You may know Washington as the Evergreen State, but it’s the high-desert plains, geysers and volcanic peaks that perhaps best show what the state is all about. Washington’s epic mix of nature provides a glimpse into a landscape that has been shaped by major events back to the Ice Age.
Olympic and Rainier may be the most famous national parks in Washington and make all the headlines (and rightfully so). But travelers will be thrilled by the veritable nature buffet standing in front of them in many of Washington’s state parks.
From Seattle alone, you’ll have a brief drive to the gorgeous Puget Sound where whales roam. In the other direction, you’ll find the location of the deadliest volcanic eruption in US history. Whichever way you choose, you’ll find, in a good way, much more than you bargained for.
12. Flaming Geyser State Park
In a state home to lush rainforests and glacial peaks, Washington’s natural diversity is put on display at Flaming Geyser State Park. Today, the geyser is safely contained and doesn’t soar like the ones in Yellowstone, but its story is still fascinating.
In the early 20th century miners dug a test well only to create a 26-foot monster of gas that was lit by natural methane. Today, the methane remains and the flame only rises a few inches. You can also see the effect of this in the nearby mud hole, otherwise known as Bubbling Geyser.
But for many, the true strength of the park is the Green River. It flows through and creates thrilling white water rafting at high flow.
11. Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park
In the last years of the Ice Age, parts of Eastern Washington received massive floods thanks to the dams of ice that broke in modern day Montana. As the water receded, it left scars that would otherwise be unimaginable. Except we get to see them with our own eyes at Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park.
In its heyday, Dry Falls would have made Niagara Falls look like a drop in the bucket. It once measured 3.5 miles wide with an insane 400-foot drop. However, all that remains is an otherwise spectacular cliff face and the sparkling Sun Lakes below.
Ironically, the landscape is now arid high-desert and is a great place to fish, boat and swim before camping under the stars.
10. Lake Wenatchee State Park
This year-round state park is beloved among campers who can enjoy a beautiful wilderness without difficult access. Two hours east of Seattle, the state park is based on the gorgeous lake which is lined with mountains and glaciers, none better than Dirtyface Peak.
In the summer, locals and travelers enjoy the sun on the banks of the refreshing lake, diving in whenever they wish. Boat and kayak rentals are available and the hiking, biking and horse riding trails keep the energetic busy. In the winter, the snow falls, and the groomed cross-country trails are the best way to explore what’s now a winter wonderland.
The park has over 150 campsites that make staying here and enjoying nature a breeze.
9. San Juan Islands National Monument
Comprising over 400 islands, the Sun Juan Islands National Monument plays a vital role in protecting Washington’s wildlife and marine diversity. The monument was created recently in 2013, making it one of the newer parks in Washington. But age is just a number and the San Juans offer epic diversity to rival any park in the state.
Some islands are lathered with dense rainforests, yet just across the Puget Sound is one filled with nothing but a hearty blanket of rocks. It makes for amazing exploration, whether on your own watercraft or on a tour. You can see the orcas and killer whales from May to October and for a wide-reaching view hike to the top of Mount Constitution.
8. Palouse Falls State Park
They say, don’t go chasing waterfalls but you’ll want to chase this one. Palouse Falls State Park was named after the breathtaking waterfall that tumbles 200 feet down into a deep gorge.
The waterfalls are the park’s foremost attraction, and for good reason. From your viewpoint on the other side of the gorge, you’ll see the thick white veil split the basalt rock and ancient lava flow. The scene is reminiscent of Big Bend, only if you add a waterfall and a lot more greenery.
Stick around the high desert park and enjoy the amazing light show by staying at the Palouse Falls campgrounds.
7. Lime Kiln Point State Park
Just shy of the Canadian border on San Juan Island, Lime Kiln State Park is best known for its whale watching. During the migration season, from May to September, the park’s western shores are a fantastic spot to see orca pods swim through the strait.
But all year long there is plenty to do at Lime Kiln. Although relatively small, the park features some nature trails that guide you along the coast and through the park. Along the way you’ll cross paths with the historic red-roofed lighthouse that stands elegantly atop the boulder-strewn coast.
Visitors will also find picnic areas along with the visitor center that unveils the history of the site and the animals that call it home.
6. Deception Pass State Park
Just over an hour north of Seattle, Deception Pass State Park is one of the most popular in the state. Where Rainier and the North Cascades offer remote wilderness, Deception Pass is incredibly accessible, and its iconic bridge is as photo-worthy as they come.
The park is mostly enveloped by the Puget Sound, with long-range views from the shoreline and at elevation. There are several family-friendly trails including the informative Sand Dunes Interpretive Trail, while those adventurously inclined can complete a section of the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail.
Fishing is another popular endeavor within Cranberry Lake, with the opportunity to explore with sound further.
5. Mount Saint Helens National Monument
In 1980, Mount Saint Helens was 9,677 feet tall and the fifth highest peak in the state. The beautiful mountain stood out like a ship on a vast ocean and rose mightily above the otherwise flat countryside. But that same year, it shed over 1,300 feet as it erupted, killing 57 people in the deadliest volcanic eruption in the history of the United States.
It has taken some time, but visitors can see the power of Mother Nature in the area’s rejuvenation. Today, you can explore the mountain and surrounding national monument to discover even greater biodiversity than what existed before the eruption.
Hiking trails take you up to the jaw-dropping Windy Ridge and along to the famous peak. From the top, you’ll have unforgettable views down into the caldera.
4. Cape Disappointment State Park
Named after the disappointing (read unsuccessful) journey of Captain James Meares, who hoped to discover the Columbia River, Cape Disappointment is hardly so. The state park hovers over the edge of the rugged coast, whose cliffs tumble down into the burly Pacific Ocean.
Cape Disappointed State Park is home to a duo of beautiful lighthouses called North Head and Cape Disappointment. Both are as old as time, but the latter is the oldest functioning lighthouse in Washington. The views and lighthouses will capture your imagination, but for more history, explore the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. For it was here, their iconic journey ended.
After, walk the trails that meander down the coast or stick around and sleep under the stars at the resident campground.
3. Mount Rainier National Park
Such is the sheer size of Mount Rainier that you can see her from many parts of Washington. The majestic and eternally snow-capped peak stands at over 14,400 feet above sea level and making it to the top is a goal of many mountaineers.
But if completing the technical challenge is not on your radar, the surrounding Mount Rainier National Park more than lives up to your expectations. It’s arguably the most beautiful public land in the state, a place that offers something wonderful during every season.
There are over 250 miles of hiking trails through the park which lead you through spellbinding meadows and alongside alpine lakes. Many of these trails turn into cross-country ski tracks in the winter, so there’s never a bad time to explore.
2. North Cascades National Park
A place where grey wolves, grizzlies and wolverines roam, the North Cascades National Park is a veritable wilderness. We are fortunate that it’s a mere three hour drive from Seattle.
Scenic Highway 20 takes you to and through the park, providing one of the more amazing road trips in the state. However, if you took out this stretch of tar, there is very little to access on four wheels. Because of this, North Cascades is beloved among mountaineers who can make use of the remote ridgelines to scale to epic heights.
It may be a park that serves experienced climbers well, but there are several fantastic day hikes with trailheads along Highway 20. You can also explore the park on a kayak or raft along the Stehekin and Skagit rivers.
1. Olympic National Park
The crown jewel of national parks in Washington, Olympic National Park has a mind-boggling diversity of nature. Covering a vast patch of the spectacular Olympic Peninsula, the national park is a thorough wilderness that spans from massive glacial mountains to dense and soggy rainforests.
The peninsular itself juts out of the west coast as if to make it easier for the clouds to recognize it. The region receives more rainfall than any other part of mainland USA. Much of that is snow which over time has created over 250 glaciers within the park.
With your rain jacket handy, prepare for a series of unforgettable hikes such as those through Hurricane Pass and the Enchanted Valley. Afterwards, rest up in the Sol Duc hot springs or relax by Marymere Falls.