Wilds of Washington: 5 Epic Adventures in the Evergreen State
Unicorn Peak from Highway 123, WA - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan
The Evergreen State is an awe-inspiring land rich in culture and biodiversity. With roughly 60% of its 7.6 million people living in the Seattle metropolitan area - the wilds of the state are a vast expanse with ample room to get lost and relish in solitude. A wild and rocky coast brimming with rainforests, a grand sound named Puget, the mighty Northern Cascades adorned with active volcanoes, and the vast Eastern Desert - Washington is a wonderland of natural beauty.
Mount Rainier National Park, WA - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan
The legendary stratovolcano, this icon in the sky above Seattle is the center of the park that covers over 230,000 acres, and features more than 25 glaciers above an old-growth forest. Meadows and valleys abound between glacial runoffs and craggy peaks. Mountain Lions, Black Bears, and Cascade Red Foxes populate the incredibly beautiful forests that surround the majestic 14,411-foot volcano - the fifth tallest mountain in the continental US.
Though there hasn’t been a significant eruption in the last 500 years - Rainier is still considered one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world. An estimated 795,000 people carry on their lives in the danger zone of Rainier, and 100,000 of those people are living on the deposits of age-old violent mudflows - putting it on the list of 16 Decade Volcanoes around the world that pose a major threat to the population centers. But in spite of this inherent risk, people have been living in the area for 13,000 years - so don’t be afraid to explore the many trails of this geographically violent landscape.
Spectacle Lake, WA - Photo Credit: Alison Kadavy
Nestled in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness is a lake that truly lives up to its name. Just off of the Pacific Crest Trail in the heart of the Cascades - this gem of the Snoqualmie Pass is absolutely unforgettable. The hike is 18.1 miles out and back with an elevation gain of 2601 feet - considered strenuous but for a view like this lake provides, it is certainly worth it. This trail is best visited from July to September, and I recommend going early in the season when the trail is lined with wildflowers. Nestled at the base of epic peaks, this is a great hike for a flavorful sampling of the Cascades.
Olympic National Park, WA - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan
Olympic National Park is one of the most diverse parks in the National Park System. Lush temperate rainforests, the enchanting coast, and the wildly unique Olympic mountains make this park a must-see for any National Park enthusiast. The northern portion of the park is known for its excellent views of the Strait of Juan De Fuca and Canada’s Vancouver Island. Located in the heart of an old growth forest, Heart o’ the Hills campground is a fantastic basecamp for accessing the northern part of the park.
The famed Hurricane Ridge is only 12 miles up the mountain from the campground - a year round recreation mecca featuring skiing and snowboarding in the winter, and ample hiking opportunities in the summer. Hurricane Ridge gained the moniker from the intense gales and winds frequently known to come from the northwest. The weather is highly unpredictable, and snow can fall at any time of the year - this erratic weather delivers roughly 400 inches of snow annually. No matter the weather, the view of the mighty Olympic Mountains is absolutely breathtaking.
Rialto Beach, WA - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan
From the northern part of the park to the western side is a beautiful drive, crossing over the Elwha River, and winding around the gorgeous Lake Crescent. Through thick rainforests and past Mora Campground, following the Quillayute River until it meets the Pacific Ocean at Rialto Beach. I came to Rialto Beach in September of 2020 - the height of fire season - and soon learned that what I thought to be fog just off the coast was actually dense smoke, which made for quite an eerie experience. Regardless of the smoke, it was a fantastic experience to see the rocky beach lined with ocean driftwood and the dense forests all around.
Not far from the coast is the Hoh Rainforest - a precious wonderland of maple trees draped with large growths of spikemoss. Ferns and a wide variety of mosses blanket nearly every surface of the forest. Rain falls frequently for a yearly average of 140 inches, allowing for a multifarious assortment of flora and fauna. Banana slugs, Pacific tree frogs, northern spotted owls, bobcats, cougars, and Olympic black bears all call the Hoh home. Just as the wildfires have made their mark on the area - black slugs, an invasive species from Northern Europe have moved into the rainforests of Washington, threatening the banana slugs. Near the Hoh Rainforest Visitor Center is the trailhead for the 43.5 mile roundtrip Mount Olympus hike, a legendary trail to the park’s namesake.
North Cascades National Park, WA - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan
On the other side of Puget Sound is North Cascades National Park, protecting over 300 glaciers amongst the jagged peaks just east of Mt. Baker. The park’s boundaries span the Cascade Crest, from the dry ponderosa pine ecosystem of the east to the temperate rainforest of the wet west-side. A polymorphous collection of plants and animals inhabit the landscapes across 9,000+ feet of vertical relief - the ecological differences in high vs low elevation have allowed for over 1,600 species to be identified so far. Diablo Lake is one of the park’s shining gems, with its unique blue waters surrounded by iconic peaks in all directions - I was lucky enough to see this view but with the smoke it made for a very strange scene. But smoke or no smoke, the park is absolutely breathtaking.
In the geologic timeline, these mountains and glaciers are relatively new, and allow geologists to find clues in relation to climate change as well as erosion, glaciation, and volcanism. In the middle of a pandemic that has drastically increased our wastefulness - and exacerbated fire season - it is even more important to step up to protect nature. While I was in the North Cascades I was haunted by the same smoke that I ran into while on the coast. The smoke followed me through Washington into Idaho, and didn’t begin to fade until I reached Montana.
Washington is hands-down one of the most beautiful states in the union, and its biological diversity makes it absolutely unforgettable. From volcanoes to rocky seashores, Alpine lakes to rain forests, this crown jewel of the Pacific Northwest is an absolute must for any nature minded person.
Diablo Lake (living up to the name), WA - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan
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