Special Interest Online Publications - Natural Beauty

Natural Beauty

The “Evergreen State” is also a winter wonderland

By Mike McQuaide

Imagine the audacity of a state nervy enough to name itself after George Washington, this country’s quintessential American. But if ever there were a state worthy of a name implying such epic scope, it would be this one. With majestic snow-clad mountains, sparkling lakes and rivers, otherworldly desert lands and evergreen forests where the year-round rain falls at the rate of half an inch a day, Washington has more than its fair share of natural wonders.

 

Uncompromising diversity

At one end of the state, primordial, moss-draped cedars and hemlocks populate the rain forests of the Olympic Peninsula while at the other end, tumbleweeds roll across the arid plains of eastern Washington’s steppe deserts and the rippled hills of the Palouse. In between, rise the Cascade Mountains—glacier-draped peaks such as Mount Rainier, nearly three miles high, and Mount St. Helens, which a little less than 30 years ago, blew its top in catastrophic fashion.

Bordered on one side by the Pacific Ocean, on another by one of the world’s iconic rivers, and streaked throughout with waterfalls, Washington is also a land of water. But it’s a land of islands too, most notably the San Juan Islands where, in summers, close to 100 orca whales cruise and frolic in the surrounding waters. Out on the coast, the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean explode against rocky sea stacks and sandy beaches beckon beach lovers and invite tide pool exploration. And through the entire state courses the mighty Columbia River, its scenic gorge cutting through the heart of the Cascade Mountains on its way to the Pacific Ocean where it discharges more water than any other river in North America.

 

A mountain lover’s paradise

So where does one even begin exploring the state’s 71,000 square miles of grandeur? Luckily, your options and choices are as diverse and varied as the state’s terrain, geography, geology
and climate.

Lovers of the high country could begin with Mount Rainier or Olympic National Park, each about two hours from Seattle. Drive to Hurricane Ridge (Olympic National Park) or Sunrise or Paradise Meadows (Rainier National Park) where high-mountain visitors centers offer spectacular alpine vistas and myriad opportunities for hiking, backpacking or just easy sauntering through gorgeous wildflower meadows bursting with colorful blooms—not to mention the chance for a mid-summer snowball fight.

At 14,411 feet, Mount Rainier is the second-highest mountain on the West Coast and is covered with more ice and glaciers than Washington’s other four volcanoes combined. Each year, about 10,000 climbers head for the summit with a little more than half actually making it all the way to the top. The rest are turned back by unsafe route conditions, climbers’ physical limitations or the mountain’s capricious knack for creating nasty weather near its summit—100 mile-per-hour winds, fog-shrouded whiteouts or epic snow dumps that can occur any day of the year.

 

Rain forest inspires awe

Out on the Olympic Peninsula, the mountains might not be as high as Rainier but their jagged, icy spires are no less impressive. Located closer to the coast, the Olympic Mountains are on the frontline of all weather systems blowing in from the Pacific Ocean and trap prodigious amounts of moisture which takes the form of snow up high and rain in the forests and valleys below. And lots of it—up to 200 inches per year in some spots. Here’s where you’ll find the otherworldly Hoh Rain Forest, one of the largest temperate rain forests in the world and a magical moss-draped world unto itself with giant Sitka spruce, western hemlock, western red cedar, and more. Some trees are almost 1,000 years old and tower 300 feet above the forest floor. Olympic National Park’s nearly one million acres also include more than 70 miles of protected Pacific Ocean beaches, a dramatic seascape of sand and rocky beaches, ancient petroglyphs and tenacious woodlands clinging atop beachside boulders.

 

St. Helens blew her top

South of Mount Rainier one finds Mount St. Helens, whose 1980 eruption sheared 1,400 feet off the mountaintop in a cataclysmic explosion that was 500 times as powerful as the Hiroshima atomic blast. The landslide and mudflows, which followed, were the largest since records have been kept. These days, the “blast zone” is accessible on foot or by car and offers a fascinating opportunity to witness firsthand the recovery and rebirth of this stunning volcanic landscape. Or crawl deep inside an ancient lava tube—a passageway for liquid basalt—that’s more than two miles long.

 

A sea level passage through the Cascades

Want to experience the yin to western Washington’s yang? Head south and follow the Lewis and Clark Highway east through the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area where the iconic river courses through canyon walls 4,000 feet high in places. Enter the dry side of the Evergreen State: eastern Washington, with its rolling bare hills of scrubby grasslands, forests of ponderosa pine, azure skies, and abundant sunshine—more than 300 sunny days per year in some spots.

It’s the rain shadow effect that gives the east side, as Washingtonians call it, almost the exact opposite climate of the west (or wet) side. Simply put, Pacific weather systems tend to rain and snow themselves out in the Olympic and Cascade mountains, valleys, and lowlands so that by the time they reach eastern Washington, they’re largely devoid of precipitation. Parts of the east side receive only five to ten inches of rain annually. That’s a far cry from the Hoh Rain Forest’s 200 inches per year. But dry does not mean lifeless. Combine abundant sunshine with the extensive Columbia River irrigation network and you’ve got an agricultural powerhouse. Washington is the country’s largest producer of apples, raspberries, pears and cherries. And in recent years the state’s $3 billion wine industry has become the second largest in the nation behind only California’s Napa Valley.

 

The fabled and picturesque scablands

Farther north in eastern Washington, you can see evidence of what once was the largest waterfall on earth—now aptly named Dry Falls. Some 17,000 years ago, during the last Ice Age, a massive glacial dam burst forcing water through a three-and-a-half mile-wide channel that dropped 400 feet. The massive flow is said to have been ten times the combined flows of all the earth’s rivers! Today, it’s the site of Sun Lakes State Park, a stunning landscape of sheer basalt cliffs—ten times the size of Niagara Falls rim—sparkling lakes and abundant wildlife against a
desert backdrop.

Just north you’ll find Grand Coulee Dam. While itself not a natural formation, its environs such as massive Roosevelt and Banks lakes and the surrounding dry earth channels and scablands—the coulees for which the area is named—boast a spectacular beauty all their own and are certainly a worthy sightseeing destination.

 

Washington’s tranquil islands

Furthering its reputation as a state of grand scenic contrasts are Washington’s beloved San Juan Islands—emerald jewels that rise from the inland tidal waters north of Seattle and Puget Sound. The four largest—San Juan, Orcas, Lopez and Shaw—are served by Washington State Ferries, the largest ferry system in the country. The San Juans offer peace and tranquility as well as wildlife and sightseeing opportunities galore. The view from Orcas Island’s 2,409-foot Mount Constitution, the highest point in the 450-island archipelago, is second to none with island, mountain and even metropolitan area (Vancouver, B.C.) vistas that make you feel like you’re sitting on a cloud. It’s the centerpiece of Moran State Park, a 5,000-acre play land of lakes, trails and campgrounds.

 

Washington’s state parks are a must

On nearby San Juan Island, rocky Lime Kiln Point State Park is one of the best on-land places in the world to spot orca whales going through their spy-hopping, breaching and lob-tailing repertoire. It’s terrific too for bird watching, tide pooling, visiting the park’s historic lighthouse, or just relaxing and watching the sun drop down over Vancouver Island.

Moran and Lime Kiln are just two examples of Washington’s rich bounty of parks, wilderness and recreation areas managed by various federal, state and county agencies. Along with Olympic and Mount Rainier national parks, Washington is home to North Cascades National Park, an alpine wonderland of jagged peaks, thick forests, pristine lakes and so many waterfalls—tumbling horsetails of plunging water—that they named the mountain range after them.

 

Diversity is not limited to our geography and climate

Throughout Washington, dozens of wilderness areas and wildlife refuges offer bird and animal species protection in pristine settings where visitors can reconnect to nature in undeveloped places that civilization has yet to touch. Visit Juniper Dunes and its 130-foot-high sand dunes as well as the northernmost stand of westerner juniper trees. The San Juan Islands National Wildlife Refuge is a sanctuary for everything from bald eagles to puffins
to harbor seals.

 

Plenty of reasons to return

Check out the newly designated Wild Sky Wilderness, a backcountry wilderness of craggy peaks, ancient forests, and icy rivers just 25 miles from Puget Sound. Add to this more than 120 state parks and countless county and city parks (Seattle itself has 400 parks or open areas)—in every setting imaginable from unspoiled wilderness to bustling urban environments—and it’s understandable why Washington’s visitors return again and again.

There’s always something grand to see next time.

 

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