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Washington National Parks Road Trip

The State of Washington is home to many breathtaking natural parks and landscapes and the best way to explore them is by taking a road trip! This Washington National Parks Road Trip will take you to Olympic National Park, Mount Rainier National Park, and North Cascades National Park, as well as other beautiful areas in Washington State.

Where to Go

Seattle

An international hub for the Pacific Northwest, Seattle rests on Puget Sound and provides a fantastic starting point for your trip. With a population of around 780,000, Seattle is the largest city in Washington State. Ever since it hosted the 1962 World Fair, Seattle has thrived as a cultural, technological, and outdoor recreation mecca. The 605-foot Space Needle remains the proud symbol of the Pacific Northwest metropolis and enchants visitors with incredible views. Snow-capped peaks and temperate rain forests characterize the city, luring hikers, cyclists, and other adventurers.

Olympic National Park

Just two-and-a-half hours from Seattle, Olympic National Park is the next stop along your road trip. From the rugged Pacific coast to snow-capped peaks, the diversity of Olympic National Park is off the charts. Beachgoers can marvel at the miles of driftwood and sea stacks dotting the coastline. Campsites along the shoreline allow you to watch mesmerizing sunsets and spend the evenings stargazing. Venture through the lush rainforests that boast Sitka spruce, western hemlock, ferns, spike-mosses, and other unique plant species. Find solitude at Lake Crescent by kayaking on its sparkling waters or climb the adjacent peaks. The temperate rainforests eventually give way to the mountains, and Mount Olympus sits proudly above the landscape. Hurricane Ridge offers year round recreation and enchants visitors as one of the park’s most iconic vistas. 

Mount Rainier National Park

Under a three-hour drive from Olympic National Park lies Mount Rainier National Park, the next stop on your road trip. Paradise is the word that best describes the natural beauty of Mount Rainier National Park. Its namesake peak rises 14,411 ft into the sky, the highest mountain in the Cascade Range. The Paradise Area gives visitors the best view of the famous mountain and its eye-popping alpine meadows. Gain more elevation by driving to Sunrise and explore the hiking trails that offer incredible views of the Cascades. The quick trek to Tipsoo Lake and the 6.3-mile Crystal Lakes Trail each include alpine lakes and blooming wildflowers. Thousands of mountaineers attempt to summit the mighty peak, but the sheer elevation gain of over 9,000 feet makes this a monumental challenge.

Hanford Reach National Monument

Just over two hours from Mount Rainer National Park sits the Hanford Reach National Monument, the next stop on your journey. Wildlife abounds in the last free-flowing, non-tidal stretch of the Columbia River. Established in 2000, the Hanford Reach National Monument brings visitors face-to-face with elk, coyotes, birds of prey, and other incredible species. More than 200 bird species inhabit the refuge, and anglers can catch bass, salmon, steelhead, and walleye. Hanford Reach features rare traces of sagebrush grassland that have remained untouched due to the security around the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. The B-Reactor at Hanford Reach was the world’s first full-scale nuclear reactor, and the landscape set aside for the Manhattan Project retained its immense diversity of plant and animal life.

Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest

Just about two hours away is your next stop, Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. More than 4 million acres of pristine wilderness lures nature enthusiasts searching for solitude from the crowds. Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest straddles the eastern side of the Cascades and gives hikers hundreds of miles of trails to explore. Spruce, lodgepole pine and Douglas-firs adorn the subalpine forests and scattered lakes offer serene fishing holes. Methow Valley provides a sanctuary for numerous species such as lynx, grizzly bears, wolves, and beavers. Recreation seekers share the landscape with wildlife and partake in activities like mountain biking, fishing, rafting, and Nordic skiing.

North Cascades National Park

Continue on for two-and-a-half hours to reach North Cascades National Park. The park boasts over 300 glaciers, the most you’ll find anywhere in the Lower 48. Its untouched wilderness includes turquoise lakes, cascading waterfalls, and beautiful alpine meadows. Diablo Lake is the star attraction with its stunning mountain vistas and old-growth forests hugging its shores. The nearby Ross Lake Resort is a prime spot for recreational activities such as boating, kayaking, fishing, hiking, and camping. Hikers gravitate to the Cascade Pass for the jaw-dropping views of granite peaks and forested valleys. Situated at nearly 5,500 feet, the Washington Pass Overlook inspires nature lovers with its immense spires rising up towards the heavens. Although it requires serious effort to get to, the remote village of Stehekin is a magical lakeside hideaway engulfed by snow-capped peaks.

When to Go

Despite the large crowds, July and August offer the best conditions to road trip through Washington State’s national parks. These are the driest months of the year in Olympic National Park, which provides amicable hiking conditions. Many roads inside Mount Rainier National Park are closed from November to May. Plus, the wildflowers dotting the alpine meadows are at their peak bloom during the summer. North Cascades National Park experiences similar roadway closures in the winter, and summer offers the most pleasant weather conditions. Although this route is doable within a week, you could spend a lifetime exploring these miraculous landscapes. Give yourself at least two weeks, or longer, for a rewarding road trip.

Watching Wildlife in Mount Rainier National Park

Also abbreviated as Mt. Rainier, this northern American National Park is home to 63 species of mammals, 16 amphibians, 5 reptiles, and plenty of birds. The elevation difference of 13,000 feet creates a varied habitat with different life zones that are home to a variety of animals.

About half of the birds observed in the park nest there as migrants that winter in the southern portion of the United States or central America.

Mount Rainier National Park’s Top Animals

  • Coyotes
  • Bighorn Sheep
  • Black-Tailed Deer
  • Mule Deer
  • Elk
  • Mountain Goats
  • Mountain Lions
  • Black bears

Viewing Locations

Stevens Canyon Road: Coyotes
Box Canyon: Coyotes
Longmire: Bighorn sheep
Eastern Side of Mt. Rainier: Elk
Summerland: Bighorn sheep, mountain goats
Paradise and Sunrise: Pikas, chipmunks, squirrels

When Should You Go?

The best time of the year to see the park’s elk at large is during the months of September and October. The summer months will be your best chance for seeing ground squirrels, marmots, chipmunks, chickarees, and pika. However, it is during the winter months that you will see the bigger mammals, like bears, mountain lions, etc. roaming in the lower elevations to escape the brutal winds and snows that are common on the gigantic mountain.

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Hidden Gems in Mount Rainier National Park

hiking

Set against the breathtaking backdrop of the Pacific Northwest, this national park is home to the Mount Rainier Stratovolcano, said to be one of the world’s most dangerous volcanoes. Mount Rainier is Washington’s tallest mountain and the surrounding national park is brimming with gorgeous natural features. If you’re looking to get off the beaten path in Mount Rainier National Park, check out these hidden gems.

Silver Falls

Visit these dramatic waterfalls for a peaceful, uncrowded experience in Mount Rainier National Park. Fed by the shockingly clear blue waters of the Ohanapecosh River, you won’t want to swim in water’s frigid temperatures, but the falls are so beautiful you won’t need to.

Skyline Trail Loop

About five and a half miles long, the Skyline Trail Loop boasts phenomenal views the whole way through. Hike through fields dotted with wildflowers and take in vistas of majestic snow capped mountains. The pinnacle of this hike is breathtaking Panorama Point which is worth the trek.

Plummer Peak

A lesser-climbed peak in Mount Rainier National Park, Plummer Peak is great if you want to try your hand at mountain climbing when you’re just starting out. The 7th tallest peak in the Tatoosh Range, the views from Plummer Peak are spectacular.

Spray Park Trail

If you’re looking to up the intensity, the Spray Park Trail will offer you a more challenging climb. The Spray Park Trailhead is a bit remote, making this one of the park’s  less-traveled hikes. Take in views of massive glaciers, the striking Spray Falls and enjoy the solitude of nature. 

Inspiration Point

If you’d rather just take in the sights and skip the hike, head to Inspiration Point, a glorious overlook featuring magnificent views of Mt. Rainier. Continue down Stevens Canyon Road to Reflection Lakes for a wonderful view from another perspective.