Explore Washington’s National Forests

Deer on Sunrise Point Trail

by Craig Romano

From moss-shrouded rainforests shadowed by glacier-cloaked mountains to sun-kissed pine groves adorning golden rolling hillsides, Washington’s six national forests embrace more than 9.2 million acres of some of the state’s most diverse, wildest, and scenic landscapes. Encompassing mountainous lands throughout the state, these forests provide a wide and inexhaustible array of recreational activities. 

Olympic National Forest

Flanking Olympic National Park, Olympic National Forest is comprised of many of the same stunning landscapes—ancient temperate rainforests, craggy summits, sparkling alpine lakes and roaring glacier-fed rivers—as the more popular park. The 633,000-acre national forest however is more accessible and dog-friendly.

Hike in the Quinault Rainforest admiring monstrous conifers that were old when Captain Vancouver explored the region in 1792. Amble through an emerald world of showy ferns and bouquets of epiphytes. Stroll along placid Lake Quinault and raucous creeks. Watch for eagles perched in towering snags, dippers flitting in rapids, and elk grazing in forest openings.

Take to more than 60 miles of trails within the Buckhorn Wilderness in the forest’s northeast corner. Enjoy sunnier and drier conditions than the rest of the Olympic Peninsula thanks to the Olympic Mountain rain shadow. Clamber up Marmot Pass (yes, those whistling whimsical rodents reside here) or 6,242-foot Mount Townsend for stunning views across Puget Sound to Seattle shimmering before a backdrop of glistening snowcapped peaks.

Camp at Seal Rock on the Hood Canal fjord and inspect lively tide pools. At Wynoochee Lake in Olympic’s quiet southern reaches, camp, swim, and boat free from crowds. A hike up Mount Mueller in Olympic’s northern limits rewards with stunning views of Mount Olympus across the Sol Duc Valley and Crescent Lake cradled in a glacially carved valley. And don’t miss Olympic’s dazzling late spring floral showing of Washington’s state flower—the Pacific rhododendron. They’re prolific along the trails and roadways near Hood Canal. Learn more at fs.usda.gov/olympic.

Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest

The sprawling Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest stretches along the west side of the Cascade Mountains from the Canadian Border to Mount Rainier National Park. Embracing a large share of the North Cascades, the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie contains nearly 300 glaciers—more than any national forest outside of Alaska. And much of this 1.7-million-plus-acre forest is within an hour or two drive from the Seattle metropolitan area providing quick outdoors access to millions. 

From Bellingham, drive to mile-high Heather Meadows and Artist Point wedged between bookend glacial-clad Pacific Northwest iconic peaks, Mounts Baker and Shuksan. Photograph resplendent summer wildflowers, sauntering deer and mountain goats, and gorgeous mountain reflections in sparkling alpine lakes.

From Everett follow the Mountain Loop Highway, a 52-mile scenic byway through some of the region’s most rugged and inspiring terrain. Camp along the salmon-spawning Stillaguamish or Sauk rivers. Enjoy a short hike through old growth giants to Lake 22 tucked in a stark stunning cirque—or put your lungs to task ascending 5,700-foot Mount Dickerman for gobsmacking views of dramatic peaks topped by Glacier Peak, Washington’s most remote volcano. Hike to the once bustling mining community of Monte Cristo, now a ghost town of a dozen structures and countless voices in the wind. 

The forest’s Alpine Lakes Wilderness boasts more than 700 lakes ranging from remote tiny sparkling tarns to big, easy-to-reach bodies of water like Lake Dorothy. The Pacific Crest Trail traverses the wilderness for 75 miles from Snoqualmie Pass to Stevens Pass; a popular route among area backpackers. An easier option—and with ADA accessibility—is the Iron Goat Trail near Stevens Pass. Journey back into time tracing the original route of the Great Northern Railroad via tunnels and snowsheds to the site of the worst avalanche disaster in American history. Learn more at fs.usda.gov/mbs.

Gifford Pinchot National Forest

From nearly every corner of this 1.3-plus-million-acre forest you will catch sight of the region’s defining landmarks—lofty snow-shrouded volcanoes. The Gifford Pinchot National Forest is volcano country. Views of Mount Rainier, Mount Adams (Washington’s second highest summit), Mount St Helens, and Oregon’s Mount Hood abound in the Pinchot. The landscape is rife with calderas, craters, lava tube caves (including the Ape Cave, one of the longest in the world), and massive lava beds. The Pinchot is known too for Sasquatch sightings. But Squatch is a tad more elusive than the ubiquitous signs of volcanism.

Visit America’s most famous volcano at the forest’s Mount St Helens National Volcanic Monument. Drive to the Johnston Ridge Observatory within the 1980 blast zone for jaw-slacking views into the active volcano’s crater. Take to more than 200 miles of trails, including the 29-mile Loowit Trail which completely circles St. Helens—or climb to the rim of the hulking volcano itself.

Near White Pass enjoy spectacular views from along US 12 or hit a trail into the sprawling Goat Rocks Wilderness. Centerpiece to this stunning backcountry is a spine of snow-splotched serrated summits—the remnants of an ancient volcano that rivaled Mount Hood. And yes, mountain goats are prolific in this wild country.

Gentler hiking can be found in the forest’s Indian Heaven Wilderness—a high plateau pocked with more than 200 pools and lakes. Mosquitos are prolific in summer, so wait until fall when you can also reap a bounty of berries. Fall is a great time too to head to the Lewis River Valley to camp and picnic near some of showiest waterfalls in Washington’s South Cascades. Learn more at fs.usda.gov/giffordpinchot.

Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest

At 3.2 million acres, the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest is the sixth largest national forest in the country. Okanogan-Wenatchee is immense, covering a large swath of the east slopes of the Cascades from the Canadian border to Yakima County. The expansive forest contains more than 150 developed campgrounds and more than 1,300 miles of trails—many open to mountain bikers, motorcyclists and equestrians. 

Explore the Cle Elum River Valley which once bustled with miners. Now recreationists strike it rich with sublime views and exhilarating outings. Camp near the historic guard house in Salmon La Sac and set out on horseback into the sprawling Alpine Lakes Wilderness. One of the most popular destinations in the 400,000-plus acre wilderness for backpackers is the Enchantment Lakes near Leavenworth. Set in a basin of polished granite ringed with hanging glaciers on towering crags and pinnacles exceeding 9,000 feet—this magical area appears straight out of California’s High Sierras.

An easier objective nearby is the Icicle Creek Loop Trail. Enjoy towering pines and soothing rapids along this family-friendly nature trail. Then spend the night in one of the Icicle Creek Valley’s fine developed campgrounds. Northwest of Leavenworth drive through the Tumwater Canyon and be mesmerized by rafters braving the Wenatchee River’s frothy whitewater rapids. At nearby big, beautiful Lake Wenatchee go for a swim or paddle and spend the night at one of the region’s excellent campgrounds. 

A couple valleys north lies fjord-like Lake Chelan extending 50 miles. The national forest offers several boat-in only campsites along its shores as well miles of trails heading along and above the sprawling slender lake. Farther north in the Methow River Valley let loose on one of the largest mountain biking trail networks in the country. Pedal through mellow meadows, along open hillsides, or up high, challenging mountains. For an adventurous drive on the highest public road in Washington, follow the narrow and gravel Harts Pass Road to just shy of the 7,440-foot summit of Slate Peak. Camp in meadows near the pass and hike to Slate Peak’s fire lookout tower for an absolutely jaw-dropping view into some of the wildest county in America. Learn more at fs.usda.gov/okawen.

Colville National Forest

The 1.1-million-acre Colville National Forest stretches across the Kettle River and Selkirk Mountain ranges of Northeastern Washington. As a transitional area between the Cascades and Rocky Mountains, this sparsely populated region is Washington’s last great place—it’s big empty—a region more reminiscent of Montana than Washington. The Colville teems with wildlife, especially mega-fauna. It’s home to wolves, moose, bighorn sheep, a handful of grizzlies, and the largest population of lynx in the Lower 48.

Choose from the forest’s nearly 200 miles of trails for excellent opportunities to see these wild denizens. But if it’s horizon-spanning views of open country you seek, consider a hike along a section of the 44-mile Kettle Crest National Recreation Trail, or a stint on the 23-mile Shedroof Divide Trail in the forest’s Salmo-Priest Wilderness.

Summers can be hot, but perfect for visiting Sullivan Lake. Swim or paddle in the large undeveloped lake before setting up camp for the night. Autumn colors are spectacular throughout the Colville thanks to large swaths of larches, cottonwoods and aspens. Savor autumn’s colorful artistry on a leisurely drive along the 35-mile Sherman Pass Scenic Byway over 5,575-foot Sherman Pass, Washington’s highest highway pass. Learn more at fs.usda.gov/colville.

Umatilla National Forest

To really get away from it all, head to the 1.4-million-acre Umatilla National Forest encompassing a large portion of the Blue Mountains in both Oregon and Washington. About 300,000 acres of the forest is in Southeastern Washington in the state’s least populated counties offering some of the loneliest country in the state to explore, hike and camp.

The Blue Mountains consist of broad forested mesa-like peaks and ridges separated by deep canyons cradling churning rivers coveted by anglers. Good trails and forest service roads traverse the region leading to excellent fishing, camping, and hunting spots. The area is busiest in fall when hunters flock to the backcountry lured by the Umatilla’s large Rocky Mountain elk population.

Hike or horseback ride on the Mount Misery Trail across the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness. It follows a historic route to the Nez Perce peoples’ ancestral hunting and horse racing grounds. It’s a long and scenic drive via the Kendall Skyline Road to the short and scenic hike to the Oregon Butte fire lookout. From this highest summit in Washington’s Blues savor the horizon, spanning views into Oregon and Idaho. Learn more at fs.usda.gov/umatilla.

Lodging Near Washington’s National Forests (NF)

Olympic NF (west): Lake Quinault Lodge, Lake Quinault

Olympic NF (east): Port Ludlow Resort, Port Ludlow

Mount Baker-Snoqualmie NF (north): Hotel Leo, Bellingham

Mount Baker-Snoqualmie NF (south): Tulalip Resort Casino, Tulalip

Gifford Pinchot NF (north): Cowlitz River Lodge, Packwood, 

Gifford Pinchot NF (south): McMenamins Kalama Harbor Lodge, Kalama

Okanogan-Wenatchee NF (north): Sleeping Lady Mountain Resort, Leavenworth, 

Okanogan-Wenatchee NF (south): Suncadia Resort, Cle Elum

Colville NF: Comfort Inn, Colville

Umatilla NF: The Weinhard Hotel, Dayton