Exploring the Best of Washington's Parks and Recreation

For Washington state’s many parks and preserves, unforeseen discoveries are common.
Vacation in Washington State
Vacation in Washington State

Few places enjoy as much wealth in parks as Washington. While iconic features like surging salmon streams, impenetrable mountain wilderness and alpine meadows come to mind, there are also opportunities to experience the atypical aspects—such as impromptu body surfing in Olympic National Park's Shi Shi Beach shoreline section—of some of the best recreational spots in the state.

Olympic National Park

One of America’s largest and best-known parks does hold impressive temperate rain forests, from the 200-inches-a-year cedar-and-hemlock valleys of the Hoh, Quinault, Queets, Sol Duc, and Bogachiel rivers to the towering old Douglas firs of the drier north side’s Elwha and Dungeness rivers. The park was declared a UNESCO biosphere reserve in 1976 and a World Heritage Site in 1981. Its vast size (almost 1 million acres) and geographic diversity make it ever-intriguing.

One can see a marvelous restoration project underway on the Elwha, where two old dams have been removed and the once-captive river freed for the return of its famous salmon runs. Though the project is only a few years along, already the kings and cohos of the glorious past are coming back to the upper valley. It’s a taste of the environmental redemption that modern civilization can sometimes achieve.

Mount Rainier National Park

America’s most conspicuous volcano is an ivory cone in the background from many locales in the state—including Seattle, from which it is framed in countless photographs. At 14,410 feet, only a few mountains in the lower 48 states surpass Rainier.

The park itself holds more accessible wonders than its snow-and-ice-covered pinnacle. Some of the Northwest’s finest old-growth forest is here—Grove of the Patriarchs, most notably, with trees more than a millennium old—and the alpine flanks reached by hiking from Paradise hold wildflower meadows that become nature’s impressionist masterpieces in late July.

Even a relatively modest walk from the Paradise Visitor Center affords expansive views of the Puget Sound basin, and craning your head upward to inspect the peak above reminds you that this is a really, really big mountain.

North Cascades National Park

Technically, you can’t drive to this wilderness preserve east of Bellingham. State Route 20 bisects the mountains, but the park boundaries are away from the road.

The park is home to more than half the glaciers left in the lower 48 states. Here, old-growth trees tower skyward, and a profusion of wildflowers paints the alpine meadows in sublime color in late summer.

The most popular way to see both is the Cascade Pass hike: Driving to the trailhead takes you through old growth along the Cascade River Road, and as you traverse the 3.7-mile trail’s three dozen or so switchbacks, sawtoothed Johannesburg Mountain comes in view. At the pass itself, fields of flowers beckon, and marmots, pikas and chipmunks perform a cheery symphony of wilderness melodies.

Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area

Cruising a vast desert lake on a houseboat in the heat of summer? Most would think of Lake Mead or Lake Powell in the Southwest, but the impoundment behind Grand Coulee Dam in eastern Washington is equally appealing, almost as vast (the lake is 130 miles long, with 600 miles of shoreline) and thankfully blessed with long, warm summer days that linger well into fall.

Fishing, swimming, wildlife watching and just general relaxing are the key attractions here—and with all that expanse of water, it’s easy to find a quiet cove with no one around. Rentals are available at two large marinas—Kettle Falls and Keller Ferry—and 26 campgrounds line the lake’s shores.

If you need something to contemplate, aside from spicy-scented pine forests and the vast blue sky of the Inland Empire, consider that Grand Coulee Dam remains the largest single power plant in the United States, and one of the largest on earth, almost three-quarters of a century after it was built.

Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument

The wonder of nature’s recovery from disaster is on display at this Cascade volcano that famously blew its top in 1980. Now, decades later, both the epic scale of the eruption and nature’s reclamation process are visible from the various viewpoints and interpretive centers that line State Route 504 up into the monument.

In particular, the gaping northern maw of the crater reminds all that earth holds forces immense enough to literally move mountains. Occasional vents of steam remind Northwest residents that this is still the most active volcano in the lower 48—and green young forests evidence nature’s quick response to cataclysm. 

San Juan Islands National Monument

Though it’s scattered among the islands in non-contiguous parcels, this monument’s designation testifies to the exceptional character of these islands amid the Salish Sea. Home to what may be the world’s best-known orca population, set between three mountain ranges and home to a larger number of charming small towns and hamlets than traffic lights, the San Juans are incredibly unique.

The monument itself preserves several dozen small parcels, most notably Iceberg Point on Lopez Island, a prime whale-watching overlook. It also awards federal recognition to a unique Northwest ecosystem in which oaks and maples, meadows and old-growth woods all hopscotch across a granite-and-prairie landscape.

Steptoe Butte State Park

The attraction here is simple: a 360-degree, 200-mile view of the Palouse, eastern Washington’s region of rolling hills that are among the most fertile agricultural areas on earth. In May and June, the almost-neon green of ripening wheat fields makes a vivid sight; two months later, golden wheat shimmers in the sun. Fences and highways thread patterns among the hills like an expressionist canvas. Though the butte is only 3,600 feet high, it is among the best viewpoints in the West.

Cape Disappointment State Park

This immense rocky headland may have been discouraging to Captain John Meares, the explorer who named it, but it’s not disappointing to visitors. Views of the Columbia River’s mouth and the North Head Lighthouse are inspiring, the shore is perfect for beachcombing and the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center describes the famed explorers’ winter sojourn in the region in 1805.

Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area

When Sam Hill and other Northwest visionaries (and tycoons) set out to build a highway through “the Gorge,” as it is known in the region, there was just one major objective: Provide auto tourists a venue from which to enjoy the impressive landscape formed by the Columbia’s passage through the Cascades—a draw just as appealing today as a century ago.

Waterfalls pour down from towering basalt bulwarks; old-growth forests shade the narrow streams flashing down from the heights. Most impressive of all is the dramatic environmental transformation that takes place over just 80 miles, from the old-growth rain forests near Stevenson to the arid grasslands near Goldendale, below which Hill built a replica of Stonehenge and a small museum in Maryhill.

Deception Pass State Park

Though it’s a marvelous shoreline preserve, with a shallow lagoon perfect for swimming, stroll-worthy beaches and a dandy little campground, the most famous attraction here is the bridge crossing its namesake passage. The dizzying view down to the narrow channel invariably reveals one of the West Coast’s most active tidal rips, surging through the channel like a mountain river. 

Lake Chelan National Recreation Area

The 50.5-mile-long Lake Chelan is essentially a freshwater fjord, and though the recreation area encompasses much of the lake, the most intriguing portion is at the far northeast end. Here the hamlet of Stehekin is reached by boat, plane or trail only, and provides a serene getaway whose park lodge, small inns and campgrounds are famously complemented by a local bakery with fans found far and wide. Hiking, bike riding, fishing and wildlife watching occupy the time. Main access is from the town of Chelan

Hanford Reach National Monument

The last free-flowing, nontidal stretch of the inland Columbia plies 51 miles, just north of Richland. Floating the river here constitutes a journey into the past. Eagles and osprey wheel overhead; sagebrush form a desert forest on the riverside flats; coyotes, deer and the occasional pronghorn prowl the sage; and recent history looms tall on the southern banks in the form of World War II–era Hanford nuclear lab buildings. It’s an otherwordly experience in many ways.

Trip Tips

Download the Pocket Ranger app for more on-the-go info. An America the Beautiful Pass grants access to all national parks. A Discover Pass is required for vehicles at state parks and recreation areas.

—Eric Lucas

Photo: Hanford Reach National Monument, courtesy of Gary White/Visit Tri-Cities