Walk on the Wild Side at Washington’s Three National Parks

by Allen Cox, WNPF Friend and Donor

NPS photo Wildflowers Rainier
Courtesy of NPS

The national parks of Washington State always leave me with a sense of awe on a grand scale. Dramatic and dynamic landscapes, unique wildlife species and memories to last until my next visit are what’s in store every time. Mt. Rainier, Olympic and North Cascades National Parks are easy to access from the Seattle area, represent a fascinating diversity of terrain and scenery and put a walk on the wild side within easy reach.

Mt. Rainier National Park

I grew up in the shadow of Mt. Rainier, and my family visited the park frequently when I was a child. All these decades later, I still never tire of the spectacle of the volcanic giant looming large over the Seattle-Tacoma area. Mt. Rainier is the tallest peak in the Cascades. It’s classified as episodically active, meaning it will erupt again as it has before, but scientists, at present, have no idea when. Upon inspection, no spouting or steaming vents are visible (to the untrained eye, anyway), and a blanket of snow and glacial ice cloak the mountain year-round.

Vistas from the park roads at the base of the 14,410-foot peak are spectacular and ever-changing. Two popular park entrances lead to scenic drives with nearly constant views of glaciers (there are 27 major ones) and the summit. At an area called Sunrise, on the eastern flank of the mountain, and Paradise on the southwestern flank, I find some of the best day hiking in the park, with many trails traversing alpine meadows thick with wildflowers blooming in July and August. In September and early October, meadows change to a palette of autumn hues. Winter comes early to the mountain, but the park is open for people to marvel at the extreme snowpack (average 53 feet at Paradise), created by Pacific marine weather patterns.

The Visitor Center at Paradise is a must for anyone wanting to learn more about the park and its volcanic centerpiece. Inside the park, overnighters can reserve a room at the historic Paradise Inn (open mid-May to early October) or the National Park Inn at Longmire (open all year).

With so many day-hiking trails in the park, it’s tough to pick a favorite. But among my top picks are Snow Lake Trail, particularly beautiful in September, when an early fall turns the vegetation shades of red and gold. A close second is Pinnacle Peak Trail, which ascends gently to an alpine saddle in the Tatoosh Range with views of Mt. Rainier in one direction and Mt. Adams and Mount St. Helens in the opposite direction; I have never hiked this trail without spotting mountain goats at close range. To learn more about visiting the Mt. Rainier National Park, go to https://www.nps.gov/mora.

Cloud Burst2c Olympic National park
Courtesy of Andy Porter

Olympic National Park

Environmental diversity is the draw at Olympic National Park in the northwest corner of Washington State. Temperate rainforests, rugged alpine terrain, pristine mountain lakes, and wild Pacific beaches and headlands fill visits to this park with endless discoveries. And, with nearly a million acres, it’s no surprise visitors often take a week or more to fully explore this vast park. Olympic National Park has many approaches and entrances. From the Seattle area, a one-hour ferry ride and a short drive of a few hours or more puts me inside the park.

Park destinations include Staircase (on the park’s east side), with one of my favorite easy day hikes―the Skokomish Rapids Loop Trail, which goes through ancient forests and crosses the rapids on a sturdy foot bridge; Hurricane Ridge (on the park’s north side), for wide alpine vistas over Olympic peaks and across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to British Columbia; Lake Crescent (also on the north side) for its historic lodge and cabins and forested mountain setting; the Hoh Rainforest (on the park’s west—and wet— side) for trails through a unique forest of old-growth trees, dripping mosses and person-sized ferns; and Cape Alava and Ruby Beach on the park’s wild and undeveloped Pacific coast.

There are several options for in-park lodging, including Lake Crescent Lodge, Kalaloch Lodge (on the ocean) and Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort. Just outside the park in the Quinault Rainforest, the enchanting and historic Lake Quinault Lodge is a popular draw year-round (and my personal favorite). Check out Lake Quinault Lodge’s Mushroom Festival in the fall, when fungus fans from all over converge on the inn for a weekend of fungus-centered events. For more information about a visit to Olympic National Park, go to https://www.nps.gov/olym.

Summit Mt Shuksan 2015
Courtesy of Allen Cox

North Cascades National Park

Rugged and remote, and accessible by road only in the warmer months, North Cascades National Park is but one unit of three in the North Cascades National Park Service Complex. Ranges of towering peaks with more than 300 glaciers characterize this park, a place beloved by backcountry hikers and wilderness trekkers. Me? I am a casual road-tripper and day hiker, and I find plenty to see and do in the park whenever I visit.

Approaching the park from the west, I like to stop at the North Cascades Visitor Center in Newhalem to remind myself about this rugged part of the state. The Center’s relief map of the North Cascades always sets the tone for the vast scale of the terrain I am about to enter. Their exhibits on flora, fauna and more also manage to capture my attention every time.

Back on the road, which follows the Skagit River at it tumbles out of the Cascades, first stops include the lookouts at Diablo and Ross Lakes, where glacial silt colors the water a distinctive turquoise. Numerous trailheads dot the highway, each a great spot to stretch the legs for a day hike.

A highlight of a drive through North Cascades National Park is the overlook at Washington Pass, with its breathtaking vista of Liberty Bell Mountain and the forested valley below. The highway descends out of the North Cascades into the Methow Valley. Services are sparse in North Cascades National Park, so it’s important to gas up before the drive and pack snacks and beverages or even a full picnic. I usually make a weekend of this trip from the Seattle area, although it’s possible to do it in a long day. For more information, go to https://www.nps.gov/noca.


Allen Cox is Editor-in-Chief of Northwest Travel & Life magazine, the author of two guidebooks on day hiking (Best Easy Day Hikes Seattle and Best Easy Day Hikes Tacoma) and is a freelance travel and lifestyle journalist whose work had appeared in dozens of regional and national publications. He serves as Chair of the Travel & Words Conference and as Vice President of International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association. Allen is a Washington State native and still makes the state his home.