Off-the-Beaten-Path: The Weekender's Guide to Outdoor Adventure around Seattle

The approach to Index's Lower Town Wall, just 40 miles outside of Seattle
The approach to Index's Lower Town Wall, just 40 miles outside of Seattle Matt Upton
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As a place that is encased by mountains, forests, and sea, when it comes to playing outside, few major cities have it better than Seattle. And while it certainly has its fair share of notoriously grey days, when the sun does come out, so do its people—and in droves.

Whether it's hiking, paddling, climbing—or doing pretty much any other outdoor activity—Seattle has the landscapes and communities that will empower you to get out, play hard, and, most importantly, have fun.

Whether you’ve got an hour to spare or the whole weekend, the possibilities for getting active in the outdoors around the Emerald City are seemingly infinite. So tie up your laces, chalk your hands, or grab your paddle, and get ready to join the ranks: we’ve got some exploring to do.

Where to Get Caffeinated

The hip, eclectic environs of Seattle's original coffee house
The hip, eclectic environs of Seattle's original coffee house Samantha Larson

If there’s an accurate stereotype to describe Seattle residents (besides that we’re nature nuts), it’s that we like to drink coffee. Whether you want to start you day sipping on a chic cappuccino while perusing your guidebook or want to cut to the chase with a simple cup of joe, this city won’t leave you hanging.

With so many coffee shop options to choose from, how does one decide? If you trust in history, then check out the city’s oldest espresso joint: Cafe Allegro, established in 1975 by Dave Olsen—the guy who later went on to found Starbucks. Apparently, Olsen drew upon Cafe Allegro for inspiration when he designed what turned into his worldwide chain. But rest assured, Cafe Allegro feels far from corporate. Located in an alley next to the University of Washington, expect to share the tables with some hip Huskies.

If you plan to leave the city for your day’s adventure, you may find yourself driving on Highway 2 past the small town of Sultan. If so, don’t miss out on the chance to indulge in a decadent cinnamon roll from the Sultan Bakery. While you’re at it, grab some of their warm, soft cookies—you may need the extra fuel for later (or at least that's what you can tell yourself).

Where to Hit the Trail

Exploring the banks of the Skykomish River
Exploring the banks of the Skykomish River Matt Upton

If you live for the freedom of the trails, the Pacific Northwest will never leave you bored. From weekend-long (or longer) backpacking trips, moderate day hikes, or quick runs, we’ve got you covered.

The Enchantments is one of the most stunning areas in the country, a dreamlike region to go for an overnight trip. Take note, however, that if you want to go in the summer you’ll need to put in a bid for a permit, which are available via a lottery system early in the year (or risk it and try for one of the permits rangers give out day-of onsite).

If you just want to get out for a few hours, the 5.5-mile hike up Mount Pilchuck is one of the most popular excursions in Western Washington. After trekking up through the lush old growth forest, you’ll be rewarded with amazing views from the top: a 360-degree panorama of the Cascades and Puget Sound.

But you don’t actually need to leave the city to get to a place that feels wild. If you’re looking for a convenient yet beautiful outing, take a loop around Seattle’s beloved Discovery Park, and hang out on the pebbly beaches, skipping rocks into Elliot Bay and taking in the view of Mt. Rainier standing proud and tall in the distance. 

Where to Go Climbing

Lounging at the base of Lower Town Wall at Index
Lounging at the base of Lower Town Wall at Index Matt Upton

Whether you prefer sport, bouldering, or trad, Seattle is a great place to be a climber. Sure, the city has its share of unclimbable rainy days, during which your best bet will be hitting up one of the many gyms in the area. But when the local rock is good, it’s really good.

Only 30 miles from downtown, Little Si, commonly referred to by climbers as Exit 32 (because that’s the exit off I-90 you take to get there), is one of Seattle’s closest crags, and it’s got long, overhanging, incredibly fun sport climbs on volcanic rock to boot.

While until relatively recently it has stayed on the down-low, word of Leavenworth’s amazing bouldering has now spread far and wide; the area is now one of the fastest growing climbing meccas in America. And it's located right outside a kitschy Bavarian-themed town of the same name, which means unlimited beer and brats after a solid day of pulling hard.

For seasoned trad climbers, being able to say you’ve spent time at Index is like carrying a badge of honor. The Lower Town Wall area is only a five to ten minute approach from the parking lot, and is lined with Yosemite-esqe granite routes that could keep you entertained for a lifetime. While it's not a beginners crag by any stretch of the imagination, even novices will enjoy visiting this scenic destination, if anything, just to watch more experienced climbers test their 5.13d mettle. 

Where to Paddle

Fooling around before a paddle at Alki Beach
Fooling around before a paddle at Alki Beach Samantha Larson

As a city in which water abounds in a hugely defining way, Seattle has no shortage of paddling options. While you’ll have to go further afield to find whitewater, drifting through one of Seattle’s lakes or along the coast of Puget Sound on a kayak or standup paddleboard is a great way to see the city from a different perspective.

To get the best views of the downtown skyline, start paddling from across the bay at West Seattle’s Alki Beach. You’ll also be treated to incredible views of the Olympic Mountains and the ferries that traverse the Sound.

The most unique paddling experience that Seattle has on offer is the journey from Lake Union to Golden Gardens via the Ballard Locks, the feats of engineering that act as the gateway between the fresh and saltwater of the Lake Washington Ship Canal. Passing through the locks involves an exciting process in which you enter a chamber that raises or lowers you to then let you out on the other side. 

Where to Unwind

The charming entrance to Fremont Brewery
The charming entrance to Fremont Brewery Bernt Rostad

Not only does Seattle have a great outdoors scene, it has an excellent food and drink one, too. In fact, one of the best parts about going on adventures from Seattle is coming back to enjoy the city’s cosmopolitan bounty afterward.

If you want to revive your tired muscles with a generous serving of protein, Paseo will surely hit the spot. Their entire menu is mouthwatering, but you can’t beat their most popular sandwich: the Caribbean Pork Roast. Just remember to grab some napkins: succulent morsels of pork shoulder are guaranteed to ooze out the side.

For a post-dinner beer in a casual, relaxed vibe, check out the Fremont Brewery, right near Paseo. Their local brews are delicious and, while they don’t serve meals, they do have free pretzels and apples, and they encourage you to bring in your own grub (a good option if you want to enjoy some mingling but still eat on the cheap). 

Where to Get a Good Night’s Rest

The artistic interior of City Hostel Seattle
The artistic interior of City Hostel Seattle City Hostel Seattle

We know how it feels: now that you’re worn out and well fed, all you need to be a happy camper is a comfortable place to put down your head. If you’re looking for something on the affordable end of the scale, try City Hostel Seattle, an artsy, fun, friendly spot that’s within walking distance from city sites like Pike’s Market and the Space Needle. Beds range from $29 in a dorm to $96 for private room and bath.

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