The mountains may soon be capped with fresh powder, but Northwest winters offer more than fun in the snow. Whether you embrace winter drizzle in a temperate rain forest or chase sunshine in island rain shadows, these five trips will give your kids the chance to create unique winter memories.
1. Rain-shadow hiking on Orcas Island
Lush and laid-back, the largest of the San Juan Islands retains a summery vibe in the off-season thanks to the Olympic Mountains that soak up Pacific storms from the southwest, creating a “rain shadow” effect that leaves sunny skies overhead. Almost any time of year, Orcas is the perfect island for family hikes, with miles of trails up green hills to panoramic views of the Salish Sea. Pack your binoculars because you’ll have a decent chance at spotting wildlife: Birds and other critters become more active as the weather cools.
Head first to the island’s crown jewel, Moran State Park, and ramble through pines and alongside small lakes to the windy summit of Mount Constitution and its cool stone tower from the CCC era. The park’s loop trail encircling Mountain Lake is an easier alternative for little ones. On the island’s west end is Turtleback Mountain Preserve, a local favorite for its grassy promontories and conservation history. The three-mile round-trip summit trail is slightly steep in places.
Stay: Outlook Inn, in Eastsound, has suites with private balconies and harbor views (from $99, 360-376-2200). Rosario Resort and Spa (from $99, 360-376-2222) offers a range of accommodations in a stunning setting on the shores of Cascade Bay.
Eat: The Outlook Inn houses the New Leaf Cafe, known for delicious locally sourced food. For home-baked goodness like stick cinnamon rolls and artisan sandwiches, head to Roses Bakery Cafe, also in Eastsound.
2. Razor clamming on the Long Beach Peninsula
Imagine rising at the crack of dawn, clad in fleece and gum boots, all to walk a sandy beach in the cold looking for tiny doughnut-shaped holes. Those small dimples in the sand, which young kids are particularly adept at spotting, point to a submerged razor clam, so it’s time to start digging. Razor clamming is a truly fun (and delicious!) activity for kids of all ages, and these public digs happen in Long Beach on designated weekends from October through April. Get the schedule here.
Clamming is easy; each digger needs a clam shovel or tube, a bucket to put clams in and a state clamming license (required for ages 15 and up). Keep searching until each digger has reached the daily limit of clams (or it’s too cold to continue, whichever comes first) then head back to your cottage for a bowl of chowder or panko-fried clam strips by the fire.
Stay: Book a family-size beach cottage with kitchen so you can prepare your favorite clam recipes. Anchorage Cottages in Long Beach have wood-burning fireplaces along with clean, equipped kitchens and garden patios (from $110, 800-646-2351).
Eat: One of the best spots for families is Lost Roo, where parents can enjoy a craft beer and oyster po’boy while kids feast on chicken quesadillas. For breakfast head to the 42nd Street Café & Bistro for smoked- salmon scramble or oatmeal with a lot of toppings.
3. Whale watching at Depoe Bay, Oreg.
Forget sandy beaches: This wild stretch of the Oregon coast is all about frothy waves crashing into basalt headlands. It’s because of this rough topography that massive gray whales can be spotted near the shore here — as close as 30 feet away, especially during the winter and spring migrations (December, January and March). Bring binoculars and a spotting scope if you have one. Any rocky outcropping will do as a vantage point (such as Cape Foulweather or Devils Punch Bowl). Stop in at the Whale Watching Center (an Oregon state park) where knowledgeable rangers will help you spot grays as they blow, spy hop and breach.
Depoe Bay is an old fishing village with many other charms, including seafood shacks and a quarter-mile seawall promenade, another place from which to spot whales. Even if you don’t see whales, you will see waves: The winter storm watching here is phenomenal.
Stay: Inn at Otter Crest (from $99, 800-452-2101) is an oceanfront resort hotel in Otter Rock on its own headland with tide pools below. The suites are perfect for families.
Eat: Tidal Raves Seafood Grill puts a creative spin on traditional coast cuisine, plus they have an extensive kids’ menu. Sit by the window for dinnertime whale watching. For some of the best barbecue in the Northwest, stop by Bonepile BBQ, where pulled pork and ribs are slow cooked in a tangy homemade sauce.
4. Soaking at Harrison Hot Springs
From Oregon up to British Columbia, the thermally active Pacific Northwest is home to natural hot springs, ideal for a winter weekend of soaking and swimming in beautiful pools filled with steamy mineral water. One of the most family-friendly is Harrison Hot Springs Resort, set on the eastern slope of the Coastal Mountains about 90 miles east of Vancouver, B.C., and a three-hour drive from Seattle. There are six pools, both indoor and outdoor, all filled with water from the nearby hot springs — it comes out of the ground at 150 degrees Fahrenheit, then cool water is added to keep each pool at its own unique temperature.
Stay: Harrison Hot Springs Resort & Spa (from $115, 866-638-5075) offers exclusive guest access to its five unique pools fed by natural hot springs. There’s a kids-only pool, and kids are welcome in all but one adults-only pool. A sixth pool is public and accepts day visitors. Rooms are somewhat small, but the resort has many comfortable common areas for reading books or playing a family game of Scrabble.
Eat: On-site restaurants are good (there are several) and your room’s minifridge comes in handy for quick breakfasts and snacks. Village Pizzeria makes several popular specialty pies plus pasta dishes.
5. Storm watching in Tofino
The west coast of British Columbia’s Vancouver Island is dramatically wild, especially in fall and winter when huge storms roll in off the Pacific Ocean. Tofino, a scenic town built by lumberjacks and fishermen, is one of the Northwest coast’s most gorgeous vacation spots, and the best place for storm watching on the west coast. Pack board games, books, blankets and hot chocolate, then get ready to watch 30-foot waves crash against the beach (ideally from behind the glass panes of your cozy hotel room). Curious children will love to look for treasures on the sand at low tide after a big storm — head just south of town to Long Beach, a 10-mile swath of sand popular with families and their frolicking dogs.
Stay: Ocean Village Beach Resort (from $169, 250-725-3755) has cute slope-roofed cabins with full kitchens and windows facing the sea. When kids tire of storm watching, there’s an indoor heated saltwater pool.
Eat: Wildside Grill is a family-friendly spot for breakfast tacos or huevos rancheros in the morning, or an oyster burger with a side of poutine for lunch. Tacofino Cantina has several tasty taco creations, from yam tempura to tuna with chipotle.