Not far above the highest of Mount Ellinor’s three trailheads, hikers reach a fork in one of Olympic National Forest’s most popular trails.
The summer route veers left. The winter and early spring scrambling route goes right.
Here hikers ignore their calendars. It might be the first few days of spring, but the summer route is already in July shape.
In fact, signs posted at the trailheads since Feb. 10 warn: “Due to lack of snow, the winter route may be unsafe as a result of rock fall.”
Just before the fork, Sonia Wolfman and her brother, Aaron, worked their way up the trail on the morning of March 13.
Sonia Wolfman is an outdoors enthusiast who in March usually skis or looks for a winter scramble. This year she’s one of numerous Western Washington outdoors lovers making the most of the early arrival of spring and summer hiking conditions.
Two weeks before Mount Ellinor, she was on top of 4,510-foot Colonel Bob Peak in the Olympics, where there was about half an inch of snow.
“Normally, this time of year, you couldn’t get there without going through a couple feet of snow,” Wolfman said. “So that’s a positive. You can access terrain you wouldn’t normally without all the snow gear. But the con is it is kind of disconcerting to have such a low snow year.”
In February, on a flight from California, she peeked out the window to see Mount St. Helens, where she typically takes part in the Mother’s Day climb and ski celebration.
“You could tell the snowline was about 1,000 feet above where we normally camp,” Wolfman said.
Sara Weeks and Josh Brinkerhoff of Nashville, Tennessee, climbed St. Helens on March 8, and said it “pretty much blows away Tennessee hiking.” But they said there was less snow than they expected, even though they did use crampons and ice axes much of the hike.
They’d hoped to ski and spend more time in the snow during their visit to Washington. Weeks said the last time they saw it snow was the day they left Nashville.
“But it’s been a great trip,” Weeks said.
Luke Wakefield of the Mount St. Helens Institute says skiing is OK above 6,000 feet on the volcano, but he expects conditions to continue to deteriorate before the May 10 Mother’s Day celebration. Skiers and snowboarders traditionally climb the volcano and ski down while wearing dresses on Mother’s Day.
Last year, so many people turned out Wakefield said the roads and mountain were overcrowded. Starting this year, to improve safety, climbing permits will be limited to 500 per day between April 1-May 15.
Traditionally, permits were limited to 100 per day between May 16-Oct. 31 but unlimited the rest of the year.
While the melting snow might keep skiers away in May, the new 500-climber cap might still be a factor as climbers are lured to the mountain looking for an early start. Some hikers prefer climbing the mountain on snow rather than scrambling over boulders and slogging through ash.
The road to Climbers Bivouac, the trailhead for the popular Monitor Ridge Route, typically doesn’t open until late June or early July but it is already free of snow, Wakefield said. The U.S. Forest Service has not announced an opening day for the road, but Wakefield said he won’t be surprised if it opens in early May.
While the shortage of snow around the Northwest lures more people to the forests and mountains, government land managers aren’t necessarily ready.
Kelly Sprute of Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest says the Forest Service is now hiring seasonal employees who typically start in May. Some are being asked to start sooner, but the Forest Service won’t be staffed at summer levels.
Julie Okita at the Enumclaw Office of the Snoqualmie Ranger District said visitors should plan ahead.
“We don’t have the staff right now to keep up with all the trailheads,” she said
This means there may not be trailhead trash cans, toilets and, she said, visitors should be prepared to haul out their own trash. Okita also suggests purchasing your pass before heading out because the trailhead kiosks may be empty.
The staff shortage means some trails may not be cleared of debris such as downed trees, said Gary Paull, wilderness and trails program coordinator for Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. And without snow protecting the trails, hikers should expect erosion in some areas.
When traveling on forest roads, Paull also recommends extra food, clothes and a sleeping bag in your car. If a tree falls and blocks your way out, it could take some time for forest workers to respond.
Okita said she doesn’t recall a winter like this year’s and she’s not alone. Peggy Dressler of Olympic National Forest said “the amount of cars is much more than we usually see this time of year. It’s incredible.”
From the top of Mount Ellinor, with a view of barely snowcapped peaks in Olympic National Park, chilly gusts of wind deliver a gentle reminder: It’s not summer, despite the lack of snow.
“It is still winter,” Sprute said a few days before spring’s official arrival. “And this is still the Northwest, where a dry day can turn into a wet day pretty quickly.”
Sprute recommends hikers dress in layers and carry the 10 essentials, recommended year-round.
Paull said hikers should still be prepared for snow and carry a traction device such as crampons or Microspikes. “It’s pretty easy to come around the corner from a southern exposure with no snow to a northern exposure with some snow that is super hard,” said Paull, who’s says he’s still healing up from a tumble on a patch of icy snow. “It might look like an innocent patch of snow but it can be real slippery.”
And be prepared for high water in the rivers. Paull said a group near the Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie River got stranded in January and had to spend two extra nights.
“Conditions are great for hiking right now,” Sprute said, “but it’s always best to prepare for the worst.”