Washington State is an outdoor lover’s paradise, filled with national parks, national forests, recreation areas, and monuments to explore and learn from.
Washington represents the best the Pacific Northwest has to offer. Explore the snowy, jagged mountain face of Mount Rainier, hike the dreamy, moss-covered rainforests of the Olympic Peninsula, and take in the beauty of the turquoise lakes surrounded by lush green forest in the North Cascades.
Here are 15 of the best Washington State national parks, monuments, and recreation areas that we know adventurers will absolutely love.
NORTH CASCADES NATIONAL PARK
North Cascades National Park is such a hidden beauty! It’s the most remote of the national parks in Washington State, and is located about three hours north of Seattle.
North Cascades National Park covers more than 500,000 acres of land, and features jagged snowy mountain peaks, densely forested green slopes, and over 300 glaciers. The amount of glaciers found here make it the largest glacial system in the lower United States.
You’ll also find stunning turquoise lake overlooks and out-of-this-world hiking trails, making it the perfect place to visit to get away from it all.
North Cascades is open year-round, but the best time to visit is usually between mid-June and mid-September. While the North Cascades is a stunning area to visit in the wintertime, avalanche danger is very prevalent in the area, so you’ll want to be careful. A car is a must at this national park — there’s no shuttle service, and most of the main attractions are spread out.
MAIN ATTRACTIONS AT NORTH CASCADES
North Cascades Highway (Highway 20) is the best way to get around North Cascades as it’s the only paved road in the park. I recommend driving the loop, stopping at some overlooks, and going for some hikes along the way.
Diablo Lake is a glacial-fed reservoir in the Ross Lake Recreation Area of the North Cascades known for its stunning turquoise waters surrounded by lush, deep forests. Stopping by the lake overlook on the North Cascades Highway is an absolute must! If you have time, I’d recommend spending some time hiking, camping, kayaking, or canoeing on the lake.
Located within the same recreation area as Diablo Lake, Ross Lake is another great place to visit in the summertime! It is a large 23-mile long reservoir where you can go boating, fishing, camping, and more. Stop by the overlook for a stunning view, or bring the boat and the family out in the summer.
The best hiking trails in North Cascades National Park are: Cascade Pass and Sahale Arm, Maple Pass Loop, and Desolation Peak. Cascade Pass and Sahale Arm are often noted as the best day hike in the North Cascades because it checks all the boxes: shady forests, alpine lakes, and stunning summit views. It’s a tough hike at 12 miles long, but every step is worth it!
Maple Pass Loop is the best trail if you’re looking for high mountain views. At 7 miles long and nearly half the elevation gain of Cascade Pass, I’d recommend this hike if you’re shorter on time looking to still see some incredible views.
Desolation Peak is a very challenging hike but the stunning views from the top are absolutely priceless. From the summit, you can see other major peaks including Skagit Mountain and sweeping views over Ross Lake and the rest of the area.
And finally, nicknamed “Lady of the Lake,” Stehekin is a one-of-a-kind village located in Lake Chelan. The only way in is via boat or hiking in. If you do get a chance to come here, you’ll find gorgeous private rentals and have hiking trails all to yourself!
Planning a National Parks road trip? The America the Beautiful Pass covers entrance for an entire year to all the US National Parks and over 2,000 federal recreation fee sites. Fees are covered for everyone in the car for per-vehicle sites and for up to 4 adults for per-person sites. This is a no-brainer, friends. While fees vary, you’ll likely break even after two visits. Plus, REI will donate 10% of pass sale proceeds to the NPS Foundation.
MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK
Located just south of Seattle, Mount Rainier National Park is one of America’s oldest and most visited national parks, and for good reason. The majesty of the massive and rugged Mount Rainier is encompassed by glaciers, waterfalls, and scenic hiking trails that simply just can’t be beat!
Mount Rainier is a mountaineer and backpacker’s paradise. You’ll find hiking trails ranging from quick, easy loops to challenging 14ers and everything in between. No matter what you’re looking for, I promise there’s a trail for you in Mount Rainier National Park!
Due to its high altitude, Mount Rainier is best hiked in July and August, as that’s when the peak will be snow-free. If you’re looking to tackle some smaller peaks, anytime between Memorial Day and mid-October would be good times to visit the park. You can usually squeeze in a good window of opportunity right after Labor Day if the weather stays warm as there will be fewer crowds. Mid-October is the best time to visit to see fall colors.
MAIN ATTRACTIONS AT MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK
Mount Rainier is majestic in and of itself. It is an active volcano sitting at 14,410 feet above sea level and spans five major rivers, making it the most glaciated peak in the contiguous USA. Nearly 10,000 people summit Mount Rainier each year, taking in the beauty behind every switchback.
Another great spot to visit in the park is the aptly named, Paradise. Paradise is located near the main visitor center of Mount Rainier National Park and is definitely the most popular area of the park. It’s a great place to start your day! Hike in alpine meadows and frolic among the wildflowers or admire the beauty of the alpine lakes here.
My two favorite hiking trails in the Paradise area are the Skyline Trail and Reflection Lakes. The Skyline Trail is a moderate 5.5 mile loop trail that has a little something for everyone and really gives a great overview of the area. After your hike, stopover at Paradise Inn for lunch and then explore some lakes nearby for sunset.
Right next door you’ll find the trailhead for Reflection Lake to Narada Falls. Both of these are absolutely stunning and a must-visit on your trip!
Read More: MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK – EPIC GUIDE
OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK
Olympic National Park is one of the most diverse national parks in the United States when it comes to both flora and fauna. It covers nearly a million acres of land in the Olympic Peninsula just west of Seattle across Puget Sound.
This national park has four main regions that are completely different from one another. Here, you’ll find snowy Olympic Mountain hiking trails, vast glaciers, nearly 70 miles of Pacific coastline, and 4 ancient temperate rainforests.
The park is pretty easy to navigate, as Highway 101 circumnavigates the park in its entirety and all attractions can be accessed from there.
You could spend a whole week here without getting bored, or visit as a quick day trip or weekend away from Seattle. It’s only a short ferry ride away!
The best time to visit Olympic National Park depends on what you want to do, but I’d recommend visiting sometime in the spring to fall. The spring is when the rainforests are the lushest and most of the animals are their most active, making it a great time of year to explore the rainoforests here.
If you like mountain hikes or camping, I’d recommend waiting to visit until a little later in the summer (July or August) when all the roads, passes, and summits are open and snow-free. Just remember, warmer temps means more crowds — so be ready to make new friends if you visit during summertime.
MAIN ATTRACTIONS AT OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK
Believe it or not, one of the best attractions at the park is the Visitor Center. Olympic National Park’s primary visitor center is located in Port Angeles, and has an information desk, small shop, Discovery Room, and other nature exhibits that explain the attractions in the park and its history. It’s a great place to stop to get a lay of the land before you start exploring.
No matter the season, the Hurricane Ridge area is a great place to visit. Hurricane Ridge is the most accessible mountainous area of Olympic National Park. You’ll find a number of different hiking trails, campsites, and facilities here. In the winter, this area is the best for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.
Located pretty much right in the middle of Olympic National Park, and sitting at about 8000 feet, is the highest point in the park — Mount Olympus. Reaching the summit of Mount Olympus has a very low success rate due to its rough terrain, so summiting it is considered a great accomplishment.
Another great place to visit in the park is Ruby Beach. Ruby Beach is located off Highway 101, just south of the Hoh Rainforest. It’s one of the most picturesque Pacific Northwest beaches, and is known for the large number of sea stacks and driftwood. Ruby Beach is a necessary stop off any road trip to the Olympic Peninsula.
By far the most popular attraction in Olympic National Park is the four temperate rain forests — Hoh, Quinault, Bogchiel, and Queets.
The Hoh Rainforest is often featured on National Geographic, in movies, and is one of the dreamiest places in the world. There are two hiking trails that will showcase its beauty the best: The Hall of Mosses Trail and the Hoh River Trail. Both of these are short, easy hikes that showcase moss-covered trees some dating back over 1000 years. The trailheads are both located by the visitor’s center. Parking can fill up quickly during peak times of the year so arrive early.
Quinault is known for being a very quiet, laid-back rainforest. It sits on Lake Quinault with temperate rain forest surrounded on all sides. It’s a great place for a relaxing stroll around the lake.
The Bogchiel Rainforest is very large, quiet, and remote. You won’t find many tourists here, but it is a local favorite. And due to its remote location and tough access, Queets is still a rather unexplored territory. Backpackers will often joke that you see just as many bears as people here. If you’re looking for some solitude and time with nature, you may want to consider a backpacking trip to the Queets.
Read More: OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK – EPIC GUIDE
MOUNT SAINT HELENS NATIONAL MONUMENT
The eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980 made it into the history books as one of the deadliest and most destructive volcanic eruptions in history. The eruption caused nearly 60 deaths and $1 billion in damage from the eruption alone.
Two years later, the USDA Forest Service turned the area into a national monument to provide research, educational, and recreational opportunities. You’ll find hiking trails, picnic areas, interpretive sites, and spectacular crater views here.
Details: 3029 Spirit Lake Hwy, Castle Rock, WA 98611 | Website
SAN JUAN ISLANDS NATIONAL MONUMENT
The San Juan Islands is an archipelago just beyond the Puget Sound between Seattle and Vancouver. There are 450 islands total and 3 islands you can visit via the Washington State ferry system: San Juan Island, Lopez Island, and Orcas Island.
These islands draw in many tourists each year for two main attractions: orca whale watching and sea kayaking. There are plenty of other fun things to do in the San Juan Islands too, like taking a hike in the hills, visiting local shops and art galleries, finding treasure on the beaches, or watching wildlife. The highest population of bald eagles in the lower 48 United States can be found here.
The San Juan Islands National Monument is roughly 1,000 acres of all the best the islands have to offer. From picturesque mountain cliffs to sandy beaches — this place is truly amazing.
When President Barack Obama signed the national monument’s proclamation, he intended for the area to be a safe space for wildlife and an outdoor classroom for Americans. He stated that “The protection of these lands in the San Juan Islands will maintain their historical and cultural significance and enhance their unique and varied natural and scientific resources, for the benefit of all Americans.”
Details: Islands National Monument, Lopez Island, WA 98261 | Website
NATIONAL RECREATION AREAS AND HISTORIC SITES
Lake Chelan is a narrow 50.5 mile lake in north Washington that serves as a gateway to North Cascades National Park. It’s most known for its boating and fishing opportunities.
At the north end of the lake you’ll find the town of Stehekin and access to the rest of the North Cascades National Park Complex.
Ebey’s Landing is a National Historical Reserve sitting on a bluff just above Puget Sound. It’s meant to preserve the area’s rich historical, agricultural, and cultural integrity. Ebey’s Landing is most popular for its hiking trails that lead to the bluff, as the view from the top is what drew settlers to the area in the first place.
Fort Vancouver is located on the Columbia River, and is known for its rich culture in the fur trading industry. Fort Vancouver was a fur trading post in the 19th century that was later turned into a national historic site due to its significance in U.S. history. You can visit today to go on a tour and learn all about the fur trade and conflicts in the area.
KLONDIKE GOLD RUSH
Klondike Gold Rush is an urban historic park located in Seattle’s Pioneer Square Preservation District. Located within the Cadillac Hotel, you’ll find a visitor’s center and museum where you can learn all about the park’s history, the last gold rush, and follow the adventures of the Klondike.
Lake Roosevelt is a large reservoir in Northeast Washington near Spokane and the upper Columbia River that should be the spot for your next Pacific Northwest summer boating vacation. Boasting a wide sandy shoreline and 22 campsites, Lake Roosevelt is the perfect place to go boating, swimming, fishing, or camping in the summertime.
LEWIS & CLARK TRAIL
The Lewis and Clark Trail is probably the most well-known hiking trail in American history, 37 miles of which pass through Washington State. Visit today and try to put yourself in Lewis and Clark’s shoes and learn why they had some of their most important, vivid, and compelling moments of their journey along the trail in Washington State.
The Manhattan Project is a series of historic parks that help us understand the creation of atomic bombs. The Hanford Site is where the plutonium used in atomic bombs, such as the one dropped in Nagasaki, Japan in 1945, was created. You can tour the site today to learn more about the Manhattan Project and why it’s such an important part of our legacy to discover.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1942, many Americans believed any Japanese person could be a spy. In February, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order sending Japanese people to prison camps across the U.S. — forcing them to leave their homes and lives behind, based on their ethnicity. One of those centers was Minidoka.
The Minidoka National Historic Site visitor’s center and hiking trails are open seasonally, for you to see the interactive historical exhibits and explore the area for yourself.
The Nez Perce National Historical Park is a collection of 38 sites across 4 different states that shows what life was like for the Nez Perce people before the white settled. You can follow a lot of these sites along Nez Perce National Historic Trail, but since they’re so spread out, I recommend just visiting a few when you can. They’re all full of interesting artifacts and cool stories.
The Oregon Trail is one of the most famous emigration routes in history, covering over 2,000 miles across 7 states, including Washington. By taking this route via wagon, white settlers were finally able to traverse to the Pacific Northwest and start a life there.
You can visit this trail today to see what life was like. It’s fun to picture what it would’ve been like to see the country for the first time along these trails.
MORE INFORMATION FOR YOUR TRIP TO WASHINGTON
- TACOMA: 20 Super Fun Things To Do In Tacoma, Washington
- ALL THINGS WASHINGTON: 36 Phenomenal Things To Do In Washington State
- LEAVENWORTH: 15 Things To Do In Leavenworth For Year-Round Fun
- SAN JUAN ISLANDS: 18 Sensational Things To Do In San Juan Islands, Washington
- BELLEVUE: 12 Things To Do In Bellevue Families Will Love
- MORE NPS FOR KIDS: Best National Parks for Kids in the USA
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