In terms of access to wild natural scenery, Seattle numbers among the best cities in the United States. Beyond the borders of town, whether over Puget Sound to the west or inland to the east, almost a third of Washington State is covered in national and state parkland. This wild world encompasses a diversity of sights and terrain: 60-mile stretches of rugged sand-and-stone shoreline, towering mountains separated by lushly forested valleys, and a giant volcano that blew its own head off only three decades ago. All this natural drama and tranquility is within a few hours’ drive of Seattle – although it will take a little more time and determination to reach the most beautiful and remote areas.
On 18 May 1980, Mount Saint Helens, a volcano in the Pacific Ring of Fire, convulsed with a massive eruption that proved to be the deadliest in the history of the United States. Fifty-seven people were killed, 185 miles of highway destroyed, and the mountain’s pointed peak blown asunder to leave a broad horseshoe-shaped crater. This event, along with the volcano’s geologic history, is explored in the Mount Saint Helen’s Visitor Center. Clear views of the volcano’s lava dome, crater and pumice plain can be had from the Johnston Ridge Observatory, which also screens a handful of informative films. Several hiking trails allow visitors to get a first-hand view of the devastation wreaked by the eruption, and the gradual regeneration of the land and its wildlife in the years since.
Across Puget Sound from Seattle lies the immense wilderness of Olympic National Park. The park is most notable from a distance for hosting the Olympic Mountains, a series of glaciated peaks striding across the Olympic peninsula, overlooking the Pacific on one side and Seattle on the other. But this alpine terrain is only one among several ecosystems contained within the park. Grassy meadows run down the lower slopes of the mountains, while nestled in the valleys below are large patches of temperate rainforest – dense, moist and verdantly green woodland, teeming with plant and animal life. The park also contains a 60 mile coastline, rough and rugged with varied stone and sand beaches. Hikers on the peninsula can explore the forests, climb the mountains, and walk along beaches for days at a time.
Stitching together the United States and Canada, the North Cascades form a dramatic and untamed landscape of steep, rocky peaks crowned with over 300 glaciers. Below these ice-capped summits, alpine meadows unfurl over uneven green ground, home to mule and black-tailed deer. In the park’s lower valleys, temperate rainforests burble with streams and waterfalls, hosting black bears and a wide variety of birdlife. Besides offering some terrific challenges for experienced climbers and mountaineers, the park has some magnificent hiking trails through its rugged scenery. Among the most popular is the route up to Cascade Pass, which connects the park’s western lowlands to its wilder interior, used for generations by local people as a point of passage through the mountain range.
The tallest and most striking peak in the Cascade Range, Mount Rainier’s snow-clad summit is visible from Seattle, and towers above its neighbouring mountains at a mighty 4390 meters. It forms the centerpiece of a 240,000 acre park, surrounded by a landscape of green valleys, old-growth forests, subalpine meadows, lakes, rivers, and glaciers. Rainier itself is flanked by the largest glaciers in the continental U.S., both by area (Emmons) and volume (Carbon). The 93-mile Wonderland Trail rings the mountain, providing great views of its snowfields and glaciers as well as over the greener landscape that rolls out below. Conquering Rainier’s lofty summit is a popular challenge among U.S. mountain climbers.
Located in the Pacific between Vancouver Island and northwest Washington, San Juan Island is a small, wild yet fragile Eden set apart from mainland Canada and the United States. Ringed by seven miles of saltwater shoreline, its rugged coastline contains jagged cliffs, seaside bluffs and a string of marine lagoons. Inland, evergreen forest and oak woodland interchange with open prairies, carpeted with wildflowers during the spring and summer months. The island is a popular destination with birdwatchers, who can spot bald eagles among its 200 bird species, while Orca whales can occasionally be seen cutting through the surrounding seawater. In spring and summer, the island’s color palette is made radiant by the arrival of 32 species of butterfly.