Best Washington National Parks

Christina Perez
• Monday, 11 January, 2021
• 9 min read

With terrain ranging from temperate rain forests to high-desert plains, Washington is one of the most adventure-endowed states in the nation. In its many state and national parks, you'll find natural features like glaciated mountains, active volcanoes, accessible hot springs, alpine lakes, and an abundance of wildlife.

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Whether you're looking for a little adventure, or maybe a multi-day excursion, even just a view to remember for years to come, check out our list of the best state and national parks in Washington. Standing 14,410 feet above sea level, Mount Rainier is the most iconic peak in the state of Washington.

In spring, summer, fall, and winter, you can find visitors exploring the subalpine meadows, alpine lakes, and rugged peak in Mount Rainier National Park. Wildflowers bloom in every direction on the Niches Peak Loop near the White River Entrance on the east side of the park.

For a less primitive overnight experience, visitors have a wide range of lodging options such as the historic Paradise Inn within the park. The park's many rivers, lakes, and wild coast lend to fishing and boating opportunities throughout the year.

For land lovers, Olympic National Park offers enough backpacking and hiking trails to keep your feet moving forward for a lifetime. But with an extensive trail system stemming throughout the area, it's not difficult to find your own private spot to explore.

While places like Rialto and Ruby Beach are popular, chances are the most life you'll see is in the tide pools brimming with exotic sea creatures. This glaciated peak is accessible on the 17.4-mile How River Trail, which can be done on an overnight backpacking trip.

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Backpacking in Olympic National Park, in general, embodies a kid-in-a-candy-shop mentality with the variety of routes to explore. The best time to visit Olympic National Park is typically July through August when things warm up after a wet spring.

These public spaces cover more than two million acres of rugged mountain scenery on the northern border of Western Washington. Over 90 percent of the North Cascades National Park Complex is designated as the Stephen Mather Wilderness, which protects a vast amount of the forest from the surrounding logging and mining industry.

The rugged nature of North Cascades National Park makes many of the scenic vistas and attractions a little harder to access. The hard work of multi-day hiking or ferry-boat riding into North Cascades National Park is worth the effort, however, and within its boundaries lies some of the most dramatic mountain scenery many will ever see in their lifetime.

Both modes of travel astound with Cascade peaks and vibrant Northwest hues of green and blue. Other scenic stops on Highway 20 include Lake Shannon and the western town of Winthrop in the Method Valley.

For a family-friendly hike, the paved quarter-mile Washington Pass Overlook Trail provides amazing views of Liberty Bell Mountain not far from the highway, and the popular, 7.2-mile Maple Pass Loop provides different challenges and views throughout the year, including golden larch trees in the fall and blossoming wildflowers in the summer. This nature facility offers hands-on and overnight facilitation for cultural and ecological learning opportunities in the North Cascades National Park.

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Stretched between the northern tip of Whitney Island and Hidalgo Island and connected by an iconic high bridge over the Deception Pass waterway, Deception Pass State Park offers numerous outlets to explore the surrounding Puget Sound area. Today, visitors learn about the history of the CCC at the Civilian Conservation Corps Interpretive Center in the Bowman Area of the park.

While the history of the park and the CCC is interesting, it's the wide range of recreational activities that really draw a crowd throughout the year. Fishing is popular at Cranberry Lake, and boat ramps are available at Cornet Bay.

Be sure to keep your eyes out for the abundant wildlife that shares the area, including orcas in the water and seabirds in the air. Three different campsites are available at Deception Pass State Park, and each offers tent sites and electrical hookups.

If you prefer to spend your nights indoors, the Cornet Bay Retreat Center offers 16 cabins available to rent, plus a main lodge and recreation hall. For more adventurous outings, a primitive cabin is available on the nearby Ben Your Island within Deception Pass State Park.

Only 12 miles away from the Bavarian-themed town of Leavenworth, Lake Wenatchee State Park is a popular destination for Washington residents and tourists alike. It's not just the scenic views of Lake Wenatchee and the impressive Dirty face Peak overlooking the waters that draws a crowd, but also the wide access to recreational activities.

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Bicycling, hiking, and horseback riding are popular inland activities at Lake Wenatchee. To make your visit an overnight one, Lake Wenatchee State Park offers more than 150 tent sites within two different campgrounds.

While this scenic waterfall, often described as the best in the state, is the main attraction in the park, many visitors travel here for the chance to surround themselves with nature. A hiking trail makes its way through the area and is lined with interpretive markers explaining the rich geological and cultural history of the falls.

Located on the west side of San Juan Island, Lime Kiln Point is regarded as one of the best places to spot whales in the world. While exploring this 36-acre, day-use state park, admiring the craggy coastline it encompasses, it's hard to miss the historic lighthouse overlooking the shore.

On the shores of the Wampum Reservoir along the Columbia River, this unique Eastern Washington State Park contains one of the most diverse collections of petrified wood found anywhere in the nation. The Trees of Stone Interpretive Trail provides a 1.25-mile hike lined with undisturbed petrified logs in their natural setting.

All 50 full hookup sites at the adjoining Wampum Recreation Area have been known to fill up during the nearby Gorge Amphitheater concert season throughout the summer and shoulder months of the year. Cape Disappointment is a great place to explore the Washington coast and the significant cultural history of the area.

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The State Park is named after an unsuccessful voyage of Captain James Aires to find the Columbia River. Visitors will find an abundance of hiking trails at Cape Disappointment, all leading to plenty of whale-watching opportunities.

The park also offers plenty of seashore to explore along Birch Bay and expansive views of the Cascade Mountains and the Canadian Gulf Islands. Visitors enjoy the abundant benches found in the park for a scenic picnic by the seashore.

Camping is also available at Birch Bay State Park, with more than 140 sites that facilitate tents and RVs. Standard camping amenities, including restrooms, showers, and a trailer dump station are also available.

This scenic state park was originally constructed as a fort to protect Puget Sound and the nearby Bremerton Naval Shipyard in the early 1900s. Evidence of this defensive history can still be found in Manchester State Park (once known as Fort Middle Point), particularly in the abandoned torpedo warehouse that now serves as a covered picnic shelter.

This part of the park has excellent views of Rich Passage and the surrounding Puget Sound, including nearby Bainbridge Island. Whether it's a weekend destination or stopover on your Puget Sound adventure itinerary, Manchester State Park offers a glimpse into the natural world of Washington and the history that surrounds it.

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Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park, in the high-desert landscapes of Eastern Washington, is a geological wonder waiting to be explored. Today, Sun Lakes-Dry Falls stands as a skeleton of one of the biggest waterfalls in geological history.

It is also a testament to the impressive acts of nature that formed much of the scenery in Eastern Washington, Idaho, and Montana. The Visitor Center at the park features informative exhibits about the history and creation of Sun Lakes-Dry Falls.

Likewise, the top campgrounds in Washington deliver with a wide range of landscapes including waterfalls and volcanic craters. The top white water rafting and kayaking adventures in Washington also highlight the wild side of the state.

For winter adventures, our guide to Washington ski resorts have you making turns in no time. Located out on the Olympic Peninsula in the north-west corner of the state, this massive wilderness offers everything from tide pools to mossy rain forests to glacier-capped mountains.

Jutting out into the Pacific and separated from the mainland by the Puget Sound and the Straight of Juan de Fuca, the Olympic Peninsula receives more rainfall than any other place in the US except Hawaii. High in the 2,000-metre-plus Olympic mountains, much of that precipitation falls in the form of snow, which feeds more than 250 glaciers, making this the most glaciated US terrain outside Alaska.

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The extensive ice fields flow into a number of major rivers, which wind their way down through temperate rain forests to the Pacific. Visitors can see the highlights by following the Brachial river from its Pacific outlet at La Push inland to the How rainforest.

The next day, circle around to the northeast and head up in elevation to Hurricane Ridge, which has a breathtaking view over the Olympic mountain range. Those with extra time will want to soak in the Sol Due hot springs and take a scenic stroll to Mary mere Falls.

Even experienced climbers are encouraged to climb with a guide; since the late 1800s around 100 people have died on Rainier from rockfall, avalanches, falls and hypothermia. Photograph: Paul Wanderer/Flickr This urban park, on the Puget Sound waterfront, is Seattle’s largest green space.

Despite being at the edge of a major metropolitan city, on the grounds of a former Army post, Discovery Park is famous for its wild residents. The Seattle Audubon Society has compiled a checklist of 270 bird species and large mammals: coyotes, black bears and cougars have been spotted within the 534-acre park.

Several dozen tribes are native to Washington and the Seattle area and this center is an important resource for education and cultural outreach. Photograph: Design Pics Inc/REX Don’t let the name mislead you, there’s nothing disappointing about this state park on the very south-west tip of the Washington coast.

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The park also marks the end of the journey made by Lewis and Clark in 1805, the first American expedition to cross what is now the western US, from St Louis, Missouri, to the Pacific. If history isn’t your thing, the park also offers plenty of coastal scenery, including eight miles of hiking trails to secluded coves.

Depending on the water level, which varies with rainfall and Snowbelt, the Green is popular with rafters and kayaks when high and with canoeists and tubers when low. Top tip: From October to December, fishermen descend on the river in hope of catching a giant wild Chinook, the largest type of Pacific salmon, which are then migrating upstream to their spawning grounds.

Photograph: Colin Brynn/Getty Images/Robert Harding World Imagery May 18, 1980, Mount St Helen's exploded, killing 57 people and incinerating over 200 homes and hundreds of miles of roads in the deadliest and most destructive volcanic eruption in US history. Ongoing scientific monitoring of the area’s forests, rivers and streams are revealing a speedy return to health and increased biodiversity of both plants and animals.

The 28-mile Loo wit trail encircles Mount St Helen's, giving backpackers a 360-degree view of the mountain and the impressive blast recovery zone. Photograph: AlamyWhen Lewis and Clark and their company of men made their way by foot and canoe from Missouri to the Pacific, they were accompanied by a Semi Shoshone woman named Sacajawea.

There are also thousands of native artifacts on display, including bone and stone tools dating back 12,000 years. Photograph: AlamyCreated in 2013 to protect this unique pocket of marine biodiversity in the northern Puget Sound, this is one of the newest parks in Washington.

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The varied habitats support a diversity of wildlife, including back-tailed deer, mink, river otters and many species of birds. The stars of the San Juan's, however, are the orcas: three pods of killer whales frequent the waters surrounding the islands from mid-April to October, when they hunt the healthy population of seals.

This 6½-mile round trip hike is well worth the effort: on clear days you’ll be able to see the whole San Juan archipelago, as well as east to the Mount Baker volcano in the Cascade range. One of the most dramatic scars is preserved at Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park: a 120-metre-high, 3½-mile-long cliff that was once a waterfall four times the size of Niagara, thought to be one of the largest in geologic history and the site is designated a National Natural Landmark.

The former waterfall is now dry as a bone, but water is still present in the Sun Lakes, a haven for fishing, swimming and boating in this otherwise arid desert landscape. Mary Caper ton Morton is a freelance writer and photographer who makes her home on the back roads of North America, living and working out of a tiny solar-powered Teardrop trailer.

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