Washington stateâs Puget Sound is a forested metropolis, braided with inlets and bays and ringed by steep, glacier-clad peaks. On the west skyline, the stately, wet Olympic Mountains grab moisture from the ocean clouds to nurture the temperate rain forest of Olympic National Park. To the east the queen-motherâs throne, nearly three-mile-high Mount Rainier, holds court on clear days in its namesake park. The sawtooth ridges and deep canyons of North Cascades and its national park complex march towards the north.
Summer in the Northwest can mean days of glorious blue skies, a welcome respite after a foggy winter and rainy spring. Itâs an ideal time to tour these three jewels of the National Park System, starting in Seattle. From the wharf take a bracing ferry ride to the Olympic Peninsula, and day hike Marmot Pass into the park. Then drive the southern edge of the Strait of Juan de Fuca towards Port Angeles (80 miles from Seattle), watching the ship traffic going and coming. The Hurricane Hill Trail near the roof of Olympic National Park is a short, easy hike with a tremendous panoramic view, but take a raincoat because this ridgeline can live up to its name. Use a map to find Lake Crescent, Cape Flattery (the western-most point in the contiguous states), and the coastal side of the park with its crashing surf and tidepools.
Itâll take about four hours to drive from the coast to Mount Rainier, via the state capitol in Olympia, but once there everything is big. Rivers are big, trees are big, and the mountain is massive and tall at 14,410 feet. The geologic displays are stunning, so follow highway 706 through Ashford to Highway 123, through the parkâs Nisqually Entrance and on to Longmire and Paradise on the south slope, before continuing around the eastern edge of the mountain on 123. Take a side trip into Yakima Parkâthe grassy meadows surrounding Sunriseâbefore heading back downhill while paralleling the White River, one of six major rivers that start on the mountain.
Then itâs time to head north four hours to the North Cascades National Park Complex, first east to Yakima on Highway 410, then north to Wenatchee. A sidetrip to Lake Chelan, and a boat ride on the Lady of the Lake to the wilderness hamlet of Stehekin, is a great diversion. At Okanagan head northwest towards the ski village of Mazama, and then itâs up over the Pacific crest, where fjord-like lakes, jagged peaks, and the occasional semi-dormant volcanos of Mt. Baker, Mt. Shuksan, and Glacier Peak jut skyward. Time things right and your three-hour drive back to Seattle will coincide with the blooming of the tulip fields along the Skagit River Valley, a sight to behold. Itâs big country, and a bit of road time, but the scenery will certainly keep your interest.