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Shaping the Perfect Backpacking Route: From Loop-de-loops to Lollipops

Backpacking routes come in many shapes and sizes. This guide lays out a few general shapes that can help you plan your next trip and dream of even greater possibilities.

Backpacking trip routes come in many shapes and sizes. The variety of trails in Washington provides endless ideas for longer trips, but with so many options, a hiking map can look like an intimidating tangle of lines and squiggles. 

This guide lays out a few general shapes that can help you plan your next trip so the next time you look at a map these shapes will pop out, and you'll be able to see new pathways and connections through the backcountry. 

These are just a few suggestions, but there are as many ways to do a backpacking trip as there are people, so make a plan that makes sense to you. 

Leave no Trace 

Whatever shape you choose, be sure to practice leave no trace on your trip. 

  • Plan ahead and prepare: Know the regulations and special concerns for the area you'll visit.
  • Travel and camp on durable surfaces: Use existing trails and campsites--don't make your own. Avoid camping in fragile meadows or within 200 feet of lakes and streams. 
  • Dispose of waste properly: Pack it in, pack it out, including toilet paper. Carry all waste out with you. 
  • Leave what you find: Leave everything where you find it, including historical artifacts, plants and rocks. 
  • Minimize campfire impacts: Avoid a campfire altogether if you can. If you want to have a fire, be sure they are permitted, and keep them small in established fire rings only. Make sure fires are dead out before leaving them unattended. 
  • Respect wildlife: Observe all wildlife from a distance. Never feed wildlife. 
  • Be considerate of other visitors: Respect other visitors by yielding to hikers on trail and letting the noises of nature prevail, not your own. 

Loop

A loop hike starts by heading out on one trail, then returning on a different trail (or trails) to the same trailhead. Loops are great because the entire trip covers new ground and there's no added hassle returning to your car.

Loop hikes can can be epic and especially enticing for people when they circumnavigate a mountain. The Wonderland Trail is an iconic example of this, letting hikers see all sides of Mount Rainier over the course of several days. More low-key loops can be just as meaningful, providing views of where you're headed and where you just came from, a great way to really gain a deep understanding for a landscape. 

a loop on a map

WTA Pro Tip: Look beyond the established loop hikes by plotting your own. Sit down in front of a map and see what new trails you can link together to form a loop. 

Loops

Devil's Dome: North Cascades, 43 miles roundtrip 
Bird Mountain Loop: South Cascades, 10.25 miles roundtrip 
Meander Meadow - Cady Ridge Loop: Central Cascades, 16 miles roundtrip 

Jagged snow-covered mountains.
Jack Mountain from the Devil's Dome Loop. On this loop hike you walk around Jack Mountain, getting views of it from all sides. Photo by LelandK. 


Lollipop Loop

When it comes to hiking, a lollipop is a route consisting of a main trail that connects to a loop, forming the shape of a lollipop. Hikers go out on one trail, do a loop, then return on that same trail. 

It's easy to get caught up looking for the perfect loop, which can be hard to come by. The advantage of a lollipop is you can still get all the benefits of a loop, but by adding on the "stick" of the lollipop you can find tons more options. 

a lollipop loop shape on a hiking map.

WTA Pro Tip: This type of route is great if you want to squeeze a backpacking trip into the weekend. Head out Friday afternoon with enough time to hike the stick part of the lollipop and make camp. Wake up on Saturday to a beautiful loop in the backcountry, then wind down Sunday by hiking out along familiar terrain. 

Lollipop Loops 

Cathedral Pass Loop: Pasayten, 44.7 miles roundtrip 
Goat Creek Loop: Mount St. Helens Area, 20.2 miles roundtrip 
Rainbow-McAlester Loop: North Cascades, 31.5 miles roundtrip 

A boulder field with a large rocky outcropping in the distance.
The Cathedral Pass lollipop loop takes hikers through the unique landscape of the Pasayten. Photo by Rachel Wendling. 


Horseshoe Loop

A horseshoe loop is similar to a loop hike except the return trail does not quite link up with the first trailhead, requiring hikers to cover that gap via a road-walk, bike ride, car shuttle or transit. Many routes are oh so close to forming a loop, but there is just that last missing connection. Don't count these out — creative planning can turn these loops into fun adventures. 

A horseshoe shape on a hiking map.

WTA Pro Tip: To get back to your car at the end of a horseshoe loop consider a car or bicycle shuttle, or just walk along the road if the route's not too long. 

Horseshoe Loops

Grizzly Bear Ridge to Wenaha River Loop: Palouse and Blue Mountains, 20 miles roundtrip 
Duckabush to Dosewallips via Lacrosse Pass: Olympic Peninsula, 34 miles roundtrip
Buck Creek Pass Loop: Central Cascades, 44 miles roundtrip 
Holden to Stehekin: North Cascades, 32 miles roundtrip (return on the ferry)

A grassy meadow leading to a mountain pass.
The gentle meadow leading to LaCrosse Pass. Photo by D. Baxter. 


Traverse

A traverse, also called a thru-hike, is a route that just keeps going. Hikers start at one trailhead and end at a different trailhead far away from the first. Traverses cross linearly through a landscape. This type of trip is more logistically challenging because the starting and ending trailhead are so far apart, usually requiring two cars for a shuttle (leave one at the starting trailhead and one at the ending trailhead), but it's rewarding because you can see so many different landscapes in one trip.

A straight line route on a hiking map.

WTA Pro Tip: If you're doing a car shuttle, be extra careful in keeping track of car keys and pack them away in a very secure place so you know they'll be there when you finish your hike and need to get home. 

Traverses

Easy Pass to Fisher Creek: North Cascades 24 miles one-way
Duckabush River to Enchanted Valley: Olympic Peninsula 37.5 miles one-way 
Kettle Crest Trail: Eastern Washington, 44 miles one-way 
Indian Bar to Cowlitz Divide: Mount Rainier, 14.6 miles, one-way

Sun setting behind a ridge of mountains.
The sunsets along the Kettle Crest are just one of the many highlights of this traverse. Photo by Renegade Beef.