Some of the Best National Parks are in Washington State. Included among them are the world’s most beautiful places, and certainly some of my favorite national parks and places as well.
This post delves into the National Parks in Washington State. Which ones you should visit. And helps you maximize your time in the State.
Each has something special, and while we think you should visit everywhere, we know that time is limited.
Mount Rainier National Park
The beautiful glaciated stratovolcano is one of the most incredible sights in America. Established in 1899 it is also one of the oldest National Parks in America as well.
It has some of the most incredible wilderness in the country as well. The park covers 369 square miles, with beautiful lakes, forests, glaciers, and more.
Summiting the mountain is also possible and there are lots of companies that will help you do it. We recommend going with a guide if you are not familiar with the peak and area. It is a tough hike that is glaciated all year round and requires special equipment.
Best Time to Visit Mount Rainier
Summer is the best time to visit as well as the busiest season for Mount Rainier as well. Most of the roads open during June and then re-close in mid-fall. So, for those trying to drive to the areas on the mountain and for folks who want to access most of the trails, Summer is the time to go.
Even early summer or early fall you might encounter snow on the trails.
Winters in Mount Rainier are very difficult. There are folks who do winter hikes and ascents on the mountain, but it requires a lot of specialized training and equipment. Also most of the roads close during the winter months as well.
Things to Do
- Burroughs Trail: My favorite trail in Mount Rainier. Burroughs Trail takes you through several different view points that get some of the best and closest views of the mountain.
- Skyline Trail to Panorama Point: One of the best and most popular trails in the park. Gets you close with some beautiful views of the mountain.
- Mount Fremont Lookout Trail: Beautiful moderate trail that takes you up to Mount Fremont Fire lookout tour. Gets you close to the peak with some stunning views.
- Reflection Lake: Gives a picture perfect view of the mountain with reflections in “Reflection Lake”
Getting to Mount Rainier National Park
Mount Rainier is located in west-central Washington State. The park is located 100 miles (2.5 hrs.) from Seattle, 156 miles (3 hours) from Portland, 90 miles (2 hrs.) from Yakima.
Getting between different areas of the park and visitors centers can take hours as roads to the park requires you to travel far from the mountain to access those.
We recommend choosing one place to explore or at the very least one place each day.
Olympic National Park
Olympic National Park, on the Olympic Peninsula is one of the most diverse places in the World. With beautiful Alpine mountains, old-growth rainforests, and wild beaches.
Best time to Visit Olympic National Park
The best times to visit the parks are during the summer when all of the services and areas of the park are open. Summers are also the busiest part of the year too, which means that bookings as well as permits are going to be harder to come by.
Be sure to book your permits as far ahead of time as you can. You can also sometimes find them even the night before (I had options for ones for the next day when I visited). Camping on the beaches is a highlight and requires a permit as well. Be sure to also rent or have a bear cannister for inner-park travel.
Things to Do
- Wild Beaches: There are a lot of Great Places to explore along the coast of Olympic National Park. Because it’s a National Park, the area remains untouched. One of my favorites is Cape Alava that allows you to visit the western-most point in the continental United States.
- Hoh Rainforest: The most famous area of the park and the one that most people think of for Olympic National Park. Hoh has some of the most incredible old-growth areas of the United States. There’s several trails, including multi-day hikes. Be sure to at least explore the Hall of Mosses famous for its beautiful moss covered trees.
- Hurricane Ridge: One of the other main sections of the park is the Alpine regions. Hurricane Ridge that is accessible by road is one of the best places to view this area. Also the start of some great day and multi-day hikes.
- Waterfalls: There are a lot of beautiful waterfalls to hike out to in Olympic National Park. Many require some incredibly long hikes. However some others like Marymere are easily access as day hikes.
Getting to Olympic National Park
Olympic National Park is located on the Olympic Peninsula in Western Washington State.
The park is huge and the central area of the park is wilderness without roads. Getting between areas of the park can take hours.
The closest airport to Olympic National Park is Seattle-Tacoma [Sea-Tac] International Airport (SEA) which is about 2 hours from the park.
US-101 is one of the main roads that circumnavigates the park on the east, north, and western ends of the park.
North Cascades National Park
Most people I know haven’t even heard of the park. But once they see photos, they all want to add it to their list.
Established in 1968, the park protects the alpine region of the northern cascades, including ross lake as well (which is a separate national park unit). The park also shares area with hydroelectric projects, so you’ll often see more development than other national parks.
The beautiful snow capped mountains, cascading waterfalls, and teal glacial lakes makes this one of the most magical places to visit.
Best Times to Visit
Summer is the busiest season, however in general North Cascades get far fewer tourist than any of the other parks in Washington. This makes it one of the best to visit especially if you want to get away from folks.
Even in the Summer you may experience snow in this incredible National Park.
Winters are very snowy in the park. Areas of the park may be closed or difficult to access.
Things to Do
- Diablo Lake: Beautiful green-teal colored lake in North Cascades. Is part of the run-off from the hydro projects and glacial water. Stunning to look at. You can get the best views from the overlook.
- Ross Dam: The large dam across ross lake that is part of a larger hydroelectric power system in the area. When it’s open you can also walk across the dam as well.
- Trail of Cedars: Easy short hike along the Skagit river. Beautiful views of the old growth forests.
- Maple Pass Loop: Difficult trail that skirts the edge of North Cascades National Park. Gives some incredible views in the park.
Getting to North Cascades
North Cascades National Park is located on the northern end of Washington State along the border with Canada. Much of the park is actually wilderness and not easily road accessible.
The park has two main entrances to the park on the east and west ends of the park. Be sure to check conditions to make sure the roads through the park are open. They do occasionally close due to snow or other natural disasters (fires).
The west entrance is about 100 miles (2 hours) from Seattle and the eastern entrance is about 238 (4 hours) from Spokane. State Route 20 is the main road that traverses the park.
San Juan Island National Historic Park
Did you know that the United States and Britain almost went to war over a pig?
It has one of the most unique histories of any places I have visited in the United States. San Juan Island NHP explores this almost war, the friendships, relationships, and unique history of the islands.
Best Times to Visit
Visiting San Juan Island National Historic Park is possible all year round. However, certainly trips during late spring to fall are the best in terms of availability.
During these times, most of the tourism infrastructure is in full motion. While in winter, there are still ferries and access to the Island. Quite a bit of the Island tourism infrastructure tends to slow down or close.
Things to Do
American Camp: The American camp was the area on the Northern part of the Island that was inhabited by the US Troops. It was way more rustic as well as exposed to the elements. It was well known that the Americans had a tough life here on the Island, and lacked in many supplies.
British Camp: The beautiful British camp on the south part of the Island was home to the British troops during their years on the Island. The protected bay allowed the troops to have an easier time with the weather and conditions of the camp. The camp itself was also way better built with stately buildings, beautiful gardens and more.
Getting to San Juan Island NHP
San Juan Island National Historic Park requires visitors to access the Island via Ferries from the mainland. Regular Ferry Service is available from Anacostas Washington to Friday Harbor. While you don’t need a car to access the island, you will need a car to access both of the camps located on the island.
I recommend reading more on our post for getting to San Juan Island NHP.
Other Top Parks in Washington State to Visit
The following are several other amazing sites to visit within Washington State. Some did not make our list as the main areas are in other states. You can also check our page on Washington State National Parks for a complete list of parks and trails.
- Ebey’s Landing National Historic Reserve: The beautiful coastal area of Ebey’s Landing protects the historic area of early settlers to Washington State and Whidbey Island in particular.
- Minidoka National Historic Site: Chronicling the tragic history of Minidoka Internment Camp and the overall Japanese relocation camps. In Washington you can visit Bainbridge Island.
- Whitman Mission National Historic Site: Exploring the history of Whitman Mission, the mission’s work, it’s help for settlers, and interactions with native Americans. As well as the tragic deaths of the Whitmans and the Indians who punishment for deaths they were not connected with.
- Klondike Goldrush National Historic Park: Seattle Unit explores the history of Seattle as a gateway to the Klondike. Includes a museum with stories of Klondike gold rushers.
- Manhattan Project National Historic Park: Explores the history of the Manhattan Project at one of the main sites of the projects. Other sites include Tennessee (Oak Ridge) and New Mexico (Los Alamos).
- Lewis and Clark National Historical Park: Includes the areas of the end of Lewis and Clark’s Journey. The majority of the park is in Oregon (Fort Clatsop) with some areas in Washington State as well.