Best Beginner Backpacking Trips in Washington

Point of Arches, Olympic National Park

Washington is a hiker’s paradise where you’ll find hundreds of trails that are great for both beginner and expert backpackers alike. In this diverse state, you can trek deep into the old-growth forests, along the rocky shorelines of Olympic, or high into the mountains in the North Cascades (also known as the American Alps!)

If you are looking for the perfect beginner backpacking trip in Washington, we’re here to help. So, we’ve compiled a list of seven of our favorite trails across Washington that are well-suited for new backpackers. The trips below range from two to six days so you can choose your own adventure.

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how to choose an appropriate trail

While each new backpacker is entering into the sport with a different set of skills and fitness levels, we’ve crafted a list of trips with all beginner backpackers in mind. These trips fit a few criteria:

  1. You’ll hike relatively low mileage for the length of the trip.
  2. The trails don’t have extreme elevation gain for the region (However, Washington mountains are known for being steep and rugged due to the intense amount of rainfall, so you can’t escape elevation gain here!) 
  3. You’ll travel on well-maintained trails and avoid tricky terrain like boulder fields. 
  4. You’ll get a lot of bang for your buck, whether in the form of peaks, alpine lakes, or lush meadows. (Many people neglect this crucial factor.)

However, backpacking is never easy (or else we’d never do it!) — so,  if you want to maximize your fun, be sure to train for your backpacking trip.

1. Seven Lakes Basin, Olympic National Park

High Divide Olympic

Mileage: 19 miles out-and-back  | Length: 3 days | Elevation Gain/Loss: 4,000 feet

The High Dive Loop — also known as Seven Lakes Basin — in Olympic National Park takes you into an alpine wonderland dotted with glimmering blue lakes. En route, you’ll trek through verdant rainforests and past one of Olympic’s most famous waterfalls — Sol Duc Falls. For a three-day backpacking trip, this trail packs in stunning sights and plenty of wildlife sighting opportunities.

Why is it great for a beginner?

While this trail takes you high into the mountains, a three-day trip allows you to take your time and hike relatively low mileage each day. You’ll have ample time to relax at camp, dip your toes in the water, and hit a side trail for excellent views of the surrounding Olympic Range.

Also, once you reach the lakes basin, you’ll have access to vault toilets at Sol Duc Park, Heart Lake, Lunch Lake, and Deer Lake. While you should still know proper LNT protocol for dealing with human waste outdoors, you may not have to put the knowledge to use.

logistics and permits

For all backpacking trips in Olympic National Park, you’ll need to obtain a wilderness permit. This trail is popular, so these permits can be hard to obtain (so you may want to consider going guided!) You can reserve in advance — which we recommend —  but 50% of the permits are also available for walk-up hikers.* The NPS charges a $6 fee for each reservation, as well as an $8/person recreation fee for backcountry use.

You’ll also need to store all food and scented items in park-approved bear canisters. You can rent these from the Port Angeles WIC or the South Shore Lake Quinault USFS Office, but they have limited supply.

*As of 2021 during the pandemic, you need to reserve all wilderness permits in advance as the Wilderness Information Centers are closed for in-person permits.

Guided Trip Options

Wildland Trekking offers a three-day Seven Lakes Basin Loop as an all-inclusive guided backpacking adventure package with expert guides, gear, meals, and transportation. Click below to check out the itinerary and this year’s trip dates, then contact us to get started!

Hike the High Divide Loop with a Guide

2. Enchanted Valley, Olympic National Park

Enchated Valley chalet in Olympic National Park

Mileage: 26 miles roundtrip | Length: 4 – 5 days | Elevation Gain/Loss: 1,700 feet

Imagine trekking for thirteen miles through an old-growth rainforest along the rumbling Quinault River. Elk graze on the opposite riverbed and black bear cubs climb high in the tree branches. Everywhere you look you see signs of life — banana slugs along the trail and mushrooms sprouting up under last year’s fallen leaves. When you reach the forest’s edge, you cross a narrow bridge high over the river before popping out into an expansive river valley. Waterfalls trickle down the steep cliffs and jagged peaks fill the skyline. Right in the middle of the grassy valley floor, an old chalet sits precariously close to the eroded riverbank. This magical destination is the Enchanted Valley (a fitting name), and it’s is an ideal first backpacking trip.

Why is it great for a beginner?

This trail features very low elevation gain per mile, so it is relatively beginner-friendly. You can break up the 13-mile one-way rainforest hike into two days and camp under the canopy of trees on your way out and back. Once you’re in the Enchanted Valley, you’ll have the choice of how you want to spend your time. You could take an ice bath in the river, chill at camp, or hike up to Anderson Pass (and to its glacier) without the weight of your pack. Whatever you choose, your surroundings will be spectacular.

The Quinault Rainforest — one of three in the park — is also known for its prime wildlife sighting opportunities. And, this trail has the right balance of regular travel and moments of solitude for a beginner. We know it may be intimidating to hike an empty trail, so you’ll feel reassured by the friendly faces along the way. But, when you reach the valley, you’ll have room to spread out from other backpackers.

logistics and permits

For all backpacking trips in Olympic National Park, you’ll need to obtain a wilderness permit. You can reserve in advance — which we recommend —  but permits are also available for walk-up hikers.* The NPS charges a $6 fee for each reservation, as well as an $8/person recreation fee for backcountry use.

You’ll also need to store all food and scented items in park-approved bear canisters. You can rent these from the Port Angeles WIC or the South Shore Lake Quinault USFS Office (which you pass on your way to the trailhead), but they have limited supply.

*As of 2021 during the pandemic, you need to reserve all wilderness permits in advance as the Wilderness Information Centers are closed for in-person permits.

Guided Trip Options

Wildland Trekking offers both four- and five-day Enchanted Valley trips as all-inclusive guided backpacking adventure packages with expert guides, gear, meals, and transportation. Click below to check out the itinerary and this year’s trip dates, then contact us to get started!

Hike Enchanted Valley with a Guide

3. Baker Lake Trail

Baker Lake Trail, Washington

Mileage: varies (8 – 28 miles roundtrip) | Length: 2 – 3 days | Elevation Gain/Loss: minimal

Baker Lake is a low-elevation lake tucked in beneath the high peaks of the North Cascades. The Baker Lake Trail runs along the east bank from the south end to the north end of the lake, weaving through old-growth forests and stands of big-leaf maple. If you make it all the way to the northern trailhead, you’ll cross an impressive suspension bridge over the Baker River. When the clouds clear, you get fantastic views of Mount Baker — one of the five volcanoes in Washington.

Temperatures stay relatively moderate year-round, so if you’re willing to brave some cold rain, you could even hike this trail in the winter. However, this trail is ideal in the fall when the lake is refreshing and hues of yellow and orange start to appear on the treetops.

Why is it great for a beginner?

This low-elevation trail won’t get your heart rate pumping, but you’ll do some high-quality forest bathing as you walk between campsites. Choose between a short overnighter and a longer roundtrip trek depending on whether you’d rather pack in a camp chair and sit by the lakeshore or pack in the hiking miles. In addition to being beginner-friendly, it’s also a wonderful family-friendly backpacking option because of the low mileage and developed campsites with fire pit and vault toilets.

Some campsites along the route — like the Maple Grove Campground — have food storage boxes to keep your meals safe from critters and bears. This eliminates the need to carry a heavy bear canister or deal with an inconvenient food hang.

Additionally, you can hike this trail in almost any weather. Even if rain is in the forecast on your only spare weekend, the dense forest canopy will keep you relatively dry. Plus, rain enhances the moody PNW atmosphere.

logistics and permits

You do not need any permits to hike the Baker Lake trail. If you plan to hike the trail one-way, you need a car shuttle to pick you up on the north end. However, this is unnecessary and you have plenty of options for an out-and-back backpacking trip of reasonable mileage.

4. Point of Arches, Olympic National Park

Point of Arches, Olympic National Park

Mileage: 8 miles out-and-back  | Length: 2 – 3 days | Elevation Gain/Loss: 200 feet

This trail was on our list of the 11 best beginner backpacking trips in the US! So we figured we’d include it here, too, so we didn’t leave you out of the loop.

Point of Arches is a perfect beginner backpacking destination on the edge of Olympic National Park, accessed via the Makah Reservation. You can hike this trail as an overnight, but if you have a third day to spare, you won’t be disappointed by the abundance of tidepools to explore and wildlife to observe. The sea-stack studded coastline is complemented by lush forests, which are home to banana slugs, Roosevelt elk, and black bears. Each night, as the sun sets over the Pacific Ocean and you fall asleep to the sound of crashing waves, you’ll start scheming up your next backpacking trip.

WHY IS IT GREAT FOR A BEGINNER?

This relatively flat trail gives you quick access to a stunning beach environment, without much hard hiking or elevation gain. In fact, we offer this as a family-friendly trip option. You’ll get the pay-off of a bigger backpacking trip, but without all the work. So, pack a chair and relax on the beach as seals play in the coastal waters and eagles fly along the bluffs hunting for fish.

Unlike many beach destinations, the campsite near Point of Arches sits along a creek, so you don’t have to pack in water for your whole trip — just a water filtration device.

LOGISTICS AND PERMITS

You’ll need to secure two permits to make this trip a reality. First, you’ll need to pick up a Makah Recreation Pass; it costs $10 and is good for an entire year. You can get one in Neah Bay at the marina, the general store, the mini-mart, and the tribal center, among other areas. Also, as this trail enters Olympic National Park, you will need a Wilderness Camping Permit for any overnight stays in the park. Make sure you reserve this in advance. However, if you join a guided trip, we take care of all permits and reservations for you!

*As of February 2021, this trail is closed due to COVID-19, as are many of the coastal areas of the park because they are on tribal lands. If you’re looking for an alternate route in Olympic National Park, the Seven Lakes Basin backpacking loop is a great — yet more difficult — alternative.

GUIDED TRIP OPTIONS

Wildland Trekking offers this Point of Arches trip as a guided backpacking adventure package with expert guides, gear, meals, transportation — all included!

Hike Point of Arches with a Guide

5. Ancient Lakes, Eastern Washington

Ancient Lakes, Washington beginner backpacking trip

Mileage: 4 miles out-and-back | Length: 2 days | Elevation Gain/Loss: minimal

This trail was on our list of the 11 best beginner backpacking trips in the US! So we figured we’d include it here, too, so we didn’t leave you out of the loop.

If you’re searching for the perfect early-season overnighter, look no further than Ancient Lakes near Quincy, Washington. This desert oasis is close enough to Seattle that you can squeeze in a quick weekend trip even if you only have Saturday and Sunday to play. As you wander among the columnar basalt rocks, you’ll watch waterfalls splash over the edges and create green streaks of life on the walls. Once you arrive at the lake, you’ll find many paths to explore the area. And nearly every campsite you find has great views of the dark night sky.

WHY IS IT GREAT FOR A BEGINNER?

Low mileage and minimal elevation gain make this a great trip for beginners, kids, and the pup. While you do need to pack in all your water, you shouldn’t be deterred because you only have a 2-mile hike to the lake. If you only have a short weekend to spare, this trail will get you into the backcountry in no time!

LOGISTICS AND PERMITS

Pack in all the water you’ll need for your overnight trip! Even though you are hiking to lakes, all of the water is irrigation water from nearby farmlands. Agricultural runoff pollutes these water sources, so you’re better off bringing potable water from home. Also, you may want to avoid this one during the hot summer season. If you do backpack in this area during the summer, keep an eye out for rattlesnakes.

You do not need a permit to camp overnight in the Quincy Wildlife Recreation Area. However, you’ll need a Discover Pass to park at the trailhead.

All-inclusive Backpacking Adventures

6. Ross Lake to Desolation Peak, North Cascades

 Mileage: 32 miles point-to-point | Length: 6 days | Elevation Gain/Loss: 3,300 feet with pack (+ 4,000 ft with day pack)

Most beginner backpackers don’t sign up for a six-day backpacking trip — but hey, you may want to consider it. If you want to spend six days immersed in pristine wilderness, the Ross Lake to Desolation Peak itinerary is a great introduction to North Cascades National Park. This trail takes you along the east bank of Ross Lake, offering campsites with panoramic views of the lake and surrounding mountains. Along the way, you’ll drop your heavy pack and summit Desolation Peak with only a day pack. This destination is unique because it is the site of a historic fire lookout where Jack Kerouac lived in 1956 while writing The Dharma Bums. At the end of your trip, you’ll take a water taxi across Ross Lake back to the trailhead. We don’t want to give away too much, but after six days of hiking, you’ll feel like you’re moving at lightning speed when the taxi starts moving.

Why is it great for a beginner?

This wilderness-intensive trail is a great option for beginners looking to spend almost a week backpacking. (If you think a long-distance thru-hike sounds interesting, a six-day trip is a great launching point!) The elevation gain with a pack is relatively minimal, but you’ll also experience the excitement of summiting a peak in the North Cascades. Plus, as this is a point-to-point hike, you’ll be hiking new ground every day. At the end of your trip, you’ll really feel like you went somewhere. In fact, you’ll end up only a few miles from the Canadian border.

In other areas of the North Cascades, steep terrain, technical glaciers, and rocky terrain deter beginner backpackers. But along the bank of Ross Lake, you’ll experience the same serenity without the necessary technical skills. This trip is long, but it is achievable for backpackers of all ability levels.

logistics and permits

Backcountry permits are required year-round for all backpacking trips in the North Cascades National Park. You can make advanced reservations for the summer season from May 15th through April 15th. After that period, all permits are first-come, first-served. You’ll need to show up at the Marblemount Ranger Station the day before or the day of your trip to arrange and pick up your wilderness permit. If you did not make advance reservations during the allotted time frame, you may need to stay flexible with your itinerary as slots fill up.

To backpack the Ross Lake Trail to Desolation Peak unguided, you need to arrange a water taxi to pick you up on the final day of your trip. Or, if you run the itinerary in reverse, to drop you off on the first day. You can make advanced reservations (required) for the water taxi by calling the Ross Lake Resort or submitting a request on their website.

Guided Trip Options

Wildland Trekking offers a six-day guided Ross Lake – Desolation Peak backpacking trip. You’ll have gear provided, meals cooked, and permits arranged. Plus, you don’t have to worry about organizing a car shuttle! If you’re new to backpacking and want to learn the skills to one day branch out on your own, a guided trip can give you the confidence to hike into the wilderness with only your backpack.

Ross Lake Backpacking Adventures

7. Chain Lakes Loop, Mt. Baker Area

Chain Lakes Loop and Ptarmigan Trail near Mount Baker in Washington

Mileage: 6.5-mile loop | Length: 2 – 3 days | Elevation Gain/Loss: 1,800

Want a secret into one of the best beginner backpacking trips in all of Washington? The Chain Lakes Loop is a stellar day hiking trail with non-stop views. But, stay overnight and you’ll experience this popular trail in solitude. Plus, you’ll have the opportunity to catch sunrise and sunset on Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan. Look out for marmots, pikas, and mountain goats — as most of this trail travels through prime wildlife habitat. Seriously, you can’t beat the diversity and scenery of this loop hike. We’ll continue to rave about it until everyone is tired of listening.

Why is it great for a beginner?

This low-mileage hike is perfect for an overnight. With campsites situated halfway along the loop, you can get a late start and still make it to camp in time for sunset. Plus, you’ll find backcountry vault toilets at Mazama, Iceberg, and Hayes Lakes, making it easy for you to leave no trace.

This trail has just enough challenge to keep it interesting. While the climb up to Herman Saddle will get your blood pumping, the views will distract you with each step.

logistics and permits

You do not need a permit to backpack the Chain Lakes Loop. However, you do need a Northwest Forest Pass or Annual Park Pass to park at the trailhead.

Snow lingers late into the season here, so don’t attempt this hike before mid-July!

About Hannah Singleton

Hannah is a content strategist, writer, and guide for Wildland Trekking Company. She was born and raised on the East Coast but currently resides in Salt Lake City, UT where she spends her time exploring the wonders of the Rocky Mountain West. You can check out more of her freelance writing at www.hannah-singleton.com.

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