Day Trips

20 Northwest Day Trips to Make the Most of Fall

Fall foliage, haunted parks, enchanted islands, unforgettable museums—all less than two hours from Seattle.

By Allison Williams Published in the October 2016 issue of Seattle Met


Ride the Rails in Elbe

1 hour, 30 minutes

The Mount Rainier Railroad has been around forever, chugging dutifully along seven miles of track outside the national park, but since 2013 the museum on the Mineral end of the rails has gotten an upgrade. Check out a 99-ton Heisler locomotive that used to haul lumber, and this year Christmas brings a whole ride in salute to The Polar Express. If the experience is just too damn charming, top it off with a stop in Mineral’s Headquarters Tavern, a 112-year-old bar so divey that Rainier is the fanciest beer on the menu.

Hammond lumber company engine 17 courtesy allens photographic uaxntd


Throw Back in Centralia

1 hour, 20 minutes

George Washington may be an American founding father, but another George Washington—son of a slave, Oregon Trail voyager—founded Centralia in the 1870s. The rail and coal town now specializes in vintage, with a retro pool hall at McMenamins Olympic Club and the restored 1930 Fox Theater. But the Shady Lady, an antique store filled with oddities, has the firmest grasp on the past—above the shop is a red-walled bordello museum. Bonus: Amtrak trains from Seattle’s King Street Station stop in the middle of town. ­ 


Get Lost in Tacoma 

50 minutes

The outer loop of Five Mile Drive, the winding road that circles Tacoma’s Point Defiance, closes to cars for a few hours before noon—ideal for a haunted walk through morning fog. Too few visitors wander beyond the peninsula’s (admittedly excellent) zoo, but the hiking trails, picnic spots, and living museum at Fort Nisqually are all worth the few extra miles by foot or afternoon drive.


Tee Up on Whidbey Island

1 hour, 30 minutes including ferry

It makes sense that Island Greens Golf Course operates on the honor system, with a drop box for cash attached to a tree and a motley assortment of clubs for the taking and returning. After all, golf is all about having enough honor to stay silent through your opponent’s swing and not cheat when the ball stupidly defies gravity on the fifth putt in a row. The par-3 model limits the number of soul-killing bogeys, and dogs are welcome. ­


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Declare Pumpkin War in Lake Stevens

35 minutes

With pumpkins as ammo, the Carleton Farms cannons lob squash in a graceful arc over their Everett-area cornfields, sometimes aiming just right to get a big splash into Ebey Slough. Though most of the other fall activities are less destructive—hayrides, three different corn mazes meticulously mapped and planted months in advance—there’s also zombie paintball, which similarly plays to the anarchic autumn demographic.


Eat Pure in Leavenworth

2 hours

What does the mind behind now ­shuttered vegetarian restaurant Sutra have to offer Leavenworth, home of the bratwurst? There’s Mana, not from heaven but from the farm-to-table kitchen of Colin Patterson. Dinner at the new spot includes, gasp, meat—but only in one or two of the eight courses, and on opening weekend in August nearly half of diners requested vegan or vegetarian versions. Mana’s 1903 farmhouse predates the Bavarian town takeover, so the prix-fixe experience won’t have much German flair. ­


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Suncadia Resort

Soak Up in Roslyn 

1 hour, 25 minutes

Though they’re called mineral baths, let’s love the outdoor pools at Suncadia Resort’s Glade Spring Spa for what they truly are: rocky little hot tubs scattered through a leafy private garden with a sauna cabin. The hotel also offers motor scooter tours of Roslyn’s historic downtown, of Northern Exposure fame. Spa day passes are available by reservation only on Saturdays.


Leaf Peep in Central Washington

1 hour, 45 minutes

When the doom of autumn descends on the coast, the enlightened hightail it across the mountains of Blewett Pass, to where the sun always shines and the streets are paved in gold. Or rather the sun is often shining and Highway 97 is lined in the golden needles of western larch. Leaf viewing is at its prime on this route between Cle Elum and Leavenworth, and temperatures are usually mild enough for a hike into the Teanaway district or on the Swauk Forest Discovery Trail.


Face Fall in Union

1 hour, 40 minutes

Become the very pumpkin spice latte you crave with a rejuvenating pumpkin facial in the Spa at Alderbrook or a free pumpkin hand massage in the hotel lobby on Monday afternoons. The Hood Canal lodge has plenty of Olympic Peninsula outdoor fun—the hiking, the boating—but excels at rainy-day entertainment. The spa has a Finnish sauna, a steam room, and an indoor swimming pool, and the hotel offers a day pass for access to the game room lined with Xboxes, big screens, and leather chairs.

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Image: Courtesy Alderbrook Spa


Dive Deep in Keyport

1 hour 30 minutes including ferry

The small Kitsap town of Keyport calls itself Torpedo Town USA, longtime home to one of the navy’s two undersea warfare centers. All things submarine are celebrated at the U.S. Naval Undersea Museum, where torpedoes the size of small whales hang from the ceiling and the navy’s first deep-submergence vehicle is parked outside. Tamp down the claustrophobia for this fall’s temporary exhibit on submarine accident rescue. The waterfront Keyport Mercantile—the Merc—nearby is known for teriyaki Tuesdays.


Haunt History on Whidbey Island

1 hour, 30 minutes including ferry

The stone batteries of the nineteenth-century Fort Casey Historical State Park are so ideal for Instagram pics and epic games of tag that it’s easy to forget why the Whidbey fortress was built. It was called the “triangle of fire”: Casey, plus Forts Flagler and Worden on the Olympic Peninsula, were meant to protect Puget Sound using guns that could lob ammo eight miles. Today jets from Naval Station Whidbey Island roar overhead, and we’ve still never been invaded; the fort’s lighthouse is used for interpretive tours while radar and GPS do the heavy lifting.


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The Admiralty Head Lighthouse at Fort Casey, backdropped by a western view of the Puget Sound

Image: Alison Klein


Get Lit in Port Townsend

1 hour, 55 minutes including ferry

The lighting fixtures at the Kelly Art Deco Light Museum in Port Townsend hark back to a time when the style meant flappers and illegal cocktails. Though the main floor of Vintage Hardware and Lighting is a store full of gold leaf and stained glass shades, upstairs is an exhibit of more than 400 rare chandeliers and sconces. In a walkable town so Victorian it’s practically a city-size dollhouse, it’s a reminder that the twentieth century had its charms.  (Psst: Spend a full day in Port Townsend! Here's our itinerary.)


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Redefine Breakfast in Snoqualmie

30 minutes

Course one: pastries; a perfectly reasonable start to breakfast. Course two: pancakes and Devonshire cream; enjoy, but don’t get cocky. Course three: steel-cut oats and biscuits hand-drizzled with honey—it’s getting serious now. Course four: bacon, sausage, and eggs. It’s okay to be beaten by the Salish Lodge Country Breakfast, the hotel’s hundred-year-old tradition; the megameal was crafted for fur trappers and mountain men. It’s served till 2pm daily, and at least there’s a waterfall view until you can move again.


Salute Seinfeld in Tacoma

45 minutes 

What do you do when you feel like you should leave home, but you really want to watch reruns on TBS while eating Doritos dust from the bottom of the bag? Solution: Little Jerry’s, a Tacoma diner that pays homage to the sitcom Seinfeld. The chairs are red vinyl, the floor is white tile, and the TVs are tuned to reruns. Some dishes are named after the show’s infinitely quotable lines. Why? The owner just likes Seinfeld. Seems appropriate for a show about nothing. 253-474-2435


Embrace Americana in La Conner

1 hour, 15 minutes

The town of La Conner brings an artsy bent to the middle of Skagit Valley’s rolling agricultural fields. Downtown is lined with art galleries, and the town’s grandest nineteenth-­century mansion holds the La Conner Quilt and Textile Museum. While there are lots of homespun local patterns on display, the exhibits reach around the Pacific Rim for decorated textiles.


Go Wild in Tenino

1 hour, 15 minutes

Wolves get a bad rap—blame Little Red Riding Hood, or the fact that they eat livestock and house cats—but Wolf Haven International in tiny Tenino manages to give sanctuary to captive-born wolves and the occasional wolf dog or coyote. On 50-minute walking tours of the facility in rural Thurston County, staff share the details of wolf life (even the gory ones, like how they collect local roadkill to feed residents). Reserve in advance for the weekend-only tours in fall.

Ladyhawk courtesyjulielawrencewolfhaveninternational xjq3ba


Hail the Vikings in Poulsbo

1 hour 15 minutes, including ferry

Here’s how nuts this Kitsap town is about its Norwegian heritage: Every festival, bike race, and souvenir shop harks back to Viking culture (and plastic horned helmets). There’s a 12-foot-tall Viking statue at one end of town. The colorful Poulsbo downtown is dotted with shops, Scandinavian murals, and a fine indie bookstore, and the central Sluys Bakery is famous for sugary smiley-face cookies and grinning gingerbread men. Since the Vikings were such a famously cheerful culture.


Prep for Ski Season in Snoqualmie Pass

50 minutes

The room that holds the new Washington State Ski and Snowboard Museum is the size of a small coffee shop, but it crams in so much snow culture you’ll be doing a snow dance on the way out the door. There’s a map of all the state’s forgotten and discarded ski areas (Mount Pilchuck had a chairlift?), creaky old wooden gear and high-tech lifesaving avalanche equipment, and videos of local Olympians, including a very cool explanation of how Paralympic skiers race while being near blind.


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Migrate to Mount Vernon

1 hour, 15 minutes

The eight-mile delta where the Skagit River dumps into Puget Sound is exciting for an unexpected reason: eelgrass. Lots and lots of eelgrass, like 9,000 acres of the stuff. While the Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve and its grass are pretty enough in a boggy, undulating kind of way, they’re more notable for being the habitat for migrating birds (the reserve can see half a million ducks at once). Prime bird time starts in October. The visitor center, on an old farm, has hands-on exhibits for the kids.


Play Detective in Tacoma

35 minutes

The biggest manuscript collection in the world is in a dated little ex–American Legion building in Tacoma. Kind of. The Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum is part of the nationwide network of Karpeles repositories that collectively hold the record in a string of museums from Duluth to Charleston. Tacoma’s free outpost displays a few dozen historic documents at a time, including the navigator log from the Enola Gay and Emperor Hirohito’s formal World War II surrender. The shabby but distinguished little museum is an oddity and a treat on the edge of leafy Wright Park.

Editor's Note: Updated September 27, 2018 at 12:30pm to substitute a correct URL.

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