Soaking up the Last of a Pacific Northwest Summer
I’ve often thought that if the perfect Pacific Northwest summers lasted even a couple of months longer, everyone in America would want to live here. Long days filled with bluebird skies and temperatures that are generally mild make it difficult to stay indoors and focus on any work to be done. The mountains and waters call me making it difficult to be productive for these few short months when we experience this little slice of earthly heaven. Ask me again when January comes around and the seductive Seattle area summers will be long forgotten.
What I love about the Pacific Northwest, any time of year, is that one can get off the grid relatively quickly and it doesn’t always require a long journey. If you want a connection with nature and perhaps whomever you are with, this list is for you.
Following are three of my favorite summer and early fall adventures within a 1 to 3-hour drive of Seattle.
Start your day in the clouds then come down to earth
For this adventure, I start early grabbing a cup of coffee and a scone for the road. I love watching the sun move higher into the sky as I head southeast from Seattle through farmlands and then into the Cascade mountains with incredibly tall timbers that line the roadway to Crystal Mountain. Crystal Mountain is one of the most popular ski destinations for Seattlites, but in the summer and particularly on a weekday, it can feel as remote as destinations that require a further drive.
I make a workout of this adventure and hike from the base of the mountain up to the Summit House. Along the hike, I enjoy a peaceful lake, flower-filled meadows, a babbling brook, and arguably the most impressive view of Mt. Rainier in the entire state! After a scenic lunch at either the summit house or from my backpack, I ride the gondola down the mountain.
If you’re not in the mood to sweat, you can take the gondola up and walk down or take the gondola both ways. The hike up takes between 2 and 3 hours and you can cut that time in half for the hike down. Either way, you won’t find many other hikers on the trail.
Tip: if you choose to dine at the summit house, plan to go early or wait a bit. It’s a very popular lunch spot!
Because I start my hike up Crystal Mountain early (between 8 and 9 am), I’m typically headed down the mountain by noon and am ready to head to the water to cool off. The drive from Crystal Mountain to the charming and picturesque town of Gig Harbor is a bit of a drive (a little under 2 hours), but the journey is part of the fun. Gig Harbor is on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, a place still so gloriously untouched that it is home to the quietest place in the continental United States. To access the peninsula from this direction, I cross the Narrows Bridge which has a history worth exploring. And, don’t worry, the engineering challenges are all worked out now.
Just over the bridge, I arrive in the harbor. I grab my soft-sided cooler of snacks and a beach towel and head straight to the Gig Harbor Fly Shop. I’ve reserved my pedal-powered kayak in advance so in just a few minutes I’m on the water and headed toward my favorite spot - a light-house at the entry to the harbor. The tide is coming in, but because the kayaks are leg-powered I can easily make it to the lighthouse and to another spectacular view of Mt. Rainier. After enjoying the view for a good part of the afternoon, I head back into the harbor and a stop at Tides Tavern for a bite and a brew before calling it a magical day!
Tip: While I have combined two of my favorite adventures into one long summer day, it’s also nice to spend a day on each of these adventures.
The San Juan Islands consist of many tiny islands with Roche Harbor and Friday Harbor on the San Juan Island and Eastsound on Orcas Island being the most popular. While I love all the islands, I've found it particularly easy to get off the grid on Orcas Island. A long hike on one of the many miles of trails at Moran State Park provides a a sense of serenity that is unmatched in a destination so easy to reach. After a day of hiking, a stay at Outlook Inn puts you in the heart of the peaceful little village where you can enjoy a quiet evening and a view that's tough to beat.
Tip: Kenmore Air has multiple daily flights to all three destinations and more. Washington State Ferries also provide multiple daily sailings with the journey being every bit as worthwhile as the final destination.
Reach the Pinnacle
While Mt. Rainier National Park is not one of the most visited national parks in America, it can sometimes feel like it is in the summer. On a clear day, its commanding presence can be seen up to 300 miles away - its allure attracts many to the entry gates. With an average snowfall of 645 inches per year, Mt. Rainier is one of the snowiest places on earth making the window for hiking (without snowshoes) around this magnificent mountain rather short.
My favorite hike, while popular, feels serene if started early. Pinnacle Peak Trail is only 3 miles round trip, but it’s a workout with over a thousand feet of elevation gain in the short distance. The trailhead can be accessed by driving east from either Longmire or Paradise on Stevens Canyon road to the parking lot which sits just in front of reflection lake.
The views from the top of this hike are dramatic with an up close view of Mt. Rainier and distant views of Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams and even Mt Hood to the South.
Tip: the drive to Pinnacle Peak is on the longer side for a day trip. Accommodations are limited so plan early and stay the evening.
Where to Stay:
With so much to explore in Washington State, it’s difficult to narrow down recommendations. These are my go-to places to get off the grid and reconnect with nature. A night or two in this paradise and you may not want to go home…until it starts raining:-)