It may be cold and wet. But the outdoors are still pretty great.
“Winter is one of my favorite times to hike because the ticks, poison oak and rattlesnakes are mostly asleep,” said Renée Tkach, a project manager with the nonprofit Friends of the Columbia Gorge.
The views are different in winter. The beauty is starker and stranger. Winter gives you a stronger sense of nature’s sublime and forbidding power. Not to mention frosty toes.
Chill, mud and glop may simply be the price of admission to winter hiking in the Pacific Northwest, admitted Meryl Lassen, Washington State Parks spokeswoman. But there are commonsense ways to face down or rise above all that, Lassen and other local hiking experts said, as well as farther-flung, sunnier sites to explore that only require a day trip.
Cautions and clothes
Winter is the crucial time to exercise caution and care with every step — beginning before you’ve even left by checking weather forecasts and taking them seriously. Plug the nearest town to your hike site into the National Weather Service website (weather.gov) to check conditions.
“Call the park,” Lassen said. “Look at trail reports.”
Triple-layering is one key to happiness when facing serious cold. Experts recommend a base layer that wicks away moisture (like polyester long underwear); an insulation layer that holds in body warmth (shirt, sweater, jacket); and an outer shell that keeps out the wind and cold (winter coat).
Cover as much of your skin as possible. Don’t skimp on gloves, a hat, a scarf, even earmuffs. You may not retain all this stuff throughout your hike and stopping to rearrange it may be a pain — but when the frigid wind blows, you’ll be glad to bundle up again. Avoid cotton, especially for your base layer, because it retains moisture and gets cold, heavy and uncomfortable. Wet cotton against the skin can lead to hypothermia.
“A thermos of hot cocoa or tea and something waterproof/insulated to sit on along the trail can go a long way,” added Jessica Becker, the Clark County author of several guidebooks on hiking with kids. If you are hiking with kids in winter, Becker said, manage your expectations about just how far they’ll make it.
Honor your feet
Honor your feet by wearing sturdy hiking boots — waterproof ones if possible — and well-fitting socks that keep your feet dry. Bring at least one change of socks. If you’re expecting to traverse mud or snow, consider gaiters.
What are gaiters? They’re calf-and-ankle jackets. They wrap around your legs or strap onto your boots to keep snow and debris out. Some hikers swear by them throughout the year, not just in winter, for an added layer of foot protection.
If you’re hiking in snow and ice, Lassen said, also consider adding handy traction devices to your footwear. The complicated, heavy-duty gizmos that mountaineers call crampons are available to humbler hikers in simpler form: strap-on microspikes like the brand Yaktrax, which function like tire chains for your shoes. They will add stability and certainty to any icy adventures. (Yaktrax start at about $25 at REI.)
Now that we’re all suited up, where to go? The closer to home, the wetter you’ll stay.
“I say go east,” Lassen said. “The whole area east of White Salmon and Hood River, the eastern Gorge — there’s so much out there. If you love big skies and open vistas, that’s your spot.”
The eastern Gorge “should get you some much-need wintertime sunshine,” Becker added.
It will likely be cold and windy. It will also likely be dry and uncrowded, Lassen said. Most of the following site suggestions keep to the Washington side of the Columbia Gorge — because that’s the south-facing, sunnier side.
Hikers up for a moderate challenge should explore Coyote Wall, which offers a network of complex, zigzagging, often-steep trails about 80 minutes from Vancouver on state Highway 14. For easier strolling, continue east another 20 minutes to Columbia Hills State Park, a gracefully rolling wonderland that offers cosmically vast views if you start from the upper Dallas Mountain Ranch Trailhead (a few miles uphill on a scenic, rocky road).
You can also approach Columbia Hills from the convenient Crawford Oaks Trailhead on state Highway 14. Across the road is the compact Horsethief Butte site. (Camping at exceptionally windy Horsethief Lake is closed during the winter.)
Midway between Coyote Wall and Columbia Hills is the town of Lyle, where side-by-side trails offer two versions of delightful scenery and winter birding. The out-and-back Klickitat Trail starts paved but turns to gravel as it heads north into Klickitat Canyon, where you might just spot the year’s earliest wildflowers. At 31 miles, you’re not likely to run out of trail. Mountain bikes are welcome.
The quick-and-easy version is right across the Klickitat River: the Balfour-Klickitat Loop, which is paved, three-quarters of a mile long and beloved of birders year-round. The best eagle-viewing in the area is right here, Tkach said.
If you do go as far as Columbia Hills, it’s only 20 minutes farther to the oddball Stonehenge replica beyond the Maryhill Museum (closed in winter) and the Highway 97 bridge. Enjoy the majestic view and test the wind from this unique outcropping. One nice end to a Washington-side day trip could be visiting Stonehenge, hopping over to Oregon and zooming home on Interstate 84 after a stop in The Dalles for dinner.
Tkach said that’s her favorite way to approach winter hiking — pairing outdoor adventures with warmer indoor ones.
Or stay in Washington and meander back to the town of Bingen for a relaxing soak — or an overnight — at the Society Hotel, a historic schoolhouse that’s been remodeled with guest rooms, multitub spa (appointments required), library, cafe and bar. Luxurious yet rustic Skamania Lodge also offers an indoor pool and an outdoor hot tub — with a great view — that’s open in winter.
Sounds warm, doesn’t it? Trails in the Yacolt Burn State Forest “are usually snow free and a good bet for getting out of town but staying close to town,” Becker said. She recommends the Tarbell and Bells Mountain trails. The Washington Trails Association recently added a new 2.5-mile Sword Fern Trail that loops beside Bells Mountain, near Moulton Falls Regional Park.
Get to the Yacolt Burn State Forest in northeast Clark County by taking Lucia Falls Road to Dole Valley Road or Rawson Road to the unpaved L-1000 Road. Be aware that, deep in this soggy forest, road and trail conditions may be unpredictable.
Wet at home
If you’re such a hardy Pacific Northwesterner that getting wet just doesn’t faze you, Becker recommends the waterfall hikes on the Oregon side of the western Gorge. Local waterfalls are impressively full and flowing in winter. Some waterfall trail networks are paved, like Starvation Creek with access to several different falls, as well as the switchback trail to the top of Multnomah Falls. Others sneak into the hills and grow unpredictably muddy.
With poles and microspikes — and clear weather — you might try the steep, snowy challenge of the strenuous Pool of Winds/Hamilton Mountain climb at Beacon Rock State Park (about 40 minutes from Vancouver), Lassen said.
“The falls are full, and the views are very dramatic in winter,” she said.
You can also make less effort — and burn less gas — and still enjoy the great outdoors right here in Clark County, Becker said.
“Local wildlife refuges are a great place to see wintering birds,” she said. “Most of them have gravel or dirt trails, so mud is minimized. The new trails at Steigerwald are fabulous.”
That’s the Steigerwald National Wildlife Refuge, at the east end of Washougal, where recent landscape revisions have let in more of the Columbia River, attracting more birds and wildlife. Winter wind can be punishing at Steigerwald, so bring a strong outer shell.
Less windy is the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, where swans and herons reign supreme. North of downtown, the Oaks-to-Wetlands loop trail is a 1.8-mile hike through regenerating forests and alongside ponds that teem with waterfowl in winter. South of downtown, the River “S” Unit drive-thru loop is a nice way to go birding from the comfort of your car and includes a couple of short walks to actual bird blinds.
Now is a great time to visit, Becker says. Bring binoculars.