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How to avoid crowds on Pacific Northwest hikes

A guide to finding solitude on the trail

The great outdoors of the Pacific Northwest are especially popular in the summer. Each weekend, we head out to whatever scenic spot captures our imagination that day. The only problem: Everyone else seems to have the same idea.

We arrive at the Nisqually gate at Mount Rainier National Park excited for a day in the wilderness, only to find a 45-minute wait to enter the park. We get to a trailhead and discover there’s nowhere to park. We reach our hiking destination, but, with dozens of other people all around, we have to fight for a spot to enjoy the view. There’s little more frustrating than showing up to an awesome outdoor location and spending more time navigating the crowds and searching for solitude than actually enjoying our surroundings.

Crowds in nature can be frustrating, but they’re not inevitable. To help, we put together a few tips for a mostly crowd-free experience at even the most popular spots so you can find a moment or two of serenity in the wilderness. Just to be be a good steward of the land, follow Leave No Trace principles, and be patient when you do have people around—you are, after all, part of the crowd.

Embrace the weekdays

Weekends are always going to be the most crowded time to visit any outdoor destination. If you can, head out during the middle of the week, when almost everyone else is at work. Weekdays are when you can find parking, avoid wait times at entrance gates, and maybe even have a trail to yourself. While you’ll still be around some people on vacation or outside a nine-to-five schedule, the normally crowded trailheads and parking lots are much more manageable. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday are the best, as many people take a Monday or Friday off for a long weekend.

Go in the morning

Can’t take a weekday off from work? Waking up early will give you the same empty parking lots and trails as heading out during the weekdays. Your best bet is to aim to reach your destination right after sunrise, and the coast could be clear until 9 or 10 a.m., depending on when and where you go. Sure, it will make for an early start to the day, but the morning light and cool air will let you explore at your own pace without many people around. The early morning light is also great for photography. Plus, getting an early start means getting back to town in time to grab a beer afterwards and still be home for dinner.

Try getting to the trail just after sunrise.
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Go to popular places in the afternoon and evening

Just like the morning hours, the afternoon hours are a great time to head outdoors. Most of the crowds gather during the daytime, and for the most part, people pack up and leave around dinnertime. At places like Sunrise and Paradise at Mount Rainier, you’ll be amazed at how quickly things start to clear up as the sun starts dropping toward the western horizon. With the longer daylight hours of the summer, arriving just before 5 p.m. will still give you four or so hours of daylight to explore. You’ll even have a chance to see a sunset at your favorite spot! Just make sure to know when sunset is, and give yourself plenty of time to get back to your ride or campsite in daylight hours.

Hike farther

If you’re noticing a lot of people hiking on your favorite trail, maybe it’s time to find a new favorite trail. It doesn’t mean your place is ruined; it just means that others are discovering how great it is, and that now you have a chance to discover someplace awesome. To hike farther, you might have to hike more often and get a more grueling workout in the process, but that’s a good thing—you’ll be able to explore even more of the amazing scenery of the Pacific Northwest. Hiking deeper into wilderness will allow you to find solitude and a meditative piece of paradise.

Go to lesser-known areas

If the standard outdoor adventure destinations are getting too crowded for your liking, maybe it is time to rethink your destinations. Hikes along major roadways will always be crowded in the summer. A good, general rule is that the farther you get from Seattle, the fewer people you’ll see on a trail.

Heading over to places like the Olympic Peninsula will grant you access to 912 miles of hikes in both Olympic National Park and Forest. You’ll even find overlooked regions around Mount Rainier—while the majority of people go to the amenity filled regions like Sunrise and Paradise, you’ll find fewer people at places like the Carbon River and Mowich Lake. You’ll have to wake up early and come home late, or camp near the trailhead, for a full day of exploring, but there are endless options available when you cast a wider net.

Even in popular hiking areas, lesser-known destinations—like the Carbon River area of Mount Rainier—can provide a little solitude.
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Pick up a guidebook

Every website has a list of top 10 (or, in our case, 12) hikes, but they’re just the tip of the iceberg for adventures in the region. The best way to discover new favorite trails and dream hikes is to pick up a guidebook written by a local expert. Websites like The Outdoor Society and The Mountaineers sell books written by local authors, helping you find new places to get out and explore. The more in-depth information in guidebooks can lead you to scenic vistas and other incredible spots not shown on listicles.

Take advantage of the off-season

Sometimes, even following these tips, crowds just happen. But, for the most part, crowds will start to go away after Labor Day, and diminish greatly every week that passes after that. If you feel overwhelmed with crowds in the summer, head out in the off-season and get trails all to yourself. There’s almost always a decent week of weather in October, right before the snow falls in the higher elevations.

Also: Don’t overlook hiking in the rainy weather. After all, the rain is what makes the Evergreen State so beautiful.