Washington Water Activities: Surfing, Sailing, Rafting & Boating

Take a splash in Washington's wild waters.
Vacation in Washington State
Vacation in Washington State

From ocean waves to glacial lakes, raging rivers to placid streams, there’s a Washington water adventure for everyone. Below, writer Anne Larkin chronicles her summer exploring as many of Washington’s 157 miles of coastline, 169 rivers and 8,000 lakes as she could, in hot pursuit of watery adventure.

Surfing on the Olympic Peninsula

“Paddle, paddle!” I hear hollered from behind me for what must be the 100th time this morning. Body balanced on my surfboard, I give it all I’ve got. My arms windmill at my sides, propelling me along with the swelling wave. Then I feel it—the force of the water working with me rather than against me— and I hop to my feet and stay there, gliding, sailing and flying toward shore. The nose of my board bonks into the sand, and I leap off, buzzing with the joy of my surfing success.

I’m at Westhaven State Park, just outside the fishing town of Westport on the Olympic Peninsula, surfing the jetty. I’ve been out here since sunrise, working up the courage and coordination to stand up on my surfboard, rented from Steepwater Surf Shop in town. Stuart, my boyfriend (and today, my surf coach), rides in, too, landing at the beach beaming. We got lucky; the swell is outstanding today. 

Back out on my board behind the farthest break, I watch a squadron of brown pelicans playing with the surf, hugging the cresting waves, dipping their wings in the spray. I’m cozy in my neoprene, happy to just sit out here and feel the Pacific Ocean under and around me, the sun shining on my cheeks while I gaze out over the beach toward the far-off Olympics.

Sailing in Washington

A few weeks later, I find myself farther north, past the peaks I could just barely see from the surfboard, bound for Friday Harbor and a day trip with San Juan Classic Day Sailing. After a scenic 90-minute drive from our home base in Seattle to the ferry terminal in Anacortes, Stuart and I walk on (though cars are welcome) to the Hyak, one of 22 ferries in Washington’s iconic fleet, for an hour-long journey past evergreen shores poking out of the fog. Find more ferries in Washington >>

Our vessel is Iris, a 42-foot classic cutter built in 1934, skillfully piloted by Morgan, daughter of captain-owner Art Lohrey and a long-time sailor and islander. Along with the Iris, which takes groups of up to six out on afternoon and sunset sails, San Juan Classic Day Sailing also sets out from Roche Harbor on Dirigo II, a 72-foot schooner built in 1939 for private charters and planned multiday sails.

Though our trip with Iris starts out under gray skies, the sun soon forces its way through the clouds, making Iris’s seafoam-green paint and bronze fittings gleam. We spend a couple of blissful hours gliding between the rocky islands, watching the pines whip by, imagining the sweetness of a simple life out here amongst the harbor seals. After Iris returns us to the harbor, our day ends with a ferry ride at dusk, the lights of the islands’ shores winking goodbye. Learn more about the San Juan Islands >>

Rafting in the Cascades

On another hot, summer day, I’m heading east for a very different kind of boating. After a two-hour drive along leafy Highway 2, my friend Beth and I emerge in Leavenworth, Washington’s own little Bavaria, where Osprey Rafting has been operating for 20 years. Today we’re rafting the Wenatchee, a powerful river that runs through the Cascades for 53 miles. Osprey has a put-in just around the corner from the shop, and after a safety talk and paddling lesson, we eagerly hop into the waiting raft.

Soon after entering the river, we splash through Triple Threat and Tinley Falls—two Class IV rapids—laughing and screaming with glee. After the initial hoopla, the river calms and loops back in toward town, carrying on past the gabled chalets. While we embarked on a half-day rafting trip, there are a ton of ways to raft with Osprey: mellow family rides, longer trips down to a barbecue at their takeout in Cashmere, happy-hour trips that yo-yo those first few rapids and end with a beer token for Leavenworth’s Icicle Brewing, or tubing trips, the ultimate in floating relaxation.

Rafting starts on the Wenatchee whenever the snow begins to melt—around April or May—and runs until Labor Day. Trace the Wenatchee south to where it meets the Columbia, then continue farther downstream to find another convergence— the Snake, mingling with the Columbia at the Tri-Cities in Washington Wine Country.

View complete listings for river rafting companies in Washington >>

Jet Boating on the Columbia River

It’s from here that I’m heading on a jet boat trip early one morning, setting out from the Columbia Point Public Boat Launch in Richland on a powerful six-passenger boat. Captain Ray Hamilton of Columbia River Journeys tells me over the roar of the motor that we’re going to a wild river—the last free-flowing part of the Columbia, a section of the mighty river that Lewis and Clark never even floated upon. He and a handful of other captains take modern-day explorers out on the river May 1 through October 15, often on a larger 22-seat boat. 

Kids fishing from shore wave at us as we skim across the flat water, the glassy green river between us perfectly reflecting the bleached-blue sky above. Once we pass the last reminders of civilization—houses, ranches, and green vineyards—Captain Ray pushes the throttle down as far as it goes and a pair of white pelicans take off a hundred yards away, their black-rimmed wings carrying them high overhead. Soon the character of the river changes, the glassy water giving way to the ripples and whorls of a faster current.

A little more than 20 miles upstream from town, we arrive at the Hanford Reach National Monument, a 196,000-acre reserve established in 2000 around the nuclear reactors built here from the ’40s to the ’60s—the first in the world. Six of the nine reactors are “cocooned,” stripped down to their essential bits and encased in angular cement and gleaming stainless steel to become strangely stunning modern art pieces.

The town of Hanford and all of the reactors are on the south side of the river, while the north is flanked for the most part by the White Bluffs, 900-foot-tall cliffs made of layers upon layers of compressed sand and clay speckled with swallows’ nests. The captain adds in history lessons along the way, but other than that, it’s just a glorious ride on the river—the sky and the land feel wide open as we race across the water.

View complete listings for jet boating companies in Washington >>

Houseboating on Lake Roosevelt

Soon enough, summer’s almost over and I’m chasing the sun out east with my dad and two family friends at Seven Bays Marina in Davenport (35 miles from Spokane), heading out on a houseboating expedition. At Dakota Columbia Houseboat Adventures’ dock, we meet owner Lyle Parker and our boat, the mighty Eclipse. I’m a little surprised they’re letting me take this giant vessel—it’s 62-feet long and 16-feet wide, sleeps 16 and looks a lot like an RV perched on top of two huge metal pontoons—out on the lake, but after a thorough briefing sprinkled with lots of “fores” and “afts,” I’m confidently houseboating on Lake Roosevelt, the 150-mile-long lake created by the Grand Coulee Dam.

We set out for Hawk Creek, just four miles south of the marina, and arrive as the light starts to fade. Once we anchor to the shore, we settle into our new digs—on go the hot tub and the rooftop grill. By the time our burgers are finished, the tub is warm, so we soak under the stars before finding our cozy berths. In the morning we plug in the coffee maker, watch the news on the satellite TV, and scramble eggs on the gas range, reveling in the strangeness (and awesomeness) of floating-amenity abundance.

After breakfast, it’s out to our kayaks to paddle up the arm of Hawk Creek, where the beaches give way to steep basalt walls and, beneath us, pretty, leafy stalks reach up through the crystalline water. A 30-minute paddle ends with an impressive waterfall tucked into a little cove—“Jurassic Park,” Dakota Columbia owner Lyle calls it.

Over the course of the day, we figure out what houseboating is all about. It’s not about covering ground, seeing as the max speed is a whopping 8 miles per hour; it’s about finding the perfect place to park it and play. We score a pretty spot to beach ourselves, then run up to the houseboat roof to zing off the
slide, splashing in the aquamarine water. Our trip is over
after another day, but most folks
come for at least a week—packing the boat full of people and provisions for a unique exploration of this corner of the state.

Find more boat cruises and rentals in Washington >>

Paddleboating in Puget Sound

Back in Seattle on one of the last sweet, sunny days of the season, I’m gearing up for an afternoon of stand-up paddleboarding (SUP). There are a number of places in Puget Sound where I can test my balance on the water—Lake Union in Seattle and Thea Foss Waterway in Tacoma, for example—but West Seattle is where I’m headed for a SUP lesson with Heidi, a guide with Alki Kayak Tours.

She helps me choose a big, wide board that should keep me steady, and we set off from the beach to a chorus of sea lions, barking from the giant buoy out in the bay. Alki Kayak Tours offers guided paddles (SUP or kayak) in both directions from the shop—west toward the lighthouse or east into Elliott Bay, which is where we’re headed.

The afternoon sun is still reaching over the bluff of West Seattle as we sidle up to a derelict pier, dropping to our knees to fit underneath and poke through the mussel- and barnacle-covered pylons. The water is shockingly clear—I can see brilliantly colored sea stars and anemones clinging to long-fallen beams and boards below. Back out in the bay, we loop behind a docked barge to investigate moored vessels.

Huge, gentle waves from the ferries, water taxis, and ships roll underneath us as we head toward Harbor Island and the mouth of the Duwamish for a peek at the heavy-duty industry afoot here.

As we turn back toward the beach, giant egg-yolk jellyfish pass harmless and graceful beneath us. “Every time I come out to the water, I feel so lucky to live here,” Heidi says.

Savoring the setting sun over the mountains ahead and the salt water below me—recalling my delight surfing the waves out in Westport and riding the white water in the Cascades—I couldn’t agree more.

Find more outdoor activities in Washington >>

–Anne Larkin

Photo Credit: Mount Rainier/Nickay3111/Flickr