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I've been set on getting my feet wet with backpacking this year. I did my first overnight trip along Thunder Creek a couples weeks ago, and was hoping to do a 3-day trip for Memorial Day weekend.

My plan thus far has been to set out to the Olympic Peninsula, but it looks like it could be cold and soggy for the weekend. Can anybody recommend an early season trip in the Northwest? My criteria so far has been:

  • 6 to 10 miles per day (18 - 30 total)
  • Less than 400 elevation ft/mi average
  • Low temp above 40, High temp at least 50

Specific recommendations, or pointers to good planning resources are all appreciated!

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The Olympic Peninsula is always cold and soggy. –  Olin Lathrop May 23 '13 at 18:46

3 Answers 3

I'm fairly new to the Seattle area and have been attempting to plan my own early season trips, both for one day hikes and overnight backpacking. I'm certainly no expert, but here's my experience so far.

I've been looking based on the following criteria, and using Washington Trails Association hike details and trip reports as a guide, as you mentioned:

  • Avoid areas that are still snow covered, or avoiding camping where snow is lingering. If you are comfortable hiking on snow or are into backcountry skiing, this is less of an issue, but it is easier to stay warm and safe by avoiding deep snowpacks. Usually you can reference recent trip reports, or historical TRs from previous years both on WTA and around the web and see when the snow typically melts. This season was 'average' with a burst of snow towards the beginning of spring.
  • Stick to lower elevation. An easy way to pick a hike that will be warmer and less snowy is to stay low, for example below 3-5k elevation seems to be reasonable this spring depending on the hike's location. There's many hikes in the PNW that follow a river in a valley, I'll mention some specifics further down.
  • Watch the weather. NOAA is a great resource for tracking rain/snow level and temperature at different elevations by using their point-forecast. Give it a general location and then click on the region/elevation where you plan to be traveling, which is on the map displayed on the right side of the website. In the early season we've still had snow storms at higher elevations and sudden warm-ups have lead to avalanche concerns and bulletins posted by NWAC.
  • Be conservative. Early season means a wider range of temperatures and more varied weather. Be prepared to bring 'shoulder season' gear for staying warm and dry, for example, extra layers, jackets, fire making and emergency supplies. Select something that isn't going to push your limits as much, in case the trail is covered in snow and you spend time searching for the trail. Creek fording or river crossings may be more difficult than advertised because of snow melt and if any significant damage was done to a trail over the winter.

A few specific hikes:

Since you mentioned Olympic National Park, here's a few that I've been interested in but haven't done, though I have done other day and overnight hikes in the Olympics and Cascades. It's worth mentioning that bears encounters may be more likely in ONP due to lack of hunting.

  • Elwha River. I haven't been here personally but it is a low-lying hike of moderate elevation gain, which starts just south of Port Angeles. There are multiple campsites along the way, making for a good out and back backpacking trip.

  • Upper Lena Lake On the eastern slopes of the Olympic range, this hike ascends first to Lena Lake, and then continues to the upper lake. The upper one may harbor some snow still but sounds doable.

  • Enchanted Valley Requiring a bit more of a drive, this hike starts neat Lake Quinault, on the south western edge of the ONP. Also a hike through a valley, though bears are known to frequent this area, no one has had trouble in recent history.

  • WTA's early season backpacking list which includes Hoh River, Cape Alva, and Slab Creek.

  • Olympic Coast. I've backpacked a portion of the Olympic coast and it is enjoyable practically all year.

It's worth noting that most hikes in ONP require a permit for overnight camping. I'd love to hear more suggestions as well, based on region rather than specific hikes. There's so many great hikes here, it's hard to go wrong picking something conservative in terms of elevation gain or distance.

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I am near Seattle and I am getting some miles in around Snoqualmie and Middle Fork Wilderness areas. I think you should stay close to help if you need it in a hurry. At least try to stay in reasonable cell service. Large areas of the Leavenworth National Forest, Steven's Pass and much of the North Cascades are outside cell service. I guess you could have an EPIRB or a sat phone, but the help is still some time away. I grew up around the North Cascades and the thought of a green camper stepping out alone to try his new hobby in the North Cascades makes me cringe.

Snoqualmie has cell phone reception nearly throughout the Sno Valley. That equals some comfort, and practicality even. You can dial in navigation, and stay in touch with loved ones/checkins. Another benefit is the area is more heavily travelled. Less bear, slightly lower likelihood of human/animal hostile encounter than say Steven's Pass. (based on current Cascade bear, wolf, cougar, and wolverine migration data)

I believe the North Cascades are a bit more brutal overall, but the Snoqualmie Valley, North Bend array, and Issaquah Alps all offer plenty of getaway and challenge. Take a look at Alpine Lakes Wilderness if you need more elevation. I have been going to Otter falls each year and that is fun also.

Suggested route inside the Snoqualmie Valley is:

Snoqualmie Valley Trail.... to John Wayne Trail / John Wayne State Park (Near Rattlesnake Lake)

overnight camping at John Wayne state Park...

continue to Summit at Alpental along John Wayne Trail (AKA, Iron Horse Trail).

I run this route from North Bend occasionally. Its a nice easy grade, some nice scenery, and still in cell phone reception.

Ryan

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I realize you already made your trip, but I will answer your question anyhow. These tips are not regionally constrained to the Olympic Peninsula.

1) Footwear When setting out to wet places or in rainy weather always take a second pair of boots. In my experience from the army every shoe will let in water sooner or later under heavy rain. Always pack a couple of durable plastic bags with two heavy duty rubber bands (useful for other tasks as well). So if you have to cross a stream you just step in the bags and seal them off over your calves with the rubber. They will get you through wider streams than you'd think. Keep in mind: improvise - adapt - overcome. Always bring your wits when you go hiking. Change your socks often.

2) Clothing Clothing is very individual, and everyone finds out what becomes him most. However I am of the opinion to dress light. You should be cold before you walk. If your still cold after the first mile, walk faster! You cannot avoid perspiration, but try to limit it. Soaked feet will not be a problem for 3 days and 30 miles, but better learn good habits early. Use synthetic material that can dry fast. Get some nice comfortable cotton clothes for the evening/night, but make sure they stay dry. Do not wear them while sleeping, even without a tent perspiration during the night in the enclosed sleeping bag will make them humid. Also, sleeping bags warm better through direct contact to the skin.

3) Packing Use compression bags to pack your clothes. You save space and will be able to pack a sturdier pack and well-distribute weight. This makes a hug difference the heavier your pack gets. I assume you know this, but just to be complete on these essentials: Carry the weight on your hips, not your shoulders! The hip belt and frame are the most important features of a pack. Consider buying a Camelback (cannot post more than 2 links sorry). Having the water easily accessible through the hose will encourage you to drink. It's easy to forget drinking in cold weather, but it is very unpleasant later on and can get dangerous sooner than you might expect.

4) Sleeping Another useful tip in cold and wet weather, assuming your a purist and not sleeping with a closed tent, is to put your walking clothes that are humid between the inner and the outter layer of the sleeping bag: The heat from the inside will dry them through the night (just remember to let the outer cover rather loose so the hot and humid air can escape. With a closed tent you can use a one layer sleeping bag and hang the clothes in the tent (but leave it open so warm and humid air gets out).

Buy a Jetboil. In a less than two minutes you can fill a bottle with hot water. By holding this to your chest and belly you will fall asleep easily even in extremely cold weather. Before you drift off throw the bottle to the bottom of the bag, warm feet are a luxurious pleasure when sleeping in cold weather.

Might seem ridiculous to mention, but you never know who might read this: before Hiking anywhere, especially alone, be sure of your navigating skills! Always bring a compass and a map. I understand we have access to GPS and iPhones and whatnot - but I know just as well that whatever can go wrong eventually goes wrong. It is Murphy's Law. Google it. A compass and a map doesn't go wrong, as well as informing someone of your approximate locations and est. return date. Trust in the most simple solutions.. it should be at least your plan B.

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