PNW Road Trip Part 1 – Wonders of Washington

When I think back on my earlier visits to the Pacific Northwest, I recall being in awe of Mt. Rainier, the tallest of the mountains in the Cascades, while flying into Seattle, the tranquility of the Hoh Rainforest in the Olympic National Park, my first taste of Salt & Straw salted caramel ice cream in Portland, and early morning runs with glimpses of Mt. Hood peeking above the tree line.

As we started planning for our Pacific Northwest Trip and identifying everything we wanted to see in Washington and Oregon, we quickly realized we would either be renting a camper van and extending our visit by a month or more, or trimming our itinerary and taking the time to explore and immerse ourselves in each of the destinations. Calculating driving times was a helpful reality check that forced us (me) to reconsider the reasonableness of our initial itinerary. The running joke with Dan is that I tend to overschedule our trips. I won’t deny it, I am always up for seeing and doing more. But I have absolutely no doubts that our slightly scaled back Pacific Northwest itinerary wasn’t any less full or eventful.

Our Pacific Northwest trip across western Washington and Oregon

This post is Part 1 of our trip which took us from Seattle and neighboring Alki Beach up to Anacortes and the San Juan Islands. It was jam-packed with both city sights and wildlife sightings, and plenty of spring sun – a fantastic escape to Washington.

Our Friday evening arrival in Seattle allowed us just enough time to pick up the rental car and stop by our Airbnb before our dinner reservation at Salty’s. On account of us staying in Alki, across the water from downtown in West Seattle, we had an expansive view of Seattle illuminated at night while we dined outdoors under a toasty heat lamp. We were both impressed by Salty’s fresh oyster appetizers, delicious scallops and halibut, ½ price wine bottles, and fantastic service – a wonderful start to the trip.

The sunny skies that greeted us on our first full day of vacation had me excited for my run on the Alki Beach bike and foot path that extends for several miles along Elliott Bay. As I ran along the shore, I commended the wetsuit clad swimmers who had already made their way into the calm waters of the bay while the downtown Seattle skyline emerged off in the distance.

Before venturing into downtown, we enjoyed breakfast al fresco with a water view at Alki Beach Café and then opted to walk along the same bay-side path in the direction of downtown. We had hoped to take in the view of city by way of the water taxi, but were disappointed to learn that it hadn’t yet returned to operation on Saturdays. Alternative public transit awaited us a bit further ahead by foot – while less scenic, the bus ended being a convenient and cost-effective way to travel downtown.

We started at one of Seattle’s most iconic tourist sites, Pike Place Public Market, where we quickly found ourselves surrounded by as many people as we had seen in a year. During our midday visit, stalls with bright flowers, stands saturated with seafood, and other locally curated products adorned the main arcade while curious visitors cavorted about. Pike Place has served as a public market to Seattle’s residents since 1907 and is beloved for its nine acres and six levels of fresh food, unique goods, and handcrafted products. It’s an impressive offering, but we’re still partial to our smaller but just as welcoming Milwaukee Public Market!

We thought we were escaping the crowds as we left the market, but less than a block away we passed the original Starbucks store – now more than 50 years old – and encountered a line extending well down the block. Apparently, this is the norm for this rather tiny flagship store, not an exception.

We were finally able to leave the queues and commotion behind as we made our way along the Waterfront and through the Olympic Sculpture Park, but turning our backs to the water, we faced a steep ascent up, up, up to Kerry Park. It takes a bit of effort to walk up – good luck biking – but the panoramic views of the city from the hilltop are worth the sweat. To quench our thirst, on the way back down we stopped to sample local beers at Uptown Hop House.

In the competition for Seattle’s most iconic tourist attraction the Space Needle gives Pike Place Public Market a run for its money, but neighboring this futuristic landmark is the lesser known but no less impressive Chihuly Garden and Glass exhibit. This long-term exhibition opened at the Seattle Center in 2012 and since then has been delighting visitors with its display of amazing glass art both inside and outside in the gardens.

While you may not recognize his name, it’s very possible that you’ve seen Dale Chihuly’s fine art blown glass in a public exhibition or at one of the more than 200 museum collections worldwide that contain his work. Originally from Washington, he has ties to Wisconsin by way of his studying at the first glass program in the U.S. at the University of Wisconsin. Closer to our home, the Milwaukee Art Museum houses one of his bold designs.

We purchased advance tickets to both the Chihuly exhibit and the Space Needle so we could tour them consecutively, specifically selecting an evening visit to the Space Needle with the hope that we could enjoy a spectacular sunset over the Sound. It had been a while since I first visited the Space Needle so I was pleasantly surprised by the results of the extensive renovation that was completed in 2018. Visitors can now take in the views of downtown, Mount Rainier, Puget Sound, and the Cascades and Olympic mountain ranges from the floor-to-ceiling glass walls without feeling like they will be blown off the viewing platform.

Hello from the top of the newly remodeled Space Needle

Built for the 1962 World’s Fair, the Space Needle has embraced innovation at all levels, from the 41 second elevator ascent up 520 feet to the observation deck, to the photographers on site who snap photos that visitors can download for free. They even provide free background photoshopping!

Our timing at the observation deck was perfect, and after taking in the views, we were lucky enough to snag a vacant table at which we had an expansive westward view of the Puget Sound. All we had to do was order some wine and wait for an epic sunset.

Taking in the sunset over the Seattle Sound

The sun having set and our sight-seeing concluded, we took the bus back to West Seattle for a late dinner of delicious smoked meats and savory sides at Lady Jaye.

After walking over 10 miles the day before, a slow start to our Sunday morning was in order. In the comfort of our Airbnb guesthouse over the garage, we listened to our church’s service while commending the dedication of a local baseball team diligently refurbishing their field across the street. As a final send-off to our charming Alki neighborhood, we headed out for a run along the beach, making it back just minutes before the rain.

The Pacific Northwest showers didn’t cease as we started our drive north, but we convinced ourselves to don rain coats for a stop at one of Washington’s most popular attractions, the 270-foot-tall Snoqualmie Falls. The falls are a sacred site for the Snoqualmie Indian Tribe who consider them to be humanity’s place of origin. The powerful waters are also a source of hydraulic power, having provided energy to a hydroelectric plant since 1898.

Thanks to the steady rain, we were drenched before we even reached the upper observation deck overlooking the falls, but our 15-minute visit allowed us to learn more about the history of the area and gave Dan the opportunity to witness his first large waterfall in person.

Our rainy drive in the direction of Fidalgo Island continued, but as we approached our destination, the city of Anacortes, the sun emerged from behind dense clouds. By the time we unpacked at the Airbnb, Dan was especially eager to get out and enjoy the sun, so we headed up the road to the northwest end of the island where Washington Park sits on a peninsula jutting into the Rosario Strait.

Encouraged by the sun still peaking through some clouds and the potential for wildlife viewing, I talked Dan into further stretching our legs by completing the 2.2-mile trail loop. The scenery was gorgeous and we were enjoying taking it all in until hail ambushed us. The second half of our walk was much less pleasant, particularly for Dan whose coat was without a hood.

Enjoying Green Point in Washington Park

We had just enough time to warm up and dry off at the Airbnb before our dinner at Anthony’s At Cap Sante Marina. Our seafood supper was complimented by the striking views of the Cascade Mountains as the sunset cast a golden aura on the harbor. It was an early night for us in anticipation of a full day ahead.

Our day trip to the San Juan Islands commenced early the next morning with a 7:40 AM departure on the car ferry that would transport us to Orcas Island for a day of touring. The San Juan Islands are an archipelago of 172 named islands and reefs that are found between the U.S. and Canadian border. Only four of these islands are accessible by public car and ferry systems but they are very popular with both tourists and residents looking for outdoor adventure, tranquility, scenery, and wildlife, specifically whales!

Aboard the ferry from Fidalgo Island to Orcas Island

After a scenic hour-long ride, we disembarked and followed the traffic to the downtown, Eastsound, where we stopped for a second breakfast at Brown Bear Baking before heading on to Moran State Park on the southeast end of the island. Moran State Park is home to Mt. Constitution, the highest point in the San Juan Islands, and plenty of lakes and waterfalls to hike to.

We drove to the top of Mt. Constitution to take in the expansive 360° views of the San Juan Islands and across the Canadian border to Vancouver Island and even the city of Vancouver in the distance. After a rainy evening we had mostly clear skies from the top of the observation tower that was constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.

On our drive back down, we stopped for a very short hike to see the slightly smaller than Snoqualmie Falls, but no less impressive, Cascade Falls. It’s easy to see why this picturesque waterfall is a popular spot on the island, but we were fortunate to have it to ourselves. I was even able to walk all the way up to the falls to feel the cool spray mist my face.

Cascade Falls on Orcas Island

After our morning visit to Moran State Park, it was time to head back to Eastsound for a quick lunch before embarking on our afternoon whale watching expedition with Outer Island Excursions. With limited options for lunch – it was a Monday, pre-tourist busy season – we ended up queuing for our order back at Brown Bear Baking. Dan had his sandwich in hand within minutes, but for some reason my salad took quite a bit longer to prepare. When it was finally ready, I had to quickly consume it on the car ride over to the meeting spot for our whale watching tour. I regretted that decision fairly quickly upon our arrival.

Whale watching is rather difficult to do on land – you have to get pretty lucky – so we were heading out on the water for a guided tour with hopes of spotting orcas and other wildlife. I, unfortunately, have a history of seasickness, which I discovered the first time I went whale watching, so I had come prepared with Dramamine and the mental fortitude required to board a boat knowing there was no way off for at least three hours. Once I got a look at our vessel, the Triton, I became quite concerned as to whether that mental fortitude and Dramamine would be robust enough to overcome the boat’s rather modest size, and if not, where my lunch would end up.

Our vessel, the mighty Triton

The boat was just big enough to accommodate ten of us and our guide – even smaller than the boat on which I discovered my seasickness. Before boarding, I confirmed the existence of a bathroom – our guide/ captain pointed at the tiny compartment in the back. The first one aboard, I decided the front seat in the cabin was my best bet for space and window views – my plan was to fixate on land, any land, a trick I hoped would calm my nerves and stomach.

We had been warned that the wind would make it a rough ride out of the channel on our way to the Haro Strait, but that the reward would be probable orca sightings as at least one group had been spotted traveling along the west coast of San Juan Island. The minute we left the small harbor, I directed my attention to the tree covered hilltops of the island hoping my brain would take to the solid, unmoving landmass. While I pressed my lips tightly together, Dan casually chatted with the guide about the porpoises alongside our boat. The stomach drops and rollercoaster of waves seemed endless but finally our guide slowed the boat and indicated that we had arrived at our first site.

Unclenching my death grip on my backpack, I stood slowly to test out my sea legs, pleasantly surprised to find that neither my legs or stomach betrayed me. Moving into the fresh air at the front of the boat, I was able to take in the view of the privately owned Spieden Island that is famous for having been previously used for imported big game hunting during the 1970s and ‘80s. While there are no longer any predators on the island, it’s inhabited by plenty of non-native sheep and deer along with massive 3,000-pound Steller sea lions sunbathing on the rocks.

Radio chatter between the tour companies alerted our guide, Jake, as to the location of the orcas and he informed us it was time to make our approach. He explained that the tour companies work together to track the orcas and will provide their location to other touring boats and recreational boaters for plentiful viewing opportunities and safety purposes. It was clear from our conversations with Jake that the local tour companies take great pride in the whales that inhabit these waters and play a role in ensuring their safety.

As we slowly approached from a distance, we could see that there were three separate groups of three to four transient whales in each, likely hunting together in the strait. Jake explained that transient orcas are distinct from the Southern Residents in that they will travel along the coast as far as Southeast Alaska. Jake expertly maneuvered our tiny vessel so we could follow the pods from a safe distance but have with plenty of viewing opportunities.

An orca off the coast of San Juan Island

We even got a sighting of a local celebrity, Chainsaw, whose name comes from notches in his dorsal fin that were likely sustained in a fight. In reading the local news after our tour, we discovered just how rare it is to see Chainsaw. Aside from the celebrity sighting, I was amazed by the size of some of their dorsal fins, which can reach a height of 6 feet.

Pictures don’t do justice to the feeling of seeing orcas in the wild

Not only were we lucky to have seen Chainsaw, but also that the orcas stayed within U.S. waters and didn’t cross over to Canada during the two hours that we followed them at a safe distance. Jake explained that prior to the U.S.-Canada border closing last year, touring boats were allowed to cross over freely while whale watching, making it much easier for the tour companies to guarantee a whale sighting. Presently, foreign national boaters are not permitted to cross the water border which has left some whale watchers disappointed when wildlife is just out of sight across the border.

No disappointed passengers aboard the Triton

Having made it back to land at the conclusion of our tour, there was no doubt in my mind about how fortunate we were to have had a great guide, successful sightings, and no seasickness! We thanked Jake for sharing his knowledge and then sought out the Island Hoppin’ Brewery for a celebratory drink.  We finished our fantastic Orcas Island day with dinner on the Eastsound bay at La Madrona before taking the ferry back to Fidalgo Island that night.

On our final full day in Washington, we welcomed yet another sunny forecast, as we headed to the south end of Fidalgo Island for a hike with views of the notable pair of bridges nearly 200 feet above the waters of Deception Pass. Our hike started at Rosario Beach where we first admired the tall, carved pole depicting the story of Kwuh-kwal-uhl-wut, the Maiden of Deception Pass, who is a central figure in a traditional tale of the Samish, a Coast Salish Native American tribe. Along that coast, the Rosario Head trail loop overlooks the tidal pools near the beach before linking up with the Pacific Northwest Trail and leading off in the direction of Bowman Bay.

Our hike to Bowman Bay and further on to the Lighthouse Point Trail was rather short, but provided ample shoreline views. Upon reaching the Deception Pass Bridge, we discovered it is currently undergoing a repainting project and thus was partially covered, but the outlook gave us a good idea of why this state park is one of Washington’s most popular.

After generous scoops of ice cream from Poppie’s in Oak Harbor, we made our way back to Fidalgo Island to plan for our al fresco dinner. Thanks to our wonderful Airbnb hosts, we had access to an outdoor patio with a grill and fire pit so we were able to have fresh fish on the grill with asparagus. They even provided all the necessary supplies for smore’s so we were able to enjoy the cool evening around a toasty fire. This fantastic Airbnb was definitely one of our favorites as our hostess also sent us home with a bag of her delicious homemade granola. It was a fantastic finale to the first leg of our Pacific Northwest Road Trip.

The Oregon Coast awaited us to the south, which is where my recap will continue in a subsequent Part 2 post. Stay tuned for more adventure!

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