Washington is the culmination of the geological and natural majesty of the Pacific Northwest. With its high mountains, primeval forests, and status as a gateway to the wilds of Canada and Alaska, Washington exists as a national and spiritual frontier for people across the country. For landscape and nature photographers, Washington is something of a mecca, offering spectacular artistic opportunities for all styles and genres. With its rugged coastlines, frigid peaks, alpine meadows, winding canyons, and abundant wildlife, there is something for every taste and persuasion. While one could never see the whole state in a single trip, the list below gives a taste of what Washington has to offer and should convince you why a visit to the Evergreen State is well worthwhile.
The Washington Coast
The Washington coastline has drawn admiration and awe from artists and tourists across the world, and there’s a good reason huge swaths of it are protected within the borders of Olympic National Park. Endless beaches of smooth grey stones run into groves of dark fir and cedar crisscrossed with secret hiking trails and campsites. At places like Rialto and Ruby Beach, sea stacks form natural islands with arches and rooftop gardens stretching all the way from the foaming surf to the horizon. Many of these beaches bear the brunt of the Pacific storms, and the warped silver sculptures of driftwood the size of eighteen-wheelers regularly wash up on shore, creating a beautiful and strange tableau of natural ruins.
Majestic Mountains of Washington
In opposition to the rhythmic fury of the ocean are the far and foreboding peaks of Washington’s two mountain ranges. To the west stand the Olympic Mountains, the secret peninsular refuge of wild bears, mountain goats, and old growth cedar. Though the Olympics may not stand as tall as ranges like the Rockies or the Sierras, drive up to Hurricane Ridge and you’ll experience a view like no other, with 360 degree panoramas of snow capped peaks and deep verdant valleys of hidden rivers and untouched wilderness.
To the east rises the northern terminus of the Cascades. What begins with Mount Shasta in California far to the south culminates in the volcanic towers of Mount Rainier, Mount Baker, Mount Saint Helens, and the glacial wilds between them all. In North Cascades National Park, the turquoise waters of Diablo and Ross Lake are surrounded by ancient forests rising up to mountainsides of lupine and scarlet paintbrush and finally crowned by a maze of ice, heather, and bare rock. It’s a sharp boundary between beauty and survival, drawing in climbers, hikers, and artists alike.
The Five Forests of Washington State
Washington has the greatest tree coverage of any state on the West Coast, and is home to five national forests: Colville, Gifford Pinchot, Mount Baker-Snoqualmie, Okanogan-Wenatchee, and Olympic. The forests of Washington are denser than in other places in the western U.S., making them difficult to navigate without a trail, but protecting unspoiled beauty all across the state. The Hoh Rainforest, on the western slopes of the Olympic Mountains, is especially of note for being the wettest place in the contiguous United States. Giant maples hung with tapestries of emerald moss guard the upper reaches of the Hoh River, a major migration route for steelhead and king salmon. In winter and late summer, lucky visitors might get a chance to see the silvery-red fish fluttering up the lazy stream to their natural breeding grounds deeper in the valley beneath Mount Olympus.
From an aerial perspective, the whole of Washington State appears split in two—a huge body of water separating the Olympic Peninsula from the rest of the state. This dividing line is known as Puget Sound, and runs north from the capital of Olympia until it hits the Strait of San Juan de Fuca and the marine border with Canada. Washington operates a number of car and passenger ferries which move down and across the sound, and taking a ride on one of them offers spectacular views of the mountains to the east and west and the best sunsets to be found anywhere in the state. The sound also offers easy access from Seattle to the more scenic areas near the coast.
Islands of Washington State
Spread within Puget Sound are scores of islands, ranging in size from Dinner Island, with scarcely enough room for a large house, and Bainbridge Island, a major commuter hub for nearby Seattle. Each group of islands has its own personality, from the suburban getaways like Vashon and Bainbridge in the south to the quaint farmlands and private beaches of the San Juan Islands in the north. Most of these islands are only accessible by ferry, but it’s well worth it to spend a day and see some of the less explored insular wilds of the state.
Wild Rivers of Washington
With Washington’s high mountains and the bustling waterways of Puget Sound, it should come as no surprise that the state is home to a number of major rivers. At the border with Oregon is the mighty Columbia, carving through its eponymous plateau and making way for a collection of small towns, swimming holes, and majestic cliffs. To the north, the Skagit emerges from the redoubts of the Cascades before being dammed to create the brilliant blue waters of Ross Lake which power Seattle to the south. The Olympics are home to numerous runs of cool, clear water, from the Sol Duc and the Hoh to the Quinault, the recently freed Elwah, and many more. Each offers splendid hiking and ample opportunities to see and hear the mountain snow gradually making its way to the sea.
With rivers and mountains come waterfalls, and many spectacular cascades can be found across the state. Most famous of all are Snoqualmie Falls, the iconic landmark from the opening credits of the show Twin Peaks where visitors can watch tonnes of rumbling water plunge 268 feet into a deep pool below. Panther Creek Falls, in Gifford Pinchot National Forest, is a huge fan of white water flowing over a fountain of bright moss and black stone. At Palouse Falls, in eastern Washington, the Palouse River makes a sheer drop into a huge circular pool, throwing up rainbows throughout the day. There’s a trail to get down to it, but it’s considerably steep and narrow, and hikers take it at their own risk.
Canyons of The East
As part of the Pacific Northwest, Washington is often associated with evergreens, crashing surf, and high mountain peaks. However, to the east of the Cascades, this classic image is nowhere to be found. Instead, visitors encounter the “scablands,” a vast region of desert prairie carved through by deep canyons reminiscent of southern Utah or Arizona. The result of glacial erosion and the slow journey of turbid rivers, places like Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park offer an incongruous but intriguing view of a lesser-known side of Washington State.
This list is only a highlight reel of Washington’s scenery. The true beauty and majesty of the state comes from driving along the lonely evergreen highways, hiking through the flowered meadows, and hearing the roar of the Pacific through the cedars. Few places in the U.S., or even in the world offer such lush and full wilderness, and there’s good reasons photographers have been drawn here year after year and decade after decade.