Scenic Drives, Wildlife Watching, Natural Wonders and More
A new year brings hope, optimism and a renewed desire to explore. If your travel resolutions include getting to know the natural wonders and beauty around the Pacific Northwest, check out our list of 21 amazing outdoor opportunities and road trips. When it is safe to travel again, make time to reconnect with new and old favorite places.
Most of these outdoor adventures allow for physical distancing, but please adhere to safety recommendations and check for availability of amenities and road closures before you go.
Cape Disappointment Lighthouse. Photo by Dave Logan/Getty Images
ALONG THE WATER
1. Wave Watching at Cape Disappointment
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.
2. 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.
3. 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. Lime Kiln State Park is the spot to go for orca sightings, best between May and September.
The Hiawatha Trail. Photo courtesy of Idaho Tourism
NORTH IDAHO ADVENTURES
4. 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. Read more about rail trails.
5. Drive the Lake Coeur d’Alene Scenic Byway
Driving the 35-mile scenic byway along the eastern shoreline of Lake Coeur d’Alene 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. Follow the White Pine Scenic Byway to create a loop drive. Read more about taking a Coeur d’Alene road trip.
Palouse Falls. Photo by Knowles Gallery/Getty Images
INLAND EMPIRE EXPLORATIONS
6. Palouse Falls at Runoff
March and April, when warmth returns to the region, make for a great time to visit Palouse Falls. 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 across the Pacific Northwest.
7. Drive the Palouse: Explore the Seasons
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.
Frenchman Coulee. Photo by D. Feinman/Getty Images
8. 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 are good places to wander and gaze at the aftermath of these incredible floods.
9. 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.
Elk at the Hoh Rainforest. Photo by Tashka/Getty Images.
10. Hoh River Elk and Foliage
Full of wilderness beauty, the Hoh River is a must-see destination all year long. The Hoh Rainforest 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.
11. 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.
Eagles near the Nooksack River. Photo by Lowe Stock/Getty Images.
THE NORTH CASCADES
12. 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.
13. 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.
14. Larch Drives and Hikes North Cascades and Mountain Loop
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.
Tipsoo Lake. Photo by China Face/Getty Images.
15. Explore the Sunrise Region in 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.
16. 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 reflected on the Columbia River Gorge. Photo by JPL Designs/Getty Images.
SOUTH CASCADES AND COLUMBIA GORGE
17. 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 is closed for COVID restrictions, but the Hamilton Mountain Trail makes up for the temporary closure.
18. 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.
Star trails over Mount Rainier. Photo by Michael Ver Sprill/Getty Images.
AROUND THE REGION
19. 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. The observatory may still be closed because of COVID restrictions, but the surrounding area still offers very dark skies. In the summer months, watch the Milky Way expand above you. Meteor showers to keep in mind are the Lyrids on April 22, the Perseids on August 12, and the Leonids on November 17.
20. Salmon Watching on the Trails
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.
21. Full-Moon Watching
There are 12 full moons in 2021, 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. Important dates are the Super Moon on May 26 and a lunar eclipse in early that same morning.
–Written by Douglas Scott
–Top photo of the Hoh Rainforest at Olympic National Park. Photo by Roman Khomlyak/Getty Images.
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