Imagine a wondrous place where you could, in the course of a single day and on a single trail, wander through lush old-growth rainforest, cross gin-clear salmon streams, gorge yourself on plump huckleberries in open pine forests, stride through flower-stitched alpine meadows, and scramble up steep snowfields on the side of an active volcano.
There's only one place I know of that offers such wild treasures, and that's Washington's Cascade Range along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).
For a lifetime's worth of scenery, follow the PCT as it rambles through the heart of the Cascades. Begin in the deep-green forests and meadows of the Indian Heaven and William O. Douglas Wildernesses. Then the trail rushes skyward to the lofty peaks of the Mt. Adams, Goat Rocks, and Glacier Peak Wildernesses. Along the way, you'll dip your toes in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, where various sections of the trail unroll along rivers, past vast valley-bottom lakes, through wildlife-rich forests, around tiny, ice-rimmed alpine tarns, and finally, up the snowy flanks of sun-splashed mountains. The journey can claim two climaxes, because the glacier-crowned volcanoes Mt. Adams and Glacier Peak serve as bookends for this 500-mile section of the PCT. You don't have to hike it all at once, but beware: Once you head up into these hills, you'll never want to come back down.
Permits: Pick up a free, self-issued permit at the trailhead or boundary of each wilderness area. For trailhead parking, you need a Northwest Forest Pass ($5 per day or $30 annually; see Contact).
Access: Via numerous passes hosting east-to-west highways.
Season: Snowmelt is nearly complete by late August. For fewer bugs and more ripe huckleberries, hike in September.
Guides: Green Trails Maps (206-546-6277) offers detailed topo maps individually ($3.60 each) or as a Map Pack (12 maps for $39) covering Washington PCT North, Washington PCT Central, and Washington PCT South. Best of the Pacific Crest Trail: Washington: 55 Hikes, by Dan A. Nelson (The Mountaineers, 800-553-4453; $16.95).
Contact: Pacific Northwest Region, Forest Service, (503) 808-2971; www.fs.fed.us/r6.