By Matt Kite
There are plenty of great reasons to buy a home in Tacoma, but one you might not have considered before is our fair city’s proximity to world-class hiking. To the southeast of Tacoma, Mount Rainier National Park beckons, all 236,000-plus acres of it, and to the west, the Olympic Peninsula awaits your exploration. Drive an hour or two in any direction, and you’re bound to discover why so many people fall in love with Puget Sound and never leave. Each of the five breathtaking destinations below is only a modest drive from Tacoma.
Only 3.8 miles round-trip, this hike hugs the contours of Van Trump Creek for much of the way. The main tier of the falls plunges more than 300 feet, but all told, Comet Falls drops 400 feet while dwarfing the mist-covered hikers that gather near its base to take in the spectacle. The climb to the falls might make you sweat a little, especially if you haven’t hiked in a while, but the jaw-dropping payoff will make the 1,250 feet of elevation gain worth the effort.
Few hikes pack in so much scenery in just 8.2 miles. Picturesque glacial lake? Check. Majestic falls? Check. This is two hikes in one, and you’re better off visiting the falls first and saving the lake for the second half of your hike. Despite a few ups and downs, the elevation gain is a manageable 2,000 feet. Whether you visit in early spring just after the snow melts or in mid fall just before the first snow of the season, you’ll be hard-pressed to take your eyes off Mt. Index, whose stony spires loom high above the lake.
If it’s a challenge you want, go no further than Mt. Ellinor, which offers equal parts cruel misery and hard-earned elation. There are two ways to the top, but start from the lower trailhead, which provides a nicely shaded warm-up before the fun begins. You’ll “only” be covering 6.2 miles round-trip, but most of them will be steep. By the time you climb the last step to Mt. Ellinor’s small, rocky peak, you’ll have gained 3,300 feet. As the most prominent peak on the southern end of the Olympic Mountains, Mt. Ellinor (5,944’) rewards those willing to tackle it with an extraordinary 360-degree view. You might have to share your perch with a mountain goat or two.
Most visitors come here in July, when the wildflowers turn Spray Park’s meadows into a riot of color, but this hike is beautiful in the fall, too. Watch for black bears grazing on huckleberries and marmots whistling from their burrows or sunning themselves on rocks. Oh, and don’t forget that big mountain in front of you. Mount Rainier looks particularly spectacular when you’re picnicking directly beneath it. This is the shortest 8-mile hike you’ll ever take. Something about the scenery and the rolling terrain makes the 1,700 feet of elevation gain hardly noticeable. Be sure to stop at the falls just before you make the last climb to the first of seemingly endless meadows.
Crave an outing in nature but aren’t ready to scale Mt. Everest just yet? Staircase Rapids gives you a front-row seat to the ever-churning Skokomish without punishing you. In fact, the gentle, well-groomed trail along the river is so flat and so enchanting it will restore even the most jaded soul. If you combine the loop trail with the short walk along nearby Shady Lane Trail, you’ll still only walk about four miles, most of it with the river serenading you every step of the way. Better still, Staircase is snow-free for most of the year, which means you can visit when the surrounding mountains are snowed under.
Want to learn more about hikes near Tacoma? Visit Matt’s hiking blog, 3-Minute Hikes.