6 Beautiful Backpacking Loop Trails in the Pacific Northwest

When it comes to quality backpacking routes, it’s hard to do better than a loop trail in the Pacific Northwest. Loops are as logistically easy as they are aesthetically pleasing, the perfect compromise between the mental struggles of an out-and-back and the logistical struggles (read: car shuttle) of point-to-point.

And the Pacific Northwest, well, there’s a reason Oregon and Washington are known as home to some of the best backpacking in the United States. From rugged volcanic circumnavigations to long steady climbs into alpine wonderland, this region offers some of everything for the adventurous backpacker.

So without further ado, here are 6 Pacific Northwest backpacking loops I heartily recommend. I’ve had the pleasure of backpacking five of these trails myself, and the sixth — the iconic Wonderland Trail — is high on my bucket list. Happy hiking!

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Timberline Trail

Length: 40 miles
Elevation gain: 9850 feet
Max elevation: 7340 feet
Location: 1.5 hours east of Portland, Oregon
Hiking season: July – Sept
Permits: free self-issued at trailhead

Map and trail reports: Timberline Trail (AllTrails)

Highlights: views of Mt. Hood from every direction; abundant water and camping; accessible without car by public transport

Challenges: water crossings can be dangerous early in summer; trail is often crowded; some areas of rough trail and blowdowns

One of the most iconic backpacking routes in the Pacific Northwest, the Timberline Trail circumnavigates Mount Hood in a dramatic loop. Dipping in and out of steep drainages, the climbs and descents are relatively short but add up to plenty of elevation change. Camping and water are plentiful, in fact water can be too plentiful in early summer when river crossings are high. This trail is very popular due to its easy access from Portland; you can even get there without a car.

Read more: Backpacking Around Mt. Hood on the Timberline Trail

Broken Top Loop

Length: 22 miles
Elevation gain: 3520 feet
Max elevation: 8300 feet
Location: 1 hour west of Bend, OR
Hiking season: July – Sept
Permits: required, competitive

Map and trail reports: Broken Top Loop (AllTrails)

Highlights: lovely alpine scenery; short bite-size backpacking route but still very satisfying

Challenges: short off-trail section requiring GPS nav or very good map and compass skills; permits can be hard to get

This lovely little loop west of Bend, Oregon (an outdoor destination in its own right) is perfect for a weekend backpacking trip. The Three Sisters Wilderness is a stunning little alpine paradise rising out from the high desert to its east. The route is packed with scenic lakes, ridgeline views, delicate meadows, and volcanic crags.

Looking for something longer? The 48 mile Three Sisters Loop overlaps with the west side of Broken Top Loop as it encircles all three Sister peaks (North, Middle, and South).

Learn more: Broken Top Loop Backpacking Guide

Loowit Trail

Length: 28+ miles
Elevation gain: 4300+ feet
Max elevation: 4880 feet
Location: Washington state, about 1.5 hours northeast of Portland, OR
Hiking season: July – Sept
Permits: none required

Map and trail reports: Loowit Loop from June Lake TH (AllTrails)

Highlights: hike around an active volcano that last erupted in 1980; rugged and engaging hike with lots of variety; less crowded than many other PNW backpacking routes

Challenges: limited water late in summer; loose, steep, rugged terrain with a few rope-assisted scrambles; 9 mile no camping section

The Loowit Trail around Mount St. Helens is more rugged and challenging, mile for mile, than the other PNW loop trails in this list. Because St. Helens last erupted in 1980, very recent by geologic standards, the landscape is still shifting and settling. You’ll cross tedious boulder fields and countless steep eroding gullies on your way around the active volcano, but the dramatic scenery and sense of wildness makes it all worth the work.

Read more: Backpacking Around Mount St. Helens on the Loowit Trail

Wonderland Trail

Length: 93 miles
Elevation gain: 24,550 feet
Max elevation: 7050 feet
Location: Washington state, about 2 hours southeast of Seattle
Hiking season: July – Sept
Permits: required, competitive

Map and trail reports: Wonderland Trail (AllTrails)

Highlights: hike around glaciated Mt. Rainier, active volcano and tallest mountain in the Cascade range; explore scenic Mount Rainier National Park on foot; very well-maintained trail

Challenges: competitive permits requiring fixed itinerary (no dispersed camping); plenty of climb and descent but no harder than most other loop trails in this list

This is the big one! If there’s such a thing as the most iconic loop backpacking route in the PNW, the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier is it. Significantly longer than other volcano circumnavigations in the region (see Timberline and Loowit trails) and also significantly harder to get a permit for, Wonderland is a top prize of backpacking in the Pacific Northwest. It’s a popular trail and camping is limited to designated sites, but if you can snag a permit you’ll definitely enjoy a bucketlist-worthy backpacking trip.

Devil’s Dome Loop

Length: 40 miles
Elevation gain: 10,200 feet
Max elevation: 6900 feet
Location: North Cascades, Washington state, 2.5 hours northeast of Seattle
Hiking season: July – Sept
Permits: reservation for Ross Lake campsites, free self-issue permit at trailhead

Map and trail reports: Devil’s Dome Loop (AllTrails)

Highlights: impressive North Cascades scenery; hike and camp alongside massive Ross Lake which extends into Canada

Challenges: lots of elevation gain, including a 5000 foot climb in 6 miles; watch out for bears, I saw two during my hike

This rewarding and challenging loop packs in a ton of alpine scenery and plenty of climbing. In fact, you’ll climb 5000 feet in about 6 miles if hiking clockwise! The North Cascades, way up north near the Canadian border, are shorter than mountains further south but impressively rugged. Enjoy lush forest, airy ridgeline, and a long stretch of lakeside trail on this circumnavigation of Jack Mountain.

Read more: Devil’s Dome Loop Backpacking Guide

Stream crossing in North Cascades
Devils Dome Loop Washington
Tent in wooded campsite with mountains in background

Southern Eagle Cap Loop

Length: 36 miles
Elevation gain: 9200 feet
Max elevation: 9500 feet
Location: Wallowa Mountains, northeast Oregon, 3.5 hours north of Boise, ID
Hiking season: July – Sept
Permits: free self-issued at trailhead

Map and trail reports: Eagle Cap Loop via East Eagle (AllTrails)

Highlights: amazing alpine scenery in unexpected location; gorgeous lakes; less crowded trails; optional but highly recommended side trip to Eagle Cap summit

Challenges: out of the way location; lots of climbing; trail can be overgrown in places

The Wallowa Mountains, sometimes called the Alps of Oregon, rise unexpectedly out of eastern Oregon’s desert scrub. They’re a bit out of the way for most of us, but well worth the drive for alpine scenery rivaling parts of the high Sierra (in my opinion).

This loop starts from the less popular southern edge of Eagle Cap Wilderness and includes some rougher, less-traveled trails on the way to the popular Lakes Basin. Bring your climbing legs and a bit of wilderness confidence, as you may not see many other hikers on the southern section. For a slightly more accessible route on better maintained trail, look into a loop starting from Joseph, OR into the Lakes Basin area.

Read more: Backpacking Southern Eagle Cap Loop (Wallowa Mountains)

PNW Backpacking Gear

Here are some of my backpacking gear favorites, used on these PNW trails and many others:

For more of my favorite backpacking gear, with a focus on lightweight packing and good value, see My All-Time Favorite Backpacking Gear.

More Backpacking Resources

About the Author

Hi there, I’m Alissa, founder of Exploring Wild. I’ve had the pleasure of hiking the Arizona Trail, Colorado Trail, John Muir Trail, Tahoe Rim Trail, and countless shorter amazing trails throughout the US and abroad. I love solitude, big views, and a good lightweight gear setup. Learn more here.

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