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Memorial Day Hiking, Backpacking and Camping

Posted by Kim Brown and Loren Drummond at May 20, 2013 03:25 PM |

Memorial Day can be a scramble for day hikers, backpackers, and car campers. Get tips for finding snow-free hiking, backpacking and camping destinations.

Memorial Day is always a scramble for day hikers, backpackers, and car campers. The criteria of a crowd-free location, trails without snow and decent road conditions easily stymies even the most experienced hikers. Below are a few tips for staying safe and ideas of where to hike, backpack and camp.

Weather and spring safety tips

Check the weather

  • This weekend forecasts call for relatively cool and showery weather, mixed with sunbreaks throughout much of the state. That means great flower, forest and dramatic cloudscape photos -- and experiencing the true meaning of “rain” forests on the coast. It also means you'll want to make sure to pack your rain gear and take measures to keep your campsite comfortable in cool, drizzly weather.
  • If you're seeking warmth and the sun, you may want to head to east of the Cascades into desert and coulee country, where showers are less likely and temperatures are likely to reach into the 70's.
  • Check the National Weather Service website to ensure you're prepared for whatever conditions you might encounter.

Check conditions and consult a ranger

  • Snow is still the name of the game in the high country, and hikers can easily encounter slick and dangerous conditions on snowy slopes and from overhanging cornices. All of that snow has to go somewhere when it melts too. Rivers and creeks are running at their peak levels right now.
  • Read WTA's Spring Hiking Tips to refresh what you need to bring in your pack and how to stay safe under these conditions.
  • Always check with a ranger before heading out. Give them a call, or, even better, plan to stop by a station on your way out of town.

Hiking and backpacking

Columbia Gorge

Wildflowers still adorn the southern slopes of the Columbia River Gorge on the Washington side, making for spectacular day hiking:

South Cascades: Mount Rainier and Mount St Helens

  • Most of Mount Rainier National Park is under snow, but not the Carbon River area. A wilderness walk-in campground is open (after a 5-mile hike) at Ipsut Creek, which provides ample opportunities to explore this lovely area. For a day hike, try the trail up to Ranger Creek Falls and Green Lake.
  • One volcano down the chain, the South Coldwater Lake trail at Mount St. Helens is often one of the first places in the Monument to melt out. (You'll need to check snow levels, at 3,500 feet at last account, and get a backcountry permit to overnight here.)

Pacific Coast

If hearing the crash of ocean waves is more your style, head to the rugged Washington Coast.

North Cascades

East Bank Baker Lake kids in May
Kids cross a bridge on the East Bank Baker Lake dayhike in May. Photo by beefeater.

Highway 20 is open for the season, providing access to the wonders of the North Cascades.

  • Driveway Butte near Washington Pass can be an excellent early season hike (be the first to write a trip report this season). There's likely still snow at the top, but it is worth the effort.
  • Another early favorite of backpackers is Thunder Creek, a long and gentle trail through old growth forest where a few eager folks have already started backpacking.
  • Or how about East Bank Baker Lake with awesome views of Mount Baker and Shuksan (though you may need to endure a few motorboats on the lake).

Central Cascades

Savvy Memorial Day hikers seek the sunnier southern and eastern slopes of the Central Cascades. The wildflowers are really showing their stuff here. As long as you stay below the snowline, there are lovely day hikes and overnights to be found:

  • There are many options in the Icicle Creek area near Leavenworth, including two ways to ascend Icicle Ridge: the gentle Icicle Ridge trail or the Fourth of July Creek butt-kicker. A recent trip reporter had this to say about Fourth of July Creek, despite running into a lot of rain: "Best wildflowers I've seen, so many species, all at their peaks. Swaths of balsamroot and lupine, and the lupine was so fragrant. Different species at each elevation: orange paintbrush, penstemon, Lewisia, Jacob's ladder, mahonia, phlox, desert parsley, columbine, avalanche lily, and more."
  • Alternatively, off of Blewett Pass, try a hike or backpack up Ingalls Creek. It features a raging creek, abundant wildflowers and plentiful backcountry campsites starting a few miles in.

Central Washington

Wildflowers are still going strong in the desert steppe country.

Strategies for last-minute camping on Memorial Day weekend

Camping can be tricky this time of year, though most campgrounds are opening in advance of the Memorial Day weekend. You can still try to reserve a spot, but if you go into the weekend without a reservation, then a first-come, first-served campground and dispersed camping areas are for you.

Here are some tips for finding a great spot:

  • If you have the flexibility, the best course of action is to arrive a little earlier than Friday night for campgrounds that do not accept reservations, like most of the campgrounds in Olympic National Forest .
  • Go farther afield and check out areas with lighter usage, like the Colville and Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, which only have first-come, first-serve campgrounds on them.
  • Try dispersed camping on National Forest land, a great way to find a little solitude and practice your Leave No Trace ethics. Dispersed camping means there are no toilets, no picnic tables, no trash cans, no treated water, and no fire grates. Typically, dispersed camping is not allowed in the vicinity of developed recreation areas such as campgrounds, boat ramps, picnic areas or trailheads. (For the best information on dispersed camping opportunities, contact the ranger district offices.)
  • Try your first backpack. Try packing a little lighter and consider converting your camping plans into a short backpack with an overnight.