Having time in the city is a wonderful thing, but you won’t get the full perspective of what the Pacific Northwest is all about if you stay inside its limits. Not far from Seattle, there’s an astounding amount of beauty to explore. Waterfalls, ferry rides, scenic drives, and a 14,000-foot snow-capped mountain are all within a couple hours drive from the big city. When visiting Seattle, be sure to plan a day trip outside the city to see what else this corner of Washington state has to offer.
Snoqualmie Falls — Just a 30-minute drive from Seattle, thundering Snoqualmie Falls is a stunning 270-foot waterfall in the Cascade Mountains. It’s accessible during daylight hours and is free to visit; parking is also free. Follow the well-marked signs to the trails to explore the two-acre park.
Next to the falls is the Salish Lodge & Spa. Enjoy a meal at one of the two dining options, both with views of Snoqualmie Falls. The Attic is Pacific Northwest casual with sandwiches, pizza from its stone hearth pizza oven, and beer from the Pike Brewing Company. Try The Dining Room for sustainable local options.
Mount Rainier National Park — An active volcano located in the Cascade Mountains, Mount Rainier is a striking sight at a towering 14,411 feet (4,392 meters) that can be seen throughout Western Washington. It’s somewhat ambitious for a day trip, but if you’re pressed for time it can be done, especially with long summer days. Mount Rainier National Park is 90 miles south of Seattle. You can drive that in about two hours. Be sure to check the traffic before you go. There’s a fee to enter the national park. If you’re visiting multiple national parks within a year, you might want to opt for the National Park Pass to save money. (This only covers the entrance to the parks, not camping.)
Mount Rainier National Park is open year-round. In the summer, try to visit mid-week for fewer crowds. If visiting on a summer weekend, arrive before 10:00 AM to avoid delays entering the park. Spring and fall are great times to visit with fewer people. When driving into the park in the wintertime, note that it’s only accessible via the Nisqually Entrance. The park has visitor centers, trails, campgrounds, and picnic areas.
Bainbridge Island — The quickest way to get a change of pace from Seattle is to take a ferry to one of the nearby islands. Bainbridge Island is just a 35-minute ferry ride from Seattle. Getting out on Puget Sound is an experience in itself and a must for first-time visitors. Once you’re on the island, you’ll land in the charming town of Winslow with the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art, Bainbridge Island Historical Museum, and Kids Discovery Museum. Stop into Town & Country Market and grab lunch from the deli to enjoy in neighboring Eagle Harbor Park.
The local marina is just a 15-minute walk from the ferry dock and has several restaurants, including Bainbridge Thai Cuisine, Harbour Public House, and Doc’s Marina Grill. All of this is within easy walking distance of the ferry dock, so consider walking on the ferry from Seattle if you wish. The island also has several wineries and tasting rooms. Eagle Harbor, Fletcher Bay, and Amelia Wynn are just a few. Bring a car to explore the island wineries or take a tour from Tour Bainbridge.
Stevens Pass — With an average of 460 inches of snowfall per year, Stevens Pass is a popular skiing destination from Seattle. Just under a two-hour drive, you’ll take Highway 2 through the Cascade Mountains northeast of the city. If you need a ride to Stevens, hop on the early morning snowbus from downtown Seattle.
To avoid the crowds, the best time to visit is mid-week. If you can’t make that, Sunday is a better bet than Saturday. Pack more into your day trip by extending your visit with some night skiing Wednesday through Sunday. Need a skiing package? Check out Stevens Pass Rental Center in the Tye Creek Lodge. Reserve your skis online through Stevens Pass official rental partner. When you need a break at the slopes, stop into one of the many restaurants on the mountain.
Other ski areas close to Seattle are The Summit at Snoqualmie and Alpental, both just 45 minutes due west from the city, and Crystal Mountain Resort, southeast near Mt. Rainer National Park. While Crystal is currently the most developed of the resorts, Stevens Pass was recently purchased by Vail Resorts — so expect upgrades to its chairlifts and lunch options.
Bellingham — Bellingham is a woodsy university town that has grown dramatically over the years. Two main attractions in Bellingham are the Fairhaven Historic District on the southside and Chuckanut Drive, a scenic drive including Larrabee State Park. Exiting I-5 at Old Fairhaven Parkway, you’ll first encounter the historic district of Fairhaven with its brick-lined streets and historic buildings. Do some shopping in its quaint shops and grab a meal at one of its restaurants — such as the Colophon Cafe, Jalapeños, On Rice Thai Bistro — or order some fish n’ chips from an English double-decker bus at Fairhaven Fish & Chips.
Heading south on 12th Street will lead you to Chuckanut Drive at Fairhaven Park. Chuckanut Drive is a lovely strip of winding road with a breathtaking view of Bellingham Bay. Stop at Larrabee State Park for a hike down to the beach or walk under the trees across the road on the Interurban Trail. Continuing south on Chuckanut Drive, you’ll find pull-offs on the road with incredible views. Careful as you get further down the road, as it becomes quite narrow in places. It will eventually take you out of Skagit Valley where you can get back to I-5 without going back in Bellingham if you’d like.
It should take you about 90 minutes to two hours to make the 90-mile drive north from Seattle. Heading up Interstate 5, halfway up you’ll pass through Skagit Valley. Consider stopping at the Skagit Valley Food Co-op for a tasty sandwich or other freshly made options from the deli.
Whidbey Island — Whidbey Island lies in the Puget Sound, about an hour and 20 minutes north of Seattle — just close enough to visit in one day, and just far enough to feel rugged and remote. A bridge connects you to the island, making it easier to plan your day as you’re not dependent on the ferry schedule.
Options on Whidbey include whale-watching tours from April to the fall or boat tours of the area. You can rent kayaks or paddle boards, or opt for a kayaking tour to explore the island’s coves and learn more about the wildlife. On land, hiking alongside old-growth forests and sand dunes on Deception Pass or along the bluffs at Ebey’s Landing is an excellent way to spend a couple of morning or afternoon hours.
Since the cliffs of Ebey’s Landing are the north end of the island, you could pick up sandwiches for a picnic from The Goose grocer in Bayview on your way there. On Saturdays, you’ll find a farmer’s market in Bayview or closer to Ebey’s Landing or in Coupeville. If you’d prefer a leisurely lunch with a waterside view, try Prima Bistro in Langley. On your way back out of town, you could stop for a craft beer at the Taproom in Bayview — but it’d have to be small, as you still have to drive back to Seattle. Or you could decide that Whidbey is too lovely for just one day and consider glamping at some of the island’s posh outdoorsy locations.
Leavenworth — A little over two hours east of Seattle lies a tiny slice of southern Germany, tucked into the Cascade Mountain range. Leavenworth’s Bavarian architecture — along with its German beer, sausages, and pretzels — has been attracting travelers since the town took on its adopted German character over 50 years ago.
But you don’t only go to Leavenworth for its mini Oktoberfest, lederhosen-clad performers, or Bavarian Christmas market. Leavenworth’s natural surroundings are packed with trails, including the five-mile out-and-back Icicle Ridge. You can bring your on-leash dog on the trail, which is popular with both hikers and mountain bikers and offers up a lovely mountain views. Likewise, the Wenatchee River is a great place to go kayaking, paddleboarding, or, depending on the season, tubing or rafting. You can rent bikes and any river gear you need at the Leavenworth Outdoor Center. If you’d prefer to enjoy the water from the shore, you can stroll the Waterfront Park trail and dip your toes in the water from one of the park’s mini beaches.
Meals could include bratwurst, washed down with a hearty pilsner at München Haus, or Swiss fondue and a local white at Mozart’s — but you’ll happily discover that Leavenworth has plenty of solid non-Germanic food options as well. One of those is Pavz Cafe Bistro, whose locavore menu changes with the seasons.