From wildlife watching to storm watching, Washington offers plenty of options for getting outside during winter, and there are plenty of places to take your family during the holiday season. Take visiting relatives on a hike, your kids sledding or simply plan a trip to Washington's coast to watch the big surf. The cold, crisp air and bright daylight will do wonders for everyone.
Hike Whidbey Island
A popular destination during the holidays, Whidbey Island and boasts a number of excellent and usually snow-free hikes. Be sure to stop in Coupeville afterwards for an ice cream, or perhaps more appropriately, a hot cocoa.
This little preserve, tucked away in the rain shadow on Whidbey Island, has a bit of everything. Panoramic views of mountains and water. Twisted driftwood and old gnarled trees. Rare plants. Gray whales and shipping activity in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Bald eagles, hooded mergansers, harlequin ducks, and even something called an alligator lizard.
Deception Pass State Park
Distance: 5.0 miles
Elevation Gain: 350 feet
Pass Required: Discover Pass
There are loads of trails at Deception Pass State Park -- you could easily spend a full weekend exploring. But if you've just got a couple hours, opt for this hike with great year-round ocean views. You can explore tide pools, keep an eye out for wildlife, wind through forest, and enjoy the views from bluffs overlooking the sea.
Birdwatching in the Skagit Valley
Eagles, snow geese, trumpeter and tundra swans, snowy owls and an array of shore birds provide a treasure trove of winter bird watching in the Skagit Valley.
Winter float trips
Each winter, hundreds of bald eagles migrate to the Skagit River to feast on this abundant salmon run. By heading out on a raft, you can watch these magnificent birds in their natural habitat as you drift slowly down the river. The moss-draped landscape is immensely beautiful from this perspective, too.
Alpine Adventures offers winter rafting expeditions. Sure, it will be chilly, but isn't that why down jackets and fleece vests were invented? Dress warmly and pack your camera - you'll have a great time!
Distance: 4.4 miles
Elevation Gain: 30 feet
Pass Required: None
Hike here at high tide, and the birds may hang closer to the trail. If there has been a dusting of snow, you also can play at identifying wildlife tracks. If some members of your family don't dig birds, don't worry; they can still take in the grand views of the northern Puget Sound, the Olympics and the Cascades.
Experience the Olympic Coast
Head out to Washington's northwest coast for a sand-swept winter weekend. The dramatic sea-stacks that are the Olympic Coast's signature are just a few steps away from your car for some locations. Others require a bit more of a hike.
Watch waves and wildlife at Cape Flattery
Elevation Gain: 200 feet
Pass Required: Makah Recreation Pass
Watch for seals, dolphins and whales surfacing in the breaking waves. Look for herons taking cover in nearby trees. Smell the salt in the air. Study a sea stack as waves swell and crash against it. Keep an eye on the weather as storms do roll in. While you're out this way, be sure to save time for the Makah Cultural and Resource Center in Neah Bay. This museum features archeological artifacts dating back thousands of years.
When you're done with all of that, head back to a warm, dry cabin to enjoy that other great winter activity: a nap.
Explore Dungeness Spit near Sequim
Elevation Gain: 130 feet
Pass Required: $3 Refuge Pass Entrance Fee
With a forested approach, miles of sand and driftwood sculptures, a 150-year-old lighthouse and 250 bird species, the Dungeness refuge is never boring. The leeward side of the Dungeness Spit is a wonderfully rich tidal habitat full of shorebirds, waterfowl and shellfish, some of which is protected seasonally or year-round with public closures.
Hikers can make the 11 mile round-trip trek to the lighthouse year-round, though they should be aware that the spit can be breached during storms. Bring binoculars and a tide chart; there is no shelter along this hike.
Take the Kids Sledding
When the snowflakes start falling in earnest, your kids may start lobbying for a chance to go sledding. Washington has its share of hills, but if you're at a loss for determining where it's safe to take your 6 year-old, read on.
Snoqualmie Pass has two developed and quite popular destinations, especially on weekends:
- Tubing at The Summit (sold in two-hour intervals and include the tow rope).
- Sledding at the Hyak Sno-Park (groomed daily). You will need either a seasonal Sno-Park pass or a daily Sno-Park Pass and a Discover Pass.
Two roads to sled
Less developed (and less expensive) choices exist on the Mountain Loop Highway. All you need is a Northwest Forest Pass to sled on the closed road to Mount Pilchuck (directions here).
Or go to the end of the plowed road at Deer Creek Road (milepost 23.0) for completely undeveloped sledding fun.
Snow Play Around Leavenworth
The Bavarian village of Leavenworth, Washington is a holiday hot spot. Village shops and eateries are decked out for the season, and the dramatic snow-laden peaks of the Stuart Range present a breathtaking backdrop. Mix in a little wildlife watching on snowshoes, and you've got your winter wonderland.
Snowshoeing from the Fish Hatchery
The Icicle River Snowshoe Adventure Trail at the Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery on the west side of town is a fully-accessible loop trail that offers excellent winter wildlife watching, from deer to woodpeckers. The trail is great fun when trekked on snowshoes or cross-country skis. Be sure to bring your map.
Starting December 31, the hatchery hosts free Winter Wildlife Snowshoe Tours for ages 8 and up. Naturalist and snowshoes included!
Play in the snow at Lake Wenatchee State Park
You can cross-country ski, snowshoe or take the kids tubing, all within the Sno-Park in Lake Wenatchee State Park.
Explore the Gorge
The Columbia River Gorge offers a variety of state parks with lots of trails to explore. Find a hike to take up your whole day, or one that's just a few hours. If the day is crisp and clear, bring your camera, the Gorge has some of the best views in Washington.
Distance: 7.0 miles
Elevation Gain: 1300 feet
Pass Required: None
This seven mile loop provides fantastic views of the Columbia River Gorge, an intimate look at the Cape Horn Falls and a challenging workout as it climbs and descends the rocky slopes of Cape Horn. Most of the trail is built by WTA volunteers.
Visit Mount St. Helens
Field trip to a view of the volcano
The Science and Learning Center at Mount St. Helens is a great way to get to know the mountain better, or to introduce her to your out-of-town relatives. Open to visitors on weekends in winter, there are also a few family-friendly strolls that lead off from the visitor's center, including the Winds of Change Trail, a quarter-mile paved path leading through a part of the Blast Zone. A pet rest area is located within the Coldwater Lake parking area.
To visit: The facility is located at milepost 43 on State Highway 504, approximately 10 miles west of Johnston Ridge Observatory
Snowshoe St. Helens...if the conditions are right
If solitude and adventure are in your cup of wintertime tea, head for the volcano. Prior snowshoe experience is a must, and you will need to watch weather and conditions carefully, but a wintertime summit of Washington's most visibly active volcano is certainly doable, and quite a unique experience from its summer counterpart.
Be patient. You will want to make sure all the right elements are in place before you attempt this snowshoe trip: a long stretch of stable weather, favorable avalanche conditions, and a clear forecast.
Learn more in our our entry on the winter route up St. Helens.
Two groomed trail systems offer overnight hut accommodations for beginning and experienced cross-country skiers.
Methow Valley huts
In the Methow Valley—Washington's Nordic skiing heartland—each of the five Rendevous Huts (two of which are dog-friendly) can fit up to eight people on a shared or whole hut basis.
Depending upon your hut and where you start your journey, the huts are from four to nine miles on groomed trails from the trailhead. If your food and gear are too heavy, they'll even haul it for you.
Mount Tahoma huts (and a yurt)
Near Mount Rainier National Park, the Mount Tahoma Trails Association grooms 50 miles of trails and operates two huts and a yurt. Staying overnight in one of the huts is a fabulous way to truly experience the wintery Cascades. During the day, anyone can warm up inside the huts, and at night they can be reserved.
It's too late for this holiday season and most of this winter's weekends are already full at both of these hut systems, but there are several weekday nights still available throughout the winter.