Orca breaching in Puget Sound.
Cradled by mountains, the lush, evergreen-filled “Emerald City” arrays its skyscrapers along coves, lakes and a canal that brings the Alaskan fishing fleet to its winter home port. As an innovation hub, the Seattle area punches above its weight class with Fortune 500 companies that include Boeing, Amazon and Microsoft (not to mention coffee giant Starbucks). Yet its residents tend to obsess more over snow pack than stock options or society galas. This shows most obviously in fine Pacific Northwest traditions such as owning a “dress fleece” (often worn to enjoy some of the area’s world-class food, wine or microbrews). So slip into something more comfortable—and get ready for adrenalin-pumping adventures in and around one of America’s most outdoorsy cities.
Seattle’s fierce, fresh-air fun starts right downtown at Lake Union, an aquatic playground a little larger than Monaco. Gouged long ago by a glacier, this serene body of water sprawls over 580 acres, sheltering everything from salmon to urban beavers, as bald eagles vie for airspace with floatplanes overhead. Fringed by houseboats—including the famous Sleepless in Seattle one—the lake unfurls stunning views of the skyline and Space Needle. On its north shore lies the rusted splendor of the world’s last remaining synthetic-gas plant. The city saved these totemic iron structures as a monument to early industry, creating Gas Works Park, a prime picnicking and kite-flying destination.
Plunge right into this bustling scene with a kayak or standup paddleboard rental from the Northwest Outdoor Center. Or amp up the intensity in a 20-seat Chinese racing vessel with a fiercely carved prow: The Seattle Flying Dragon Boat Club treats new paddlers to three free practices. For a more leisurely tour, try The Center for Wooden Boats, which hires out classic crafts, from rowing skiffs to Blanchard Junior Knockabouts, sloops built right on the lake’s edge from 1933 to 1947.
Cyclists skirt along the water as they explore the almost 19-mile Burke-Gilman Trail. It starts at Golden Gardens Park, a beach on salty Puget Sound where seals, sea lions and even orcas sometimes cavort. A popular fishing and kiteboarding spot, this remains one of Seattle’s best options for a sunset stroll, when color ignites the sky behind the jagged, snow-gilded Olympic Mountains.
The Burke-Gilman—a paved, mostly off-road path—meanders east until it hits vast Lake Washington and flows around its northwestern shore. Here it connects with the 10.9-mile Sammamish River Trail, opening up views of the Cascade foothills and Mount Rainier. Fancy a break? Stop at one of the wineries or breweries that have put Woodinville on the map. Time your trip just right and it could include a moonlit, outdoor flick at Redhook Brewery or a summer concert at Chateau Ste. Michelle,which has hosted legendary talents such as The Beach Boys and Diana Krall.
The Inland Ocean
Fjordlike Puget Sound, America’s second-largest estuary, fills the notch of western Washington’s “mitten” shape. A hundred miles north of Seattle sprawls an archipelago where mist often blurs the borders between the sea, forests and distant peaks. The San Juan Islands National Monument protects this tranquil landscape.
Orcas hold sway here, especially the more than 80 unusual—and deeply endangered—members of the Southern Resident pods. Unlike most killer whales, these gentle giants don’t migrate long distances. They also eschew marine mammal meat and instead each chug up to 25 salmon a day. Their adorable white “eye patches” made this subspecies popular at aquariums and theme parks, which overharvested the group in the 1960s and ’70s. The population has been struggling to recover ever since, and recently it stalled out with no calves born for two and a half years. Happily, the orcas have been experiencing a baby boom with nine births since December 2014 (seven are thriving: a cause for celebration when half usually don’t survive their first year).
Outfitters such as Discovery Sea Kayaks help paddlers squeeze a workout into their whale watching. Visiting between April and October will increase your odds of encountering the orcas, with July and August being the prime months. The company also offers bioluminescent tours in the summer: nighttime expeditions where glowing jellies and dinoflagellates create starry constellations in the dark sea. Landlubbers should stick to Lime Kiln Point State Park, one of the world’s best places to view whales from shore. A 1919 lighthouse graces the rocky cliffs, and it’s an easy 1.25-mile round-trip walk from the parking lot.
Far more extensive trails explore the bays and prairie-covered bluffs of American Camp at the San Juan Island National Historical Park. This marks the site of what may be the best international conflict ever: the Pig War. It all kicked off in 1859, when a Berkshire boar—belonging to Britain’s Hudson’s Bay Company—kept rooting in a Yank’s potato patch. The enraged homesteader finally shot the greedy hog and then was threatened with arrest and eviction from the island (along with all his fellow Americans). The U.S. and U.K., which both claimed the archipelago, seized on the excuse to mobilize troops. Yet over the next 12 years, the soldiers became bored enough to start socializing with picnics, parties and horseraces. Finally, diplomacy ended the standoff: Arbitrator Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany awarded the area to America. The only casualty was the pig.
To the north, within sight of the Canadian border, lies Semiahmoo Bay, one of the state’s best bird-watching destinations, according to the Audubon Society. Hike or bike along the sandy spit where eagles, loons and sea ducks congregate before stopping for oysters at Semiahmoo Resort. Then catch one of the state’s oldest foot-passenger ferries—the 1944 M.V. Plover, listed on the National Register of Historic Places—to continue exploring across Drayton Harbor.
Olympic National Park dominates Washington’s “thumb,” a two- to four-hour drive northwest of Seattle. Also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this nearly 1-million-acre reserve protects beaches, lofty glaciers and the hemisphere’s best and largest swathe of virgin temperate rain forest.
Start with a stroll along Dungeness, one of the world’s longest sand spits. This slender sweep of land juts out from the peninsula’s northeastern side, facing Victoria, Canada, across the Strait of Juan de Fuca. A half-mile trail weaves down a forested bluff to the shoreline and then extends 5 miles to a lighthouse. First lit in 1857, it continues to guide vessels today. Members of the public can apply to be keepers for a week; duties include offering tours to hikers and boaters who arrive between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., raising and lowering the flag and polishing the tower’s brass at dusk ($350/adult, $195 for children ages 6–17, sleeps up to nine people).
Keep an eye on the tide tables, as anything above six feet will force walkers onto the spit’s spine, heaped with rocks and massive drift logs. Spring and summer provide the best windows of opportunity. As always in the Pacific Northwest, pack warm layers that include a waterproof shell —though you may not ever need that rain gear. The area gets less than 20 inches of precipitation annually!
This drier, sunnier zone—known as “the Banana Belt”—extends up into the San Juan Islands. Its residents can thank the Olympic Mountains for all that vitamin D. Formed when the continental land mass collided with the ancient sea floor, jamming it upward, this range intercepts damp breezes off the ocean. As the air rises, it releases its moisture, nourishing the coastal rain forests with more than 200 inches of precipitation each year.
That translates to 30 to 35 feet of snow at Hurricane Ridge, the park’s most easily accessed alpine area, which boasts panoramic views of the strait and jagged, jumbled peaks. At a mile high, it can both literally and figuratively take your breath away, so ease into your adventures here, which can range from winter show-shoeing and downhill skiing to guided full-moon hikes in summer.
Back near sea level, celebrate the country’s largest dam removal, which recently freed the Elwha River and restored more than 70 miles of watershed—critical spawning ground for salmon and trout. Watch nature resume its course up close and personal on Olympic Raft and Kayak’s snorkeling trip. Summer water temperatures can reach 69 degrees, but the outfitter still supplies wetsuits. So strap on a mask, skim down the current and witness the river’s rebirth.
Hardcore water babies should hit the coast, the longest stretch of wilderness shoreline in the contiguous United States. Very expert scuba divers brave the azure waters offshore from Cape Flattery, which teem with orange sponges, crimson anemones and colorful fish. Not quite ready to plunge into the wild, chilly northeast Pacific? Wait for low tide and explore the water’s edge at the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, instead.
Hikers gravitate to the roaring surf and dramatic sea stacks of spectacular Rialto Beach. Head north 1.5 miles—keeping an eye out for otters, sea lions and whales—to Hole-in-the-Wall, an iconic natural arch. The trail passes pick-up-stick tangles of massive logs, often battered bare and smooth by the surf and then weathered ghostly pale. Never climb on these during high tides, as waves can jostle them loose, crushing ankles or even trapping people underwater. In a similar vein, don’t wade into the ocean here or walk close to its edge, even on calm days. The sea’s surges can launch entire tree trunks into the air. This inspired the area’s famous “Beach Logs Kill” signs, which were stolen so often that Kalaloch Lodge—the coast’s national park lodge—now carries a merchandise line with the slogan. Stop in for a bumper sticker, then stay for the gourmet grub and rustic bluffside cabins. Book one with a fireplace or wood-burning stove for winter storm watching, which can be spectacular.
Next head inland to Forks, a logging town first made famous by the spotted owl controversy of the early 1990s, perhaps the fiercest fight in the history of the Endangered Species Act. Today it’s better known for Team Jacob versus Team Edward clashes, as fans of the vampire-series Twilight continue to flock there. Author Stephenie Meyer picked the hamlet sight unseen as the backdrop for her teen romance novels, simply because it’s one of the Lower 48’s rainiest places (a cloudy climate ideal for a brooding, undead high school hero who wishes to avoid sparkling—yes, sparkling—in the sun).
Get any fan-child “squeee!” out of your system before driving 30 miles east to the quietest place in the continental United States, the Hoh Rain Forest. A decade ago, that meant human ruckus didn’t splinter the wild soundscape for an hour at a time. Now those intervals barely top 20 minutes, but nature’s noises still reign here.
Experience the undisturbed heartbeat of the wilderness—or periods of it—at One Square Inch of Silence. In 2005, Emmy-winning acoustic-ecologist Gordon Hempton set out to protect an area no bigger than two postage stamps. He persuaded several airlines to reduce training and maintenance flights overhead. “From a quiet place, you can really feel the impact of even a single jet,” he said. “It’s the loudest sound going. The cone of noise expands to fill more than 1,000 square miles. We wanted to see if a point of silence could ripple out in the same way.”
It did, sparking hopes that the Hoh could become the world’s first sonic equivalent of a Dark Sky Reserve this year, as the park system celebrates its centennial. But expanded fighter jet war games from a nearby naval air station may drown out this dream. Regardless, the 3.2-mile hike to the Inch—marked by a red pebble on a moss-shrouded log at 47 degrees 51.959 minutes North latitude, 123 degrees 52.221 minutes West longitude—will remain a classic for its primeval, old-growth rain forest. Drenched in more than 12 feet of rain annually, the area glows green from its carpet of moss and ferns to branches furred with lichen and the needles of towering Douglas firs. Elk amble here, along with black bears who glut on everything from grubs to salmon and huckleberries as they try to pack on enough pounds to survive winter’s hibernation.
Washington’s other massive chain of pinnacles—the Cascades—emerged from the Ring of Fire, the molten rainbow-shaped arc along the Pacific’s edges that contains 75 percent of all Earth’s active volcanoes. Ease into the alpine experience at Snoqualmie Falls, a 268-foot cataract a half-hour drive east of Seattle. It’s free to park and visit the observation platform, but splurgers may want to pop into the adjacent Salish Lodge (which may appear familiar from its cameo in the original Twin Peaks hit TV series).
The region’s highlight remains Mount Rainier National Park, anchored by its eponymous 14,410-foot volcano: the most glaciated peak in the Lower 48. The gleaming snow cone often appears to loom over Seattle, though it’s actually 65 miles southeast of the city.
Companies such as International Mountain Guides can help alpinists summit this iconic landmark. It requires months of training, not to mention a serious cash outlay on gear, ranging from lightweight titanium sporks to potentially life-saving ice axes. Yet even with excellent preparation, more than half of climbers don’t reach the peak due to weather, avalanches, fatigue, injuries and other curve balls.
Get a taste of the high country with a 9-mile round-trip day hike from the Paradise Jackson Visitor Center (5,400 feet) to Camp Muir (10,100 feet—beyond this, the park requires climbing permits). More easygoing trekkers can explore the wildflower meadows near the 1916 Paradise Inn—perfect for inexperienced folks, as are day tours from outfitters such as Evergreen Escapes. Come winter, this valley becomes a hot spot for sledding and snowshoeing. Hardy types even can build igloos and hollow out snow caves when the drifts grow deep enough (typically December through April).
For more classic resort comforts, turn to Crystal Mountain, 12 miles northeast of Rainier. The state’s first ski gondola can reveal views all the way to Mount St. Helens. At 6,872 feet, Summit House—Washington’s most elevated restaurant—serves goodies such as bison chili, Asiago linguini and lemongrass-gin cocktails. An outdoor area includes a “paw-tio” for summertime travelers accompanied by their four-legged friends.
Finally, get off the beaten track—and the road network entirely—in Stehekin, a mountain community accessible only by boat, plane or foot. Rent a bike or kayak to view pioneer ruins and spot pictographs along the shore. What better ways to explore the headwaters of Chelan, America’s third-deepest lake?