlook above Cutthroat Lake.
If you want a shorter hike or are bringing children along, consider Cutthroat Lake as an alternative. With only 300 feet of elevation gain over a 3.8 mile round trip, the trail is more accessible and provides a lake as a fun lunch or swim spot. In late August, hikers will find huckleberries to pick and munch on as well as wildflowers along the trails at Cutthroat Pass and Cutthroat Lake. In the fall, larches turn the landscape a vibrant yellow. Both hikes are located off Highway 20, north of Seattle.
Snoquera (Northeast corner of Mount Rainier)
Suggested by Jessi Loerch, Washington Trails magazine editor at Washington Trails Association
Just outside Mount Rainier National Park, an area east of Enumclaw called Snoquera provides trails that don’t receive the traffic of popular areas around Sunrise and Paradise. Options range from flatter trails that follow rivers, strolls to waterfalls and mountain hikes that include substantial climbing up to viewpoints of Mount Rainier and other surrounding peaks. Day hike distances range from a lengthy 14-mile trek to short one or two mile hikes that can be done with young children in tow. Snoquera Falls is one family-friendly hike featuring a waterfall and old-growth forest. For views of Mount Rainier, choose Kelly Butte or Noble Knob, which both lead to fire lookouts.
The Norse Peak Fire in 2017 left portions of Snoquera burned, and hikers will see some areas still recovering. In August, wildflowers will be blooming at higher elevations. Loerch’s favorite month to hike the Mount Rainier area is September, which brings fall color, fewer bugs and less heat. “The days are still long enough but the light is becoming that beautiful fall light,” Loerch says. To select a particular hike within Snoquera, Loerch suggests going to the WTA’s online hiking guide, selecting the Mount Rainier region and then choosing the Chinook Pass-Highway 410 subregion.
Most Snoquera hikes are accessible from Highway 410 and on U.S. Forest Service land. Though driving distance depends on the exact location of the trailhead, many can be reached in an hour and a half or two hours, making this an easy day trip from Seattle.
Sequim Bay State Park and Fort Townsend State Park area
Suggested by Meryl Lassen, communications consultant with the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission
Located near Port Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula, Sequim Bay State Park and Fort Towsend State Park serve as jumping off points for a number of less-known trails. Trailheads within a 20-minute drive include Baldy and Tyler Peaks, which provide steep climbs to viewpoints that look out across the Olympic Peninsula. For hikers who don’t want to climb a mountain, Royal Basin is a long, gradual hike leading to a lake. Upper Dungeness Trail follows a river and can be turned into a short, mellow family hike. If you’re looking for something paved and nontechnical, the Olympic Discovery Trail runs for 130 miles and can be used for everything from a short stroll to a long run to a family bike ride. Lassen recommends the region for summer hiking because it tends to be cooler than heading east from Seattle. Most Olympic National Park hikes start in the shady forest and climb up to views. “It’s very green and very beautiful,” Lassen says. Seattleites can access the Port Townsend area by catching the ferry from Seattle to Bainbridge or from Edmonds to Kingston.