NOTE: As you head out on the trail, remember to follow the guidelines by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and state and local governments. For resources on how to #SharetheTrail and #RecreateResponsibly, go to railstotrails.org/COVID-19.
The Evergreen State might be known for its precipitation, but locals know that there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear. Waterproof clothing extends the outdoor season just about year-round in Washington State, where more than 1,000 miles of trails pass through forests and span deep gorges in the west, and cross the wide-open spaces in the arid east. Many trails also serve as alternative transportation hubs in and around major cities.
RELATED: The Great American Rail-Trail Experience: Connections to Our National Scenic and Historic Trails
Here are some of the most popular, in no particular order.
Counties: Adams, Grant, King, Kittitas, Spokane, Whitman
Stretching from the Idaho border in the east to the western slope of the Cascade Range, the Palouse to Cascade State Park Trail crosses two-thirds of the state and is a gateway segment of the developing 3,700-mile Great American Rail-Trail™ connecting Washington State to Washington, D.C. The 285-mile route connects the remote, arid eastern scablands with forested mountains in the west. Along the way, the gravel and dirt trail crosses trestles over dry gulches and cascading streams, and it passes through numerous tunnels, culminating in the 2.3-mile unlit tunnel at Snoqualmie Pass. The route also connects with the Snoqualmie Valley Regional Trail in the west for 32 miles through historic farming communities and past the snapshot-worthy Snoqualmie Falls.
Undoubtedly the busiest in the state, the 19-mile Burke-Gilman Trail serves as the backbone to Seattle’s bicycle network. The Rail-Trail Hall of Fame inductee begins at Golden Gardens Park's sandy beach on the Puget Sound. The paved rail-trail then passes ship-canal locks and visits the eclectic Ballard and Fremont neighborhoods on the way through the University of Washington campus and past parks on its way around the northern tip of Lake Washington to Bothell.
A seamless connection with the 10-mile Sammamish River Trail carries visitors along a peaceful river through Woodinville’s “wine country,” home to more than 100 wineries, many with tasting rooms. The trail hooks up with the East Lake Sammamish Trail in Marymoor Park, then runs alongside its namesake lake for another 11 miles to Issaquah. The entire 44-mile route from Puget Sound to Issaquah—called the Locks-to-Lakes Corridor—will be fully paved by late 2023 and included in the Great American Rail-Trail. Paving and improving the remaining 3.6-mile gravel segment of the East Lake Sammamish Trail will require a closure from May 2021 to fall 2023.
Counties: Clallam, Jefferson
Meandering across the Olympic Peninsula, the Olympic Discovery Trail is the westernmost segment of the Great America Rail-Trail. Ultimately a 135-mile endeavor connecting the Puget Sound to the Pacific Ocean, the completed asphalt and gravel segments currently comprise 90 miles that include tunnels and trestles. The trail connects Victorian-era Port Townsend, grown-up lumber towns like Port Angeles and Forks, and tribal lands at Blyn and La Push. Looming over the frequently forested route, the Olympic National Park provides views of snow-capped mountains as well as hot springs and a spot for a chilly dip in Lake Crescent next to the trail.
Counties: King, Pierce
The Foothills Trail snakes along glacier-fed rivers for 31 miles under the perennially snow-capped peak of Mount Rainier, a 14,410-foot cone-shaped peak classified as an active volcano. The paved trail passes pumpkin farms, farm stands, pastures and small towns for 21 continuous miles from the outskirts of Puyallup to Buckley on the White River. Shorter, unattached segments run through Enumclaw north of the river and uphill toward former coal-mining communities. Yummy bakeries and cafés can be found in Orting, Buckley and Enumclaw, and a trailside coffee-kiosk is a popular stop in South Prairie. Work begins in 2022 to bridge the White River, closing the gap between Buckley and the 2.1-mile Enumclaw segment.
Washington’s 100-year statehood anniversary in 1989 proved a boon to trail construction on both sides of the state. For instance, most of the 37-mile Spokane River Centennial State Park Trail was built between 1989 and 1991. Tracing a crooked route along the Spokane River, the flat eastern half starting at the Idaho border contrasts with the rollicking route past waterfalls and rapids in the gorge to the west. Spokane sits midway, offering trailside opportunities for refreshments as well as rides on 110-years-old-plus Looff Carousel in shady Riverfront Park, home of the 1974 World’s Fair.
At about the same time, the 1991 opening of the Snohomish County Centennial Trail celebrated statehood in western Washington. Today the paved trail runs for 30.5 miles between Snohomish and the historic Nakashima barn trailhead that commemorates the life of an early Japanese farm family. The trail provides connections to Lake Stevens and Arlington with their breweries and cafes, but mostly traverses farms and woodlots west of the Cascades. Snow melt from those mountains fills the north and south forks of the Stillaguamish River that dramatically meet at Haller Park in Arlington.
Counties: Lewis, Pacific
The natural world reveals itself on the 56-mile Willapa Hills State Park Trail in southwestern Washington. Birders flock here to spot bald eagles, hawks and smaller fowl. Five-mile paved segments mark the endpoints in Chehalis, home of the Chehalis-Centralia Railroad and Museum, and South Bend, where oyster lovers relish the bounty of the coastal inlet. In between, the trail consists of gravel, dirt or turf. It passes small farm towns, old lumber camp sites and a surviving old-growth evergreen grove at Rainbow Falls State Park. Many bridges and trestles have been replaced after destruction in the 2007 floods, although much of Pacific County’s western half still is considered unimproved.
Barking harbor seals and herons circling overhead at a wildlife sanctuary can greet visitors to the Chehalis Western Trail at the base of Puget Sound. The 900-acre Woodard Bay Natural Resources Conservation Area marks the northern terminus for the paved trail that rolls for 22 miles through mostly rural environs north and south of Lacey. Trail users can choose side trips to St. Martins University or the state capital in Olympia from the 5-mile Woodland Trail junction in town. The journey can continue from the southern endpoint where it meets the Yelm-Tenino Trail, a 14-mile trail that connects several historic farming communities.
The serpentine route of the Green River Trail sits atop a levee that borders the Green and Duwamish rivers for nearly 20 miles. Running from Cecil Moses Memorial Park in Tukwila just south of Seattle, the corridor rolls through a greenway set amidst light industrial, commercial and residential areas. The route is lined by a passel of parks—such as Fort Dent, the appealingly named Three Friends Fishing Hole and the Green River Natural Resources Area where three viewing towers overlook bird habitat. Occasional waterway maintenance projects may limit trail access. The Green River Trail ends at a 15.8-mile segment of the Interurban Trail South, where trail users can loop north back to Tukwila or head south into Pierce County.
Counties: Chelan, Douglas
Encircling both banks of the mighty Columbia River in Central Washington, the Apple Capital Recreation Loop Trail celebrates the ubiquitous fruit that sustains a multibillion-dollar industry here. The 22-mile asphalt trail runs under open skies from Lincoln Rock State Park (named for Old Abe’s profile in a rocky river bluff) to a trailhead south of Wenatchee. Crossing three bridges, the western loop visits Wenatchee’s manicured parks that feature sculpture gardens, a swimming lagoon, a narrow-gauge railroad and the confluence of the Wenatchee and Columbia rivers. The opposite riverbank in East Wenatchee is a more rugged route.
The Seattle area has two other popular trails worthy of mention. The Interurban Trail North heads through neighborhoods, parks and businesses for 24 miles to Everett. And the Cedar River Trail in King County follows its namesake river upstream for 16 miles out of Renton toward the Cascade foothills, tracing the migrations of bright red sockeye salmon in the fall. A busy highway parallels the asphalt segment, but quiet woodlands surround the gravel segment further east.