Seattle: An Urban Hiker’s Paradise

Seattle, the home of 90’s grunge, Starbucks Coffee, ‘flying’ fish and plenty of rain, has become a booming metropolis that hits the top of travelers lists year after year. And how can you blame them? Seattle offers a bit of everything—from high end seafood to museums, breweries and easy access to some of the country’s highest peaks, travelers can create an itinerary guaranteed for a trip of a lifetime.

So where do you start when planning a visit to Seattle? For hikers, I advise splitting your time between the city and the nearby national parks, but make sure to hit the following spots in the city.

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Pike’s Market Inventory

Pike’s Place Market

You’ve seen the videos of fishmongers tossing large fish across their booth in front of large crowds, but seeing the spectacle first hand is wildly different. Even for the travelers who try to avoid big tourist traps, it’s hard to find an excuse to skip Pike’s. With fruit stands selling Rainier cherries and fish markets wafting that amazing ‘freshly caught’ scent, you don’t have to buy anything to get the full experience (although we recommend saving Pike’s for a lunch stop, just to buy up some of the pre-made goodies). Head to the far end towards the docks for gift shopping, with handmade jewelry and t-shirts for everyone on your list. And don’t forget to visit the original Starbucks location across the street.

BONUS STOP: If you’re an art nerd like us, be sure to visit the Seattle Art Museum. With a vast collection of Pacific Northwest totems and other sculptures, it’s a brilliant way to escape the inevitable rain of the city and learn a little about the culture of the area. If the sun is shining, take a detour over to the art museum’s satellite Olympic Sculpture Park for a more modern experience.

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Despite Seattle’s reputation as a rainy city, July through October is a perfect time to catch blue skies.

Space Needle

Another bucket list item that travelers shouldn’t miss when visiting Seattle, this iconic and extraterrestrial looking tower has become a symbol of the city (Although, first timers may expect a much larger and more prominent structure that can be seen from every point of the city. That is actually more true to Mt. Rainier in the distance.). For photographers, skip the long and expensive line up to the top of the Space Needle and instead head up to the Sky View Observatory. Or, experience the landmark from the ground, walking through the Space Needle Park complex, which includes stops at the Chihuly Garden and Glass Museum, the Museum of Pop Culture (which includes memorabilia from Nirvana and other Seattle musicians) and the Seattle Children’s Museum.

 

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Gas Works Park looking east.

Gas Works Park

 

If it’s parks with great views you’re looking for, be sure to add the Gas Works Park to your list. Located across Lake Union, this former site of the Seattle Gas Light Company offers spectacular views of the city with a steampunk-esque gas plant in the foreground. It’s a great spot for a picnic or some wandering, and lets you enjoy the city without stress of crowded streets.

Capitol Hill

Like many cities, Seattle boasts an array of neighborhoods surrounding the city center, each with their own charm. One of the more popular neighborhoods is Capitol Hill, east of downtown, at the tip of Lake Union. This area is perfect for those looking for some nightlife entertainment, with plenty of restaurants, bars, and a vibrant LGBTQ scene. Make a stop over to Volunteer Park and climb the historic water tower for more breathtaking views of the city.

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The Fremont Troll is a must-see when visiting Seattle

Fremont

Seattle is a bit quirky, and there’s no better example of such quirks than in the northern neighborhood of Fremont. Here you can see popular public art like the controversial sculpture of Vladimir Lenin, or take a photo with the Fremont Troll, an 18-foot tall sculpture of a troll under the bridge. Enjoy shopping and dining in the neighborhood center, or watch the ships go by on the canal.

Ballard

Northwest of Fremont is another quirky section of Seattle. Ballard, a fishing community, boasts its Scandinavian roots at the Nordic Heritage Museum, which tells the story of the community. And if you’re looking for some beach time, head down to the coast and relax at the Golden Gardens Park.

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Ballard Docks

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Hikers break in Olympic National Park

Get Outside

While you can easily spend a week exploring everything that Seattle has to offer, we recommend taking some time to rent a car and drive out to one of the many National Parks. Whether you’re looking for a day hike, or a multi-day backpacking trek, you’ll easily be able to find everything you need in a few hours drive. From the city, you can see the snowcapped peaks of Mt. Rainier to the south, or Mt. Baker to the north, which can both be easily reached in a day trip. Or, take a drive east to explore the North Cascades, or take the ferry west to the Olympic peninsula and spend a few days at Olympic National Park. We guarantee by the time your vacation is up, you’ll be eagerly planning another visit.

National Parks Week: April 21-29

Imagine for a moment that you are an explorer. It’s 1805 and you’re heading out into the unknown territories west of the Mississippi River. Already, you are aware of the changing landscapes of the country—the sand dunes of Massachusetts’ coastline quickly transition to rolling green hills, to flattened farm lands. You’re not exactly sure what the west will offer, but it’s doubtful that you’d expect to stumble upon the snowcapped peaks of the Rocky Mountains rising high above the plains, or the red-yellow sands of the southwest. I think about this every time I travel to one of the 60 National Parks across the United States. It’s hard to not be amazed by these parks, and how they have remained *mostly* untouched since the days of our explorers, and how the National Parks Service has preserved these places for generations to come.

It wasn’t until August 25, 1916 that President Woodrow Wilson established the United States National Parks Service, but these parks have existed far before. This week, the National Parks Service is celebrating National Parks Week, with free admission on Saturday, April 21, and special events across the country.

For me, this week is a great moment to reflect—as a hiker and traveler, I’ve always felt a natural pull to visit these 60 parks. In my travels, I’ve realized that the role of the National Parks Service doesn’t stop at these parks though, with National Monuments, historic sites, cemeteries, memorials, and more, you see their distinct logo everywhere you go, preserving the history and culture of this country.

To celebrate the week, I’ve highlighted stories from parks that have made a mark on my own life. It’s a little different from my usual urban hiking guides, but I hope it inspires your travels just as much. Each day, I will add a section—feel free to comment, share your own story, and ask questions. Enjoy!

 

April 28: Looking to the Future

For over 100 years, the National Parks Service has protected our countries wilderness, and provided fun and safe opportunities for families and adventurers alike. But while we continue to celebrate all the good that these parks offer, we also must be aware of the threats that our National Parks face today.

Climate Change: This is a very real, growing concern across the world. Researchers in our National Parks are seeing rapid melting of glaciers high in the mountains, while worsening storms are threatening the historic and natural coastlines across the country. Photos of our parks at their establishment look very different compared to now, and it is up to us to help slow this process. While there are ways to help out on your visits, the best way to slow climate change starts at home—use renewable energy, recycle, shop local—all these methods and more help lower your carbon footprint.

Administration Changes: Since Donald Trump took office in 2017, his administration has rapidly fought to lower sanctions to preserving National Monuments across the country. As more proposals surface that threaten the future of these monuments, it is up to us as advocates to pressure the government to reconsider. Do your research, sign petitions, talk to your local and state officials about your concerns. Together we can help save these important landmarks for our future!

Want to support the U.S. National Parks Service? We suggest starting here.

 

April 27: North Cascades National Park

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FUN FACT: This October, the North Cascades turns 50!

Today we’re heading back to Washington State, this time to explore the mainland. With hiking, camping, backpacking, and plenty of educational programs, this is a great option for visitors traveling to Seattle and looking for an alternative to the city for a few days. When passing through, a must-see spot is Diablo Lake, with its greenish-blue glacial water. Here, you can book a campsite and stay overnight, or make a pit stop and hike up to one of many look out points. Just passing by? The overlook point off the main road is perfect for a bathroom break and some selfies!

 

April 26: Historical Sites

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Boston’s Freedom Trail is the best urban hike–an entire walking tour of the history of the city and its involvement in the Revolutionary War!

The National Parks Service is all about history, and where better to look than in your own hometown! The thought struck me a few years ago when I moved back to Boston and met an employee of the National Park Service—at first I was confused, I thought the closest National Park was in Maine. With a little explanation to my naive assumptions, I learned that the National Parks Service actually protects historical sites all over the country.

Here in Boston, the entire city is considered a historic thanks to its Freedom Trail. Spend the day learning about how Boston played a role in the American Revolution, and stop by the Boston Tea Party Museum to toss tea in harbor. An hour south of Boston is New Bedford, famous for its whaling community. Today, you can visit the National Historic Site, which includes the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

Want to find a National Historic Park in your state? The National Parks Service has a nifty Find a Park feature where you can search by state—it couldn’t be easier!

 

April 25: Joshua Tree National Park

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Joshua Tree’s unique desert landscape allows you to hike out to far distances and still see the road. 

We’ve written a lot about this park in the past—it’s one of our favorites! Unlike the towering mountains of the northwest, Joshua Tree provides a perfect setting for climbers. Located just a few hours east of LA and San Diego, you can explore Joshua Tree’s desert landscape in a day, or opt to camp overnight and experience the night sky (a popular activity is night photography, you can try it out yourself or sign up for a workshop).

The park offers hiking trails, horseback riding, and rock climbing, depending on your preference, so be sure to plan ahead. And don’t forget to pack plenty of water!

 

April 24: National Memorials

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TIP: Get up early to explore the National Memorials in Washington D.C. You’ll beat the crowds, and get some beautiful shots.

The National Parks Service doesn’t just cover the preservation of nature. In fact, the role of the organization goes far beyond that, preserving the history and culture of our country as well. Such is the case with the 29 National Memorials around the country, each dedicated to honor a historic person or event in the United States’ history.

Probably the most well-known (and most visited) circuit of National Memorials reside in the nation’s capital of Washington D.C. In just one afternoon, you can hit all of the significant memorials along the National Mall (we wrote a full urban hiking guide about this, with details on what not to miss).

Fortunately, there are other memorials scattered across the country, so if you are planning a visit somewhere be sure to do your research and see what you might find. A few of our favorites:

  • Hamilton Grange: For those still obsessing over the Broadway musical ‘Hamilton,’ you can visit the Founding Father’s home in New York City. It’s a perfect pairing if you manage to score tickets to the show!
  • Mount Rushmore: South Dakota’s claim to fame, this memorial honors four former U.S. Presidents: Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln. It’ a perfect stop on a road trip across the country.
  • Flight 93 Memorial: A more somber spot, this memorial honors the lives and bravery of the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93, who on September 11, 2001, stopped their hijackers from reaching the intended target, and crashed the plane into a field in Pennsylvania.

 

April 23: Acadia National Park

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Jordan Pond is a must-see when visiting Acadia. Take a hike around the pond or head up to the North and South Bubbles for more of a challenge.

Another New England vacation staple, Acadia National Park is located in Maine and is perfect for a long weekend or a full week, providing families with ample options for all outdoorsy types. And, the adjacent town of Bar Harbor provides visitors with a change of pace, with shopping, restaurants, and excursions for those who prefer a more leisurely visit.

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TIP: For first time visitors, we highly recommend getting up early to catch the sunrise at the top of Cadillac Mountain. You can either drive, or, for those willing to get up at 2 a.m., hike to the peak and watch the sun poke up over the horizon.

Like Olympic National Park, Acadia offers travelers both ocean and mountain views. Hiking trails are available for all levels—the Jordan Pond loop is an easy hike (and includes a stop at the Jordan Pond House for lunch!), or if you are looking for more of a challenge, we recommend climbing up the North and South Bubbles, or braving the rocky Beehive. In the warmest of months, the ocean is still cold, but you will see a few brave souls swimming at Echo Lake Beach or Sand Beach. Or, if you love biking, the Carriage Road trails are a fun way to experience the park, with plenty of covered bridges and archways to pass through (bring your camera!). There’s also scenic roads around the park, so take a drive and explore with the whole family!

 

April 22: Olympic National Park

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Whether you are doing a day hike or an overnight trek, hiking in the Olympics is a popular activity in the summer months. Be sure to secure your permit early if you plan to camp!

My first visit to this park happened by accident. The short version of the story is that while our original plan was to backpack in the North Cascades, the horrible string of wildfires that summer caused us to make last minute changes. In the end, I’m glad that was the case because this National Park quickly climbed up on my list of all-time favorites.

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Early morning sunrise by Deer Lake.

Being from the east coast, you don’t really get to see mountains like the ones out west. I think at every twist and turn of driving and hiking through this park, I was amazed by the landscape around me, to the point that ‘Wow’ became my most-used phrase of 2017. We were able to secure backpacking permits to spend some time hiking and camping deep in the park, and encountered a few pairs of mom and cub black bears (aww) and had a family of deer decide it would be fun to hang out with us while we cooked dinner each night. A good tip for backpackers—our trip was in early September, a perfect time to camp (it’s warm during the days, and manageable at night, as long as you bring layers), and with less crowds we were able to get last-minute passes to some of the better camping spots. Don’t bank on that tough, try to secure your permits early so you have a guaranteed spot to stay while you visit.

Olympic National Park isn’t just for die-hard hikers though, with beaches, mountains, and rain forests all within a few hours of each other, it’s a park perfect for all ages. Be sure to take the road up to Hurricane Ridge and stop by the visitor’s center, or spend some time looking at the Pacific tide pools.

 

April 21: Cape Cod National Seashore

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The early crowd at Cape Cod National Seashore.

I grew up in Massachusetts. For me, a beach vacation out to Cape Cod was just something everyone did—it was within driving distance and fairly affordable, and a great way to cool off on those hot summer days. What I didn’t realize though was that the Cape Cod National Seashore, which extends along the eastern coast of Cape Cod’s ‘arm,’ is one of the best-preserved coastlines this country has.

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TIP: There are multiple beaches you can visit along the Cape Cod National Seashore, each with its own charms. My favorite is Race Point, located at the tip of Cape Cod near Provincetown. It’s a perfect trip to pair beach time with exploring Provincetown after, but be sure to leave some time to catch the sunset—Cape Cod sunsets will always be my favorite.

We can thank President John F. Kennedy for that. Free of development (including a lack of snack shacks, so be sure to pack in and out all of your food), Cape Cod’s National Seashore is perfect for beachgoers who prefer the quiet. Sand dunes tower over you as you walk along the beaches and if you are lucky, you may even catch a glimpse of a whale out on the horizon! It’s a bit of a hike from the parking lots, but always worth the trek.

Unfortunately, due to the dreadful winter we had this year, the National Seashore has taken a beating from high winds and waves. That doesn’t mean that the Parks Service isn’t working to restore the beaches, but for the regular visitors you may notice some significant changes in the coastline this year, and in years to come—erosion like this has become more and more common each year thanks to the effects of climate change around the world.

 

Part of the Family

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View from the Lost Iguana resort outside La Fortuna, Costa Rica

There’s pros and cons to every form of travel—whether you’re with a tour group, a self-guided trip, alone or with friends, we all have our own image of a perfect vacation. Within the millennial travel blogger realm, I see a lot of think pieces about traveling solo, with tips on what to do/ not to do, safety, or the benefits. Those are great pieces to read about, especially for me, a woman, who may face certain challenges as I backpack across Europe alone. It’s important to read up on others’ experiences and hear their advice before going on your own trek.

However, what if you decide to travel with a group? Or even more specific, what if you decide to travel with your family? On your solo adventures, the only person you have to cater to is yourself—you get to dictate which museums you visit and when, how late you want to stay at a bar, or if you should change your flight and stay on an island one extra day (tempting, right). But when you’re with a group, your needs are as equal as the others you’re traveling with, and many times you have to compromise to make sure everyone has a good time. That’s the key too—everyone needs to have fun.

Such was the case for me earlier this year when I traveled to Costa Rica. The country itself had never been high on my radar, but when an opportunity to visit my youngest sister there came up, I was sprinting out to the store to buy a guidebook. What I learned in my own research first, is that Costa Rica is a hub for adventurers (which made me wonder why I had never had it on my list before!). Between each coast you can hike in the rainforest, climb a volcano, zipline through the canopies, and surf the Atlantic or Pacific (your choice). And let’s not forget about the sloths. There are so many sloths.

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The beaches at Manuel Antonio.

If I was traveling solo, my trip would easily be booked with days and days of adventure. Instead, I was traveling with family, where each member had his/her own skill set, interests, and comfort level when it came to traveling through a new country. Originally, I had written out an itinerary similar to the trips I had organized in Europe—day to day outlines with travel, hotel options, and activities in each location. Because of the timing, I set aside two parts to the trip—a few days on the beach, and a few days up in the mountains.

Reading into the travel portion of our plans, I forgot that driving in a foreign country is never the same as driving in the U.S.—five hours of straight driving here is easy, but there, you’re venturing through winding streets up and down the mountains of the countryside (and watch out for gators!). Luckily, it was my father who suggested we hire a driver to do the heavy lifting. It was the best decision we made on that trip.

For first timers to the country, I would recommend consulting a travel guide. We went through Costa Rican Vacations (http://www.vacationscostarica.com) and they hooked us up—they set up the drivers, scheduled our tours, and booked our hotels for us for the whole week. All we had to do was show up.

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Hiking selfie in La Fortuna.

For me, going through a tour guide isn’t always my first choice—I tend to feel restricted, and without the freedom to travel at my own pace (very fast), I worry about missing something. But due to our circumstances, and the fact that none of us had traveled to Costa Rica before, this was an opportunity to put the planning in the hands of the experts. It was our priority first to have fun.

Of course, there was also compromise in our day to day decisions—the heat was difficult to deal with, so spending an entire day at the beach wasn’t ideal for everyone in our family. The cliffs made it hard for the non-hikers to get to certain beaches, and I had to learn how to sit still, but together, we were able to make memories we’d cherish forever.

During our trip we stayed in two areas: Manuel Antonio and the Arenal Volcano region. We took a few guided nature walks and got to see sloths and monkeys up close, we swam in the warm ocean, and hiked through the rainforest (on our last day in Arenal, I stepped on a viper while hiking and determined it was time to go). But what I remember (and miss) most, were the hours we spent lounging by the pool, with the gorgeous view of the ocean behind us. It’s an out of character memory for me, but those were the moments where I was able to reflect and simply enjoy the ride.

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Local Costa Rican iguana + a view in Manuel Antonio.