From lush rain forests to staggering mountain peaks, experience the rugged beauty of the this state’s three national parks, each an easy day-trip from Seattle.
If you’re lucky enough to fly into Seattle on a clear day, you’ll see what locals call “The Mountain.” It’s Mount Rainier, a 14,411-foot peak that towers over nearly a quarter million acres of national park. It’s one of a handful of national parks in Washington, all of them great weekend getaways from Seattle.
Old-growth rain forest, monumental peaks and the place where the Pacific Ocean meets the shore in the Northwest corner of the United States—the wild landscapes of Washington State’s national parks offer recreation for all levels of visitors, from the hardcore backpacker to the picnicking day-tripper. Following are a few highlights.
First though, what to know before you go.
It’s cliché because it’s true: The weather is unpredictable, more so in the mountains or on the coast. Wear good shoes for hiking—even short interpretive trails near visitor’s centers can be muddy or icy at any time of year. Dress in layers; be prepared for rain or for sunny conditions to shift to cold.
Fees vary between parks. Check the National Parks Web sites to get the latest rates. If you’re planning to visit more than one park during the year, buy an annual America the Beautiful pass, available online for $80. Store.usgs.gov/pass
Hardy, outdoors-loving Seattleites zip up to Paradise on Mount Rainier’s south side for the day to see wildflowers in spring, take epic hikes in summer or snowshoe the lower trails in the snowy season. Those determined to summit the peak can join an expedition, but if your needs aren’t so lofty, there are easier hikes, too. In the winter, take a ranger-led snowshoe walk—rental snowshoes are only $1, though you’ll need to provide your own snow boots and clothing.
There are two inns on the Paradise side of Mount Rainier National Park: the Paradise Inn at the top of the road and the National Park Inn a little lower in the park at Longmire. The rooms are somewhat spare but the dining hall at the historic Paradise Inn is grand, and it’s a popular destination for brunch in the spring and summer. For a classic day trip, leave Seattle early, take a short hike from the lodge, feast in the restaurant and then head for home. A dining alternative? The Copper Creek Inn near the Nisqually entrance offers good chow and a famous mural. Paradise Inn (reopens May 15, 2009) rates start at $104 per night. National Park Inn rates start at $111 per night. Tel. 360-569-2275. www.mtrainierguestservices.com
You decide. The Olympic National Park’s lush old growth rainforest in a million shades of sparkling green, or low tide with giant purple and orange sea stars clinging to the exposed rocky sea stacks. No matter which you choose, you’re not going to have enough time to fully explore either area. The good news is that it’s impossible to go wrong.
Take the Quinault rain forest nature trail—it’s on the right, just after you enter the Quinault section of the park—and when you’re done, walk through the lobby of Lake Quinault Lodge out on to the deck. You can’t beat the setting or the view. Across the lake is yet another don’t-miss site—Maple Glade, a short flat trail that winds through hanging moss, streams, towering maples and another staggering array of greens.
Heading to the beach? Check the tide tables—low tide at Ruby Beach is a wonderful opportunity to see the critters that populate the rocky pools along at this stunning bit of coastline. Klaloch Beach is a boneyard for the peninsula’s giant trees—bleached trunks of giants lay washed on the sand.
For accommodation, the park lodges are fine—Klaloch has cabins on a bluff above the beach and Lake Quinault Lodge has that majestic deck, but consider the nearby town of Seabook for fully appointed homes with a bit more luxury.
Note: Beginning May 1, 2009, the Hood Canal Bridge will close for six weeks for repairs, but the park will still be open and accessible. Check the Olympic National Park Web site for transportation details: www.nps.gov/olym Lake Quinalt Lodge Spring Fling rates start at $79 per night. 345 South Shore Road, Quinault. Tel. 800-562-6672. www.visitlakequinault.com
The summertime (the road is closed in winter) drive over Washington Pass to the entrance of North Cascades National Park includes lots of breathtaking views. And there are some lovely day hikes from the visitor’s center on the Newhalem side of the park. If you’re not a camper, there are hotels and lodges in nearby Mazama and Winthrop, on the east side of the pass.
But if you really want to get away from it all, board the Lady of the Lake, a ferry that leaves from the town of Chelan in central Washington. The boat runs year-round, with limited service in the low season—book your ticket in advance if you want to be assured a spot. The ride offers views to rival the fjords of Norway, and the village of Stehekin is a perfect base for days of exploration, year-round. In the summer, rent a bike, go horseback riding, kayak the lake, and in winter, go snowshoeing or cross-country skiing by moonlight. 1418 W. Woodin Ave., Chelan. Tel. 888-682-4584. Roundtrip rate from Chelan to Stehekin, $39 for adults, $19.50 for kids 2 to 11 and free for children under 2. www.ladyofthelake.com
The Stehekin Landing Resort is functional, there’s a nice coffee shop, bakery and all-purpose market in the village. A few privately owned cabins are available, but you must book in advance. Bring any must-have essentials with you, as services are limited. Stehekin Landing Resort rates start at $82 per night. Tel. 509-682-4494. www.stehenkinlanding.com