After you've explored Seattle for a few days, you'll want to head out of town on a day trip or two. Within a few hours of the city, you can find yourself hiking in a national park, cruising up a fjordlike arm of Puget Sound, exploring the San Juan Islands, strolling the streets of a Victorian seaport, or tasting wine at some of Washington's top wineries. With the exception of the San Juan Islands and the Olympic Peninsula, excursions are all fairly easy day trips that will give you glimpses of the Northwest outside the Emerald City.
In a competition for quaintest town in Washington, La Conner would leave the other contenders wallowing in the winter mud. This town, a former fishing village, has a waterfront street lined with restored wooden commercial buildings, back streets of Victorian homes, and the largest tulip and daffodil fields in the U.S. stretching out from the town limits. Add to this three museums, numerous plant nurseries and gardening-related stores, art galleries, luxurious inns, and good restaurants, and you have a town that’s perfect for a day trip from Seattle.
La Conner dates from a time when Puget Sound towns were connected by water and not by road, and consequently the town clings to the shore of Swinomish Channel. La Conner reached a commercial peak around 1900 (when steamers made the run to Seattle) and continued as an important grain- and log-shipping port until the Great Depression. It never recovered from the hard times of the 1930s, and when the highways bypassed the town, it became a neglected backwater. The wooden false-fronted buildings built during the town’s heyday were spared the wrecking balls of the 1960s, and today these old buildings give the town its inimitable charm.
Beginning in the 1940s, La Conner’s picturesque setting attracted several artists and writers, and by the 1970s it had become known as an artists’ community. Tourism began to revive the economy, and the town’s artistic legacy led to the building here of the Museum of Northwest Art, dedicated to the region’s many contemporary artists.
Adding still more color to this vibrant little town are the commercial flower farms of the surrounding Skagit Valley. In the spring, tulips carpet the surrounding farmlands with great swaths of red, yellow, and white. The sight is on a par with anything you would ever see in Holland.
Although the name sounds like a combination of Spanish and Irish, La Conner is actually named for Louisa A. (LA) Conner, who helped found the town in the 1870s.
Exploring La Conner and Its Environs
The one must-see museum in La Conner is the Museum of Northwest Art, 121 S. First St. (www.museumofnwart.org; [tel] 360/466-4446), housed in a large contemporary building downtown. The museum showcases works by Northwest artists, particularly Morris Graves, Mark Tobey, and Guy Anderson, all of whom once worked in La Conner. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10am to 5pm and Sunday and Monday from noon to 5pm; admission is free.
High atop a hill in the center of town is the Skagit County Historical Museum, 501 S. Fourth St. (www.skagitcounty.net/museum; [tel] 360/466-3365), open Tuesday through Sunday from 11am to 5pm; admission is $5 for adults, $4 for seniors and children ages 6 to 12. As the chief repository of Skagit Valley’s history, this museum is overflowing with artifacts from daily life over the last century.
Housed in the historic Gerches mansion a few blocks away is the Pacific Northwest Quilt & Fiber Arts Museum, 703 S. Second St. (www.qfmuseum.org; [tel] 360/466-4288). Here, in rooms furnished with local antiques, you’ll find a permanent collection of heritage and specially created quilts from around the world along with works by contemporary artists working with all kinds of fibers. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 11am to 5pm (closed Mon–Tues Sept–Mar); admission is $7.
There is excellent bird-watching around the Skagit Valley, especially during the winter months when migratory waterfowl, including trumpeter swans, snow geese, and various raptors, including peregrine falcons and bald eagles, flock to the area’s marshes, bays, and farm fields. Eight miles north of La Conner at the Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, 10441 Bayview-Edison Rd. (www.padillabay.gov; [tel] 360/428-1558), you can bird-watch along 3 miles of trails through fields and along a dike. The reserve is open daily; the interpretive center is open Wednesday through Sunday from 10am to 5pm. Admission is free.
Shopping is the most popular pastime in La Conner, and up and down First Street you’ll find lots of great galleries, boutiques, and gift shops.
Tulip Fields, Gardens & Nurseries
During the Tulip Festival, stop by Roozengaarde Flowers & Bulbs, 15867 Beaver Marsh Rd. (www.tulips.com; [tel] 866/488-5477 or 360/424-8531), the largest grower of tulips, daffodils, and spring bulbs in the U.S., and visit their display garden, tulip fields, and gift shop. At Christianson’s Nursery & Greenhouse, 15806 Best Rd., Mount Vernon (www.christiansonsnursery.com; [tel] 800/585-8200 or 360/466-3821), you’ll find hundreds of varieties of roses and lots of other plants as well. Nearby you can tour the beautiful English country gardens of La Conner Flats, 15980 Best Rd. (www.laconnerflats.com; [tel] 360/466-3190), where high tea is served by reservation.
Mount Rainier National Park and Environs
Paradise: 110 miles SE of Seattle, 70 miles SE of Tacoma, 150 miles NE of Portland
At 14,410 feet, Mount Rainier is the tallest mountain in Washington, and to the sun-starved residents of Seattle and south Puget Sound, this dormant volcano is a giant weather gauge. When the skies clear over Puget Sound, you’ll often hear people saying, “The mountain is out!” And when the mountain is out, all eyes turn to admire its snow-covered summit. Thanks to the region’s moisture-laden air, Rainier’s glaciated slopes remain white throughout the year.
Snow and glaciers notwithstanding, Rainier has a heart of fire. Steam vents at the mountain’s summit are evidence that, though this volcanic peak is presently dormant, it could erupt again at any time. If scientists are correct in their calculations that Rainier’s volcanic activity occurs in 3,000-year cycles, it may be hundreds of years before another big eruption occurs. On the other hand….
Known to Native Americans as Tahoma, Mount Rainier received its current name in 1792 when British explorer Captain George Vancouver named the mountain for a friend (who never even visited the region). The first ascent to the mountain’s summit was made in 1870 by General Hazard Stevens (Stevens Pass is named after him) and Philemon Van Trump (no relation to Donald). It was 14 years later that James Longmire built the first hotel on the mountain’s flanks. In 1899, Mount Rainier became the country’s fifth national park.
GETTING THERE If you’re coming from Seattle and your destination is Paradise (the park’s most popular area), head for the southwest (Nisqually) park entrance. Take I-5 south to exit 127 and then head east on Wash. 512. Take the Wash. 7 exit and head south toward Elbe. At Elbe, continue east on Wash. 7 At the park entrance, you’ll be handed a comprehensive map that includes all trails and facilities. The park entrance fee is $15 per vehicle.
If you don’t have a car but still want to visit Mount Rainier National Park, book a tour through Tours Northwest (www.toursnorthwest.com; [tel] 888/293-1404 or 206/768-1234), which charges $139 for adults and $109 for children ages 3 to 12 for a 10-hour tour starting in Seattle. These tours operate between late April and early November, and spend most of the day in transit, but you get to see the mountain up close and can do a couple of hours of hiking at Paradise.
For park information, contact Mount Rainier National Park, 55210 238th Ave. E. (www.nps.gov/mora; [tel] 360/569-2211). For general information on the area, contact Visit Rainier (www.visitrainier.com; [tel] 877/270-7155).
EXPLORING MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK
Just past the main southwest entrance (Nisqually), is Longmire, site of the National Park Inn, the Longmire Museum (with exhibits on the park’s natural and human history), a hiker information center, and a ski-touring center that rents cross-country skis and snowshoes in winter.
From here, the road climbs to Paradise (elevation 5,400 ft.), a mountainside aerie that affords a breathtaking view. Paradise is the park’s most popular destination, so expect crowds. During July and August, the meadows are ablaze with wildflowers, which is why this is such a great place for day hikes. The Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center at Paradise provides panoramic views, and a short walk away is a spot from which you can view Nisqually Glacier. Many miles of other trails lead out from Paradise, looping through meadows and up onto snowfields above the timberline. It’s not unusual to find snow at Paradise as late as July.
In summer, you can continue beyond Paradise to the Ohanapecosh Visitor Center ([tel] 360/569-6046), open daily from late May through early October. Not far from this visitor center, you can walk through the Grove of the Patriarchs (see “Hiking & Backpacking,” below). Continue around the mountain to reach the turnoff for Sunrise.
Driving counterclockwise around the mountain, you’ll come to Cayuse Pass. A short detour from this pass brings you to the picturesque Chinook Pass area, where there is a good 4.5-mile day-hike loop trail that begins at Tipsoo Lake and circles Naches Peak.
Continuing around the mountain, you’ll come to the turnoff for the park’s White River entrance. This road leads to Sunrise, the highest spot in the park (6,400 feet), and site of some of the park’s best day hikes. A beautiful old log lodge serves as the Sunrise Visitor Center ([tel] 360/663-2425), open daily from late June through early September. From here you can see not only Mount Rainier, but also Mount Baker and Mount Adams. In July and August, the alpine meadows are full of wildflowers. Some of the park’s most scenic trails begin at Sunrise. This area is usually less crowded than Paradise.
OUTDOOR ACTIVITIES IN & NEAR THE NATIONAL PARK
HIKING & BACKPACKING Hikers have more than 240 miles of trails to explore within the park, though the vast majority of park visitors do their hiking at only two places—Paradise and Sunrise. These two alpine areas offer the most scenic day-hiking opportunities, but they can be crowded.
At Paradise, the 5-mile Skyline Trail is the highest trail and climbs through beautiful meadows above the tree line. Views of Mount Adams, Mount St. Helens, and the Nisqually Glacier open up along this route. The Lakes Trail, of similar length, heads downhill to the Reflection Lakes, with picture-perfect views of the mountain reflected in their waters.
At Sunrise there are also numerous trails of varying lengths. Among these, the 5-mile Burroughs Mountain Trail and the 5.5-mile Mount Fremont Trail are both very rewarding—the latter even provides a chance to see mountain goats.
The park’s single most memorable low-elevation hike is the Grove of the Patriarchs Trail. This 1.5-mile round-trip trail is fairly flat (good for kids) and leads through a forest of huge old trees to a grove of 1,000-year-old red cedars on an island in the Ohanapecosh River. If you’ve never seen old-growth trees, this is a must. The trail head is near the Stevens Canyon park entrance (southeast entrance).
Another interesting (and easy) low-elevation walk is the Trail of the Shadows, a .75-mile loop trail in Longmire. This trail, which circles a wet meadow, leads past bubbling mineral springs.
There are naturalist-led programs and walks throughout the spring, summer, and fall, and on winter weekends, there are guided snowshoe walks. Check the park newspaper for schedules.
WHITEWATER RAFTING The Tieton River, which flows down the eastern slopes of the Cascades, is one of the state’s most popular rafting rivers. However, the rafting season lasts for only 10 days during the annual August/September drawdown of water from Rimrock Reservoir. The dates change based on seasonal runoff levels, so you’ll need to contact the rafting companies to find out what days they are offering rafting trips. Those companies include Alpine Adventures (www.alpineadventures.com; [tel] 800/723-8386) and River Riders (www.riverrider.com; [tel] 800/448-7238 or 206/448-7238). Expect to pay $80 to $100.
WINTER SPORTS There’s good cross-country skiing and snow-shoeing at Paradise, where 2-hour guided snowshoe walks, with snowshoes provided ($4 suggested donation), are offered daily between mid-December and early January and on winter weekends through March. You’ll find a ski touring and cross-country ski and snow-shoe rental shop at the National Park Inn at Longmire ([tel] 360/569-2411). Snowboarding is popular throughout the year, though there is no lift to get you up the slope, and it’s about a 1 1/2-hour climb to the best snowboarding area.
Just outside the park’s northeast corner, off Wash. 410, is Crystal Mountain (www.skicrystal.com; [tel] 360/663-3050 for general information, or 888/754-6199 for snow conditions), the state’s best all-around ski area due to the variety of terrain. You’ll pay $74 for an adult all-day adult lift ticket, $50 for seniors.
A Scenic Train Ride on Mount Rainier
From Memorial Day through October, the Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad (www.mtrainierrailroad.com; [tel] 888/783-2611 or 360/492-5588) operates vintage steam and diesel locomotives and both enclosed and open passenger cars between the town of Elbe and the southwest entrance to the park. The trips last 1 1/2 to 2 hours and cost $41 to $54 for adults, $21 to $34 for children ages 4 to 12.
WHERE TO STAY & DINE
Within the national park, your first choice for meals should be the dining room at the Paradise Inn. There’s also a dining room in Longmire at the National Park Inn. For quick meals, there are snack bars at the Jackson Visitor Center, at Paradise Inn, and at Sunrise Lodge. In Ashford, the Copper Creek Restaurant, 35707 Wash. 706 E., Ashford (www.coppercreekinn.com; [tel] 360/569-2326), makes good berry pies, and breakfast and espresso are served at Whittaker’s Bunkhouse Café, 30205 Wash. 706 E. (www.whittakersbunkhouse.com; [tel] 360/569-2439). In summer, you can get pizza, burgers, and beer at Rainier Basecamp Bar & Grill, 30027 Wash. 706 E. (www.basecampgrill.com; [tel] 360/569-2727), next door to Whittaker’s. In Elbe, you can get big, juicy burgers from a little white log cabin called Scale Burgers, 54109 Mountain Hwy. E. ([tel] 360/569-2247). If you’re heading up to the mountain from Seattle, be sure to stop in Eatonville at Truly Scrumptious Bakery & Café, 212 Washington Ave. (www.trulyscrumptiousbakery.com; [tel] 360/832-2233), where you can get a slice of pie, some bread for a picnic, or a sandwich to go.