Washington State is one of the best places to enjoy a Winter Wonderland. Snow blankets the conifer-coated mountaintops, while the nearby Pacific Ocean staves off the bitter freeze you might experience in Idaho or Montana. The state comes alive with winter activities, a chance to appreciate a whole different palette in a terrain already rich in natural beauty.
While other nomads flee south during the holiday months, winter in Washington is one of my favorite seasons. Here are my eight favorite winter activities in Washington State …
1. Warm Up In A Hot Spring
Washington’s position at the edge of the Pacific tectonic plate—the famous “Ring of Fire”—gives rise to natural thermal hot springs, heated by magma beneath the Earth’s crust. For my money, there’s no greater pleasure in the winter than hiking through the snow to a steamy pool and taking a hot plunge in the middle of a snowdrift.
Where to get your hot spring on in Washington
Scenic Hot Springs
Discovered during the Stevens Pass railway construction project in 1880, Scenic Hot Springs was abused by skiers for decades before it came under private ownership. Now restored to pristine condition, Scenic Hot Springs benefits further from the restriction to ten visitors per day. Check out the Scenic Hotsprings blog to find out how you can be one of those ten!
Scenic Hot Springs may require snowshoes to access in the winter. But if you brave the heavy snowfall, you will be rewarded by natural hot tubs ranging from 102 to 109 degrees Fahrenheit, perched on the edge of cliffs with panoramic views of snow-capped peaks and fir, cedar, and pine forest for miles.
Covid Update: Due to Covid-19 and Gov. Inslee’s planned state reopening mandate, Scenic Hot Springs is currently closed to the public and most likely will not reopen to visitors until King County has entered phase 3 of the reopening plan.
Goldmyer Hot Springs
Secluded in the Cascades twenty-five miles east of North Bend, Goldmyer Hot Springs is your reward for a 4.5-mile hike through old-growth forest. Named after one of Seattle’s first settlers, the springs are fed by a waterfall that cascades from a 30-foot cave. Skinny-dippers rejoice—nude bathing is allowed here.
Up to 20 people per day can visit the Goldmyer Hot Springs, which range from 104 to 111 degrees Fahrenheit. Make sure to reserve your spot in advance, as well as obtain the required Northwest Forest Pass.
What You’ll Need
2. Take A Hike
Washington has nothing if not a wealth of hiking opportunities. The fun doesn’t stop when the weather gets cold, either. A whole different side of Washington is on display in the winter months with vistas of deep green, blue, and white that beg to be photographed as much as seen.
Some considerations for winter hiking …
Choose Hikes At Lower Elevations
At higher elevations—the mountain trails that Washington hikers know and love—snow can pile up 20 feet or higher, making trails impassable without snowshoes or skis. Moreover, because a lot of forestry roads aren’t plowed in the winter, the trailheads wont be accessible. Between November and May, it’s usually best to stick to low-lying trails.
When the temperature drops, appropriate attire becomes a matter of safety, not just a fashion statement. Make sure to dress appropriately for winter hiking. This includes:
A moisture-wicking base layer.
Sturdy waterproof hiking boots.
Warm moisture-wicking socks. I always recommend wool.
Beanie or balaclava—most of the heat that leaves our body leaves through the head.
Waterproof mittens or gloves.
What You’ll Need
Bring The Right Gear
Your attire isn’t the only gear you can bring to prepare for a safe, comfortable hike. Other equipment to consider bringing on your winter hike includes:
Snowshoes, crampons, and/or microspikes.
Always Check Trail Conditions & Reports First
Winter and spring in the Northwest are tricky seasons for hikers and snowshoers. Temperature, precipitation, snow conditions, and hazards can change dramatically over a short period of time (Hence, the Ten Essentials). One of the most important things you can do before any hike, but particularly before a Washington winter hike, is to read trip reports for the trail you are headed to. You can find these reports on the Washington Trails Association website and AllTrails websites.
Scroll down to the bottom of the web page and read the recent trip reports. Ideally, you can find a report that was written within a few days of your planned trip, so you get a good idea of how to prepare for your Washington winter hike before you go. Remember that trip reports are written by individual hikers and thus are based on that hiker’s skill-level and experience.
While you are researching trail conditions for your Washington winter hike, you should also make it a habit to check for avalanche risk. The Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center is a great reference for hazardous areas.
Where to hike in the winter:
Sol Duc Falls
Hoh River Trail
East Peak Rattlesnake Trail
For more options check out my list of Best Spring Hikes in Washington. Many of the Washington spring hikes are at lower elevations and might be accessible during the winter as well.
3. Rent A Cozy Cabin In The Woods
Maybe you’d rather take in views of the Washington winter through a double-paned glass window, sipping coffee or cocoa in your robe while the fire crackles in the fireplace of a cozy cabin you rented for the weekend.
Dozens of parks and small mountain towns offer a rich selection of cabins available as vacation rentals by the night, week, even month. You can find cabins for rent on sites like Airbnb.com or VRBO.com. You can find a cabin that is part of a rustic neighborhood, or a cabin secluded in the deep woods with nothing but trees for neighbors.
Where to rent a cozy cabin in Washington
There is no shortage of mountain towns in Washington that are perfect for a little cabin in the woods getaway. Here are a few of my favorite! Plug any of these destinations into Airbnb and find the cabin of your dreams:
4. Cross Country Ski In The Methow Valley
There’s never a bad time to visit the Methow Valley, one of my favorite destinations in the Pacific Northwest. Tucked into the northeastern foothills of the Cascade Mountains, with a much dryer and sunnier climate than the western slope of the Cascades, winter is the perfect time to visit. The Methow Valley is crisscrossed by 120 miles of nordic ski trails, maintained by the Methow Valley Trails Association. In fact, Methow Trails touts itself as the largest cross-country ski system in North America. There are also snowshoeing, fat tire biking, and hiking trails to explore.
Cross-country skiers in the Methow Valley can expect picturesque landscapes, a peaceful atmosphere and well-groomed terrain with trails for beginners and the experienced skier alike. For strong skiers, there’s even the option to do an overnight hut-to-hut ski adventure along the Rendezvous Trails. This network of backcountry huts allows visitors to pick their way across the valley with a series of invigorating overnight stays, warming your bones after each exhilarating day of cross-country skiing. The region is also a popular backcountry ski area, and is the base for North Cascade Heli Skiing.
5. Try Snowshoeing
If skiing and snowboarding don’t appeal to you, that doesn’t mean that the high elevations in Washington are out of the question. Snowshoes make the impassable passable, even when your destination is under 20 feet of snow.
Some of the greatest views, hot springs, and lodges in Washington are only accessible by snowshoe during the winter, so it’s a great hobby for a year-round outdoor enthusiast to take up.
Plus, it’s relatively easy to learn to snowshoe, compared to the difficulty of learning to ski or snowboard.
Where to go snowshoeing in Washington
Some of the best beginner-friendly snowshoe trains include:
Stevens Pass, just two hours’ drive from Seattle.
Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park.
Mt. Rainier National Park. Especially the Paradise area.
Crystal Mountain Resort in the shadow of Mt. Rainier.
The Summit at Snoqualmie Nordic Center.
Artist Point at Mount Baker.
6. Long Weekend In Leavenworth
When Washingtonians hear “Leavenworth,” we don’t think “prison”—we think “paradise.” Leavenworth, WA is a resort town that dates back to the timber-industry beginnings of settlement at Stevens Pass. Today, Leavenworth is a playground for adults and children alike, the perfect place to breathe fresh air, kick back, and relax surrounded by the glorious northern Cascades Mountains.
Crafted to resemble a rustic Bavarian village in the Alps, the charming architecture of downtown Leavenworth enjoys soaring, snow-capped peaks as its backdrop, the perfect setting for a gourmet meal or a leisurely day browsing high-end merchandise in upscale boutiques. In December, downtown Leavenworth lights up with dazzling displays of public Christmas lights.
Whether it’s the ritzy Bavarian Lodge, the remote Sleeping Lady Resort, or a secluded cabin at Alpine Lakes High Camp, Leavenworth wasn’t made for cooling your heels in your hotel room (although there’s certainly no harm in burning a day doing exactly that!) Once you’re ready to venture out, a world of winter adventure awaits!
For some summer fun near Leavenworth check out my guide for The Cascade Loop – Washington’s Best Road Trip!
What You’ll Need
7. Pamper Yourself At A Mountain Resort
It’s not all roughing it in Washington. For people who love to treat themselves, the soaring vistas of the Cascades Mountains and the Olympic Mountains have given rise to an elite selection of five-star resort spas where you can.
You can pass a weekend of massages, pedicures, plunges, and room-service champagne brunches while snow flurries rage outside the massive picture windows of your suite.
Where to stay at a mountain lodge in Washington
You have dozens of opulent mountain resorts to choose from in Washington. Two of my favorites (that are great for kids as well) are:
The Lodge at Suncadia
Roughly eighty miles east of Seattle, this grand, expansive resort hotel right outside of Leavenworth boasts spectacular northwest architecture and soaring views of the nearby mountains and rivers.
Sun Mountain Lodge
The gem of the Methow Valley, Sun Mountain Lodge is foodie heaven. The farm-to-table restaurant boasts one of the few AAA Four Diamond Awards in the state. It also has an award-winning wine cellar. Or just grab a beverage in the bar and enjoy the spectacular view! In the winter you can utilize any number of snowshoe and cross-country ski trails on the property and adjacent national forest.
8. Go For A Paddle
I know I know. For most people Stand Up Paddle Boarding is synonymous with sunshine, warm weather, and well frankly…summer. But I have to tell you that of all the potential winter activities on this list, Stand Up Paddle Boarding might be my favorite. And it’s precisely because most people don’t think of it. There are few things more magical than gliding across an empty lake on a calm crisp winter morning. No other people, no motorboats, no kids splashing around in the shallows. Just you and the rhythmic sound of your paddle. I’m tearing up a bit right now just thinking about it!
Of course, winter probably isn’t the best time to try out Paddle Boarding for the first time. You want to feel comfortable enough on the board that there’s essentially no risk of you falling in. That also means diligently checking the weather for wind on the day you want to go out. You’ll also want a personal flotation device, warm jacket, gloves, and a good pair of waterproof shoes (I like to use rubber boots because they make launching the SUP easier). Other than that, try winter Paddle Boarding once, and I guarantee you’ll never think of it as purely a summer sport again.
Where to Paddle Board in Washington
There’s no shortage of easily accessible lakes in Washington that are perfect for Stand-Up Paddle Boarding in the winter. If you’re near Seattle, there’s Lake Washington and Lake Union just a stone’s throw away from almost anywhere. But if you’re looking for more of a wilderness vibe these are my favorite spots:
Diablo Lake in the North Cascades.
Lake Wenatchee in the Central Cascades.
Lake Crescent in Olympic National Park.
Lake Cushman on the Olympic Peninsula.
9. Go Sledding
No, you’re never too old. Is there any more primal, childlike bliss than hiking up a hill and sliding back down on a plastic dish, a toboggan, a cookie tray, or whatever you can find?
The wind stinging your face, the rush of adrenaline, the satisfaction of speed … if there’s a snowy hill, a Washingtonian will sled down it with whatever vehicle is available. I strongly suggest that you join the fun.
The beauty of sledding is that it can be done anywhere, with just about anything. Most popular sledding destinations offer sled rentals. “Tubing,” a variation of sledding where you slide down hills in an inner tube, is equally popular. For something unique, there is the luge course at the Loup Loup ski area outside of Twisp, Washington (in the Methow Valley).
Where to do it!
Some of the best sledding destinations in Washington State include:
The Summit at Snoqualmie.
Hyak Snow Park.
Lake Wenatchee Sledding/Tubing Hill.
Hurricane Ridge at Olympic National Park.
Echo Valley at Lake Chelan.
Suncadia Resort Tubing Hill.
If you have avoided the Pacific Northwest in the winter because you thought it was too cold, or too inaccessible, think again. Washington in the wintertime is truly a sight to behold, with beauty and excitement around every corner … and we’re not trying to keep it a secret. Grab your camera, your ski cap, and your snowshoes—and come see for yourself.
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Happy Adventuring. – jess