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Five truths about shoulder season hiking in the Pacific Northwest
posted by John : September 10, 2017


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Welcome to the PNW


In between summer and winter is autumn. This should come as no surprise. It's known as a "shoulder" season because, uh, actually, I don't know. Let's find out.

The time between high and low season in a travel market, or, if the market is divided into four segments, the time just below high season.

Hmm... Not exactly what I thought. For me, fall is just the time between the warm days of summer (awesome for long backpacking trips) and the cold days of winter (awesome for snowshoe adventures). I don't really think of winter as the "low" season. However, I can see how many hikers might think of summer as the high season and winter as the season when they don't get out as much because they don't ski or snowshoe. (They don't know what they're missing, but more on that in a later post.)

In the Pacific Northwest summer is between July 5 and the middle of September. Winter, the kind of winter that includes freezing temperatures and lowland snow, doesn't start until some time in January. That leaves a big chunk of time when the weather is generally lousy. It's often raining at the trailhead and cold and windy at the summit.

Truth #1: The weather will rarely be good let alone predictable more than a day or two in advance. The only time it seems like the meteorologists nail the forecast is when there's a massive storm getting ready to clobber the PNW.

All that time when the weather is poor turns the trails into wrecks. Mud holes open up and the creeks and rivers run high. Bridges get washed out (or removed) and everything is slippery.

Truth #2: You're going to become intimate with the surface of the trail. If you're lucky you'll only get your hands and knees dirty. If you're like me you'll do a full face-plant.

When the skies aren't blue a lot of other hikers stay home. Even the most crowded trails, like this trip up Granite Mountain just 47 miles outside Seattle, can be as deserted as a true backcountry area. The only people you'll run into are as crazy as you.

Truth #3: You'll get to find solitude on the trail. Big trailhead parking lots will be empty and the wildlife will venture out of their hiding spots to use the trails to more easily travel across the landscape.

Even though you won't encounter "golden hour" light or alpenglow for photos there will be lots of atmospheric shots. There will also be opportunities to appreciate the smaller, more mundane views that are often lost when there's a big volcano on the horizon.

Truth #4: You'll come to appreciate fog and clouds. They soften the light and provide a sense of mystery and drama whether you're taking a picture or just looking down the trail.

Once you've taken the first step onto a muddy trail in the fall you'll find it's a special time to be in the outdoors. Fewer people and a different perspective will make up for the abundance of weather and the conditions of the trails.

Truth #5: Shoulder seasons are great times to hike in the Pacific Northwest.

When you go make sure you're prepared. You'll probably need to carry more gear to stay safe, but that's just good training weight for winter adventures or next summer's epics. For at least the first few times, revisit trails you've hiked in peak season so you can constrast the experience. Then start looking for the places you avoid in summer and claim the shoulder season as your own.

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