The following is a guest post by Britt Board.
For those with unique travel appetites, Washington State has a surprising number of oddities and unexpected attractions. From as far north as Bellingham all the way south to Mount St. Helens, this list covers some of the strangest and best places to visit in Western Washington.
Tiptoe through the tulips at Skagit Valley Tulip Festival
In the mid-1940s, a seasoned Dutch tulip grower immigrated to Washington and launched a hyper-local tulip craze that still persists today. Boasting one of the largest tulip events in the world, Skagit Valley Tulip Festival Festival features over 500 acres and more than 200 varieties. At less than two hours from Seattle, it’s a shockingly small distance to cover to experience floral displays on such a grand scale.
Experience living art at Pacific Bonsai Museum
Almost everything about this place is unlikely. For starters, the museum is located on a 400-acre woodland campus in Federal Way, one of the most densely populated suburbs in Puget Sound. The land was once the idyllic headquarters for the Weyerhaeuser lumber company. While Weyerhaeuser has since relocated to Seattle, the company’s collection of bonsai remains.
Bonsai is the art of creating tiny, aesthetically pleasing trees in containers. Despite their short stature, bonsai branches are trained with wires to look like miniaturized fully grown trees. A bonsai’s life lasts as long as it’s lovingly tended. The oldest tree in Pacific Bonsai Museum’s collection is dated to around 1500 and has been a bonsai since 1986.
See handwritten history at the Karpeles Manuscript Library in Tacoma
Strategically placed in smaller cities for a bigger community impact, the Karpeles Manuscript Libraries are free museums that house documents of historical significance. All of the manuscripts in this multi-venue collection were owned by one David Karpeles, a real estate tycoon with an obsession that prompted him to amass more than one million documents throughout his lifetime.
The Tacoma location has hosted thematic exhibitions that include mind-blowing documents like handwritten letters by Mark Twain, correspondence from the Romanov family, and a report written by Thomas Jefferson about the Lewis and Clark Expedition. These are the types of manuscripts one would expect to find at a much higher profile museum, rather than a small, if a little rundown, museum in Washington’s second city.
Relish in your favorite franchises at Funko in Everett
You’ve probably seen Funkos. With stout little bodies and cartoonish features, they have an iconic look and have slowly become a ubiquitous fan collectible for almost every major franchise. John Wick, RuPaul’s Drag Race, Marvel, Harry Potter, Disney, NBA…there’s a Funko for that. Even if you’re not a fan of the Funkos themselves, the store is not to be missed. An hour north of Seattle in Everett, the Funko store created little worlds based on some of their most popular merch. You can stroll through a mini Diagon Alley, snap a photo with an upside-down Spider-man, or say hello to Anna and Elsa.
Stay overnight in Thornewood Castle, a 400-year old mansion in Lakewood, WA
Yes, you read that right! The original owners constructed the main part of the home using stones from a 400-year-old English manor. Thornewood certainly feels out of place; the architecture is unlike anything you might find on the West Coast, and the property is decked out with authentic antique touches, like 500-year-old stained glass. In recent years, the castle’s dark and sumptuous aesthetic has attracted filmmakers. A miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s Rose Red was filmed at the castle, and Thornewood’s exterior was featured in the unnerving Daniel Day-Lewis flick There Will be Blood. Unfortunately, Thornewood is not open to the public, but you can book an overnight stay to enjoy the castle and 4-acre grounds.
John S. McMillin Memorial Mausoleum
You’ll feel like you’re in a Tolkein novel at this off-the-beaten-path destination. Overlooking the water from a cliff on San Juan Island, the mausoleum is an outdoor monument in honor of John McMillin, a local businessman who commissioned the structure before his death in 1936. Rather than a traditional tombstone, the mausoleum is an open-air rotunda of Greek revival columns and fantasy-like arches. Inside, you’ll find a limestone table with chairs for each member of the McMillin family. The massive surrounding trees add to its otherworldly atmosphere.
Stroll through the futuristic Seattle Spheres
Whether you love or loathe Amazon, the Seattle Spheres are an architectural and botanical feat. The three connected domes feature 40,000+ plants from more than 30 countries. While the Spheres are primarily used as a workspace for Amazon employees, the general public can visit free of charge with a reservation. The Spheres’ canopy level includes a plank bridge and a playful nest-inspired seating area. The architecture incorporates organic design elements, like giant stones for seating and curvilinear balconies. Arguably the most impressive feature is a 60-ft tall green wall with thoughtfully placed plantings that mimic the way different species thrive at all elevations in cloud forests. Spots fill up fast, so it’s best to check their website early and often.
Discover little stories from history on the Fairhaven Historic Markers
Blink and you might miss the nondescript stone pavers dotting the sidewalks of Fairhaven, a historic waterfront neighborhood in Bellingham. Rather than highlighting major historical moments, the markers feature unusual and sometimes macabre tidbits from life in the late 1800s. The specificity of the stories paints a colorful portrait of the town’s history. Notable stones include “Here is where Mathew was cut in two by a streetcar” and “Policeman Phil DeFries shot at 23 times” and “Site of city drowning pool – dogs only.”
Marvel at the mysterious Mima Mounds
Though there are plenty of theories, no one knows exactly what created this unusual landscape. With hundreds of grass-covered mounds, Mima Mounds look like an unnatural cluster of densely-spaced miniature hills. Some say gophers are responsible for their formation, while others suggest glaciers or seismic activity. No matter the reason, it’s a beautiful savannah and forest nature preserve with stunning seasonal wildflower displays.
Have a drink in jail at Taps at the Guardhouse at Fort Worden
Located on a decommissioned military base, this bar is but one of many attractions on a 433-acre campus that now hosts campsites, restaurants, a museum, and even vacation rentals. Once a holding spot for misbehaving soldiers, today’s diners can eat and drink behind bars at Taps at the Guardhouse. Captivity isn’t so bad when you’re sipping on regional beer and enjoying seasonal food with locally-grown ingredients.
Experience the eerie music of Seattle’s Sound Garden
As you might have guessed, this kinetic art installation is the namesake of Seattle’s 90s grunge band, Soundgarden. The steel sculpture includes a series of towers affixed with organ pipes and weather vanes. When the wind kicks up, the weather vanes turn, causing the pipes to create a chorus of dissonant tones. Surrounded by water views, sound, and wind, it’s certainly an immersive sensory experience, if not a little unsettling.
Search for a secret bar in McMenamin’s Elks Temple
McMenamin’s is a northwest-famous franchise that acquires architecturally interesting but derelict buildings and converts them into quirky hotels, bars, and restaurants. The McMenamin’s vibe is a strange brew of eerie art, saturated colors, hidden passageways, and whimsy. Tacoma’s Elks Lodge is a shining example of the McMenamin’s aesthetic, while also including thoughtful nods to the building’s history through photos, art, and interpretation.
Somewhere in the recesses of the seven-story building, there’s a not-so-secret bar that’s genuinely hard to find, if there isn’t a trickle of repeat visitors marching in to get their post-work beers. The space is small and dim, with most of its light coming from a grid of glass vault lights in the sidewalk above the bar.
Explore in the pitch black of Ape Cave
Step boldly into the darkness of North America’s third-largest lava tube. If you’re not an avid spelunker, not to worry. The cave is spacious, safe, and offers a shorter path that’s family-friendly. For the adventurous sort, the 1.5-mile upper cave trail is littered with rocks and requires a bit more stamina and agility. Located just south of the famous Mount St. Helens, there’s plenty to explore in the area, including trails that take you along the ridge of the active volcano’s crater.
Discover why silence is golden in the Hoh Rainforest
Dubbed “one square inch of silence,” there’s a spot deep in Washington’s Hoh Rainforest that ecologist Gordon Hempton called the quietest place in the United States. The Hoh Rainforest is world famous for its mosses that carpet the trees and forest floor, absorbing sound like a naturally occurring acoustic room. This area is tucked far away from sound pollution and sprawl on the Olympic Peninsula, making it an ideal destination if you want a true escape from the rat race.
Find enchantment at the Splintered Wand in Seattle
Millennials, rejoice! There’s a Harry Potter-themed bar in Seattle’s historic Ballard neighborhood. This multi-level restaurant has no shortage of magical features, including a Wand Shop, foggy cocktails, in-character servers, and moving portraits. While most thematic restaurants underperform in the food department, the elevated British pub fare is surprisingly delicious. Note: The Splintered Wand is always booked, so be sure to make your reservation well in advance.
If you enjoyed this article, read 12 Facts You Didn’t Know about Spokane, Washington.
Britt Board (she/her) is a compulsive explorer based out of Tacoma, WA. She enjoys weird roadside attractions, family-friendly adventures, historical spots, and nature. When she’s not traveling, she’s planning future travels and spending time with her husband, precocious toddler, and unemployed pug.