Although so many out-of-towners don’t make it beyond Seattle, Washington state has an abundance of treasures waiting to be uncovered. At the heart of the Pacific Northwest, you can find moss-laden rainforests and arid deserts, snow capped peaks and glacial alpine lakes, fertile wine valleys and wind-swept coastlines. With this outdoor guide to Washington state, you’re sure to regain a connection to Mother Earth as you’re immersed in the diverse landscapes of this enchanting area.
Interested in seeing more the Pacific Northwest? Check out one contributor’s experience taking the Amtrak from Seattle to Portland, Oregon; and then read our mouth-watering list of 12 Black-Owned eateries in Portland. For a bigger picture, read our piece on wild places within the greater American west.
Hop on a ferry to one of the San Juan Islands, where you can kayak and whale watch. Wine lovers can escape the crowds of Napa by meandering through Yakima and Walla Walla wine valleys. Antique shop in small coastal and mountain towns. Hike through fall colors in the North Cascades, a region particularly known for its larches that turn gold at the end of September. During the spring, summer, and fall, head to one of the state’s three national parks, nine national forests, eleven state forests, or over 100 state parks to hike or set up camp. Come wintertime, cozy up in a timber cabin to cozy up in the mountains, watching the snow fall upon evergreen trees.
This upper left corner of the United States also has a deeply-rooted native history. There are currently 29 recognized tribal nations, primarily clustered around the Cascade and Olympic Mountain ranges and the Puget Sound and Pacific Coast. The rich landscapes and parks within the state are sacred to the Indigenous cultures, a fact that travelers exploring Washington should acknowledge and respect.
As Washington began to gradually reopen after quarantine in mid-summer and early autumn, I endeavored to seek out places both new and old to me with the intent to deepen my understanding of the diverse cultural and natural offerings of this northwestern state. Even though I have called Washington home on and off for three decades, each visit home has only revealed more terrain that beckons my curiosity. The short summer seasons are never long enough, particularly when they are interrupted with weeks of wildfires, but with that in mind, Washingtonians take advantage of every last minute of blue-skied and sun-soaked days as we can.
A place quite literally made of myths and fantasies, the Olympic Peninsula stretches from the north coast across to the west coast of Washington state in a dense tangle of rainforests and rugged coastline. Much of this land belongs to tribal nations and holds a sacred place in the cultures of the Quileute, Quinault, and Makah, among other native tribes. While there is concern about bringing tourism to the majestic land central to Indigenous spiritual practices and history, the Olympic National Park is dedicated in its commitment to protect the natural and cultural resources within its boundaries.
The Olympic Peninsula is accessible by driving or ferry. Dense, vast, and varied, your first trip will only inspire you to return time and again to explore the many dimensions of this far-flung peninsula. Weather is unpredictable on the coast, and while I am typically a sun chaser, I have to admit that watching tangles of mist rise over the vast ocean surrounded by forests is nothing short of magical.
Much of the land is inaccessible, specifically for camping, as it is protected native land. During COVID, many nations have been closed to the public entirely to protect native communities from the virus. Major towns are few and far between, so camping is the best way to experience this part of Washington. It is recommended that you book camping permits in advance as the peninsula is a popular weekend destination during the summer.
During your visit, take walks along the beach listening to crashing waves and lounge on the sandy shores of the Pacific Ocean. The coast stretches for miles, opening up into countless beaches to choose from: Second and Third beaches, Rialto, and Shi Shi. Dip your feet in the ice-cold water and climb along fallen trees draped in seaweed. Explore the small tide pools filled with sand dollars, shells, and crabs. Hike through corridors of trees swathed in layers of moss and beneath lush, green canopies in the enchanting Hoh Rainforest. Paddle a canoe down the Sekiu River, ducking beneath tangles of branches. Watch the sun sink into the horizon, reflecting pastel shades of rose and lavender into the ocean. Build a campfire on the sand, the licking flames wrapping you in a warm embrace, as you gaze at the sky alight with the glow of thousands of stars. Stop and take a moment to pause in the natural offerings of the Olympic Peninsula and tread lightly on these lands considered sacred for centuries.
An easy day trip from Seattle, Gig Harbor was once a sleepy fishing village on an isolated peninsula surrounded by the Puget Sound. Founded in the mid-19th century by Croatian and Scandinavian immigrants, Gig Harbor has evolved into a town still largely revolving around maritime culture, dripping in charm, scenic views, beaches, and anything a classic Washington town should have — craft breweries. Even though I begrudgingly transplanted here after many years abroad, Gig Harbor has become one of my favorite day trips to take during the summer.
If you’re in the downtown area of Gig Harbor, stroll along the waterfront and window shop for your favorite sailboat. Stop by the Gig Harbor Taproom to taste a rotating list of local craft brews. The food options in downtown are abundant. My favorite breakfast spot is Netshed No. 9, an old fisherman’s storage with harbor views, offering comfort food like French toast and global-inspired dishes such as banh mi. Brix 25 offers a more upscale dining experience with rotating menus of classic PNW-inspired dishes and an impressive wine list. However, the best view in town is at Tides Tavern — a local favorite. The outdoor patio extends onto the water overlooking the marina, often accompanying a picture-perfect view of Mt. Rainier. This humble establishment has been operating for more than 40 years and offers a menu ranging from pub food favorites to seasonal seafood dishes. Featuring unrivaled local beers and margaritas, you won’t be leaving Tides hungry or thirsty.
One of the best ways to explore Gig Harbor is by water. The Puget Sound surrounds this town, making sea views plentiful. In downtown, you can rent hourly paddle boards and kayaks to tour the Puget Sound. Gig Harbor expands far beyond the winding main street in downtown, where numerous parks, beaches, and islands wait to be discovered. Stroll along a pebble beach and under the Tacoma-Narrow’s Bridge at Narrows Park. Or, head over to one of Fox Island’s many beaches and search for sand dollars and hermit crabs in the tide pools.
I have passed many seasons at this outdoor amphitheater carved from the canyons in central Washington. Notorious for the music festivals that take place against the backdrop of the Columbia River, the Gorge is set against an arid landscape that distinctly contrasts the damp forests of western Washington. Considerably hotter than the western side of the state, the region surrounding the Gorge is characterized by a desert-like climate where tumbleweeds blow and rattlesnakes slither along the dusty paths.
When live music is not available, this region offers some of the best road trip territory in the state. Rising in the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia, the Columbia River is the largest river in the Pacific Northwest flowing northwest and south into Washington state, continuing southwest into Oregon, where it empties into the Pacific Ocean. The Sahaptin name for the Columbia was “Nch’i-Wana,” meaning the “Great River.” For thousands of years, numerous native tribes lived along the Columbia Basin, known for its abundance of salmon until it became a major trading post in the 19th century.
The fir trees of Snoqualmie Pass quickly give way to dry, rolling hills as you cross the mountains and drive across roads that bypass the Columbia River, flowing deep into the canyons. Set up camp overlooking the river’s edge or Quincy Lake. Float in the placid water to cool off from the heat of the afternoon or walk down trails winding through dry brush leading to the Ancient Lakes. With little tree coverage, summer days can be unforgivingly hot, while evenings often bring heavy winds that blow from the river. Nonetheless, this slice of land sandwiched between the Cascade Mountains to the west and flat plains to the east, has a wild-west landscape, both alluring and romantic.
Derived from the native Wenatchi name, “Tsi-Laan,” meaning “deep water,” Chelan is distinguished by its long lake that runs through the region in north-central Washington. Hot, dry summers call for swimming and boating on the lake, while cold, snowy winters necessitate a cozy ski escape in the surrounding mountains.
In recent years, Lake Chelan has also emerged as a wine destination in Washington. This emerging wine region rivals more infamous vineyards in the Yakima and Walla Walla valleys. Driving down the winding roads offers picturesque views over the lake on one side and slopes of vineyards on the other. The Siren Song and Tsillan vineyards are set against vast gardens in the shadow of grand, European-style wine villas. Try a sampling of the vineyards’ best vintages as you relax with a view of the lake. After a day of lake lounging and wine tasting, watch the sun cast gold shadows across the terrain as it sinks behind the rolling hills.
This Bavarian-style town is nestled in a valley east of Seattle with the Cascade Mountains as its backdrop. Until the 1960s, Leavenworth was a thriving logging town before the timber industry declined. With a landscape reminiscent of Bavaria, Leavenworth was reinvented as a German mountain town to stimulate revival. Buildings were transformed to incorporate Bavarian design and Bavarian culture was integrated into the town center.
True to form, Leavenworth is known for its Oktoberfest celebrations (in non-pandemic years) and is abundant in beer and bratwursts. However, this Bavarian-style village is worth visiting in all seasons, with festivals happening almost every month of the year. Despite its well-deserved stereotype as a beer haven, Leavenworth is also a prime wine tasting spot. The central village hosts a number of tasting rooms for Washington wineries. No trip to the town is complete without sampling wine from some of the state’s best vintners. Among my favorite spots is Milbrandt, whose full spectrum of wine impresses me year after year.
Perhaps the best feature of Leavenworth is its abundant nature. The town serves as a starting point for some of the best outdoor activities in the state. The surrounding region is abundant with cabins, rivers, and mountains perfect for city escapes year-round. Not too far from the town is Lake Wenatchee, where you can swim, float, kayak, or paddle board on a sunny day. If you’re seeking a bit of adventure, book a white-water rafting trip down Wenatchee River.
For hiking enthusiasts, the Enchantments in the Central Cascades offer some of the best hiking trails in the state. Because camping requires a permit via a lottery system, day hikes are a popular backup to explore this alpine paradise. Although the through-hike can be accomplished in one day by strong hikers, Colchuk Lake, accessible from Stuart Lake trailhead, offers a bit of everything from the Enchantments: a vivid blue lake, a sweeping vista of alpine meadows, and snow-dusted granite peaks.
Mt. Rainier, originally known as Tahoma, Tacoma, or Talol by the local Salish speakers, is unquestionably one of my favorite places in Washington and arguably my favorite mountain on this planet. No visit to Washington is complete without a visit to the iconic Mt. Rainier, whose snow-capped peak can be seen from all over Seattle and surrounding towns in western Washington.
Like all abundant nature in Washington, Mt. Rainier National Park belongs to Indigenous peoples who have inhabited it for generations. The Cowlitz, Muckleshoot, Nisqually, Puyallup, Squaxin Island, and Yakama people were the original overseers of the land, a fact that is respected and used to guide contemporary interaction with the mountain and surrounding vicinity.
In every season, whether fields of violet and fuchsia summer wildflowers bloom or dry brush tinged with the golden and auburn hues of autumn dye the landscape, the majestic mountain and its surrounding wilderness continue to mesmerize me. Rising 14,410 feet above sea level in the Cascade Mountain range, Mt. Rainier is an active volcano and the most glaciated peak in the contiguous United States. Glaciers slope into subalpine meadows of wildflowers and berries, descending into forests of old and new Douglas fir and cedar trees.
From the avid trekking enthusiast to the tentative hiker, the slopes of Rainier offer something for everyone. I have explored dozens of the hikes within the vicinity of Mt. Rainier National Park and there are many more to explore. Beyond the hikes leaving from the two visitors’ centers—Sunrise and Paradise— there are numerous trails scattered throughout the park. Summerland, Burroughs, and Crystal Lake are among some of my favorite day hikes.
Whether you are looking for alpine lakes, snowy peaks, fields of wildflowers and huckleberries, waterfalls, or lookout points, the national park has them all with views that will have you stopping in your tracks. Keep your eyes out for black bears bumbling through the meadows and mountain goats scaling rocky cliffs. Between November and June, most of the trails are piled deep with snow, so squeeze your visits in during the summer and fall months or come prepared with winter gear. And if you feel like lingering a bit longer, pitch a tent for a night or two and count the stars clustered in the night sky, lulling you to sleep in the serenity of the wilderness.