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Finding the Trail Less Traveled

Hiking is more popular than ever, but if you like solitude, there’s plenty to find. | By Craig Romano

I grew up less than 5 miles from the Robert Frost Farm in southern New Hampshire. “The Road Not Taken” is one of my favorite poems. And while I take a more literal interpretation of its last lines —

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

— it has helped guide me to wonderful hiking discoveries and experiences. If you’re a regular follower of my writings, you know that I have been preaching about finding and hiking the trail less traveled for some time now. Why? While scenic rewards are certainly an enticement to hiking, so too is experiencing the natural world uncluttered from the stresses and distractions of the modern world. I enjoy hiking for the chance to commune with nature, experience solitude and witness wildlife in its natural habitat as much as I enjoy standing on a mountaintop savoring a sweeping view.

Craig hiking around Sawtooth Ridge.
Craig enjoying the view. Photo courtesy Craig Romano.

Fortunately, for those who seek out quiet trails, there are so many less known and less traveled trails throughout our region (and beyond) where we can enjoy nature and solitude. And during this time of coronavirus, having a little more space to roam free helps keep us not only physically healthy, but mentally healthy as well.

With so many forms of recreation shut down or limited this year due to the pandemic, our trails, campgrounds and natural areas are more popular than ever. Trails have been seeing record use — making it harder to find solitude in the backcountry. I have read reports that mention hundreds of vehicles lined up and down roads near trailheads.

My year on the trails, however, has included a lot of solitude. In fact, I have seen more bears this year than ever before! I hiked 325 miles in August alone (for WTA’s Hike-a-Thon) and have not encountered more than a dozen people on trail. The trail less traveled is out there. You just have to do a little planning and be creative to find it.

I have several strategies for finding quieter trails. But basically start by considering the hundreds of off-the-radar trails. These may include trails that are just a little harder to reach, a little longer or harder to hike or a little less picture-perfect. While these trails may not be the classics, in many cases they are honorable mentions still offering good views, great backcountry experiences and very few other people.

Rugged backcountry
If you don't mind a little ruggedness or a long drive, you'll likely be able to find quiet spots. Photo courtesy Craig Romano.

Some of my tried-and-true regular places for quiet wandering in Washington include the hundreds of miles of trails in Northeastern and Southeastern Washington. Yes, it is a bit of a drive to get to the Kettle River Range, Okanogan Highlands, Blue Mountains and Selkirk Range from the state’s west-side cities. But that is one of the reasons you’ll find light usage on them. Go for several days, and take advantage of quiet campgrounds as a basecamp for your adventures.

But you don’t always need to drive far to find a quiet trail. This past Father’s Day, I took my family hiking at one of my local state parks — Deception Pass, Washington’s most popular state park. But we hit the forested trails away from the beaches and the campgrounds where 95% of the park’s visitors were congregating, and we enjoyed miles of peaceful hiking. One Labor Day weekend I spent a placid Sunday hiking at Redmond’s Watershed Park. The park was peaceful and delightful while Snoqualmie Pass was packed.

This year I spent 2 days and 25 miles backpacking Six Ridge in Olympic National Park and only encountered four other backpackers. While everyone was trying to get a permit to the High Divide or Flapjack Lakes, I had no problem securing a permit to hike this underappreciated and spectacular ridge trail that is, admittedly, a little rough with some challenging stretches. While this won’t work for everyone, trails that involve a stiff climb, river ford, or long wooded approach before the payoff are often lesser-visited and a good option for some. And trails within the shadows of popular trails are often good bets too. While Blanca Lake is absolutely swarming with people, you can drive a little farther to the end of the forest road to four trails that see a fraction of Blanca’s numbers.

Enjoying a quiet trail at Deception Pass.
Getting a closer look at nature during a quiet hike around Deception Pass. Photo courtesy Craig Romano.

This summer I spent many miles on some of our motorized trails. Open to motorcycles, these trails are often overlooked by many hikers. But here is the irony: I am often all alone on them — or perhaps encounter just one or two friendly motorcyclists all day.

And consider taking advantage of a disruptive event that just may have a silver lining when it comes to finding the trail less traveled. During our recent terrible smoke in mid-September, I studied some weather satellite imagery indicating that the smoke was below the 5,000-foot line. So I packed up the family and took a chance by driving out to Artist Point, where I found blue skies and clean air above the smoky valleys — and empty trails. We spent an enjoyable afternoon on Table Mountain with just three other people. I once enjoyed Maple Pass, Cutthroat Pass and Stiletto Peak all to myself too. I was camped at Lone Fir when a summer thunderstorm delivered a deluge, leaving a mudslide across Highway 20. No one could get to the trailheads, and the Washington State Department of Transportation let us stay at the campground. (If we left the gated road to the east, we wouldn’t be allowed back in). We had enough food for a few days, so we stayed at the campground and enjoyed these popular trails all to our lonesome with the added bonus of no highway noise.

The trail less taken is out there; you just need to get a little creative in your planning, take a chance on something different and don’t be afraid to head to someplace unknown.

Trail Less Traveled sign
Photo by Craig Romano.

10 Tips to Find the Trail Less Traveled

1. Note the destinations trending on social media platforms, and don’t go to them!
2. Choose weekdays over weekends, especially for popular destinations.
3. The early hiker gets the view to themself. Hit the trail early in the morning to beat the crowds.
4. Embrace the rain! It’s a perfect time to hike a beach or old-growth forest, while some hikers instead opt for a good book in front of the fireplace.
5. Think local. Many city and county parks and trails are often far less crowded than state parks, national parks and national forest trails on holiday weekends.
6. Expand your hiking options. Many community colleges and environmental learning centers have trail systems open to the public. Land trusts have preserves with trail systems that are open to the public.
7. Seahawks playing? Big concert in town? These are great times to hit the trail, as many folks opt to sit in front of their TVs or head to a special event.
8. Drive a little farther and off the beaten path. In general, the worse the road and the farther away from a major city or tourist center, the less busy the trail. While it may not make sense to drive 150 miles for a short hike, it does if you make a weekend getaway out of it.
9. Island time. Our islands are teeming with wonderful trails. While there is added time and expense due to the ferries, if you can manage it, you may find you have some trails all to yourself.
10. Seek neglected trails. My guidebooks are loaded with them, and I give crowd ratings for each trail. Search WTA’s Hiking Guide for trails with no or very few reports — then hit the trail less traveled!

Craig Romano is a guidebook author,

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Washington Trails magazine. Support trails as a member WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.