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The 9 Most Iconic Backpacking Routes in Washington

The 9 Most Iconic Backpacking Routes in Washington

Washington state is home to some of the most beautiful backpacking destinations in the country. But, with so many fantastic multi-day hiking options to choose from, it can be hard to decide which one you want to do for your next backcountry getaway.

To help you out, here are 9 of the most iconic backpacking routes in Washington, complete with everything you need to know to hit the trail.

1. The Wonderland Trail

mountain rainier in the background above trees

  • Distance: 93 miles (150km)
  • Elevation Gain: 23,000 feet (7,010m)
  • Number of Nights: 14
  • Difficulty: Strenuous
  • Hiking Season: Summer, early Fall
  • Dogs: No
  • Permits: Yes
  • Trailhead: Box Canyon

Circumnavigating the base of Mount Rainier, the highest peak in Washington, the Wonderland Trail is an absolute classic backpacking route for experienced adventurers. It offers truly stunning views of the North Cascades, dense temperate rainforests, and raging glacial rivers.

Along its 93 mile (150km) path, the Wonderland Trail ascends and descends seemingly countless ridges gaining well over 20,000 feet (6,000m) of elevation along the way. As you can imagine, the trail is incredibly popular, so permits are required and can be obtained through the National Park Service.

But, if you don’t have 14 days set aside to thru-hike the entire trail, you can day hike the Wonderland Trail, or complete it in small sections. Day hiking is a particularly good option for trekkers who haven’t managed to snag permits, as you can always stay in one of the park’s many campgrounds.

Alternatively, some campsites on the trail are available for walk-up reservations at the park visitor’s center if you’re looking to hike for just a few days at a time.

More info:

2. Enchantment Lakes

  • Distance: 36 miles (57.9km)
  • Elevation Gain: 4,500 feet (1,371m)
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Number Of Nights: 3-4
  • Hiking Season: Summer, early Fall
  • Dogs: No
  • Permits: Yes
  • Trailhead: Stuart and Colchuck Lake

The Enchantments are one of the most magnificent natural areas in Washington State, with its glistening alpine lakes, glacially-carved granite, and jagged peaks. Getting into the Enchantment Lakes area takes some effort, though, and a backpacking trip into the region is an unforgettable experience.

This trail starts at Stuart and Colchuck Lake Trailhead and follows a path to Colchuck Lake over jumbled talus up to Aasgard Pass. Eventually, it traverses under Dragontail Peak as you make your ascent to the pass. Along the way, the trail provides outstanding views of Glacier Peak and Mount Baker until you finally reach the Enchantment Lakes and their alpine meadows.

Trips into Enchantment Lakes are quite popular, so reserved backpacking permits are a must between May 15 and October 31. Day trips simply require a free day-use permit that’s available at any of the trailheads, but why wouldn’t you want to spend at least a few days in this sublime landscape?

More info:

3. High Divide – Seven Lakes Basin Loop

  • Distance: 19 miles (30.5km)
  • Elevation Gain: 4,000 feet (1,219m)
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Number Of Nights: 1-2
  • Hiking Season: late Spring, Summer, early Fall
  • Dogs: No
  • Permits: Yes
  • Trailhead: Sol Duc

Traversing the alpine region of Washington’s Olympic National Park, the High Divide – Seven Lakes Basin Loop is a solid option for anyone looking for a bit of solitude in the wilderness. This trail travels through a beautiful subalpine basin with rolling terrain that is teeming with wildlife and adventure.

The High Divide – Seven Lakes Basin Loop has a number of excellent campsites and limited entry quotas each day to help prevent overcrowding. But, for a moderate overnight backpacking trip in western Washington, it can’t be beat!

More info:

4. Olympic Coast Trail – South Coast Route

hiker standing on beach in olympic national park

  • Distance: 17 miles (27.4km) one way
  • Elevation Gain: 1,900 feet (579m)
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Number Of Nights: 1-2
  • Hiking Season: Year-round
  • Dogs: No
  • Permits: Yes
  • Trailhead: Third Beach or Oil City

Olympic National Park’s Wilderness Coast is one of the most rugged natural coastlines left in the contiguous United States. The coast is traversed by a number of trails along its 73 mile length, providing seasoned hikers with the opportunity to experience this amazing landscape first hand.

The South Coast Route is a great option for hikers that want a short trip into the wilderness that features fantastic seaside camping. Hiking in this region is mostly flat, but does require climbing a few ropes and ladders to get over some rocky embankments.

Anyone heading into the Olympic Coast should be well-versed in reading a tide table to ensure that they’re always camping well above the high water line. But, any trip into this coastal wonderland is one to remember. Be sure to get permits upon arrival and consider setting off on your trip during the middle of the week for extra solitude on the beach.

More info:

5. Spider Gap – Buckcreek Pass

  • Distance: 44 miles (70.8km)
  • Elevation Gain: 7,200 feet (2,195m)
  • Difficulty: Strenuous
  • Number Of Nights:  5-7
  • Hiking Season: Summer, early Fall
  • Dogs: Yes
  • Permits: Sign the trailhead register
  • Trailhead: Phelps Creek

If you’re looking to get away from the crowds at some of the National Parks, the Glacier Peak Wilderness is a sure bet. Home to some of the best backcountry in Washington, this wilderness area provides great alpine lakes, amazing views of Glacier Peak, and gigantic wildflower meadows, not to mention the massive glaciers.

This backpacking trip takes you into the Spider Meadows and Phelps Basin regions. There are plenty of great campsites along the way as you climb up and down various passes until you reach Suiattle Pass. Suiattle Pass is a great place to stop for a long break and enjoy the up-close view of Glacier Peak before heading onward on your journey.

However, if you have the time, consider making a detour to Image Lake, especially if you’re looking to snap some epic photos of Glacier Peak. This is a particularly good hike if you’re planning a last-minute trip and don’t have time to get permits, or if you’re interested in taking your loyal pup along for the adventure.

More info:


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6. Cascade Pass – Sahale Glacier – Horseshoe Basin

  • Distance: 25.2 miles (40.6km)
  • Elevation Gain: 11,500 feet (3,505m)
  • Difficulty: Strenuous
  • Number Of Nights: 3
  • Hiking Season: Summer, early Fall
  • Dogs: No
  • Permits: Yes
  • Trailhead: Cascade Pass

The trail from Cascade Pass takes hikers deep into the backcountry of North Cascades National Park’s Stephen Mather Wilderness. It provides excellent views of the surrounding peaks, particularly Johannesburg Mountain, and traverses the beautiful subalpine zone of the Cascades.

There are quite a few trip options in this region, but a good three-night trek starts at the Cascade Pass Trailhead and continues on to the Basin Creek Campground. From there, backpackers can leave camp set up and set off on a day hike to Horseshoe Basin.

The next day, you can move camp to the Sahale Glacier Camp and enjoy some alpine views for the night before hiking back to the trailhead the following morning.

Backcountry wilderness permits are required in the park and reservations are necessary during the summer if you want to snag a specific campsite. Reservations are particularly important for the Sahale Glacier Camp, as are bear canisters, which you can borrow from the Park Service before your trip.

More info:

7. Hoh River Trail to Blue Glacier

lush green temperate rainforest

  • Distance: 37 miles (59.6km)
  • Elevation Gain: 3,700 feet (1,127m)
  • Difficulty: Strenuous
  • Number Of Nights: 3-4
  • Hiking Season: Summer, early Fall
  • Dogs: No
  • Permits: Yes
  • Trailhead: Hoh River

The Hoh River Trail to Blue Glacier route offers hikers the chance to experience vastly different ecosystems on a single trip. This trail starts off in an old-growth temperate rainforest and wanders down an undulating trail alongside the Hoh River.

Eventually, the trail leaves the river behind and heads further into the forest until reaching the Olympus Guard Station, where there’s a good group campsite. after departing the Guard Station, there are plenty of other campsites along the trail as you start gaining elevation and leaving the forest behind as you approach Glacier Meadows.

After navigating a large washout, the trail brings you to a truly amazing viewpoint with excellent panoramic vistas of the glacier and the dome of Mount Olympus. This trail is a particularly good option for hikers that want a little bit of everything scenery-wise on a long weekend backpacking trip.

More info:

8. Pacific Crest Trail Section H

  • Distance: 147.5 miles (237.4km) one-way
  • Elevation Gain: 27,996 feet (8,533m)
  • Difficulty: Strenuous
  • Number Of Nights: 14-20
  • Hiking Season: Summer
  • Dogs: Yes
  • Permits: Self-issued at the trailhead
  • Trailhead: Bridge of the Gods or White Pass

If you’ve always wanted to hike the PCT but haven’t been able to take half a year off of work, hiking a section of the trail is the next best thing. For two weeks of solid adventure, PCT Section H, which traverses the southern part of Washington State, is a great starting point.

The trail starts at the Bridge of the Gods and travels through the scenic Gifford Pinchot National Forest until reaching the White Pass Trailhead just south of Mount Rainier National Park. Along this section of the trail, there are plenty of lakes to enjoy and even some huckleberries to eat in late summer.

This section of the PCT crosses through the Indian Haven Wilderness, rounds the base of Mount Adams, and then enters the stunning Goat Rocks Wilderness, which is home to some of the most challenging terrain on the PCT. You’ll get to complete a knife-edge ridge traverse and even cross the Packwood Glacier before arriving at the White Pass Trailhead.

More info:

9. Loowit Trail

mount saint helens view

  • Distance: 32 miles (51.5km)
  • Elevation Gain: 6,000 feet (1,828m)
  • Difficulty: Strenuous
  • Number Of Nights: 3-4
  • Hiking Season: Summer, early Fall
  • Dogs: No
  • Permits: No
  • Trailhead: Windy Ridge

The Loowit Trail offers hikers the chance to circumnavigate Mount St. Helens over the course of 3-4 challenging days in the alpine. Unlike the Wonderland Trail, this circumnavigation is less popular, so it provides excellent opportunities for solitude for more experienced hikers.

In fact, the Loowit Trail is so remote that it doesn’t start at a trailhead, so you’ll have to hike in a bit from the Windy Ridge Trailhead on the Truman Trail and the Windy Trail before you actually reach your starting point. The trail itself climbs up and over vast fields of pumice and innumerable gullies that can prove tricky to cross.

Completing a circumnavigation of Mount St. Helens on this trail is a true feat as the terrain is quite rugged. But, if you want excellent views, a bit of adventure, and no crowds, the Loowit Trail is an excellent option.

More info:

Top Tips For Backpacking In Washington

Backpacking in Washington can be an amazing experience, if you know what to do. Here are some key things to keep in mind as you’re planning your adventure:

  • Have A Parking Pass. Washington is home to a patchwork of public lands, some of which are state-owned and others of which are managed by federal agencies. Each one has its own parking pass permit system, so you’ll want to have the right pass for your car depending on the trail you’re heading to. Depending on your destination, you may want an America the Beautiful Interagency Pass, a Northwest Forest Pass, or a Discover Pass.
  • Get A Permit. There are very few backpacking destinations in Washington that don’t require some sort of permit for overnight use. The most popular areas will have a lottery system that involves reserving your spot many months ahead of time while others have self-issued permits at trailheads. Be sure to figure out what kind of permit you need before departing to avoid disappointment upon arrival.
  • Check Bear Camping Requirements. Bears are everywhere in Washington, even in the alpine. The various land managers all have their own rules for what you need to do to store your food in the backcountry. Bear hangs are acceptable at many locations, while bear cans are required at others. You can often rent a bear canister from the park or forest rangers before your trip, but check the requirements before heading out.

Final Thoughts

If you’re planning a backpacking trip in Washington, congrats! It’s sure to be a great time. You have plenty of amazing trails to choose from as well as endless opportunities for off-trail adventures. Just remember to check in on permit requirements and campsite reservations before you leave home!


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