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12 Northwest Summer Splurges That Are Worth It

Hot-air balloons, floatplanes, zip lines, ecotours: Sometimes it pays to create an unforgettable family memory

Fiona Cohen

Published on: April 24, 2017

amazing northwest view
Kids will love spending a Family Getaway weekend at the North Cascades Institute's state-of-the-art ecolodge at Diablo Lake.

While many of the best summer experiences don’t cost much — from beach play to berry picking — once in a while it can pay to spring for a special occasion such as a birthday or visiting family. These premium summer experiences may cost a little more than an afternoon at the spray park, but the rewards are obvious: a new perspective on this glorious corner of the world from the back of the horse, a wildlife keeper’s truck or even a hot-air balloon.


Read more Family Adventure Guide stories! Find your summer bucket list, a gold-rush vacation, clamming vacations and more

1. Glide through the trees

Strap onto zip lines and whir from tree to tree on a Canopy Tours Northwest tour deep in the woods on peaceful Camano Island. During the two-and-a-half-hour experience, you’ll ride six different zip lines (the longest one measures 660 feet), traverse a long bridge, explore trails and take a ride in a 1963 Unimog truck, originally built as a troop carrier for the Swiss Army.

Fine print: Tour cost is $103 for teens and adults, $65 for ages 12 and younger. Minimum weight 65 lbs., maximum 300 lbs. 


2. Surf’s up

How does it feel to catch a wave? One minute you are thrashing around, a land animal in rough water, but in the next, you feel a giddy lift as the power of the ocean grabs you and sends you skidding forward. It’s such a wonderful way to play that humans aren’t the only animals to do it: Dolphins and sea lions also ride the waves. Skookum Surf, located at Ilwaco on Washington’s sandy Long Beach Peninsula, will outfit you with a board and a wetsuit, and give you a two-hour lesson on the beach.

Fine print: Group rate is $99 per person. Participants must weigh at least 75 lbs. and be able to swim the length of a pool. 

salmon steaks

3. Salmon-enchanted cruise

Argosy’s Tillicum Excursion to Blake Island is a classic Seattle splurge, and for good reason. Forty-five minutes after you set off from downtown, you disembark on Blake Island, a quiet, wooded state park in the middle of Puget Sound. There, you enter a Native American longhouse, where native storytellers wearing beautifully made masks tell tales, followed by a meal of salmon cooked in the traditional Salish way, on stakes over an alderwood fire. Don’t worry, no theme-park goofiness here. This is a serious and respectful way to learn about the culture and art of the nonimmigrant people of this region.

Fine print: Advance tickets cost $74, $30 for ages 4–12, free for 3 and younger.

4. Paddle where the orcas play

Set where the surging waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca mix with the quieter inland stretches of the Salish Sea, San Juan Island is surrounded by fertile waters that are home to a glorious assortment of wildlife, including southern resident orca whales. Paddlers on an Outdoor Odysseys tour see orcas often enough that guides instruct people on what to do when they end up too close: Stop paddling and band together until the whales pass by. Even if the whales don’t make an appearance, you’ll find island wildlife and natural beauty to spare.

Fine print: Cost is $99/person for the full-day tour. Minimum age is 12, although one child under 12 can participate in a tour if two adults accompany her. 

5. Ride wild rivers

In spring and early summer, snowmelt comes surging into mountain rivers, creating a bumpy and thrilling playground for those with the expertise to raft it safely. Guides from Alpine Adventures run rafting trips on a variety of rivers. Kids 6 and older can join whitewater trips on the Upper Skagit; kids 8 and older can raft the Wenatchee and the Methow, provided the water level is safe. On more difficult rivers, such as the Skykomish, the Suiattle and the Green, the age limit is higher. 

Fine print: Cost is $64–$99 per adult, $64–$69 for 12 and younger, depending on the location and size of the group. 

6. Mountain retreat

Retreat to the North Cascades Institute for a Family Getaway weekend, a family camp experience that combines outdoor learning with glorious scenery and creature comforts (you’re housed in the institute’s state-of-the-art ecolodge at Diablo Lake). Trek the trails, learn about nature or paddle a Salish-style 18-person canoe over the brilliant turquoise waters of Diablo Lake. Refuel with delicious, organic meals at the institute. (It also has coffee on hand at all times.)

Fine print: Cost for a weekend is $280 per adult, $180 for ages 3–13, free for ages 2 and younger. 

horseback riding

7. Saddle up

When you take an Icicle Outfitters horseback tour of the Leavenworth area, you’ll get a chance to explore this lovely corner of the east slope of the Cascades from a unique perspective, going from one calendar-worthy view to another in the company of intelligent, sure-footed animals. Kids must be at least 6 to ride their own horse. Children younger than 6 can share a horse with an adult on the 2-mile ride (at half price).

Fine print: Two-mile rides are $30 per person, 4-mile rides are $60. 

trek goat8. Trek truck tour

It’s always exciting to see elk, bison and bighorn sheep from the tram at Northwest Trek wildlife park in Eatonville, near Mount Rainier. But what if you could get even closer? Trek offers special keeper tours in which participants get to ride in the back of the keeper’s truck in the morning as she or he drives around the park feeding the animals, an amazing opportunity to see the park’s wild creatures up close.

Fine print: Cost is $60–$65, and includes admission, a tram ride and food (for you, not the animals). Kids need to be at least 5; some tours reserved for 13 and older.

9. Hot-air hurrah

Float over the fields and wineries around Woodinville in a boldly colored hot-air balloon piloted by the crew at Over the Rainbow Hot Air Balloon Rides. As many as eight people can go at a time on a flight, which ranges from 45 to 75 minutes, depending on the conditions.

Fine print: A hot-air balloon tour ranges from $175 per person (for a sunrise tour) to $225 (for sunset). For a private group ride, the price is $1,480–$1,880.

10. Plane awesome

From its base on Lake Union, Seattle Seaplanes offers floatplane rides that present a thrilling perspective of the city and its setting. The cheapest option is the standard 20-minute loop around Seattle, or you could fly to one of the company’s other destinations, such as over the peaks of the Olympic Range, the glaciers of Mount Rainier or Mount St. Helens.

Fine print: Flights start at $97.50 per passenger. 

11. Splashing around Lake Union

You could spend a week splurging on ways to explore Seattle’s urban aquatic transportation hub and playground. Sign up for a family sail with Lake Union Charters and spend an hour and a half exploring the lake on a 63-foot gaff-rigged schooner built in 1926. You can take sailing lessons from the crew or just relax. Or — a perfect setting for a special family party — take a spin in a 10-seat electric boat that is furnished for comfort and is easy to operate.

Fine print: A charter sailboat rental costs $85 per person or $325 for a group of as many as six. For electric-boat rental, drivers must be 25 or older; a two-hour boat rental costs $217. 

hurricane ridge
Photo credit: Andrea Lai, Flickr CC

12. Insider’s Olympic National Park

Elwha River, Hoh Rain Forest, Hurricane Ridge: Make the most of your visit to the regional treasure that is Olympic National Park by taking an Experience Olympic ecotour. The tour’s expert guide will take you through the park’s most amazing places, pointing out bear footprints, helping you identify all the colorful critters in a tide pool and more. Experience Olympic offers a variety of tours, ranging from ocean beaches to alpine meadows. It takes care of transportation, snacks and lunch, and lends suitable clothing and equipment, such as binoculars.

Fine print: A six- to eight-hour tour costs $260 for one person 16 or older, $40 for each additional member of the group. Kids younger than 16 take the tour for free. 

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