a beginner’s guide to exploring the pnw

There is absolutely no shortage, whatsoever, of things to do here in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. It’s just one of the many things we love about living out here. One of our least favorite things, however, is simply how expensive things are out here. Luckily though, there are a ton of ways to still get out there and explore, even if you’re a novice, without breaking the bank.

We’re learning as we go, but one of the biggest things we’ve learned about hiking and exploring this region is that there is a ton to see, and everything is just a little bit different. We have everything from beautiful beaches, to rocky coastlines, to mountain-ranges, and beyond. You name it, the PNW has it. But there are ways to explore without breaking the bank and without going in blind, too. Through trial and plenty of error, we’ve come up with five tips for the novice explorer venturing out into the beautiful PNW.

1 // Get the park passes.
Most states have state park passes, and Washington is no exception. The beauty of these passes is that they offer a single yearly fee to access all the parks on the list. Of course, you could pay the daily rate, but think of it like this; you’ll pay $10/day to get into Tolmie State Park. Or, you can pay $35/year to get in all the passes that take the Discover Pass. Here are the big Washington State passes you should know about:

  • Discover Pass – $35. Buy it online, and it’s good for a year. You can print it our for same-day use, and they’ll mail you your pass within about 7 business days. This pass is good on state lands.
  • Northwest Forests Pass – $30. Buy it online or in person, and it’s good for a year. You can print it out for same-day use, and they’ll mail you your pass within about 7 days. This pass is good on national lands…basically Forest Service rec sites in both Washington and Oregon where they require a day fee.
  • America the Beautiful Pass – $80. You can buy it online or in person. The best part? This pass is free for U.S. Military members and dependents. You must buy in person at a participating federal rec site that issues passes and present your military ID. This pass is good for all national parks and federal recreation lands, so this pass would negate the need for a Northwest Forests Pass.

2 // Download the WTA trail app.

This app has been such a gamechanger for us. One of the best ways to explore the PNW is to just get outside. The WTA trail app offers a comprehensive list of the parks and sites where you can go and explore. You’ll find out what passes you need, what’s permitted (ie: can you bring dogs? is it a good hike for kids? can you fish?), the number of trails, etc. Better yet, it tells you what facilities are provided, which is good to know for my pregnant butt since I always need a bathroom.

3 // Search Yelp.

I freaking love Yelp. This has been my go-to since we got here for finding some of the best places to eat, as well as local reviews for childcare, swim lessons, and more. I love that you can also search for reviews of the parks. This is huge for me because you get a firsthand account of how other hikers and travelers (often in similar circumstances) view the parks and hikes in question. That’s how I found out the best time to find sand dollars at Tolmie State Park. It’s also how we figured out we could do Sequalitchew Creek Trail with zero prep.

4 // Consider camping.

We’ve yet to do this since Ryan left for his TDY too soon after we arrived here. However, it’s hot on our list of things to do since we have a huge tent that’s just waiting to be broken in. You can actually see which sites allow camping – both for tents and RVs – on the WTA trail app, or you can simply search the site online. Staying overnight will also give you the opportunity to explore more when you get there since you won’t be rushed. Be sure to prep wisely though, as the days are warm here, and the nights hover in the mid-to-low 50s on average, even in the summer.

5 // Always have your gear on-hand.

No, this doesn’t mean you need expert hiking gear. Rather, just make sure you have something of everything so you’re prepared. When we get out, we make sure we have our sneakers or boots on, plus we pack water shoes or sandals. We bring a change of clothes, a swimsuit (a ton of these places have places to take the plunge if you’re brave enough!), sunglasses, plenty of sunscreen, bug repellant, and more. You don’t need to overpack, but you do want to be prepared for what’s to come.

We said when we moved here that we wanted to do all the things. The Army gives us 3-4 years at any given duty station if we’re lucky, and Fort Lewis is one of the most-requested military bases for a reason. There’s so much to do, see, and explore. We’d honestly be remiss if we didn’t get out there and do things. Plus, there’s a beauty in immersing your kiddos into the wild and letting them see how the natural world really is. We’re loving these opportunities we have.

Have you ever been to the PNW? What would be/is your favorite part of this region?