Special Interest Online Publications - Outdoor Activities

Outdoor Activities

By Mike McQuaide


When it comes to the outdoors, perhaps no state offers the epic range of recreation possibilities that Washington. does. Within its 71,000 square miles—roughly the size of all of New England—are countless opportunities for world-class mountain climbing, scuba diving, skiing, snowboarding, hiking, surfing, wildlife viewing and much, much more.

All of it is set against a scenic backdrop that’s second to none, not to mention mind-bogglingly diverse. From the most glaciated, snow- and ice-covered mountain in the Lower 48 to arid steppe deserts where temperatures hit triple digits and the sun shines more than 300 days a year, to just about everything in between. Literally.

Washington’s thousands of miles of coastal shoreline and inland waterways make it a dream destination for sea kayaking enthusiasts. For an unforgettable, memory-of-a-lifetime experience, head to the San Juan Islands where you can paddle among the 90 orca whales that make the 400-island archipelago their summer home.

If you’re more the solid land-type person and hiking, backpacking and camping are your passions, Washington boasts three national parks—Mount Rainier, Olympic, and North Cascades—and dozens of state and county parks. They’re crisscrossed by thousands of miles of hiking and biking trails and dotted with dozens of campgrounds and day-use picnic areas.



Mount Rainier, whose national park was established in 1899, is the highest peak in the Cascade Range, and the second tallest mountain on the West Coast. Its icy 14,411-foot summit and 35 square miles of glaciers lure mountaineers from around the world—from recreational climbers to professional alpinists training for ascents of Mount Everest.

But the mountain isn’t only for the hardcore or ambitious. Dozens of trails for all ability levels along its lower flanks—some trails even paved and wheelchair accessible—offer a true Rainier experience for those whose aspirations don’t include climbing to the top. And Rainier’s meadows, jaw-dropping waterfalls, ancient forests and more are every bit as inspiring as its icy summit.



Just south of Rainier, Mount St. Helens, famous for its 1980 cataclysmic eruption, annually draws thousands of hikers, backpackers, sightseers and even spelunkers eager to experience the mountain’s Blast Zone first-hand. Like Mount Rainier, Mount St. Helens is crisscrossed by dozens of trails for enthusiasts of all levels.

Ape Cave, at the southern end of the Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument area, is beloved by those with a craving for caving; at over two miles long, it’s the longest continuous lava tube in the country and each year is explored by thousands of headlamp-wearing spelunkers.

At the far north end of the state, Mount Baker is renowned as one of the birthplaces of snowboarding and for boasting the highest single-season snowfall in recorded history—during the 1998-99 season, an astounding 95 feet of snow fell at the Mount Baker Ski Area! Like most of Washington’s marquee mountains, Mount Baker is a wonderland of snow and snow-related activities for part of the year and a hiking and biking hotspot the rest.

Numerous hiking and backpacking trails head out from Artist Point: at 5,100 feet, this is one of the highest paved roads and trailheads in the state. Located at the end of the ultra-scenic Mount Baker Highway, there’s even a bicycle race to the top, which annually draws almost a thousand hill-loving riders.



Along with lots and lots of snow, Washington’s 12 ski areas offer the range of mountain experience—from high-speed quads and resort hotels to single-lift family ski areas that seem plucked right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. For sheer uniqueness, it’s hard to beat Leavenworth’s Ski Hill where hearty souls fly through the air after launching themselves from the small ski area’s two ski jumps.

For snowshoers and cross-country skiers, it doesn’t get much better than Winthrop and the Methow Valley in sunny eastern Washington. There, more than 100 miles of dedicated cross-country ski trails—the second-largest network of Nordic ski trails in the country—extend throughout the valley, contouring below rolling hillsides and passing by sparkling creeks and rivers.



In spring, those melted-out trails transform the valley into a hotbed of horseback riding and mountain biking opportunities. Numerous guide services lead equestrian trips high into the nearby hills, the experience accentuated by the valley’s unique Old West charm.

For a birds-eye view, consider a guided hot-air balloon tour of the Methow Valley or show up for the area’s spring Balloon Roundup. The Methow Valley Sport Trails Association (MVSTA) works not only to maintain and improve the trail system, but also offers a variety of biking, running, and cross-country skiing events and festivals that draw racers and enthusiasts from throughout the Northwest.



Washington’s freshwater lakes and rivers offer limitless paddling, sailing and boating opportunities. Fifty five-mile-long Lake Chelan, the third-deepest freshwater lake in the U.S., is not only a scenic wonder—mountain ridges on both sides rise 5,000 feet and higher right from water’s edge—but it truly has something for every water enthusiast.

At its southern reaches, closer to the town of Chelan, full-service marinas cater to power boaters, water skiers and personal watercraft enthusiasts. At its far northern shores, the lake is a remote wilderness paradise—a backpacker’s dream destination at the edge of North Cascades National Park—accessible only by ferry, hiking trail, canoe, or floatplane.

Farther east, massive Lake Roosevelt, created when the Grand Coulee Dam was completed in 1942, is another boater-angler-swimmer’s delight. Its 600-mile shoreline is lined with campgrounds, boat launches and marinas, and is a terrific place to rent a houseboat in the summer. It’s one of Washington’s three National Recreation Areas—Lake Chelan and Ross Lake are the others—places, which, by their designation, seem required by federal law to provide opportunities for fun. Like all of Washington, they don’t disappoint.



Speaking of fun, the mighty Columbia River—more than a mile wide at stretches and draining more water into the Pacific than any river in the Western Hemisphere—forms much of the state’s southern border with Oregon and is known the world over for its windsurfing and kite boarding. Cutting right through the Cascade Mountains, the Columbia’s spectacular gorge has been designated a National Scenic Area and boasts loads of camping, fishing, boating, hiking and biking fun. Beacon Rock, an 850-foot monolith at river’s edge named by Lewis and Clark during their explorations more than 200 years ago, is a popular tick list item for rock climbers as well as day hikers.

Nearer to Idaho, the Snake River passes through the deepest river gorge in the world—Hell’s Canyon—that is over 9,000 feet deep in spots. Though much of the gorge forms the Oregon-Idaho border, Washington’s small town of Clarkston is considered the gateway to Hell’s Canyon with numerous outfitters and guide services offering day-long and multi-day whitewater rafting, jet boarding (including extreme jet boating), kayaking and fishing adventures. Along with trout, salmon and bass fishing, the Snake River is noted for its sturgeon, the largest freshwater fish in North America. Some of which grow to eight feet long!



Southeast Washington’s relatively low snowfall and milder temperatures make it a golfing hotspot with several courses open year-round for teeing off. But there’s terrific golfing throughout Washington State. Chambers Bay, at the southern tip of Puget Sound, is a links course on track to host the U.S. Open in 2015. Seattle’s Sahalee Country Club, which hosted the PGA in 1998, is another that’s ranked among the top courses in the country, as is the Arnold Palmer-designed Semiahmoo Golf Course, just south of the U.S.-Canada border.



If you’re more of an off-roader and getting down and dirty is more your speed, head for the wide-open sandy dunes of Moses Lake, or the wet and wild, rock- and root-riddled twisty trails and rough roads of Walker Valley—motor parks beloved by off-road vehicle enthusiasts of every stripe. Maybe you like fat tires, but want to supply your own power. As with snowboarding, Washington was one of the first states to embrace the thrills—and potential spills—of mountain biking and over the past 20 years, destination areas have popped up like mushrooms after a spring rain—Galbraith Mountain near Bellingham; Tiger Mountain near Seattle; Devil’s Gulch near Wenatchee; Capitol State Forest near Olympia; and so on.

Road and recreational bicyclists have it made in Washington as well. Seattle is one of the most bike-friendly—and, frankly, bike-obsessed—cities in the country and throughout the state. Numerous abandoned railways have been converted into trails and paved pathways for cyclists and other non-motorized users. Some are quite long too: the John Wayne Pioneer Trail stretches from just outside Seattle east all the way to the Idaho border.



Still looking for something to do? Why not hike to an historic fire lookout high atop a craggy peak in the Cascade or Olympic Mountains and let yourself be dazzled by the sea of peaks effect—wave upon wave of mountain after mountain in all directions, as far as the eye can see. Take it a step farther by toting along a sleeping bag and spend the night up there. Many lookouts are available for overnight stays. Want a unique mountain experience but rather not carry anything at all? Try a llama trek along the Pacific Crest Trail in the otherworldly Pasayten Wilderness.

If you’re in the Puget Sound area, go scuba diving at Edmonds Underwater Park—one of 10 in the state—and explore manmade reef structures and submerged vessels that create a rich, fascinating underwater habitat. Or head down under out in the San Juan Islands—Jacques Cousteau once said it was his second favorite place to dive anywhere in the world—where you may come across salmon, sea lions, giant Pacific octopi and maybe even an orca!



Or, when temperatures rise, just take a dip. Splash around. While most of Puget Sound is too cold to swim comfortable, plenty of Washington’s lakes and rivers provide summer relief and summer fun. Laze the day away in an inner tube floating the Wenatchee River as it passes through Leavenworth’s Riverfront Park, or Banks and Roosevelt lakes at Grand Coulee Dam.

Maybe you love the water but have no desire to get down in it—no problem, Washington’s lakes and rivers offer myriad wildlife watching opportunities as well as a contemplative tranquility that only bodies of water can provide. Its inland tidal waters—the endless numerous bays, passages, straits and channels of Puget Sound harbor mud flat and tide pool wonders. Whole ecosystems of blue and orange sea stars, fiery red urchins, neon-hued sea anemones and more, thriving in pockets of water left by the ebb and flow of the tides.

Go on a guided bicycle tour of the San Juan Islands. Roll along low-trafficked roads of Lopez Island or deep into the forests of Orcas Island’s Moran State Park. Head for the top of 2,409-foot Mount Constitution, the highest point in the islands and where the panoramic vista—far into the remote Coast Mountains beyond Vancouver, British Columbia south to Mount Rainier and beyond—is a true Northwest classic.



Participate in one or more of the state’s many outdoor-themed fairs and festivals such as the West Coast Sea Kayak Symposium or Trailsfest or the Leavenworth Spring Bird Fest, the Rainier Mountain Festival or Methow Valley Fall Bike Festival. Maybe you’re the type who was born to run; really, really far, as in marathon far. If so, Seattle, Tacoma, Spokane, as well as a number of smaller cities throughout Washington boast their own marathons. But the biggest race of all, when it comes to sheer number of participants, is Spokane’s 7.4-mile Bloomsday Run, which annually draws some 50,000 runners, making it one of largest in the country.



In winter, head for rivers such as the Skagit, Sauk, Nooksack and others where bald eagles gather by the hundreds to feed on runs of spawned-out salmon. The Skagit River delta is noted also as the winter home for trumpeter swans, snow geese, and countless raptors and shorebirds. When the snow flies near Yakima, Rocky Mountain elk and bighorn sheep descend from the mountain to several viewing spots at Oak Creek Wildlife Area. And in spring, some 18,000 gray whales cruise by the Washington Coast on their way back to the Bering Sea after breeding and calving in the warmer waters off Baja California.



Climb to the summit of 12,276-foot-high Mount Adams or its next-door neighbor Mount St. Helens and ski or snowboard down. Take an inner tube
or plastic saucer sled up to Mount Rainier’s snow play area by the Paradise Visitor Center or just below the Mount Baker Ski Area and spend the day sliding in the snow. You’ll feel like a
kid again! Often, the snow lingers so long you can sled for free almost every month of the year. Pump up your tires, oil your chain and jump into the 200-mile rolling party known as STP—Seattle-to-Portland Bicycle Classic—an organized one- or two-day bike ride that annually draws 10,000 riders of all ages and abilities. Participate in Ski-to-Sea or Ridge-to-River or one of the many community relay races throughout the state that include activities such as downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, snowboarding, biking, running, canoeing, kayaking and more.



In fall, head to the eastern slopes of the Cascade Mountains where above 5,000 feet the alpine larch turn a fiery gold before dropping their needles. Whole valleys, hills and mountainsides appear ablaze. One of the best ways to experience the spectacle is by hiking the Enchantments in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area. There, shimmering jewel-like lakes and jagged granite spires offer a backdrop that’s simply breathtaking. Fall is a great time for waterfall hiking too. The season’s
liquid sunshine, also known as rain, turns landmarks such as Snoqualmie Falls, Wallace Falls, Bridal Falls and others into awesome displays of nature’s power.

Strap on some snowshoes and take a guided snowshoe trek offered by National Forest and National Parks at places such as Mount Rainier, Mount St. Helens or Stevens Pass. Learn about the natural and cultural history of some of the Northwest’s snowiest places while safely experiencing a rugged backcountry wilderness.



Grab a surfboard and wetsuit and head for Westport on the Pacific Coast, the state’s top surfing spot. Actually, you don’t even need waves to surf in Washington. Its lakes and inland
waters are perfect for one of the fastest-growing outdoor activities to come along in a while: stand-up paddle surfing, wherein participants stand atop specially made surfboards while propelling themselves forward and steering with long-handled paddles.



Or charter a boat and go deep-sea fishing for halibut, salmon, rockfish and even tuna. Hike a section of the famed Pacific Crest Trail, 500 miles of which pass through some of Washington’s most spectacular mountain scenery. Backpack the aptly named Wonderland Trail, a 95-mile trek that encircles Mount Rainier while passing through every major alpine life zone. Or Mount St. Helens’ Loowit Trail which circles the famed volcano, offering a 33-mile mile adventure passing through all phases of volcanic devastation and rebirth.

As you can tell, Washington’s possibilities for outdoor recreation are just about endless. All you have to do open the door and take that first step outside.


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