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Know Where You're Hiking: A Guide to Public Land in Washington State

With so many hikes near the cities, towns and rural areas of Washington, a trail is never too far away. But how did all these trails come to be and who is in charge of them? The vast majority of trails in Washington exist on public lands managed by a government, whether federal, state or local, called a land manager, and one thing that makes Washington so special is all these wonderful land managers who steward all that public land out there. Read on to learn about the differences between the different land managers, so you can know where you’re hiking and plan accordingly

With so many hikes in and near the cities, towns and rural areas of Washington, a trail is never too far away. But how did all these trails come to be and who manages them? Most trails in Washington exist on public land managed by the government, whether federal, state or local, called a land manager, and one thing that makes Washington so special is all these wonderful land managers who steward all that public land out there. Read on to learn about the differences between the different land managers, so you can know where you’re hiking and plan accordingly. 

Why it matters 

Knowing the land manager of the place you’re hiking is important for many reasons. For one, the permits and rules are different depending on the land manager. Knowing these differences will help you research your hike and plan accordingly. This information will also make you a more knowledgeable hiker on the trail and a better steward on and off the trail.

And when it comes to advocating for funding and protections for public land, it helps to know who the land manager is so you can reach out to the right person. 

All Land in Washington is Tribal Land

We respectfully acknowledge that all lands in Washington are the homelands of Indigenous tribes of the Pacific Northwest, some of whom have reserved treaty rights on these lands. Tribes continue to rely on and share in the management of these lands today. Please tread gently and treat these places with respect.

National parks| National forests | Bureau of Land Management lands | Washington State Parks | Department of Natural Resources lands | County and city parksOther lands

Federal land

If you go hiking in Washington state you will often be hiking on land that is owned and managed by the federal government in the other Washington — Washington D.C. National parks and national forests are both federal land and make up the majority of public land and trails in our state. Even though these areas are run by the same government, there are some key differences between the two.

Stevens Canyon Entrance-Mount Rainier National Park. Photo Courtesy of Mount Rainier National Park.
Stevens Canyon Entrance sign at Mount Rainier National Park. Photo Courtesy of Mount Rainier National Park.

national parks

National parks are areas that have amazing natural beauty and ecological diversity and important cultural significance. They were set aside to be preserved in their natural state while providing access for the public. 

What sets them apart?
Unlike some of the other types of public land, national parks are meant to be preserved. That means that things like logging or mining are off limits. This makes them great places to recreate because they are intended to offer people the chance to appreciate all the natural wonders on display. 

What are some examples in Washington? 
Washington has three national parks: Mount Rainier, Olympic and North Cascades. There are also other national park properties, including a number of historical areas. 

What do hikers need to know? 
Depending on the park, you may need to pay an entrance fee to get in. If you want to camp overnight in the backcountry you will need to get a permit from the park. Most trails in Washington’s national parks don’t allow dogs. 

What pass do I need?
There are no fees to enter North Cascades National Park. To enter Mount Rainier National Park or Olympic National Park, you will need to purchase one of the following:

  1. Entrance fee — $30/car; $15/person walk-in or bike-in; $25/motorcycle. Good for 7 days. You can purchase at the park entrance or online. 
  2. Annual Pass — $55. Gets you access to one park for the year. Only good at the park where it is purchased. 
  3. America the Beautiful Interagency Pass — $80. Works at all national parks, national forests and any other federal sites that charge a fee. 

Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Rachel Wendling.
Signs are often posted along roads to let you know you're entering public land. Photo by Rachel Wendling. 

National Forests 

What sets them apart?
Washington’s national forests are big and there are a lot of them. The slogan for national forests is “land of many uses” so the main guiding principle of management is balancing the different uses of the public, including hiking, foraging, timber harvesting, hunting and many other activities. 

What are some examples in Washington? 
Washington has seven national forests: Olympic, Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie, Okanogan-Wenatchee, Gifford Pinchot, Colville, Umatilla and a sliver of the Kaniksu National Forest bordering Idaho. 

What do hikers need to know?
Each national forest is divided into different ranger districts. Because different areas may have different rules and regulations, it’s best to get up-to-date information from the ranger district where you’ll be hiking. Dogs are allowed on most trails in national forests.

What pass do I need? 
Either a day pass ($5), a Northwest Forest Pass ($30 annually) or an America the Beautiful Interagency Pass ($80 annually). 

Bureau of Land Management Lands 

What sets them apart?
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages vast amounts of land in the western states. In general, these lands are less protected and less regulated than other federal lands. They are managed to support many uses including extraction like mining and cattle ranching but are open to recreation as well. 

What are some examples in Washington?
There is not too much BLM land in Washington, but there are a few areas, mostly in Central and Eastern Washington including Umtanum Creek Canyon, Chopaka Lake, Fishtrap Lake and Escure Ranch-Towel Falls

What do hikers need to know? 
There is some great hiking and camping on BLM land, but there is not as much of a recreation infrastructure so it may take some extra planning, and you won’t always find facilities, campgrounds or even trails. Hunting is also allowed on BLM land, so learn about hiking during hunting season and go prepared. 

What pass do I need? 
There is no entrance fee for most BLM land. Certain areas do require a day-use fee. An America the Beautiful Interagency Pass will also work. 

A wooden sign that says Alpine Lakes Wilderness.
There will often be a sign to mark a wilderness boundary. Photo by Christina Hickman. 

Wilderness Areas 

How do wilderness areas fit into all this?
Wilderness areas are designated by the U.S. Congress as areas to be preserved in their natural state with very little altering of the land. For this reason, these are remote areas without any roads. Unlike the other types of federal land, these areas exist within other types of federal land. So a wilderness area can exist within a national park, a national forest or on BLM land. 

What are some examples in Washington?
The Stephen Mather Wilderness is inside North Cascades National Park, whereas the Pasayten Wilderness, next door, is inside the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. 

What do hikers need to know? 
Wilderness areas are roadless so access can be more difficult. Motorized equipment of any kind is prohibited, and group size is limited to 12 heartbeats, so that includes people, dogs and livestock. 

What pass do I need?
For entrance fees and passes, you will need the pass that goes with the federal land the wilderness falls in. If you want to camp overnight in a wilderness, you will have to research the specific rules for that area. Some only require a free self-issued permit, while other areas, like the Enchantments, which is within the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, requires visitors to apply for a permit from the land manager for specific dates and camp sites. 


State land

Some amazing hiking opportunities exist on public land managed by the state of Washington. The state manages state parks and lands that fall under the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). There are some key differences between the two. 

Peshastin Pinnacles State Park Sign.
One of the many state parks across Washington. Photo by JWATERBOY12. 

Washington state Parks

What sets them apart?
State parks tend to be smaller units and can be found all over the state. They are designed to support recreation like hiking, biking and boating and most include hiking trails as well as campgrounds.

What are some examples in Washington?
There are nearly 150 state parks in Washington including, Deception Pass State Park, Fort Ebey State Park, Mount Spokane State Park and Beacon Rock State Park.

What do hikers need to know?
State parks can provide a good mix of frontcountry and backcountry experiences. Because many of them have car camping options as well as trails, state parks are great for folks who are new to hiking or looking for facilities like bathrooms and showers. There is great variety among state parks so check out the specifics for each park before visiting.

What pass do I need? 
A Discover Pass works for all state land including state parks. The other passes for federal land will not work. 

Department of Natural Resources Lands

What sets them apart?
DNR land supports many uses including hiking, mountain biking, off-road vehicle driving, timber harvesting and more. Many of these lands have hiking trails but have less infrastructure and fewer facilities compared with state parks. 

What are some examples in Washington?
Some of Washington’s most popular and iconic trails are on DNR land, including Tiger Mountain, Mount Si, Gothic Basin and Mailbox Peak

What do hikers need to know?

Certain trails on DNR land may close temporarily or be rerouted during timber harvests. It depends on the area, but it’s always good to check the latest conditions before heading out. 

What pass do I need?
A Discover Pass works for all state land including DNR land. The other passes for federal land will not work.  


Local lands

Finding hiking trails near you is often as easy as looking to your county or city parks. These local public lands often contain nearby hiking trails as well as other infrastructure and facilities like public bathrooms, playgrounds and sports fields. With WTA’s The Trail Next Door Campaign we want to make sure nature is within reach, so Washingtonians have access to hiking right where they live. 

City of Olympia Priest Point Park. Austin Easter.
City parks have some great hiking trails. Photo by Austin Easter. 

County and City Parks

What sets them apart?
To find hikes near where you live you can often look to public land right in your county or city. These local parks range from small neighborhood parks to immersive wilderness experiences. Many local governments also manage longer paved paths that are great for getting around town. 

What are some examples in Washington?
Pinnacle Peak, Anacortes Community Forest Lands, Sehome Arboretum, Frenchman’s Bar and Mica Peak

What do hikers need to know?
Even if you’re hiking close to town it’s still important to pack the 10 Essentials and practice Leave No Trace. Each local area will have its own guidelines for best practices, so be aware of that before heading out.

What pass do I need? 
Most local parks do not require a pass. 


Other lands

The land managers above cover the majority of hiking trails in Washington state, but there are other types of public land out there as well. Wildlife areas — in the form of national wildlife refuges on the federal level and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife lands on the state level — are primarily managed as wildlife habitat, but can also be great destinations for hiking. Certain areas of tribal land may also be open to the public for hiking. Land conservancies and land trusts also own and manage land that are open to the public and sometimes contain hiking trails. Regardless of where you head out to hike, it's important to always remember to leave no trace and #RecreateResponsibly