An insider's guide that takes you from Seattle to the San Juans to the majestic North Cascades—whether you want to hike, bike, climb, raft, kayak, or just sit around
A LITTLE MORE THAN A YEAR AGO, my family and I picked up and moved from Manhattan to the Seattle area. It was a big change—new house, new jobs, new schools, new friends, new lives. During the first months, we wondered when the rain would end. But then we learned that if we drove east over the Cascades, the clouds that shroud our city would almost immediately disappear, and there would be the dry, wide-open stretches and pale-blue skies of eastern Washington, like a big-screen western. We discovered that our new neighbors were as likely to spend the weekend sailing in the San Juans as camping in the North Cascades. And soon we joined the common mission to find the best places to hike, camp, climb, bike, ski, raft, kayak, and just sit around. Herewith, the ultimate itinerary for a family with 10 days to spend in our new backyard. See you there.
DAYS 1-3: SEATTLE
A small, friendly city, Seattle makes a great family destination—in fact, we occasionally check into a hotel Friday night just so we can wake up in town and get an early start. Our strategy is to book an apartment at Plaza Park Suite [Now known as Summerfield Suites], (1011 Pike St.; 206/682-8282) a hotel consisting primarily of suites (most of which have kitchens), with an outdoor pool and a dynamite downtown location. Ask whether special rates are available; on our last visit we were upgraded to a Skyline suite with a Space Needle view the Jetsons would have envied. It had a master bedroom, a family room with a pullout couch, a fireplace, a dining nook, and a full kitchen.
After breakfast we walk down to Pike Place Market, (www.pikeplacemarket.org) which is always best before the crowds take over. It's the soul of the city, and we never tire of watching the fish vendors launch salmon through the air like touchdown passes. Sometimes we buy a cooked Dungeness crab to take back to our room for a decadent family snack.
From the market, we might continue on to the waterfront and the Seattle Aquarium (1483 Alaskan Way, Pier 59; 206/386-4300; www.seattleaquarium.com), where we've spent many an hour watching the dogfish, wolf eel, and green sturgeon in the underwater dome, or outdoors flirting with the otters. Or we allow ourselves to be led up the hill to GameWorks (1511 Seventh Ave.; 206/521-0952) for a bit of virtual play. How long you last depends on your tolerance for tricked-out bikes that transform you into Evel Knievel or 3-D worlds where your five-year-old can blow up cities with the press of a joystick. But, hey—it's Seattle, so you may as well power up.
If you recover enough to continue on, your next stop should be Pioneer Square, Seattle's oldest neighborhood. Start at Pioneer Place, a triangular park where a totem pole and turn-of-the-century pergola mark the site of the city's first permanent settlement. Today, the surrounding area is full of art galleries, home-furnishings stores, bookshops, and cafés.
Just off Pioneer Place, you can buy tickets for the hokey but fun Underground Tour (608 First Ave.; 206/682-4646; www.undergroundtour.com). Kids under six will grow antsy, but older ones will get a kick out of prowling the subterranean passageways of Seattle's original city. Around the corner is Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park (117 S. Main St.; 206/553-7220; www.nps.gov/klse), a small museum with old photographs, films, and gold-panning demonstrations.
My favorite place in Pioneer Square, if not the whole city, is the Elliott Bay Book Co. (101 S. Main St.; 206/624-6600; www.elliottbaybook.com), one of the nation's last great independent bookstores. The children's room has a two-story castle for climbing, along with an excellent selection of books. The café is a good spot for an afternoon energy boost.
On your second day in Seattle, head up I-5 to the award-winning Woodland Park Zoo (5500 Phinney Ave. N.; 206/684-4800; www.zoo.org). It has examples of more than 300 species, most roaming impressively natural habitats. You'll meet up with gorillas, poison-dart frogs, monkeys, and free-flying birds in the Tropical Rain Forest; endangered orangutans and lion-tailed macaques in the new Trail of Vines. From there, get back on I-5, take the Mercer Street exit, and follow the signs to Seattle Center—a 74-acre park north of downtown where you can grab lunch, visit the Pacific Science Center (200 Second Ave. N.; 206/443-2001; www.pacsci.com) and the Children's Museum (305 Harrison St.; 206/441-1768; www.thechildrensmuseum.org), or simply gaze up at the Space Needle. The latter's observation deck provides a heck of a view, but it costs a pricey $13.00 each to get there.
The city's other must-see is the mega-flagship of the sports co-op REI (222 Yale Ave. N.; 206/223-1944), where kids clamber about the skid-free rocks and waterfalls of the indoor JanSport Kids' Camp; try their parents' nerves on what's billed as the world's tallest freestanding indoor climbing wall; sample mountain bikes on a trail that winds around the building; and—as if there weren't enough rain in Seattle—test out waterproof jackets and hats in a glass-walled shower.
If you're game for a detour, I strongly recommend a day trip southeast to Mount Rainier. With an early start you can hike a volcano, touch a glacier, and be back in time to wash up for dinner.
DAYS 4-6: ORCAS ISLAND
You could devote weeks to exploring the San Juan Islands, but taking the ferry to Orcas—the biggest and (in my opinion) most beautiful of the group—will give your family a fine taste of island life. You'll also have the pleasure of reverting to island time, which, due to the overcrowded ferry system, is largely beyond your control (you may watch a few ferries come and go before you actually get on one). From Seattle, drive 11/2 hours north to Anacortes, where you catch the Washington State Ferry (call 206/464-6400 for the schedule; plan to arrive at least a half-hour before departure). Once aboard, stake out window seats or head up on deck and keep your eyes sharp for seals, eagles, waterfowl, even a pod of killer whales, depending on the season.
There are several lovely places to stay on Orcas, but we like to reserve an Island Hearth suite at the Cascade Harbor Inn (1800 Rosario Rd.; 800/201-2120, 360/376-6350; www.cascadeharborinn.com. It sits on a hillside overlooking Cascade Bay, next door to the historic Rosario resort, and has the same views at a fraction of the price. The look is utilitarian-condo, but suites come with a full kitchen, a living room with a Murphy bed for the kids, and a separate room for mom and dad, as well as two baths and a balcony.
The first thing we do is head to Moran State Park (888/226-7688 or 360/376-2326) to take in the view from the top of Mount Constitution, the highest point in the San Juans. The road isn't long, but it's full of dramatic turnouts—in all the right places for snapping shots of the islands spread beneath you or spotting bald eagles. Although steep, it's also a popular mountain-bike route. (We'll never forget an intrepid dad grinding to the top on a tandem bike with his young son.) At the summit, hike the short trail to the strange stone observation tower. Modeled after a 12th-century Caucasian watchtower, it has stone steps, narrow passageways, cell-like rooms, and window slits barred with wrought iron. The 360-degree view is magnificent.
Not to be missed is a half-day sea-kayaking trip, either with Shearwater Adventures (360/376-4699; www.shearwaterkayaks.com) or Osprey Tours (360/376-3677; www.ospreytours.com); children over five are welcome on most three-hour outings. June through September is prime whale-watching season (you're in Free Willy country); book a cruise with Deer Harbor Charters (800/544-5758 or 360/376-5989; www.deerharborcharters.com).
DAYS 7-9: NORTH CASCADES
The trip from Orcas Island back to the mainland, and then east along Route 20 (also known as the North Cascades Highway) through the North Cascades, is a long but spectacular travel day—plan on four hours, not counting the ferry. Route 20, among the most beautiful roads in America, passes the small towns of Sedro Woolley, Burlington, and Concrete. When you reach Marblemount, stop at Cascadian Farms (5375 Hwy. 20; 360/853-8173) for organic berries and jams, as well as those requisite lattes to sip on the road. From there the route parallels the Skagit River, where bald eagles are sighted in fall. Diablo is your last chance to get gas and snacks before heading into the wilds on the final 1 1/2 hour stretch through North Cascades National Park.
The North Cascades region is one of the most remote wildernesses in the country. On one side of the car, waterfalls pound the pavement mere feet from your passenger window; on the other, there are steep drop-offs to jewel-like lakes far below. Round a corner and you're suddenly face-to-face with brooding black granite peaks and razor-sharp serifs edged with white glaciers. Your kids' imaginations can easily run wild, especially when you tell them grizzlies and cougars still roam there. Stop and stretch at Washington Pass, taking the short trail to the dizzying overlook. A handful of climbers may be clinging to the granite faces thousands of feet overhead; ask the rangers to point them out (you'll need binoculars).
After a few final turns and fantastic vistas, the road dramatically descends from the world of high alpine to the broad fields of the Methow Valley. Arriving in the Methow after driving the North Cascades Highway feels a lot like landing in Oz. The minuscule town of Mazama, with its studiedly cool general store (more on that later), appears out of nowhere, and below that stretches the Methow Valley, bordered by the North Cascades, the Pasayten Wilderness, and the Okanogan National Forest.
Overlooking the valley is the aptly named Sun Mountain Lodge, (800/572-0493 or 509/996-2211; www.sunmountainlodge.com a 3,000-acre resort with hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding on 100 miles of trails. On our first stay there we were astonished by the resort's scale, as well as its rustic elegance. Our one-bedroom suite had twig furniture, a wood-burning stove, a wet bar, an enormous whirlpool tub and bath, and a wraparound deck with views that went on forever.
We stashed our mountain bikes on the deck, stoked the stove, then hit the cowboy cookout. Sun Mountain's well-maintained single-track trails could wait until morning. If you don't bring your own, bikes can be rented at the lodge or at Winthrop Mountain Sports ($20$30 per day; $90$135 per week; 800/719-3826 or 509/996-2886; www.winthropmountainsports.com). The resort also has two swimming pools, tennis, horseback riding, and a fitness center.
To pick up on the pulse of the valley, pop over to the town of Mazama, 13 miles away, for lemon-poppyseed scones and lattes at the Mazama Country Store (50 Lost River Rd.; 509/996-2855). In back, next to the potbellied stove, there's a cozy nook for reading the papers and listening to jazz. You can buy anything you'd ever need here in Mazama-land, at a price: gas for your jeep, a Patagonia Synchilla pullover for you. There's also a good selection of regional books, and terrific Mazama mountain-goat T-shirts for kids. Next door is Mazama Troutfitters (50 Lost River Rd.; 509/996-3674), for fly-fishing instruction, guided trips, and equipment rentals; and beyond that, Mazama Mountaineering (42 Lost River Rd.; 509/996-3802), the place to sign up for a family scramble on an indoor wall or a one-day, introductory rock-climbing course.
Pack up, eat a hearty breakfast, and head back to Seattle. This is a good five-hour drive without stops. However, you may want to break for a two-mile hike along the Rainy Lake Trail (off Highway 20, near the Liberty Bell peak) or a picnic near Newhalem, so set aside an entire day and plan on arriving back in Seattle by late afternoon. Get a full night's sleep before your flight (only masochists should attempt to catch a plane the same evening), and in the morning you'll be soaring over Seattle's four sentries—Mount Rainier, Mount Baker, Mount Adams, Mount St. Helens—homeward bound.
BEFORE YOU GO
Details of this trip were mapped out by custom-trip planner Sherri Doyle of Pacific Northwest Journeys (800/935-9730 or 206/935-9730). For a fee starting at $250, Doyle creates a plan for you and makes all the reservations—sometimes at deep discounts. She warns that the most common mistake visitors make is wanting to see everything from Portland to Vancouver, and forgetting how vast the distances are. Other words of advice?"Avoid going to the San Juans on a Friday or coming back on a Sunday. And you don't want to be dealing with ferries on the last day of your trip!"
Kimberly Brown moved to Seattle to become senior editor of Mungo Park, Microsoft's on-line adventure magazine.
WHERE TO STAY
Plaza Park Suites [Now known as Summerfield Suites] 1011 Pike St.; 800/426-0670 or 206/682-8282, fax 206/682-5315; suites $129$315, including a continental breakfast buffet. Our top recommendation for families: children under 17 stay free.
The Four Seasons Olympic [Now known as the Fairmont Olympic Hotel] 411 University St.; 206/621-1700, fax 206/623-2681; www.fairmont.com/seattle; doubles $295$365. The city's preeminent hotel caters to young guests with bedtime cookies and milk (or popcorn and root beer for teens), and kid-size terry robes upon request.
Hotel Monaco 1101 Fourth Ave.; 800/715-6513 or 206/621-1770; www.monaco-seattle.com; doubles from $195. A stylish new boutique hotel with bright, playful rooms (including, if you want, your own pet goldfish).
WHERE TO EAT
Chinook's Fishermen's Terminal 1900 W. Knickerson St.; 206/283-4665; dinner for a family of four $60. Great value smack on the docks, with a view of the biggest fishing fleet on the American Pacific shore.
Ivar's Acres of Clams Pier 54 (off Alaskan Way); 206/624-6852; dinner for four $60. Your choice: fish-and-chips or sesame king salmon with soba noodles. Nab a window table so you can watch the ferries.
Cucina! Cucina! 901 Fairview Ave. N.; 206/447-2782; dinner for four $50. A high-energy trattoria overlooking Lake Union that serves pastas and wood-fired pizzas. If you ask, the waiters will deliver little mounds of dough for sculpting. [This location is no longer in operation. For other locations, visit www.cucinacucina.com]
Queen City Grill 2201 First Ave.; 206/443-0975; www.queencitygrill.com; dinner for four $70. Simple grilled fare (and big martinis for mom and dad) in the up-and-coming Belltown neighborhood.
WHERE TO STAY
Cascade Harbor Inn Eastsound; 800/201-2120 or 360/376-6350, fax 360/376-6354; doubles from $54, suites from $114. A great value.
Rosario 1400 Rosario Road, Eastsound; 866/801-7625 or 360/376-2222, fax 360/376-3680; doubles from $180, suites from $200. If my husband and I were stealing away for a weekend, we'd choose this 30-acre former estate of Seattle shipbuilder Robert Moran. The guest rooms—in buildings adjoining the main house—have just undergone a much-needed refurbishment.
WHERE TO EAT
Orcas Room Rosario [Now known as the Mansion Dining Room] 1400 Rosario Road, Eastsound; 360/376-2222; dinner for four $90. Although we found the food uneven, you can't beat watching seaplanes zoom in and out of the bay.
La Famiglia Ristorante Eastsound 360/376-2335; dinner for four $60. A comfortable place with lots of local families sampling fresh oysters, scampi, and linguine puttanesca.[This business is no longer in operation]
Café Olga Olga 11 Point Lawrence Rd., Olga; 360/376-5098; brunch for four $30. A Sunday brunch classic in a local artist's co-op. Try the cinnamon rolls as big as a plate.
WHERE TO STAY
Sun Mountain Lodge Patterson Lake Rd., Winthrop; 800/572-0493 or 509/996-2211, fax 509/996-3133; doubles $130$250. The area's top destination resort, with 115 guest rooms and cabins. In summer, a kids' camp for four- to nine-year-olds offers morning and afternoon crafts, nature walks, and lake activities; there's also an evening kids' program for that crucial parents' night out.
Freestone Inn 31 Early Winters Drive, Mazama; 800/639-3809 or 509/996-3906, fax 509/996-3907; www.freestoneinn.com; doubles $95$200, cabins $85$195. The latest place to stay, a tasteful lodgepole-pine structure set at the head of the valley, overlooking a stocked trout lake. The Early Winters cabins are a great find and a good deal.
WHERE TO EAT
Dining Room Sun Mountain Lodge, Winthrop; 509/996-2211; dinner for four $120. An elegantly rustic, warm, and romantic restaurant overlooking the Methow Valley. Chef Jeff James, formerly of the Freestone, and prior to that sous-chef at Oregon's Salishan Lodge, does not disappoint. The lodge also has a more casual café called the Eagle's Nest.
Freestone Inn Mazama; 509/996-3906; dinner for four $120. Main courses might be hearty lamb shanks or roasted salmon. The chef makes his own ice creams, and after a day in the saddle (bike or horse) you won't let them go to waste.