Amid Natural Wonders Galore, Seattle Offers Cerebral Recreation and Outdoor Activities
By Corinne Whiting
Seattle Local Expert
Situated between two major mountain ranges on the banks of Puget Sound, Seattle exists in a virtual wonderland for outdoor recreation. Amidst all of this nature, though, Seattle is also a smart and sophisticated place, known for technology and airplanes as much as for salmon and Sasquatch. Activities and attractions here match that dichotomy, providing equal doses of extreme and more mellow, indoor sports.
The city’s commitment and connection to its marine surroundings are on view at the Seattle Aquarium. As an alternative, though, visitors can choose to get out on the water, either by sea kayak rental or by riding the Washington State Ferry system. There are multitudes of scenic waterfront and woodland parks at which to enjoy the region’s natural beauty, and the piece de resistance is Mt. Rainier National Park, where visitors can get up close to the namesake peak, hike, camp or picnic.
In Ballard, The Chittenham Locks, where ships travel from the Puget Sound to Lake Washington and Lake Union, exemplifies Seattle’s dependence on its waterways and educates the public about salmon conservation. On the cerebral side, Seattle museums offer enlightenment on aviation, history and industry, art and science. And here, even music and sci-fi get time in the spotlight, thanks to the 140,000-square-foot Frank O. Gehry-designed Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Hall of Fame at Seattle Center.
Seattle Asian Art Museum
Seattle's proximity to the Pacific Rim, combined with its substantial and longstanding Asian population, make the city an obvious home for a first-class repository of Asian art and artifacts. Primarily focusing on the work of artists from India, Japan, and Korea, the museum features an extensive array of pan-Asian art. Its collections encompass paintings, sculptures, and textiles, among other media, offering a broad cultural perspective on Asia's diverse traditions. Themes are both secular and religious, the latter highlighted by displays such as a meditating Buddha and Hindu deities, which illuminate the significance and reach of Asia's many religions. The museum store offers Asian merchandise and books. (206-654-3100, 206-654-3121)
Well, we still don't have jet packs and flying cars, but the most iconic symbol of that 1960's space-age promise -- the Space Needle -- still stands as Seattle's most-recognized tourist attraction. Built for the 1962 World's Fair, the forward-looking theme of which was "Century 21," the 602-foot Needle looks like a huge flying saucer on a towering tripod. At the 520-foot level, the observation deck provides panoramic views of the area's surrounding bays, lakes, mountains, and other points of interest. Just below, at 500-feet, diners enjoy a 360-degree view in the revolving Sky City restaurant. On the way up to, entertaining and comedic elevator operators rattle off fun facts and invite visitors to test their Needle knowledge. (206-905-2100)
Woodland Park Zoo
Encompassing some 65 wild acres in the midst of urban Seattle, this world-class zoo houses more than 1,000 animals from 290 species and draws over a million visitors annually. Lush, forest-like habitats replicate the wild, so exhibits closely resemble natural habitats. The Bug World exhinit is a favorite for children, with live creepy crawly specimens that include walking sticks, beetles, and ants. Other popular exhibits include the elephant forest, African savanna, snow leopards, and jaguars. In rain-prone Seattle, the zoo's multiple indoor exhibits and viewing areas keep the zoo experience from being deluged. are also available should the weather be uncooperative. Picnics are popular with the zoo crowd, but cafes and food kiosks cater to visitors, as well. (206-548-2500)
Northwest Trek Wildlife Park
Founded in the late 1970s by a retired Tacoma pediatrician and his wife, who donated the 715 acres for the park, this regional gem is home to more than 200 species of indigenous wildlife. In residence are snowy owls, river otters, bald eagles, lynxes, gray wolves, cougars, grizzly and black bears, and bobcats. On a good day, all of these creatures and more can be spotted during the 50-minute tram ride that meanders through the park. For the more adventurous, five miles of trails that wind through this pristine wilderness. The Cheney Discovery Center provides interpretive nature education for kids, and the Fir Bough Cafe is the perfect place to fuel up for more exploring and learning. (360-832-6117, 360-832-7152)
Washington State Ferries
With the largest ferry fleet in the United States, the Washington State Ferry system operates 22 boats. Lining up to drive a vehicle onto the deck of the vessel is just the beginning of a truly Northwest experience. Onboard, get out of the car and enjoy educational and interpretive signage around the ship. Grab a latte or hot chocolate to warm your hands, and step out into the brisk salt air on the open passenger deck to take in the passing bay, mountain and island views. Just two possible itineraries for a day trip to explore Puget Sound from the main Seattle terminal include the Seattle-Bainbridge Island Edmonds run or the route for Fauntleroy-Vashon Island-Edmonds. The fleet's biggest boats travel between Seattle and Bainbridge; the island offers a combination of rural charm and sophisticated amenities. Fares vary seasonally by route. (206-464-6400, 1-800-843-3779)
Otters are the highlight on any visit to Seattle Aquarium. The friendly looking, furry critters are just so cute--no matter what they're doing--that it's hard to tear yourself away from their spacious habitat. This is especially true at feeding time, when these whiskered characters really ham it up for fresh fish. The otters are worth the price of admission, but there is plenty more to see. The main highlight is the underwater dome that submerges visitors beneath the waves of an encapsulated Puget Sound, putting them face to face with a host of indigenous Pacific Northwest marine life, including the giant octopi that live in its murky depths. No aquarium would be complete without an educational component, and here that includes a marine touch tank for children and a information on the life cycle of salmon. (206-386-4300)
Museum of Glass
A centerpiece of Tacoma's downtown revival, the Museum of Glass appears to have sprouted right out of the bank along the Thea Foss Waterway. A gleaming steel cone, 90 feet tall, tilts at an improbable angle as its house-sized base emerges from within the building and tapers toward the sky. The huge cone is both the roof and the chimney vent of the museum's Hot Shop Amphitheater glass studio. The shop is the center of activity--a working studio complete with stadium seating from which visitors witness a continual schedule of glass-blowing demos. The museum's galleries host rotating exhibitions of contemporary glass art and related media from an international slate of artists. World-renowned glass sculptor Dale Chihuly is a Tacoma native, and his hand was behind the Bridge of Glass, an elevated pedestrian walkway connecting the glass museum to the nearby Washington State History Museum. (253-284-4719, 253-284-4750)
Pike Place Market
Sights, smells, and sounds make Pike Place a head-spinning whirlwind for first-time visitors. Fishmongers near the main entrance entice buyers with loud hawking and dexterous salmon throwing antics, the briny smell of fresh seafood filling the air. Countering that are the rows of vibrantly colorful flower stalls, which emit their pleasing perfumed aromas to passersby. Farm-fresh produce is mounded high along the aisles, and local artisans display their art and wares unique to the Northwest. Restaurants, a brewery, and specialty shops for everything from antiques to movie ephemera fill the multi-level maze. To help visitors find their way, the Market Foundation offers fun and informational tours Wednesdays through Saturdays, starting at the Market Heritage Center at 1531 Western Avenue. Once you have your bearings, pick out a favorite spot and enjoy some of the best people-watching around in this eclectic and progressive environment. (206-682-7453, 206-774-5249)
Museum of Flight
Hands-on informational and historical exhibits distinguish this museum, which appeals to aspiring pilots and to those whose feet have never left the ground. Displays in the Red Barn, where Boeing's first planes where constructed, chronicle the history of flight up to the late 1930s. In the six-story Great Gallery, more than 20 planes hang from the ceiling and cause guests to gape in amazement. Additional sights include a mock air traffic control center, an early Air Force One presidential plane, and a Blackbird, the fastest plane ever built. Furthermore, the outdoor airpark lets visitors explore some of the museum's largest planes. Other amenities include complimentary guided tours, a variety of free films, a cafe, and a museum store. (206-764-5720)
Mount Rainier National Park
This slumbering volcano is the most heavily glaciated mountain in the United States outside of Alaska. At 14,417 feet, it is the fifth tallest peak in the continental U.S. Because of its northern locale, glaciers and extreme weather, Washington State's prime peak is used by many mountaineering groups to train for ascents of the world's most challenging climbs. In warmer months, flocks of climbers challenge the summit's less strenuous routes, and throughout the year a variety of activities are available to extreme athletes and vacationing families alike. Hundreds of miles of hiking trails wind through dense forest past placid lakes and frothing waterfalls. The scenic Wonderland Trail encircles the entire park. There are also plenty of short, spectacular day trips for hiking in summer of snowshoeing and cross-country skiing in winter. Lodging is available at the historic inn at Paradise, where the visitor center offers meals and interpretive natural history. (360-569-2211, 877-270-7155)
About Corinne Whiting
Corinne hails from the other Washington, where she caught the travel bug early on. Corinne studied abroad in Strasbourg, France (undergrad) and in Edinburgh, Scotland (graduate school). She's backpacked around Australia, taught English in Argentina and explored (so far!) countries from Cambodia and Egypt to Turkey and China. Corinne served as associate editor at Where magazine for five years; as a freelancer, she now writes for publications like National Geographic Traveler and Amtrak's OnTrak. Here in the lovely Northwest, she's attempting to debunk the rain myths, up her coffee and live music quotient and find her Zen near/on the water.
Read more about Corinne Whiting here.