Experience Washington on the Water with these Activities

Make a splash in Washington's wild waters.

Written by Anne Larkin

From ocean waves to glacial lakes, raging rivers to placid streams, there’s a Washington water adventure for everyone. Below, writer Anne Larkin chronicles her summer exploring as many of Washington’s 157 miles of coastline, 169 rivers and 8,000 lakes as she could, in hot pursuit of watery adventure.

Surfing on the Olympic Peninsula

“Paddle, paddle!” I hear hollered from behind me for what must be the 100th time this morning. Body balanced on my surfboard, I give it all I’ve got. My arms windmill at my sides, propelling me along with the swelling wave. Then I feel it—the force of the water working with me rather than against me— and I hop to my feet and stay there, gliding, sailing, and flying toward shore. The nose of my board bonks into the sand, and I leap off, buzzing with the joy of my surfing success.

I’m at Westhaven State Park, just outside the fishing town of Westport on the Olympic Peninsula, surfing the jetty. I’ve been out here since sunrise, working up the courage and coordination to stand up on my surfboard, rented from Steepwater Surf Shop in town. Stuart, my boyfriend (and today, my surf coach), rides in, too, landing at the beach beaming. We got lucky; the swell is outstanding today.

Back out on my board behind the farthest break, I watch a squadron of brown pelicans playing with the surf, hugging the cresting waves, dipping their wings in the spray. I’m cozy in my neoprene, happy to just sit out here and feel the Pacific Ocean under and around me, the sun shining on my cheeks while I gaze out over the beach toward the far-off Olympics.

Sailing in the San Juan Islands

A few weeks later, I find myself farther north, bound for Friday Harbor and a day trip with San Juan Classic Day Sailing. After a scenic 90-minute drive from our home base in Seattle to the ferry terminal in Anacortes, Stuart and I walk on (though cars are welcome) to the Hyak, one of ferries in Washington’s iconic fleet, for an hour-long journey past evergreen shores poking out of the fog.

Our vessel is Iris, a 42-foot classic cutter built in 1934, skillfully piloted by Morgan, daughter of captain-owner Art Lohrey and a long-time sailor and islander.

Though our trip with Iris starts out under gray skies, the sun soon forces its way through the clouds, making Iris’s seafoam-green paint and bronze fittings gleam. We spend a couple of blissful hours gliding between the rocky islands, watching the pines whip by, imagining the sweetness of a simple life out here amongst the harbor seals. After Iris returns us to the harbor, our day ends with a ferry ride at dusk, the lights of the islands’ shores winking goodbye. Learn more about the San Juan Islands.

Rafting in the Cascades

On another hot summer day, I’m heading east for a very different kind of boating. After a two-hour drive along leafy Highway 2, my friend Beth and I emerge in Leavenworth, Washington’s own little Bavaria. Today we’re rafting the Wenatchee, a powerful river that runs through the Cascades for 53 miles, with Osprey Rafting. Osprey has a put-in just around the corner from the shop, and after a safety talk and paddling lesson, we eagerly hop into the waiting raft.

Soon after entering the river, we splash through Triple Threat and Tinley Falls—two Class IV rapids—laughing and screaming with glee. After the initial hoopla, the river calms and loops back in toward town, carrying on past the gabled chalets. While we embarked on a half-day rafting trip, there are a ton of ways to raft with Osprey, from mellow family rides to their whitewater happy hour trip.

Rafting starts on the Wenatchee whenever the snow begins to melt—around April or May—and runs until Labor Day. Trace the Wenatchee south to where it meets the Columbia, then continue farther downstream to find another convergence— the Snake, mingling with the Columbia at the Tri-Cities in Washington Wine Country.

Jet Boating on the Columbia River

It’s from Tri-Cities that I’m heading on a jet boat trip early one morning, setting out from the Columbia Point Public Boat Launch in Richland on a powerful six-passenger boat. Captain Ray Hamilton of Columbia River Journeys tells me over the roar of the motor that we’re going to a wild river—the last free-flowing part of the Columbia, a section of the mighty river that Lewis and Clark never even floated upon.

Kids fishing from shore wave at us as we skim across the flat water, the glassy green river between us perfectly reflecting the bleached-blue sky above. Once we pass the last reminders of civilization—houses, ranches, and green vineyards—Captain Ray pushes the throttle down as far as it goes and a pair of white pelicans take off a hundred yards away, their black-rimmed wings carrying them high overhead. Soon the character of the river changes, the glassy water giving way to the ripples and whorls of a faster current.

A little more than 20 miles upstream from town, we arrive at the Hanford Reach National Monument, a 196,000-acre reserve established in 2000 around the nuclear reactors built here from the ’40s to the ’60s—the first in the world. Six of the nine reactors are “cocooned,” stripped down to their essential bits and encased in angular cement and gleaming stainless steel.

The town of Hanford and all the reactors are on the south side of the river, while the north is flanked for the most part by the White Bluffs, 900-foot-tall cliffs made of layers of compressed sand and clay speckled with swallows’ nests. The captain adds in history lessons along the way, but other than that, it’s just a glorious ride on the river—the sky and the land feel wide open as we race across the water.

Paddleboarding in Puget Sound

Back in Seattle on one of the last sunny days of the season, I’m gearing up for an afternoon of stand-up paddleboarding (SUP). There are a number of places in Puget Sound where I can test my balance on the water—Lake Union in Seattle and Thea Foss Waterway in Tacoma, for example—but West Seattle is where I’m headed for a SUP lesson with Heidi, a guide with Alki Kayak Tours.

She helps me choose a big, wide board that should keep me steady, and we set off from the beach to a chorus of sea lions, barking from the giant buoy out in the bay. Alki Kayak Tours offers guided paddles in both directions from the shop—west toward the lighthouse or east into Elliott Bay, which is where we’re headed.

The afternoon sun is still reaching over the bluff of West Seattle as we sidle up to a derelict pier, dropping to our knees to fit underneath and poke through the mussel- and barnacle-covered pylons. The water is shockingly clear—I can see brilliantly colored sea stars and anemones clinging to long-fallen beams and boards below. Back out in the bay, we loop behind a docked barge to investigate moored vessels.

As we turn back toward the beach, giant egg-yolk jellyfish pass harmless and graceful beneath us. “Every time I come out to the water, I feel so lucky to live here,” Heidi says.

Savoring the setting sun over the mountains ahead and the salt water below me—recalling my delight surfing the waves out in Westport and riding the white water in the Cascades—I couldn’t agree more.

About the Author

Anne Larkin