The Essential Guide to Visiting Washington in Winter

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Washington in winter is a mashup of outdoor adventures and cozy getaways. The state sees dramatically different weather patterns on the western and eastern halves, with the towering snowy Cascade Mountains in between.

Lovers of winter sports may flock to a mountain resort lodge while those looking for a comfortable cabin getaway can head for the coast. No matter where you venture in the state during winter, you’ll enjoy a wonderful winter getaway. 

In this article, we’re digging into everything you should know when you visit Washington State in winter, from driving around the state to the best ways to spend your time. Let’s jump in.

Washington Weather in Winter

Officially, winter in Washington lasts from early December through early March. 

The type of weather you encounter in Washington during winter varies depending on where you go. Along the western part of the state, including the coastline, temperatures usually hover around 40-50°F (4-10°C), with occasional dips into the 30s (-1-4°C), in line with the rest of the coastal Pacific Northwest.

You can expect to encounter rain and clouds, but you’ll rarely experience snow. January and February tend to be the wettest winter months here. 

The Cascade mountain range catches most of the state’s snow, seeing around 200 inches annually. Because of this, it’s a great spot for winter sports, hiking trails and lovers of outdoor winter activities. However, it also means that the Cascades prevent most of the western part of the state’s wet weather from crossing.

Eastern Washington sees about a third of the rainfall as the western half of the state. It rarely snows, but the average temperature is around freezing. 

Reflection Lake in Mount Rainier
Reflection Lake in Mount Rainier NP

Getting Around Washington in Winter

If you’re visiting the state from far away, you’ll probably fly into Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. You can rent a car from the airport to take throughout your journey.

That said, you will need a car to get around during winter. There’s no convenient way to get around the state, especially during winter, without a car. 

Washington’s winter driving conditions vary depending on where in the state you’re planning to spend your time. In the western half of the state, expect wet and rainy conditions. Drive slowly. Highways along the coast tend to be curvy. With poor weather, they also have low visibility, so make sure to stick to the speed limit and pay close attention to the road. 

In the mountains, ski areas and eastern half of Washington, plan for driving on snowy and icy roads. Make sure to carry chains or equip winter tires.

You’ll encounter more icy conditions in the eastern section of the state. All in all, keep tabs on the weather and road conditions wherever you’re driving in Washington and adjust your travel plans accordingly. 

Which Month to Visit Washington?

If you’re looking for a snowy wonderland getaway or a cozy, rainy cabin weekend, visiting Washington in December, January, or February are the perfect months. However, they also offer their own uniqueness to the state. Here’s what to expect during each one.

Washington in December

In December, Washington comes to life with holiday lights and the kick off of many winter activities. Small mountain towns like Leavenworth have winter festivities in full swing with sleigh rides, holiday decorations, and much more. It’s a perfect winter destination in Washington.

It’s a great month to visit these smaller towns as they’re gearing up for the holidays. If you’re a winter sports lover, expect early-season conditions on the mountain throughout the month, however, you can still go downhill and cross-country skiing. 

German style houses in Leavenworth
German style houses in Leavenworth

Washington in January

The snowy and rainy weather gets even lower in January. If you enjoy wave watching, head out to the coast for the epic storm swells. Snow conditions in the Cascades are rapidly approaching their peak, so you can expect pretty good weather for skiing and snowboarding.

Places like Leavenworth, Seattle, and other popular places to visit in Washington see fewer visitors, so January can be a good time to visit if you want to avoid crowds and are okay with cooler temperatures. 

Washington in February

February sees some of the coldest temperatures of winter in Washington. All throughout the state, you can expect low daily temperatures as well as heavy snowfall in the mountains. Along the coast, it is consistently rainy while snow in the mountains is consistent.

The eastern portion of the state around the Cascades, Methow Valley and Lake Chelan remains cool both night and day. February in Washington is fairly similar to January. Crowds in most places, aside from ski resorts in the mountains, tend to be thinner. 

What to Wear When Visiting Washington in Winter

If you’re mostly sticking to the western half of the state, you’ll definitely need rain boots and a rain jacket. Waterproof pants could also be a good idea depending on how long you might be in rainy weather.

Extra thermal layers beneath your rain-proof outer shell are also a good idea to help you stay warm. Remember to pack a beanie, mittens, and comfortable wool socks as well. 

You’ll want to prioritize packing winter gear for the mountains. A waterproof winter jacket, pants, and snow boots should be on your packing list.

Don’t forget to layer up too. It’s wise to pack extra socks and layers so you have something warm and dry to change into if you get wet. Hand warmers that you can tuck in your pockets may come in handy.

Eastern Washington brings chilly temperatures, but usually doesn’t experience the same levels of precipitation as other parts of that state. That said, it’s not uncommon for temperatures to drop below 40°F (4°C). Always pack more layers than you think you’ll need!

Ski Slopes in Washington State
Ski Slopes in Washington State

Things to do in Washington State in Winter

There are tons of places you can visit in Washington during the winter. The list below features some of the best things to do. Feel free to mix and match your Washington winter activities to create the perfect itinerary for your trip. 

Go winter hiking or snowshoeing

Washington is well-known for its hiking and winter is no exception. The hard part is narrowing down which hiking or snowshoeing trail you want to set out on.

Eastern Washington features Quartz Mountain Lookout and Palouse Falls State Park. If you’re spending time in Olympic National Park, head for Sol Duc Falls, Hurricane Ridge, and the Hoh Rainforest. 

If your trip is focused near Seattle, visiting Franklin Falls is a must. This 135-foot waterfall freezes solid in winter, creating a stunning scene. In heavy snowfall, expect to hike 5 to 7 miles to reach the falls. Wallace Falls, Heather Lake, and Boulder River Falls are all also great options for winter hikes that are day trips from Seattle. You could also opt to take in the peaks around nearby North Bend.

Make sure to read up about the snow conditions to know if having snowshoes is a good idea. Even if you don’t need snowshoes, it can still be fun to strap on a pair and set out. If you’re looking to double up on visiting a major Washington attraction and snowshoeing, head to Mount Rainier National Park

Mount Rainier National Park

Mount Rainier is the largest mountain in the Cascades, which makes it a memorable stop on your winter in Washington itinerary. Most of the roads throughout the park are closed, with the road to Paradise remaining open if weather conditions permit it.

The park sees almost 56 feet of snow every year, so it’s no surprise that it’s one of the best spots for snowshoeing or simply admiring the park blanketed in snow. 

Snowshoe from Narada Falls to Reflection Lake or get a glimpse of Myrtle Falls. Enjoyers of cross-country skiing will have plenty of trails available to them.

No matter what kind of winter activity you partake in while visiting the park, make sure to check the weather and read up on the park’s latest conditions on its website. Be willing to adjust your plans based on the park’s winter weather conditions. 

Snowy Mt Rainier
Snowy Mt Rainier

Soak in a hot spring

What better way to enjoy chilly winter weather than by relaxing in a warm hot spring? If you’ve spent the day hiking or snowshoeing along winter trails, enjoying a hot spring soak is the perfect way to wrap up the day. 

There are a few good options for hot springs in Washington in winter. Scenic Hot Springs near Stevens Pass and Sol Duc Hot Springs in Olympic Hot Springs are two great options.

The first is privately owned, so you’ll need to book a reservation in advance. The second is the perfect stop if you’re spending part of your trip exploring Olympic National Park. 

Goldmyer Hot Springs, Doe Bay Resort, and Carson Hot Springs Resort are another few great options for bathing in hot springs depending on where in the state you’re traveling. 

Visit Leavenworth

Leavenworth is a small Bavarian-inspired town located near North Cascades National Park. During winter, the town turns up its charm to transform into a winter wonderland. There’s usually a light dusting of snow, buildings covered in holiday lights, and shops featuring impressive displays of holiday decorations. 

During your visit, head to the Nutcracker Museum that features over 6,000 nutcrackers from all over the world. Snowshoe nearby Icicle Gorge Nature Loop or take a sleigh ride through town with a warm cup of apple cider in hand.

If you want to set out into nature, there are plenty of opportunities for skiing, snowmobiling, and snowshoeing a short drive from town.

Road trip through the Olympic Peninsula

Seated in the middle of the Olympic Peninsula is Olympic National Park. It’s impressive for the sheer number of ecosystems that fit into such a small peninsula. Here, you’ll rarely see snow in winter. Instead, anticipate foggy and rainy weather throughout the park and along the coast. Hurricane Ridge is one of the parts of the park where you might find snow.

During your visit along the coast, head to Rialto Beach, Kalaloch Beach, or La Push. No trip to the Olympic Peninsula is complete without a stroll through the Hoh Rainforest.

The Hoh River Trail is the most popular route through the forest. Hurricane Ridge is the best place to snowshoe, ski, or participate in any other winter sport. You also get exceptional views of the surrounding mountain range. If you’re staying in Seattle, you can take an organised day trip here if you don’t have a car.

Hurricane Ridge in Olympic NP
Hurricane Ridge in Olympic NP

Relax on the San Juan Islands

A visit to the San Juan Islands is delightful no matter what time of year you go. However, in winter, it can be the perfect place to rent a cozy cabin and enjoy the beautiful scenery the islands have to offer. Lopez, Orcas, and San Juan are the three major islands, each adorned with holiday lights and activities throughout the winter months. 

When you visit the San Juan Islands, you have a variety of options for how you spend your time. You can set out to explore the islands by walking their many trails and taking in the sights. You can also opt for a relaxing weekend by enjoying the local spas or simply admiring the views from a cabin rental.

Visit the beaches, hike to the tops of hills for amazing overlooks, go whale watching or rent a kayak to explore the islands by water. Just make sure you reserve your spot on the ferry from Seattle ahead of time. 

Washington in winter transforms into a winter wonderland paradise. Use the tips we’ve listed here to help guide your planning. The suggested places to visit are a snapshot of everything you could do while visiting Washington in December, January, or February, so make sure to customize it to your preferences and enjoy your visit. 

Are you planning a winter trip to Washington State? Have any questions? Let us know in the comments!

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Audrey Webster is a writer for The World Was Here First. She is an Oregon native who has visited countries across the globe and currently spends her weekends exploring the Pacific Northwest and surrounding states. Her approach to traveling combines exploring famous tourist sites and wandering off the beaten path to discover new destinations.

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