I've been to the East, I've been to the West, I've been to Lopez Island: getting outside

Spring can be a chancy season for getting outside in the Pacific Northwest. Is it early summer, or late spring, or a lingering winter? In the last few weeks we've had days in the mid 70's and days in the low 50's. The scene in Seattle and in the Cascade foothills can surprise with some beautiful days, but that camping trip you got inspired to plan last weekend might just as easily encounter a grey, damp, and gloomy next weekend. Many campgrounds are still closed, and in some seasons a few mountain passes (highway 20, highway 410) aren't yet open. But you've been cooped up inside for a few weeks and could use a dose of the outdoors. If you can handle a little ambiguity in the weather, and are up for a little bit of driving, it's a great time to get out of the city and into the outside. Here are a few ideas for getting out in the PNW springtime.

The Sun Rises in the East

Cliff Mass, a PNW meteorologist and blogger, offers this springtime advice: get thee to the east! A short drive over the Cascades will often yield warmer temperatures, better weather, and a landscape in full bloom. I've been following his advice this spring, helped along by attending orienteering events east of the Cascade crest. As early as February I started trekking east to where the Sun rises a little earlier.

Crab Creek sunrise

One weekend I camped in the dispersed camping of the Crab Creek Wildlife Area, just across the Columbia River, and in the Ancient Lakes area near Quincy, Washington. Yes, the night-time temps were a little cool, but the sun rose early and beautifully, and by mid-day everything was bright and comfortable. Both areas were basically deserted except for the other folks out for orienteering. Both areas required a Discover Pass, but otherwise had no fees for camping.

Ancient Lakes sunrise

In February the wildflowers weren't yet in bloom, but the ground was covered with new green grass -- a beautiful but brief stage in the normally crispy brown desert east.

Wild Horses Monument, overlooking the Columbia River

I returned to the east side in May, for more orienteering and a little opportunistic mushrooming. This time I went just over the crest, to the Teanaway Valley near Cle Elum, Washington. The pine forest was in full bloom, with wildflowers everywhere and lush green grasses growing thick among the trees. I camped in the primitive, dispersed camping of the Teanaway Community Forest. Reservations? Not necessary -- plenty of room! Cost? Nothing, other than the required Discover Pass.

Between orienteering meets I took my family out for a bit of mushrooming up at Blewett Pass, where a large forest fire and passed through some three years ago. We got into a few mushrooms after a long stroll through the woods. What we didn't see was anybody else. We felt like we had the forest to ourselves.

We ventured east again a couple of weekends ago, exploring the Mountain Loop Highway up almost to the Cascade crest. We stopped just shy of Diablo Lake to hike into an area burned by a small forest fire last year. Though the area gets crushed with RVs and campers in the summer, we found nearly deserted roads, empty parking lots, and a fair number of morels.

Island Time

If you want to drive to the San Juan Islands during the summer be prepared for a marathon of waiting: waiting behind RVs on the road to Anacortes, waiting for hours to get a spot on one of the ferries, waiting to get into any of the small cafes, restaurants, and bars, or to find a parking spot at a beach or trailhead. You get the drift -- the islands are a super popular destination in the summer. But in the spring? I drove up to Lopez Island for a couple of excursions this spring -- no reservations, no crowds, no waiting. And did you know Lopez is in the rain shadow of the Olympic range? It has some 50 more days of sunshine a year than the Seattle area, and considerably less rainfall annually. Like 16 inches less a year, on average. You can drown in only a few inches of water, so for your personal safety, and to increase your chances of hitting a good-weather day, head for the islands.

The ferry arrives at Lopez Island.

Lopez has got natural beauty galore, but it's also got a quirky island dump. I mean the dump, yes the garbage dump. It features a "Take It or Leave It" area, offering the free exchange of discarded goods to its visitors. On a Saturday afternoon, when it's open, it's a great spot to drop in and look for fun stuff. Like maybe that VHS cassette rewinder you've been needing, or an ornate horse, or a retro motorcycle helmet -- all there for the taking (or the leaving).

But of course you're not on the island for the rummaging. Unless maybe for beachcombing. A hike up Chadwick Hill will reveal not only the rocky, mossy bones of the island but also incredible views of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the northern tip of the Olympic Peninsula.

OCD beachcombing.
Ancient helicopter pad?

The view from Chadwick Hill, Lopez Island

Lopez is just one of the island destinations you could take advantage of in spring. Camano Island? Reduced cabin rental rates during the winter and before May 1. Orcas, San Juan, Whidbey -- all have their attractions, and you won't get jostled getting to any of them. And of course there are other islands upon which the Pacific waters lap. If the grey skies of a PNW spring have you down, there are more temperate places to which you can flee. I'll just leave this one right here...

The Sun Sets in the West

It might seem counterintuitive to head for the PNW beach in the early spring. It's not far -- a few hours of driving will get you to the Pacific from the Seattle area. But the water is cold, the wind is cold, and the sky is often cloudy. In spite of all this the coast makes for some great springtime outings, and you can get surprised by moments of beautiful weather while you're there. What you won't contend with are huge crowds of people***.

***if you go razor clamming on an early spring weekend, be prepared to contend with huge crowds of people.

I made my way to the coast a couple of times this spring. The camping was easy, the clams were plentiful, and the kites were first rate! And the sunsets alone are worth the drive.

Summer is just around the corner, and the seasonal rush to the great outdoors is about to start in earnest. If you find yourself feeling a little crowded out there this summer, think about getting out a little earlier, and maybe a little further afield, next spring. You'll find cheap(er) or free spots to stay, far fewer people, and a reasonable chance of markedly better weather than the daily Puget Sound fare.


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