How To Pick A Hike

Welcome to finding your own adventures! This is in and of itself an adventure. Sometimes I spend too much time on the internet or reading books about all the routes I could take and I understand how it quickly becomes overwhelming! There can be varying purposes for a hike, different time restrictions and more.  I’ve broken down this guide to things to pay attention to and various ways to find hikes (mostly around Washington).


Trail Difficulty: elevation gain and mileage

This is probably the most obvious consideration. If you’re new to hiking, starting off with an easier hike is the best thing to do. That’ll help gauge how much you enjoy it, and what you might want to look for in more trails. Many trails in the Cascades gain 1000 ft in elevation over a mile. This is usually categorized as difficult. However, if the hike is only 1 mile long, it is a fairly easy hike. Hikes with elevation gain 3000 ft+ or more than 8 miles long are quite strenuous if you are not fit. However, given time, most people can do longer or harder trails. And the more you hike, the more hiking-fit you’ll be and in no time, hard hikes will no longer be so hard. Also, difficultly in trails may increase if elevation gain is steeper, like gaining 2000 ft in 1 mile, which is less a trail and more a straight shot up the mountain. It’s important to note that some hikes have 2 trails: an older, steeper trail and a longer, lower grade trail. A great example of this is the Mailbox new and old trails. They both gain the same elevation but the new trail is more gradual over twice the distance as the old trail.

Terrain: walkability and trail maintenance

Another measure of trail difficulty is what terrain it crosses. Some trails are very well maintained (typically the more popular trails), so they are wide and fairly level with few tree roots and rocks to step around or over. Sometimes 4 or more people could walk side-by-side on these trails. As you become more experienced in hiking, you’ll start to understand what you’re capable or comfortable with. Consider if you prefer gentler hikes to enjoy nature or more intense ones that gets your adrenaline and heart rate going.

The next step up in terrain difficulty are narrower trails, where you must remember to let people pass who have the right of way. Narrower trails often mean steeper climbs or a switchback along steeper terrain with a sharp drop off on one or both sides. This is not too common for most well-used trails. Or sometimes trails are narrow when bushes are overgrown and it’s difficult to see the trail.

A step beyond soil-filled trails are the rocky terrain. Personally, some of my favorite. Some trails are just rockier than normal trails and some involve keeping your balance. Boulder fields consist of a slope with large rocks carefully piled on top of each other (formed by nature). They often have a level path created, and if not, you have to pick your way around, following cairns (stacks of rocks). These are important route-finding markers, so don’t just randomly create these stacks anywhere! Be careful when stepping on rocking rocks. When snow is still melting, it’s easy to step deep into holes, especially the areas next to a rock, where the snow tends to melt out faster.

Scree is another common terrain to encounter, but these start to be on my “difficult” rating. Scree is loose rock, much smaller than boulders and much more prone to movement. So, know where you’re stepping and how that may impact the movement of the rock.

You may encounter scrambling if you attempt the haystack on top of Mt. Si. Basically a precursor to rock climbing, but more sloped and less vertical. Usually there are lots of good hand holds and sometimes you can just stair-step up your way. Some scrambles even provide rope for you to use – always test the strength before you put your whole weight on it. If you see a scramble route, generally up to class 2 or 3 are doable without ropes for the adventurous person. More technical routes begin with class 4 or 5, depending on people’s comfort level of climbing without protection. It is recommended to bring a helmet on steep climbs, especially for the follower or if there may be a mountain goat or different party ahead of you. Safety first!

snow: seasonal terrain

If summer hiking gave you the outdoor itch, maybe you’re looking to continue to hike more in the winter and you can most definitely go out in the winter. Don’t let the snow/cold stop you from enjoying the outdoors, as long as you do it safely. See my guide on gear for more information about what to bring on different hikes.

Many lake hikes are safe to hike in the winter – as people constant go on them, keeping the trail level. If you’re intrepid to break a new trail with your snowshoes, please check out the weather and snow conditions first. One of the major risks is avalanches. In the PNW, use the Northwest Avalanche Center for the latest reports.

When hiking in snow, it can be slippery, even with traction devices on. So plan for more time to hike. And with colder weather – it’s good to bring extra layers even if you warm up while hiking because sometimes wind picks up in the basins of lakes, or at a saddle point on a mountain. For a more information on winter hiking, go here.

other trail features

Okay, so you’ve figured out what your level of hiking is. What else to look for in a hike? People enjoy hiking for many reasons. Some may want to do it for the summit views, or wildflower sights, or even just to train. Here’s a few notes about the different features.

Summit Views: Most of these require longer hikes since trailheads often start fairly low at the bottom of the mountain. They tend to be at least 2500 ft in elevation gain, and more often above 3500 ft. Mt Pilchuck is one of the few shorter summit hikes, since the trailhead starts pretty high up.

Wildflowers: In the Cascades, wildflower blooms are some of the biggest draws to tourists and residents alike. From fiery red columbine to pale beargrass and bold orange tiger lilies  to gentle lupine, there’s so many flowers to enjoy. Many of the I-90 hikes have wildflower fields above the tree-line. In general, they tend to be in full bloom around late June-early August.

Larches: Every October (mid fall season), there’s this crazy, this madness around larch trees. It’s true they look amazing when they turn yellow, but seriously, it’s worth the effort to get to. They tend to grow in the East Cascades among other states too. For Washington hikes, check out my guide to 20+ crowd-free larch hikes!

Lakes: In the summer, lake swims are some of the best activities, but sometimes you gotta work for it! In the winter, they’re often frozen over and beautiful in a different way.

the drive

There are many things to think about for the trail, but sometimes overlooked is the drive. How far is the trailhead? What time do you want to wake up, or do you want to go for a sunset hike (bring a headlamp for sure!)? For drives on forest roads, be sure to give extra time if you know that major potholes exist on the roads.

From Seattle, some of the closest hikes are off of I-90, about 40 minutes away. The furthest end of the Cascades (Pasayten/Chelan Wilderness) are about 4 hours away. Towards the Olympics, trails are anywhere from 2 hours to 3.5 hours away. O

Another consideration is parking. Sometimes you might want to beat other hikers to get a better parking spot at the trailhead instead of literally 1 mile away, so leaving bright and early may be a better option.

Where to find routes

Here are some sites, apps, and books I like to use:

WTA: This is my go-to source for all major hikes around Washington. There are great trip reports and trail descriptions. The interactive map is one of the best parts – you can sort trails by length, elevation, and features.

AllTrails: This is a great source for trails outside of Washington and has a growing list. However, it’s not easy to use unless you have an account with them and reviews aren’t always informative like they are with WTA. I think the best way to use it is to find a trail elsewhere and then search for it in your preferred search engine and clicking on the AllTrails link from there. If you like to track your hikes and create an account, this app is good for that!

Hiking Project: This is an app through REI that lets you save terrain maps and trails. Over the years, I’ve seen it become more useful as trails are added. There are many overlaps with the WTA app. I also like this app because you can see how far you are along a trail and see the relative grade/steepness. I use this app heavily for most trails and switch to Gaia for more off-trail adventures.

Gaia: I use this as a map app only and haven’t used it as a web version. I have the free version because it’s from an older download, but if you’re just getting the app, it’s 100% worth paying for it. Offline maps are essential to backcountry travel and this shows the topography too. I like to use this app to track my hikes since I don’t have a GPS watch. But I would caution using this as your only source to find hikes because it shows even scrambles, or harder trails.

CalTopo: This is a great website resource that is now an app too!! I have found it most useful if you know what you’re looking for. There are many trails listed, and many also not listed. Be cautious of whether a trail is for hiking or mountaineering/technical routes, but they’re pretty good at denoting that, as opposed to Gaia. This site is great for seeing exactly what the trail profile looks like as well as exploring neighboring areas. There are many functions to the map, such as shading for slope angle (more useful to gauge avalanche risk).

Washington Scrambles: This is a book I continuously refer to for more technical hikes (scrambles). There are many levels from half-day to multi-day trips of various difficulties.


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