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Fly to the national parks: NorthwestFly to the national parks: Northwest

You’ll find big trees, pristine lakes, rugged mountains, and endless beauty in all these Northwestern parks.

  • The volcanic Mount Mazama, site of present-day Crater Lake, collapsed just 7,700 years ago in a massive explosion that ejected about 12 cubic miles of material and created a caldera at the mountain’s center. Eventually the caldera filled with water to its current depth of 1,949 feet. Photo by Howard Ignatius via Flickr.
  • Fly fishing inside Glacier National Park, Montana—heavenly. Other activities include guided backpacking or rafting, horseback riding, backcountry or river camping, biking, and Nordic skiing. Photo by Jackie Robidoux.
  • Glacier National Park, “the crown of the continent,” is a lifelist trip for many hikers and backpackers. Photo by Jackie Robidoux.
  • When in Glacier, a drive on Going-to-the-Sun Road, which connects the eastern and western sections of the park, is a must-do. You can also ride the park’s classic red bus. The road is an engineering marvel yet designed to go relatively unnoticed. Photo by Tim Rains, courtesy NPS.
  • You can land your seaplane on Lake Chelan, dock at Stehekin, and take the shuttle in to North Cascades National Park. Photo courtesy NPS.
  • A doe hustles downhill at Cascade Pass, North Cascades National Park. The park has over 1,630 recorded plant species—more than any other national park. It’s also home to about 75 species of mammals and 200 species of birds. Photo by Andy Porter via Flickr.
  • Sahale Glacier Camp, North Cascades National Park. In this unpopulated area, the night sky brims with stars and the Milky Way is strikingly clear. Photo by Andy Porter via Flickr.
  • Thornton Lakes, viewed from Trappers Peak. North Cascades National Park covers 504,781 acres and holds over 500 ponds. Photo by Sean Munson via Flickr.
  • Neon-green moss covers big-leaf maple trees along the Hall of Mosses Trail in the Hoh Rainforest, Olympic National Park, Washington. This forest gets about 12 feet of rain annually; just bring a good rainjacket with a hood and the hiking is pleasant any time of year. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • Fred Worthy hikes the Hoh River Trail, lined by giant Sitka spruce, western hemlock, and big-leaf maple trees. This forest is one of the quietest places in America. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • The author gazes up in amazement at the world’s largest Sitka spruce, just off the road near the Rain Forest Resort Village in Lake Quinault. Let’s give thanks to presidents Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, who saved Olympic’s gigantic trees (many over 1,000 years old) from logging so future generations can stand in awe as you will. Photo by Fred Worthy.
  • In early summer, hikers can enjoy wildflower-strewn meadows in Mount Rainier National Park. Photo by Kevin McNeal.
  • Silver Falls, Mount Rainier National Park. Photo by Steven Smith via Flickr.
  • The Emmons Glacier (upper left) dominates the northeast face of Mount Rainier in this view from the subalpine meadows of Sunrise. Below the retreating glacier, the huge lateral moraine is clearly visible. Sunrise, on the park’s northeast side, is the highest point in the park that is accessible by vehicle and offers access to many trailheads and a lodge. Photo by Angela Friberg via Flickr.
  • On a clear day, Mount Rainier can be seen from all over the city of Seattle. In good weather, a flight around this volcano, as well as the neighboring Mount Saint Helens, can be breathtaking. Photo by Andrew E. Larsen via Flickr.

Glacier National Park, Montana: Characterized by snowcapped peaks, forested valleys, blue-green glacial lakes, and dynamic wildlife, Glacier National Park reveals a stunning landscape sculpted by glaciers, about 25 of which still persist at the higher elevations. Incoming pilots have three airports to choose from. Kalispell is a convenient gateway town, and Kalispell City Airport has a motel and upscale hotel nearby. Glacier Park International Airport offers a longer runway if density altitude is a concern, but lacks adjacent hotels. Ryan Field, near West Glacier, is a beautiful grass field with camping facilities and transportation options (see this article for more on Ryan Field). From West Glacier you’ll first come to beautiful Lake McDonald, where you can fish, hike, or take a boat tour. More accommodations and restaurants are available near Swiftcurrent Lake on the park’s east side.

North Cascades National Park, Washington: This little-visited park offers the kind of isolation and unforgettable scenery that backpackers crave: rugged mountains, sparkling lakes, and over 300 glaciers. The park is generally accessed via the long, narrow Lake Chelan, just south of the park. Pilots have three choices: Fly to Lake Chelan, near the south end of the lake, and call the shuttle or taxi to take you the five miles into town. (Lake Chelan offers many recreational opportunities—even golf and wine tasting.) Then take the ferry to Stehekin, at the lake’s north end (a 2.5- or four-hour trip, depending on ferry). From Stehekin you can get a shuttle to the park. Or, if pilot and aircraft are capable, you can instead land at Stehekin State, a challenging turf strip near Stehekin, and ride a courtesy bike four miles into town. If you have a floatplane (commercial seaplane service has ceased for now), you can land on the lake and dock at Stehekin.

Glacier National Park is home to grizzly bears. Be bear-safe when hiking or camping and carry bear spray. Photo by William Pohley.

Olympic National Park, Washington: Fly to Port Angeles to access this enormous park that occupies the center of the Olympic Peninsula. Most areas outside the park have been logged, and those trees look like kindling compared to the old-growth giants inside the park. You’ll drive counter-clockwise around the park’s edge and head in to see the highlights: Drive up Hurricane Ridge for panoramic views. Explore the restored Elwha River, flowing freely and hosting salmon again after the removal of two dams. Kayak beautiful Crescent Lake and enjoy its adjacent lodge and waterfall. See more waterfalls and huge fir, cedar, and spruce on easy hikes from Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort. Do not miss the Hoh Rain Forest and its Hall of Mosses Trail. Other trails lead deeper into the park’s primeval virgin forest. Then continue south to see wild beaches, stay at the romantic Kalaloch Lodge, and finish at the Quinault Rain Forest.

This black bear gets the right-of-way on the trail to Horseshoe Basin in North Cascades National Park, Washington. Photo by Andy Porter via Flickr.

Mount Rainier National Park, Washington: The 14,411-foot stratovolcano Mount Rainier is the highest point in the Cascade Range and centerpiece of this park, 97 percent of which is wilderness. Consequently, there are no nearby airports with rental cars: Choose from Yakima to the east, Chehalis to the west, or Pierce Co. to the northwest. The volcano receives enormous amounts of rain and snow each year, has over 25 glaciers, and is popular for mountaineering. Visitors also flock to Paradise, Longmire, and Sunrise, which have inns. There are also three car campgrounds or you can camp in the backcountry.

Crater Lake National Park, Oregon: With no inlets or tributaries, Crater Lake has some of the purest water in the world. Of course you’ll stop at one of the lookout points on the 33-mile Rim Drive and stand in awe at this sapphire jewel. Then be one of the few who hike down the 1.1-mile Cleetwood Cove Trail, on the lake’s north side, where you can take the boat to Wizard Island or go fishing. In summer, stay at the historic Crater Lake Lodge and enjoy fine dining and stellar views, or camp year-round. Klamath Falls, a one-hour drive, is the closest airport with rental cars.

On a clear, still day Crater Lake’s deep blue reflective water is mesmerizing. Photo by Scott Smithson via Flickr.
Crista Worthy

Crista Videriksen Worthy

Crista Videriksen Worthy has been flying around the United States with her pilot-husband Fred and their children since 1995, and writing about fun places to fly since 2006. Her favorite places to explore are the backcountry strips of Idaho and Utah's red rock country. She currently lives in Idaho and serves as both the managing editor of Pilot Getaways magazine and editor of The Flyline, the monthly publication of the Idaho Aviation Association.
Topics: US Travel

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