Washington State is off the radar for Brits who flock to Orlando and California to see Mickey Mouse and his friends. But American parks are not just the themed variety, and with the National Parks Service celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2016, this is the perfect time to take a walk on the wild side.
As a branch unexpectedly snapped behind us in the dense forest of Olympic National Park, for a fleeting moment we wondered if we were about to meet a celebrated US creature of a very different kind. Our guide had related stories of the legendary giant ape Bigfoot, or Sasquatch, said to inhabit the remote interiors of the region dubbed the ‘Evergreen State’.
The woods are dominated by some of the world’s largest trees, and as we craned our necks to the top of towering conifer trees and majestic Douglas firs standing more than 200ft tall and with circumferences of more than 30ft, it felt as if we were in some kind of enchanted forest.
Situated on the Pacific coastline near Canada’s border, with a mild climate that’s ideal for walking and sightseeing, Washington State is the most north-western state in the US, and not to be confused with the US capital Washington DC on the east coast. The airline gateway Seattle, served by direct flights from the UK, is popular for Alaska cruises, yet the mountainous heartland is relatively unexplored.
Home to three of the country’s 59 national parks - Olympic, Mount Rainier and North Cascades - special events, including exhibitions and themed walks, are taking place throughout the year to commemorate the park service’s centennial milestone.
After a couple of days in cosmopolitan Seattle, with attractions including the landmark Space Needle, bustling Pike Place Market on the waterfront, and a lesser claim to fame as having the first Starbucks, our adventure in the green heartland began with a scenic ferry ride across the large Pacific inlet of the Puget Sound. On the opposite side it’s easy to plan a driving tour taking in Olympic and Mount Rainer as both these parks are situated on the western side of the state.
The onward journey takes us through delightful Port Townsend, one of only three Victorian seaports in America. Whilst they’re doubtless a pest to local garden-loving homeowners, we’re charmed by the sight of deer roaming in the streets; proving you don’t need to go to Disney to see Bambi. A short drive takes us to our lunch stop, Fort Worden, which was built in 1897 to defend the Puget Sound. Film fans will recognise it as the backdrop to scenes from the 1982 film An Officer and a Gentleman, starring Richard Gere, and several of the original officers’ homes have been converted into atmospheric B&Bs.
Covering nearly one million acres and with three ecosystems - the Pacific coast, mountains and rain forest - Olympic is a paradise for anyone who loves the great outdoors. Its many inhabitants include black bears, bald eagles, mountain goats and the magnificent Roosevelt elk, named after president Teddy Roosevelt and the largest elk species in the US. Viewing wildlife is a matter of luck and patience, but we were rewarded with several sightings of elk, black-tailed deer and goats. Olympic’s rivers are home to all five species of Pacific salmon, and although there are salmon migrations throughout the year our autumn visit coincided with the largest and most dramatic upstream journey, easily viewed by the side of crystal clear rivers.
Back on the road, our next stop is Hoh Rain Forest. It’s of the largest temperate rain forests in the US and flamboyant ranger John Preston, who divides his time between guiding and making space rockets (really), leads us through the ethereal emerald-green ‘hall of mosses’ that’s watered by more than 12ft of annual rainfall. Another short drive, rubbing shoulders with huge trucks laden with timber, takes us to the spectacular sweep of Ruby beach, with its spectacular rocky sea stacks, hidden caves and piles of bleached, surf-tossed driftwood.
We meet another idiosyncratic character at nearby Forks, also famous as the setting for Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight novels. A hobby snowballed into a 40-year passion for retired plumber John Anderson and last year he opened the Beachcombing Museum. There’s a real fascination in seeing thousands of miscellaneous items washed ashore, including debris from the 2011 Japanese tsunami, a mammoth’s tooth, and messages in bottles through to a mundane assortment of clothes and household items, all presided over by curator George – an affable cat.
Our nights are spent at rustic early 20th century park lodges, old by American standards, with log fires and creaking wood floors. Accommodation spans the main buildings and modern cabins in the grounds, many of them free from the modern-day disturbances of TV, Wi-Fi and telephones. We’re not the only ones to relish the peaceful locations, as most are said to have a resident ghost.
As the name implies, the high spot of Mount Rainer National Park is the 14,410ft namesake peak which is the tallest in the Cascade Range. On a walk along one of the well-marked trails we see deer and marmot just a few feet away. There are plenty more photo opportunities at Reflection Lakes, replicating exact mirror images of the mountains on still days.
For a meal with a view, a gondola from Crystal Mountain Resort leads to Summit House, Washington State’s highest restaurant at 6,872ft. The outdoor life certainly works up an appetite and the state is also a breath of fresh air when it comes to places to eat. Of course, being the land of the ubiquitous burger there are plenty of cheap fast-food joints, but there are also many unexpected delights. Tucked in the foothills of Mount Rainer is the small town of Enumclaw, with tempting independent book shops, stores and restaurants such as Kelly’s Mercantile serving beautifully prepared wild-caught fish, American kobe beef and lighter bistro-style dishes. At Alexander’s Lodge in Ashford the chef will cook trout you’ve caught in their lake, but if that’s not to your taste you can opt for an amazing choice of Indian dishes, with plenty of vegetarian and vegan options.
You don’t need a certain cartoon mouse to add a touch of magic to a holiday in this neck of the US. Washington State opened our eyes to many natural wonders and is really big on sights and experiences – even if you don’t get to see Bigfoot.
American Sky offers a 12-night Washington and Oregon self-drive itinerary that starts and finishes in Seattle and includes Olympic and Mount Rainier. Available from May to September, prices start from £1,809pp on a room-only basis, including flights, accommodation, car hire and maps.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends American Sky