Fun Northwest Outings for the Holidays
Take a tour of the best holiday activities and events in Washington, northern Idaho and Portland, Oregon. Read our top picks for making a fun day of merrymaking in the Pacific Northwest.
’Tis the season once again, and communities around the Pacific Northwest are out to dazzle visitors with spectacular holiday celebrations bursting with lights, sounds and memorable merrymaking. From boat rides out to Santa’s workshop to sledding under the lights in Leavenworth, it’s time to pack your brood of elves into the sleigh and motor off to these destinations to make the most of the most wonderful time of the year.
As of press time, these events were planned to take place this year. Please check before you go because the COVID-19 situation may impact these events.
Mount Angel holiday market. Photo by Jim Kinghorn
Hazelnuts and Holiday lights
Way back in 1873 a priest named Adelhelm Odermatt left his abbey in Engelberg, Switzerland, went west and eventually established a new abbey overlooking Oregon’s fertile Willamette Valley. Located about 20 miles northeast of Salem, the settlement became known as Mount Angel, the anglicized version of “Engelberg.” Today the town of 3,700 people struts its Germanic roots at the holidays with a festival plucked straight from an Old World playbook.
Hazelnut Fest and German Holiday Market runs Dec. 3–5 with a Christmas market inside the town’s decorative Festhalle. There, you’ll find 50 local vendors selling everything from lederhosen to jewelry made from repurposed silverware. Festival Brass, a seven-piece brass ensemble, plays live Christmas tunes, often sung in German.
Fuel up on hazelnuts, fondue or sausage before following Santa outside for a 10-minute group walk to the center of town and the “tree of trades,” a large pole draped with icicle lights that Santa ceremoniously lights.
Coeur d’Alene Holiday Light Show
Every year shortly before Thanksgiving, trucks arrive at Idaho’s Coeur d’Alene Resort in downtown Coeur d’Alene to deliver more than 10,000 pounds of holiday décor. The town’s waterfront turns into a winter wonderland featuring more than 1.5 million lights, hundreds of presents and no less than 663 feet of garland.
Starting on Black Friday and running through New Year’s, the festivities kick off with a hometown parade followed by fireworks, candlelight caroling and the lighting of one of the — if not the — tallest Christmas trees in the world, a 162-foot grand fir that alone requires about 2 miles of extension cords. Don’t miss the 40-minute boat ride across the lake to visit Santa in his floating workshop, where the jolly old man himself makes an appearance and mentions the kids by name.
Afterward, stroll along Sherman Avenue to admire the Christmas lights and find ornaments and other gifts at Christmas at the Lake, a year-round store dedicated to the holiday.
The Mount Hood Railroad passes. Photo courtesy of Mount Hood Railroad
What would the holiday be without music? The Grotto, a 62-acre Catholic sanctuary, chapel and shrine in Portland, Oregon, has been hosting choirs and carolers for more than three decades. Today the organization’s Christmas Festival of Lights has grown into one of the world’s largest Christmas music festivals with more than 160 amateur choirs performing from late November into early January. Doors open around dusk, giving you time to stroll around the grounds near Maywood Park to marvel at the spectacle.
About 2.2 million lights are strung around the property’s forest and gardens that also sport a waterfall illuminated with pleasing blue lights. There are puppet shows and hot chocolate for the kids and a rocky cave — the grotto — featuring angels projected onto the walls. Performances take place inside a recently restored chapel that was built in 1953 with beautiful stained-glass windows.
Pianist Michael Allen Harrison often plays here, too. Swing through the gift shop to find fudge made by monks. Make a weekend of it by driving 30 miles southeast of Portland to Estacada, the “Christmas tree capital of the world,” where numerous farms will let you harvest your own tree.
Take the Train to Christmas Town
Building off popular stories like “The Polar Express” and “The Train to Christmas Town,” the Mount Hood Railroad offers its tracks and engines from Nov. 20 to Dec. 26 for a cheery ride along the rails to see Santa and his elves at Christmas Town, an outpost in a secret location decorated with lights and workshop-like buildings.
The adventure begins at the depot in Hood River, Oregon, where you can board the train draped in lights and garlands and settle in at a table covered in wrapping paper. Of course, there’s hot chocolate and cookies to enjoy on the 90-minute experience. Once at Christmas Town, Santa and his elves will hop aboard, read stories and ask the kids about their wish lists. Expect lots of singing, too. Pajama-wearing is encouraged.
The Grotto, Portland, Oregon. Photo courtesy of Travel Portland.
If any town in the Pacific Northwest can transform itself into a magical holiday paradise, it’s Leavenworth and its annual Village of Lights-Christmas Town! extravaganza. In December, the Bavarian-themed town of about 2,100 people hosts caroling sessions, a gingerbread house competition and holiday movie screenings among hundreds of thousands of holiday lights strewn around the town’s main square. On Dec. 5, St. Nick rewards good children with simple gifts on “Krampusnacht,” while their parents can marvel at the displays of Santa costumes from around the world.
Find a gift of ornaments, figurines or maybe even a cuckoo clock at Kris Kringl, then go wrap it at a gift-wrapping station set up for the holidays. Nutcracker Museum features thousands of the decorative devices from around the world. Time your visit with a fresh snowfall and you can sled among the lights at Front Street Park. Warm up across the street inside the Andreas Keller Restaurant, a Bavarian-style “stübli” serving spaetzle and wurst.
The Lights of Christmas in Warm Beach. Photo courtesy of Warm Beach Camp and Conference Center.
Let’s face it. Jack Frost frequents our neck of the woods often around the holidays, which makes driving around in a warm, cozy car to view glittering light displays all the more attractive.
An hour north of Seattle in Stanwood, the Warm Beach Camp and Conference Center’s Lights of Christmas features a driving tour through displays of tunnels, trees and figures created out of more than a million lights. The route takes about 30 minutes to complete and will take you past Cascades-inspired installations created out of lights as well as a huge nativity scene and of course Santa and his reindeer. Pick up some hot mini-doughnuts and hot chocolate at the entrance and listen to Christmas music on the radio. This year the event runs from late November into early January.
Meanwhile, in Southeast Washington, head to Walla Walla for the Parade of Lights which organizers are hoping this season will be an actual parade on Dec. 4 with upwards of 120 floats ambling along a mile-long route downtown. If things change, organizers may fall back on last year’s COVID-adapted rendition, which included a self-driving tour where more than 100 residents and businesses channeled their inner Clark Griswold. You would have seven or so routes to choose from, each named after Santa’s reindeer, that you could download to your phone to guide you to displays with names like “The Land of Misfit Toys” and “Chevy Chase Christmas.”
Time your visit to the first weekend in December and you’ll catch the Holiday Barrel tasting, when the region’s winemakers tap into future releases and offer tastings of what’s to come. Call the Walla Walla Downtown Foundation for updates: (509) 525-2465.
–Written by Tim Neville
Interested in planning your next road trip with AAA Washington? Call your travel agent directly or your nearest AAA store to get pro tips, TripTik maps, and more. Find more Pacific Northwest scenic drives and road trips.