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Wilderness Washington: Hike 12 Wilderness Areas

There's no better way to get to know some of Washington's 31 wilderness areas than to hike them. Eighty percent of Washington's wilderness is within 100 miles of major metropolitan areas, making our state's wilderness some of the most accessible in the nation.

There's no better way to get to know Washington's 31 wilderness areas than to hike them. Eighty percent of Washington's wilderness is within 100 miles of a major metropolitan area, making our state's wilderness some of the most accessible in the nation.

What is a wilderness area? These special areas have been granted the highest level of land protection in the United States. They can be found within National Forests, National Parks or BLM lands.

Tips for hiking in wilderness:

  • Planning. As with any hike reaching into the backcountry, plan carefully. Choose a hike that fits your ability, research conditions and check with the ranger about special regulations and trail conditions.
  • People. In general, group size is limited to no more than 12 heartbeats, including people, dogs, and pack animals. WTA recommends hikers always leash their dogs for everyone's safety. 
  • Camping Permits. Be sure to check the regulations for the wilderness you plan to camp in. Wilderness areas within National Parks require a permit obtained from a visitor center. Other wilderness areas may have different permitting processes, including self-issued permits. Some popular areas like the Enchantments Basin have their own permitting process, so be sure to check ahead of time.
  • Pack It In, Pack It Out. When you are in wilderness areas, practice Leave No Trace ethics. This means packing out everything including, dog poop bags, toilet paper and all trash. 

Olympic Peninsula

Rialto Beach and Hole-in-the-Wall

Location: Olympic Peninsula--Pacific Coast
Wilderness: Olympic Wilderness
Mileage: 4 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: minimal 

A view through the iconic 'hole-in-the-wall'. Photo by Erynn Allen.

With so many mountain hikes to choose from, many hikers forget about the glories of Washington's coast. This little slip of the wild Olympic Coast is a classic. Plus, it's great for kids. Backpackers looking for more of a challenge can explore the wilder side of the wilderness on the South Coast Wilderness Trail - Toleak Point.

> Plan your trip to Rialto Beach and Hole-in-the-Wall using WTA's Hiking Guide

Slab Camp Creek and Upper Gray Wolf River

Location: Olympic peninsula--Hood Canal
Wilderness: Buckhorn Wilderness
Mileage: 5.5 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 1,100 feet

Lush forest en route to the Slab Camp Creek. Photo by Timothy Bell.

This inverted hike starts you out easy, cruising down a gentle grade through mossy woods with some peek-a-boo views of surrounding peaks. Late spring provides a stunning rhododendron show, but you’ll find flowers throughout spring and summer and gorgeous colors in fall. With established camps, this easy-going trail also makes a great early-season backpack.

> Plan your trip to Slab Camp on the Upper Gray Wolf River using WTA's Hiking Guide

Mildred Lakes

Location: Olympic Peninsula--Hood Canal
Wilderness: Skokomish Wilderness
Mileage: 9.0 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain:
2,300 feet

A tarn in a meadow.
The meadows surrounding Mildred Lakes. Photo by EmblyNW. 

This route is sure to give you a wilderness experience. This unmaintained trail was established by committed hikers and fishermen. You'll need some routefinding skills and perserverance to find your way, but you will truly experience the Skokomish Wilderness along the way. 

> Plan your visit to Mildred Lakes using WTA's Hiking Guide

Central Cascades

Spider Meadow and Phelps Basin

Location: Central Cascades--Stevens Pass, West
Wilderness: Glacier Peak Wilderness
Mileage: 13 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 1,900 feet

Phelps Basin. Photo by Dale Blair.

One of the most popular hikes to get views of the Glacier Peak Wilderness, this trail is a backpacking favorite that takes you through stunning Cascades meadows, forests and alpine country. Look for the wilderness sign about 5 miles in.

> Plan your visit to Spider Gap and Phelps Basin using WTA's Hiking Guide

Fortune Ponds

Location: Stevens Pass West
Wild Sky Wilderness to Henry M. Jackson Wilderness
Mileage: 13.0 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain:
2,700 feet

A lake surrounded by grass and trees. Photo by ballardgray.
Fortune Ponds. Photo by ballardgray.

Cross from one wilderness (Wild Sky) into another (Henry M. Jackson) on this trail that sees few hikers. The Meadow Creek trail provides plenty of solitude as you gently climb through old burn and old growth to heather slopes, blueberry patches, and snow-fed lakes near the Cascade Crest. Make a full weekend of visiting the Wild Sky Wilderness by camping at the Beckler River Campground.

> Plan your visit to Fortune Ponds using WTA's Hiking Guide

South Cascades

Deep Lake

Location: South Cascades--Mount Adams Area
Indian Heaven Wilderness
Mileage: 5 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 900 feet

Deep Lake. Photo by MafHoney.
Deep Lake. Photo by MafHoney.

This moderate in-and-out trail makes a lovely picnic destination, or an ideal short backpack to a brilliant blue lake with peeks of Mount Adams. From the trailhead at the Cultus Lake Campground, fill out your self-issue wilderness permit and start climbing, immediately entering the Indian Heaven Wilderness.

> Plan your visit to Deep Lake using WTA's Hiking Guide

Shellrock Lake

Location: South Cascades--White Pass/ Cowlitz River Valley
William O. Douglas
Mileage: 10 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 1,900 feet

larches in the foreground with a sunset in the background. Photo by KRad.
Shellrock Lake Trail. Photo by KRad.

Like so many lakes in the William O. Douglas Wilderness, Shellrock Lake has peaceful solitude and plentiful wildlife including resident elk who graze in the meadows nearby.

> Plan your visit to Shellrock Lake using WTA's Hiking Guide

surprise lake

Location: South Cascades--Goat Rocks
Wilderness: Goat Rocks Wilderness
Mileage: 13.0 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 1,505 feet

Surprise Lake by Joey Smith.jpeg
Surprise Lake. Photo by Joey Smith.

Although the west side of the Goat Rocks Wilderness claims most of the attention—the east side will reward you the same impressive views with half the crowd. This gradual hike winds through impressive meadows and dense forests, ending with impressive snow-capped views and lakeside camping options.

> Plan your visit to Surprise Lake using WTA's Hiking Guide

Eastern Washington

Oregon Butte

Location: Eastern Washington--Palouse and Blue Mountains
Wilderness: Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness
Mileage: 6 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 987 feet

Oregon Butte. Photo by Alex Mesick.
Oregon Butte. Photo by Alex Mesick.

Just because they're tucked into the southeast corner of the state, don't overlook Washington's Blue Mountains, which you can find on this ridgeline trail in the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness. Dayhike it, turn it into a lazy overnight (several good camps sites along the ridge) or connect it to a network of nearby trails for a longer loop.

> Plan your visit to Oregon Butte using WTA's Hiking Guide

Salmo-Priest Loop

Location: Eastern Washington--Selkirk Range
Wilderness: Salmo-Priest Wilderness
Mileage: 19 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain:
3,400 feet

Beargrass in the Salmo-Priest. Photo by Leif Jakobsen.

This is a classic high-country wilderness backpacking loop that easily rivals the beauty of Western Washington's more well-known trails. On this trail, you'll get views, wildflowers and a chance to spot some incredible wildlife along the way, not to mention a little solitude.

> Plan your visit to the Salmo-Priest Loop using WTA's Hiking Guide

North Cascades

Horseshoe Basin

Location: North Cascades--Pasayten
Wilderness: Pasayten Wilderness
Mileage: 12 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 1,550 feet

A green grass meadow with a rocky peak in the distance. Photo by Wild Side.
Horseshoe Basin. Photo by Wild Side.

A backpacking favorite where you can spend a day—or a week—exploring the wonders of this alpine landscape. Climb the local peaks, check out the Canadian border monuments, or kick back and watch the marmots. At night, listen for the coyotes and count the stars.

> Plan your visit to Horseshoe Basin using WTA's Hiking Guide

North Fork Sauk River

Location: North Cascades--Mountain Loop Hwy
Wilderness: Glacier Peak Wilderness
Mileage: 11 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 1,000 feet

A wooden bridge crossing a rushing creek. Photo by Merritt.
North Fork Sauk River. Photo by Merritt.

Some trails go to lakes, some to high viewpoints. This trail is all about the forest. Old-growth trees reach for the sky on either side of a brush-free trail. Find forest wildflowers here in the spring and early summer. When the Whitechuck Trail washed out, this became the main route to climb Glacier Peak. Climbers mix with backpackers and day hikers on the way to various destinations. 

> Plan your visit to the North Fork Sauk River using WTA's Hiking Guide

Anderson and Watson Lakes

Location: North Cascades--Mount Baker Area
Noisy-Diobsud Wilderness
Mileage: 6 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain:
1,100 ft

Anderson and Watson Lakes by callmesaraj..jpeg
Anderson and Watson Lakes. Photo by callmesaraj.

A series of lovely backcountry lakes surrounded by stunning North Cascade peaks in the the Noisy-Diobsud Wilderness make for a great day hike or an easy overnight.

> Plan your visit to Anderson and Watson Lakes using WTA's Hiking Guide