The Pacific Northwest is a backpacker’s dream. With more national parks, national forests, and other protected areas than you can shake a hiking stick at, the dark, damp forests and wild coastal stretches of western Oregon and Washington attract backpackers and hikers from around the world. Volcanoes, mountain meadows, sea stacks, and old growth forests beckon hardy hikers with the promise of pristine scenery and backcountry solitude.
Here are our picks for the ten best backpacking trips in the Pacific Northwest.
Lena Lakes: The Lena Lake Trail starts near the outpost of Quilcene on Olympic National Park’s eastern flanks. Hikers can choose to stop after three miles at Lower Lena Lake, a turquoise pool surrounded by steep mountainsides. The lake is accessible for a day trip, but there’s designated camping scattered around the lake for overnighters.
More adventurous backpackers should head up a steep ascent to Upper Lena Lake, another three miles on the trail. The switchbacks here are narrow and rocky, making for a challenging trip. The reward is worth it: verdant meadows, the gorgeous lake, and the rocky humpback of Mount Lena greet you at the finish. Campsites are scattered around the eastern and southern edges of the lake. You’ll need a Northwest Forest Service pass to park at the trailhead, and a permit to camp at either lake.
Hoh River: Starting at the Hoh Rainforest visitor center may dismay backpackers seeking solitude, but the crowds die down as you make your way deeper into this stunning rainforest. Huge, moss-draped trees tower above, which makes you think you’re taking a Twilight location tour rather than hiking. see: Twilight).
But the real thing is so much sweeter. The trail starts out flat for 12 miles as it follows the powder blue Hoh River to its source deep in the mountains. At 13 miles, the switchbacks start. You’ll know you’re at the end when you see groups of mountain climbers with glacier gear in a broad meadow below big Mount Olympus and its glaciers. You’ll need a National Park pass to park at the trailhead, and a permit from the visitor’s center to camp.
Ozette Triangle: Seastacks, islands, tidepools, and ancient petroglyphs are highlights of this backpacking trip. Each leg is three miles long, and it’s a bit of a choose-your-own-adventure trip. You can start on either the Cape Alava or Sand Point trail, both of which lead to the ocean from Lake Ozette. The trails are each flat and slice through sections of wild forest. The trail along the beach is on a boardwalk, though it can be slippery when it’s wet. Campsites near Cape Alava are numerous but require permits at the Port Angeles Wilderness Information Center.
Oregon Coast Trail: The 328-mile Oregon Coast Trail runs along the entire Pacific coast of Oregon, from Washington to California. It crosses through state parks and small towns and offers views of sea stacks and excellent Pacific Ocean sunsets. One particularly promising stretch takes you 12.7 from the town of Gearhart to Ecola State Park.
Heading out of Gearhart and soon into the town of Seaside, it takes a while before the trail turns wild. After six miles, though, you’ll enjoy the solitude of the ocean along Tillamook Head and Indian Beach. The dramatic Tillamook Head Lighthouse is the only sign of civilization here. Camping on the beach is unrestricted, and parking is free in Gearhart.
Phelps Creek/Spider Meadow: This fantastic excursion is best attempted in early fall if the weather holds. The meadow is still snow-free and the huckleberry bushes are aflame with reds and oranges. The trail starts flat through a forest before emerging in a broad valley leading into the cirque where Spider Glacier hangs. There are 30 tent sites scattered throughout the valley, or you can choose to continue up into the basin. It’s a short, steep hike to the foot of the glacier, where an additional ten campsites sit overlooking the valley.
Save time to explore the glacier, which is nontechnical and very accessible from camp. Phelps Creek runs from the glacier down into the valley, so there’s plenty of water around, too. You need a Northwest Forest Pass to park at the trailhead and the campsites are first-come, first-served.
Sahale Glacier: The high camp at Sahale Glacier is a must for any serious backpacker. This trail shows off the best of the North Cascades as it wanders first through old growth forest and then through broad meadows. The trail is moderate as it approaches Cascade Pass, which is a great day hike destination. Stand at the convergence of two huge rows of razor-edge peaks and listen for waterfalls tumbling from melting glaciers on their steep slopes. Turn left here to steeply ascend the Sahale Arm—this is where it gets tough.
Spend the night above the valley where you’re high enough to see over the immediate peaks and into an endless sea of pyramids and spires. You need a Northwest Forest Pass to park at the trailhead and permits for campsites can be obtained at the Wilderness Information Center in Marblemount.
Goat Ridge/Snowgrass Flats: The spectacular Goat Rocks region of Mount Rainier brings lots of hikers to this trail, but you’ll leave the hoards behind the farther you hike into the forest. The trail climbs into subalpine meadows, where the views open up to the surrounding peaks. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot a mountain goat or several, and wildflowers in early summer after the snow melts.
Goat Lake is about 5.5 miles in, perched cradled by mountain ridges. Turn around here for a day trip or head just past Snowgrass Flats on the Bypass Trail for an overnight trip. You’ll need a Northwest Forest Pass to park at the trailhead, and campsites are first-come, first-served.
Loowit Trail: The Loowit Trail rings around Mount St. Helens for 30 miles, passing through untouched forests and volcano-devastated moonscapes. The scenery’s a bit different on every route, but glimpses of St. Helens’ maw feature strongly. For the most part, the trail is moderate, but there are difficult and rocky sections. It also has no designated trailheads, so you have to take other trails to get to Loowit. Designated camping areas also change year to year, so it’s best to plan ahead and speak with the Forest Service to get the latest. You’ll need a Northwest Forest Pass to park near the trail.
Lakes Basin Loop: This tough 22.7-mile route is worth the effort. It gives backpackers a healthy dose of the Wallowa Mountains, also known as the Alps of Oregon. The alpine lakes here are breathtaking, as is the route to get to them. Ignore the crowds at the onset; they’ll drop off as the going gets tough. Climb 4,000 feet through the high meadows and set off on an 11-mile loop around the lakes. Campsites abound, scattered around the lakes with views of Eagle Cap, Sentinel Peak, East Peak, and more. Parking and access are free, but you do need a wilderness permit to camp. It’s free at the Wallowa Mountains Visitor Center.
Chambers Lakes Basin: This 14-mile trek runs between the South and Middle Sisters, two extinct volcanoes in Oregon. The trail is a moderate seven mile hike, climbing 1,200 feet to the six lakes, which sit in the saddle between the two volcanoes. The lakes are unfortunately too cold for swimming, as evidenced by the ice floating here well into summer. Campsites are scattered around Camp Lake, but they’re unofficial. Be sure to find a spot someone else has already used to avoid tramping the fragile meadow.
- Megan Hill