Hiking in Washington vs. Connecticut: the Northwest is superior in every way | A Yankee in Wonderland

Millions of people enjoy hiking in the Northeast. The famous Appalachian Trail goes through five of the six New England states, and Appalachian Mountain Club is the oldest and largest club of its kind in the U.S.

There are over 1200 miles of trails in the White Mountains National Forest (USFS). The first long distance trail in the U.S., the Appalachian Trail, has 732 miles of its total 2,190 miles in New England (Appalachian Trail Conservancy). While the elevation of the summits may not be impressive – there is only one northeastern peak higher than 6,000 feet, while Washington has many – the trailheads are lower, too, so the hikes are often equally challenging. There are trails that go up to the mountaintops, and trails along whitewater rivers. The scenery can be breathtaking.

But the rewards are minor league when compared with Washington.

On a typical Northeast hike to a mountaintop, you travel uphill through dense forest for a couple of hours to reach a summit with views in one or two directions. Many mountaintops are completely forested. On a few, very popular summits there are unobstructed views in all directions. Some of those destinations are also accessible by car, or chairlift or even by train. Don’t expect solitude. I once stood in line for an opportunity to take a picture on the summit of Mount Washington, the highest peak in the area.

If you hiked all day in New England, and reached a spot with vistas like you have from the parking lot at the Sunrise or Paradise areas of Mount Rainier National Park, you would be very pleased. Thrilled, even. And those are just the parking lots!

The annual flower shows in the meadows of our nearby national park are famous – deservedly so. I was amazed when I first saw the carpets of wildflowers. I am still thrilled by hiking along those trails. There are some subalpine meadows in New England, too. The total is about 7.5 square miles (USFS). Getting to the trailheads for these meadows used to involve as much as a 6 and a half hour drive. Mount Rainier National Park has about 85 square miles of subalpine parkland. It takes a lot less than 6 hours to get there.

Before moving here, I had done some hiking in Washington when we visited the Northwest. Most of those hikes were in the Issaquah Alps, or the trails accessed from Interstate 90. I told friends in Connecticut that the hiking was fantastic. I also noted that most of the other hikers whom I encountered barely said hello, and often avoided eye contact. This was not at all my experience in New England.

“Ah. The Seattle freeze,” my daughter explained. “Don’t take it personally.”

Interested in this, I tried an internet search. There were more articles than I wanted to read, but most people agree that it is a real characteristic of the Seattle area. Seattlites would rather not interact with others in a casual encounter. But it is different around Enumclaw. People in the National Park, or on the trails around Greenwater, are happy to have short visits with other people. Hikers on our local Mount Peak couldn’t be much more friendly. I have had warm conversations of varying lengths on countless occasions with complete strangers. They mostly think the Seattle Freeze is real, but it doesn’t reach this far.

If you hike in the Northeast, you will need to be on the lookout for ticks. They are common. They are sneaky. They are disgusting. Every hike ends with a tick check, to see if any have snuck onto you, stuck onto you, or have even started to bury their head into your skin. You have probably heard of Lyme disease. It is named for a town in Connecticut. Ticks used to be a real concern for us when we lived in Connecticut, but we have only encountered one tick in our many hours on the trails in Washington.

Also in New England, you have poison ivy! Poison ivy is really common in Connecticut. The vines climb up trees, and they spread over the ground. People vary in their sensitivity to touching it. Some may get away with a mild, itchy rash. For others, it can lead to real misery. Hikers learn to watch out for it.

There is a closely related species — poison oak — here on the West Coast. We have seen a lot of it in California, but we haven’t seen it in Washington.

Not convinced that Washington hiking is superior? Have you heard about blackflies? These gnat sized, blood-thirsty insects will swarm around New England hikers by the hundreds in late spring and early summer. Their bite will leave an itchy red welt behind. I once found refuge standing in a stinky outhouse when a blackfly swarm drove me crazy.

The only way to keep them away is to keep moving. That sure makes your time in the woods less enjoyable. I met a New Hampshire couple who happily endured the bitterly cold winter, but, to escape the blackflies they would leave the state on Mother’s Day, and not return until Father’s Day.

For sure, there are times when some trails around here seem like mosquito parties, but mosquitoes can be kept away by chemical repellents. Blackflies don’t seem to care about that.

Ultimately, though, blackflies and poison ivy are annoying, and no one is going to need to be rescued by them.

But there are other dangers in hiking in any area. Some hikers get lost; some slip and fall, twist a knee or ankle, or break a bone and be unable to walk. Luckily, there are volunteers and professionals on call who will find and assist these people.

They do this year after year. Even though I have never needed to be rescued, I am thankful for the presence of the volunteers who do extend themselves to rescue others.

There have been enough rescues of knuckleheads in New Hampshire that rangers have begun to charge people fines for recklessly endangering rescue crews. According to The Appalachian Mountain Club, New Hampshire Fish and Game reports an average of about 190 rescues annually, costing over $300,000.

NHFG says the “vast majority” of those rescues are for people who were not prepared for the conditions. About 17 times a year, for flagrantly negligent cases, people have been sent bills for the rescue. In a September 2022 case (Boston.com), two young men who climbed up a cliff in sneakers learned that climbing down is much harder than climbing up. They called 911 for rescue, ended up paying fines of about $250 each.

Of course, it’s the lucky ones that get rescued, maybe because their injuries or incidents were on easier trails. For more difficult hikes, like climbing Mount Rainier, the risks are far more substantial — according to the National Park Service, only three people were successfully rescued (and one died later) out of 11 incidents since 2020.

But there’s little to worry about on the excellent hikes around Enumclaw and I think some local hiking spots must have been named by people who felt the same way I feel. We have no Deception Pass, no Cape Disappointment; we have Paradise Valley, Suntop Mountain, Summerland, and the Wonderland Trail.

When we have visitors from New England, we always bring them for a hike. Some visitors want an easy hike. Some want a serious hike. Most want something in between. For easy hikes, we bring them to Federation Forest State Park, or the Carbon River Road. They are impressed with the huge trees, the amount of moss, and views of river valleys that scour out a wide treeless area.

For a somewhat harder and more rewarding hike, we like to go just past Greenwater to find the Greenwater Lakes Trail. The lakes, the rushing river, and the United States Forest Service bridges are highlights along this scenic, moderate trail.

For more serious hikers, we like to bring them to Dege Peak, which is accessed from the Sunrise area in MRNP. A hike from Chinook Pass to Dewey Lake will provide a variety of views, and a partial loop hike.

And if we have visitors who want more challenging hikes than that, I’ll bring them to Burroughs Mountain or Skyscraper Peak, both of which are accessed from the Sunrise area.

If you’ve lived here all your life, you may not recognize how amazing Washington’s nature scene is, or how wonderful its hiking opportunities are. But coming from the Northeast, I can tell you, Washingtonians have it made.