“In Washington for the next three weeks, hopefully I don’t go insane from boredom!”
That’s an actual post by a friend of mine from the Academy, disagreeable about their summer training assignment. As a Midshipmen, once a summer it’s required we are stationed with a ship for four weeks with an enlisted “running mate” in order to learn the ropes of general ship operations. Due to the logistic nightmare of transporting and housing nearly 5,000 college-aged Navy personnel, the cruise assignments become a range of luck, from port calls in Italy to maintenance duty in Virginia (no offense). To put it nicely, it’s kind of a crap shoot.
However, as it would seem, being stationed in Washington State is not a preferred outcome for many “Mids”. Many find the overcast and light rain that stereotypically defines the Northwest to be a dire mixture of miserable and straight up depressing. I mean, honestly I can’t blame them. Despite all of its water-front property, Seattle isn’t exactly a mecca for beach bums. Yet still, the PNW is my home and I’ll be damned before I see a “Mid”, or any vacationer for that matter, willingly get on a departure plane and after being asked by the flight attendant about their visit they mutter a tiresome “ehh, it was alright.”
Now any travel blog or boastful brother-in-law will tell you to hit the main attractions: Seattle Center, Pike Place Market, Mt. Rainier, Leavenworth, etc. These are all incredible sites and a ton of family fun for a day trip. However, like any well-traveled sage will tell you, in order to get to really know a place you have to go off the beaten path. Washington still remains one of the most rugged, undeveloped states and the heart of its majesty can only be found with real sense of adventure. Plus, why go where everyone else is going?
And so, without further to do and in no particular order, I give you my personal favorite hidden spots in the beautiful state of Washington. All of these places are either completely free or require a small parking fee.
A little something for everyone…
1. Vance Creek Viaduct (Shelton, WA)
Where else could you imagine the perfect scenery for you profile picture? Sitting on a rustic rail bridge 347 feet above evergreen treetops, accented by a tin waterfall in the distance, Vance Creek tops the list of quintessential Northwest décor. Just to make it clear, technically this location is on privately owned property, but so far that hasn’t stopped thousands of Washingtonians from making the pilgrimage to this Insta-perfect site. Built during the Great Depression, the viaduct was a vital part of the Simpson Logging Co. and served as the main outlet for timber until its abandonment in the 1950s. Now the site is owned by a contracting company and, until recently, has been barred by a locked gate and frequently patrolled by security. However, due to the trending #ThatNWBridge in the early 2010s and exponential rise of earnest young travelers, the gate was taken down and security stopped. Visit at your own risk!
Getting to this location is actually less of an adventure than imagined! Simply typing in “Vance Creek Viaduct” on your smart phone’s map will turn up the correct location nine times out of ten. Traveling on the 101 just south of Skokomish, look for westerly turn-off for Bourgault Road followed by an immediate right on West Skokomish Road. I highly recommend you take NF-23 and not NF-2341/2199; the latter, while objectively more scenic, does go through private property and is patrolled often. When you do make it to the trail head, park on the side of the road in one of the gravel turnouts. Be prepared for a mile-long hike over fallen trees and brush. I think it goes without saying that if heights don’t give you good vibes, this hike is not for you.
2. Mt. Pilchuck State Park Lookout (Granite Falls, WA)
What more could you ask from a moderate day hike? Mt. Pilchuck is one of the non-volcanic mountains that Washington has to offer and arguably stand apart from its high peaked cousins due to a uniquely boulder-heavy terrain. The high altitude path with a gradual incline offers truly year-round majesty, optimally viewed from the lookout at its peak. This is also one of the few state park hikes that allow dogs! Camping is highly encouraged, backpacking the norm, and perfect for a casual day hike with the squad. Of course, like Vance Creek, the views on this hike are perfect for keeping your Instagram followers tapping.
Driving to the trail head is easy as pie; this hike is easy to find on Google Maps. From the I-5, take the 528 eastbound onto HWY-9 and then a right on 84th Street through Getchell. Follow onto HWY-92 North, hop onto the Mountain Loop Highway and the follow the signs for Pilchuck Road (should be roughly a seven mile drive from the main road. The down-side, if you consider this a down-side, is that the path to the lookout is definitely a hike! Unless you’re a familiar hiker, 5.1 miles can sound a little daunting, but it honestly goes by fast. Every turn of the trail offers new scenery and when you travel between July and October you are almost guaranteed to see some sort of furry creature. Thankfully snakes aren’t commonly found in the Western Washington!
3. The Fremont Troll (Aurora Bridge, WA)
Ok, let’s take a break from the hiking and go see something uniquely Seattle. Favorited among America’s roadside attractions (or should I say road-under) is the fearsome Troll of the Fremont Bridge. Squatting at 18-feet and with a Volkswagen big in-hand, this troll has attracted tourist and skeptics alike. Since its creation on Halloween, 1990, the sculpture has reappeared in the news as strange events have happened in its vicinity. In 1998, a bus driver was shot by a lone gunman, running the bus off the bridge and crashing into an apartment building adjacent to the troll. In 2013, several gruesome sheep skulls mysteriously appeared in a park only a block away. Perhaps the troll isn’t as innocent as it appears.
Obviously this attraction requires almost no hiking, unless you count the walk down the little gully. Finding the right place can be a little frustrating, though. While the sculpture is named the “Fremont Troll”, it is not actually under the Fremont Bridge. It actually resides under the Aurora Bridge, which is sometimes called the George Washington Bridge. To remove any doubt, it is underneath the overpass on N 36th Street, Seattle. Do not be afraid to climb on the sculpture, but, as many local will tell you, please help to keep the place pristine. No need to leave your mark…or else the troll will come after you!
4. Tubal Cain Mine and the B-17 crash site (accessible from Sequim, WA)
Ok, warm-up’s over, time for some real kick-butt hikes. If I had to recommend one serious hike for someone on the eastside of the Olympic Peninsula, it would be the Tubal Cain Mines. You want deep river valleys? Boom! Ancient navigable mine shafts? Boom! The wreck of a WWII B-17 on the shores of a beautiful glacial lake? Boo-wait…what?! Yes sire, this hike has it all. With so many different split-off trails that explore the valleys surrounding Marmot Pass, you could keep coming back too this trail and always find something new. Camping is highly encouraged! Park at the main trail head and follow the rhododendrons up the sloping path. Look out for the split off that leads to the mine shaft and follow the steep climb up the mountain side. Personally, my favorite part of the hike is gradually seeing antiquated plane parts hidden in creeks and bushes as you climb around massive boulders. The hike is like venturing into a hidden world, frozen in time.
As in the previous hikes, driving to this trail is incredibly simple, if not a little bumpy. If you can manage, I would recommend traveling in a four-wheel capable vehicle, but I witnessed some poor Prius survive the climb, so I guess anything is possible! From HWY-101, take Louella Road just south of Sequim and then a quick left on Palo Alto Road. Follow FS-2880 and after you cross the bridge start looking for signs towards Dungeness Area Trails until you arrive at the parking lot. Bring lots of water and lots of snacks! It’s a 21 mile drive from the highway and you could be hiking for over 15 miles depending on which trails you take. Better yet, bring a water filter pump and take advantage of all the convenient creeks and waterfalls you’ll cross on your hike!
5. Guler Ice Caves (Trout Lake, WA)
Traveling south down the Cascade Mountains and into the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, the geography takes a subtle change. The forests become less dense, the snowy mountain peaks are fewer and far between, and the rocks begin to take on a personality of their own. Hiking around the Mt. St. Helens area is no less magical than stepping into a fairy tale. Just a small part of the majesty is as a result of the old lava tubes and natural bridges that scatter the region. The Guler Ice Caves are a natural made freezer; volcanic rock insulates the cold air and form year-round ice masses. Before the refrigerator became commonplace in Washington, huge barges would cross the Columbia River and transport the ice around the Northwest. This destination is surprisingly very kid friendly and offers plenty of opportunities to climb around this frozen wonderland…in July! Just remember to bring several flashlights and batteries, lighting it absolutely terrible at the back of the caves! A sweater may also be appreciated for extended visits.
From Vancouver, Washington take Highway 14 east to the town of Bingen. Take Highway 141 to Trout Lake and go 4 miles past the Mt. Adams Ranger Station. Turn left on a dirt road (forest service road 301) and it’s a short drive to the caves from there. Another neat attraction in the area are the Natural Bridges, which are back on FR 24 and west another mile. The area has very good signage and the ranger station has detailed maps of the area. While the caves and bridges are the major points of interests, the area offers dozens of small hikes that loop around waterfalls and offer great picnic locations. This can be a great day trip, but in all honesty make sure you go to the Mt. St. Helens Viewpoint! Easily one of the best views in the country for a quick pit stop towards the ice caves!
6. Shi shi Beach (La Push, WA)
¡Vamos a la playa! Imagine the most picturesque beaches of Miami; the warm radiant sun and the tropical breeze that tickles your skin. Yeeeaaah…you won’t find that in Washington. However, in the usual mystical spirit of the Northwest, the Pacific coast captures a certain je ne sais quoi of dynamic beauty. Shi shi Beach is the crown jewel PNW beaches (by the way, just so you don’t sound too much like a tourist, it’s pronounced “shy-shy”). The trip is marked with dozens of seaweed-lined caves and gorgeous stone arches that captures the raging sea. The gray sands trap vibrant tide pools that enclose entire micro ecosystems of sea stars, algae, and crabs. It’s like stepping into an alien world. Plus, as many award-winning photographers have discovered, Shi Shi is probably one of the best spots to take the perfect sunset pictures.
While easy to navigate to, Shi Shi is a bit of a drive from the Sound and definitely not a day trip from Seattle. Yet, if you are in Olympic National Park (the great ONP yo) then why not spend an extra day visiting the coast. I classify this as a “hidden gem” because most other beach-goes end up visiting Long Beach or La Push, skipping right over Shi Shi. You can find the beach on your phone no problem, it’s not exactly secreted. None the less, traffic here will be next to none. Just south of the Makah Indian Reservation, follow Main Line Road west off of HWY-112. At this point, the roads do not really have names, but there is signage aplenty to point you the right way.
7. Ghost Town (Govan, WA)
Man, all these awesome places and the list goes on! Next up we have some prime real estate in Lincoln County, WA. Two bedroom, two bath, full kitchen (with an island), and the site of the most brutal murder in Washington history…hmmm. Starting bids, anyone? Named after railroad engineer R. B. Govan, the town has become the site of several unsolved axe murders. Most famous among these was the death of Judge J. A. Lewis in 1902 which caught on in western newspapers as “the most brutal crime ever committed in the country”. Sparing the gory details, it was believed that robbery was the killer’s motive and since then, the county has never been the same. The area was deemed so haunted, in fact, that the community was bypassed by US Route 2.
Near the “dead” center of the state (I’m sorry), Govan is at the midpoint between Spokane and Wenatchee. Taking Interstate 2 eastbound towards Wilbur, take either Bruce Road or Bodeau Road south into the little town of Govan. The infamous rotting schoolhouse, the epicenter of the area’s hauntings, should be in plain sight standing tall among the amber fields. Feel free to walk around and inside this building…at your own risk.
8. Mt. Ellinor (Hoodsport, WA)
This mountain holds a sentimental place in my heart and stands today as my favorite hike in the Olympic Peninsula. The only infuriating part of this trek is that I’ve never been able to perfectly describe the area’s ambiance to my friends. I guess you just have to be there to understand. The path begins conventional enough; a slight incline on a dirt path over roots and mossy stones. Yet about the surrounding landscape focuses your attention to the ridgeline across from you and the glacier that grips the mountain side. Without any indication, the terrain takes a drastic change to rock-strewn glaciers and misty canyons. This hike has you wandering right into a lucid dream. You’ll start to question you senses when you spot a mountain goat peaking at your between the bushes. These sage-like animals weave in and out of your vision, watching you without trying to be seen. Reaching the peak of Mt. Ellinor should be a requirement because the view is second to none! From the primordial rocky ledge, you can see Canada, Oregon, Seattle, and the distant Cascades. With all the testosterone I can muster, this trail damn near had me in tears.
Mt. Ellinor is one of several peaks in the area, so if you have a couple days there is no reason not to hit a few hikes, the lakes and canyons hold all sorts of little treasures. The trailhead to Ellinor is west of Hamma Hamma (I’m sorry, did I stutter?) on the 101. Drive along North Jorstad Creek Road until it turns into NF-2419. Pretty soon you’ll run up the windy dirt road and into the parking lot. I highly recommend you take the upper trail head. The hike is a lot steeper than you might think and, even as an experienced climber, I was winded. The shorter five mile trail is more than enough! Trust me, you’re not missing much by skipping ahead a few hills.
9. Palouse Falls (LaCrosse, WA)
The Official Waterfall of Washington State? Hmm, that’s kind of a bold title. Why don’t you take a chill pill Palouse and show us what yo- OH MY GOODNESS! May I please have my breath back? Located in tucked away mossy canyon straight out of Indian Jones, these falls hold up to the reputation. It is almost as if someone just took a scoop out of the earth right in the path of the unsuspecting river. The hike is frankly pretty incredible as you wander through tall sandstone formations and prickly underbrush. Sunflowers grow wild in the neighboring valley and apparently, though I have never seen it, there is an abandoned school bus hidden in the fields covered in colorful tagging. The one down side: this is not the place for cliff jumping. The pool at the base of the water fall is almost entirely knee deep. Personally, I think that makes for some kick-butt squad pictures.
So this is one place that I have actually not been too before, I had to look up the best way to get out here. It seems like the easiest way to get there is going on I-9 eastbound until you reach the Columbia River gorge, then head south on 26 to Washtucna. The coolest part about going this way is you’ll pass right by the White Horse Monument. A quick pit stop, the ridge line is topped with dozens of metal horses in mid-gallop. You’ll soon experience magnificence of open plains in Eastern Washington that you can usually only be captured in Montana and Idaho. I’ve grown up on the west side of the Cascades so my bucket list holds several items to see and do in this region. If you have any suggestions, comment below! This will not be my last article!
10. Hoh Rainforest (Forks, WA)
The best for last. In more accurate terms, the most iconic for last. While appearing on every postcard from Everett to Spokane, the Hoh Rainforest has actually dipped in its number of visitors in the past five years. The merrier for you, though, because the forests beauty is in its unsullied wildness. To any of the Tolkien fans out there, tell this place doesn’t look like an Ent will come crashing your picnic. This ancient woods is the only temperate rainforest in the world, which means no freakin’ venomous snakes! Instead, expect to see white-tailed deer, black bears, and the ever-elusive flying squirrels (I have yet to see one). On that note, the wildlife is nearly as dense as the ferns; you are almost guaranteed to see some sort of furry forest critter or slimy swamp beat (Walt Disney eat your heart out). There are almost 20 different trails that loop over and under dense foliage and across beautiful pebble creeks in the valley. The majesty is truly unlike any other. Never have I seen more shades of green in my life! I cannot stress enough that it is a RAIN-forest so don’t get huffy if you left you jacket in the car.
Like I said, there a ton of places to start you visit, it doesn’t really matter where you start. I recommend starting with the Visitor Center to check out all the trails in the area. A good introductory hike is the epically named “Hall of Mosses” because it will give you a good feel for the paths. After that, take the Spruce Nature Trail for a short, easy day or the Hoh River Trail (18 miles) for some good ol’ fashioned butt burning. Camping is very-very-very much encouraged, but please use the bear boxes because these cuddly beasts are not really the “Winnie-the-Pooh”s you were hoping for. Driving here, while a long ways away, is dead simple. Taking 101 just south of Forks, turn east onto Upper Hoh Road and follow it aaaaaaaall the way to the campground. The major trail heads start right in the parking lot of the Visitor Center so park the car, grab your lunch, grab your jacket and start your trek.