WASHINGTON OUTDOOR TRAVEL GUIDE
From the minute you step foot in the Evergreen State, the rugged and stunning scenery is on full display. From the craggy coastline and white-capped mountains to alpine meadows and deep blue water, Washington is a stunning example of Mother Nature’s art. Its many natural wonders offer plentiful opportunities for outdoor adventures. It’s the only state in the country with a temperate rain forest. It’s got two major mountain ranges, the desert, and volcanoes. And the beauty and geography is best explored through the power of your own body. Even the most energetic adventurers will tire themselves out attempting to explore everything in this state.
THE BEST TIME TO VISIT WASHINGTON
Chances are you associate Washington with cold, fog and rain. And you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. Though the bulk of the rain falls between October and July, come to Washington prepared for some inclement weather. But that shouldn’t be a hindrance.
If you are set against having the least amount of rainy weather, visit in July, August, and September. Of course this means you will be one of many visitors during this time – so weigh your options. If you are visiting in the winter, expect cold weather and heavy, wet snow in the mountains.
Rainfall also varies greatly across the state. The west side of the Cascade Mountains receives significantly more rain than the east side. This part of the state is much more dry and has a huge range of temperatures from freezing in the winter to very hot in the summer.
TOP OUTDOOR ACTIVITIES IN WASHINGTON
Biking – Speed down the trails of Washington’s scenery on two wheels. Many local bike enthusiasts claim Washington is the best place in the country for mountain biking. The hills and canyons around Leavenworth make for great mountain biking adventure. Tiger Mountain is a quick drive from Seattle with over 16 miles of trails for biking. Chuckanut Mountain (near Bellingham) has tons of single-track trails with awesome views.
Kayaking – Take your pick from the many waterways in Washington to jump in a kayak; glacial lakes, rushing rivers, open ocean, and Puget Sound. Diablo Lake in the North Cascade Mountains is a peaceful turquoise lake to paddle around. You’ll paddle along seals and porpoises in Port Doughty State Park, and a multi-day trip through the San Juans is great for confident paddlers (or if you want to hire a guide).
Rafting – The four main rafting rivers – Skagit, White Salmon, Tieton and Wenatchee – are all within a few hours of Seattle, making white rafting a popular and fun activity in Washington. The white water ranges from Beginner (Level 1) to Expert (Level 5), so there is something for everyone.
Skiing & Snowboarding – Whether you are a newbie or an accomplished expert, the varying terrain and conditions of Washington’s ski resorts will suit you. Snowqualmie, Mount Baker, Crystal, and Stevens Pass are just a few of the bigger mountains to check out.
Horseback Riding – Many trails through the parks and mountains of Washington allow foot traffic and horse traffic. Grand Forest Park on Bainbridge Island is an easily accessible trail for horses in all seasons. The Enchanted Valley Trail in Olympic National Park is a 36-mile trail, and there are many horseback outfitters in Leavenworth.
Hiking – Since mountain ranges dot the landscape of Washington, it makes sense that hiking is a favorite past time. And there are far too many opportunities for hiking to list them all. Granite Mountain is a steep climb with seriously rewarding views. Cape Flattery is the northernmost point of the lower 48 and requires a short board-walked hike to get to. Mt. Rainer is a bucket list hike for many mountaineers.
Whale Watching – Seeing a whale’s fin break the surface of the water is a magical experience. There is no better place in the US to spot whales in the wild than in the waters off the coast of Washington. For the best chances of a whale encounter, visit during the summer months, but it’s possible to see them year round. Lime Kiln Point State Park is one of the most reliable places to spot orcas. Outdoor adventure companies run kayaking tours and boat tours throughout the San Juan Islands to get even closer.
Beaches – Whether you are into swimming, hiking, sunbathing or sandcastle building, the beautiful beaches of Washington have something for you. Ruby Beach, in Olympic National Park, is just off of Highway 101. Driftwood and rock formations dot the landscape of the famous La Push Beaches. And Shi Shi Beach is a postcard-perfect stunner with sea stacks and small caves to explore.
Caving – Washington is filled with all kinds of caves – from lava tubes to lake caves to ice caves. Some are safe to go in and explore while others are best observed from afar. Ape Caves are the longest lava tubes in the country in Mt. St Helen National Park. Lenore Lake Caves in Grand Coulee are shallow caves with an interesting history. The Kalaloch Tree Cave in Olympic National Park is a massive cave made from tree roots.
PACIFIC NORTHWEST ROAD TRIP YOUTUBE VIDEO
GETTING TO WASHINGTON
Getting into Washington is easy. Many plane routes, train routes, and major roads connect the state with the rest of the country and world. The largest major airport is Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, though there are 16 other airports throughout the state that smaller airlines service. Amtrak has the Cascade Route that runs from Eugene, Oregon to Vancouver stopping in Seattle and Spokane. Washington has the largest ferry system in the US. You can take an international ferry from Vancouver to Seattle, as well as ferries from Bellingham to Alaska.
However, once you are in Washington, with all of the waterways and mountain ranges, transportation can be tricky. Many highways that run over mountains close in the winter, so be sure to check your route ahead of time.
NATIONAL PARKS IN WASHINGTON
Mount Rainer National Park, also known as the roof of Washington, towers above the city of Seattle. It’s the second tallest mountain in mainland US, and home to hundreds of miles of trails for hiking and snowshoeing. 11,000 people attempt to climb Mt. Rainer each year with a 50% success rate. Don’t let that statistic sideline you, there are so many options for day hikes and shorter trips in the park
Olympic National Park is in the northwest corner of the state and is a huge wilderness of glaciers, rainforests and tide pools. The Hoh Rainforest, Olympic Ridge, gorgeous beaches, and well-kept campgrounds make for an awesome road trip. TMake sure to check out our 7 day Olympic National Park itinerary.
North Cascades National Park is a real wilderness experience, a quick three miles from Seattle. It’s home to grey wolves, wolverines and grizzly bears. The park is not the easiest place to access, which makes it extra appealing to mountaineers interested in avoiding crowds. Your activity options are limitless in this remote park. There are rivers and lakes to paddle, meadows to bird watch and camp in, and hiking trails to tackle. You may be familiar with Desolation Peak – a lookout 6,000 feet high with some of the best views in Washington – made famous by Jack Kerouac. Also don’t miss Hidden Lake Lookout.
Mount Saint Helen’s National Monument was created in 1982 as a means to help the natural area recover from the famous blast. Nowadays, it’s a fantastic place for outdoor fun. There are various hiking routes including a climb to the top of the volcano where you can peer into the massive crater. You can also get a good view from the Johnston Ridge Observatory. Mount St. Helen’s is also home to Ape Cave – the longest network of lava tubes in the country.
The San Juan Islands consist of hundreds of diverse islands, ranging from green rainforests to desolate rock. But only four of the islands can be reached by ferry (Orcas, San Juan, Lopez & Shaw). You’ll see a huge array of wildlife in and around the islands: deer, river otters, whales, seals and birds.
OTHER MUST-SEE WASHINGTON DESTINATIONS
Skagit Valley sits pretty along the Skagit River. It’s got a wild coastline, lush forests, and farmlands full of flowers. This area produces more tulips, daffodils, and iris than anywhere else in the country. The Skagit Valley Tulip festival each April allows visitors to drive through the farmlands to see all the flowers in bloom. Besides flowers, you can also join many popular outdoor activities in the area. Bike the North Cascades Highway, explore the beach at Deception Pass Park, and paddle on Ross Lake.
Snoqualmie Falls is a massive waterfall (268 feet) on the Snoqualmie River. It’s one of the most popular destinations in the state and the setting for the show Twin Peaks. There are opportunities to hike in the area, explore the town, and learn about the history and significance of the falls for the Snoqualmie people.
Puget Sound is an inlet of the Pacific Ocean made up of a web of waterways stretching 80 miles. It includes the major cities of Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia and Everett. Many of the islands in the sound are easy to get to for day or weekend trips from the major cities.
The northernmost point of the continental US is where you will find Neah Bay and Cape Flattery. It’s a beautiful and wild corner of the world with history and culture to explore. Hike Cape Flattery Trail, visit Shi Shi Beach, explore the lonely lighthouse, and watch for wildlife in this often-overlooked part of the state.
TOP WASHINGTON TOWNS TO EXPLORE
Find Port Angeles in the north shore of the Olympic Peninsula. It’s a gateway to Olympic National Park and is known for its huge number of outdoor activities.
Seattle has a huge variety of activities for every kind of traveler. Enjoy the mountains and islands that surround the city. Eat your way through the local markets and restaurants. Head to the top of the Space Needle and take in the views of the city. Explore the indoor and outdoor art museums. It’s an active city with beautiful surroundings, delicious food, and interesting people.
Leavenworth is a bit of an unusual city in Washington, but well worth a visit. Known as the ‘Bavarian Village’, you will think you’ve been transported to Germany instead of Central Washington. The whole town is built to resemble German architecture, and the festivals, restaurants and lederhosen are plentiful. Its location is close to hiking, skiing and playing in the river.
Visit Bellingham for its close proximity to outdoor adventure. It’s just south of the Canadian border, and a good place to base yourself for exploring Washington and Canada. Whale watching in the San Juans, crabbing in the bay, skiing on Mt. Baker, and cycling through the rolling farm country are just a few of the recreation activities popular in this Washington town.