Image: Ryan Inzana

Learn at Fort Columbia

Chinook, 3.5 hours from Seattle | Museum, Beaches, Vacation Houses

If anyone tries to invade Portland via the Columbia River, we’re good—provided the attacking forces can be stopped by World War I–era battlements. A Japanese submarine did get close in World War II; learn about it in the interpretive center, or just rent the historic old Steward’s House, stocked with tin ceilings, an antique stove, and a clawfoot tub for authentic historic cosplay.

Pay Respects at Curlew Lake State Park

Republic, 5.5 hours from Seattle | Fishing, Camping, Boating

Deep in north-central Washington, Curlew Lake feeds both the human anglers and the bald eagles and osprey that crave fresh trout from its waters. Nearby and overseen by the bigger park is Ranald MacDonald’s gravesite—but don’t mistake him for the scary clown hawking Big Macs. MacDonald was a 19th century half-Native American man from Astoria, grandson of a great chief, who sailed the world before tricking his way into Imperial Japan. He taught English and befriended locals years before the closed country  opened to Westerners. Today his grave is marked with a sign dubbing it the “smallest state park in Washington.”

Explorer George Vancouver named Deception Pass for its confusing geography.

Canoe at Deception Pass

Anacortes, 1.5 hours from Seattle | Museum, Whale Watching, Hiking Trails

Love the log cabin look? Cheer the Civilian Conservation Corps—that Depression-era worker army of lodge-builders and trail-makers—at a CCC museum inside Washington’s most visited state park. Bring a boat to paddle from Whidbey to Fidalgo Island, under the famous Deception Pass Bridge, and to several islands in between, including ones whose secrets include a rentable cabin and neighbor-free campsites.

Canvas glamping tents in Millersylvania's forested campground.

Glamp at Millersylvania

Olympia, 1.25 hours from Seattle | Luxury Tents, Lake Access, Beer Garden

The party’s in Olympia: Not only does Millersylvania’s seasonal boat rental shop also hawk ice cream and nachos, but a historic wooden cabin down the lakeshore doubles as a beer garden, pairing craft brews with roasted peanuts. Six dolled-up canvas glamping tents stocked with memory foam mattresses and electric heaters permanently divorce the concepts of camping and roughing it.

Pictographs at Columbia Hills State Park.

Understand the Columbia Hills

Dallesport, 4 hours from Seattle | Rock Climbing, Teepee Rental, History Tour

Her name is Tsagaglalal—that’s “She Who Watches” in the language of the Native American Wishram tribe that left a striking eye-shaped pictograph on the Columbia River rocks near Horsethief Lake. Though hundreds of years old, the drawing endured as modern Americans added their own graffiti to the site filled with petroglyphs that pre-date white settlers’ arrival, so now access is restricted to free tours guided by rangers. Nowhere is the state parks’ long history with Washington’s original residents more striking.

Kayak at Sucia Island

Orcas Island, 5 hours from Seattle | Waterfront Campground, Picnic Sites

Until you’ve left the easy comfort of the big San Juan Islands, you haven’t really seen Puget Sound’s magical archipelago. Just 2.5 miles north of Orcas, Sucia is the star of the long string of largely uninhabited park isles, a day kayak trip for the moderately ambitious. Consider it our own Jurassic Park—a theropod bone was found on the forested island in 2012.

The San Juan waters off Sucia.

Image: Sarah Schwimmer 

Tide Pool at Tolmie

Olympia, 1.25 hours from Seattle | Beaches, Dive Park, Trails

Watch where you step. When the tide’s out at Tolmie State Park, a patchwork of saltwater pools teem with sea life. Crouching muscles get a workout as you peer at anemones waving in the microcurrents, and crabs scurry underfoot across the kelp as sand dollars blanket the beach like polka dots. On August 11–12, naturalists from nonprofit Puget Sound Estuarium interpret the intertidal for visitors.

Fly a Kite at Fort Worden

Port Townsend, 2.25 hours from Seattle | Museums, Vacation Houses, Restaurants

Anyone bored at Fort Worden is a hopeless case. Among more than 400 acres—between the marine science and history museums, kayak rentals, art festivals, ghost-ridden army installations, and the restaurant inside an old military jail—sits the best kite-flying lawn in the state. Winds flip up a bluff from Puget Sound, right at where it meets the Strait of Juan de Fuca, onto the fort’s old parade grounds, a massive lawn ringed by historic barracks and officers’ quarters. Overwhelmed at the ever-busy state park? Pack a kite and make like Mary Poppins.

Image: Ryan Inzana

Forage at Leadbetter Point

Ocean Park, 3.5 hours from Seattle | Hiking Trails, Beaches, Bird Watching

The Long Beach Peninsula devotes six full weeks of fall—October 1 to November 15 annually—to fungi foraging when the Wild Mushroom Celebration holds its annual slate of mushroomy meals and workshops. Rangers in the peninsula park hand out maps of Leadbetter Point to make it clear where 'shroom hunting is allowed and where the resident snowy plover birds get the run of the place. Sneak across the Oregon border to Fort Stevens State Park for occasional ranger-led foraging hikes.

Surf at Westhaven

Westport, 2.75 hours from Seattle | Beachside Trail, Picnic Tables, Outdoor Showers

Even in the middle of winter, surf vans line the parking lot of Westport’s waterfront park, dogs keeping watch from the front seat while owners ride the break. Past sand dunes and under the watchful eye of the state’s tallest lighthouse, surfers dance on Pacific waves, the temperature bearable thanks to year-round wetsuits. Want to simply watch the daredevils? Driftwood is nature’s own couch.

Pacific waves at Westhaven State Park beckon surfers.

In the Ice Age, the dry falls were thunderous waterfalls.

Hike at Sun Lakes-Dry Falls

Coulee City, 3.25 hours from Seattle | Hiking Trails, Golf Courses, Museum

If we called Central Washington’s dramatic landscapes “canyons” instead of the geologically specific “coulee,” would they be as famous as their Utah counterparts? We’ll never know, so the red rock formations and deep chasms bake under reliable sun, next to swim-friendly lakes too big to get truly crowded. Hike Umatilla Rock for five miles of close-ups of the Ice Age rock sculptures, and then take in the whole landscape from the Dry Falls Visitor Center perched on the canyon top.

Sled at Hyak

Snoqualmie Pass, 1 hour from Seattle | Sledding Hill, Nordic Ski Trails

The state’s more than 120 Sno-Parks, administered by the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission, mostly serve as plowed parking lots for snowmobilers. But Hyak, just east of the downhill ski areas at Snoqualmie Pass, offers gravity-based thrills on its groomed sledding hill, helpfully fenced off at its base to halt runaway toboggans. Just across I-90, Gold Creek Sno-Park boasts a classic and mellow snowshoe route to Gold Creek Pond, free of avalanche danger.

Mountain Bike at Larrabee

Bellingham, 2 hours from Seattle | Camping, Trails, Fishing

Washington’s very first state park may date back to 1915, when widow Frances Larrabee donated the land off Chuckanut Drive, but it’s hardly stuck in the mud. Boaters and fishermen flock to the waters just off the rugged coastline of Samish Bay and to placid lakes in the park interior. More than 15 miles of bike-friendly trails wind past the fern-coated understory of old-growth forests, filled with mountain bikers tangling with roots and steep vertical. Some of the single-track is expert-level steep; Bellingham bike shops offer trail maps that grade each route’s difficulty.

Image: Ryan Inzana

Swim at Twanoh

Union, 1.5 hours from Seattle | Hiking Trails, Oyster Harvesting, Campsites

In a region where you can swim in glacial melt in August, Hood Canal’s serene shoreline has a secret weapon—shallow beaches and not-so-frigid water temps. Thank the narrow natural canal for the calm swimming beach, roped off next to oyster-rich beds open for harvest year-round (and mussels in September). Turns out shellfish are cold-water wusses, too.