I felt conspicuous as I set my tent up in an empty spot at the state campground. Women don’t usually camp alone in the desert, and I felt the curious, yet friendly gazes of fellow campers. No, I wasn’t there for the opening weekend of fishing season, and no, I didn’t want to join their evening campfires and roast marshmallows with their toddlers. I just wanted to be alone, to breathe in the wide-sky sunset, to smell the sage and basalt dust and to clear space in my jittery brain.
I was on a personal retreat. My two kids were at Grandma’s and my husband was home earning a paycheck. I had lugged my camping gear to this spot far from the city to attend to my internal voice that was crying out for some time alone in the wilderness.
I am not always able to get the time alone for a personal retreat when I need it. Sometimes I take my kids and husband along, too. We all have found that we need time away from the city, from work and school pressures, from Facebook and Minecraft, and from the general noise of life.
While I have instinctually turned to nature for most of my life for respite, scientists are beginning to quantify our felt need to get away from it all. Time in nature has been correlated with lower cholesterol, less cardiovascular disease, better mental health, reduced inflammation, and fewer behavioral problems in children.
In one 2012 study, researchers measured an increase in creativity and ability to focus for participants after three days in nature, away from technology. It seems an extended time outside refreshes the parts of our brain used in higher-order thinking. (See also our 2014 story by Richard Louv, "Forward to Nature.")
All of us need the impetus to pull ourselves away from technology and reset our brains, breathing in the sharp scent of a ponderosa pine forest or the briny Pacific Ocean at sunset. And we need to reconnect with each other. Here are five extraordinary places in Washington state to go this year that provide opportunities for respite and reconnection.
Browse all the retreats or go to the first one.
Hoh Campground: Peace among the giants
Scottish Lakes High Camp: Up, up and away
Naturebridge/Lake Crescent Lodge: Learning and lounging
North Cascades Environmental Learning Center: Nature first
Holden Village: Spirited away
Hoh Campground, Olympic National Park
I have spent the night in this family-friendly campground in the Hoh Valley in search of silence. I hiked a few miles up the Hoh River Trail to an area regarded by Gordon Hempton, natural sound recorder, as one of the quietest places in the Unites States. Spend an hour, or several, sitting quietly in this cathedral of ancient cedars and spruce, taking in the peace of nature with a minimum of human-caused noise intrusion.
How off the grid: While the Hoh campground accommodates small RVs and trailers, there are no electrical hookups. There is no cell service in the Hoh Valley. The campground does have running water and flush toilets.
Opportunities for retreat: Off season is less busy than the summer, but summer is lovely as well. Hike up the Hoh River Trail for more peace, leaving some of the tourists behind.
Are we there yet? 4 hours and 20 minutes drive from Seattle (including ferry time), 3 hours and 45 minutes from Tacoma
Info and reservations: The campground is first come, first served; fees are $12 per night plus the $15 park entrance fee.
Scottish Lakes High Camp, North Cascades
Hikers and snowshoers rave about this rustic, adventurous retreat high in the Cascades where you plan your own summer, autumn or winter wilderness activities. After parking in a lot west of Stevens Pass on Route 2, you’ll arrive via four-wheel drive (in the fall or summer), or by snowmobile or cross-country skis (in the winter). You'll stay in a private but basic cabin with a wood stove and propane cook stove (bring your own food).
In the summer and fall, families can hike, fly fish or just relax with a cup of tea and books or games in the lodge. In the winter, snowshoe and cross-country ski on a network of trails, or sled. Afterwards, enjoy the outdoor wood-fired hot tub or sauna. Rates for adults start at $60 per night mid-week (plus a $15–$30 transportation fee), and on some weekends children stay free. Tip: In July, August and September 2016 (through Sept. 29), kids stay free at Scottish Lakes, through a special promotion.
How off the grid: There are no indoor toilets, electricity or wi-fi here, but you’ll be able to check your cell phone if you need to.
Opportunities for retreat: Your family (or you) can enjoy more of a personal wilderness experience by keeping to yourselves, or you can commune with others in the small lodge.
Are we there yet? It’s about a two-hour drive from Seattle to the parking lot off Route 2, past Stevens Pass, and then more time in the snowmobile or four-wheel drive to arrive.
Info and reservations: 509-763-3044, scottishlakes.com
NatureBridge/Lake Crescent Lodge, Olympic National Park
Set on the shores of Lake Crescent in the heart of Olympic Nature Park, NatureBridge is a national park program that offers unique family nature getaways. A weekend program might include hands-on science activities, hiking to Marymere Falls, canoeing on the lake and learning about the cultural and ecological history of the park, including the newly undammed Elwha River, which historically had the largest salmon runs on the peninsula. Check the schedule for upcoming family weekend programs.
Stay in modern or historical heated cabins on the shores of beautiful Lake Crescent. Rates start at $200 for adults for the weekend and are lower for children. Meals, lodging, and educational experiences are included in the price.
How off the grid: You’ll likely still be able to access your cell phone there, and there is electricity.
Opportunities for retreat: Beyond the educational programs, which are geared toward families with children ages 4-12, Olympic National Park – and its trails and lakes – are steps away from your cabin.
Are we there yet? 3.5 hours from Seattle, depending on ferry traffic
Info and reservations: 360-928-3720, naturebridge.org/olympicfamilyadventure
North Cascades Institute and Environmental Learning Center
Comfortable lodges welcome you to a unique retreat in the heart of the North Cascades on Diablo Lake. Come for a long weekend away from the city, and take part in lessons, games, arts and crafts or storytelling. If you’re feeling more adventurous, you can canoe the jade-green waters of Diablo Lake, or hike through old-growth forests. The kitchen staff create delectable organic meals, and can accommodate most food allergies. Adults can also come on other weekends for courses in science, arts, history, or other enlightening topics.
Rates for adults start at $260, youth are $175 (kids 2 and under are free) for a long weekend of food and nature-based experiences.
How off the grid: It's physically remote (you're in the heart of a national park) and there is no cell service, but there is wifi available.
Opportunities for retreat: You can come for a relaxing Base Camp weekend, where you stay at the Learning Center and do activities on your own schedule, with a variety of outdoor learning adventures available. Or you can sign up for a somewhat more structured Family Getaway weekend (twice a month through the summer).
Are we there yet? 2.5 hours from Seattle
Info and registration: 360-854-2599; ncascades.org
Holden Village, Lake Chelan
Note: Through 2016, Holden will only be open to guests from December 1–April, as mine remediation efforts are underway during the summer months. It should be open again to guests in the summer of 2017, though.
I’ve done a pilgrimage to Holden Village — a retreat center deep in the North Cascade mountains on Lake Chelan and only reachable by boat — several times since I married my husband and joined his family traditions. Traveling to this remote community is in itself an adventure. Meet the Lady of the Lake, a passenger ferry, at Field’s Point on the southern end of Lake Chelan, and disembark two hours later at the tiny, rustic port of Lucerne.
From there you’ll ride in old school buses 11 miles up a gravel road to the historic mining community of Holden Village. This retreat center is a Lutheran ministry, but people of all religions, races and backgrounds are welcome. You’ll eat homemade meals and snacks as a community, and experience the mission, rest and peace of Holden’s environment. Guests stay in dorm-like lodges; bathrooms are down the hall. Lodging for adults start at $80 a night; children are less. All food and programming is included.
Opportunities for retreat: The summer months are busy at Holden, with spiritual or artistic classes offered, and chances to hike the wilderness trails or walk the labyrinth. Fall and winter are quieter and more reflective, and offer chances to follow your own schedule. Bring your favorite books or money for the book store, write in your journal, snowshoe or sled, and drink hot coffee or tea in the common areas. Half-day child care is available for younger children during those months.
How off the grid: There is no cell or Internet service, and computer use is strongly discouraged. There are no TVs.
Are we there yet? Between the drive to Chelan and the boat ride, it takes a whole day to travel to Holden from Puget Sound. You could break it up by staying in Chelan for the night (try The Holden Bed and Breakfast) before continuing down the lake.
Info and reservations: holdenvillage.org
Quiet time: 4 ideas for retreating in the city
Sometimes we are in need of a break, but can’t afford a weekend or an entire day away. Here are some quick ways to get a bit of silence and respite.
- Visit an indoor greenhouse, such as the Volunteer Park Conservatory and breathe in the green air. Study the different textures and colors of plants.
- After work or school one evening, pack up yourself or your family and drive to a local beach to watch the sunset. Close your eyes and listen to the waves on the shore.
- Get up a few minutes early and listen for bird songs. Try to identify the birds you are hearing. Use the resources at birdweb.org to help you. To draw birds to your backyard, consider adding a feeder.