SOMETIMES, YOU’VE JUST got to pull up the stakes and go. For many of us, the tugging has already started.
In the Northwest, this urge for going is a markedly profound rite of late spring; the inner where-have-I-stowed-my-sun-hat buzz commences the minute fruit trees blossom, tourists stack themselves along tulip fields, and rivers start ripping with full-throated runoff roar. It intensifies to a loud drone — may we safely say even a nag? — once the kids are freed from school duties.
In normal times, whatever those were to you, the above-referenced longing was largely seen as a product of what we had most recently endured — namely, six months or more of what amounts to low-viz, trunk-rot weather, and a begrudging spring season that summons itself with all the swiftness of a 90-year-old through-hiker rising from a sofa after a day hacking away at those damn blackberry canes.
In current times, it’s a product of all that, plus — well, we all know.
This year, the homebound stakes in need of pulling are likely sunk deeper than ever, packed under an additional layer of heavy insecurity born of the pandemic. But things change, travel is becoming a thing again; regional trips for outdoor getaways seem safer than we could’ve hoped even a few months ago. Celebrate this small victory, and take advantage. Skate right away onto that thin ice of a new day.
We’re here to help with some lifetime should-do suggestions — a bucket list, of sorts, for a NW nature lover. But first a small throat-clearing:
As a former Seattle Times outdoors writer and author of a variety of outdoor guides about hiking and camping, your correspondent often is queried about “favorite places” among the natural splendor that surrounds us to a degree not found in many other regions. This has generally been met with strong resistance, for the most part, out of my concern for 1) crowds that trample a place or make it less enjoyable, and 2) crowds that interfere with my own ability to selfishly keep places to myself.
(Kidding. Sort of. OK, not.)
Over time, and especially recently, my thoughts on same have changed. Perhaps it’s the notion that, with our now-vast population, not to mention the Curse of Instagramming, strikingly cool outdoor haunts are just going to be much more heavily peopled in our present and future. Period. Reality. It’s up to you to find the time and to exercise the smarts to work around this — or at least render it tolerable.
On top of that, who among us, after the past year and a half, has been immune from a predominant sense of YOLO? Yeah, we all knew, empirically, that You Only Live Once. But the past months have driven it home with the permanence of a big ol’ chest tattoo.
Life is indeed fragile, and in the NW, a life well lived inarguably is marked by one’s experiences with nature — outings that leave pitch on one’s hands, a hitch in one’s giddy up, but a grin on one’s soul. So with apologies to the cantankerous sorts who will accuse me of being a “cream-skimmer,” please mull, embrace, reject or argue with this list of 10 outdoor sites and spaces that should be on the lifetime bucket list of any serious NW outdoor nature lover.
The Usual Disclaimers: 1) These are not in order of wonderfulness. 2) Yes, I will take the really greatest places to my grave, sorry. 3) Please, oh please, oh please, don’t all of you go to these places next week, or even next month. Try the shoulder seasons or … egad, even winter! God did not invent down puffies just to get you from Westlake to Capitol Hill. And a little bit of chill or rain beats a crowd any day.
1. Dabob Bay, northern Hood Canal.
There’s no easy way to get to Dabob Bay. And you’re already guessing how that contributes to its greatness.
Seriously, you’ll need a water craft, such as a kayak or boat (or better yet, Friend With Boat Benefits), launched from someplace like Quilcene or Brinnon.
But once you get there, you will literally be immersed with the sights, sounds, smells and feels that make the Salish Sea unique. This bay is ultra-deep, super-isolated and largely unspoiled (although the rare forays by Trident nuke submarines conducting testing here can be unnerving, if you’re not accustomed to a potential destroyer of worlds off your starboard stern.)
A paddle trip through these mostly quiet waters — remarkably, a hop/skip from downtown Seattle, as the osprey flies — often brings stirring encounters with mammalian wildlife in a misnamed “canal” that actually is the Lower 48’s longest natural fjord — one sometimes frothing with fish, raptors and other wildlife. It is simply, stunningly, beautiful.
2. Ebey’s Bluff, Whidbey Island
There’s a reason the stunning, rocky cliffs of the coast of Ireland and environs routinely find themselves as awe-inspiring landscapes in movies. They tend to inspire awe, and then magnify it multiple times over. You’re standing there in a stiff breeze on what really qualifies as the edge of forever. It’s a starting point for all manner of life changes, and failing that, just a flat-out stunning view that gives one that vaunted “sense of place” in straight-shot, 110-proof fashion.
Such is the case with Ebey’s Bluff — or, frankly, any number of elevated public spaces on the west shores of Whidbey Island or the eastern bluffs of Jefferson County, sandwiching Admiralty Inlet. Short trails from two entrances to Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve lead up a bluff to views northwest down the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the Pacific Ocean; north to Canada’s coast range; north and east to rugged Mount Baker and the northern Cascades; south to Mount Rainier; and due west to Port Townsend, backed by the Olympic Mountains. And all around — saltwater.
It’s spectacular; one of those unique places which, by all rights, you really should have to work harder to get to. Strong walkers can follow the trail all the way along the property’s cliff-top and then drop, if desired, down a steep switchback to the beach for a pleasant sandy-stroll loop back to the car — a couple of hours and a short hike of less than 5 miles. It’s a winner in any and all weather, but on a clear day, unforgettable (and if exposed, sunscreen is in order).
3. Cape Disappointment
Nothing really sums up the NW coastal experience better than the sandy shores north of the fabled and feared Columbia River bar, where some of the fiercest surf in North America strikes terror in mariners — and an adrenaline surge in U.S. Coast Guard members who get upside-down training here in motor lifeboats.
The dark cliffs of the cape define weather-beaten, and the twin lighthouses atop the cape itself and North Head, up the beach, stand as remarkable monuments to the spirit of people both ancient and modern who have long endured the weather to cling to these rocks and live here.
In the geographical middle of all this is Cape Disappointment State Park, a visit to which is a true rite of passage for any Darn Tough-socks-and-sandals Nor’westerner. Campsites fill up months in advance, for good reason. If you want to visit in the summer, know two things: You won’t be alone. And it will be worth the trip.
4. Olympic rainforest river valleys
Honestly, if you want local cred, you haven’t lived until you’ve made your way up, down, and all about a windward Olympic Peninsula river drainage — and have the wrinkled fingers and toes to prove it.
The peninsula’s western drainages — from north to south, the Elwha, Sol Duc, Bogachiel, Hoh, Queets, Quinault — are unique on the planet in topography, flora and fauna. Always a challenge to visit because of user-unfriendly accesses and weather that often blows once you get there, they are places of sheer rainforest magic on occasion.
The trees are magnificent, but are only the obvious high points of a remarkable ecosystem.
This is not tourism bureau hype. I recall like it was yesterday a morning two decades ago, sitting in dense fog on a log far up the Hoh River, breathing in the deep aromas of solitude, clean air, fecund soil and all the rest when — SNAP! — a small twig breaking behind me alerted me to a large herd of Roosevelt elk that had drifted heretofore silently, out of the woods, literally all around me.
These are the sort of lifetime gifts one takes to the grave.
So treat these rainforests with the deserved reverence of an ancient cathedral of the man-made variety. At least. But do go and, at least once, take them in.
Strong advice: If you want the real feels, go far upstream on these deadfall-strewn trails, in a river valley less-visited. Not to mention names, but the Bogachiel, or Queets above the river crossing, for those skilled enough to manage that.
5. Rialto Beach/Hole in the Wall
Unless they are the sort that requires room service, we would never hesitate to send a capable person in search of a natural touchstone to any remote part of the Pacific coastal strip of Olympic National Park, or other current or former lands of local Native tribes kind enough to open their roads and shores to the world. But Rialto Beach is the cream-skimmer’s delight when it comes to beach sites.
For one, you can drive right to it, which again, should not be legal, but … hello! Right from the parking lot, one climbs over a pile of driftwood and emerges in ocean Neverland, with a string of sea stacks producing spectacular geysers of crashing waves, occasionally celebrated by passing flocks of pelicans and small herds of migratory whales. (Yes, routinely.)
An hour’s walk to the north takes one to the fabled Hole in the Wall rock formations, which … well, just go, for God’s sake.
6. Cape Flattery
Many local wild-places enthusiasts would include on their bucket list at least one remote north Olympic Peninsula beach, likely Cape Alava/Shi Shi, accessed by a trail on tribal lands (currently closed). No argument there. But an even greater personal favorite, to this writer, is the nearby short trek along the rugged, rocky northern coastline to Cape Flattery.
It’s the most northwesterly point of land in the entire contiguous United States, which by itself counts for something if you’re a Northwesty sort. (The Makahs call the cape “the beginning of the world,” and it’s an apt description.)
The easy, 1.5-mile round-trip trail, when open, offers a glimpse of why. From the destination viewing platform, you look out at infinity, and straight down at Tatoosh Island and a spate of craggy sea stacks. Watch the sea swell up and down the cliffs like some panting watery dragon, and imagine trying to land a boat on that little lighthouse-festooned rock — and then spending, say, a winter there.
OK, don’t, if you spook easily.
Do note that as of this writing, Makah lands remain closed to nontribal members at least through October because of ongoing COVID-19 concerns. Check back with the Makahs and put this outing on your list for later days, but don’t forget it.
7. Burroughs Mountain
Everyone, at some point, makes the trek to Mount Rainier, right? But sadly, for most, it starts and ends in a crowded parking lot or a roadside pullout. In a lifetime of exploring the mountain and maintaining a guide to its best day hikes, I’ve come to favor Burroughs Mountain, a sub-peak on the mountain’s northeast face, above Sunrise, as the best all-in-one taste of the magnificence of the iconic volcano, long known as Tahoma.
It’s not a novice hike (up to 9 miles; peaks at 7,800 feet, but you don’t have to do all of it) to get there, but not one of the mountain’s more-dangerous, either. Reasonably fit walkers (carry the essentials, folks, and stay on the path; weather is fickle) can make a daylong loop from Sunrise up this fantastic grade and back, taking in views of the summit, the sprawling natural parklands on Rainier’s southern shoulders, and sister volcanoes to the south.
If you can do it, you really, really should.
8. Beacon Rock
Certain natural features, picked up and plunked in the middle of a nondescript place, might not turn many heads. But others, like Beacon Rock — an ancient, 850-foot andesite volcanic plug now standing on its own, like a sentinel — can come to define a delightful broader region simply by the way they inject you directly into the middle of it.
So it is with Beacon Rock and the spectacular Columbia River Gorge. The rock, contained in a Washington State Park, can be scaled via a somewhat nerve-wracking path (not for the squeamish or those who get queasy about exposed heights) that clings to its outer rim, circling its way to the top via 52 switchbacks. The views from here of the river, the gorge, and southern Cascade peaks are sublime, and it’s less than 2 miles up and back.
There’s no other place like it. It’s impossible to drink it all in and not consider, with some lament, what view the same spot would have offered when the great River of the West still flowed freely.
9. Baker Lake/south slopes Mount Baker
A moment ago we mentioned places to which we enjoy easy access that seems almost too easy. A leader in this category for the entire region is the Artist Point/Heather Meadows area, a slice of alpine heaven between Mounts Shuksan and Baker that can be entirely accessed by car.
But every bit as memorable are the lands, both wild and altered, on the south side of the ice-capped volcano. This includes Baker Lake, a sprawling impoundment of the Baker River behind a Puget Sound Energy dam, and a series of Forest Service lakeshore campgrounds and, above, wilderness trails (Railroad Grade/Park Butte is a favorite alpine haunt) leading to some of the most mind-bending glacier/meadow/long-throw views on Mount Baker.
Note that the campgrounds and lake are uber-busy in midsummer, crowded with folks chasing elusive sockeye that have been dumped into the lake as part of a dam-mitigation fisheries program. But the expansive wilderness lands above, on the volcano’s shoulders, afford opportunities, at times, for true solitude — an increasingly rare NW commodity.
10. Dry Falls
The water-free cliff faces of dry falls are the most striking visual testament to the Ice Age floods that scoured clean Central Washington as massive walls of water flowed from ancient Lake Missoula to the Pacific, gouging out much of the course of the modern Columbia River along the way.
They qualify as some of the more striking geological features in America, and have long been overlooked by nature lovers of all stripes. The falls, only two minutes off a major interstate highway, U.S. 2, can be viewed from a lookout/visitor center, or explored more firsthand via hiking trails, assuming you don’t mind a possible occasional encounter with a rattlesnake.
They’re a must-see for anyone who appreciates the immense variety of unique terrain found inside the confines of the Evergreen State. And they’ll likely spark interest in exploring even more such Ice Age-flood landmarks that remain, in small and big scale, all the way from Grand Coulee to Astoria. (The nearby Moses Coulee is worth exploring on its own.)
Serious, major, probably shoulda-made-it runners-up
Palouse Falls and the Palouse Canyon, to the confluence with the Snake River, which reek with antiquity both geological and cultural (some of our region’s very first inhabitants traveled through, hunted and thrived here after arriving from Asia 15,000 to 20,000 years ago). This is not a tourist-oriented destination in general, but the falls itself, viewed from a Washington State Park, is spectacular in its own right. Steptoe Butte, a unique promontory dead central in the sprawling, rolling hills of the Palouse. The Tieton River drainage, from White Pass to Yakima. Icicle River Valley near Leavenworth. Mount Adams and the rugged, volcanic-remnant-strewn country of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, in the South Cascades. The Glacier Peak Wilderness, in general. And oh, yeah: Mount St. Helens, which gets enough press already. The list goes on. Make one of your own, cherish the memories it created, and pass it on down.