Smothered with dense forests of fir, cedar and cypress, WASHINGTON really is the “Evergreen State”, rich in natural beauty, national parks and – inconveniently – heavy rain that sweeps in from the Pacific, at least west of the Cascades. Likeable and vibrant, Seattle contains some of the state’s most popular attractions, though its greatest asset may be its proximity to glorious Puget Sound, the deep-water inlet around which much of the population of Washington lives. To the west is the Olympic Peninsula, whose mountains are home to elk and lush vegetation that merges into rainforest, and whose rustic beaches have remained pristine and protected. A few hours south lies the awe-inspiring peak of Mount Rainier and the eye-opening volcanic scenery of Mount St Helens.
Dry and desolate, the sprawling prairie-plateau that makes up most of eastern Washington is a great, bleak expanse enlivened by the pleasant city of Spokane and the colossal Grand Coulee Dam. Otherwise you’re only likely to come out here if you’re travelling the Cascade loop, a spectacular four-hundred-mile round-trip drive through the snow-capped Cascade Mountains.
Eighty miles west of Spokane, the immense Grand Coulee Dam is the country’s largest concrete structure. Constructed between 1933 and 1942 on the Columbia River, the dam was one of the cornerstones of FDR’s New Deal, and remains one of the world’s top generators of hydroelectricity. Heroic tales of power production are detailed in the visitor centre, on Hwy-155 on the west side of the dam, which also runs free 50min tours (April–Oct daily) of the dam and one of its massive generating plants.
Set in its own national park, glacier-clad MOUNT RAINIER (14,410ft) is the highest peak in the Cascades (the seventh highest in the USA), and a major Washington landmark. Not until June does the snow melt enough for roads to open, and then the deer and mountain goats appear, dazzling wild flowers illuminate the alpine meadows and the mountain makes for some perfect hiking.
If you only have a day to explore, visit the south and east sides, entering on Hwy-706 at the Nisqually entrance and stopping at Longmire eight miles further on, site of the area’s first resort in the 1880s and a small museum. Nine miles from here is stunning Narada Falls, a 168ft plunge of water right next to the road, before the last two miles of highway rises to the main visitor centre at Paradise. Note that climbing Mount Rainier peak itself is extremely hazardous and should only be undertaken by experienced climbers.
The looming volcanic mound of MOUNT ST HELENS erupted on May 18, 1980, its blast wave flattening 230 square miles of surrounding forests, creating a massive mudflow that sent an avalanche of debris down the river valleys and killed 57 people. Since then, the forests and animals have re-emerged through the scarred landscape (despite minor eruptions in 2004 and 2005), with the surrounding privately managed forests especially well recovered. The mountain itself is protected within Mount St Helens National Volcanic Monument, managed by the Forestry Service, and accessed via three entry routes (though the peak itself is not accessible by car).
The central part of Washington State is dominated by the mighty Cascade ranges, best experienced from the Cascade Loop Scenic Highway (509 662 3888, cascadeloop.com), an entrancing four-hundred-mile route through the mountains – though the full trip is only feasible during the summer, since at other times snow closes the mountain passes.
The loop begins on Hwy-20 (aka the North Cascades Highway), which runs east from I-5 at Burlington for sixty miles up the Skagit River Valley into the majestic peaks of North Cascades National Park (360 854 7200, nps.gov/noca). Ask about current road and hiking trail conditions at the visitor centre in tiny Newhalem, Hwy-20, milepost 120. Beyond the high passes of the national park, Hwy-20 runs thirty miles down the Methow Valley into the dry, rolling hills of central Washington and one-street WINTHROP, an old mining town officially founded in 1891 and now forever decked out solely in Wild West buildings thanks to a local ordinance.
The fetching resort of CHELAN, sixty miles south of Winthrop, nestles at the foot of Lake Chelan, whose spectacularly deep waters fill a glacially carved trough nestled in the mountains. At the Chelan end the vegetation and low-lying hills are arid and desert-like, and the hotels and small beaches along the lake are hot in summer, making this prime holiday territory.
Chosen as Washington’s territorial capital in 1853 and state capital in 1889, liberal and laidback OLYMPIA has a neat, compact downtown area, though the most attractive part of the city lies just to the south in the Washington State Capitol Campus, littered with grand Neoclassical piles.
Some thirty miles from Seattle, the far northwest corner of Washington State ends at the Olympic Peninsula, a largely untouched wilderness of great snow-capped peaks, tangled rainforests and the pristine beaches of the Pacific edge, as well as being home to eight Native American tribes. As every tween will inform you, this is also the moody, vampire-laced landscape of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series – though the films were mostly shot in Oregon, the books are set in Forks, just outside Olympic National Park. Fringed with logging communities such as this, it’s the magnificent national park where you should spend most of your time, with its superb hiking trails, campgrounds and lodges.
With its multicoloured mansions overlooking the water, convivial cafés and compact scale, PORT TOWNSEND is a handsome relic from the 1890s. Perched on the peninsula’s northeastern tip across from Whidbey Island, Port Townsend’s physical split – half on a bluff, half at sea level – reflects nineteenth-century social divisions, when wealthy merchants built their houses Uptown, far above the clamour of the working-class port below. The Downtown area lies at the base of the hill on Water Street, which sports an attractive medley of Victorian brick-and-stone commercial buildings, now home to restaurants, boutiques and especially, art galleries.
Fifty miles west of Port Townsend, PORT ANGELES is the most popular point of entry into Olympic National Park, a few miles to the south. Its harbour is backed by soaring mountains, but there are few reasons to linger at this workaday stopover – other than the town’s having the peninsula’s best transport links and the biggest choice of motels, supermarkets and cheap places to eat.
Magnificent OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK, comprising the colossal Olympic Mountains in the heart of the peninsula plus a separate, isolated sixty-mile strip of Pacific coastline farther west, is one of Washington’s prime wilderness destinations, with raging rivers, alpine meadows, sizeable tracts of moss-draped rainforest and boundless opportunities for spectacular hiking and wildlife watching. Black-tailed deer are fairly common and quite relaxed around people wielding cameras; black bears, Roosevelt elk and cougars are rarer to spot.
Around 95 percent of the park is designated wilderness and inaccessible by car; no roads go through the middle but instead enter the interior from its edge like spokes on a wheel. Get oriented and check latest conditions at the main visitor centre in Port Angeles before driving seventeen miles (one way) up to Hurricane Ridge, which at 5242ft affords mesmerizing views of the jagged peaks and sparkling mountain glaciers around Mount Olympus (7980ft), the park’s highest point (its peak is only accessible to professional mountaineers).
North and west of Whidbey Island, midway between Seattle and Vancouver, Canada, the unspoiled SAN JUAN ISLANDS are scattered across the northern reaches of Puget Sound, with plenty of small-town charm, culinary treats and killer whales offshore. Every summer brings lots of visitors, especially on the largest islands, San Juan and Orcas, so you’re well advised to book your stay and transport in advance. Ferries depart Anacortes on the mainland, eighty miles north of Seattle, where you can also catch services to Sidney in Canada.
Horseshoe-shaped ORCAS ISLAND offers a bucolic getaway with rugged hills that tower over its fetching farm country, craggy beaches and abundant wildlife. The island’s highlight is Moran State Park off Horseshoe Highway southeast of Eastsound (the main island settlement), where more than thirty miles of hiking trails wind through dense forest and open fields to freshwater lakes and to the summit of Mount Constitution – the San Juans’ highest point at 2409ft – crowned with a medieval-style stone observation tower.
SAN JUAN ISLAND is best known as the site of, at the southern tip, San Juan Island National Historical Park, where the American Camp (360 378 2902, nps.gov/sajh), once played a role in the so-called “Pig War”, a rather absurd 1859 border confrontation between the USA and Britain (no shots were fired, and the island was officially ceded to the USA in 1872). More appealing is English Camp, to the west (same entry as American Camp), where forests overlook rolling fields and maple trees near the shore, and four buildings from the 1860s and a small formal garden have been restored.
Friday Harbor is a small and attractive resort village with cafés, shops and a waterfront that make for pleasant wandering. Its small Whale Museum, 62 First St N (whalemuseum.org), has a set of whale skeletons and displays explaining their migration and growth cycles, as well as a listening booth for whale and other cetacean songs. To see the real thing, head past the coves and bays on the island’s west side to Lime Kiln Point State Park, 6158 Lighthouse Rd, named after the site’s former lime quarry. Orca (“killer”) whales come here in summer to feed on migrating salmon, and there’s usually at least one close sighting a day.