Nestled in the northern contiguous United States and southern Canada, you’ll find the moody, picturesque and biodiverse region we call the Pacific Northwest (PNW).
In some ways, the PNW is the platonic ideal of a hiking destination. Its dynamic mixture of mountains and forests, its rugged coastline and verdant interior, and its temperate weather make for some genuinely remarkable hiking. But even seasoned hikers need some guidance before striking off to the great trails of the PNW.
This article offers a short guide to the region – an overview of its boundaries, a list of place recommendations, packing considerations, and general tips for making the most of your hiking trip. Grab your finest rain jacket, clear the memory card on your camera, and let’s hit the trails.
The Pacific Northwest – An Overview
The geographical boundaries of the Pacific Northwest are a point of contention for some. Some people maintain that the region expands northwards to encompass Alaska, and stretches south to include California. Many people place Idaho in the mix. Others, meanwhile, take the hard-line approach of sticking primarily to two states: Washington and Oregon.
As such, the term is relatively nebulous – it’s more of a “vibe,” as the kids say, than any geopolitically significant region. This article welcomes all geographical interpretations but focuses primarily on Oregon, Washington, and the southern stretch of British Columbia (BC) in Canada.
Where to Go in the PNW
With those parameters established, let’s throw out some hiking recommendations! Your options are virtually endless as the PNW comprises a strikingly diverse set of landscapes, trails and mountains.
If you’re looking to craft an itinerary for your perfect trip, these are a few highlights. Let’s begin with the “big picture” stuff; here are the mountain ranges to visit:
- Cascadia: Cutting a large swath of the interior west coast, from BC down to California, the Cascadia Mountain Range is nearly synonymous with the Pacific Northwest. It’s surrounded by lakes, groves, forests and falls.
- The Rocky Mountains: Famous for its tall, ski-friendly peaks, the Rockies are the largest mountain system in North America.
- Columbia Mountains: Washington, BC, Idaho and Montana all claim a piece of the Columbia mountains. It’s an impressive range, made all the more striking by its surroundings – the expansive, flat Interior Plateau.
- The Olympic Mountains: Amid blankets of coniferous forest in Washington, you’ll find the Olympics. This is a fantastic range if you want to see the Pacific Ocean coastline while you hike.
And here are some notable trails in and around the Pacific and above mountain ranges:
- Misery Ridge Trail: Oregon’s badland trails like Misery Ridge might not be the first thing you think of when you consider the PNW, but they are a lot of fun!
- Wahclella Falls: An Oregonian oasis, Wahclella Falls is a gorgeous example of PNW waterfalls.
- Boulder Creek and Hall of Mosses: Washington’s Boulder Creek and nearby Hall of Mosses offer a lush venture into the temperate rainforest.
- Heather Lake and Gothic Basin: Heather Lake trail is a fun day hike for beginner and moderate hikers, and nearby Gothic Basin is a more challenging excursion near Granite Falls.
- Garibaldi Lake: An emerald blue lake in interior BC surrounded by mountain hikes and campgrounds.
- Cathedral Grove: Vancouver Island, just off the coast of mainland BC, is a hiker’s paradise. Head to Cathedral Grove to see some towering old-growth trees.
Above, you’ll find a good mix of levels – from flat beginner trails to steep, uneven climbs. Whichever trails you choose, you’re in for a stunning hike!
What to Pack
The Pacific Northwest is notoriously wet. The region enjoys nearly year-round precipitation, usually in the form of slow, consistent drizzles throughout the day. As such, packing for a hiking trip here means being highly selective in your clothing options.
For a base layer, choose socks, underwear and t-shirts from Unbound Merino – they can wick sweat, withstand temperature extremes, and dry relatively quickly. They’re also antibacterial, which means one or two garments will keep you fresh the whole hike (a bonus when trying to reduce bag weight).
For bottoms, consider lightweight, durable hiking pants (look for anything with a high nylon percentage) or – again – merino wool pants (for the reasons cited above). And for an outer layer, go for a breathable, 2.5-layer soft shell in the summer and spring, or a 3-layer hybrid in the winter.
As for the rest – food, utensils, toiletries, first-aid, etc. – consult this blog for basic recommendations. You’ll find a bevy of packing articles relevant to the Pacific Northwest.
What to Know
With your itinerary planned and bag packed, you can start planning for particulars. Here are a few things you should know about hiking in the PNW:
- Plan Meticulously: Planning is the linchpin of a successful hiking trip. Make a packing list, write a multi-day itinerary, and list some important phone numbers in case of emergency.
- Check the Weather: The weather changes on a dime in the Pacific Northwest. Before setting your packing list in stone, check the long- and short-term weather forecasts.
- Respect the Local Wildlife: In general, wildlife will leave you alone if you leave them alone. Still, the PNW is home to some fierce predators like black bears (generally skittish of humans), grizzly bears (totally unafraid) and cougars (sneaky hunters that work in packs). Pack bear spray and always travel in pairs or groups.
- Be Honest About Your Skill Level: You should never over-exert yourself, especially on remote trails. Be honest about your skill level/stamina and choose trails that match.
- Be Respectful: These are pristine trails, and we should keep them that way for future generations. Always clean up before moving on, refrain from interfering with the local plants, respect local fire bans in the summer, and respect the indigenous land designations.
If you love lush nature, pristine oceans and snow-capped mountains, the Pacific Northwest might just be the perfect hiking destination for you. Follow the tips above to choose a trail, pack your bag, and ensure that you have a safe, successful hike.