Eight Hidden Gems to Discover in Washington National Parks

Here in the Evergreen State, we have a pretty great reputation for our mountains, our coffee and our rain. If that isn’t awesome enough, we are also fortunate enough to be the home to three National Parks! Each of these parks offers its own unique scenery, activities and vibes to enjoy. While Washington is definitely a place for avid hikers, not every adventure has to require lacing up the old hiking boots. So, what else do the National Parks regions in Washington have to offer? Here are eight adventures to enjoy in state #42.

hoh rainforest olympic national park
starfish on rock
hoh rainforest

1. Explore a Rainforest (Olympic National Park) 

What better way to embrace the notorious Washington rain, than exploring a rainforest?! Located in the Olympic National Forest, the Hoh (pronounced “Hoe”) Rainforest immediately greets you with a mysterious and moody yet inviting atmosphere. From the moment you arrive, you are transported into a world of vibrant greens, misty dewdrops and a sense of curiosity. The Hoh Rainforest provides a rare opportunity to experience a true temperate environment, that is found in only a few other regions of the United States. A variety of wildlife species call this rainforest home, such as deer, river otters, elk and salamanders. From the towering crowns of the Sitka Spruce and Douglas Firs, to the slow and gentle glide of banana slugs on the forest floor, the entire rainforest is living and breathing right before your eyes.

There are two walking trails, which can be easily accessed from the entrance closest to the Visitor Center. If you are looking for a short leisure walk to simply take in all of the marshy views, check out the Hall of Mosses Trail, which is 0.8 miles in distance and 100ft elevation gain. For a slightly longer scenic route, be sure to check out the Spruce Nature Trail, which is 1.2 miles roundtrip. Be sure to stop by the Education Center for more information on the self-guided trail tours that are accessible year-round, and guided tours that are offered during the summer months.

Click here for directions to the Hoh Rainforest Visitor Center

PICTURE HACK: The palette of bright green moss and misty skies make for some pretty rad pictures! Consider investing in a glass photography prop, such as a lens ball, cube or prism! (Be sure to tag us, @explorewashstate!)

ocean tidepools

2. Exploring the Tide Pools (Olympic Peninsula)  

Mountain ranges, waterfalls, rainforests and – beaches? Being that the Olympic Peninsula is located near the most Northwestern part of the country, it’s easy to snag some coastal sand and waves with some cool Pacific breeze. Strolling up and down the coastline, you’re sure to encounter sea anemones, urchins, crabs, and a rainbow of different colored starfish. The beaches can be enjoyed during any season, but summertime is perfect for scoping out the tide pools, as the tide tends to be low.

While any of the many beach spots offer incredible views, some local favorites include Hole in the Wall, Shi Shi Beach, and Ruby beach. While these beachfront areas provide a glimpse into an underwater world, the waves can come in quickly and forcefully. It’s best to leave the doggos at home for this one and wear sturdy shoes. Be sure to learn more about tidepool safety before your visit. 

sunset at beach

3. Catch a Romantic Sunset (Olympic Peninsula) 

Okay Mother Nature, we see you! The evening always delivers stunning views in the Olympic Peninsula. Rialto Beach is a personal favorite and puts you right next to Hole in the Wall’s tide pools (see what we did, there?). It’s about a 2-mile walk from one gorgeous spot to the next, which gives you tons of real estate for those #nofilter shots. You may even spot some whales in the distance! There are picnic benches for public use, and beach fires are permitted upon obtaining a permit. Mora Campground Permits allow for individual and group camping, which is less than five miles from Rialto Beach.

crystal mountain gondola

4. Snag a Gondola Ride (Mount Rainier National Park)

All the way up! Mount Rainier Gondola Rides offer the reward of phenomenal views, without the strenuous hike to the summit. The gondola ride is about 10 minutes each way, with a snack station at the bottom and an incredible restaurant at the top (more on that later). How many times in your life are you presented with the opportunity to gawk over a volcanic mountain, with delicious snacks waiting for you!?

Summer rides will deliver a birds-eye view of flowing glacier streams and fields of wildflowers, while winter rides will treat you to a snow-covered canvas, sprinkled with other guests relishing in the beauty that is Mt. Rainier. The gondolas are wheelchair friendly, and dogs are permitted in the summer months. The entry to the lift is at Crystal Mountain Resort. Gondola rides can book up fast, so be sure to book yours in advance. If you think the 2,400ft vertical gondola journey is incredible, just wait until you get to the top!

5. Summit House Restaurant (Mount Rainier National Park)

We’re not sure what’s more fun – the ride up, or the grub once you get there. Summit House Restaurant is located in Mount Rainier National Park, at the top of the gondola ride. Enjoy a local craft beer or a whiskey-infused hot cider while you enjoy the view. If you aren’t already drooling over the breathtaking view of volcanic peaks such as Mt. Baker and Glacier Peak, we’re pretty sure the menu will do the trick. Do truffle fries taste better at 6,872 feet? We sure like to think so, but we’ll let you be the judge.

COVID-19 Tip: Currently, orders are available for Take-Out only. Click Here to learn more about Summit House, current weather conditions, Take-Out Menu, and how to order online.

6. Catch a Nighttime Waterfall Light Show (North Cascades National Park)

Watching a waterfall flowing, spilling into the surrounding lush plant life… sounds like a good time, right? Just when you think it couldn’t get any better, it does: flowing waterfall meets nighttime light show. Yep, you read that right. Ladder Creek Falls is located in North Cascades National Park, near Newhalem. Behind the Gorge Powerhouse, you have access to the self-guided, paved walking trail, with informative signs along the way. The Gorge Powerhouse is part of the Skagit Project, which was named the nation’s first certified, Low Impact Hydropower Project. The light and music show runs from dusk until midnight, year-round.  This path is about 0.4 miles round trip and does have several steps. Be sure to pack a flashlight for those steps during the nighttime. If you’re not up for an evening drive in the National Park, not to worry – Ladder Creek Falls is just as spectacular during the day. Click here for directions and updates on current closures.

north cascades national park

7. Drift in the Scenery (North Cascades National Park)

So, you might not be quite up for a hike, but still looking for an adventure that doesn’t involve sitting in the car for hours? Boating, kayaking or paddling in the National Parks fuels your need to move and engage with the environment, with the reward of indescribable views. We have a sweet spot for the Diablo Lake backdrop in the North Cascades National Park. Head up Highway 20 to just past milepost 130, to snag a view of the gemstone hues of Diablo Lake. This is also the Colonial Creek Campground entrance, where there is a parking area for the Thunder Knob trailhead. In summer months, you can experience boat-in camping, exploring and floating your way to nearly twenty different campsites. The sun reflecting off of Diablo Lake’s teal and turquoise hues provide such depth and beauty, as you venture through the ins and outs of secret coves and beaches. You’ll need to purchase a Backcountry Permit, which can also be used at other locations in the North Cascades National Park. 

8. Chase Constellations (Mount Rainier National Park, Olympic National Park, and North Cascades National Park)

Besides all three of these National Parks being in Washington, what else do they have in common? One of our favorite visitor recommendations is stargazing! On a clear night, some of the best stargazing in the country can be enjoyed right here in our state. The Sunrise area at Mount Rainier National Park is notorious for stellar views of the Milky Way. Meteor showers have been spotted from Kalaloch (Third Beach) on the Olympic Peninsula, with wide-open skies and endless stars. Picture Lake is technically just outside of North Cascades National Park but is one of the top photographed places in the US. We recommend looking at weather and sky conditions prior to heading out, to ensure the most stellar experience possible. Click here for Astronomy and Stargazing Forecasts. 

Adventure Planning Tips

-COVID 19 has affected hours of operation for various activities in the National Parks system. Check out The NPS Home Page, where you can find park closures, weather conditions, and alerts.

-Be mindful of social distancing etiquette. Visit the CDC COVID-19 Page and WA Dept. of Health for tips on how to protect yourselves and others. Remember to recreate responsibly

crab in the sand

-Although you might not be planning for a hike, it doesn’t hurt to be prepared like you are! The Ten Essentials are always good to have on hand!

-Various permits and passes are required for park and forest entries. COVID-19 has limited the amount of in-person pass parking. Be sure you have all necessary passes prior to entry! Learn more about how you can score yours!

-Keep our state beautiful! Pack it in, pack it out.

Rainier gondola photo: Peter Stevens. Additional photos by the author. 

Amy Breeding

Amy Breeding

Amy Breeding is a traveling Registered Nurse, currently living in the Seattle area. After growing up in Phoenix, Arizona, she decided to explore the PNW and fell in love with everything that Washington has to offer. Her favorite hikes in Washington are Lake 22 and Artist Point.

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