Washington Wildfires: How and Where To Hike Safely

The Grizzly Bear Complex Fire, pictured here, is just one of many big wildfires going on in the state right now.
The Grizzly Bear Complex Fire, pictured here, is just one of many big wildfires going on in the state right now. U.S. Department of Agriculture
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As August winds down into September, summer days in Seattle are still long but the temperatures have cooled off, making it the perfect time to get outside for one last hurrah before summer officially comes to a close. The only problem? It's also prime wildfire season—and this year is no exception. Unless you've been living under a rock, you know by now that the biggest wildfire in Washington's history is currently raging in the northeast part of the state.

Even so, this doesn't mean adventurous types can't venture into the outdoors, but you'll have to do a little more planning to avoid the fire zones. Here, the rundown on the Washington wildfires, plus resources and tips to help you figure out where to go and how to stay safe on your end-of-summer outdoor excursions in Seattle and beyond.

Where are the fires?

The Kettle Complex Fire blazes in Northern Ferry County.
The Kettle Complex Fire blazes in Northern Ferry County. U.S. Department of Agriculture

The first thing to be aware of is which areas of Washington are blazing; it’s generally a good idea to keep healthy distance from these areas, both for your own safety and to stay out of the way of fire-fighting operations that are already stretched thin.

The biggest burn right now is a group of fires near the North Cascades known as the Okanogan Complex, which started on August 15 and currently covers more than 280,000 acres. Among others, there are also large fires in Chelan, near the Colville Indian Reservation, and the Umatilla National Forest near Walla Walla (check out the full list of active fires here). To understand where these fires are in relation to where you may want to get outside, check out the Washington Trails Association's Hike Finder map with the USFS fires overlay.

Mapping Out a Plan

A helicopter weaves through the smoke caused by the Chelan Butte Fire.
A helicopter weaves through the smoke caused by the Chelan Butte Fire. Ben Brooks

But the flames themselves aren’t the only factor to consider: Smoke from the fires can be a health threat (especially if you plan to do something physically active) that extends to a much larger area. Thanks to the fires, much of Eastern Washington is currently classified with unhealthy air quality. Check out which parts of the state are thick with smoke —meaning, the areas you may want to avoid—via the Washington Smoke Information blog , which collects data from air quality reports throughout the Pacific Northwest.

Trail and Road Closures

In some sections along Highway 20, the fire has burned all the way down to the road. As a result, long stretches of this highway, which goes into North Cascade National Park and Methow Valley, are currently closed. For up to date information about highway closures, see WSDOT’s wildfire closure blog.

Unsurprisingly, many of the trails and campgrounds around Methow Valley (current conditions) and within the North Cascades National Park (current conditions) are also closed. Farther south, sections of the PCT are closed in the Glacier Peak Wilderness due to the Blakenship Fire and near Mount Adams due to the Cougar Creek fire.

As always, check in with the local ranger station for the most up to date information about closures before you go.

Fire Smarts

No matter where you go, stay fire aware. Follow the restrictions in place: right now there is a campfire ban throughout the entire Okanogan-Wenatchee forest and in all Washington State Parks. If a fire is allowed, never leave it unattended and remember to put it completely out before you go. If you find yourself traveling through thick wildfire smoke, remember to drive with your headlights on and turn the vehicle’s AC to recirculate, to keep it from pulling in more smoky air.

Firefighters are working round the clock to contain the Washington wildfires.
Firefighters are working round the clock to contain the Washington wildfires. U.S. Department of Agriculture

Where To Hike Safely

So, now that we’ve covered where not to go, what’s left? The simplest way to look at it: Now is a good time to stay on the west side of the Cascades, where there are still plenty of worthy destinations. A jaunt up Mount Si, through Wallace Falls State Park, or up Mount Ellinor are all great options. For an overnighter, head to Olympic National Parkor to Mount Rainier National Park.

Given the nature of forest fires, and the fact that firefighters are working hard to contain them, these wildfires are changing on a day-to-day basis. But if you use these resources to check on current conditions before you go, you should be able to stay in the clear. And if you see a wildland firefighter, be sure to tell him or her thanks.

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