Discover Washington Through These Trips of a Lifetime

From wine tours on horseback to gunkholing the San Juans, these 10 amazing itineraries let you explore the Evergreen State in incredible ways.

Hell-Bent Heli-Skiing

The North Cascades, set near Highway 20, may not be close to cocktail bars and après ski lodges, but that’s the best feature of the angled peaks—all it takes is a little work to access the wildest, most untouched land in the state. That, and an ASTAR B3 chopper.

An epic ski begins at the elegantly rustic Freestone Inn near the old-timey town of Winthrop, home of feather pillows, soaking tubs and one North Cascade Heli-Skiing heli-barn, crammed with demo gear and skis as fat as snow tires.

After a 10-minute flight, choppers drop skiers among the jagged peaks, below granite spires and above glades of trees in a 300,000-acre zone—and always above perfect, untouched powder. Guides direct the bird to the razor-edge ridgelines so fine that there’s nowhere to go but down.

A day is seven runs of about 12,000 vertical feet. Additional runs are available for a fee, depending on the conditions, but most skiers will be daydreaming of those feather pillows back at the lodge.

—Allison Williams

Tip: Those not into skiing, snowboarding or snowmobiling have options: The Methow Trails Nordic ski trail system provides for 120 miles of skiing in the Methow Valley. The system is divided into four areas—including Sun Mountain Trails, Mazama Trails, and Rendezvous Trails—all connected by the Methow Community Trail, which has a suspension bridge crossing the Methow River and lodges along the way. Some of the trails are also accessible to fat bikes, kids, dogs in some places and snowshoers in winter. 

Which Way to Stehekin?

Stehekin isn’t a fairy tale, but it might as well be: a tiny town on one of the deepest lakes in the country, unreachable by road. Stehekin sits on the north end of snake-shaped Lake Chelan at the foot of the North Cascades; if this is the serpent’s tail end, the head is 50 miles south in the real world, the town of Chelan. The fastest ferries take two and a half hours to reach the top of the lake.

But the best trip to Stehekin is the land route from the northwest, a 23-mile hike best trekked in two days. From the western side of the mountains it’s first a slog 1,700 feet up Cascade Pass. The view is a just reward: jagged peaks, stark-white glaciers and forested valleys traveled by fur traders and Native Americans for centuries.

Down one of those valleys you go, past the hardy flowers of subalpine meadows and along the growing Stehekin River. The trail passes small backcountry campgrounds, the best of which has a rentable canvas tent next to a sagging, abandoned log cabin. Cherry-red national park buses finish the trip into the heart of Stehekin.

Hiking in may be the best route into Stehekin, but a floatplane flight is the fastest way out. It’s a lot of trouble to reach such a little town—but were it easy to reach Stehekin, the spell would be broken.

—Allison Williams

Tip: Reserve a spot in the Stehekin Outfitters tent-to-tent trailside accommodations.

Ride Around Washington

The wild Pacific coastline gives way to the rolling Columbia River. The green and moss of the Olympic Peninsula drifts into wheat-colored hills behind the shadow of bicycles. On and on the riders spin, circling the state from the saddle.

Repeating every four years, Cascade Bicycle Club’s RAW (Ride Around Washington) Cycle pays homage to composer Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, with a weeklong tour in a different part of the state. Taken as a whole, the four routes circumnavigate Washington counterclockwise.

The first year’s ride begins in Anacortes, crosses the Deception Pass Bridge and dips into the fertile Skagit Valley before turning southwest and heading—by ferry—to Port Townsend. From here, riders traverse the Olympic Peninsula alongside fields of lavender and majestic rain forests before dropping to the southwest border.

The second ride begins at the coast, retraces Lewis and Clark’s journey along the Columbia, and ends in Walla Walla. On the third year, riders pick up the route and traverse the Palouse into the far northeast corner of the state. Then, in the fourth year, cyclists ride along Highway 20 all the way to Bellingham.

This is camp for adults: Sponsors transport gear, make side trips to islands, host oyster feasts and schedule lots of wine tastings.

—Julie H. Case

Tip: Of course, you don’t need to wait for the next camp: Cascade Bicycle Club keeps maps of past rides and detailed blogs on the journey available to anyone. 

Cast Away

Fishing Washington is a lifetime dream for many. Here, halibut lurk in icy ocean depths just below chinook and silver salmon. A rainbow of trout—cutthroats and browns and bulls—dart among shadowed rivers. Lakes and streams are stippled with largemouth and smallmouth bass, bluegill, crappie, perch and walleye; the Pacific with tuna, rockfish and lingcod. Best of all, a mere five days can deliver action among them all.

Begin in Anacortes, where a number of charters launch for access to the San Juan Islands and Strait of Juan de Fuca, some of the best salmon waters in the state. Head to the deeper holes along Hein Bank between Lopez and Whidbey islands, or along the Strait of Juan de Fuca to hook big halibut. Then troll herring for chinook salmon, who hit hard and run up to 30 or more pounds. Silver salmon take bright lures trolled near the surface.

The second day, drop anchor to try your luck for lingcod and other bottom fish. Then explore the many side channels of the San Juan Islands for blackmouth salmon, another variety of chinook.

Head to the Olympic Peninsula on your third day either for halibut off Neah Bay or to go after the elusive steelhead—one of the best fighting fish anywhere. Anglers from around the globe make the pilgrimage to the Bogachiel, Sol Duc, and Calawah rivers, which merge four miles from the Pacific Ocean to become the Quillayute, in search of steelhead. These rivers also host spring chinook runs, with some fish weighing in excess of 50 pounds.

If you’ve tired already of halibut, head instead to Westport. Billed as the salmon-fishing capital of the world, it offers year-round action, with excellent king and silver salmon fishing as well as bottom-fishing for lingcod and rockfish, and deep-sea fishing for bulletlike albacore tuna.

Drive east on your fourth day to the Yakima River, of which a 75-mile stretch is designated as Washington’s only official Blue Ribbon trout stream, and is a year-round catch-and-release fishery with rainbow and cutthroat trout running up to 20 inches.

Finally, switch things up: Hunt upland birds on a guided trip with Red’s Fly Shop, or toss plugs to catch smallmouth bass in the Lower Yakima River.

—Nicholas O’Connell

Tip: The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife sells fishing licenses, keeps a list of lakes with an overabundance of fish and has directions on where to go fish now.

Find fishing charters out of Anacortes and Westport

If you’re new to fly fishing, consider hiring a guide for the Yakima River at Red’s Fly Shop.

Delica-Tour

The islands around Puget Sound have a natural beauty that’s a feast for the eyes, from dazzling mountain views to waterside walks. The rocky refuges provide a wondrous banquet for the palate as well, with chefs creating meals specific to their scenic locales. While ferry rides separate these eateries from mainland supplies, they have abundant natural riches to work with. Here’s how to rest, rejuvenate and eat like royalty.

Dandelions, elderberries and sweet spot prawns are the sorts of material chef Blaine Wetzel works with at the Willows Inn on Lummi Island. The multicourse dinner, as many as 18 petite plates, is a shared experience as much as a meal. 

While it’s tempting to just relax after exploring the artsy little town of Langley, missing dinner would be a sin. Reserve a few hours to appreciate the Inn at Langley’s seasonal fixed-price dinner, the daily invention of award-winning chef Matt Costello. Even meat-and-potatoes fans will appreciate Costello’s commitment to using the freshest ingredients, such as the rabbit served with “what he ate”—an assortment of vegetables—and a dreamy dessert using pastry cream infused with island spruce.

At Hitchcock, on Bainbridge Island, chef-owner Brendan McGill uses an understanding of the region’s microclimates to tweak recipes. The peninsula’s products direct his preparations, from gnaw-worthy pork chops to pea vines and quince fruits from his own home farm. The restaurant is cozy, intended as a place for islanders to find a fine meal. Word spread, national accolades followed and McGill's island love letter became
a destination.

—Rebekah Denn

Tip: Touring diners can now reserve more than just a table—they can reserve a spot on the ferry, too. 

Art and Americana

The Palouse region’s spotted horses, barns and vintage vehicles have drawn snap-happy travelers for decades, as has the panoramic vista from Steptoe Butte, which unfurls endless patterns in the luminous landscape. Jack Lien, of Four Seasons Photo Tours, estimates more than 6,000 photographers visit in a year, and more than 30 companies lead workshops.

Photographers are lucky enough to roam among meadows and canary-colored fields of canola, capturing images of tawny plateaus, emerald sheaves of rye and storm clouds juddering over grain elevators or a moose and calf ambling across a back road at twilight. A peace winds through the Palouse, a rare balance between the earth and its inhabitants.

—Amanda Castleman

Tip: Visit for at least five days: May and June offer gold and green tones while July is harvest.

The Pullman Chamber of Commerce publishes a road map of Photography Hot Spots on the Palouse. 

Historic Discovery

Sunlight streams through stained glass, flashing as the cherry-red paddlewheel spins. And the American Empress—the largest overnight riverboat west of the Mississippi—eases passengers through the Pacific Northwest.

Launched in 2014, this Victorian-esque vessel offers nine-day itineraries between Clarkston and Vancouver. Board the Empress near Clarkston, where wheatfields give way to the basalt columns and sagebrush bluffs of the Snake River. A jet-boat day trip takes passengers into Hells Canyon, the deepest river gorge in North America.

At the Tri-Cities, the American Empress churns onto the mighty Columbia. During the day, a shore excursion lets you explore the Red Mountain wine region. Buy a Lemberger at Kiona Vineyards, then tour the French-chic Hedges Family Estate and the more down-to-earth Black Heron Spirits.

The 223-passenger sternwheeler lazes downstream, bursting with spirits, food and entertainment ranging from New Orleans honky-tonk piano to lectures on everything from Sacagawea to manifest destiny. The landscape greens steadily, until you wake moored in Vancouver. Then sail for Astoria, Oregon to explore Lewis and Clark’s old haunts on Cape Disappointment.

—Amanda Castleman

Tip: The American Empress sails the Snake and the Columbia rivers April through November. 

Summiting Mount Rainier

Every year, more than 10,000 people attempt to summit Mount Rainier, to stand above the clouds on top of the most glaciated peak in the Lower 48. Less than half make it.

That’s part of why it’s so special—not just anyone can climb to 14,410 feet through snow, rock, wind and altitude change. Proper training is always important, as is keeping fingers crossed for optimal weather conditions.

There are dozens of ways to the top, the most common being the Disappointment Cleaver route, done over two or three days. Summit day generally starts around midnight, with climbers in various states of a zombie trance while roping up to teammates.

Soon, you get into a rhythm. In the still of the night, headlamps steadily bobbing their way up the mountain look like fireflies dancing. Suddenly, nearby mountains such as Adams and St. Helens seem to spring from nothing, bathed in an elegant orange glow. When you arrive, the summit crater is vast.

—Haley Shapley

Tip: Mt. Rainier National Park has information on planning, regulations and permits. Climbing passes—valid for the calendar year—are required to summit, as is a wilderness permit if camping overnight. 

Start training early—specifically four to six months prior. Consider long hikes with big elevation gains and a heavy pack, working up to at least 40 pounds—about how much weight you’ll carry the first day.

Odds of good weather are best in July and August. If you’re new to mountaineering, it would be wise to use a guide service such as Rainier Mountaineering Inc. or International Mountain Guides.

Gunkhole the San Juans

Some 172 islands make up the San Juan archipelago although only a handful are habitable. Still, even tiny ones that seem to drift in the middle of a channel can provide hours of adventure when you’re gunkholing these waters. And that’s what gunkholing is: the art of drifting in and out of bays and coves, dropping anchors—and crab pots and fishing lines—into the inky depths along the way.

Sail up to a tiny island and anchor in a cove. Drag a dinghy off the boat and head for shore, where you might spend an hour discovering the shoreline and watching seals at play. Then head out again and rendezvous with other sailboats in a bay at another island, a few miles away. As the sun sets after dinner, the stars come out in a breathless pattern overhead.

—Julie H. Case

Tip: Several companies offer sail or powerboat charters out of the San Juans, some of which include crew and have optional provisioning.

Driverless Wine

Wine-loving cyclists have been making the pilgrimage to France on two wheels for years, but wine tasting in Washington offers that and other unique ways to tour.

By bike, the roads around Lake Chelan offer countless miles of biking loops and access to the local wineries. Heading around the north shore from downtown on two wheels means passing between the lake and rising cliffs. Stop to taste at wineries just out of town, then continue on to Winesap Avenue for a sample at any of the three wineries here before ascending the long, sloping road that rises between vineyards and plateaus, with a sweeping lake view.

From here, spin downhill to the small town of Manson and the tasting rooms that surround it. And in Walla Walla, oenophiles cycle mile after mile of hilly terrain, stopping to taste along the way.

In the Yakima Valley, wine lovers and horse lovers meet in Zillah at Cherry Wood for long tours among the grapes on horseback.

Aficionados who want to go to new heights can take a hot-air balloon ride out of Snohomish and finish it with wine tasting in Woodinville. Or, best of all, drift or soar into Rio Vista, near Lake Chelan. Nestled on the Columbia River, it’s accessible by both boat and floatplane.

—Julie H. Case

Tip: Pick up a bike map around Walla Walla, or download one in advance.

For horseback rides try Cherry Wood Bed, Breakfast & Barn in Zillah or Red Mountain Trails in Benton City.

In Snohomish, Over the Rainbow offers balloon rides. Chelan Seaplanes offers winery tours in the North Central region.