Snow-free hills attracting more hikers than skiers in Northwest

This past winter’s historic lack of snow has cleared Washington’s mountain roads and trails several weeks sooner than usual, and the early recreational rush has caught federal land managers unprepared.

Recreation managers in the Cascades say they’re like hosts whose dinner guests show up hours or even days early. The house isn’t vacuumed and the burgers are still frozen.

“Everything is kind of like two months ahead,” said Steve Johnson, acting district ranger of the Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. “On trails along I-90 we’ve got crowds that equal what we normally would get in June. The trailheads are full.”

National parks and forests in Western Washington typically bring on hundreds of seasonal employees — many of them college students — to handle summer crowds. They direct traffic, clear trails blocked by fallen trees, clean toilets at trailheads and — when necessary — fight fires.

This year the seasonal crews are needed already, but they’re still in school.

“Normally our field crews, we don’t bring them on until mid-April, or May first,” Johnson said. “We need them now. People are not hitting snow until they get to 5,000 feet, so they can get way up into the back country.”

The Washington State Department of Transportation announced that Chinook Pass and Cayuse Pass reopened late Thursday afternoon, which will open access to the Pacific Crest Trail and hundreds of square miles of back country east of Mount Rainier that’s usually accessible at this time of year only by snowmobiles or snowshoes.

“Historically, that’s the second-earliest for Cayuse and the earliest ever for Chinook, as far back as record-keeping goes,” said Tracy Swartout, acting superintendent at Mount Rainier.

Lack of snow this winter sharply cut the number of skiers and sledders who visited the park, Swartout said, but hikers and sightseers more than made up the difference.

“In January and February, we had astronomical increases,” Swartout said. “While people who would have come for snow play perhaps did not come, what we have seen is an increase in back-country use.”

Park visitation in January increased more than 20 percent over 2014, Swartout said. In February, 18,527 people visited the park compared with 10,641 last year — an increase of 74 percent.

Seasonal workers, including many rangers who handle law enforcement and emergency services, won’t arrive at the park until May, Swartout said, meaning visitors should be prepared for long waits in the event an emergency response is needed.

Some trailheads and parking lots will be snow-free before the park’s water systems and wastewater treatment plants have been dewinterized, Swartout said, meaning that visitors will find no drinkable water or working toilets.

Many of the staff who service those utilities are seasonal,” Swartout said. “When we were hiring them, we couldn’t anticipate such an early opening.”

On the Olympic Peninsula, where the snowpack is only about 10 percent of normal, recreational use is heavier than usual in both Olympic National Forest and Olympic National Park.

At Olympic National Park, visitation was down 18 percent in January, according to the park’s latest statistics. That was because the lack of snow at Hurricane Ridge kept skiers and other snow-players at home, said park spokeswoman Barbara Maynes.

In February, thanks to warm weather and snow-free trails, visitation at Hurricane Ridge shot up 300 percent over February 2014, Maynes said. Throughout the park, visitation was up 32 percent in February.

“At Hurricane Ridge over the President’s Day weekend, it looked like it was summer,” Maynes said.

Maynes said the early arrival of people has not caused logistical problems at Olympic National Park.

“We staff up Hurricane Ridge anyway for winter use. We have the staffing to serve the numbers of visitors we typically get, so we’re fine with that. It’s busier than usual,” Maynes said, “but it’s great to have people around. It’s fun to have people in the campgrounds.”

On the Baker-Snoqualmie, Johnson said the possibility of an early and intense fire season on West Coast forests is more concerning than the early rush of recreational visitors.

“Fire crews are coming on early because we’re not sure what’s going to happen,” Johnson said. “This whole climatic trend of dry winter is pretty much up and down the West Coast.

“We’re not that far behind in our total precipitation,” he said. “We’ve gotten the rain; it just hasn’t been cold enough to snow. How that’s going to play out with fire this summer is a big unknown.”