This content was last updated on 2023 June 13th

When to hike the PCT in Washington

For people who just want to know my prediction for when they can leave snow equiptment at home: I think July 4th 2023 as a conservative estimate (some sections will dry out sooner). The only possible exception to that is Section H, specifically Indian Heaven and Mt Adams might require another week.

Preparing

It is impossible to guarantee that you will not encounter snow on the PCT at any time. This information is meant to be a good resource for predicting trail conditions, but you are responsible for your own choices and your own safety.

If I'm going to leave any snow equiptment at home, first it will be traction devices, not arrest devices. If you have traction but no arrest, you are betting your life that you will not fall. If you have arrest but no traction, then you are planning to fall.

When hiking a trail that is mostly snow-free but has some snow covered slopes to cross, I think the Black Diamond Carbon Whippet is the perfect arrest tool to carry, as opposed to an ice axe. I love this because its a dual-funtion tool that you are more likley to have in your hand when you need it.

In case you encounter unexpected snow and have only trekking poles, it's a good idea to learn and practice self-arrest using a trekking pole. It's not nearly as effective as an ice axe or whippet, but a good skill to have as a back-up.

Spring

Most people avoid backpacking during the spring snow melt for many reasons; because the compact snow on the trail can be wet, slippery, and icy, because melting snow makes the trail and campsites muddy, because melting snow makes the streams high and crossings more difficult, because dangerous snow bridges are created by the melt, and because they do not want to carry microspikes, ice axes, or other snow gear. So I wrote this for people trying to determine when they can safely begin a hike without an ice axe. All the information here pertains only to the PCT within Washington state.

DISTRIBUTION. The generalizations made here assume a fairly even distribution of snow from north to south across the crest. This year the snow distribution was uneven. That fact presents a caveat to the usual rules about elevation. Of course the snow always melts off southern slopes first, northern slopes last, exposed areas first, tree covered areas last. Every section of the PCT has a mix of those features so the main differentiator is elevation.

ELEVATION. Typically the snow melts off the lower sections of the PCT before the higher ones. Overall, the average elevation of the PCT increases as you move from south to north, with the exception of Old Snowy Mountain which is the highest point on the PCT. So with that one exception, you can usually assume the southernmost section is the first to be snow free and the northernmost section is the last. There is a small part of the PCT on Old Snowy Mountain that never melts (yet), but there is also a short alternate route there that does.

2023: The winter of the upside down
This has been an unusual winter because the typical north->south trends mentioned above were reversed and played out as south->north trends. That was true within Washington state and also on a larger scale from Alaska to California. Record deep snowfall started only 8 miles from the Mexico border and spanned the Sierra, while Canada saw record shallow snowfall and a fire season that started on May 2nd and resulted in hundreds of wild fires by the end of May. In Washington the deepest snow is always found near Mt Baker and the North Cascades National Park, but not this year. This year the southern part of the WA Cascades, from PCT mile 2200 to 2251 (Muddy Fork River) was buried under the deepest snow and still has not melted out as of mid June. Meanwhile, the northernmost section had below average snowfall and is just days away from being snow free.

Snow melt 2023 - The date the snow sensor first read zero inches of snow, in order from north to south:

Planning

If you need to plan firm dates for backpacking months in advance, you can compare the current snow pack to that of previous years using the charts from a few key weather stations near the PCT. However, by looking at the graphs you can see how 2022 was a good example of why its folly to predict snow melt until after May 1st.

For example, 2022 was only slightly above average until about April 5th. Up to that time it looked like Harts Pass would melt out by about June 29th. But after April 5th the snow kept falling and 2022 ended up being much deeper than average. By June 18th the depth was closer to the historical maximum than to the average. The trail did not clear until July 28th. So anyone making plans earlier than April was off by a month. I think the below data is not valuable for forecasting trail conditions until you have data up to May 1st.

ZERO DAY
I do not pay any attention to trail conditions until "zero day" when both the Harts Pass and Green Valley snow depth sensors indicate no snow. Those are the two highest weather stations near the PCT. Both are in full sun all day. Typically three weeks after zero day the entire PCT is snow-free enough to hike without any snow equipment. After zero day I start reading trip reports on WTA.org, watching social media posts in hiking groups, and day hiking the PCT to see trail conditions for myself.

For example, in 2022 two weeks after zero day, no part of the PCT in Washington was free of lengths of snow worthy of snow equipment for steep slopes. It took that 3rd week after zero day to safely leave the snow equipment behind.

The Harts Pass sensor first read zero inches of snow on:

Fall

Personally, I do not worry about getting less than 1" of snow overnight when I am camping, but I'd really like to avoid any more than that if I do not have snow gear with me. I have seen it snow >1 foot in the first night. I start paying attention to the possibility of snow as soon as the nights approach freezing (<35F) and I stop backpacking for the year when its freezing two nights in a row at Harts Pass. Then its just day hikes for me.

The first significant snowfall of the year occurred on:

Note that in the fall there are typically multiple cycles of snow falling, then completely melting, before it begins accumulating. That might not occur until very late in the year.

Planning advice for section hiking

Personally, I like to save the Goat Rocks and Old Snowy section of the PCT until the 2nd or 3rd week of September to allow maximum snow melt while also avoiding getting caught in an early fall snowstorm (a famous fatality on Old Snowy occurred in an August blizzard.) Also, kids are in school in September, so there are fewer people. You should check the weather report frequently when in this section as it is prone to rapid weather changes.

You should also watch the weather reports frequently if you are in a section of the PCT that is difficult to exit quickly, especially between Stevens Pass and High Bridge (Stehekin). See the information on PCTWashington .com about trail exit routes.

I also like to save Section L until I see a trip report saying there is no snow, especially on Devils Stairway. That section is the 2nd highest in Washington, and has the most miles over 6,500 ft. Unfortunately that section has been plagued by wildfires the past few years so I recommend going as soon as you hear the snow is gone.

Other Factors to Consider When Timing Your Trip

Water

Some sections of the PCT have few year-round water sources (Chinook Pass to Naches Pass comes to mind) so hiking in August and September may force you to carefully plan your water. Whereas hiking in July usually offers a bounty of seasonal water sources. Know all your water options before you go, both the reliable ones and the others. Because water is likely the heaviest thing in your pack, it's just good sense to manage your water economically.

Temperature

Do you want to avoid hot days or cold nights? Temperature is an easy factor to predict accurately using forecasts. Personally, I avoid cold nights more than hot days so I can avoid carrying cold weather gear. You should know from experience your minimum comfortable temperature for your gear, specifically your sleep system. Hot days are no fun either, but they are pretty easily delt with by hiking in the early morning, resting in shade at mid-day, wetting your hair and clothes at water sources, and planning swims. You might also choose to cook at mid day instead of at camp, so you can hike until darkness forces you to camp. Some people will hike at night, which I like to do only when there is bright moonlight

The Sky

Sometimes I choose hiking dates based on the moon cycle or even meteors, comets, or eclipses. Night hiking in a full moon is one of my favorite things. You may want to factor these events into your planning.
Here are some things to look for in the night sky this summer

Full Moons (2023)

Meteor Showers (2023)
Meteor Showers occur when the earth passes through a debris field, usually left by a comet or asteroid. The peak is when the earth is in the densest part of the debris field. Meteor showers are named for the star constellation they appear to radiate from. Here I've only listed showers that peak between June and October. In 2023 there will be only two for the northern hemisphere.

The Capricornids will peak July 30 2023 (Jul07-Aug15). The Capricornids come from near Earth asteroid 169P which is on a 4.22 year cycle.

The biggest shower, the Perseids, will peak August 12 2023 (Jul14-Sep01). The Perseids come from the Swift-Tuttle Comet which is on a 133 year cycle. The last close encounter was 1992. The next will be 2125.

People

Do you want to avoid other people? This is usually more of a where issue than a when issue, but here the WA PCT is a given. Some people seek solitude, some people feel more comfortable in numbers. These days the PCT is quite busy in peak season so solitude can be difficult in popular sections. You might choose to avoid the weekend day hikers who access the trail from paved roads by planning to cross those mid-week. The trail is popular with section hikers from the Independence day weekend to the Labor Day weekend. Then activity declines a bit through September. However, September is when many of the thru hikers are in Washington. It can be fun to hike the northern section, going southbound, in late September because you will pass many thru hikers as they finally close in on the Canadian border.

Bugs

I put this one last because bugs are inevitable at all times. So best to just expect them and be prepared. Bugs are worst in early July and taper off through August and September. But if you try to wait out the bugs you are cutting the hiking season in half. I might plan a trip above the tree line when the bugs are bad, and visit the dark forested areas later. But typically I am so focused on the factors of snow, water, and temperature, that I do not try too hard to avoid bugs (except maybe in Indian Heaven which can become hell when the bugs peak)

Events

Some people like to plan around events such as Pacific Crest Trail Days at Cascade Locks August 18th 2023

Fire

Unfortunately, you cannot plan ahead for fires. They tend to ruin plans at the last minute. In recent years fires are expected the entire length of the PCT, from before the snow melts to after it starts falling again. The best way to plan for fire is to know all your options for exiting the trail if needed. I also recommend you carry a mask to protect yourself from smoke and ash if needed. It's almost weightless and far better than a bandana.