WHY VISIT WASHINGTON
Nature went into overdrive when it worked its magic in Washington. Wild beaches, verdant rainforests, snow-sprinkled volcanoes, bijous island retreats, and the continent’s deepest river gorge all collide in the ‘Evergreen State’. Sure, it rains a lot, but whoever let a bit of precipitation get in the way of adventure?
And there’s plenty of adventure to be found. Hike in Alpine meadows, trek through moss-covered forests, and skip over driftwood on the Olympic Peninsula’s storm-pounded beaches. Climb a volcano at Mt Rainier or ski down one at Mt Baker. Kayak with orcas in the San Juan Islands set sail at sunset in Puget Sound, go windsurfing on the Columbia River, or hold onto your hat jetboating into Hells Canyon.
For all its epic scenery though, the state’s star attraction is Seattle. The birthplace of grunge, the city is a laidback hub of creativity that entices travelers with its legendary live music scene, hip neighborhoods, and eclectic attractions. Learn guitar in a Frank Gehry-designed museum, shop for Scandi chic in historic Ballard, or figure out the password to drink cocktails in a speakeasy.
South of Seattle, cross the fabulous Chihuly Bridge of Glass, a kaleidoscopic pedestrian overpass connecting the Museum of Glass to downtown Tacoma.
If big-city thrills don’t do it for you, how about a Bavarian hamlet? Tucked into the Cascade Mountains, little Leavenworth risked losing everything when the local sawmill closed and the railroad was rerouted. So the good townsfolk decided to rebrand their village, and the result is a strangely compelling blend of Bavarian architecture, lederhosen-clad residents, and Wienerschnitzel.
Wash down your supper with a hoppy pale ale or a glass of Merlot – produced right here in Washington, of course.
WHAT TO SEE IN WASHINGTON
- Seattle: Washington State’s big city is Seattle, a beautiful metropolis with the Olympic Mountains rising in the distance across the waters of Puget Sound. It rains a lot here but when it doesn’t, this city is sheer magic. Pike Place Market is one of America’s coolest public markets, while the Space Needle’s observation platform dishes up panoramic views. Explore the trendy Ballard and Capital districts where the shopping, dining, and nightlife are all top shelf. Wander one of the many waterfront parks like Discovery Park or Seward Park, or hop on a ferry across Puget Sound just for fun. The Olympic Sculpture Park is another gem, as is the Seattle Aquarium and Seattle Art Museum. Rain or shine, this city is bursting at the seams with things to see and do.
- San Juan Islands: just outside of Seattle is this cluster of lovely pastoral islands where killer whales roam and life moves at a slow pace. The San Juans sit in a rain shadow, so it rains much less here than in Seattle. Only four of the hundreds of islands are settled, with San Juan Island the most populous and Lopez or Orcas the most tranquil. All of the islands are rural and relaxing, especially outside of the peak summer tourism window. The quaint villages here are ideal bases for outdoor recreation like biking, sea kayaking, and whale watching. They’re also perfect for a romantic getaway, as ferries run constantly from downtown Seattle just across the bay.
- Olympic National Park: America’s only true rainforest can be found on the Olympic Peninsula in the extreme northwest corner of the state. Dripping with green rainforest hikes, white glaciers, wild hot springs, and broad rolling rivers, this peninsula is mostly protected by the national park. There are towns like Port Angeles along the coast for amenities, but the real magic is in the impossible towering forests or hikes in the Hoh River Valley or along isolated Ruby Beach. It’s very wet here, but good rain gear and a warm bed at night make this unique area of Washington well worth the effort.
- Walla Walla: on the eastern side of the Cascades, it’s a whole other scene where dry, high desert rules and a different range of crops grow. Towns like Walla Walla are great bases for driving around this pretty region which is known for its impressive wine scene. There are dozens of wineries to peruse as well as a handful of historic attractions like the Whitman Mission National Historic Site and Fort Walla Walla Museum. The town itself is very pleasant, with a relaxing downtown core filled with creative restaurants featuring the local produce and wines. Best of all, it doesn’t rain much here, making Walla Walla a good option if the western slopes start to feel too soggy.
- North Cascades National Park: the Cascade Mountains are a defining feature of Washington’s landscape. There are many ways to explore this volcanic region but the wildest and most adventurous part is protected in the North Cascades National Park. Hugging the Canadian border, this park is home to grizzly bears and gray wolves. There are little signs of humanity here, just ruggedly handsome peaks, 300 glacial valleys, and an insane amount of wildlife. Most of this park requires time and effort to truly appreciate. But there are some easily accessible entry points like the 23-mile Cascade River Road for a stunning alpine drive. Newhalem is even easier, with a nice visitor information center, ranger-led walks, and casual nature trails.
- Mount Rainier National Park: Mount Rainer is that lovely snow-capped volcano that is visible from Seattle on a rare sunny day. The national park that surrounds it is a popular destination for mountaineering, skiing, hiking, and other recreation all year round. The summer window is brief, from July to September, and thus a bit crowded in the backcountry. But there are many access points, miles of trails, and scenic drives to work with. The Nisqually Entrance is the oldest entry point and home to a historic 1899 hotel. Paradise has the park’s main visitor center and is consequently the busiest area. Sunrise is also popular because it’s the highest place that can be reached by car. All five of the main entrances have nice visitor centers, amenities, and trails for casual hikes.
- Leavenworth: a little taste of Bavaria is available in the unique mountain town of Leavenworth. Tucked right into the heart of the Washington Cascades, this odd little village looks like it stepped right out of Bavaria. The architecture, shops, and even the people dress in traditional attire here to create a kitschy but neat scene. Leavenworth exists on tourism, but it’s one of the best bases possible for exploring this section of the Cascades. Besides strolling around the town, there are several wine tasting shops featuring locally-produced wines from eastern Washington.
WHEN TO GO TO WASHINGTON
The best period to visit Washington is from June to September.
Washington State gets unfairly labeled as a soggy cold place virtually all year round. The fact is, Washington has several different climate zones and some of them are as dry as the desert. The Cascades form a rain barrier, creating very rainy conditions most of the year on the western side and fairly dry conditions in eastern Washington. Seattle gets rain regularly between October and July. Yet just across Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands enjoy far less precipitation because they sit in a rain shadow. Beyond that, the Olympic Peninsula is so rainy that it actually has a rainforest.
July and August are the only two months when it will probably not rain. The temperatures hover in the perfect mid-70s (°F) zone and the blue skies send everyone into a frenzy of activity. This is the absolute peak tourist season because even the locals are out in droves. While you’ll enjoy sublime weather in summer, you’ll have to share everything with crowds of people. Late fall, winter, and spring are all characterized by rain and cool temperatures in the low 50s (°F). Seattle drops into the mid-40s (°F) in December and January, receiving the most rain as well. This double-whammy makes for unpleasant conditions, but loads of special hotel rates.
On the eastern side of the Cascades, the weather is generally 10°F cooler and significantly drier. In Walla Walla, summer highs reach into the upper 80s (°F), while winters drop to around 40°F. Winter is when most of the precipitation falls in eastern Washington, occasionally as snow. In the Cascades, it snows a lot during winter. Farther east, in Spokane, the winter lows are even colder but the year-round precipitation is much lower than in the rest of Washington.
WHAT TO DO IN WASHINGTON
Trek through a temperate rainforest
Olympic National Park on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula is a temperate rainforest where you can hike over soft, moss-covered paths under towering ferns and old-growth canopies. It’s a little like stumbling into a chilly jungle, an eerie sensation that may be why the “Twilight” series was set in nearby Forks. Emerge from the rainforest and you’ll land on beaches full of imposing rock formations like the split rock at Rialto Beach and pointing fingers at Ruby Beach. Many hikes also offer up-close views of the Olympic Mountains, which, on the odd sunny day, make for one of the prettiest photo ops in the country.
Following is a list of typical festivals and celebrations of Washington.
- Skagit Valley Tulip Festival: the town of La Conner in Washington is just an hour’s drive north of Seattle and it’s famous for its flower-growing industry. Each April, the tulip and daffodil farms explode into bloom, blanketing the entire Skagit Valley in color. It’s really quite a spectacle, and La Conner capitalizes on it with a nice little spring festival featuring a range of events and activities, including music, food, flower exhibits, and farm tours.
- Seattle Maritime Festival: Seattle’s maritime roots are celebrated each May along its scenic, historic waterfront. The Bell Street Pier is the center of the activity, which includes fun events like boat-building contests and tug boat racing. There are a lot of activities geared toward kids, but adults will enjoy the art fair, beer garden, and big Waterfront Chowder Cook-Off. Best of all, it’s free!
- Sasquatch! Festival: one of America’s premier alternative music festivals takes place at the Gorge Amphitheater in the town of George, Washington (clever, no?). Three stages host dozens of the hottest bands in the country over three days every May. There are food tents, beer gardens, and even a comedy stage for a few laughs.
- Capitol Hill Block Party: one of Seattle’s coolest neighborhoods holds a classic street party every July that is really a tribute to the city’s energy and creativity as a whole. For three days, the streets of Capitol Hill host some of the best bands and musicians in the Pacific Northwest on several stages which are set up around the district. Though music is the focus, there are also loads of food vendors, art and crafts exhibits, and other neat activities.
- Tacoma Craft Beer Festival: Washington State is a pioneer in America’s massive craft beer movement, and each September the best local brewers in the region come to Tacoma’s Foss Waterway Seaport for a full day of beer samples from more than 50 small breweries. It’s the state’s biggest local beer event, and always sells out weeks in advance.
- Bumbershoot: this incredibly diverse and eclectic Washington art festival features everything from live music to bizarre performance arts. This hugely popular, three-day September event happens at the Seattle Center Exhibition Hall. Around 2,000 performers entertain a crowd of 200,000 with poetry, music, dancing, acrobatics, and much more. Some 50 Seattle restaurants provide the food from booths in the foodie section.
HOW TO REACH AND TRAVEL THROUGH WASHINGTON
Unless your entire trip will be confined to the city of Seattle, a car is a necessity to move around Washington State. Car rentals are easy to arrange at the airports and most major towns in Washington. The entire state is covered by an excellent network of interstates and rural roads that are very scenic. Winter driving can be tricky when crossing the Cascades as snow is common at the highway passes, so be prepared for inclement weather if driving during the winter months. Good rates are usually available with advance bookings.
All that water around Seattle has created a useful ferry network. Long-distance boats only travel between Victoria, Canada, and Seattle. But the Washington State Ferries company is the nation’s largest, with frequent boats to the San Juan Islands, Olympic Peninsula, and around Puget Sound.
The train makes an excellent way to reach Washington State from other distant cities in America. Amtrak runs three lines that terminate at Seattle’s downtown King Street Station. The Empire Builder line runs east from Chicago, making a stop in Spokane, while the Coast Starlight line runs right up the Pacific coast from San Diego, with stops all along the way including Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Portland. The Cascades line is a high-speed train that runs between Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, Canada, with a stop in Seattle. Amtrak trains are comfortable but slow. Fares are not cheap but the scenery more than compensates.
The Greyhound bus line is the main company serving Washington State. Its routes follow the interstate highways, offering cheap and easy access to many towns. But it won’t reach everywhere, so the bus is only useful for travel between major towns. Seats on the Greyhound are marginally comfortable and best designed for brief journeys.
Main airports are:
GENERAL INFORMATION ON WASHINGTON
health tips & vaccination: none
local currency: US Dollar
local time zone: GMT-5 (-4)
electricity: type A and type B (120V – 60 Hz)
WHAT TO DO IN WASHINGTON
Typical food in Washington
- Smoked Sockeye Salmon
- Razor Clams
- Fair Scones
- Beecher’s Mac and Cheese
- Dungeness Crab & Dungeness Crab Rolls and Cakes
- Oysters on the Half Shell
- Almond Roca
- Seattle Dog
- Oyster Stew
- Steamed Mussels & Clams
- Razor Clam Chowder
- Salmon Sandwich
- Morels on Toast
- Penn Cove Mussels: à la Marinière
- Scrambled Egg
- Mangalitsa Pig Charcuterie
- Molten Chocolate Cake
- Westland Peated Barley Praline
- Honey Lavender Ice Cream
- Asparagus Tamales
- Apple Cider Doughnuts
Souvenirs from Washington
Washington produces a number of excellent products, primarily edible goods and wine. There are several wine-growing areas in the state on both sides of the Cascades that have thriving winery scenes where visitors are invited to tour, taste, and purchase unique vintages. With more than 650 wineries in Washington, this state is America’s second-largest producer of wines after California. Adding a winery tour to your road trip is the ideal way to enhance your experience of this beautiful place.
Washington is also a major center for outdoor gear and clothing manufactures like REI and Eddie Bauer. In the large cities, there are shopping malls and retail outlets with most of America’s big name brands.
- Wine, beer, cheese & coffee, jam, smoked salmon, cherries, apples
- Artisanal chocolate
- Applets & Cotlets
- Handblown glassware
- Northwest Designer Jewelry
- Native American Arts