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Outdoor Holiday Excursions

From wildlife watching to storm watching, Washington's backcountry offers plenty of options for getting outside during the holiday season and beyond.

From wildlife watching to storm watching, Washington's backcountry offers plenty of options for getting outside during the holiday season and beyond.

Take your 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 daylight will do you wonders as you await the arrival and longer days of spring.


Hike Whidbey Island

Whidbey Island is a great destination during the holidays and boasts a number of excellent and usually snow-free hikes.

Ebey's Landing

Ebey's Landing Mountain View
Hikers geat mountain views as they head west toward the bluff trail at Ebey's Landing in winter. Photo by thebrink.
Hiking trail: Ebey's Landing
Round Trip: 5.6 miles

One of our favorites that's easy enough for the whole family is Ebey's Landing.

This little preserve, tucked away in the rainshadow 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

View of the Bridge Deception Pass State Park
Deception Pass State Park trails span Whidbey Island and Fidalgo Island. Photo by jeffbottman.
Hiking trail: Deception Pass State Park - West Beach Sand Dunes
1.2 miles

Take an easy hike with great year-round ocean views. In this spectacular state park, you can explore tide pools, keep an eye out for wildlife or wind through forest on more than 40 miles of trails.

If you still have energy to burn, try another hike on the Whidbey side or cross the bridge to hike the Deception Pass Headlands - Roasario Head - Lighthouse Point trail.


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

Snow Geese Skagit Valley
Snow Geese visit the Skagit Valley en masse in the winter months. Photo by snow Cat.

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.

Blue Sky Outfitters and Alpine Adventures offer 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!

Birdwatching hike in the Skagit Delta

Birds Flock at Padilla Bay
A flock of Dunlins take flight from the trail on a winter day. Photo by raring2hike.

Hiking trail: Padilla Bay
Roundtrip: 4.8 miles

Hike 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 Sound, the Olympics and the Cascades.


Experience the Olympic Coast

Head out to Washington's northwest coast for a sand-swept winter weekend.

Watch waves and wildlife at Cape Flattery

Cape Flattery View in Winter
Views from the Cape Flattery trail in winter. Photo by Bob and Barb.
Hiking trail: Cape Flattery
Round Trip: 1.5 miles

Near Neah Bay, several short trails carry you out on to the beach or up to lofty viewpoints, as is the case at Cape Flattery.

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

Dungeness Spit Lighthouse
Coming up to the light house at the end of the Spit. Photo by Brian & Jennifer.
Hiking trail: Dungeness Spit
Round Trip: 11.0 miles

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 you may be at a loss for determining where it is safe to take your 6 year-old.

Snoqualmie Pass

Kids playing in the snow
Playing in the snow is fun for the whole family. Photo by Mike in Tac.
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 Mt. Pilchuck (directions here).

Or go to the end of the plowed road at Deer Creek Road (milepost 23.0) for completely undeveloped sledding fun.


Snowshoe 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

Snowshoeing is a great way to get out in winter, and the Icicle River Trail in Leavenworth makes it a cinch for beginners. Photo by Jay McPherson via Flickr.
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. Click here for a 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

    Cape Horn view
    The view from the Cape Horn trail. Photo by Ryan Ojerio.
    If it's warm and raining, the waterfalls on the Oregon side will be spectacular. If the day is crisp and clear, head for the Washington side of the Gorge for the best views.

    Hikes with views

    Hiking trail: Cape Horn Trail
    7.0 miles

    The full 7-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 volunteer-built. Check out the map in our hiking guide before you go.

    Explore more hikes along the Gorge.


    Visit Mount St. Helens

    Field trip to a view of the volcano

    This year, a new Science and Learning Center opened at Mount St. Helens. It will be open to visitors on weekends in November and December of 2012. A few family-friendly strolls lead off from the visitor's center, inlcuding the Winds of Change Trail, a ¼-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

    Mount St Helens Showshoe
    The caldera, lava dome, Spirit Lake and Mt. Rainier from the Mt. St. Helens crater rim. Photo by timezra.
    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.

    For more information, check out Snowshoeing St. Helens by Dave Schiefelbein, which appeared in the November / December 2007 issue of Washington Trails magazine.


    Hut-to-Hut Skiing

    Two groomed trail systems offer overnight hut accommodations for beginning and experienced cross-country skiers.

    High hut view
    The view from the dining table at Tahoma's High Hut. Spectacular! Photo by Janelle Walker.

    Methow Valley huts

    In the Methow Valley—Washington's Nordic skiing mecca—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 Rainier huts and a yurt

    Near Mt. 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.

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