Outbound Collective logo

The Importance of Turning Back

Not every hike gets to the summit.

By: Joanne Howard + Save to a List

In the mountains, it’s not always easy to predict when trails will first open up in the spring (or summer, in some places). But I wanted to try getting out earlier, before the summer crowds so I could explore places that still felt a little untouched. I had a few trips planned this year to the North Cascades and Mount Rainier National Parks, and with non-refundable flights, I’d just have to take what I could get as far as trail conditions went. I checked a couple different sites (the official National Park pages, AllTrails, and Washington Trail Association) for up-to-date trail conditions and kept my hopes up that enough snow would be melted for some decent hikes. But that famous Pacific Northwest weather is not so easy to predict.

I visited North Cascades National Park over Memorial Day weekend this year. The first hike on my list was the Hidden Lake Trail. I figured it was a viable option since it was posted at the visitor center as a “suggested hike.” It’s considered “moderately strenuous” with a 2900-foot elevation gain over 4.5 miles one way. First mile or so was easy enough through snow-free forest with lots of small waterfalls cascading down the hillside. Eventually the trail leaves the woods and comes out into this large, exposed bowl, which you hike up to a ridge that eventually leads you to the lake. The problem: the bowl was completely snow covered, and I was without an ice pick or crampons. I looked up the incline, then farther down the valley, and felt like I was in the middle of a giant ski slope.

The adventurous types might have given it a go, but I’ve broken bones before and wasn’t about to risk it so far from town. The trailhead was already an hour drive over rocky un-paved road from the main highway, and even then, who knows where the nearest hospital was. I took a look at the map and tried to make out where the trail would be, if there was anything to follow. But underneath the snow I could hear a river rushing, snowmelt from the mountains. One misstep and I could be soaked.

For the first time in a while, I found myself turning back on the trail.

Nobody likes to admit defeat, especially one mile in. It felt like a bust, having driven all the way out to the trailhead, packed a bag for the day, and brought along my camera for those sweet summit pics. Plus, it would be late afternoon before I got back to the main part of the park, and I didn’t have anything else planned. The whole day seemed wasted.

You win some, you lose some, so I decided the next day couldn’t be so bad. I took another look at the visitor center board and picked out a hike in a different part of the park, where maybe snow wouldn’t be as heavy. The Blue Lake Trail seemed to be easier with a lower elevation gain, but still amazing views. I gave it a go. Completely snow covered. At about halfway up, I turned back again.

It’s a fine line between adventurous and reckless. I’m not earning cool points for admitting I didn’t make it to the summit or invest in mountaineering gear, but maybe I will pick up some crampons and an ice pick if it means better exploring in the parks during the shoulder season (read: fewer crowds).

It’s important to know when to turn back, but even better is to be prepared so that you won’t have to. I’m always trying to find that sweet spot of just how much gear to take with me; water and food is a must, but gear is debatable. Will I really need my rain pants? Does this hike require trekking poles? But it’s worth being safe than sorry, especially during the shoulder season. I’ll definitely be back to the PNW, but maybe in the summer this time.  

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

Do you love the outdoors?

Yep, us too. That's why we send you the best local adventures, stories, and expert advice, right to your inbox.


Scott Kranz is Climbing 50 Peaks in North Cascades NP in One Year

The Outbound Collective

The Top 10 Hikes in the North Cascades

Michael Fricke

14 Photos from our Amazing Weekend in the North Cascades

John Wingfield

An Impression of the North Cascades

Crystal Brindle