20 Best things to do in Washington State

February 7, 2021

Washington State in summertime is one of the most beautiful places in the world.  We have mountains, islands, and a cool-looking city on the water.  The outdoor activities are endless, and the weather is mild.  

You should be warned that if you plant to visit, our state frequently turns guests into residents.  It really is that beautiful here.  The best times to visit are July through September.  The flowers really pop in spring, although it frequently rains.  We wouldn’t recommend visiting November through February unless you love gray, rainy skies and miserable people.  

Lots of folks come to Seattle and do the city tourist thing.  We understand the convenience of this approach, but trust us locals:  There are much better things to do outside the urban areas of Washington State.  

1.  Mt. Rainier National Park

Mt. Rainier is the best thing to see and do in Washington state.

Everyone knows Mt. Rainier is going to explode someday — it’s an active volcano, it’s what they do.  We have contingency plans for when it does, so it’s serious and scary.  Until that dreadful day, however, we will enjoy the majesty of Tahoma every chance we get.

At 14,410 feet tall, the beautiful behemoth seems to always  be in view.  It goes without saying that the closer you get to the mountain the more massive and surreal it becomes.  The three most popular points to approach the mountain are Paradise from the south, Sunrise from the north-east, and Tolmie on the west.  

If you like waterfalls, three of the highest in Washington State are in Mt. Rainier National Park Narada Falls, Pearl Falls, and Comet Falls, the later of which is a real stunner and surprisingly easy to reach.  

2.  Olympic National Park

Olympic National Park is one of the top things to do in Washington State.  Monica poses on Hurricane Ridge.

Olympic National Park is the most visited national park on the west coast, which is something considering Washington’s NW corner is practically outer space.   Where else can you hike a mountain, stroll through a rainforest, and relax in a hot spring in the same day? We know, we know. There are other places. It’s still cool.

The park is 922,000 acres and has over 3,000 miles of rivers and streams.  There are 60 named glaciers.  The western slopes see more average rainfall than any place in the continental US, which makes the Ho Rainforest a terrific place to visit.

Many points of interest in OLYNP are easy to access by car. Hurricane Ridge, replete with vistas and hikes, is a twenty-mile drive from Port Angeles.  Sol Duc Hot Springs is the perfect place to relax, if you can handle the sulfur smell and the paste-white skin of Washingtonians.  Rialto Beach at La Push is a wild and majestic coastal stretch.

For those who prefer more exertion with their activity, the Olympic Mountain Range is home to over 175 world-class hiking trails.  Want to see elk and mountain goats?  How about yellow pine trees?  

3. North Cascades National Park

The North Cascades are a free National Park.  Dramatic mountain peaks and mint green lakes.  Excellent hiking in Washington State.

Two hours north of Seattle is an alpine landscape called North Cascades National Park. This is one of the few national parks without an entrance fee. It is home to over 300 glaciers, and also boasts a cornucopia of fishing lakes, hiking trails, fanciful towns, and an amazing ski resort in Mt. Baker.

If you’re into eagles — and seriously, who isn’t — you can watch them feed every year from mid-December to mid-January at Nooksack River Bald Eagle Viewing Area on the Welcome Bridge. Spend the day watching hundreds of eagles in their natural habitat for zero dollars.

Diablo Lake is a mint-blue alpine lake reminiscent of Banff. Ross lake is great for fishing and water sports. The Maple Pass Trail offers incredible scenery, and the Pacific Crest Trail runs through these parts. East of the park is the old western town of Winthrop. And if you’re in the mood for total isolation, Stehekin sits at the north end of Lake Chelan.

4.  Blue Lake Rhino

The Blue Lake Rhino is one of the best things to do in Washington State.

Here goes:  15 million years ago, the area we now know as central Washington experienced a series of volcanic eruptions that laid 1000’s of feet of molten basalt rock across the landscape.  A juvenile, prehistoric rhino was in a lake (scientists believe), probably dead, and managed to waterlog before a lava flow encased his body and preserved his form in the rock.  Without emotion, the lava continued flowing for eons and eons and buried the rhino deep in the geological annals.

Enter the Cordilleran Ice sheet 15,000 years ago which pushed southward from Canada during the last ice age. The two-thousand foot tall glacier stopped-up a river in Missoula, Montana, and filled the valley with what is known as Glacial Lake Missoula (almost twice the size of The Great Salt Lake).  Eventually the ice dam gave way, and the water flowed with the authority of ten times the world’s rivers combined, ravaging a path between Montana and the Pacific Ocean.  This process recurred several times, creating Washington’s curious Channeled Scablands.

In the 1930’s, a group of hikers in the Sun Lakes area noticed a hole in the cliffside of an ancient river valley caused by the flood.  They scampered up the nearby talus hill, scooted out onto a 300’ high ledge, and scaled ten feet up a wall to the cave opening.  In the furthest reaches of the small, rhino-shaped cave they found a jaw and other bone fragments.  To read more about Blue Lake Rhino, click here.

5.  Mt. Saint Helens

Mt. Saint Helens was the most disruptive volcanic eruption in the history of the USA.  An amazing sight to behold.

On May 18, 1980, Mt. Saint Helens erupted.  It was the most destructive volcanic eruption in US history and produced the largest landslide in recorded history (3.3 Billion cubic yards).  The ash and gases shot more than twelve miles into the air, turning daylight into darkness.  Fifty-seven people died.

The best view of the blast side of the mountain is the Johnston Ridge Observatory (although the view from a Seattle-Portland flight is a sobering scene).  Another great vantage is the Windy Ridge Viewpoint to the east of Spirit Lake.  Many of the trees blown down in the eruption now reside in the far end of the lake, and the Windy Ridge View is your best place to see it.   

6.  Makah Indian Reservation

Neah Bay is the best place to fish in Washington State.  Hobuck is the best surfing in Washington.  Shishi Beach is one of Washington's top beaches.  All of it is must-do.

If you want the ultimate, you’ve got to be willing to pay the ultimate price.  In this case, the ultimate price is a four-hour drive from Seattle to the western most point of the USA.  

Want to catch a 40 lb. King Salmon?  Neah Bay is as close to fishing in Alaska as you will find in Washington state.  Bring your own boat, rent a boat, or charter a guided tour.  

Want to learn how to surf, or enjoy an ocean forest in solitude?  Hobuck resort is one of Washington’s best kept secrets.  About six miles north from Hobuck is Cape Flattery, the western most point.  The trail is easy and looks so primitive you wouldn’t be surprised if a dinosaur flew by.

Shishi Beach may be a little Patagonia passe these days, but the Point of Arches is every bit as incredible as it was a million years ago.  

7.  The Space Needle

Monica and Ryan think the Space Needle is the best restaurant to visit in Washington State.

In our opinion, the Space Needle is the most memorable thing you will do on your trip to Seattle.  Built in for the ‘64 World’s Fair, the needle was the first of its kind.  Several other needle-type structures were built in the following years, i.e., Tower of the Americas, CN Tower, etc., yet none of them can match the Seattle view.

There are two ways to enjoy the view:  spend $25+ to ride the elevator to the observation deck, or have dinner at the restaurant at the top (which comes w/ access to the observation deck).  Sky City is a fabulous restaurant. While it isn’t exactly cheap – dinner will run you around $120 for two w/out drinks – it’s worth it and highly recommended.  

The best time to dine is around sunset, where you will enjoy a beautiful evening with rotating views of the Puget Sound islands, Mt. Rainier, Seattle skyline, and more.  

8.  Alki Beach

Alki is the best beach in Washington State.  Lincoln Park is one of the top ten parks in Seattle.

Seattle has three major beaches:  Discovery Park in Magnolia, Golden Gardens in Ballard, and Alki Beach in West Seattle.  All three are worth visiting, but in our opinion, Alki is superior.  That said, it is often crowded w/ young people and parking can be tricky.  If you’re looking for a relaxed atmosphere, Discovery Park might be more your speed. If you’re a sand aficionado, Golden Gardens takes the category.  

Alki is an energetic hub w/ both city and island views.  A quick boat ride from downtown has your there in under a half-hour; by car it’s about ten minutes*.  There are several good restaurants, including Pegasus Pizza (get the Tom’s Special), and the famous Spud Fish and Chips.  When the tide retreats far enough you can walk the beach around the lighthouse point to even better views on your way to Lincoln Park, another amazing local.  

*The recent closure of the West Seattle Bridge has complicated car travel to Alki Beach.  

9.  Seattle Center

We could spend the entire weekend at the Seattle Center and not see everything.

Originally built for the 1962 World’s Fair, the Seattle Center is 74 acres of educational tourism and entertainment just north of downtown Seattle.  With a variety of high-quality museums and venues, one could easily spend two or three days enjoying the myriad things to do here.

Major attractions include:  MoPOP, Paul Allen’s interactive tribute to music and pop culture; Pacific Science Center; Children’s Museum; Chihuly Garden and Glass (highly recommended); Space Needle; Seattle Monorail; Mercer Arena and Memorial Stadium; as well as an assortment of sculptures and much, much more.  At the center of it all is the beloved and funky International Fountain.

10.  Snoqualmie Falls

If you're going to visit Seattle, Snoqualmie Falls is a must-see tourist attraction.

Thirty miles east of Seattle is Snoqualmie Falls, the most famous waterfall in Washington State.  A short and pretty drive down I-90 makes for a popular tourist stop, and the falls draw 1.5 million visitors a year.    This is an easy way to get out of the city and spend a few hours doing something fun.

The primary view is near the parking lot and looks down on the falls from the north.  It is easy to find and often very crowded.  You can also hike down the trail to the power plants, which takes about 20 minutes.  The hike is strenuous and leaves many folks huffing and puffing on the way back up, so some years back they put in a parking lot at the bottom.  

Once upon a time, folks could scamper out onto the rocks and picnic near the base of the falls.  To read more about Snoqualmie Falls, click here.

11.  Whidbey Island

Beautiful sunsets on Whidbey Island.  Best Island in the Washington State.
Deception Pass is a beautiful place to spend the day in Washington state.

Any excuse to get yourself on a ferry boat in the Puget Sound works for us!  Whidbey Island might have the best mix of things to do, but you can’t go wrong with Bainbridge, or the San Juan Islands (which we touch upon later in the article), as well as other island destinations.  

Two beautiful places to visit are Ft. Ebey State Park and Deception Pass.  Deception Pass is a narrow strait between Whidbey and Fidalgo islands that is connected by a tall bridge.  The areas on all sides of the bridge are fun to explore (cliffside picnic, anyone?) and walking across the bridge is an unforgettable experience.  

Ebey State Park is a 650-acre park on the west-side of Whidbey.  It is known for its expansive views of the sound and a military earthwork battery system.  The park includes three miles of shoreline and the sunsets are incredible.  

12.  River Rafting on the White Salmon River

River Rafting in Washington State is at its best on the Salmon River.

We personally love the White Salmon, but good times are certainly also had on the Wenatchee, Methow, and Skykomish rivers.  We picked the White Salmon because our boat seems to dump at the Staircase rapids every time – which we find hilarious and exhilarating – and the final stretch leads you over a damn waterfall.  

Before you scroll to number thirteen and forget we ever mentioned this, there is a river, or stretch of river, for all degrees of adventure.  If you aren’t into the whole risking-your-life thing, the Wenatchee and Methow have terrific Class II sections with pleasant, agreeable rides.  In our opinion, everyone should raft a river because it is without a doubt the most fun you can have with your clothing on.  

13.  Whale Watching and Kayaking in the San Juan Islands

San Juan whale watching tours are a great way to experience the Pacific NW.

If you’re going to visit us in the corner of the country, why not take the opportunity to stalk what is perhaps the most bizarre and surreal animal on earth?  Do you want your experience to be memorable, or what?  

The San Juan Islands are made up of four major islands:  Lopez, Orcas, Shaw, and San Juan.  Reached primarily by ferry, the islands make for a lowkey and beautiful retreat from civilization.  This is one of those places where people visit for a weekend and then decide to move there.

Friday Harbor is the major population center on San Juan island and home to most of the whale watching tours and kayaking tours.

14.  Skiing at Crystal Mountain

Crystal Mountain is our favorite ski resort in Washington State.

There is a saying in Washington that if you can ski here you can ski anywhere (because of the wet, heavy snow).  Regardless, there is no shortage of white stuff, so if you want mountains to tackle, we’ve got em’.  Two of our ski resorts are clearly superior to the others:  Crystal Mountain and Mt. Baker, and both come recommended by Washingtonians.

Crystal Mountain is Washington State’s largest ski resort with 2600 acres.  Located in the shadow of Mt. Rainier, the mountain has everything from miles of lazy green circles, to double black diamond slaughterhouses, to backcountry basin dreamscapes.  

15.  George Amphitheater Concerts

The Gorge at George is the best concert venue in the USA.

The Gorge at George is one of the finest outdoor concert settings in the nation.  Located in George, which is basically a gas station and 500 farmers, the amphitheater is out of the way for anyone living in a major Washington city.  So why would people drive 2.5 hours to see a concert when the Tacoma Dome is thirty minutes down the freeway? Because it’s a breathtaking venue.

Backdropped by the Columbia River gorge, the stage sits high atop the cliffs overlooking the river.  A lush, green hillside sprawls out before it and provides enough room for 26,000 butts.  Virtually every musician who plays there takes a moment to reverently ponder the stunning beauty.  To read the George Amphitheater concert schedule, click here.

16.  Skagit Valley Tulip Festival

Ryan jumps for joy at the tulip festival.  Roozengaarde is the best place to see the tulips in Washington State.

Every April, Western Washington buzzes with talk of tulips.  “Are you going to see the tulips this year,” we ask each other.  The reasoned response might be, “Of course not.  Who gives a crap about tulips?”  Ordinarily we wouldn’t fault this attitude, but the tough guy is wrong here.  If you’re nearby in April, go see the tulips.

Skagit Valley is easily one of the most beautiful places in Washington State, even without the flowers and fanfare.  Whenever we drive north on I-5 we always look forward to that point where the road crests and the valley comes into view.  The city of Mt. Vernon is essentially the hub of the festival, although the flowers are in the fields west of town.  To read more about Skagit Valley tulips, click here.

17.  Dry Falls

Dry Falls is an incredible place to learn about the geological history of Washington State.  The Blue Lake Rhino is nearby.

Dry Falls could be dismissed as a couple of lakes in a scabby desert.  However, what happened here is epic and worthy of investigation.  

15,000 years ago, these scalloped cliffs were 400’ high waterfalls measuring five times the width of Niagara Falls.  The power of the water pouring over these cliffs was ten times the force of the world’s rivers combined!  Those small lakes at the bottom are actually plunge pools, relics of a catastrophic geological event during our last ice-age.

The Dry Falls visitors center is first-rate and is an essential stop on your geological tour of eastern Washington.  Inside you can learn about the Grand Coulee, Lake Missoula, and Dry Falls, of course.  The jawbone and other bone fragments from the Blue Lake Rhino are available for the public to view here as well.  

18.  Lake Chelan

Lake Chelan is the the perfect place to get away for a Washington State weekend.

If Washington State has a quintessential summertime lake, it is Lake Chelan, the largest natural lake in the state. Chelan has the means to get people out on the water — and the beer to keep them there.  It is the 3rddeepest lake in the USA, so no matter how hot it gets in August, the lake is always f-f-frosty cold. 

Lake Chelan State Park is a incredibly popular, so make your reservations early.  The town of Chelan has lots of hotels, condos, and timeshares as well.  Boat and watersport rentals are in abundance, and there is a waterpark in town.  

If you need to feel like you’re the only person on earth, the Lady of the Lake Ferry can take you fifty miles upstream to the remote village of Stehekin.  

19.  Grand Coulee Dam

Grand Coulee Dam is one of the most incredible things to learn about in Washington State.

Grand Coulee Dam is the largest electric power-producing facility in the USA.  Construction started in 1933 as part of Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s effort to stimulate the economy and increase employment.  The dam cost $163M to build, todays equivalent of $2B.  It contains 12M cubic yards of concrete, making it the 2nd largest concrete structure in the world.  Seventy-eight men died while building the original dam, many of whom are buried deep in the structure.  

Grand Coulee Dam offers tours and has an amazing visitors center with lots to do.  Between Memorial Day Weekend and September 30th, the dam puts on a nightly laser light show, called, “One River, Many Voices,” a tribute to the construction of the damn as well as the Indian heritage of the region.   

20.  Port Townsend and Fort Worden

Monica visits the battery bunker system at Fort Worden.  Nearby Port Townsend is a beautiful city to explore.

If you’re looking for a weekend getaway, consider Port Townsend.  Located on a large port in the NE corner of the Olympic Peninsula, the quaint settlement was once dubbed “The City of Dreams,” and expected to become the largest harbor on the west coast.  The town was built on speculation the shipping port would be a massive boon to the area, but the depression came and the railroads never really connected the region. What we are left with is an isolated and funky Victorian town.

Beyond the town, Port Townsend offers amazing views of Puget Sound.  One of the best state parks in Washington State is Fort Worden, is two miles north and is a perfect place to camp or play in the military batteries with the kids.  The ferry can shoot you over to Fort Casey on Whidbey Island, which opens a whole other set of actions.  There is just so much to do in one, cool little place.  

*Pike Place Market

Everyone loves the Pike Place Market (but us).

We imagine most people consider the Pike Place Market an iconic, can’t miss tourist attraction in Washington State and register it near the top of their list.  Sadly, the hype ultimately detracts from what can be a good time.  Full disclosure, I never recommend the market to friends when they come to town. This is a warning more than a review.

If you insist on watching loud men make a big deal of throwing and catching a fish, more power to you. Do yourself a favor and don’t go Saturday afternoon because the place gets stupid busy.  You’ll probably want to stop and look at flowers, bracelets, and local artwork without a horde of other tourists running up your backside.  

And heaven forbid you bring a stroller at these times…

Still, there are some cool stores and restaurants in the lower levels. We always enjoy perusing the Corner Market on the east side of Pike Pl.  

More Things to Do in Washington State

Leavenworth — German-themed town in the Cascade Mountains. Lots of great food. Fun weekend getaway.

Safeco Field — One of the best stadiums in MLB. Whether the team wins or loses, the Seattle Mariner brass knows how to create a family-friendly good time.

Beacon Rock — Fun hike up a monolith. Great view and disturbing history, too.

Palouse Falls — Big waterfall between Pullman and Tri-Cities in Eastern Washington.

Winthrop — Old western style town on the east side of the North Cascades.

Paulsbo — Quant seaside town on the backside of Bainbridge Island (which is also a great place to visit).

La Conner — Another quaint town, in the Skagit Valley. Nice weekender destination.

Seattle Art Museum — Located downtown, global art collections, temporary installations, and special exhibitions from around the world bridge cultures and centuries.

Museum of Flight — The largest independent, non-profit air and space museum in the world.

Notes:

Best for Children: Seattle Center, Olympic Nat. Park, Mt. Saint Helens, Alki, Fort Worden

Time to Visit: July/August/Sept.

Best Family Adventure: Blue Lake Rhino, River Rafting on the Salmon River, Olympic Nat. Park

Most Romantic: Space Needle

Best for Photos: Tulip Festival, any of the National Parks

Best for Hiking: Mt. Rainier, Olympic

Our Favorites: Mt. Rainier, Alki, Concerts at the Gorge

Map of Washington State: Click Here

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Get Our Free E-Book!

Learn our skills for traveling as a family. Get our free e-book PDF and jumpstart your family's journey.