10 Epic Winter Adventures In Washington

Bundle up and get ready to explore in the snow.

By: Nick Lake

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Washington’s lush green forests, lofty glacial peaks and pristine alpine lakes are well documented and for good reason. Each year, during the warmer months, Seattleites flock to the Cascade and Olympic Ranges in search of summery backcountry adventures filled with hot hikes, cool swims, long days and plenty of sunshine. But when the interminable winter rainstorms hit and the sun battles to rise more than a few degrees above the horizon, it helps to know that salvation still exists in the mountains, but this time of year atop skis, skins, snowshoes and snowboards. With the right planning and precautions, Washington’s winter wonderlands can provide endless adventure days, often without the crowds of summer. Here are ten trips to get your blood pumping to your extremities and keep that frostbite at bay:

1. Snowshoe to Gothic Basin

Photo: Jason Horstman

If you’ve been to Gothic Basin in the summertime, you know the trail can be overrun with weekend warriors, and with good reason: Foggy Lake, Gothic and Del Campo Peaks and the valley leading into the Monte Cristo mines provide endless alpine eye candy. But if you’re willing to get your boots snowy, the basin can supply even more dramatic views and much-coveted solitude in the winter. It’s a bonus that the Mountain Loop Highway, at least to Barlow Pass and the trailhead, is often one of the more accessible roads during the snowy winter months. Learn more.

2. Ski Washington Pass

Photo: Nick Lake

Skiing off the precipitous escarpments of the Liberty Bell group is not for the faint of heart, but for those looking for a unique adventure far from almost anybody else, Washington Pass in the winter is for you. The North Cascades highway is closed from November through April or May every year due to avalanches and heavy snows, so you’ll need to take a snowmobile 30 miles from the west or 10 miles from the east through steep avalanche runout to the pass at milepost 162. From there, skin up the slopes on the south side of the highway for almost guaranteed first tracks all day long. Make it a multi-day adventure by pitching a tent basically anywhere on the snow. Learn more.

3. Snowshoe or Ski Tour Paradise

Photo: Nick Lake

You won’t be alone up in the Paradise Meadows and Muir Snowfield on Mt. Rainier’s south slope, but it’s for good reason. With year-round road access to the Paradise Visitor’s Center in the national park, the moderately sloped winter playground draws tourists, skiers and kids with sleds on any day of the week. Besides the stunning vistas of The Mountain and the Tatoosh Range, perhaps the greatest appeal of this area is the abundance of safer (read: safer, not necessarily safe) terrain when avalanche conditions get dicey. Its elevation nearing 6,000 ft. at the parking lot means the majority of winter precipitation falls as snow. Pro tip: while the parking lot may look like a zoo exhibiting a strange breed of ill-prepared sledders and mountain gawkers in blue jeans and loafers, the crowds dwindle almost instantaneously as you ascend the meadows towards the snowfield at 10,000 feet. Learn more.

4. Snow Camp at Artist and Huntoon Points

Photo: Nick Lake

Like Paradise, Artist and Huntoon Points and the Mt. Baker sidecountry provide very easy access to fantastic skiable terrain with top-notch views. A simple skin or snowshoe up from the parking lot at Heather Meadows brings you into the backcountry zone with endless lines and incredible camping opportunities at every step. Set up for laps at Artist Point or continue up the ridge just a little further to Huntoon point where your tent’s front door opens to Mt. Baker and back door can look out on Mt. Shuksan, two of the North Cascades gems. That’s not to mention the veritable wall of peaks near the border with Canada which include Larabee’s defining pyramid summit and the gnarly tooth that is American Border Peak. Learn more.

5. Climb and Ski St. Helens

Photo: Nick Lake

Just like skiing on Mt. Baker and Mt. Rainier, ski touring on Mt. St. Helens brings with it the cred of having shredded down an active volcano. In winter, this iconic peak can provide a special glimpse into the volatile geologic makeup of the Cascades. Skin up the Worm Flows route to the edge of the crater on the mountain’s south side, being careful not to venture too far out onto the fragile cornices overhanging the vertical drop into the caldera below, and take in views of Adams, Hood, Rainier and the Cascade Range through Oregon and Washington, before ripping all the way back to your car at the trailhead in Cougar. Learn more.

6. Get Wet and Wild in the Gorge

Photo: Nick Lake

Ok, so this one is technically not in Washington, but the Gorge’s proximity to Seattle and its place along Oregon’s border with the Evergreen State make it fair game. You’ve never seen green until you’ve been to the Columbia River Gorge in winter. Just east of Portland on I-84 lie dozens of trails leading to gushing waterfalls set in some of the most verdant forests on earth. Bring your raincoat and be sure to stop at Multnomah, Latourell, Elowah, Fairy, and Horsetail Falls, as well as the Eagle Creek Trail to Metlako and Punchbowl Falls. If you’re looking for a bit of a quad crusher, the relentless climb up Dog Mountain on a clear day will reward you with panoramic views of the southern Cascades. Learn more.

7. Cross-Country Ski to the Rendezvous Huts

Photo: Nick Lake

Just outside the charming, if not downright kitschy, town of Winthrop lie some 200 km of groomed Nordic ski trails and the three Rendezvous Huts. The drier powder and bluebird days of the Cascade’s east slope make this area the premier XC ski destination in Washington. Each hut is placed to maximize gorgeous views into the North Cascades from the warmth and coziness of a tiny cabin with a roaring wood stove. Reservations for the huts can be tough to come by in advance, but often open up with cancellations throughout the winter. Additionally, a permit is required for travel on all Methow Valley Trails Association trails. You can get more information on hut rentals and trail passes here. Learn more.

8. Get a Front Row Seat to Massive Avalanches at Lake Serene

Photo: Jason Horstman

Lake Serene is a staple in summer due to its proximity to Seattle, easy trailhead access, ice cold, emerald waters and relatively short and sweet 7.2 mile round trip hike to easily one of the most visually stunning subalpine lakes in the state. But in winter, it’s a different beast altogether. After new snowfall, avalanches hurtle over the 3,000 foot cliffs of Mt. Index and crash in an ear-splitting roar onto the opposite lakeshore, taking this normally serene experience and turning it into an adrenaline-inducing spectacle. Be extra cautious if you decide to take the spur to Bridal Veil Falls as freezing spray and extra high water flow during winter rainstorms will make it increasingly dangerous. Learn more.

9. Hike to Colchuck Lake and Summit Mt. Colchuck via the Colchuck Glacier

Photo: Nick Lake

Getting to Colchuck Lake in the winter requires a bit of extra dedication as the road to the Stuart Lake trailhead closes at Icicle Creek Road, adding 4 miles to your hike each way. But seeing the iconic Dragontail and Colchuck Peaks draped in snow, looming above a frozen Colchuck Lake, are certainly worth the extra mileage. When avalanche conditions are right, a trip up Colchuck Glacier to it’s namesake peak can be easier on winter snowpack than in melted-out summer months (ascent of Colchuck Glacier, or any glacier, requires special equipment and skills—never venture onto one without the right tools and knowledge to safely ascend and descend). Because the approach can take so long on snowy and icy trails, pitch a tent next to the lake and start up the glacier the next morning. Be sure to hit up Icicle Creek Brewery in Leavenworth to celebrate a successful adventure or grab a Brat at Munchen Haus. Learn more.

10. Hike the Hoh Rainforest

Photo: Jeff Richards

A good rule of thumb in the northwest is, “respect the coast.” When winter comes in full swing, “atmospheric rivers” of moisture pound the coastline of the Olympic Peninsula, dumping over 200 inches of rain on the Hoh and Quinault Rainforests. As a result, incredibly lush forests populate the western foothills of the Olympic Range and the best way to experience them is along the Hoh River Trail. The heartiest (and most Gore-tex clad) hikers can continue along the Hoh River for up to 13 miles to the base of mighty Mount Olympus, all the while passing prehistoric looking ferns, monumental cedars and carpets of moss so thick they'll rival the shag carpets in your hippie uncle's van. If you’re lucky enough to go on a clear day, head out to one the beaches for sunset and watch the bravest surfers ride the violent, frigid Pacific. Learn more.

Author’s note: Winter travel in the backcountry can be extremely dangerous. Winter conditions in Washington’s mountain ranges are very unpredictable and preparedness is key to survival. Always do your research to make sure you’re carrying appropriate gear and know how to read the snow conditions. Educate yourself on backcountry travel, avalanche safety and emergency response. Heed NWAC avalanche forecasts and test snowpack stability yourself on representative slopes every time you head out. The mountains will always be there - you may not. The responsibility is yours to travel safely in the backcountry in winter. If you don't have the necessary skills and training to keep yourself and other safe, consider hiring an accredited backcountry guide.

Cover photo: Nick Lake

Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph. Learn More

Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.