Stevens pass b6agta

One of the (relatively few) days Stevens Pass ski area was operating this winter.

Image: Alison Klein

Winter is long over, if there ever even was a winter. The west’s snowpack, a measurement of how much water the leftover flakes will produce, is at record lows. In April the Washington State Department of Ecology reported 6 to 24 percent of normal snowpack in the Cascades and just 3 percent of normal in the Olympics. Paradise usually stacks 14 feet of snow in March; this year it had five.

So now what?

While we won’t likely have to skip showers like the Californians (Seattle’s reservoirs are full of rain), the hiking season got under way when roads opened weeks earlier than last year. You’re forgiven if you feel like summer’s already half over; it sort of is. Wildflowers at Paradise usually boom in early August, but if the snow shrink continues they could come—and go—mid-July. Or earlier.

All this early access will likely mean more people in the mountains, says Mount Rainier National Park deputy superintendent Tracey Swartout. The park received 2,600 applications for backcountry camping permits this year, double the usual. Parking lots filled to capacity in March. This is a year for making alternate (aka midweek) plans.

So does less snow mean more outdoor playtime? Not necessarily, says Scott Pattee of the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. As brush grows early on bare slopes, it’ll be dry by peak lightning season—and that means forest fires. Book water trips ASAP: The Wenatchee River usually carries rafters ’til about August 1 but this year could be a trickle by the first of July.

Still, says Pattee, the low-snow trend is just that; it’s no promise of endless summer. “It doesn’t mean we won’t get a freak snowstorm in June,” he says. There’s the finicky Northwest we remember.

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