There’s no need to roam too far from home to have a great summer vacation. The Northwest has many beautiful state parks for you to visit. The Northwest alone is home to more than 400 city, state and national parks! Here are just five Northwest state parks you’re going to want to check out.
1. Hells Gate State Park
Don’t let the name scare you. Hells Gate is one of the lesser known goldmines of the Northwest. It’s one of the biggest canyons in all of America and the deepest river gorge in the Northwest. How do you access the river? By water – and only by water, unless you want to trek the trails.
“Access on the Idaho side of the Snake River is limited to Hells Gate State Park and Pittsburg Landing by road,” says park manager Charlie Chase. On the Washington side of the river, visitors can find a handful of boat launches and trail beginnings.
Though Hells Canyon reaches all the way from Northeastern Oregon to Western Idaho, the park itself begins in Lewiston, Idaho, right along the Snake River. And it offers many camping and hiking opportunities around the canyon.
“Mountain bikers and hikers can take advantage of the many non-paved trails throughout the park and the adjacent Hells Gate Wildlife Management Area,” says Chase. The trails are perfect for horseback riding, too!
Jet boat excursions are among the most popular activities, and best way to experience the canyon. “The big water in the canyon is exciting and during the hot summers you can take a refreshing dip at one of the sandy beaches where the outfitters stop,” says Chase. Most of the tour companies operate out of Lewiston and Clarkston.
“Hells Gate also offers the historian two nice interpretive facilities, with the Jack O’Connor Hunting Heritage and Education Center and the Lewis Clark Discovery Center,” he adds. Both facilities are open year round.
Hells Gate State Park is the perfect destination for a day getaway or weekend stay.
2. Wallowa Lake State Park
Wallowa Lake is one body of water that leads into Hells Canyon and is the main attraction of this park near Joseph, Oregon. Being a little over two square miles, you can swim, fish and boat on the lake. And the surrounding wilderness is beautiful!
The Wallowa Lake website says the land is known as “America’s Little Switzerland.” With the large, clear lake that’s surrounded by snowcapped mountains on three sides, it’s easy to see why. Even more, the park has bumper boats, canoeing and miniature golf. If you’re looking for a scenic thrill, you can ride to the top of one of the mountains on its tramway.
The park’s terrain makes for perfect trails to hike and bike. Visitors might even catch sight of wildlife, including black bears. Be sure to educate yourself on bears! The park’s brochures on black bear safety can help.
This park is more than just a summer destination – the camping sites and marina are open year-round. With complete camping services and many activities, the Wallowa Lake State Park is the essential outdoorsy getaway.
3. Flaming Geyser State Park
What if you can’t make a trip too far away from the city? Not to worry - many state parks are relatively close to major Northwest cities, such as Flaming Geyser State Park, only 50 minutes south of Seattle in Auburn.
Numerous methane seeps are behind the ‘geyser’ in the park’s name. One of these was struck by coal miners in the early 1900s and created an everlasting flame, several inches high, that still burns today. Another one of the well-known geysers is the Bubbling Geyser, which looks like it’s at a constant boil.
Methane seeps and geysers are usually associated with the smell of sulfur, but Virginia Painter, the Communications Director of Washington State Parks, says she didn’t notice any sulfur smell when she visited recently. “You never hear anyone talking about a smell,” she says.
Painter finds that when people go to state parks, they want to close to water – and she says Flaming Geyser State Park has just that. “It’s a beautiful day use park. It has 18 miles of river shoreline, very picturesque,” she says.
The Green River flows through park and provides plenty of open water activities, including rafting, floating and fishing. The kid-friendly park offers large play structures and nearby picnic areas. The difference between Flaming Geyser and most other state parks is that it is only open for day use.
Painter believes it’s the perfect park to get away from the hubbub of the city. “There’s something special about being around moving water and the incredible green that’s around the park,” she says.
4. Farragut State Park
If you want a state park with historical value, Farragut State Park in Athol, Idaho is one of your best bets. During World War II, the park was home to the second largest naval training station, on the shores of Idaho’s biggest lake - Lake Pend Oreille. It was one of the only lakes that could mimic some ocean conditions.
“The depth of 1,151 feet may simulate much of the continental shelf and though the lake does get rough, it isn’t the ocean,” says park manager Randall R. Butt. The Navy trained 300,000 men at Farragut, which was then the largest city in Idaho. Now, the old training and scout buildings have been converted into park buildings. “The only remaining building from the training camp is the Brig, which now houses the museum,” Butt says.
The 4,000-acre park offers numerous outdoor activities and attractions. Lake Pend Oreille provides the perfect setting for camping, boating, fishing and the like.
Butt recommends visitors take in the natural beauty of Farragut. “Relax, visit the museum, turn off the cell phone and other electronic devices, play a round of disc golf, enjoy a sunset, walk along the lake, and then relax some more,” Butt says.
And the activities don’t end there! The park is only 20 miles North of Silverwood Theme Park, the largest theme park in the Northwest. So, if you want to get away from nature for a day and enjoy rollercoasters, corndogs and a waterpark, you can easily dedicate a day of your stay to the theme park.
5. Cape Disappointment State Park
There is certainly nothing disappointing about Cape Disappointment State Park. Nestled along the coast of Long Beach in Ilwaco, Washington, it offers 27 miles of beach, eight miles of hiking trails, two lighthouses and a museum.
Virginia Painter, communications director of Washington State Parks, says there are many different aspects which make this park unique. “There’s the beach, the jetty where people fish, trails – it’s large and varied,” which means people with different tastes can find something of interest here.
Though fees and some restrictions do apply, both lighthouses are open visitors. This park offers the perfect mixture of historical significance and outdoor attractions. After visiting the museums, you can hike trails, explore beaches and even camp overnight.
But what’s with the name? As history goes, in 1788 English Captian John Meares named the area Cape Disappointment after thinking the entrance to the river was a bay. Of course what he was seeing was actually a river, but from the harsh waters, Meares couldn't see clearly. In his disappointment, he explored no further.
“If you’re sailing in from the ocean it’s very difficult to find the mouth of the Columbia because it has bad surf and dramatic weather,” Painter says.
Regardless of the name, Cape Disappointment is one of the more popular parks in Washington state. “Take advantage of the nature walks, board walks and interpretive exhibits,” adds Painter. "The rangers at Cape Disappointment provide interesting and educational interpretive campfire programs five nights a week during the summer." The park has activities and entertainment of all sorts.
*Honorable Mention: Stanley Park
According to the City of Vancouver’s website, Stanley park is Vancouver’s first, largest, and most beloved urban park. “Designated a national historic site of Canada, Stanley Park is a magnificent green oasis in the midst of the heavily built urban landscape of Vancouver.”
The park sits on 988 acres of natural rainforest, mountains and evergreens right along the Pacific Ocean. The perfect blend of urban life and natural exploration, Stanley Park has activities to fill up an entire weekend easily.