By George! Washington has it all in the great outdoors

Globe-trotting John Carter - long-time presenter of the Wish You Were Here and BBC Holiday programmes - discovers the unspoilt pleasures of Seattle and Washington State.

Sunday, 8th December 2013, 8:00 am
Wild flowers on the flanks of Mount St Helens in Washington State, USA

Washington State gets a raw deal. For one thing, most people assume, when you mention its name, that you are referring to the capital of the USA – Washington D.C

Located in the North West corner of continental USA, Washington State, close to Canada and the Pacific Ocean, is often overlooked as a holiday destination. Which is a pity, because it is an area of unspoiled, staggering beauty worthy of any traveller’s time and attention.

More than half its 71,000-plus square miles are forests, the great majority of which are administered by the State itself, or the Federal Government. It also boasts the largest network of ferries in the USA (and, incidentally, the third largest in the world).

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Seattle is by far the largest city, and most people assume it is the state capital. That is incorrect and the honour goes to Olympia – a town with a population of less than 50,000 located in Thurston county, on the southern tip of Puget Sound.

Seattle is the gateway, and the best place to begin a holiday in Washington State. Unfortunately, many visitors never get to enjoy its parks, restaurants, shops, bars and night life, as they are only interested in getting from the airport to the cruise terminal and joining ships heading into the Pacific or north towards Alaska. This is their loss, as two to three days would give them a taste of this great walking city.

Built, like a few other excellent cities, on seven hills, it benefited from the Klondike Gold Rush in the late 1800s, and one of its museums is dedicated to that period of its history.

Other museums are well worth visiting, including the Museum of Flight, whose exhibits include Air Force One and Concorde. It has fine parks and gardens, as well as being home to Seattle Symphony Orchestra, Seattle Opera and the Pacific North West Ballet company.

Unlike many American cities, it is a place you can explore on foot. It has a superb market area (Pike Place Market) and excellent restaurants, which make the most of locally grown produce and Washington State wines.

Fine though Seattle is, there are other places of interest in the state. One of my favourites is Leavenworth, the centre of which is modelled on a Bavarian village, and worth visiting for that aspect alone. A timber community since the end of the 19th century, it is located near the Wenatchee National Forest and the Glacier Peak wilderness, thus attracting lovers of the outdoors as well as hikers and climbers. Its most unusual attraction, however, is a museum devoted to Nutcrackers!

Then there’s Chelan, from where you may enjoy the natural beauty of Lake Chelan Valley and the North Cascades National Forest. It’s a pleasant little community which started life as a military fort in the 1870s, which was quickly abandoned.

At that point, settlers who had come to trade with the native Americans discovered that orchards thrived, as did other crops. Today it is at the heart of a successful agricultural region.

The climate of the state is affected by the Cascades mountain range, which runs roughly north-south. On the western side of the range, winds from the Pacific deposit plenty of rain, while the sheltered eastern side enjoys much drier conditions. Benefiting from this are towns like Mazama, which is growing in reputation and popularity as a winter sports resort. In the summer, however, it attracts people who want to hike the lower slopes of the Cascades, or enjoy the area’s unspoiled beauty at a more leisurely pace.

If anything sums up the attraction of Washington State, it is that humans have made hardly any impact upon it. Huge swathes of rolling landscape, prime agricultural land or magnificent forests are there to be enjoyed.

And where people have settled – in smart cities like Seattle, or smaller, homelier, places – they have created pleasant communities.

There is so much to see and do in this unfairly neglected part of the USA. The Olympic National Park, for example, is located on the Olympic Peninsula between the Pacific Ocean and the Hood Canal. Ideal for ramblers and anglers and lovers of the great outdoors, it has lakes and waterfalls, rivers and mountains, beaches and rain forest. Something for everyone, in fact.

Then there is Puget Sound and the San Juan islands. Some 83 small and uninhabited islands have been designated a National Wildlife Refuge, but the larger Matia and Turn islands are accessible.

In addition to the area’s natural and well-protected beauty, it is also possible to go whale watching hereabouts. Trips are offered by a number of local operators – at least one of whom guarantees that you will see whales!

I have to give the last word to Seattle. Maybe not a capital, but a city that has made its mark throughout the world. Not just with its iconic Space Needle, but with the global brands of Starbucks, Boeing and Microsoft.

Those are just three of its local “trademarks”. There are very many more in a city whose size doesn’t overwhelm you.

The beauty of Washington State, however, is certain to do so.