The dramatic, snow-cloaked peaks of the northern Cascades Range. The vast volcanic dome of Mount Rainier. A rugged Pacific coastline and, just offshore, an archipelago of 800 scattered islands, some tiny atolls and some large enough to hold open prairies and flower-strewn woodland. Lush rainforest, and a fascinating history stretching back millennia, whose most recent chapter began in earnest two centuries ago with the fabled Lewis and Clark expedition. All this and more surrounds the city of Seattle, once a small settlement in the remote north-western wilderness, now one of America’s fastest-growing cities and, as this list shows, a great base for further expeditions into the great American wild.
Half a century before settlers first bestowed the name Seattle on their far-flung western home, the Lewis and Clark Expedition charted the land 150 miles to the south. This defining act of westward exploration had covered 2,000 miles to reach this point, and the end of their journey was marked by the sight, first, of the Columbia River estuary, and shortly after of the fabled Pacific itself. Now this region at the end of Lewis and Clark’s journey has been protected by a fabulous National Park, which combines a series of historic sites and museums with a beautiful natural world. Visit a replica of Fort Clatsop, where the expedition wintered through 1805-6, and explore the park’s terrain of coastline and rain forests cloaking the banks of the Columbia River.
The San Juan Islands are an archipelago situated just off the coast of America and Canada, encompassing over 800 shards of land and 370 miles of tideland. Passenger ferries serve four of the larger islands, giving access to an immaculate natural world of oaks, evergreens, lagoons and bluffs, and in spring wildflowers spread their color across the open prairies and forest floors. Visitors can also get out onto the ocean, exploring by sea kayak or taking boat trips to view the area’s population of orca whales. Meanwhile, birdwatchers can spot bald eagles, great blue herons and black oystercatchers circling in the sky above.
The snow-covered cone and rocky upper slopes of Mount Rainier dominate the skyline of western Washington, an active volcano that stands over 14,000 feet tall. On the lower slopes, swaths of ancient forest grow in the fertile volcanic soil, rolling out into a green landscape of grassy valleys, streams, rivers, wildflowers and sprawling meadows. The park’s area contains 25 glaciers including the largest in the contiguous United States by both area (Emmons) and volume (Carbon). The spectacular Wonderland Trail rings Mount Rainier, climbing several ridges and passes and looping numerous mountain lakes in the course of its 93 mile circuit.
Drive a couple of hours north of Seattle and you’ll reach a classically magnificent expanse of high-altitude hiking terrain, where narrow stone-dotted paths zig-zag up the side of towering mountains. Continue high enough, and you’ll reach a sublime self-contained world of bare mountain rock, snow-cloaked slopes and glacial sheets, suspended above the world below by billowing banks of cloud. These are some of the most spectacular peaks in the North Cascades range, separated by green valleys and forests and streaked with crystal-clear streams.
Separated from the bustle of Seattle by Puget Sound, Olympic National Park unfolds a hugely diverse terrain of Pacific coastline, verdant rainforest, drier temperate woodland and steep, ice-capped mountain slopes. Each has its own specific configuration of plant and animal life, and each will leave a unique imprint on the cast of your imagination. This stunning variation can be explored in many combinations, and there are campsites dotted throughout the landscape if you wish to immerse yourself for a stretch of several invigorating days.