The 14 Best Places to Hike in the PNW

The days are long, the sun is shining— it’s time to get outside

By Douglas Gantenbein, Tom Griffin, Kristen Russell, Roddy Scheer, Virginia Smyth July 5, 2016


This article originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of Seattle magazine.

With Haley Durslag, Cassie Gruber and Jake Laycock

The days are long, the sun is shining—it’s time to get outside. Our guide to 14 of the region’s best hikes and six bike rides that will help you celebrate the season by enjoying iconic trails and urban adventures.

Half-Day Hikes
You can take these hikes in the morning, and be ready for another adventure by afternoon

1. Denny Creek
A hike to Denny Creek’s natural waterslides near Snoqualmie Pass is perfect on a hot day; photograph by Emily McCann
From the trailhead (about an hour’s drive east of Seattle) of this family-friendly hike, wind your way down into verdant second-growth Cascade forest for 1.5 miles to a series of all-natural water slides. The young and young at heart can glissade down the smooth granite rock faces underlying Denny Creek’s veiling snowmelt flow. Don’t forget your bathing suit, water shoes and a towel. After sampling the slides, dry off in the sun on the rocks and enjoy your picnic while watching others test their mettle. If you’ve still got spring in your step, follow the trail onward and upward past Denny Creek. The going gets gnarlier, but trailside wildflowers keep things pleasant until views of elegant Keekwulee Falls—plunging 125 feet in two major drops—start to open up across the valley below. Three-quarters of a mile past the Denny Creek waterslides, follow a spur trail to the right, which leads down to the snowfield feeding the falls, and drink in one of Washington state’s most dramatic views. Northwest Forest Pass required. Roddy Scheer
Best for: Cooling off on a hot summer day
Location: Mount Baker–Snoqualmie National Forest, near Snoqualmie Pass
Difficulty: Easy to Denny Creek waterslides with 400-foot elevation gain, 3 miles out and back; moderate to Keekwulee Falls with 1,300-foot elevation gain, 4.5 miles out and back 

2. Little Si
Just 40 minutes from Seattle, Mount Si’s sweet little sister is a worthy challenge for those who want a moderate workout with big payoff views—and without the thigh-murdering grade of Mount Si. Fairly steep first and last legs bookend this otherwise mellow ramble through deep forest along a well-traveled and well-maintained trail. Pause for a moment at about the 1.5-mile mark to watch rock climbers or to rest on a bench dedicated to Doug Hansen, a local climber who died on Mount Everest. The summit—a rocky, oft-crowded outcropping—offers sweeping views of the valley, Mount Si and Mount Washington, with Rattlesnake Ledge to the southwest. Scamper back down to your reward: a pint in the bar of the nearby North Bend Bar & Grill. Lovely Little Si is a year-round favorite; the two parking lots fill up early on weekends and sunny days. Discover Pass required. Kristen Russell
Best for: Hikers trying to get in shape for Big Si
Location: Snoqualmie, near North Bend
Difficulty and length: Moderate; 4.7 miles round trip with a 1,300-foot elevation gain

Related: Four Local Hikes for Beginners

3. Rattlesnake Ledge
The view from Rattlesnake Ledge takes in Rattlesnake Lake near North Bend; photograph by Hajime Sargent
Far enough out of town to feel wild, yet close enough to bag in half a day, this extremely popular trail is, well, extremely populated most days after about 10 a.m. An early start is well worth the effort; when it’s not overrun, this is a glorious, practically perfect Northwest hike that features towering mossy boulders, sweet forest rambles and a stunning view. From the parking lot, follow a service road to the well-marked trailhead.
At 1.9 miles, bear right and emerge onto the rocky summit to stand amid the selfie-snapping crowd. Gape for a moment at the view of the Cedar River watershed, with Mount Si and Mount Washington beyond, then backtrack to the junction and take the less traveled “East Peak” trail another half mile or so to Middle Ledge (and Upper Ledge beyond) for more solitude and even better views. (Note: As on many local trails, dogs allowed to go off leash are a problem here. They’re especially dangerous to hikers when loose on the ledges, which have very sheer drop-offs.) A planned summer closure for nearby
logging operations won’t affect this stretch of the trail; it takes place well beyond East Peak. K.R.
Best for: Hikers who don’t mind a crowd
Location: Snoqualmie, near North Bend
Difficulty and length: Moderate; 4 miles round trip with a 1,160-foot elevation gain for the main summit; another half-mile or so to the Middle Ledge

Iconic Treks
You’ve heard friends talk about these trails; now it’s time to tackle them yourself

4. Mount Si

Hikers take in the view of Mount Rainier from the top of Mount Si near North Bend; photograph by Philip Kramer
Bagging this strenuous trail is a serious hiker’s rite of passage. Gaining about 3,100 feet in just 4 miles, the trail is epic enough to merit bragging rights—and the love of the 100,000 people who hike it each year, according to the Washington Trails Association ( Many who summit Mount Rainier train here first with loaded packs. Get an early start to find a parking spot and set off on the initially gentle 1.5-mile climb to the old-growth stand known as Snag Flat. From there, settle in for some serious huffing as you ascend another steep 2 miles to the talus slope that many mistake for the summit. Linger here for stunning views of Mount Rainier, then take the stone steps over the rocks to your right and follow a brief stretch to the trail’s end, where you’ll see views of the valley below, the Olympics beyond (and the occasional mountain goat in summer). Discover Pass required. K.R.
Best for: Bragging rights
Location: Near North Bend
Difficulty and length: Strenuous; 8 miles round trip with 3,150-foot elevation gain

Related: 6 Top Biking Trails in the PNW

5. Mount Constitution
The highest point in the San Juan Islands is also a Northwest classic that delivers spectacular vistas of the Cascade and Olympic ranges, the Canadian Gulf Islands, Vancouver Island and all of the San Juans. Pick up the fairly strenuous trail at the Mountain Lake trailhead inside of Moran State Park, then wind steeply upward through old-growth stands of western hemlock and Douglas fir. The first mile is the toughest—a relentless uphill slog—but after that, you’ll meander along, puffing up switchbacks and scampering down to little stream crossings, occasionally popping out of the trees to encounter a staggering view. Reach the top and climb the 45-foot-tall stone tower to take in the sweeping 360-degree views. Take a selfie with Mount Baker resplendent over your shoulder; if your smile is a little smug, who can blame you? You’ve just gotten a righteous workout, and there’s nothing but downhill between you and that sweet post-hike meal in nearby Eastsound. Discover Pass required. K.R.
Best for: Fans of the San Juan Islands looking for a workout
Location: Moran State Park, Orcas Island
Difficulty and length: Moderately strenuous; 6.7 miles round trip, 1,490-foot elevation gain

6. Skyline Trail
Here is a mountain trail that is so iconic, it’s actually world-famous, and for good reason: Those who complete this high-altitude 5.5-mile loop at the base of Mount Rainier are rewarded with staggering views of mighty glaciers, tumbling waterfalls and subalpine meadows that burst with wildflowers in August—and often, the antics of hoary marmots. Pick up a trail map at the Paradise visitor center; the network of trails here offers multiple opportunities for diversion, intentional or otherwise. Then choose your direction: Most take this hike clockwise, but counterclockwise offers fewer crowds and an initial switchback stitch through a colorful meadow. In either direction, you’re in for a climb, but also unparalleled views of the 14,410-foot volcano and its 50 shades of glaciers. At 6,800 feet, arrive at Panorama Point and stand awestruck before the 360-degree view of the Tatoosh Range, Mount St. Helens, Mount Adams and (on a clear day) Mount Hood. Avoid crossing the steep snowfield to the east—those who do miss some of the best views; instead, take the High Skyline Trail to the north. K.R.
Best for: Magnificent views
Location: Paradise, Mount Rainier
Difficulty and length: Moderately strenuous; 5.5-mile loop with 1,450-foot elevation gain

Related: Chatting with a PCT ‘Trail Angel’

Hikes with a Payoff
If you’re going to bother heading out of town for a hike, why not make it one to remember? These hikes pay you with views, waterfalls, wildflowers and more

7. Spray Park 
The trail to Spray Park in Mount Rainier National Park takes hikers through quiet meadows; photograph by Alan Bauer
The hike up to Spray Park in the northwest corner of Mount Rainier National Park offers a double payoff: a thunderous 354-foot hammer-of-the-gods waterfall and a wildflower-filled subalpine meadow with tarn-reflecting views across to the nearby summit of Mount Rainier. This day hike, a two-hour drive from Seattle, isn’t for the faint of heart, as you’ll be switchbacking your way up and down during the 6-mile up-and-back hike. But the classic Northwest natural beauty is worth it. After you reach your destination and get sprayed in timeless negative-ion-charged mists, dry off sitting on a glacial boulder staring into a seasonal tarn mirroring the snow-clad summit of Mount Rainier. Excuse me while I kiss the sky. With enough water, snacks and drive, anyone in half-decent shape can achieve these mythic heights, ideally in July and August, when wildflowers put on a show. A bonus for those who don’t want to drive home after the hike: Car campers can set up their tents for free at Mowich Lake Campground at the trailhead, while backpackers willing to stop for a free permit at the Carbon River Ranger Station can use Eagle’s Roost, along the trail near Spray Falls, as a backcountry basecamp for exploring in more depth. R.S.
Best for: Lovers of waterfalls, wildflowers and the high country
Location: Mowich Lake, Mount Rainier National Park, Carbon River entrance
Difficulty and length: Moderate with switchbacks; 6 miles round trip with 1,700-foot elevation gain

8. Heliotrope Ridge
The hike to Heliotrope Ridge on the flanks of Mount Baker east of Bellingham packs a lot of punch in a short but challenging 4.6-mile out-and-back scamper across scree fields and through gushing streams. Waiting for you are views of the blue-and-white iced Coleman Glacier “flowing” off one of the region’s most iconic Cascade peaks. It’s hard to believe that this Alaskan-style landscape is just a hop, skip and a jump from downtown Seattle. Time your visit for mid- to late-summer and you’ll be guaranteed a profusion of wildflowers and postcard-worthy pictures. Along the way, you’ll cross three streams emanating from sinewy waterfalls sluicing their way through chutes carved by snowmelt from Mount Baker’s summit, and end up on a ridge with precipitous views down to the imposing, pock-marked tongue of the Coleman Glacier. The Coleman has retreated more than 1,500 feet over the past three decades, as you’ll see from the scarred canyon walls where the glacier only recently rested. With the glacier disappearing fast, get out and see it while you can. Northwest Forest Pass required. R.S.
Best for: Off-the-beaten-path hikers looking for something different
Location: Near Glacier; Mount Baker–Snoqualmie National Forest
Difficulty and length: Moderate, with stream crossings; 4.6 miles round trip with 1,400-foot elevation gain

9. Lake Serene
Too cold for swimming? The icy waters of Lake Serene near Index; photograph by Carolyne Sysmans
This hike may be strenuous, but along with a workout, it delivers the thrill of jumping into an alpine lake in a glacial cirque under the towering and toothy spire of Mount Index. On the way, be sure to take the short side trail up to thunderous Bridal Veil Falls, which roars out of Lake Serene far above, falling more than 1,000 vertical feet in five different sections and drenching all who venture near. After this wet and wild detour, pick up the main trail and continue up, up and up some more for another 1.5 miles, traversing some 1,300 additional vertical feet via more than 12 switchbacks. It’s a thigh burner, indeed, but just when you think you can’t go on, the trail flattens out, the views open up, and the glimmer of water sparkling through the tall pines beckons you down to the sublime waterline of Lake Serene. Jump in if you dare—the pristine turquoise water rarely tops 50 degrees Fahrenheit, even on a hot summer day. (Regulars hike up in a bathing suit and pack a camp towel.) When you’ve indulged in enough lakeside bliss, retrace your steps back down to the trailhead. You’ll be dog-tired—and fully restored and refreshed. Northwest Forest Pass required. R.S.
Best for: Working out those quads amidst alpine splendor
Location: Near Index, Mount Baker–Snoqualmie National Forest, Skykomish Ranger District
Difficulty and length: Moderate with some steep switchbacks; 8 miles round trip with 2,000-foot elevation gain

Urban Hikes
These trails are close to home yet still feel remote

10. Carkeek Park 
Many Carkeek Park trails wind up at the beach; photographs by TIA International Photography/ Seattle Parks and Recreation
At North Seattle’s Carkeek Park, trails head down and up and down again, giving your quads a decent workout while meandering past moss-covered nurse logs, a historic orchard (Seattle’s first) and a babbling creek. Pick up a trail map at one of the park’s entrances to help navigate through the park, or just follow signs on the well-marked pathways. Head west (as many of the trails ultimately do) and you’ll eventually wind up on a small, sandy, driftwood-strewn beach bordering Puget Sound. After stretching your toes in the sand, you can return the way you came, or explore some of the shorter trails before returning to your starting point. It’s easy to spend a couple of hours hiking through this park. It’s such a pleasant amble, you’ll be surprised when you find you’ve racked up a half-dozen miles or so on your fitness tracker. Virginia Smyth
Best for: An early-Sunday-morning, before-brunch workout
Location: 9 miles north of downtown in Broadview
Suggested access: The Eddie McAbee entrance on NW 100th Place offers the longest trail from street to Sound.
Difficulty and length: Easy to moderate; 6 miles if you do multiple trails

11. South Bellevue Greenway
South Bellevue is a suburban idyll of well-kept homes and lush gardens—some of which border the South Bellevue Greenway, an impressive system of greenbelt trails that follow along the edges of densely treed ravines. Although the trails often are only yards from homes, they feel remote. Beware: They are steep and can be muddy after a rainfall. Sprint your way downhill, but on the return trip—as you’re huffing and puffing your way back—watch for native plants, which are abundant here, and also for signs of wildlife, including deer and coyote, which still call this area home. If you’re feeling especially ambitious, the trail system connects to the Coal Creek Natural Area and eventually to Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park. V.S.
Best for: A warm summer day—the trails are almost entirely in the shade
Location: In the Somerset and Forest Park areas of Bellevue
Suggested access: Trail access is marked in several spots along Bellevue’s Forest Drive. Get a trail map from the City of Bellevue website, (search South Bellevue Greenway)
Difficulty and length: Moderate; length varies

The Epic Hike
The Pacific Crest Trail runs through Washington state. Get a taste for this bucket-list trail with a few day hikes
You read the book, you saw the movie, now you want to hike the trail. Or maybe you haven’t yet been exposed to Wild, the runaway best-seller by Cheryl Strayed (later made into a movie) about her experiences hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) solo, but you’ve still been dreaming about hiking the trail.

Related: Six Fantastic Lesser-Known Northwest Hikes

You live in a great place to do just that. The PCT is the world’s longest contiguous hiking trail, running 2,650 miles from the U.S. border with Mexico to its border with Canada. Around here, it follows the spine of the Cascade Mountains, coming so close to Seattle that you can drive to a PCT trailhead in an hour.The classic way to hike the PCT is to start at the Mexican border in April and finish at the Canadian border by the end of September. But if you don’t have the five to six months of time it takes to tackle this world-famous trail, there are spectacular sections of the PCT around here that you can do as day hikes. For novice hikers, the PCT is a gentler way to hit the mountains than most alpine trails. It’s built for horses as well as humans, so the grade is usually less than 15 percent. Since it is a national scenic trail, it’s wide, well-marked and cleared of obstructions soon after the hiking season starts (the date of which can vary). By Tom Griffin

12. Highway 2 to Lake Valhalla
Your goal is a classic mountain lake nestled in a cirque that even comes with a sandy beach—rare for the mountains. Since much of the ascent is in shade—and it’s relatively level after the first mile, you can even do it on a hot day.    The trail starts with a 1-mile climb through old-growth forest to a junction with the PCT. At the trail junction, you’re finally on the PCT. Turn left (south) for more gentle climbing to a gap between two mountains—about a half-mile is still in timber before you hit an open ridge.  
Descending through heather meadows, you’ll see Lake Valhalla glimmering in the sunlight. The water is cold, but it’s hard to resist plunging in. Expect to see trout jumping, backpackers camping, and happy kids and dogs splashing in the lake. Northwest Forest Pass required.
Best for: Beginners or families
Location: Off U.S. Highway 2, near Stevens Pass
Difficulty and length: Easy; 7 miles round trip with 1,500-foot elevation gain

13. Kendall Katwalk
Hiking along the Kendall Katwalk, a 4-foot-wide path blasted by dynamite into the side of a Cascadian mountain, is not for the faint of heart
The payoff with this hike is a thrilling view from a trail blasted out of the side of a mountain—the notorious Kendall Katwalk.
The trailhead, near the Alpental ski area, starts in dense forest and stays that way for several miles. But at about 3 miles, you cross an avalanche swath and enter more open forest with less underbrush, showing off a distinctive Cascadian woodscape. Then, at last, the route enters a rocky sloped field and opens up to jaw-dropping valley views. Mount Rainier pops over the southern ridgeline, and Red Mountain—bold, brilliant and vermilion—stares you in the face.
It just gets better and better from here: Kendall Gardens, with wildflowers in the spring and huckleberries in the fall; a high ridge with a fabulous viewpoint (be sure to scramble over the ridge top for the best views); and after a gentle traverse, a 4-foot-wide path blasted out of a steep granite cliff. There’s a 900-foot drop—and no guardrail, but the path is only 600 feet long and you don’t have to look down. Afterward, you’re in true alpine wilderness. You can turn around here, but if you have the energy, it’s worth hiking onward for more views and a scramble in the boulders. Northwest Forest Pass required.
Best for: Experienced and fit hikers
Location: Near Snoqualmie Summit
Difficulty and length: Moderately difficult; 12 miles round trip, 2,600-foot elevation gain

14. Rainy Pass to Cutthroat Pass
Its distance from Seattle means fewer crowds on the Rainy Pass portion of the PCT; photograph by Tami Asars
The trailhead for this hike is some distance (about a three-hour drive) from Seattle, but you’re coming here to get away from the hordes and experience empty wilderness. Starting in woods, for the first mile you’ll encounter numerous creek crossings and a few brief views of some peaks, but not much else. But at about 1.5 miles, you’ll reach the bridge that crosses hard-flowing Porcupine Creek. As you head uphill, look for views of the sculpted summits of Black Peak and Corteo Peak. Soon after you pass a waterfall to the north, you’ll burst out of the trees into alpine meadows, where the vistas surround you. You’ll take a series of six switchbacks—count ’em—to reach Cutthroat Pass.

Cutthroat Pass is perfect for a late-season hike; photograph by Tami Asars
At the pass are sky-high views of Cutthroat Lake below, with the photogenic Liberty Bell Mountain peaking above. The views get even better if you continue on the PCT for another mile to Granite Pass. A late-season hike here has the bonus of bountiful huckleberries, and, if you’re lucky, the larches will be turning golden. Against the alpine blue sky, the sight of them is a spectacular reward for your hard work. Northwest Forest Pass required.
Best for: The crowd-averse hiker
Location: A three-hour drive from Seattle, about 51 miles east of Marblemount
Difficulty and length: Moderate; 10 miles round trip with 2,000-foot elevation gain

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