Fun Northwest Outings for the Holidays
’Tis the season once again, and communities around the Pacific Northwest are getting ready to sparkle and welcome back visitors with spectacular celebrations bursting with glittering lights, memorable merrymaking and lots of holiday magic.
Take a tour of a some of the favorite holiday activities and events in Washington, northern Idaho, and Oregon, from a drive-through light show and a parade of lighted floats to choir-filled festivals and boat rides to Santa’s workshop.
Some of these events kick off on Thanksgiving weekend, some are free and several require advanced tickets. So be sure to check the dates, operating times and admission requirements before heading out on the road to any of these activities.
Hazelnuts and Holiday Lights
Located northeast of Salem less than an hour south of Portland, the Bavarian-inspired town of Mount Angel celebrates is Germanic roots year-round with Old World buildings, restaurants serving authentic German cuisine, an elaborate four-story glockenspiel that comes to life several times daily and an iconic Oktoberfest celebration.
The Bavarian charm continues at Christmas, when the town hosts the Hazelnut Fest and Christkindlemarkt (German Christmas Festival). This year’s double-header runs from Nov. 25–27 and includes a biergarten, live entertainment with local choirs, Santa photo ops and an outdoor market with dozens of local vendors selling everything from lederhosen and authentic German and regional art to handmade wooden toys, hazelnuts, sausage, handmade crafts and gourmet treats.
In past years, Santa kicked off the festival by lighting the town’s “Tree of Trades” maypole, which the city drapes in icicle lights. This year, though, Santa Claus plans to arrive on Nov. 25 at 6 p.m. for the ceremonial lighting of a tall, traditional Christmas tree on the lawn in front of City Hall.
Coeur d’Alene Holiday Light Show
Thanks to holiday décor that includes more than 1.5 million lights, hundreds of garlands and a good dose of Christmas magic, Idaho’s Coeur d’Alene Resort and Boardwalk Marina near downtown Coeur d’Alene transforms into a winter wonderland during the holidays.
Festivities kick off on Friday, Nov. 25 with a parade, the flicking of the switch on all those lights, fireworks and the lighting of two giant trees, including one of the world’s largest floating Christmas trees, with lights animated to holiday music.
From Nov. 15 through Jan. 2, visitors can take a 40-minute roundtrip boat ride across the lake to view the lights from the water and visit Santa and his elves in their floating waterfront workshop. There, the jolly old man himself makes an appearance and, magically, mentions each kid by name.
Other holiday activities include Dickens Carolers in the resort lobby and, new this year, a Reindeer Express on the resort lawn where holiday believers will have a chance to meet, and perhaps, feed Santa’s reindeers before they fly off on their Christmas Eve journey.
Take the Train to Christmas Town
Inspired by the popular story, “The Train to Christmas Town,” the Mount Hood Railroad Christmas Train offers a magical family-friendly, round trip on the rails to see Santa and his elves in Christmas Town.
The exact location of Christmas Town is kept a secret. But on select days from Nov. 17 to Dec. 28 a one-hour Christmas Train adventure begins at the depot in Hood River, Oregon, about 60 miles east of Portland. There, characters come to life from the storybook join passengers (many pajama-clad, as in the story) on the train.
On the ride out, the characters serve cocoa and cookies, lead Christmas song and read the story book aloud. Then Santa and his elves welcome the train to Christmas Town and Santa boards the train to join the children for the return trip.
Along the way the Jolly red-suited one meets with each child, listens to their Christmas wishes and gives each child a gift of a silver bell and a golden ticket for the conductor to punch.
Gather in the Grotto
What would the holiday be without music? The Grotto, a 62-acre Catholic sanctuary, chapel and shrine and lush garden in Portland, Oregon, has been hosting choirs and carolers during the holidays 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. This year close to 150 amateur choirs will perform between Nov. 25 and Dec. 30 (closed Christmas Day).
Around 2.2 million lights are strung around the property’s forest and gardens. Head to the plaza tent for top-of-the-hour puppet shows and storytellers and, at the bottom of the hour, the Grotto Carolers. During the run of the festival, a lengthy list of high school choirs, community choirs, church choirs and other musicians will perform in the Chapel of Mary, which boasts cathedral-like acoustics. In the rocky cave that is the grotto, look for angels projected on the walls.
And new this year, the Grotto will have a 33-foot-tall walk-through artificial tree decorated with lights and ornaments.
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.
Leavenworth transforms into a magical holiday paradise during the annual Village of Lights – Christmas Town extravaganza.
From Nov. 25 to Dec. 24, the year-round Bavarian-themed town drapes the main square in more than half million LED holiday lights — including about 12 miles worth of light strings — and hosts carolers, choirs, bands and other music groups and entertainment on weekends and some weekdays in the outdoor gazebo at the heart of downtown.
Inside the Festhalle, visitors will find more music and entrainment, a gingerbread house exhibition, photos ops with Santa and Mrs. Claus, a story corner and other activities for kids, a gift-wrapping station, selfie stations and more.
Keep an eye out for the official teams of costumed characters, including Santa and Mrs. Claus, the Grinch, a reindeer, a snowman and elves making the rounds for photo ops. Local businesses will also be decked out in their holiday best and many will have bonus entertainment for festival attendees on the weekends.
Driving Tours and Lighted Parades
A glittering drive-through holiday light display is always a festive holiday activity. Especially when you can stay warm and cozy in your car on the many Pacific Northwest winter nights that are cold, drizzly, or snowy.
An hour north of Seattle in Stanwood, the Warm Beach Camp and Conference Center’s Lights of Christmas was inspired by a popular lighted event at Nashville’s Opryland Theme Park and is now billed as the largest holiday event in the Pacific Northwest.
This 30-minute driving tour transports visitors to a winter wonderland dotted by displays of tunnels, trees and figures created out of more than a million shining LED lights. Highlights and perennial favorites include a new lighted tunnel at the beginning of the route, the 247-foot-long Cascade Splendor mountain scene made with almost 61,000 lightbulbs, a larger-than-life Nativity and, of course, Santa and his reindeer. Several other new displays have been added this year to mark the event’s 25th anniversary.
A special radio broadcast with Christmas music adds to the festivities, along with a spot to purchase mini-donuts and hot cocoa. And this year, on the second half of the route, there is a spot to get out of the car, take photos and spot costumed characters including Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Reindeer, Santa’s elves and, until Dec. 23, Santa and Mrs. Claus.
Timed, advance-only tickets for the 25th anniversary of this drive-through wonderland are available for Nov. 25-27, Dec. 1-4, 8-11, 14-23 and 26-31.
During this community-fueled event, more than 100 brightly lit floats make their way along a mile-long downtown route. Look for horse drawn carriages, fire trucks, classic cars, a 16-foot-tall bicycle sculpture, and much more. Elves, reindeer and all manner of Christmas characters will appear on the floats. But you’ll have to stay till the end to catch a glimpse of Santa, who will arrive on the final float.
Start or end the evening at Heritage Square Park, with more than 20,000 lights on trees and displays. And stick around for Wallas Walla’s Holiday Barrel Tasting weekend (Dec. 2–4) featuring food, wine, art, music and the opportunity to sample future releases straight from the wine barrels of the region’s winemakers.
–Written by Tim Neville, revised and updated in November 2022 by Harriet Baskas.