4 Essential Hikes to Experience the PNW in a Hurry

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The Pacific Northwest gets a lot of love on Instagram. I gotta say, I didn’t get it until I went myself last summer. Trust me – the Insta-fame is well deserved.

Countless trails snaking through pristine alpine wilderness, turquoise blue lakes, and a coastline to die for… It’s really that gorgeous. Perhaps the most incredible thing about the PNW is its diversity of landscapes. One moment you’re standing on a fog-covered granite peak, and the next you’re underground, trying to make your way through a pitch-black lava cave.

The PNW is pretty much the hiking capital of the United States, and for good reason. That being said, the number of hikes you have to choose from if you only have a few days can be overwhelming. It’s basically the world’s hardest elimination game; you’ll want to do every single hike you read about. To make things a little easier, here’s a list of the top 4 PNW hikes you can’t miss. These hikes all offer up a different kind of landscape, so if you’re looking for the ultimate PNW sampler, this post is for you.

1. Maple Pass (North Cascades Natl. Park)

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6.50 mi (10.46 km) round trip

Maple Pass, also known as Heather Pass, will make you fall in love with Washington. This beautiful loop trail starts off with a moderate uphill hike through meadows blanketed with wildflowers. About 1.25 miles in, the trail branches off – take this if you want a detour to Lake Ann. A couple miles later, the trail starts to flatten out as you reach the peak. This peak isn’t extremely high, so the trail around the top is still grassy with scattered evergreen trees.

This classic hike is sure to please everyone. Plan to work in extra time; you’ll be stopping to take a lot of photos.

2. Sol Duc Hot Springs Trail

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3.7 mi (5.95 km) one way

Ponderosa forest lovers, this one’s for you.

This lesser-known trail near Forks, WA takes you through a shady forest, crisscrossing a river via a number of small log bridges. This hike doesn’t have a lot of elevation gain, so it’s perfect for kids. And as if it wasn’t great enough already, this peaceful forest wander leads to an area of natural hot springs! (Be careful, some of the pools are hot. I mean really hot.)

Dipping into these natural springs is a truly unique experience everyone should have once.

3. Switchback Trail (Olympic Natl. Park)

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5 mi (8.05 km) one way

I’ve done a lot of hikes. I’ve been a lot of places and seen a lot of things. But I’m 100% serious when I say this is absolutely one of my favorites. I’ve wanted to write about this hike for some time because it honestly took my breath away. I would hike this trail again and again. (As someone who finds things monotonous very quickly, that’s quite the testimony.)

So, what makes the Switchback Trail so amazing?

Well, first off. This trail, which begins at an already impressive altitude of 4,700 ft, has massive elevation gain in a relatively short distance (thanks to a whopping 27 switchbacks along the way). This type of height means, in my opinion, the coolest weather ever: fog. The whole hike up is basically walking through a cloud. The photo above is actually one of the rare clear moments I had along the trail.

This hike is extremely rewarding. To be honest, this is a difficult hike. At some point, you’ll probably feel like quitting and turning back. DON’T. This trail leads to an unbelievably beautiful and remote spot on the Klahhane Ridge. You’ll probably spend a solid amount of time at the top just staring off into the foggy valley with your mouth wide open.

4. Cape Lookout Coastal Trail

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2.5 mi (4.02 km) one way

Perhaps the most iconic of the PNW landscapes is the coastline. Where the land meets the ocean, Oregon and Washinton will treat you to sheer cliffs plunging 400 ft down into the water, windy beaches, and mystic rock formations that reach out of the waves. For a trail that’ll give you panoramic views from the cliffs above as well as a chance to get down onto the beach itself, don’t miss the Cape Lookout Trail.

The first part of this hike will bring you through a grove of Sitka Spruce, a massive variety of evergreens indigenous only to the shoreline between Oregon and Alaska. After a short downhill trek, you’ll be deposited onto the sandy shores of the cape. At low tide, there’s a plethora of tidepools to explore here. Bundle up, it’s windy!

There it is. My official recommendations if you only have a few days to experience the insanity the Pacific Northwest has to offer. Although these hikes will give you a wide variety of landscapes and experiences, you’ll know by the end of your stay that you need to come back. Take my word for it – I’ve been trying to my next trip to the PNW since the moment I got back!

Happy trails!

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