Natural Wonders, Scenic Drives, Wildlife and More
A new year is upon us, and that is one more reason to plan adventures and get ready to explore our region. Get to know the natural wonders and beauty around the Pacific Northwest by checking out our list of 23 amazing outdoor opportunities and road trips for 2023. Make time to reconnect with new and old favorite places.
Take a Lighthouse Loop
What better way to spend a weekend in Washington than by taking a scenic tour of the state’s historic lighthouses. Beginning and ending in Seattle, it is possible with ferry crossings to visit most of the state’s significant lighthouses on a road trip over a couple of days. Built to save ships from crashing along perilous shoals and jagged rocks, these 19th Century gems range from the Mulkileo Lighthouse an hour north of Seattle to the North Head Lighthouse on the Long Beach Peninsula to Tacoma’s Browns Point Lighthouse.
Around western Washington, fall is highlighted by the return of salmon to our rivers and streams. The salmon return to shallow waters, where they are easily spotted on family-friendly hiking trails. Locations like McLane Creek by Olympia, Chuckanut Creek near Bellingham, and Fennel Creek by Bonney Lake are three great locations to walk and watch.
There are 13 full moons in 2023, giving plenty of chances to watch one rise and to bask in their light. Some scenic spots are Alki Point near Seattle, and Lake Wenatchee and Lake Kachess in the Cascades. According to NASA, the first full moon will occur on Friday, Jan. 6. Each month will contain a full moon, and there will be two full moons in August, first on Tuesday, Aug. 1, and then a full blue moon on Wednesday, Aug. 30.
Stargazing and Meteor Showers
The best way to see the stars and meteors around Washington is to head to Mount Rainier’s Sunrise region, Olympic National Park’s Deer Park area and out near eastern Washington’s Goldendale Observatory. In the summer months, watch the Milky Way expand above you. Meteor showers to keep in mind are the Lyrids on the night to dawn of April 22-23, the Perseids from the late evening to dawn on August 12-13, and the Leonids from the late evening to dawn on November 17-18.
Island Hopping the San Juans
Escaping to the islands for hiking, biking, camping and exploring is always a good choice. Starting with a gorgeous ferry ride, any island gives a unique adventure. The summer months may be busy, but you can find solitude along trails and beaches year-round.
Wave Watching at Cape Disappointment
Lime Kiln State Park is the spot to go for orca sightings, best between May and September. During stormy weather, especially during high tide in the winter, this Cape Disappointment State Park is anything but disappointing. Watching the waves slam against the 200-foot cliffside from Waikiki Beach, with a picturesque lighthouse looking on, is a perfect Pacific Coast experience. Read more about visiting Long Beach Peninsula in winter.
Go See the Northern Lights
If you’re feeling a little adventurous, why not plan a winter trip to Fairbanks, Alaska, to see aurora borealis in its swirling nighttime glory. Winter is the time to see the lights, and there are many more wintery adventures to be had in The Last Frontier state without the summer crowds. But, then again, you can see Alaska any time of the year. Each season offers its charms. Read more about planning a trip to Alaska and when to go.
The Great Gray Whale Migration
Migrating gray whales are visible from roadside spots along Highway 101 at Kalaloch Beach. The best time to see them is the spring, when calves and mothers swim close to the shore. Sightings can occur almost any month of the year, however. Keep an eye out for educational Whale Trail signs, which dot the entire coast of Washington state at roadside whale-watching sights.
Drive the Lake Coeur d’Alene Scenic Byway
Driving the 35-mile scenic byway along the eastern shoreline of Lake Coeur d’Alene in North Idaho is full of great scenery, wildlife views and chances to get out of the car and explore in nature. You may see eagles and osprey fishing in the waters, and bear, elk, deer and moose wandering.
Bike the Hiawatha Trail
One of the secrets of North Idaho is the breathtaking bike riding found on the Hiawatha Trail, designated a “Hall of Fame” trail by the Rail-to-Trail Conservancy. From late May through September, riders can explore 15 miles of old railway line, passing through 10 train tunnels and over seven towering trestles.
March and April, when warmth returns to the region, make for a great time to visit Palouse Falls in southeast Washington. Melting snow turns Washington state’s official waterfall into a raging wonder, worthy of the road trip. If you can’t take a spring trip, don’t worry; Palouse Falls is magnificent all year long. Find more amazing falls (and spectacular frozen ones in the winter) across the Pacific Northwest.
Drive the Palouse
The rolling hills of the Palouse are a yearlong gem. Each month of the year showcases the changing colors of this unique landscape. During the spring and early summer, yellow canola blooms, while other fields erupt in green. As summer arrives, the fields become geometric wonderlands plowed by area farmers. After splashes of fall colors, head to the area to see winter snow and clear skies.
Escape to the Coulees and Scablands
More than 10,000 years ago, a giant ice dam near Missoula, Montana collapsed, creating a super flood that rushed west to the Pacific Ocean. The large amount of water stripped down the lands it ravaged, turning much of eastern Washington into a fast-flowing river full of huge waterfalls. Frenchman Coulee, Grand Coulee and Dry Falls in eastern Washington are good places to wander and gaze at the aftermath of these incredible floods.
See Arrowleaf Balsamroot Bloom
Looking for early season wildflowers? Search no further than central and eastern Washington from April to July. Along the roadside, up the hills and dotting the prairies, flower enthusiasts will witness huge yellow flowers during the bloom of the arrowleaf balsamroot. Columbia Hills Historical State Park, Tronsen Ridge at Blewett Pass and the Methow Valley are excellent locations to see these flowers.
Hoh River Elk and Foliage
Full of wilderness beauty, the Hoh River is a must-see destination all year long. The Hoh Rainforest on. the western side of the Olympic Mountains is known for heavy mosses dripping from ancient trees as elk herds wander in the large ferns. A visit to the Hoh in the fall gives solitude in the colorful maples and serene landscapes, with sounds of an occasional elk bugle interrupting the silence.
Stand in Snow and Sand in the Same Day
Hurricane Ridge and Dungeness Spit are 35 miles apart, offering opportunities to hike in snow and sand in the same day. Dungeness Spit is found at the Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge and offers beach hiking, whale watching and wildlife viewing. Hurricane Ridge, over 5,000 feet above the sand, is a high alpine wonderland, with snow often lingering until June, giving glimpses of glaciers, wildlife and sweeping views. Read more about visiting the nearby Port Angeles.
Eagle Watching at the Nooksack and Skagit Rivers
Along the Nooksack and Skagit Rivers, hundreds of eagles congregate during late fall and winter. The eagles feast on dead and dying salmon and is one of the largest eagle migrations in the lower 48 states, according to the North Cascades Audubon. Watch the eagles at the Skagit River Bald Eagle Interpretive Center, Mile Post 100 on Highway 20, the Marblemount Fish Hatchery and the Howard Miller Steelhead Park.
Mount Baker Highway and Hikes
Mount Baker’s panoramic views are a highlight of the Pacific Northwest. Reached by the breathtaking highway, the drive alone is stunning. A hike to Artist Point in the summer and early fall or a snowshoe/cross country ski along the trail in the winter is a way to make this already amazing area even more enjoyable.
Larch Drives and North Cascades Hikes
Seeing the golden larches during the fall is a don’t-miss experience. Drives along the North Cascades Highway, Blewett Pass, and the St. Joe River of Idaho give you plenty of gorgeous sightings, while trails off the North Cascades Highway and Mountain Loop Highway let you wander through stands of these unique conifers.
Explore Mount Rainier National Park
Sunrise at Mount Rainier is an incredible destination in the summer and early fall. The drive along the road to Sunrise is spectacular, leading to over 20 miles of trails at Sunrise, with mountain and glacier views. Go here for wildflowers in August. For an added bonus, drive Chinook Pass past Tipsoo Lake, or Stevens Canyon to Paradise to see even more of the highlights of the park.
Snowshoe at Paradise
Few places in Washington offer the experiences found during winter at Mount Rainier’s Paradise region. Known for their sledding hill and miles of snowshoe routes, exploring Washington’s most visible national park is a can’t-miss winter activity. Wander to Myrtle Falls, push yourself around the Skyline Trail or just meander on your own in this picturesque landscape.
Beacon Rock and the Gorge
Towering above the Columbia River, Beacon Rock is a basalt monolith that shouldn’t be missed. With eight miles of hikes, leading to waterfalls and views of the Columbia River, as well as 13 miles of biking routes, Beacon Rock State Park is a fun getaway when exploring the Columbia. The Beacon Rock trail has been closed until further notice because of bridge damage, but the Hamilton Mountain Trail makes up for that closure.
Mount St. Helens
There are few places in the world that can offer the views and adventures one can have when exploring Mount St. Helens. The iconic volcano is best seen from three main spots — Johnston Ridge, Windy Ridge and Lava Canyon. Check online for road conditions and when they open for the season. Wildflowers hit their peak around the Johnston Ridge Observatory in July through August.
–Written by Douglas Scott, last updated December 2022.
–Top photo of winter waves crashing into rocky cliffs near the lighthouse at Cape Disappointment State Park is by Richard Dawson.