Updated: Sep 27, 2022
“Here in the corner attic of America, two hours’ drive from a rain forest, a desert, a foreign country, an empty island, a hidden fjord, a raging river, a glacier, and a volcano is a place where the inhabitants sense they can do no better, nor do they want to.”
― Timothy Egan, The Good Rain: Across Time & Terrain in the Pacific Northwest
Through nothing more than sheer good fortune, I was born and raised in Washington State. Each time I'm asked where I'm from, I can't help but feel my heart swell with radiant pride when I answer that I'm a native Washingtonian. It may come as no surprise, but in my admittedly biased opinion, this corner of the country is the most sublime and enchanted place in which to live, recreate, explore, breathe and simply exist.
With regard to climate, topography, flora and geology, Washington State is a place of surprising contrasts. Largely divided down the center by the Cascade Mountain Range running north-south, the western half of the state is the cooler, greener side with ample stocks of evergreen trees, rain forests, lush temperate-zone vegetation and round-the-calendar precipitation, giving Seattle its widely-recognized reputation for being the rainiest city in the country. With proximity to the Pacific Ocean and the omnipresence of large saltwater inlets like Puget Sound, the region is constantly bathed in a moderating supply of marine air. The eastern half of the state is starkly different. It is mostly dry and arid and desert-like and filled with geological curiosities formed over the eons by volcanic and Ice Age-related flood events. The northeast corner of the state returns to forested hills of ponderosa pine on an eastward ascent into the Rocky Mountains. Washington is the only state in the lower 48 where you can drive from the ocean to the Rockies without leaving its borders. The southeast corner of the state is also forested and green and is dominated by the Blue Mountain range. With so much terrestrial diversity, it offers its visitors a unique opportunity to sample so many different climates and landscapes, all within a few hours' drive of one another.
In this posting, I'll share some of my favorite places in the state to visit and experience, but with a slightly different twist: best places to visit and experience by county. For some counties, I could not choose just one best recommendation, so I will feature top picks instead. I tried to focus on attractions and places that you can visit, for the most part, year-round, instead of special events and festivals that might make timing trickier when planning travel. There are hundreds of amazing and compelling attractions throughout the state, many of which I will not be able to feature in a single article, so please keep that in mind if I miss one that you were hoping to see. If you have a great recommendation that I did not cover in this article, please let me know about it in the comments.
There are 39 counties in Washington State. I'll start with a more democratic, alphabetic run-through of each county and their highlights, beginning with ...
Drumheller Channels National Natural Landmark -- Located about eight miles north of Othello along SR 24, this natural landmark features the most significant example in the Columbia Plateau of basalt butte-and-basin Channeled Scablands. This extensively eroded landscape is characterized by hundreds of isolated, steep-sided hills (buttes) surrounded by a braided network of numerous channels, all but one of which are currently dry. It is a classic example of the tremendous erosive powers of extremely large floods such as those that reformed the Columbia Plateau volcanic terrain during the late Pleistocene glacial Missoula Floods.
Cloverland Ghost Town -- First of all, Asotin County is located in the extreme southeast corner of the state and somewhat remote. It will take hours from any major urban area to get there, but if you orient yourself from the Lewiston/Clarkston area, it's not too far. From Clarkston, take SR 129 south, then, when you arrive in the town of Asotin, turn right onto Asotin Creek Road. Follow the road for almost three miles, then continue on the left following Cloverland Road for another 11 miles. The town was first populated in the early 1900s with the hopes of starting orchards and growing other crops. These attempts were abandoned leaving Cloverland residents to take up raising livestock and grain for a living. At its peak in 1910, Cloverland had a population of 400. Today very few buildings remain. One building is the "garage" building which was first a store and then converted to a garage in 1918. The owner of the garage was trained in automotive repair and opened the only dealership in the area. Just up the road from the garage is a church and the Cloverland cemetery.
Hanford Nuclear Reservation -- The Hanford Nuclear Reservation, or Hanford Site, is a former nuclear production plant. The site was established in 1943 under the Manhattan Project where plutonium was produced at B Reactor to be used in the nuclear bombs during World War II. Free tours are provided at the facility. You'll start by going to 2000 Logston Blvd., Richland, WA to check in. The total tour is about 2 hours.
The REACH Museum, located at 1943 Columbia Park Trail, Richland, WA 99352, is a fascinating and interactive exhibit where you can learn about the natural and human history of the Tri-Cities. It houses rotating and permanent exhibits, including a robust exhibit on the Manhattan Project and Cold War. The REACH Museum’s outdoor learning area features a sampling of the shrub-steppe and riparian ecosystems and provides hands-on activities that are fun while teaching important themes like irrigated agriculture, hops cultivation, local animals, native plants, and land formation.
Leavenworth -- Borrowing copy from their marketing campaign: "Leavenworth is a small, beautifully designed, old world Alpine/Bavarian style village. If you envision a small town, somewhere in Germany, nestled in a narrow valley and surrounded by snow-covered mountains, Leavenworth could be that very place. The picturesque village offers a taste of Bavaria with delightful specialty shops, eclectic dining, spas and welcoming accommodations." This is one of my personal favorite places to visit, and fortunately for me, it is just a few hours' drive from my home in Arlington. City ordinances require that all construction, including franchise businesses like Starbucks setting up shop in town, decorate the exterior of their buildings in the prevailing Bavarian architectural style.
Leavenworth is located just 100 miles east from Everett along US 2.
[First photo courtesy of Gary Giddens, 2011]
Hurricane Ridge -- Hurricane Ridge is part of the vast Olympic National Park. To get there from Port Angeles, drive 17 miles south on Hurricane Ridge Road (which starts off as Race Street in town). The signage is well placed starting in Port Angeles, making it easy to find. At an elevation of 5,242 feet, Hurricane Ridge is a year-round destination. In summer, visitors come for picnics and panoramic views of the Olympic Mountains to the south, as well as for great hiking trails. The visitors center offers several conveniences, including an information desk, gift shop, restrooms, and a snack bar.
Olympic Game Farm -- The farm is a drive-through wildlife exhibit, where animals come right up to your vehicle. Among the fauna you are likely to encounter are American bison, black bear, Roosevelt elk, horses, prairie dogs, zebra, llamas, yaks, deer, emu, peacocks and rabbits. Other animals featured in contained enclosures are Siberian and Bengal tigers, African and mountain lions, bobcats, Canadian lynx, timber wolves, and Kodiak bears.
Located at 1423 Ward Road, Sequim (pron. skwim), WA 98382, it is just a few miles north of Highway 101. Summer hours are Sunday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. It is open all major holidays except Thanksgiving and Christmas Days. Admission for Adults (15+) is just $17, while children and seniors (55+) pay just $14. You can also purchase bread to feed the animals when you get there for $3/loaf. Please be sure to check out their website for more information about tickets and the rules of driving through the farm.
Cape Flattery -- When you look at a map of Washington State, you'll notice that the northwest corner of the Olympic Peninsula juts out into the Pacific Ocean. It marks the northwesternmost point of land in the lower 48 states. Though the drive out there is long, it is completely worth it when you get there. The rugged and rocky cliffs of the coastline, along with the haystack rocks just offshore, create one of the most breathtaking and dramatic backdrops for viewers standing at land's end. Far removed from the urban centers of the Puget Sound, it's easy to see why this place bewitches its visitors with a sensation of melting concerns and willing resignation. It grabs you and envelopes you in an embrace of peace and calm.
The best way to get there is from Port Angeles. Drive west along US 101 for about 43 miles until you get to SR 113 at Sappho. Go north (turn right) along the highway which soon becomes SR 112. Follow it past the Native community of Neah Bay all the way to land's end.
Fort Vancouver National Historic Site -- Located just east of downtown Vancouver, Washington, opposite Interstate 5, you'll see Ft. Vancouver National Historic Site. It was the administrative headquarters and main supply depot for the Hudson's Bay Company's fur trading operations in the large Columbia Department. Under the leadership of John McLoughlin, the fort became the center of political, cultural, and commercial activities in the Pacific Northwest. When American immigrants arrived in the Oregon Country during the 1830s and 1840s, Fort Vancouver provided them with essential supplies to begin their new settlements.
In 1996, the 366-acre Vancouver National Historic Reserve was established to protect adjacent, historically significant historical areas. It includes Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, as well as Vancouver Barracks, Officers' Row, Pearson Field, The Water Resources Education Center, and portions of the Columbia River waterfront.
Lewis and Clark Trail State Park -- Columbia County is a small county in the southeast corner of the state accessible via US 12. Lewis and Clark Trail State Park is a 37-acre park, which is located just a few miles west of Dayton. How did the park get its name? Well, in the spring of 1806, the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery camped here on their return trip home from the Pacific Coast.
As you make your way along US 12, passing through dune-colored fields, you will see a stand of long-needled ponderosa pine, alder, maple and cottonwood trees alongside the highway. It's no mirage -- you've arrived at the park. The lush oasis of leafy, shady trees pulls the weary traveler off the highway with the promise of tranquility and relaxation. You can set up your tent or RV there and let Mother Nature soothe your road-weary mind and body. Explore the shaded trails or take a dip in the Touchet River.
Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument -- On May 18, 1980, at 8:30 a.m. on a Sunday when I was just 14 years old, Mt. St. Helens erupted in a cataclysmic event that tore away the entire north face of the mountain. The eruption could be heard from where I was living at the time -- a distance of 90 miles north. It reduced the elevation of the former peak by 1,300 feet, sent scalding rivers of pyroclastic flow down its flanks and into Western Washington river systems, most notably the Toutle and Cowlitz Rivers, where it washed away bridges, homes, highways and railways, and left fifty-seven people dead. The resulting ejecta of ash and debris rose more than 12 miles into the atmosphere and formed a cloud that was pushed eastward by prevailing winds. The ash cloud turned day into night in Washington cities like Yakima and Spokane. Ash rained down for hours across eastern Washington, northern Idaho and parts of Canada like fine gray snow.
Today, visitors can make their way up toward the mountain all the way to the Johnston Ridge Observatory for spectacular views of the mountain and crater. Please be sure to stop at the Visitors Center on the way to get your bearings and gather information. It even has a large, step-in model of the volcano.
Even though technically the volcano sits within Skamania County, access to public viewing sites and the visitor center are from Cowlitz County. Just take SR 504 east from Castle Rock on Interstate 5. The Visitors Center is just a few miles from Interstate 5 on SR 504, but strategic viewpoints are much further up the highway. The Johnston Ridge Observatory is another 50 miles beyond the Visitors Center. (Please note that at the time of this writing, the observatory was closed, but visitors are free to wander around the outside of the building.)
Moses Coulee -- During the Ice Age, when the colossal ice dam that was holding back Lake Missoula failed between 13,000 and 15,000 years ago, massive floods rushed westward across the continent, shaping the land and forming deep, distinctive canyons in Douglas County. These canyons are known as coulees. Moses Coulee cuts into the Waterville plateau and is considered one of the most beautiful and spectacular coulees in Washington State. To get there, travel 20 miles due east on US 2 from Waterville. You really can't miss it. If you stay on US 2, you will pass through it in a matter of minutes, so try to take a short drive along one of the roads at the bottom of the coulee to linger a while and absorb the stark beauty and admire the unique geological formations that seem to form a protective barrier around you.
Sherman Pass -- Crossing the Kettle River Range, Sherman Pass it is the highest pass (at 5,575 feet) in the state that is maintained all year. The pass is located on the Sherman Pass Scenic Byway which traverses the Colville National Forest. The pass was named after American Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman who traveled across the pass in 1883.
SR 20, which passes through this part of Ferry County, is a winding and twisting route that alternates frequently between ascending and descending hills covered in ponderosa pine. It is an absolutely beautiful stretch of highway that is meant to be enjoyed at a slower pace. It's not the pass itself that is the draw -- it's the scenery on the way up and down the other side that you should not miss! You can stop in the quaint little town of Republic on the western side to stock up on supplies if you want to explore the many hiking trails along the way. Or, if you prefer a bona fine dining experience, check out one of the many eateries in town where you'll find pizza, BBQ and Mexican restaurants. There's even a brewery in town if you fancy a beer.
Sacajawea Historical State Park -- This lush 284-acre park sits at the confluence of the Columbia and Snake Rivers. Visitors will enjoy wonderful views of the two rivers as they merge on this spot. This park offers great opportunities for picnic and recreation and in the Sacajawea Interpretive Center, visitors will learn about the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The story is narrated by an actor playing Sacagawea,* a young Lemhi Shoshone maiden who, at the age of 16, accompanied the expedition as a guide. The park also features 1.2 miles of hiking trails, 200 feet of dock, boat ramps, and opportunities for fishing, swimming and water skiing.
*Scholarly research and extensive study of the original journals indicate that both the preferred spelling and pronunciation of the Shoshoni woman’s name are with a "g." Because the park has been known as Sacajawea for many decades, the "j" spelling is retained. Elsewhere in brochures, exhibits, and programs, the "g" is used.
To get there, just take US 12 from Pasco east, and just past the edge of town, you'll see the exit for the Sacajawea State Park.