Top Picks for Day Adventures from the Emerald City
Seattle is a gorgeous town in a picturesque spot. The Emerald City, full of parks, art, culture, business and recreation, shines in both rain and sun. Although one could spend every free moment exploring the well-known and hidden corners of the city, Seattle also is a perfect base camp for adventures.
Right outside the city, you’ll find outdoor destinations, world-class wineries, scenic road trips, museums and fun family outings. There are so many options, but here are a handful of time-tested favorites that are awaiting your next day off. The mileage listed for each destination is from the iconic Space Needle, so your driving distance will vary slightly.
Washington’s natural wonders are undeniable and many of these gems are within short drives out of Seattle. Whether you want adventures on the beach or in the mountains and anywhere in-between, there are a lifetime’s worth of outdoor destinations from which to choose. One of the quickest ways to get into the mountains is to head east for 55 miles on Interstate 90 to Snoqualmie Pass.
Snoqualmie Pass has multiple spots to get out and explore, no matter the season. Two of the easier treks, when the region is snow-free, are Franklin Falls and Gold Creek Pond. The Franklin Falls Trailhead is 51 miles from the Space Needle, while Gold Creek Pond is 57 miles away. More seasoned hikers can enjoy summer hikes on the Snow Lake Trail, 54 miles away, the Kendall Katwalk Trail, 53 miles away, and Melakwa Lake via the Denny Creek Trail, 51 miles from the Space Needle. Because Snoqualmie Pass is so close to town, make sure you get to the trailhead early and park in designated parking areas.
Runner-ups: Mount Rainier National Park is favorite recreation destination that is often visited from Seattle, offering world-class scenic trails for all levels of hikers. Mount Rainier’s Paradise parking lot is 109 miles away.
North of Seattle, Deception Pass, 84 miles from town, is a great getaway any month of the year, giving stunning views, beach access and even a chance to see whales.
On the Olympic Peninsula, Lake Crescent and Hurricane Ridge, 105 and 102 miles from the Needle, offer a one-two punch of Olympic National Park’s beauty.
Tacoma’s Museum District
One of the best ways to learn about the culture and history of Washington is to head down to Tacoma for a visit to the Museum District. The six museums in the district, 34 miles from Seattle, are all within walking distance to each other, or close enough to jump on the city’s free Link light rail.
The museums in Tacoma present different aspects of Pacific Northwest arts and culture. Highlights are the Museum of Glass, the Tacoma Art Museum and the Washington State History Museum. The latter offers a great insight into the region, with permanent displays covering everything from Native culture, state history and Japanese internment camps, to immigration, industry and even the state’s largest model train layout.
Runner-up: Up in Tulalip, 35 miles away, the Hibulb Cultural Center & Natural History Preserve is a great spot to learn about the Coastal Salish tribes.
Northwest Trek Wildlife Park
Northwest Trek Wildlife Park sits nearly 60 miles from Seattle in the shadow of Mount Rainier. This kid-friendly spot by Eatonville is a Pacific Northwest favorite, dazzling generations with wildlife encounters. The park’s Discovery Tram Tours were temporarily halted to comply with COVID-19 restrictions. However, the park plans to launch new electric trams in the summer of 2022. On select days and for an added fee, you can drive your vehicle around a free roam area, where bison, elk and mountain goats are known to wander. Tours in an open-air jeep are also available.
Aside from the drive, a series of walking paths leads to large enclosures where grizzly bears, cougars, bobcats, black bears, foxes and wolves can safely be seen. Elsewhere around the park, there are even more animals and kid-friendly areas to enjoy, making this a memorable getaway for the family.
Runner-up: Tacoma’s Point Defiance Park is a fantastic option for kid-friendly adventures. Highlighted by the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, the entire peninsula has activity options. Rose gardens, hiking trails, beach access, a historic fort to enjoy, and chances to spot whales, seals and sea lions are waiting. The park is 42 miles from the Space Needle.
Woodinville’s Wine Country
Thirty minutes and only 19 miles from the hustle and bustle of the city, Woodinville’s wine country is waiting. The wine found in Woodinville comes from more than 130 wineries around Washington, letting you sip and sample every corner of the state while staying close to home. In town, there are four districts where wineries, tasting rooms and wine bars can be enjoyed. Serious connoisseurs should head to the Hollywood District or the Warehouse District.
In the Warehouse District, there are more than 70 wineries to explore, where winemakers are often the ones pouring drinks while giving background on the drink and how it was made. The Hollywood District offers plenty of restaurants and tasting rooms to choose from, easily walkable between small, artisan wineries and some of the biggest names in Washington winemaking.
Runner-up: Yakima, 144 miles across the Cascades, is the gateway to the Yakima Valley Wineries, giving a chance to sip while soaking up the sun. There are 120 wineries spread around five regions of the greater Yakima Valley, creating the perfect excuse to head over Interstate 90 for a day or weekend. Read more about the Yakima Valley AVA wines.
Please remember to designate a driver. Check before you go for COVID-19 restrictions on wine-tasting.
Nestled by the mountains of the Central Cascades, you’ll find a slice of Bavaria. A little more than two-hour drive from the city, Leavenworth is one of Washington’s best known and beloved tourist destinations. 117 miles from the Space Needle, Leavenworth is an alpine town, with buildings adorned by architecture reminiscent of towns in the Alps.
In town, you’ll find a seemingly endless itinerary of places to traverse. Leavenworth’s traditional German restaurants, fantastic breweries, spots to pick up wine from the local wineries, shops and even a year-round Christmas store keep visitors busy all day, with many deciding to spend a weekend. Just out of the city, breathtaking trails lead to jaw-dropping natural beauty, with popular spots being Lake Wenatchee, Icicle Gorge and the aptly named Enchantments. Leavenworth is worth the trip, no matter the season, and is a quintessential Washingtonian experience.
Runner-up: If towns along the water are more your speed, head 58 miles across Puget Sound to picturesque Port Townsend. This small town is known for its coastal location and ornate Victorian architecture. Whether you want to wander art galleries, dine at tasty restaurants, or explore the miles of trails and shoreline in nearby Fort Worden State Park, Port Townsend is a great place to spend the day.
Hood Canal Loop
It’s hard to beat a scenic drive that starts and ends with a ferry ride. The Hood Canal Loop offers that and so much more. This 151-mile loop is a full day of adventure. After catching the ferry to Bainbridge Island, head up to the Bloedel Reserve. Named as one of the 10 Best Botanical Gardens in North America by USA Today, you’ll enjoy two miles of trails through 23 distinct landscapes. Crossing Hood Canal on the Hood Canal floating bridge (pictured), those hoping for some time on the beach can head down to the water at Shine Tidelands State Park.
Once you have joined Highway 101 at Quilcene, keep driving south a few miles until you reach Mount Walker. When the road is open, two viewpoints offer sweeping views of the Olympic Mountains, Mount Rainier and the City of Seattle. Further down Hood Canal, a stop at Dosewallips State Park lets you roam trails where elk and eagle sightings are common. Along the scenic canal, pullouts and small parks dot the route, letting you look for porpoises, whales and other sea life. After all these adventures, consider grabbing a snack at Hama Hama Oysters, or a dinner and a drink at Alderbrook Resort and Spa, which is rated a four-diamond hotel by AAA. Catch the ferry to Fauntleroy from Southworth, just in time for a sunset on Puget Sound.
Runner-up: Seeking mountains instead of the salty shores? Consider the 450-plus mile Stevens Pass-North Cascades Highway loop. If the North Cascades Highway is closed for the winter, swap in Snoqualmie Pass for a shorter, 254-mile loop. Either way you drive this, you’ll get a little of everything that makes the Evergreen State so great — waterfalls, tumbling rivers, stunning mountains and even the sunny slopes of Central Washington. Dozens of optional stops and added destinations can turn this day drive into a scenic weekend adventure.
–Written by Douglas Scott, updated in April 2022
–Top photo of Lake Wenatchee National Forest by Ryan McVay/Getty Images