is bigger than many of the world’s countries. Yet, by western American standards it is a small state – 68.139 square miles to be exact. And therein lays the magic. It’s hard to imagine such a diversity of geography, geology, climate, history, ethnic groups, or population densities in such a relatively small space.
One easy way to get a handle on the diversity of Washington is to think of the state as two parts of unequal size, with the Cascade Range serving as the line of demarcation. The damp, lusciously green west side of the line is smaller in size, but big in population. The I-5 corridor is home to the majority of the state’s residents. The west side is big in natural splendor. This is a land of ancient rain forest with huge, mossy trees and miles of Pacific Ocean coastline. From Neah Bay on the Olympic Peninsula, to Ilwaco on the southern end of Long Beach Peninsula, you’ll discover awe-inspiring, pristine ocean views and some of the most picturesque, historic seaside communities in the nation. The east side of the Cascades is traditionally sunny and dry, a land of big skies and wide open spaces. Its population centers are handsome small cities like Yakima, The Tri-Cities, and Spokane, and the vast stretches of land around them are sprinkled with enchanting little towns and family ranches. It’s here that the traveler finds the true west so deeply engrained in everyone’s fantasies and the Hollywood dream machine. On both sides, natural and man-made wonders are on a gigantic scale. On the west, Seattle’s gleaming canyons of steel and glass a wonderful counterpoint to the east side’s Snake and Yakima River canyons, as well as its magnificent glacier-carved gorges. Grand Coulee Dam is a mighty tribute to man’s engineering skills and as dizzying in its mass and power as the Space Needle is in its height and delicacy.
Five mountain passes and the Columbia Gorge link the state’s two parts, all cutting their way through the rugged and magnificent Cascade Mountains. These passes offer the quickest way to immerse you in Washington’s startling diversity. State Highway 20 climbs up and over Washington Pass through North Cascades National Park and on to the authentically old western town of Winthrop. US Highway 2 crosses Stevens Pass, then drops down in the delightfully Bavarian town of Leavenworth and stretches on to Wenatchee. The broad cut and easy incline of Interstate 90 tops out at Snoqualmie Pass, then carries the traveler past the quaint settlements of Roslyn, Cle Elum, Ellensburg, and into Yakima. State Highway 410 wraps around the north side of Mount Rainier and begins to descend at Chinook Pass. The views of Rainier are stunners. US Highway 12 follows the south side of Mount Rainier then heads over White Pass.
No matter which pass you choose, the transition is similar. You leave the I-5 Corridor, ascend slopes covered with Douglas-fir, western red cedar, and big-leaf maple and carpeted with salal, ferns, and huckleberry. Near the summits the craggy snowcapped peaks surround you and you’ll feel cradled in the planet’s very birthplace.
As you begin the descent, the forests turn into pine. And as the roads flatten out, spectacular rocky outcroppings stand out against bright blue skies, brown hills roll off in the distance, the air is redolent with the scent of sage, and tumbleweeds tumble along.
And if you think going up and over the Cascades is all there is, try cutting through them via the Columbia Gorge. Following the same route as Lewis and Clark, State Highway 14 flanks the Columbia River through the gorge from Vancouver to Plymouth. Moss and fern-clad cliffs punctuated with waterfalls give way to rolling, grassy hills that look like gold velvet. T’s a starting metamorphosis. Washington’s amazing differences don’t end with landforms and vegetation. From the bustle and chatter in the streets of Seattle’s Chinatown and International District, to the intoxicating rhythms of an Indian Pow Wow, and on to comforting clip-clop of horses, mounted by real cowboys from Kittitas to Colfax, this is a state of many faces. And how do they mix together? There’s an easy test to answer that question. Just say “hello” to anyone, anywhere. The smile and twinkle will tell the tale.
As you explore the state’s cities and meander the back roads, knocking around the little towns, take time to look at the architecture. Some utilitarian some established with the gingerbread of opulent days gone by; these structures are a lesson in state history. Weathered barns in the Skagit Valley bespeak rich grazing lands and a climate so wet that the siding never dried out enough to paint and the handsome patina of weathered cedar changed the way immigrant farmers perceived beauty. In the hamlet of Coupeville, on Whidbey Island, there are enough shingles and clapboard, steeply pitched roofs and stone foundations, to convince you that you’ve stepped into a New England whaling village. Ellensburg flaunts the spunk and promise of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in brick and granite, all within the spirit of the old west. And the prosperity of Walla Walla’s pioneer days is manifested in its sophisticated downtown buildings, its wonderful old city park, complete with a bandstand, and the dignified elegance along the streets of its residential districts. Throughout Washington you can literally reach out and touch pieces of the last century as it unfolded.
To avail yourself of Washington’s magic, you don’t need a wand, a secret incantation, or even lots of money. The old adage “the best things in life are free” was never more true. All you need to do is put on some walking shoes, get on your bike, hop a ferry or a train, or fill a van with kids or friends and a picnic – don’t forget the dog. Off you go and the adventures begin. The state is peppered with great campgrounds, charming bed and breakfast inns, mom and pop motels, big hotels, and top quality resorts. And whether you’re buying smoked salmon in Pike Place Market or apples and peaches in Selah or Prosser, it’s a good idea to shop for food as you go. Washington offers a veritable cornucopia of fresh wholesome things to eat. And our wines are world-class and our wineries are fascinating stops where you’ll learn about viniculture and be able to sample the wines. Who needs to go to Provence?
But be forewarned. Once you’ve basket in the bright skies and fragrant air of the Palouse or walked a stormy beach or visited a lighthouse near Seaview, you can be certain you’ll want to do more. Traveling Washington is addictive. But then, what better habit could you start?
Whether you are visiting from out-of-state, or a Washingtonian anxious to explore your own backyard, this Travel Planner cannot fully describe every activity you can enjoy here. Rather, it should be interpreted as a tiny glimpse of the dynamic range of beauty and culture that await you. For the purposes of helping you choose your next Washington destination, we have divided the state into ten tourism regions.
1. The Islands
Protecting the northern entrance of Puget Sound, the San Juan archipelago, Whidbey and Fidalgo Island are ideal get-away havens. Here you’ll discover tiny villages and picturesque art communities. Isolated coves enable complete quiet for total relaxation and rejuvenation.
2. Kitsap & Olympic Peninsulas
Surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Puget Sound and Hood Canal, this wonderland contains the Olympic Rain Forest and, surprisingly, the driest region in western Washington. Thousands of miles of scenic waterfront, vibrant cultural art centers and historic districts await your exploration.
3. The Coasts
Very few sounds in the world are as soothing and meditative as ocean waves rolling onto a Pacific Northwest shore. The Coast region provides a host of opportunities for you to enjoy the ocean, marinas, historic communities, and lighthouses that line our western most boundaries.
4. North Cascades
From the shores of Puget Sound and Bellingham Bay, you’ll head over the Cascades on one of the world’s most scenic driving loops through old-west and Bavarian-theme communities. Wind along the banks of the Columbia to Lake Chelan, bountiful apple orchards, cowboys, and historic mining towns.
5. Seattle / King County
Seattle offers world-class amenities with flair and distinction. Pioneer Square, the Pike Place market, and Seattle Center are just a few of the “don’t miss” attractions. Yet, just minutes from the metropolitan core, throughout King County you’ll discover beautiful lakes, mountains, farmland and bustling, neighborly communities.
6. Volcano County
Explore waterfront communities on southern Puget Sound and the Columbia River. Or launch into the towering Cascades. The grande dame, Mount Rainier and her temperamental sister Mount St Helens are easily accessible from the small communities that line the route and present wonderfully entertaining adventure opportunities.
7. Columbia River Plateau
High plains desert gouged and rutted by centuries of cataclysmic ice age floods have created this surreal and splendid Washington destination. The majestic Grand Coulee Dam and hundreds of isolated lakes at the base of ancient waterfalls will rewards visitors with many unique and memorable recreation options.
8. Wine County
Rich volcanic soil combined with hot summers, cold winters, and very little rainfall have created some of the finest wine grape and fresh fruit growing conditions in the world. Visit the wineries and farm tours and enjoy the hospitality of the independent souls who will welcome you with open arms.
9. Rocky Mountain Gateway
On Washington’s northeastern boundary, you’ll encounter a land of constant wonder. From the renovated historic downtown and riverfront park of Spokane to the hundreds of lakes, raging rivers and lush, deep forests of the Pend Oreille and Colville, virtually every bend in the road reveals a new and delightful surprise.
10. The Palouse
The spectacular Palouse Falls and scenic Hells Canyon on the Snake River provide perfect bookends for the rolling hills and beauty that lie within this remarkably picturesque destination. Tiny farming communities with rich historic roots surround the home of the Washington State Cougars in Pullman and the quaint back roads that connect them, present their own rewards.