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Warm weather, low snowpack kicks off early hiking season on some mountain trails

Hikers have been flocking to mountain trails that are melting out earlier than usual because of unseasonably warm weather and a low snowpack in the North Cascades and the rest of the state.

“Conditions are more like mid- to late June,” said Magenta Widner, ranger for Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

That’s also the case for conditions at North Cascades National Park.

“We’ve definitely been seeing that. It’s interesting. None of us can recall having seen no snow (this time of the year) in some of these places,” said Rosemary Seifried, supervisor of the Wilderness Center for North Cascades National Park.

Visitors who usually stop in at the Glacier Public Service Center off Mount Baker Highway to ask where to go to snowshoe and cross-country ski are instead seeking other options.

“Now, they’re coming in and looking for places to hike,” Widner said.

Washington Trails Association also noted an early start to the hiking season on its website, where hikers have been posting trip reports and photos including similar views from the Mount Ellinor Trail in the Olympics showing a snow-covered scene from April 26, 2014, contrasted with a March 9 shot showing bare ground.

Seifried, who went on patrol earlier this month to Fourth of July Camp, was struck by the snow-free site, which is at 3,400 feet.

“It’s fascinating. It’s a little alarming,” Seifried said.

Still, hikers shouldn’t be fooled by the recent sunny, warm weather and the lack of snow on trails at lower elevations.

“Even though the snowpack is like June, it’s not summer,” Widner said, explaining that trails are not yet fully melted out.

So while hikers may be able to access trailheads and trails that they usually can’t get to until June, that doesn’t mean they can get to the end without encountering snow and having to use route-finding skills.

“Once you get to the tree line or above the tree line, you’re in snow,” Widner said.

And while spring started Friday, March 20, experienced hikers know that doesn’t mean more snow won’t fall any more — no matter how unusually warm the weather has been this year.

“We might still get some more fresh snow,” Seifried said.

Hikers itching to get out are cautioned to check weather and trail conditions before going. They also should keep in mind other limitations of early season hikes that include:

• Forestry and park crews haven’t yet gotten out to assess or fix winter damage, so expect, for example, to find downed trees across trails. “There’s going to be a few more trees down than there would be later in the summer,” Widner said.



• Additional crews haven’t been brought in yet for other tasks, and likely won’t sooner than usual because of tight budgets. So while trailhead toilets may be open, that doesn’t mean they’ll have toilet paper in them or that they’re being emptied at this point. Ditto for trash service, so take yours home with you.



• Roads haven’t fully opened. Washington state Department of Transportation crews have started to clear

North Cascades Highway

for vehicle traffic, but its opening is still a few weeks away. And crews won’t go out until May to evaluate snow depth and conditions as part of the work to clear the last 2.7 miles of Mount Baker Highway up to Artist Point. When you’re planning your trip, make sure the roads have been reopened.



• There’s still snow at elevations of 4,000 feet and above so be prepared. And icy conditions as well as hard snow have been reported, so make sure you have something for traction like crampons.



• The weather can change rapidly during spring, so plan for that. Be careful when crossing water because melting snow and heavy rain can make stream levels rise quickly,

WTA warned

.



• 

Black bears

are stirring earlier than usual because of the warm weather, according to the

Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife

. They’ll be hungry and looking for easy sources of food. To prevent conflict with bears, campers should clean all cooking utensils after use and seal uneaten food in airtight containers that are stored in bear-proof canisters. Keep those canisters away from sleeping areas.



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