Almost 45 percent of Washington’s 42.6 million acres are publicly held. The rules, regulations, permit requirements, and fees on public lands change constantly, especially Forest Service and Park Service lands, so check with a local ranger station before heading out or purchase Washington’s Backcountry Access Guide, an excellent booklet that explains regulations in each area. Buy it online at www.mountaineers.org .
Washington’s three major national parks attract millions of visitors each year and offer must-see sights. North Cascades National Park  (www.nps.gov/noca ) covers a half million acres of wild mountain country that includes more than 300 glaciers, hundreds of miles of hiking trails, and the 55-mile long Lake Chelan . Mount Rainier National Park  (www.nps.gov/mora ) contains the state’s tallest and best summit: 14,411-foot Mt. Rainier. Hiking trails encircle the peak, and scenic mountain roads provide lingering views of the mountain meadows, subalpine forests, and glaciers that make this one of the nation’s crown jewels. Olympic National Park  (www.nps.gov/olym ) is famous for the lush west-side rainforests with enormous old-growth trees, but it also has dramatic mountainous country and the incomparable Pacific coastline.
United States Forest Service lands cover more than nine million acres in Washington state within seven national forests. These forests are managed for multiple uses, but the emphasis has—until recently at least—been on logging. Concerns over spotted owl survival led to a moratorium on timber harvesting in many areas. The National Forests of Washington also contain 24 wilderness areas that cover more than 2.5 million acres. Over half of the total acreage falls within the three largest: Glacier Peak Wilderness  (576,900 acres), Pasaytan Wilderness (530,000 acres), and Alpine Lakes Wilderness  (393,360 acres). The Forest Service also manages Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument  and the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, two of the state’s most interesting natural areas.
Many Forest Service trailheads now charge user fees. Day use is generally $5 per vehicle per day, or pay $30 for an annual Northwest Forest Pass (877/874-6775, www.discovernw.org ), which can be used in most national forests in Washington. The plus side is that 80 percent of this money is used to maintain local recreation areas and trails. For details on recreation in the forests, contact the headquarters offices below or stop by a local ranger station.
Colville National Forest (Colville, 509/684-7000, www.fs.fed.us/colville )
Gifford Pinchot National Forest (Vancouver, 360/750-5000, www.fs.fed.us/gpnf )
Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area (Hood River, Oregon, 541/386-2333, www.fs.fed.us/r6/columbia )
Okanogan National Forest (Okanogan, 509/826-3275, www.fs.fed.us/r6/okanogan )
Olympic National Forest (Olympia, 360/956-2402, www.fs.fed.us/r6/olympic )
Wenatchee National Forest (Wenatchee, 509/662-4335, www.fs.fed.us/r6/wenatchee )
Umatilla National Forest (Walla Walla, 509/522-6290, www.fs.fed.us/r6/uma )
The state of Washington manages 125 state parks covering over 230,000 acres. State park facilities are surprisingly diverse, including several historic forts (Fort Townsend , Fort Columbia , Fort Ebey , Fort Worden , and others), many miles of sandy ocean beaches (including Grayland Beach , Cape Disappointment , Long Beach , Ocean City , and Pacific Beach ), one of the largest public telescopes in the region (Goldendale Observatory ), a park devoted to whale-watching (Lime Kiln Point State Park ), a campground where Lewis and Clark spent a night (Lewis and Clark Trail), and an incredible waterfalls surrounded by desolate eastern Washington land (Palouse Falls). In addition, the state park system includes numerous historic sites, environmental learning centers for school kids, and 40 marine parks, many of which are accessible only by boat.
A fine source for state park information is the Parks Guide produced by Washington State Parks. For this publication, park brochures, or reservation information, contact the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission (360/902-8844, www.parks.wa.gov ).