Washington - Nature and Scientific Wonders | Travel | Smithsonian
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Washington - Nature and Scientific Wonders

Washington - Nature and Scientific Wonders

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It's no wonder Washington is called the "Evergreen State" with 120 state parks, three national parks, two national monuments, a national scenic area, a national historic reserve, six national forests, 18 national wildlife refuges and a national marine reserve to its name. Some consider the entire state one giant wildlife-watching preserve and with good reason.

Olympic National Park boasts the nation's longest wilderness coastline, and one of only a few temperate rainforests in the country. Just forty miles from where forest and surf collide, icy mountain peaks pierce the sky. In between these extremes, ancient trees draped in moss reside deep inside the rainforest. Salmon and steelhead make annual runs up rivers that flow all four directions from these jagged peaks. Roads provide access to the outer edges of the park, but the heart of Olympic is wilderness; a primeval sanctuary for humans and wild creatures alike.

Almost completely surrounding Olympic National Park is Olympic National Forest, which features five wilderness areas, six vegetation zones and seven-thousand-foot peaks rising in the distance. This easy to get to, diverse forest is accessible to hikers of every skill level and offers prized fishing on its westward-flowing creeks and rivers. There is wildlife here found nowhere else in the world.

Mount Rainier National Park, in Pierce county, circles one of the tallest peaks in the U.S., the Northwest's popular icon, Mount Rainier. Early Native Americans revered Mount Rainier, itself an active stratovolcano, as Tahoma, "the mountain that was God." Here visitors can discover trails, wildflowers and waterfalls, bird watching, snow sports and more. Come to camp or enjoy a stay at a historic lodge. Hike the Wonderland Trail or learn about glaciers from park rangers at Longmire, Paradise, Sunrise, and Ohanapecosh visitor centers.

From the northern flanks of Mount Rainier National Park to the Canadian border, with peaks named Forbidden, Formidable and Desolation in between, Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest includes two active volcanoes and North Cascade National Park.

Rugged and remote, the half-million-acre North Cascades National Park is one of the most pristine national parks in the country. This surprisingly accessible expanse includes national wilderness areas, lakes and over 300 glaciers—more than any other U.S. national park, in the lower 48 states. Three park units in this mountainous region are managed as one, including North Cascades National Park, Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas. Almost 400 miles of trails and vast undeveloped wilderness allow visitors to experience nature with minimal human-influence. Experiences range from accessible trails to world-class mountaineering, including scenic drives, hiking, camping, nature-watching, relaxation, boating and fishing.

Washington's national forests are blanketed with more than a million acres of cedar, hemlock and Douglas fir. One of America's first national forests was southwest Washington's Gifford Pinchot, named in honor of America's first professionally-trained forester. The massive Gifford Pinchot National Forest encompasses 1.3 million acres between Mt. Rainier National Park and the Columbia River, including the entire Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.

Washington State is home to five active volcanoes: Mount Baker, Glacier Peak, Mount Rainier, Mount Adams and Mount St. Helens. Mount St. Helens is famous for its May 18, 1980 eruption, during which nearly 230 square miles of forest were blown down or buried beneath volcanic deposits. Though it hasn't seen an eruption since, the volcano remains active and unpredictable, making each trip a new experience.

At Alpine Lakes wilderness in the northern part of the state, nearly 700 crystal lakes scattered among glacier-carved terrain are what give this extensive wilderness its name. Over 615 miles of trail snake their way through thick forests and open meadows, offering some of the best hiking, camping and rock-climbing in the Western United States.

Colville National Forest in north eastern Washington, offers over one million acres of forest, lakes and rivers in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, attracting those looking for adventure, wildlife or seclusion. Motorcycle and snowmobile trails wind through the area and in some places, mountain lions, moose and bear outnumber humans.

On the Olympic Peninsula, the Hoh Rain Forest boasts an intense, verdant spectrum. Ferns and mosses surround and drape ancient cedars in a mysterious world that receives 13 feet of rainfall each year. Day trippers enjoy small doses of the 17.5-mile Hoh River Trail, while overnighters can completely surround themselves with the fauna and flora unique to the region. .

Juniper Dunes National Forest in the south eastern part of the state, has been dubbed "Washington's Sahara." It is a land of rolling dunes accented by western juniper trees, creating a striking image amongst the sand. See a lizard dart out from behind a shrub and listen to the melodic tunes of the meadowlarks. Accessed only by foot, this peaceful area feels a world away.

At Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, in south west Washington, forested walls squeeze the mighty Columbia River, creating a striking corridor and recreational haven. Volcanic Cascade Mountain peaks seemingly protect the Gorge to the north and south. Waterfalls, wind surfer sails and stunning views make it a camera clicking Mecca.

Located on the northern tip of the Olympic Peninsula, Cape Flattery occupies contiguous America's northwestern most point, and is acclaimed as one of the most beautiful spots on the Peninsula. From the newly renovated cedar-planked trail and observation perches catch a glimpse of otters, sea lions, seals and whales. There are also fantastic views of the forbidden Tatoosh Island, the former Makah tribe fishing and whaling camp.

Located on the Long Beach Peninsula to the south, and fronted by the Pacific Ocean to the west, Cape Disappointment State Park is anything but. The park offers 27 miles of ocean beach, two historic lighthouses (the North Head Lighthouse is the oldest active lighthouse on the West Coast), an interpretive center and hiking trails. Visitors can enjoy beachcombing or exploring the area's rich natural and cultural history at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center where a series of mural-sized timeline panels chronicle the Corps of Discovery's epic journey through paintings, sketches, photographs and the words of the explorers themselves.

Powerful geological forces have endowed Washington with many unique and awe-inspiring natural attractions such as the picturesque sea stacks at Ruby Beach, the magnificent cliffs of Dry Falls and the massive ice sheets of Nisqually Glacier.

Other regional geological wonders come in the form of hot springs—mineral rich waters from deep within the earth that some believe offer bathers therapeutic cleansing in pristine surroundings. Find these healthy, healing waters in the Columbia River Gorge as well as the Cascade and Olympic Mountains.

Wildlife enthusiasts will find many opportunities to get up close and personal with animals on land, sea and in the air. See wild salmon and trout return to their native creeks and rivers each fall or visit state and national hatcheries where tours and exhibits explain the life cycle of the fish. Enjoy whale watching in the San Juan Islands, or spot the largest congregation of wintering bald eagles in the contiguous U.S. on the upper Skagit River in the north part of the state. Learn about nature and geological history at Gingko Petrified Forest, Sun Lakes-Dry Falls and the Mount St. Helens Interpretive Center at Silver Lake.

The Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge, shaped by volcanoes, glaciers and planet Earth's largest flood, boasts a landscape of channeled canyons, marshes, lakes, wetlands and pine forest that offer critical breeding habitat for several species of waterfowl.

Another bird-watching haven, the Great Washington State Birding Trail, has four completed routes—the Olympic Loop to the west, the Coulee Corridor in the central part of the state, the Cascade Loop to the north and Southwest Loop —and three proposed trails. Each of these have designated sites for birders, novice to expert, to spot many of the state's nearly 500 resident and fly-through species.

Beneath the full moon in open fields south of Olympia, a chorus of howls riveting the night sky could be wolves, humans or both. Howl-Ins are one of the most popular events at Wolf Haven, a visitor-friendly sanctuary offering guided walking tours, seasonal programs and sleepovers.

From North America's largest concrete dam – Grand Coulee – to many more modest creations, Washington's water walls form backwater recreation areas up to 150 miles long. Dams on the Columbia, Snake and many of Mt. Rainier's rivers create playgrounds for boaters, floaters, fishermen and water-skiers.

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