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Snoqualmie Falls: A waterfall, town and lodge extraordinaire


All of us Northwesterners are truly blessed. Why? Because we are surrounded by eye-popping natural wonders that most other regions of this great land simply don’t have (remember anything special in Kansas?). Or the folks who live elsewhere have to drive just about forever to go see the “local” sights.

Not here. One of our sparkling (literally) jewels is a mere 30 miles east of downtown Seattle, a short and scenic hop down I-90 with a hard left at highway 18. Just 30 miles, you say? Well, that’s hardly a getaway. But listen, people–this easy trip will make you feel like you’ve just landed a million miles from the nearest big city. Indeed, it’s a bit startling to open your eyes in the midst of a mountain wonderland of coniferous forests scraping the azure sky. Add a glacier-gouged, water-worn river valley with the distinct appearance of a primordial landscape and you might expect to see a triceratops wandering out into the warm sun any minute now. The place just seems to be a long way from everywhere – and that’s what makes it so appealing.

But first things first. If you’re going to go there, practice the proper pronunciation. Three syllables, not four. Sno-qual-mee, not sno-qual-a-mee like the uninitiated Back-Easters (and many locals, too, from what the tourist volunteers report) are inclined to utter.
The Falls

When one actually sees Snoqualmie Falls, other utterances are apt to spill forth from one’s mouth as well. Such as: “Wwwhhhhhhoooooaaaaaa! Oooooohhhmygawd!,” “Look at all those rainbows!”, “100 feet higher than Niagara!,” “Are those tiny things down there really people walking on the rocks?” and “Mommy-mommy, it makes me haveta go to the bafroom.”

What causes such excitement? Water, ice and time. The Snoqualmie River cascades 270 feet down a sheer granite wall and produces spectacular prism-spangled plumes that swirl around the basin and paint rainbows everywhere. Over many thousands of years – from the glacial age–the water’s cutting force has drilled a pool into the granite floor that’s now 65 feet deep and shoots heavy mist upward hundreds more. This natural water-and-light show attracts 1.5 million awe-struck visitors every year (most of them on weekends, so plan to come mid-week and avoid the crowds), many who stay to relish the comforts of the elegant lodge and rejuvenating spa that hangs on the cliff’s edge above the falls.

The Salish Lodge & Spa

Named for the language of the native peoples, the Salish (pronounced Say-lish) Lodge is ranked #19 among the top resort spas in the U.S. according to a poll sponsored by Conde Nast Traveler magazine. When you leave your car with the valet to check in, you’ll see why. Personal Service is spelled with a capital P and S here, and everybody on staff knows who you are before you can tell them.

Never a large facility, the lodge began in 1913 with just four rooms and nearly 100 years and several facelifts later, still has just 91 rooms and suites. Such size produces an intimacy not possible with sprawling edifices sporting hundreds and sometimes thousands of rooms. Yet the Salish’s guest quarters compare to the finest you’ll find. Enjoy spacious rooms, massive king beds, and real fireplaces that crackle and pop with delight, throwing flickering light across the room as the sky darkens by the blanket of night. Balconies or window seats complete a theme of casual luxury in this peaceful alpine setting.

Is this a venue to rejuvenate a relationship? A friend of mine not known for a heightened sense of chivalry, came along with us to check out our room. He sat down in a cushy chair, gazed across the room at that flickering fireplace, then out the window at Mount Si in the fading eastern sky, and finally drawled, “Mannnn, this place is really roooow-man-tic!” I can assure you – he was right.

What also adds to the aura of romance is the…ahem…bathroom. An exclusive new feature just installed by the lodge now makes the art of bathing ultra-hygienic. The Salish is the first resort spa in the world to install a revolutionary Sanijet pipeless spa bath for couples in every guest room. Sanijet is a state-of-the-art system that eliminates contamination in the water, thus ensuring every guest’s health and safety. No more wondering who was in the tub before you when you lower yourself into that warm swirling mass of wet massage.

OK, enough of the brick and mortar stuff. Why do so many people come to the Salish Lodge again and again and again? I asked a couple from Oklahoma checking in at the maitre’de desk in the main restaurant after overhearing them say they had been here before. The woman gazed at her husband, smiled and said, “We had breakfast here 20 years ago and just had to come do it again.” Ten marvelous minutes later I began to understand what she meant.

It would be an understatement to say that the food was eye-rolling fabulous. And no wonder. The breakfast is all organic and prepared by a gifted chef and staff that have made the day’s first meal nothing less than magical. We ordered the restaurant’s famous four-course breakfast expecting good – but not great. And so our expectations were exceeded a thousand fold. I have been fortunate to have enjoyed breakfasts in some of the finest hotels and restaurants anywhere. But truthfully, I have never had a traditional sit-down breakfast as good – not just because the food was divine, but also the ambiance. For instance, a window seat overlooking the plummeting falls, rainbows appearing and disappearing by the minute; barn swallows darting back and forth outside, then landing to feed their cheeping babies in a nest just feet from our table; Mackenzie, our most charming waitperson, who has an eye for pouring “honey from the sky” and hitting the fresh biscuits on the money every time. No, this was much more than a meal, it was a spiritual experience – and if you don’t allot at least 90 minutes to two hours to revel in it, please – just wait until you can. Like the lady from Oklahoma, you too will remember this time fondly for many years to come – I guarantee it!

Then there’s the spa. It isn’t ranked #19 in North America for no reason. In short, it exists to create a unique and luxurious experience for weary bodies and souls. Really – you have to try it.
The Town

It’s definitely worth the two-minute drive east of the Salish Lodge to visit Snoqualmie, the old logging town that started it all – especially if you like stepping back most of a century as you walk along slurping ’50s malted milk shakes fresh from the soda fountain on main street. There’s also a wonderful railroad museum (free admission) housed in the original depot built in the late 19th century. And the volunteers who run the museum, souvenir shop and train are colorful characters right out of the 1890s.
The Train

The Snoqualmie Valley Railroad was founded in 1890 to support local logging, ore and coal mining activity. Many of the cars used on the Snoqualmie-North Bend route — now open for tourists — are from the early 1900’s. They’re a bit rough, but the real thing – and that’s part of the charm of the experience.

Tickets for the train itself are cheap, so plan to take the family. It’s a rare ride on a mode of transportation from a bygone time…and still lots of fun!

Snoqualmie Falls, photo courtesy of

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