The Complete Guide To: Washington State

With its breathtaking shoreline and dramatic mountains, this 'Evergreen State' in the far north-western corner of America, has much more to offer than rainfall. By David Orkin


WHY NOT JUST 'WASHINGTON'?

To clarify that we're talking about the verdant, dramatic, mountainous state of Washington, as opposed to the somewhat sleazy US capital, Washington DC (District of Columbia). The state of Washington is in the north-western US, and is the only state named for a president, George Washington. It is celebrated for beautiful scenery and sharp contrasts, and calls itself the forest-clad "Evergreen State".

The southern part of Washington's coast fronts the Pacific Ocean, the northern coast the Puget Sound - protected from the open ocean by Canada's Vancouver Island. To its south is Oregon, to the east, Idaho and to the north the Canadian province of British Columbia. Parallelling the coast is the mighty Cascade Range: snow-covered peaks towering above the foothills and lowlands around them, and including Washington's highest point, the 14,411-foot Mount Rainier. The Cascades bisect the state from north to south. They form a dramatic weather barrier that confines most of the rain to the west of the mountains.

In the narrow area between the slopes and the Puget Sound is a forested region that is home to close to two-thirds of the six million Washingtonians. Despite a soggy reputation, Seattle gets less rain than cities such as New York, Chicago, Miami or Atlanta.

SLEEP IN SEATTLE?

Seattle's hippest place to stay is the Ace, 2423 First Avenue (001 206 448 4721; www.theacehotel.com): crisp and elegant, with a vast amount of white, plus what is promised to be the "spacey elan of a distant future". Standard rooms (with shared bathrooms) are from $82 (£46), including continental breakfast. You'll find plenty to tire you out in this lively, cosmopolitan city (001 206 461 5840; www.seeseattle.org) with fine views of Mount Rainier, the water and islands of Puget Sound. The most obvious landmark is the Space Needle rising 520 feet above the Seattle Centre (001 206 684 7200; www.seattlecenter.com). Its observation deck is open daily, 9am to midnight, admission $13 (£7.20).

You also get superb views from the 35th-floor observation deck of historic Smith Tower (001 206 622 4004; www.smithtower.com), once the tallest building in the world outside New York. Its summer hours (April-October) are 10am until sunset and from 9am on Friday and Saturday during July and August, $6 (£3.30).

Immediately below the tower, restored Pioneer Square is a downtown centre of life after dark, with plenty of cafés, bars and clubs: but it's worth heading out to eclectic neighbourhoods such as Ballard, where Hattie's Hat (001 206 784 0175; www.hattieshat.com) and The Tractor (001 206 789 3599; www.tractortavern.com) are excellent neighbouring live music venues. The place to eat is Pike Place Market, America's oldest functioning farmers' market. It offers visitors a fine array of fresh produce, including fruit, flowers and seafood: the crowded aisles and buzzing adjacent streets are jammed with cafés and bakeries. You will also find the original Starbucks.

Anyone with an interest in aviation should visit the Museum of Flight (001 206 764 5720; www.museumofflight.org; open 10am to 5pm daily, admission $14 £7.80), then head north of the city to Everett to tour the Boeing factory and visit the new Future of Flight Centre (001 800 464 1476; www.futureofflight.org). Combined tickets cost $17.50 (£9.70): a limited number of standby tickets are sold on the day, $15 (£8.30). The centre (8.30am to 5.30pm) and tours (9am to 3pm) operate daily.

Seattle isn't the capital of Washington: that honour goes to Olympia, 60 miles to the south east, from which there's easy access to the Olympic Peninsula.

A GREEK CONNECTION?

The mountainous peninsula's highest point, 7,965-foot Mount Olympus, was indeed named after the mountain in Greece. Much of the peninsula is taken up by the wilderness preserves of the Olympic National Park and Olympic National Forest, parts of which are among the rainiest places in the world. These are the only tracts of rainforest in the continental US. The vast, ancient forests - where ferns grow huge and moss hangs like curtains from the branches - often reach the sea's edge. In summer, the alpine slopes wear carpets of wildflowers; in spring, their glacial melt fills the rivers, waterfalls and hot springs. Bear and mountain lion thrive on the densely forested slopes, but are rarely seen. More common are deer and elk, while bald eagles are often spotted along the northern coast. In the same day, it's possible to go snowboarding in the morning and scuba diving in the afternoon.

Port Angeles (PA) is a shipping hub from where ferries depart for Vancouver Island and is a good place to turn off into the mountains of the Olympic National Park. Between January and March, get on your board or skis, then take to the water in one of the many spots around PA: rent snow gear at Brown's Outdoor (001 360 457 4150; www.brownsoutdoor.com) and scuba gear from Sound Bike (001 360 452 0175; www.soundbikeskayaks.com).

In the far north-west of the peninsula is Neah Bay, home of the excellent Makah Cultural Centre (001 360 645 2711; www.makah.com), from where a road leads to Cape Flattery, the most north-westerly point in the continental US. In the same area, another road takes you to Lake Ozette; here, two beautiful boardwalk trails lead to wild, windswept Pacific beaches. The peninsula's beaches are not for swimming, but are raw, remote and wild. Yet wilderness doesn't always mean roughing it - at Quinault Lake stay at the 92-room Lake Quinault Lodge (001 360 288 2900; www.visitlakequinault.com), a rustic, resort hotel built in 1926 in the grand tradition. Visit Port Townsend, a fine 19th-century seaport, with many historical sites. Back in PA, take the scenic drive to Hurricane Ridge, for magnificent views of the park's snow-capped mountains with the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Vancouver Island in the distance.

ISLAND HOPPING?

Yes, through the San Juan Islands. Several hundred islands and islets make up the archipelago, but only 30 or so are inhabited year round. The four main ones - Lopez, Orcas, San Juan and Shaw - are accessible to visitors, though most of Shaw is privately owned and off-limits. They are served by Washington State Ferries (001 206 464 6400; www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries). The archipelago's biggest town, Friday Harbour, is on San Juan Island and is a major sea kayaking - and whale watching - centre. Visit the excellent Whale Museum (001 360 378 4710; www.whalemuseum.com), from July to August, 9am to 6pm, $6 (£3.30), and stay at Friday Harbor House (001 360 378 8455; www.fridayharborhouse.com) or the Tucker House Inn (001 800 965 0123; www.tuckerhouse.com). In 1859, Britain and America almost went to war over the San Juans: what remains of the British and American forts is now part of San Juan Island National Historic Park (001 360 378 2240; www.nps.gov/sajh). Lime Kiln Point State Park (001 360 378 2044; www.parks.wa.gov) provides a good vantage point for watching whales in summer. In Roche Harbour is the charming and atmospheric Hotel de Haro (001 800 451 8910; www.rocheharbor.com), built in 1886.

Orcas Island, the largest, most rugged and most beautiful, boasts the huge Moran State Park, which includes 2,409-foot Mount Constitution, the highest point in the region. From the summit, you can peer out over the island chain, not only to Mount Baker and the North Cascades, but to the Canadian Coastal Range. Kangaroo House (001 360 376 2175; www.kangaroohouse.com) is a good B&B choice. Lopez Island is quieter, with rolling farm roads and woodlands perfect for biking, and a coastline of steep cliffs interspersed with secluded beaches and coves. Apart from being a great place to stay, Mackaye Harbour Inn (001 360 314 6140; www.mackayeharborinn.com) rents out kayaks and offers guests free use of mountain bikes.

AND INLAND?

Less than 40 minutes' drive east from Seattle takes you to the Salish Lodge and Spa (001 425 888 2556; www.salishlodge.com) at Snoqualmie Falls. Twin Peaks fans will recognise it as the fictional "Great Northern Hotel". A double room costs $279 (£155), breakfast from $16 (£8.90) per person. Another good place to stay is the self-catering Cedar Creek Treehouse (001 360 569 2991; www.cedarcreektreehouse.com), where cabins are 50 feet up a giant cedar tree. Rooms cost $250 (£139). Either provides an excellent base for exploring Mount Rainier. Glaciers cover about 36 square miles of the volcano's surface, about 10 per cent of the area of the eponymous National Park (001 360 569 2211; www.nps.gov/mora). Old-growth forests cover the valley below with western hemlock, Douglas fir and western red cedar. Lowland forest flowers bloom in late spring and early summer as temperatures rise and snow melts. In late July and August, subalpine meadows are carpeted with a colourful array of wildflowers. One of the best stretches for hiking is an 18-mile section of the Wonderland Trail between Stevens Canyon Road and the White River entrance, which covers most types of mountain terrain. There are another 240 miles of trails threading through the wilderness.

IS IT SAFE?

If you're thinking of attempting an ascent, be aware that Rainier is steep and only the most experienced climbers should attempt to scale its treacherous peak. It is an "episodically active" volcano; its last reported eruption was more than a century ago. Talking of volcanoes, Mount St Helens erupted a quarter-century ago and created the greatest landslide in recorded history. Visitors to the mountain can see the green of rebirth emerging from the ash amid a surreal moonscape of forests blown over in the blast. Many miles of trails and the visitor centres give you different perspectives on the mountain and on the unbelievable forces that coincided on 18 May 1980. Twenty-six years on, this giant still isn't sleeping: volcanic unrest started on 23 September 2004 and is described as "ongoing": for the latest, visit http://vulcan.wr.usgs.gov/ and follow the links.

SOMETHING MORE TRANQUIL?

Few visitors explore Washington east of the Cascades. Much of this part of the state is occupied by the Palouse, one of the richest wheat-growing regions in the world. This is a land of beautiful rolling fields. You will also find historic towns, such as Dayton, huge lakes and spectacular Palouse Falls. Trees grow in the east, too: there's the wilderness of the Umatilla National Forest with its rugged backcountry of peaks and canyons inhabited by elk, deer, and rarer bighorn sheep, cougar and black bear. If you find yourself in Spokane, stay at the beautifully restored Davenport Hotel (001 509 455 8888; www.thedavenporthotel.com), $221 (£123), breakfast $12 (£6.70) per person. The Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area (001 509 633 9441; www.nps.gov/laro) has hundreds of miles of shoreline with opportunities for boating, fishing, swimming and camping.

GETTING THERE

Only British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) offers direct flights to Washington State, with a daily flight from Heathrow to the major air gateway, Seattle-Tacoma (Sea-Tac for short). Through discount agents, expect to pay around £535 return in August (high season). You can choose from a wider range of starting points and probably get lower fares if you opt for a US airline and change en route, for example, on Continental via Newark, Delta via Atlanta or American Airlines via Chicago.

GETTING AROUND

You're going to need to drive to see anything much more than the cities. Consider a self-drive tour, such as a nine-day "Best of the Pacific Northwest" offered by Travel 4 (08701 55 00 66; www.travel4.com), prices from £482 excluding flights. A week's car hire costs around £140 from companies such as Alamo (0870 400 4562; www.alamo.co.uk).

WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE?

For an information pack on Washington State, call 020-7978 5233; www.experiencewashington.com.

HIGHWAY TO HEAVEN

The North Cascade Range is less seismically active than Mount St Helen's, yet is a towering mass of granite spires and glaciers. Here, you can walk in an ancient forest and peer into alpine lakes.

If you want to explore the mountains, drive the 400-mile Cascade Loop. Start on Highway 20 via the Skagit Valley, where bald eagles winter over. Cross the Washington Pass to the sunnier Methow Valley and historic Winthrop - stay at the Sun Mountain Lodge (001 800 572 0493; www.sunmountainlodge.com). On Saturday mornings between April and October, be tempted by the produce and crafts at laid-back Twisp's farmers market.

Continue on Highway 153 to Wenatchee and complete the circuit via Skyhomish on Highway 2. For an overnight stop, try the Sleeping Lady Mountain Retreat (001 800 574 2123; www.sleepinglady.com) near Leavenworth: rooms are from $185 (£103) including breakfast and dinner.

Lake Chelan, within the eponymous National Recreation Area, is the state's largest lake. Make the effort to visit remote Stehekin, accessible only by float plane (001 509 682 5555; www.chelanairways.com), an arduous mountain trek or a boat trip on the Lady of the Lake (001 509 682 4584; www.ladyofthelake.com).

Further south, near George, a good choice for staying and eating is the Cave B Inn (001 888 785 2283; www.cavebinn.com). Rooms are from $135 (£75) including breakfast.

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