Let’s face it. There is nothing quite like the shock that comes when the weather warms up on your favorite trail. All fall and winter long, when everyone else was watching sports ball or complaining about the rain and snow, we had the wilderness to ourselves.
That is no longer the case.
The weather is once again nice, giving the hikers and climbers of Washington State reason to rejoice. We survived the longest winter of our lives and yearn to reconnect with the lush river valleys and stunning, snowy summits. For most, hiking was minimal this past winter. A few trails were hiked, but only a couple hundred of us went deeper into the wilderness during the nastiness. Scores of rugged souls hiked to jaw-dropping winter scenes, while dozens of local climbers stood on the snowy summits in solitude. The wettest winter on record let trail runners splash through muddy paths on quiet trails, rediscovering old favorites in a mist and rain. That was winter and it has ended.
The warmer, sunnier weather means that trails will start getting crowded, by Pacific Northwest standards. People will bitch and moan about wanting solitude, but aside from a handful of well-maintained and publicized trails, solitude is easy to find. If you are patient, smart and willing to take a bit of time to get to a new spot, the most wonderful, empty and majestic destinations are waiting to be discovered by you.
Chances are, none of us blazed a new trail through the forest to a previously undiscovered lake or unclimbed ridge. Nearly everywhere we go, we follow trails maintained by local groups and shared all over social media and hiking websites. Most of us who hike and explore discovered our favorite destinations through work of mouth, locally written guidebooks and from family outings with older relatives. Those new to the trails causing “crowds” are doing the exact same thing.
Your trails are not a secret, so stop acting like they are. They are not yours. You do not own them and nor are you really that much better than them. You can’t blame new hikers for flocking to an area, while also celebrating the gear culture of REI or Patagonia, whose mission is to get more people aware of wilderness and out in nature. If you do this, you are not just hypocritical, you selfish. Ideally, you should be stoked to see more people wanting to connect to nature. This means that they will vote for people who will fund and protect areas. Maybe not all of them, but definitely the majority. Sure, the new hikers might need a friendly reminder in trail etiquette, as some play music on hikes or are carrying the wrong gear. That doesn’t give us a right to be an elitist. It means we have an opportunity to educate them on how to be better stewards of the land. It gives us a chance to form trail crews, help out existing hiking groups or maybe even form our own. We all started from somewhere. We were all once new hikers and we all have room to grow.
I know. This sounds so simple, right? Yet, without fail, people still feel shocked that places like Olympic National Park’s Hoh Rainforest or Mount Rainier’s Paradise are crowded on a sunny, Saturday weekend. In early April of 2016, the parking lots at Staircase (ONP’s oft-overlooked park entrance) was overflowing with cars. Instead of spending time online or with your hiking buddies, complaining that people are trekking these trails, rethink your hiking priorities. If people who are beginners are hiking your favorite trail, maybe it is time to find a new favorite trail. You should also be happy that you are in good enough hiking shape to go a little deeper, hike a little faster and climb a little higher. When your favorite trail becomes too crowded, it doesn’t mean your place is ruined. Instead, it means that others are seeking to do exactly what you did and that now you have a chance to discover someplace awesome.
Finding a new trail is easy. In Olympic National Park alone, there are 611 miles of trails. I highly doubt you have hiked them all. I even wrote a book that highlights 77 of my favorite trails and I am sure you will discover a new one. We have endless options for hiking in the Pacific Northwest. There is no complaining about crowds allowed.
If the hikes around your house are too crowded, maybe it is time to rethink your destinations. Hikes along major roadways will be crowded, and the further you get from Seattle, the less people you will see on a trail. Heading over to paces like the Olympic Peninsula will gain you access to 912 miles in both Olympic National Park and Forest, many of which see just a handful of adventures a year. You will have to wake up early and come home late, or camp near the trailhead, but there are options.
Longer drives are also a way to see more of the small towns and communities that dot the state. It gives us a chance to discover quirky stores, eat at local, greasy diners and bask in the gloriousness of the most-scenic highways in the country. I also understand that the cost of gas might be an issue, but the average person I hear complaining about crowds on trails also admits to spending a bit more money on gear at local outdoor stores than they are proud of.
One way we enjoy hitting the trails is to hike faster and farther in regions we already know. For instance, the Staircase Region is an hour and a half drive from Olympia and I go there often. However, instead of hiking the Staircase Loop Trail dozens of times, I have hiked higher up the ridges and river valley of the region, seeing amazing sights I previously didn’t know existed. I fell in love with Gladys Divide, then pushed on higher and saw the beauty of Home Sweet Home and Marmot Lake. Because I explored the same region more, I learned more about the area and myself. I now feel spiritually connected to the North Fork of the Skokomish and want everyone to find a place like that for themselves.
To hike farther, you might have to hike more often. You may need to start jogging, or walking more in the morning or night. You might have to prioritize your time and increase your stamina, but it is always worth it. Not only are you going to be healthier and happier, you will be able to explore more regions and hike to more of the amazing scenery that we all love in the Pacific Northwest. Hiking deeper into wilderness will allow you to find solitude and a meditative peace of paradise.
You deserve that, but most importantly, we all do.