17 Unique Gems in Washington Outdoors
There is no place quite like the Evergreen State. In every corner, just off the roads and highways that crisscross the region, there are spectacular destinations that are truly unique to Washington state.
Whether you are searching for solitude, ancient wooden monsters, incredible wildlife, inspiring views or everything in between, you’ll find it at these roadside wonders. Pack up the car, bring some snacks, walking shoes and a sense of adventure, and head out to discover the wonders found in our backyard.
Along the Columbia River Gorge, east of Vancouver, Washington, Beacon Rock stands tall and inviting. Found in Beacon Rock State Park, this is a truly special gem to the area. Beacon Rock, 848 feet tall, is one of the largest monolith rocks in the northern hemisphere and can be easily reached and explored thanks to an incredible trail that climbs up 52 switchbacks to the top.
Eagle Watching along the Nooksack River
Each winter, hundreds of eagles line the banks of the Nooksack River just off the Mount Baker Highway. Easily spotted from the Nooksack River bald eagle viewing area, those who visit in December and January have an opportunity to watch hundreds of eagles feast on dying salmon along the shores. This is an amazing roadside stop for photographers and birders, as well as those hoping to see a timeless wildlife tradition.
Whales at Lime Kiln
Up on San Juan Island, Lime Kiln State Park is said to be one of the best places in the nation — and the world — to view orcas from land. At this park on the shores of the Salish Sea, orcas often swim, jump and hunt within feet of the shore, giving a once in a lifetime viewing of one of the Pacific Northwest’s most iconic wildlife. The best times to view the whales are usually between May and September, when orcas, humpback whales and minke whales pass through.
Southwest of Olympia, find one of the most mysterious places in Washington. Located minutes from Interstate 5, the Mima Mounds are an overlooked wonder of Washington and a great place to stretch your legs and explore. The origin of these unique dirt mounds on the rolling prairie is still debated, but signs around the walkway explain their geology and cultural impact on the region. In the spring, the Mima Mounds are a fantastic place to see wildflowers and butterflies.
The Olympic Peninsula
Tree of Life
Quite possibly the most iconic tree on the Washington coast, the Tree of Life, aka Tree Root Cave, is a must-stop when driving Highway 101 on the Olympic Peninsula. The tree seems to hover above a small cave, clinging for survival by tentacle-like roots grasping at either side as the trunk slowly sinks lower and lower because of erosion. Each year, the tree dips a little closer to the ground, making this a place you’d better see soon, before it’s too late.
Dungeness Spit and Salt Creek Recreation Area
Located near Sequim on the Olympic Peninsula, Dungeness Spit at the Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge is the longest natural sand spit in the U.S. Hiking the spit is an 11-mile round trip, offering great views of Mount Baker, migrating birds, whales, a lighthouse and more, this is a beautiful and fun family-friendly stop. East of Port Angeles, another gem rests, this time with a breathtaking sea stack. The Salt Creek Recreation Area is a truly spectacular 196-acre park, offering a chance to examine tide pools, look for birds and even do some whale watching.
Ghost Forest of Copalis
Few will see the Ghost Forest of the Copalis River, but the spot is undoubtedly unique to Washington. In 1700, a 9.0 earthquake rocked the region, causing a tsunami of sea water that killed a grove of cedars. The tsunami was so large and devastating that it also killed numerous people as far away as Japan. The forest, which is now dead trees standing tall along the banks, is reachable by boat up the Copalis River.
Quietest Square Inch
In Olympic National Park’s Hoh Rainforest, you’ll find the quietest square inch of land in America. To reach this stunning slice of solitude and silence, you’ll need to hike 3.2 miles from the visitor center on the Hoh River Trail. Above Mount Tom Creek Meadows, there will be a painted red rock atop a mossy log, marking the reverent spot. If this hike is too far, wandering the Hall of Mosses Trail near the visitor center also is an incredible wilderness experience.
World’s Largest Spruce Tree
Out in the Quinault Rainforest of the Olympic Peninsula, a giant tree has been growing for centuries. Considered to be the world’s largest spruce tree, this behemoth is roughly 1,000 years old, standing tall at 191 feet with a circumference of 58 feet. Located right along the Lake Quinault Loop Drive, the world’s largest spruce tree can be easily reached by a short walk. What makes this even better is that the tree is one of many highlights found along the Lake Quinault Loop drive.
Near Mount Rainier
Carbon River Rainforest
On the northwest corner of Mount Rainier National Park, past the small town of Carbonado, the Carbon River Rainforest awaits you. While you’ll find rainforest regions around the Olympic Peninsula, Mount Rainier’s rainforest is rare, as most temperate rainforests are found near the ocean. A bonus is that this area is largely overlooked by the majority of visitors to Mount Rainier, giving a few incredible hiking options for all ages. Be aware that in the winter months, the road may be inaccessible because of heavy snow.
Old Trees at Grove of the Patriarchs
On the southeast corner of Mount Rainier National Park, between the White Pass Scenic Byway and Crystal Mountain on Highway 410, a stunning, family-friendly hiking destination is a perfect summer stop. Known as the Grove of the Patriarchs, this seasonally open spot is one of the most impressive stands of trees in the state. Ancient trees, some as old as 1,000 years, mix with towering timber where trees 25–50 feet in circumference loom large. (As of October 2022, the Grove of the Patriarchs was closed to all public entry due to significant damage from flooding.)
Petrified Forests of the Columbia
Along the Columbia River, right off Interstate 90 at Vantage, the Ginkgo Petrified Forest is a cultural and geological wonder. There are two spots to visit when here. The first is the main park, located on the bluffs of the Columbia. Here, you’ll find a visitor center, incredible views, giant chunks of petrified wood to touch, and a chance to walk a short path to see some ancient petroglyphs on the rocks. Once you have finished exploring this spot, head farther west on Vantage Highway to walk the Trees of Stone Interpretive Center and see more petrified wood.
Near Coulee City and Dry Falls, you’ll discover one of Washington’s most unique and lesser-known spots. What makes this place so amazing is that the cave itself is shaped like a rhino that died there 15 million years earlier. The cave is a mold of the animal and can be spotted from the road and reached by those willing and able to climb up the rocks. Those who enter will be inside a cave made by the body of a rhino that died 15 million years ago. This is considered one of the most unusual fossils currently known. Those not wanting to make the trek up can head to Seattle’s Burke Museum, where the cast of the rhino is on display.
The Twin Sisters Rock
Easily overlooked while driving along Highway 730 in eastern Washington, this geologic stop is a fun place to get out, explore and learn about the geology and history of the area. Created during the Missoula Floods 14,000 years ago, this unique rock feature stands tall above the Columbia River. The Twin Sisters rock can best be seen on a 1-mile round-trip hike that shares the geological and cultural significance of the rock.
Around 14,000 years ago, when the last major ice age was coming to an end, a giant ice dam near the present-day border of Idaho and Montana collapsed numerous times. The result was floods that were 10 times the modern flow of all the rivers of the world combined. While much of eastern Washington became victim to these floods, one stop became a raging waterfall. Known as Dry Falls and found near Coulee City, a visit here will give you a view of what was once a 400-foot-tall waterfall that was a half a mile wide.
Wildlife Watching at Oak Creek
Each winter near Yakima, the Oak Creek Wildlife area is home to more than 1,000 elk and dozens of bighorn sheep that come to the area to be fed during the harsh winter months. The elk in January and February can be quite easy to see, often visible from the parking lot. Book an open-air truck tour for an up-close and personal view of the elk at the hay drop-off stations. In May, you can drive the road and get a chance to see wildlife, including the region’s bighorn sheep. Hiking options are available for those eager to explore this majestic area on foot.
Oldest and Newest Rocks
On either end of the state, you’ll find the oldest and newest rocks in Washington. In eastern Washington, between Spokane and Pullman, find Steptoe Butte, home to the oldest rocks in the state. The rocks at Steptoe are 400 million years old, and from the top of this drivable destination, you’ll enjoy sweeping views of the Palouse, formed by massive floods 15,000 years ago. The newest rocks in the state are found at Mount St. Helens. From Windy Ridge and around Johnston Ridge, you can peer into the volcanic crater and see rocks that are younger than anywhere else in the region.
–Written by Douglas Scott, updated October 2022.
–Top Image of Dry Falls by Getty Images