My wife and I and our 4-year-old son enjoyed a wonderful 11-day vacation to Washington State, in the fall of 1994. In planning our trip, we scoured every available online resource and library book on Washington: our son gets paranoid if ever looks to him like we don't know exactly where we are going. We really did have a fabulous trip, and we hope some of our discoveries might prove useful to you!
The general organization of these notes is as a clockwise loop through the state, starting on the Pacific coast, through the San Juan islands, across the Cascades, stops in Winthrop and Leavenworth, and on to Mt. Rainier and Mt. St. Helens.
Our travel choices were conditioned by the presence of a small boy with his own precise notions of what is fun. So, we can't be of much help on tips for daring adventures, or for candlelit romantic dinners. The emphasis here is more on soaking in the wonderful variety of Washington's outdoors, and on genuinely good family meals.
From Seattle to Aberdeen: This is a very pretty, forested route. The guidebooks and maps didn't imply that to us, so this was a pleasant surprise.
Aberdeen: The last grocery stop before Forks. The Breakwater is a great, very casual, outdoor seafood restaurant with terrific clam chowder. [Thanks to Dana at Central Washington U. for the reminder about that.] Aberdeen is also home to the sailing ship seen in Star Trek Generations.
Lake Quinault Lodge: A great old lodge! Cozy main room, and a wide lawn and beautiful view. (We strongly recommend you ask for a room with a view.) We enjoyed riding a paddleboat on the lake. For a good, simple, inexpensive dinner, we got snacks at the Lake Quinault Mercantile across the street and had a little picnic. Nice, short hiking trail nearby, "Quinault Nature Trail / Big Tree Grove Trail".
Makah Cultural Center, Makah Reservation (n.w. tip of Olympic Peninsula): The Makah nation operates this wonderful museum and interpretive center at Neah Bay. Exhibits are beautifully executed and vivid. It was so realistic that our son was a bit frightened walking through a re-created longhouse: between the smells of smoked salmon, vague sounds of voices and drums, and toys and tools left around haphazardly, we felt like the residents would be returning at any moment. Very highly recommended!
- Miller Tree Inn B&B: Ted and Pru Miller were our friendly and helpful hosts at this wonderful B&B overlooking a farm. The rooms are clean, bright and comfy. Terrific breakfast in the morning, and a very welcomed hot tub after a day of exploring. BTW, Forks is a great base camp for exploring the Olympic Peninsula, the Hoh River Valley, the ocean beaches, and Neah Bay.
A comment from Bob and Sue, who read this page:
We share your thoughts about the Miller Tree Inn in Forks, WA although it has been quite a few years since we have been there. It was our first B&B and it was terrific.
- Rialto Beach: an easily accessible and very dramatic beach, with huge sea stacks and a wide ocean vista.
- Smokehouse Restaurant - Small and cozy enough. We had delicious smoked salmon.
- Sol Duc (or "Soleduck") - Very pleasant and interesting hike. Lots of spelling variations in the guide books and on maps.
Ocean beaches at Ruby Beach, Second Beach, Rialto Beach: spectacular sea stacks, interplay of ocean, mists and rock. Tide pools and paths to explore. Reminiscent of Oregon's spectacular coastline.
Lake Crescent: A great view of the lake and Olympic Mtns.
Hurricane Ridge: Impressive view of the Olympic Mountains. We wish there was more snow and less haze at the time of our visit, but this was still quite a sight.
Sequim: We drove through on the way to Port Townsend. There are a number of things to see here, notably the Dungeness Spit and the Dungeness Natl Wildlife Refuge. Sequim (pronounced "skwim") is in an area called the "rain shadow" of the Olympics, meaning that it manages to avoid the rain for which Seattle, say, is famous. However, the combination of the sun (good) and random development (not good) gives the area more of a Florida look.
Port Townsend: Nicer than we expected. Cute. A good town for souvenir shopping, but with things to do and see. Features "painted lady" homes. Ferry connects Port Townsend with Whidbey Island.
Mt. Vernon, TraveLodge: OK, so you may think this is a really dumb recommendation. There is no breathtaking vista, and it's really just a motel. BUT ... it was an inexpensive and very clean base for our day visit to the San Juan Islands, and the small, indoor, 5-foot-deep (max) pool was just right for our playing with our 4-year-old son. It felt great to save some bucks at a pleasant place.
LaConner: Another cute town. LaConner Tavern looks great for burgers, but we found that we couldn't enter with our son. Washington has these weird restrictions on persons under 21 in places where hard liquor is sold. (Many places go so far as to have separate rooms, as though something horribly shameful was going on.) LaConner was an adorable town, but this brings up a very serious problems for visiting families: it is hard to find a place where a family can have a nice, casual dinner! We wound up at Farmhouse Inn, right on Route 20. My wife had first observed and suggested it, but I resisted 'cause it felt like we were "settling" for a Denny's clone. But no, my wife was right: it was great for our son, and I enjoyed what was honestly the best Reuben sandwich I ever had.
Calico Cupboard, LaConner: This cozy, friendly restaurant is THE place to stop for breakfast and coffeee before you head to the ferry landings for your San Juan islands visit! I had a delicious salmon omelette, and my wife savored her "salmon Benedict".
Anacortes: This is the docking point for ferries to the San Juans. Allow yourself extra time before the departure you want. You have to drive through town (and it's a fairly decent-sized town), and the signage when you get to the docks is somewhat bewildering.
San Juan Islands: The advice oft-quoted in travel books: 1) travel west first, make stops (if any) on the way back to take advantage of the ferry fare structure, 2) if taking your car, fuel up on the mainland to save $, and 3) you can rent bikes on mainland or at small shops on San Juan, Orcas, or Lopez. We chose to leave the car on the mainland to avoid the hassles involved.
Friday Harbor: What a treat to sail into this town! It feels like a combination of Mackinac Island, New England, and Key West. Restaurants a-plenty. Excellent Whale Museum, with a very unique and extensive gift shop. For cheap, fun eats, have a sandwich and shake at Vic's Downtown Drive-In.
North Cascades highway: An impressive and pleasant drive, though not exactly "mind-boggling" as one guidebook suggested.
- Newhalem: North Cascades Visitor Ctr, with picnic sites next to old locomotive, general store, gentle trails
- Newhalem: Trail of the Cedars, at end of Main St., easy 1/3 mi loop, crosses a suspension bridge
- 17 mi. w. of Marblemount, between mileposts 123 and 124: a-Gorge Creek Falls viewpoint: waterfall, 242-ft gorge; easy parking
- Diablo Lake Overlook, "bizarre green hue": 7 mi. further, milepost 131.8
- Washington Pass (milepost 162.2) a 5-minute hike on paved trail leads to a dramatic overlook.
Winthrop: It's much drier and sunnier when you get east of the Cascades, and so the appearance of a Western-style town is reasonably in context. There are several decent places to stay; we chose the Winthrop Inn, a pleasant-enough motel with a nice pool and hot tub, open vistas, and a great price. Winthrop sports a self-styled Western theme, with board sidewalks and all the trimmings you'd expect. It's all just simple fun, with a few pleasant shops and some excellent restaurant offerings. Like Leavenworth, it's corny but it works.
My wife and I love restaurants, and Winthrop was a real challenge for us: we were staying there only one night (even I'll admit that one night is sufficient), but three different restaurants each had extremely appealing looks and had great sounding menus. We chose Three-Fingered Jack's Saloon. I had an enormous "Cowboy Dinner" of BBQ beef and beans. I didn't think I'd eat again for a week! (And that was my second choice: they had run out of "Auntie's Drunken Ribs", described as a full slab of ribs marinated in Jack Daniels and seasoned with a jalapeno BBQ sauce. Zowie!)
Winthrop-to-Chelan: An ironic landscape. The wide Columbia River is flanked here by dry-as-dust mountains and an Arizona-like landscape. That is, except for the startling inconsistency of lush apple orchards made possible by intense irrigation. This is the heart of apple country!
Chelan: Drove through here briefly. This is supposed to be a tourist destination, but the appeal, we guess, must be having a real body of water, rather than the town. One reader of this page defended Chelan by writing us:
We offer much more than just the lake. We are known for our world class hang gliding and paragliding and we are becoming one of Washington State's mountain biking meccas. ... Many hikers and backpackers use the lake as vehicle to reach trailheads into the Glacier Peak Wilderness and Chelan-Sawtooth Wilderness. Stehekin, 55 mles from Chelan at the head of the lake is definitely a great trip.
Wenatchee: A working town, with a few attractions worth visiting. We visited the Central Washington Museum, which had some high-quality galleries on pioneer life, apple production and local geology. But the best area was a fabulous HO scale model of the Great Northern Railroad, coin-operated! 50 cents got us three "round trips" which our young son loved! We also visited the headquarters of the Washington Apple Commission for free samples of apples and juices, and a short movie on Washington apples.
Somewhere online, we came across a posting by a couple who was so turned off by the whole premise of the "theme towns" of Winthrop and Leavenworth, that they drove right through both without stopping. Well, don't let that kind of attitude cause you to miss Leavenworth -- it's a blast, despite just a twinge of surealism.
Years ago, Leavenworth was a town in trouble: logging and government business had left, and tourism hadn't yet picked up the gap. The solution that saved the town was to re-create Leavenworth as a Bavarian town dropped into the mountains of Washington State!
OK, I'll admit that I had a lot of latent fears about the notion of "Bavarianizing" a whole town, and nightmares that it was going to be as unrelated to reality as Epcot, worsened by having a much lower budget. But a short walk down the main street (a block off US2) convinced me. The artistry and the craftsmanship are REAL: they did it RIGHT. So much so that there really is a German community in Leavenworth now, partly started by some of the carpenters, painters, etc., who were brought over to work on the makeover. The hanging signs, the flower boxes, street benches, window signs, wall murals, color choices, roofline overhangs, the classic lettering -- all done with care and in very good taste -- this is a treat under anybody's rules. And it's refreshing to learn that it is the result of individuals in a community pulling together to rescue their town, not some conglomerate fantasy.
We live in the suburbs of Chicago, which has plenty of German restaurants. But the first restaurant we visited, Andreas Keller, was as good or better than just about anything we have here for good food and fun. It is run by a family that has a branch (who they visit annually) in Bavaria who also run a restaurant there. The three of us had our terrific meals, plus generous appetizers, plus a few brews for us adults, with a lively accordion duo entertaining, for around $35 -- certainly not a tourist trap.
Leavenworth was having one of their frequent festivals while we were there. (This was the fall "Autumn Leaf Festival".) The highlight was a spectacular 82-unit parade, with countless marching bands and floats. I enjoyed it, and my kid LOVED it. I didn't know that anyone had parades like that anymore, let alone in a small town! There was also a used book sale run by some local group, and several kids' activities.
As if that weren't enough, that evening there was a huge street dance, a part of the Autumn Leaf Festival. There were four different places for outdoor live music: an oom-pah band in the main street gazebo, two open-air beer halls also with live bands (one with rock, the other German), and one Mexican band at an outdoor Mexican restaurant (well why not? Bavaria is in southern Germany, after all!)
We stayed at Haus Rohrbach Pensione, which is a wonderful B&B, and quite suitable for a "well behaved" kid. The building is nestled up against the mountains, and it's quite beautiful in itself. Very comfy room, a spectacular view of the countryside, and a cozy common area. There is also a very nice swimming pool. The Haus Rohrbach is a bit out of town, which gives a sense of quiet. Breakfasts (one sitting) and late evening desserts were delicious. Somehow, they manage to create a very social atmosphere among guests.
Cashmere: This town is home of Liberty Orchards, makers of the yummy Aplets and Cotlets candies. They give a tour, and of course they have a gift shop. They also pass out plenty of free samples, and you don't have to take the tour to get 'em.
Roslyn: If you weren't convinced by now that we can be real cornballs, this will do it for sure. This town is better known as Cicely, Alaska, from "Northern Exposure". Yeah, we saw Joel Fleischman's office, the Brick, and the KBHR studios. And we ate at the Roslyn Cafe. (I wonder what will become of all these trappings now that the series is kaput.)
Ellensburg-to-Yakima: Wild, exotic scenery. Rolling desert and mountain views made us feel like we could see for a zillion miles.
Yakima-to-Mt. Rainier: The road within the national park on the south side has some spectacular sceney. To our minds, this was more astonishing and dramatic than the oft-touted North Cascades highway.
Spectacular views, great trails, blazing stars at night! It's all there!
We particularly enjoyed some of the hiking trails around the Paradise Inn, the trail at the Grove of the Patriarchs, and a fun trail at Narada Falls. (Remember, with a 4-year-old along, our choices in hiking were made accordingly.)
The main lobby at Paradise Inn is spectacular and beautiful! Our room was small, but decent. The main restaurant was very off-par: the food was mediocre, and the wait staff was woefully outnumbered. Very weirdly, for a place that obviously has pretentions to offering fine dining, we had to wait in a long, long checkout line to the cash register.
From talking to staff and other visitors, we came to some clear conclusions: Paradise Inn is the more-demanded and more glamourous-sounding place to stay while at Mt. Rainier. Resist these feelings! Sure, you can stop in the Inn just to enjoy seeing this classic old lodge, but stay somewhere else. The Inn really is not very convenient as a base for exploring the area, and the rooms and food were very disappointing.
Instead, consider the National Park Inn. It's much lower-key, and much more pleasant. The restaurant there looked welcoming and their menu looked good. There is a ranger information station, with a small museum. In all, the National Park Inn looked like the place to be to actually enjoy being on Mt. Rainier.
West of Mt. Rainier: there are several B&B choices just west of the entrance to the park. However, although they sounded great, we got mixed signals on the phone on their policies regarding a kid. We never want to annoy anyone who goes to a B&B for the purpose of avoiding kids, so we didn't stay at any of these.
So, we wound up at a place called Hobo Inn, in Elbe. This is a series of railroad cabooses converted into accommodations. Each caboose is one room, so we had the whole thing to ourselves. Our son loved it, and we could climb all over and up into the cupola. Dinner options in this area appear to be in very short supply, so we got a feast from the deli in the supermarket in Eatonville and brought it back to our caboose. We'd only recommend a one-night stay, however, and that's solely for the experience of the caboose itself. There was no TV, there is nothing at all to do in the evening, and there is really no place to even sit outside (it's on a railroad siding next to a highway).
No amount of reading beforehand prepared us for this! We approached the volcano on the east side, leading to the Windy Ridge viewpoint. The destruction is increasingly dramatic as you get closer. The actual viewpoint at Windy Ridge offers an astonishing sight of the mountains scraped bare, and Spirit Lake clogged with logs. A forest ranget gave an excellent talk, and we took a tiring but worth-while hike up the hillside for even better views.
Guidebooks wisely suggest that you fuel up before entering the area, and also bring whatever picnic supplies you need.
Northwest Trek, Eatonville: This was a wonderful last adventure to our vacation. On our tram tour, we saw elk, caribou, deer and even a bull moose (we were told by locals who were also on the tour that that's rare). This was a very enjoyable and tasteful attraction. (A seat on the LEFT side of the tram might provide a somewhat wider view of the area.)
You may also be interested in our notes of our Colorado vacation in 1998.
Your comments are welcomed.
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