35 Northwest Playgrounds

Great outdoor summer adventures in the water, on the ground, and high in the sky.

By Courtney Nash December 28, 2008 Published in the June 2008 issue of Seattle Met

YOU REALLY CAN HAVE IT BOTH WAYS. Seattle is a haven for the indoor crowd—café dwellers, book nerds, and software slaves—but this is also an outdoor rec mecca. Lots of water, dense forests, and skylines so beautiful grown men have been known to weep at the sight of them. This region has more mountains, rivers, peninsulas, and vistas than any one person will ever be able to scale, raft, or trek in their lifetime, much less one summer. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.

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Green Lake Park, Seattle
Be a skipper
If you can ride a tricycle, you can captain a pedal boat. It doesn’t get any easier than pedal boating, the one marine activity that requires zero skill. That doesn’t mean pedaling across Green Lake, as the waves slosh you and your little two-person vessel around, isn’t a helluva lot of fun. A mere $14 gets you an hour on Seattle’s beloved landlocked lake in style. Merely agreeing with your shipmate on which direction to go keeps the peace on the high seas. Greenlake Boat Rentals, 206-527-0171;

Yakima River, Washington
Chase the rainbows
More than a hundred rivers, creeks, and tributaries meander through Washington State, but few are as scenic or as productive fly-fishing spots as the section of the Yakima River paralleling Canyon Road between Ellensburg and Yakima. Here the river bends repeatedly, creating numerous insect-rich pools where rainbow trout thrive. While you work to perfect your cast, you just might see a full-sized male elk amble down to the riverbank to drink, then cross and ascend the other side, as Greenlake resident Kevin Hughes once witnessed. "We often see no people, but plenty of wildlife," he says. If you’re short on gear or dry-casting know-how, book a trip with Dave McCoy, owner and head fish whisperer of Emerald Water Anglers. Emerald Water Anglers, 206-545-2197;

Bow Lake, Washington
The board and the beautiful
Seattleites have a board sport for every season, and no summer day is complete without fit, bronze, and minimally clothed folks atop wakeboards careening around our lakes: Washington, Sammamish, and Tapps. Like its snowy counterpart, wakeboarding has a relatively steep learning curve, meaning even beginners can be up and cruising behind a boat within a day or two. You’ll be catching air soon after that. Don’t know your Osmosis 540 from a Backside Alley-Oop? Take a lesson at Bow Lake Watersports, located on a private wakeboard and water ski lake 60 miles north of Seattle in the Skagit Valley. Bow Lake Watersports, 877-396-5379;

Tofino, Vancouver Island, British Columbia
Surf’s up, eh?
Unending miles of coastline, year-round swells, perfect barrel-shaped waves—and bears. That’s surfing at Canada’s legendary Tofino, a thumb-shaped peninsula on the west coast of Vancouver Island, surrounded by Clayoquot Sound. A town notorious for wind-induced power outages, Tofino boasts no fewer than eight surf shops and instruction schools, 20- to 30-foot waves in winter, and some of the most rugged, stunning surf terrain this side of Maui. Yes, you trade sun-soaked Hawaii for a 40-degree wet suit, but you can also pocket the cost of airfare and use it to upgrade your lodging or treat locals to drinks in exchange for insider tips. Get rental gear, lessons, and a breakdown of all the local breaks at the Live to Surf shop. Live to Surf, 250-725-4464;

Edmonds, Washington
An octopus garden
Seattle isn’t a top destination for Scuba enthusiasts, but we’ve got one thing that no other dive location can claim: the giant Pacific octopus, averaging 35 pounds with a span of up to 14 feet, the largest of its species. Scuba certification takes only a few days, and those willing to don a wet suit and brave chilly temps at local spots like Edmonds’ Underwater Park and just offshore from Alki Beach might glimpse the leggy legend, and otherwise will be treated to an underwater show that ranges from small crustaceans and urchins to trout, and, if you venture closer to the San Juans, migrating gray whales. Seattle Scuba School, 206-374-2937;

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Image: Adam Perry

Madison Park Beach, Seattle
Different strokes with lots of folks
Despite a preponderance of beaches, Seattle doesn’t exactly scream swim town. But once the mercury climbs above 70, sun-deprived Seattleites go swimming in droves, especially along the grassy shores of Madison Park Beach, a luscious slice of Lake Washington at the bottom of East Madison Street. The beach and its swimming zone, complete with a diving board and lifeguards on duty in summer, are cordoned off from the rest of the lake. See how many laps you can breast stroke along the perimeter—or join the other UV-ray seekers plopped along the water’s edge like so many napping sea lions. Madison Park Beach, 206-684-7796;

Shilshole Bay Marina, Seattle
Sail away
On sunny summer days, the colorful boats crowding the bays and lakes inevitably induce an unbearable case of sailing envy. Whether you lust for a leisurely cruise around Lake Union or the tilting thrill of high-speed catamaran racing on the Pacific Ocean, all you really need to start sailing is a good friend who owns a good boat. No skippers in your circle of friends? Meet your new nautical chums at the Seattle Sailing Club, a local group teeming with ready-to-launch boats. Members have access to the sailing club’s fleet of 22- to 36-foot vessels and don’t have to deal with the hassles of moorage or maintenance or navigation. Besides, the club will teach you to be your own captain. Lessons range from basic cruising to coastal navigation and racing skills and tactics. Seattle Sailing Club, 202-782-5100;

Leavenworth, Washington
A river roars, sprays, and bucks through it
They call it the Suffocator. By the time you look down onto it, you’ve survived Satan’s Eyeball, Rodeo Hole, and Drunkard’s Drop, three exhilarating sets of rapids on a popular Whitewater Rafting stretch of the Wenatchee River between Leavenworth and Monitor. In high-flow conditions during the spring, the Suffocator acts like a natural roller coaster, developing into a huge breaking wave that drops you into a nasty hole afterward. Experienced rafters (or kayakers) can pilot it on their own, but even newbies can chart these waters with local guides like Blue Sky Outfitters. Blue Sky Outfitters, 206-938-4030;

Westport, Washington
No, it really was that big
Just as the sound of the sea lapping at the boat hull lulls you into a mesmerized state of relaxation, there’s a sudden, forceful tug on your line. You bolt out of the deck chair and grab rod and reel, only to feel whatever you’ve just snagged swimming away. This is the defining moment of deep-sea fishing—your heart races and you’re astonished at the effort required to reel a 20-pound fish back to the boat. Set out with Westport’s Deep Sea Charters for the salmon season, from early June to late July; the amicable crew will help you reel in the big ones and fillet them for fresh sashimi on deck or a family fish-fry back home. Deep Sea Charters, 360-268-9300;

Posey Island, San Juan
Paddle to paradise
Posey Island is a versatile sea kayak stopover spot in the San Juans. This tiny one-acre dot of land not far from Roche Harbor is a marine park with just 1,000 feet of shoreline and two rugged camping spots allocated for nonmotorized boat access. Because you can only get there via paddle boat, it’s a quiet oasis in summer, when big-boat tours pack the waterways. Commercial kayaking companies often use it as a rest stop on whale-watching tours well-suited to beginners, and experienced paddlers prepared to pack their own camping gear will find that, come sunset, they’ll practically have the place to themselves. Arrive early, though; reservations aren’t available. Posey Island State Park,

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Olympic National Park, Washington
I’m warning you, I’ll turn this llama right around!
Tackling outdoor adventures with kids might rank alongside a lawn picnic in hell, but Bob Shapiro at Deli Llama Wilderness Adventures gets you and yours into high-alpine wilderness so easily you won’t even have to ply junior with idle threats. And Shapiro and his crew make the journey so fun the kids won’t miss the Play-Station. By age seven, most kids do well paired up with the even-tempered, sure-footed llamas, which can carry up to 20 pounds of gear. Deli Llama boasts multiday hiking trips to areas like the Olympics, North Cascades, and Pasayten Wilderness. The guides take care of the food and logistics, and you get to actually enjoy hiking with your kids. Deli Llama Wilderness Adventures, 360-757-4212;

Mount Si, North Bend, Washington
Take the easy way up
When it comes to hiking it’s no state secret that few local peaks match Mount Si in proximity, breathtaking viewpoints, or heart-poundingly cruel steepness. Come summer this relentless trail just outside North Bend is a crowded, alpine highway. But here’s a little known tip: You can log the same 3,700-foot vertical climb and revel in the same jaw-dropping scenery if you start instead at the Mount Teneriffe road just over a mile east of the Si trailhead. This lesser-known forest road (which is accessible with snowshoes in late fall through early spring) guides you above the Si summit, allowing you to skip the crowds and still snag views of Mount Rainier, Rattlesnake Lake, and Mount Washington. Mount Si,

Washington Park Arboretum, Seattle
Hug a tree
A nature walk in the Washington Park Arboretum isn’t quite on par with scaling Mount Rainier, but despite its middle-of-the-city locale—at the corner of Madison Street and Lake Washington Boulevard—the park has a middle-of-nowhere charm. Start your expedition of the 230-acre -botanical wonderland at the Japanese Tea Garden, for eye-popping petals and pagoda’s aplenty, before winding along the trails in the hardwood forest and getting lost among the park’s 20,000 trees, shrubs, and vines from around the world. Washington Park Arboretum, 206-543-8800;

Discovery Park, Seattle
Spy like an eagle
You’ll never spot more than a pigeon by bird-watching downtown, but minutes away, in Magnolia’s sprawling 534-acre Discovery Park, keep a lookout for birds to add to your life list. The park is so vast and its terrain is so varied it could pass for a canyon in the Cascades. Make that several canyons in the Cascades. As you meander among the meadows, you dip into tree-lined forests, and, rather suddenly, catch eyefuls of the Sound. Watch for eagles, owls, and blue herons along the way. Discovery Park, 206-386-4236;

Bend, Oregon
Tuff stuff
Every outdoor sport has its mecca. For rock climbing that place is Smith Rock, about 20 miles north of Bend, Oregon. It offers legendarily grippy rock formations thanks to abundant tuff (compressed and cemented volcanic ash) from nearby Mount Bachelor, and plenty of climbing opportunities for beginners. And yes, there’s also one of the sport’s most difficult climbs: Just Do It, a super steep route best left for the pros. The sun blazes hot in summer, so plan to climb in the early morning or evening hours. Smith Rock State Park, 541-548-7501;

Mount Rainier, Washington
A cliff with a view
Palisades trail, a classic mountain bike ride off Highway 410 outside Greenwater, mixes hair-raising technical singletrack with some of the most impressive views of Mount Rainier in the state. After six miles and 1,600 feet of forest-road climbing, you plunge into high-alpine forest on the swooping Ranger Creek trail, arriving at a log-cabin shelter where the trail splits; from there, follow the Palisades trail off to your right. Here it really gets interesting: The singletrack zigzags through dense trees, repeatedly shooting you out on top of the trail’s namesake cliffs, where you come face to face with Mount Rainier across the White River valley. Survive the steep, rocky switchbacks toward the end, and you’ll find yourself back on Highway 410 with wobbly knees and an ear-to-ear smile. Visit the Backcountry Bicycle Trails Club site for driving directions and route details. Bicycle Trails Club,

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Gold Bar, Washington
It’s a mud, mud, mud world
Mud is a fact of life in the Northwest, one many of us prefer to keep our Tevas out of. But to off-road quad riders (think of a rugged dirt-bike with four wheels instead of two), mud is the secret ingredient for a truly great day on the trails. "The mud was the highlight," says Trinity Osborn of her first quad trip in the Gold Bar area with ATV Action Tours. "That and going fast." A quick training session gets newcomers riding beginner to intermediate trails in short order. When the trail turns to mud, aim straight for the middle, and full speed ahead. ATV Action Tours, 206-369-5732;

Index, Washington
Extreme slip ‘n’ slide
Dave Haavik and friends have formed their own secret otter society, plummeting into remote creeks and rivers, melding hiking, climbing, and swimming into a unique sport called canyoneering. "It’s like being a kid again," says Haavik, a sales rep for the climbing-gear company Petzl. "And you get to go to places that almost no one else has ever seen." But it’s not something you can safely jump into on your own. Take an introductory class from Mountain Madness this August, where you’ll learn climbing basics and essential skills like rappelling, knot tying, and safe navigation in fast-moving water. Befriend a more experienced canyoneer at, and head to Silver Creek off Highway 2 near Index, Washington, for your first outing. Mountain Madness, 206-937-8389;

Vancouver Island, British Columbia
The 2.5-acre jungle gym
Think romping around an obstacle course is just for kids? Don’t tell Jeff Millar, a 62-year-old PR exec from Victoria. Millar went wild when he visited the giant jungle gym 90 minutes north of Victoria on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island. He went especially gaga for the TreeGo course: a series of four progressively more difficult routes through the trees using rope swings, scrambling walls, hanging nets, wobbly bridges, swinging logs, and zip lines. After that, there’s the option to do the Canyon Zip, a supersize zip line that traverses the Nanaimo River Canyon. "We did that one six times!" laughs Millar. Wild Play Element Park, 888-668-7874;

Blue Mountains, Washington
A tepee to call your own
Standing at 4,500 feet atop Puffer Butte, the ground falls away in endless small rippling hills, then plunges suddenly into the Grande Ronde River, a tributary of Idaho’s Snake River. Bright blue skies looming over arid, dry rolling hills—to a -Seattleite that doesn’t seem like an apt description of Washington. Yet this often-overlooked nook of our state, tucked in the very southeast corner in the Blue Mountains, offers outstanding camping, hiking, and high-desert scenery with far fewer crowds. Complete your escape (and leave the fancy REI nylon tent at home) by booking one of the Fields Spring State Park’s two tepees. These unique bare-bones canvas shelters are located in a quiet, secluded area of the park and sleep six people on raised wooden floors. Field Spring State Park, 509-256-3332;


Siskiyou Mountains, Oregon
Treetop vacation
Who needs boring old earth when you can bring camping to a new level? Out ‘n’ About Treesort in the Siskiyou Mountains of southwest Oregon elevates guests in 11 custom-built tree houses, each with its own configuration of platforms, decks, bridges, and rope swings. For the resort’s most high-rise experience, book either the Treezebo or the Forestree cabin, 37 feet off the ground, and accessed via suspended bridge. After playing Swiss Family Robinson and falling asleep to the sounds of the forest and dreaming under the stars, strike out during the day for hiking, rafting, or horseback riding. Out ‘n’ About Treesort, 541-592-2208;

Woodland Park, Seattle
Trail surfing
Mountain boarding is an odd mutt of a sport: Riders pilot a wide plank that resembles a long board (an elongated skateboard suited for high-speed cruising), with chunky wheels and suspension like a mountain bike, and bindings to keep them strapped in, as with a snowboard. A mountain board can blaze through almost any terrain, from pavement to grassy hills and craggy rock-strewn mountain bike trails. In-the-know boarders hit Woodland Park, which sports nearly all of those surfaces. Boards available at Alki Bike and Board, 206-938-3322;

Leavenworth, Washington
A ride called horse
There’s no shame in taking the pack off your back and saddling up for a horseback adventure. Free of the extra weight, you’re able to cover more ground, savor far-off vistas, or watch wildlife without worrying where your next step will be. Book a trip with Leavenworth-based Icicle Outfitters and Guides, and they’ll get you into true wilderness and do all the hard work for you. The human members of the outfit will even cook you their legendary food. Day trips are perfect for families with young kids, and repeat clients glow about the Ride to the Sky trip, a four-day outing that takes you through the Entiat’s North Fork valley to the summit of Pyramid Mountain. Equine veterans and novices alike are welcome, and the outfitters will also customize just about any kind of trip you can dream up. Icicle Outfitters and Guides, 800-497-3912;

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Issaquah, Washington
Not just for the birds
No one’s done a scientific study yet, but paragliding may be the sport with the quickest transition from expletive spewing to declarations of awe. Strap into the harness and parachute-like glider, run down the side of a mountain until you’re aloft, and see how fast your "oh shits" turn to "oh look at thats." Seattle Paragliding in Issaquah gets you off the ground with tandem lessons, where you take your first few flights tucked in front of an experienced pilot like a baby kangaroo. Once airborne, you’ll catch sight of Mount Rainier, the Olympic peaks, Puget Sound, and yes, the Fraternity Snoqualmie Nudist Park a few miles south. Seattle Paragliding, 206-387-3477;

Lake Union, Seattle
Your own private airline
A seaplane ride is one of the few adventures that’s even more amazing than it looks. You ascend from Lake Union, survey Puget Sound, and step out (in some cases minutes later) at a gorgeous destination. Put on your best pair of aviator sunglasses and tell the pilot to aim for the San Juans for hiking or kayaking, or strike further a field to Vancouver Island for Canadian adventures. Once the engine rumbles and your plane teeters off the water, we dare you not to utter the word "awesome" numerous times during the flight. Kenmore Air, 425-486-1257;

Shelton, Washington
Like D. B. Cooper but without, you know, taking hostages
"You’re so high up," says 21-year-old Brianne Hartinger, who took her first skydive last summer at Skydive Kapowsin in Shelton. "You can see everything right before you jump, even the curvature of the earth." If that image doesn’t terrify you, odds are you’re a good match for skydiving too. Jumps typically start at 9,000 feet (usually in tandem with an instructor for newcomers), and once you push out of the plane, you free-fall for half a minute or more at 120 miles per hour. Hartinger plans to go again this summer: "It was the most thrilling thing I’ve ever done." Skydive Kapowsin, 800-759-3483;

Amboy, Washington
Go jump off a bridge
On his first bungee jump eight years ago, Russell Boland, a construction project manager from Eugene, Oregon, said his mind convinced him he was going to die. "The adrenaline rush is so intense that some people say strange things on their way down, their body goes through crazy contortions," he recalls. The man upstairs tends to be frequently name-checked as people hurtle toward the ground. "And then when you spring back up, you are giggling and elated." He jumps regularly now in Amboy, Washington, just northeast of Vancouver, at, which operates the tallest private bungee-jumping bridge in the country, with 191 feet of free-falling, screamingly good fun., 503-520-0303

Snohomish Valley, Washington
Full of hot air
Scott "Gonzo" Gates, a Kirkland-based design engineer treated his wife to a 10th wedding anniversary surprise: A hot-air balloon flight. "The scenery was stunning, and our guide really made the experience memorable." From just over 1,000 feet off the ground, as the couple surveyed 360-degree views of Snohomish farmland, snowcapped mountains, and Puget Sound, they spotted a pair of blue herons gliding beneath the balloon. Book a group sunrise tour during late fall or winter—the group rate is considerably lower than the private rate—and odds are good you’ll have the balloon to yourselves. Airial Balloon, 360-568-3025;

Elliott Bay, Seattle
Be a human kite
Entertaining out-of-towners? For a quick adventure that beats the rain slickers off the Needle or EMP, cajole your friends down to Pier 66 for an afternoon of parasailing. Strap into a harness and parachute, let the boat tug you along above Elliott Bay, and ride the wind like a kite. It’s a vacation in the sky. "Locals often overlook this touristy option," says U District resident Dave Hogan, "but it’s really a fun get-together." It requires little physical skill yet yields big adventure and unmatched Seattle skyline and Puget Sound views. Pier 66 Parasail, 206-622-5757