It’s Virginia Painter’s business to know Washington’s state parks inside and out, but that doesn’t make a goal she completed about six years ago any less impressive.
Painter, the state park public affairs director, was putting together a map when she realized she’d been to most of Washington’s 117 state parks. She decided she would visit them all.
Between her 15 years working for the state parks and growing up with parents and grandparents who loved camping, she’s spent quality time in every park.
“I love visiting the parks,” she said.
On Tuesday, Washington State Parks turn 100. While visiting them all might not be realistic for most, the centennial seems like as good a time as any to visit the best of these parks.
BEST CAVE TOUR
Tucked away in the northeast corner of the state, Crawford State Park is home to Gardner Cave. In the summer, guides offer free tours of the 1,055-foot limestone cavern and its rock formations. The cave is closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays and Sept. 15-May 16.
BEST FAT BIKING
Fat biking is catching on in the Methow Valley and other parts of the country and one of the best places to go for a ride is Pearrygin Lake State Park just outside of Winthrop. “On good days, the trails are just great there,” said Joe Brown of Methow Cycle & Sport.
Fat bikes are similar to mountain bikes, but the tires are twice the size and only inflated to about 10 PSI so the bikes can travel over the snow.
BEST SKIM BOARDING
Skim boarders use small boards to ride on thin layers of water on the beach. This can be the wash left by waves or tidal streams. Dash Point State Park in Federal Way is a favorite location for this sport.
Westhaven State Park in Westport is the state’s most popular surfing destination. There are no lifeguards working this beach, but that doesn’t bother the learners and experts who frequent Westhaven. Surfboards and wetsuits are available for rent nearby at The Surf Shop and Steepwater Surf Shop.
You’ll find waterfalls in many state parks, but two are especially breathtaking. Wallace Falls State Park, near Gold Bar, offers several waterfalls, the most spectacular of which drops 265 feet. Palouse Falls, near Washtucna, cascades 198 feet into Palouse Canyon, which was carved by Ice Age floods.
BEST PARKS FOR HORSES
Lake Wenatchee, Riverside and Bridal Trails state parks are some of the most popular parks for horses and their handlers. Bridal Trails has 28 miles of trails on 482 forested acres northeast of Seattle. The park hosts regular horse shows in the summer and the Bridle Trails Park Foundation plans to stage a March 23 open house in honor of the park centennial.
Washington State Parks offer hundreds of miles of cross-country skiing, but only one park – Mount Spokane State Park – has an alpine ski area. The park has five double chairs, 45 ski runs and 2,000 vertical feet.
Goldendale Observatory State Park, just north of Goldendale, has been home to one of the nation’s largest public telescopes for 40 years. The 24-inch reflecting telescope sits under a 20-foot-diameter dome where tours are offered year round.
Flaming Geyser State Park has more than three miles of shoreline along the Green River. Schafer State Park offers fishing for steelhead, cutthroat trout and salmon on the Satsop River. Rasar State Park offers plenty of access to the Skagit River. Curlew Lake State Park, near Republic, offers trout and tiger muskie fishing.
BEST WHALE WATCHING
On the west side of San Juan Island, Lime Kiln State Park is a perfect spot to get a glimpse of a whale. In addition to orcas, you might see porpoises, seals, sea lions and otters. Prime whale-watching season is May through September. Swing by the Lime Kiln Point Lighthouse for interpretive information.
Several parks known for their lighthouses include Cape Disappointment, Fort Casey and Lime Kiln. The lighthouse at Fort Worden State Park made a silver-screen appearance in “An Officer and a Gentleman” in 1982. Westport Light State Park gets its name from the historic Westport Lighthouse, but the 115-year-old structure actually sits just outside the park.
BEST RAZOR CLAM DIGGING
South of Westport, Grayland Beach State Park offers easy access to wide swaths of beach. The beach might not produce the biggest razor clams, but from season to season, the beach here and the others in the Twin Harbors area offer the most days of digging and consistently produce 15-clam limits.
BEST MILITARY HISTORY
A number of park were once military forts. The North Puget Sound area includes the “triangle of fire” – Fort Worden, Fort Casey and Fort Flagler State Park – offering a chance to walk amid fortifications, great views, places to run the dog or fly a kite. Fort Columbia State Park once stood guard over the mouth of the Columbia River.
While the Columbia River Gorge has a reputation for being an Oregon destination, many locals say the best places to windsurf and kiteboard are on the Washington side. Doug’s Beach, Maryhill and Spring Creek Hatchery state parks are premier destinations for both sports.
BEST ROCK CLIMBING
Some of the state’s most popular rock climbing spots can be found in state parks like Iron Horse, Beacon Rock and Peshastin Pinnacles. The 1,200-foot granite Index Town Wall is also managed by the state parks.
Looking for a view that will take your breath away? Odds are one of these state parks can handle that request:
- You can see three states from the top of Puffer Butte in Field Springs State Park in the southeast corner of the state.
- You can drive to the 3,612-foot top of Steptoe Butte State Park near Colfax where the park website claims you can see for 200 miles.
- A quick hike or technical climb up the ancient volcano core for which Beacon Rock State Park is named offers views of the Columbia River Gorge.
- As a general rule, where there’s a fire lookout there’s a stunning view. There are fire lookouts atop Mount Pilchuck and Mount Spokane state parks’ namesake peaks.
- A short but steep hike to the top of Steamboat Rock State Park yields what might be the best view of Grand Coulee.
- At 2,409 feet, Mount Constitution in Moran State Park on Orcas Island is the highest point in the San Juan Islands.
- Cyrus Gates Overlook just below the top of Chuckanut Mountain in Larrabee State Park offers postcard like scenery that includes Lost Lake, Chuckanut Bay, Mount Baker and the San Juan Islands.
- Check out the work of the Ice Age floods from Ginkgo Petrified Forest and Sun Lakes-Dry Falls state parks. “It will give you chills when you realize what you are looking at,” Painter said.
ICONIC PHOTO OPPS
A complete state park experience should include posing for pictures with these backdrops:
- The Canoe Pass and Deception Pass bridges connecting the Whidbey and Fidalgo island portions of Deception Pass State Park.
- The lighthouses of Cape Disappointment, Lime Kiln, Fort Worden and Fort Casey state parks.
- The 77-year-old stone tower built by the Civilian Conservation Corps at Moran State Park.
- Dry Falls from the roadside interpretive center at Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park.
- A gun battery at Fort Flagler State Park.
- The falls at Wallace Falls and Palouse Falls state parks.
- The Bowl and Pitcher formations on the Spokane River in Riverside State Park.
BEST LONG DISTANCE TRAILS
Grab a bike, horse or some really good shoes and try one of these epic trails:
- The Centennial Trail runs 37 miles from Riverside State Park to the Idaho border. From there you can continue to Coeur d’Alene then keep linking trails all the way to Montana.
- Iron Horse State Park’s John Wayne Pioneer Trail covers 110 miles between Cedar Falls and the Columbia River including the one-mile Snoqualmie Tunnel.
- The 130-mile Columbia Plateau (Pasco to Cheney) and 57-mile Willapa Hills (Chehalis to South Bend) trails are partially open but still under development, Painter said.
Rent a cabin or yurt at several state parks, or get creative:
- Stay in the officers’ quarters at Fort Worden or Fort Flagler state parks. $88-503.
- Rent the lighthouse keeper’s residence at Cape Disappointment State Park. $231-437.
- Wake up to 360-degree views at Mount Spokane State Park’s Quartz Mountain Fire Lookout. $77-88.
- Rent a 6-person teepee at Fields Spring State Park. $25.
- Try luxury tent camping at Dosewallips State Park in a canvas shelter pitched on a wood platform with a bunk bed, futon, a heater and a lamp. $47-59.
- Paddle to tiny Ben Ure Island for a seclude stay in a rustic cabin at Deception Pass State Park. $100.