It is best known for its beautiful coastline, green interior, rainy weather, and spectacular mountains.
A chain of volcanoes defines the spine of the Pacific Northwest, including the iconic snow-packed Mount Rainier and Mount Hood.
In this Destination Guide, we’ll focus on things to do in the mainland United States.
- Washington – home to volcanoes and numerous coastal islands to explore, as well as Seattle, the largest city in the Pacific Northwest
- Oregon – known for its political innovation and the quirky city of Portland
- Western Idaho – a Rocky Mountains state known for it wilderness, with snow-capped mountains
Pacific Northwest Cities
The Pacific Northwest has a reputation for innovation and is home to some of the largest and most well-known brand-corporations, such as, Amazon, Nike, Starbucks, Microsoft, Costco, Eddie Bauer, Expedia, Boeing, Intel, and Nordstrom.
The top 7 cities in the region are:
- Seattle – the largest city in Washington and the Pacific Northwest, and its cultural and economic influence extends far beyond its borders
- Tacoma – Washington’s third-largest city, in the shadow of Mt. Rainier, known for its dynamic art scene
- Olympia – the capital of Washington state, on the shores of Puget Sound, and a breeding ground for local alternative culture
- Spokane – the economic and transportation hub of eastern Washington
- Portland – the largest city in Oregon, known for its scenic beauty and eco-friendly urban planning policies, with a proudly liberal outlook
- Eugene – the second-largest city in Oregon, known for its natural beauty and its artistic, activist residents
- Salem – the capital of Oregon, in the fertile Willamette Valley between Portland and Eugene
Things To Do In Pacific Northwest
The Pacific Northwest is a very diverse region including rugged coastlines, unique sand dunes, sparkling streams, huge rivers, wide deserts, and picturesque forested islands, as well as the dramatic mountains.
Outdoors and wilderness lifestyle is the key theme here. You have literally unlimited options to experience nature.
Let’s say you are starting your trip from Seattle, Washington, the largest airport in the region. We recommend the following must-see attractions (going from North to South):
Olympic National Park
An extremely diverse from the lush canopy of rain forests, to the sandy beaches and rugged, glacier-capped mountains. Olympic National Park is the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Pacific Northwest.
San Juan Islands
In the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains in Puget Sound, these islands are famous for abundant eagles and Orca whales and includes the San Juan Islands National Monument.
Puget Sound is a large, complex waterway created by the most recent glacial cycle, which ended 14,000 years ago.
North Cascades National Park
Full of jagged peaks, deep valleys, cascading waterfalls and over 300 glaciers form this park.
Mount Rainier National Park
An extremely photogenic volcanic mountain, rising from close to sea level to 14,410 feet (4392 m). Mount Rainier towers over western Washington and is symbolic of the natural beauty of the area.
Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument
Between Mount Rainier and Mount Hood is the infamous Mount St. Helens. It’s the site of the largest recorded volcanic eruption in US history.
Washington Coast & Oregon Coast
A scenic and wild stretch of magnificent beauty and quaint little towns. This is also the longest undeveloped coast in the contiguous United States.
Mount Hood is Oregon’s most recognizable and tallest (11,239 feet) volcanic mountain and can easily be seen across both states. It’s a major outdoor recreation site from skiing to ice climbing and highpointing (highest point of Oregon).
Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area
Formed by the ancient forces of wind, water and time, these dunes are like no others in the world. This is the largest expanse of coastal sand dunes in North America.
Columbia Gorge Scenic drive
The Columbia Gorge Scenic drive and its waterfalls follows along the mighty Columbia River, which is the natural boundary between Oregon & Washington.
Crater Lake National Park
In Southern Oregon, Crater Lake is the deepest lake in North America. The clear blue water in this volcanic crater make it an attraction.
This volcanic lake is all that remains from the massive volcanic explosion of Mount Mazama approximately 7700 years ago.
Unlike many areas of the country, the prehistory of the region is rich and evident. Areas such as Suquamish still actively practice Native American traditions and Northwest Native American art is a common theme even in contemporary urban public artworks.
The city of Seattle is named after Chief Seattle and many other natural and manufactured features bear the names of the areas first peoples which are often difficult for outsiders to pronounce.
Areas such as Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve have kept large areas preserved much as they were when the first European settlers came to the area while the Lewis and Clark National Monument along the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail has preserved that area for future explorers.
Experiences to have
Hugely popular along the Pacific Coast, however due to its size and vast expanses between towns it is easy to find your own isolated patch to explore.
Be warned that sea shells and driftwood are considered part of the natural environment and should not be removed. Be gentle with sea creatures and keep a wide distance away from nesting birds, seals and other shore animals and always put back anything removed from the shoreline.
The Pacific Northwest is one of the most popular places for cruising on small craft in America. Breath taking views of the snow capped mountain ranges mingle with thick forests and clear bays and streams to create a humbling cacophony of natural sights for area boaters.
Carved by ancient glaciers, areas like Puget Sounds offer intricate and complex waterways with endless opportunities for exploration while the many harbor towns built on protective bays cater to boaters and provide an wide array of services, restaurants and shops.
Harbor Seals, Otters, Sea Lions, Bald Eagles and Blue Herons are common sites while the occasional viewing of an Orca or Grey Whale is not out of the question.
Popular throughout the Pacific Northwest from trout fly fishing in isolated mountain streams to digging up shell fish along the coast.
Hiking and Camping
Wilderness backpacking is very popular throughout this region, especially in the Cascade and Olympic mountains. The Pacific Crest Trail is a 2,650-mile border-to-border trail that traverses Oregon, Washington, and the length of California.
Other opportunities for hiking/backpacking can be found nearly everywhere, from coastal trails to paths through old-growth temperate rainforest, and from high desert openness to high altitude vistas.
Opportunities for mountain biking can be found in nearly every corner of the Pacific Northwest. From relaxing rides through wine country to extreme mountain trails designed specifically for the sport, mountain bikers in the Pacific Northwest respect the landscape by staying on trails clearly marked for bikes.
The North Cascades are particularly noted for offering some of the most rugged alpine climbing in the lower 48, but popular areas can be found across the region for all skill levels, including Smith Rock in central Oregon.
Sea kayaking began as a sport in the Pacific Northwest. The region offers thousands of miles of convoluted shoreline to explore, including the San Juan Islands and the Cascadia Marine Trail on Puget Sound, which is a National Recreation Trail.
Suitable for day or multi-day trips, the Cascadia Marine Trail has over 50 campsites accessible via public and private launch sites or shoreline trailheads.
The cold waters of Pacific Northwest takes a bit more gear and training than other locations with warmer water, but the rewards are incredible.
The area contains some of the best diving in the world and many dive sites are completely covered with colorful sea creatures that defy description.
It is not surprising to discover that the famous underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau named Puget Sound as his second favorite diving area in the world.
The Pacific Northwest has many snow ski resorts close to urban areas including Mount Hood near Portland with skiing year round and the largest night ski area in America; Mount Bachelor ski area near Bend, Oregon; or Washington State’s Mount Baker where it is possible to ski the glacier in July.
Most areas feature opportunities for both alpine and nordic skiing, as well as snowboarding. edit
Surfing is popular along areas of the coast and seasonally in the Admiralty Inlet. Some of the areas best beaches are so isolated that surfers created another Northwest tradition: strapping surf boards to a backpacks to get the board and surfer to where the waves are.
The Clean Water Classic is the largest Pro/Am surfing competition in the Pacific Northwest and takes place annually in Westport, Washington.
The spring and fall provide good opportunities to watch the Grey Whale migration. Orca whales can frequently be seen in the San Juan Islands and other parts of Puget Sound.
Many professional tours are available or check online for recent updates from various whale watching groups.
Many rivers, particularly the Snake River, offer whitewater sporting opportunities.
Monuments and architecture
Most of the area’s architecture can, of course, be seen in urban areas such as Seattle’s Smith Tower, which, although now dwarfed by Seattle’s modern skyscrapers, stood for years as the tallest building west of the Mississippi.
But interesting architecture can be seen even across rural areas such as the eleven historic lighthouses scattered along the Oregon coast. Michael Graves’ the Portland Building in downtown Portland in on the National Register of Historic Places for its primacy in the history of Postmodernism.
Frank Gehry’s EMP/SFM building is a contemporary architectural highlight in Seattle.
Museums and galleries
There are many world-renowned museums around the region and although most of the well known one’s such as the Seattle and Portland Art Museums tend to be in the larger cities, many quality museums can be found scattered across the area and are often a rewarding and enriching break when exploring.
Even small towns will sometimes offer their own regional art and historical museums that offer glimpses of local art, history and culture.
Culture of Northwest
The mountains that divide the states also facilitate the cultural divisions within the region. Two thirds of the population lives west of the Cascades where progressive opinions such as environmentalism prevail, while in eastern sides political thought tends to be rather conservative.
Oregon was the first state to allow initiative and referendum, it was the first state to establish a beverage container deposit law (also known as a bottle bill), the first to legalize physician-assisted suicide, one of the first to legalize medical marijuana, and the first state to conduct all elections entirely by mail.
Portland elected one of the first gay mayors for a city of its size. While Washington was the first state to legalize marijuana, Seattle was the first major U.S. city to have a female mayor and one of the first states to legalize gay marriage.
LGBT tourism & Safety
The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in the Pacific Northwest is strong and cohesive, and offers a wide range of resources for community members and visitors.
Seattle and Portland have a some of the highest percentage of gay, lesbian or bisexual residents among large cities in the U.S. Washington state is one of only a few states that legalized gay marriage by a popular vote.
Few, if any, American regions can challenge the Pacific Northwest’s love of coffee.
According to some market research, there are an amazing 1,600 plus coffee shops in the Puget Sound region alone, ranking it the most popular coffee region in the country but coffee is popular all across the northwest.
Microbreweries and beer in general are a Northwest specialty, and the area has many to offer for beer enthusiasts.
In 2012 Oregon had 18.3 craft breweries per 500,000 people making it second only to Vermont in the number of micro breweries per capita.
Ask your servers for local beer recommendations and search out regional microbrews in stores.
Hops are the key ingredient in beer making and Washington State’s fertile Yakima Valley is by far the biggest exporter of hops in the US giving area brewers another edge in making the best beers.
Eastern Oregon and Washington are known for their wines. Walla Walla alone boasts over 100 wineries – including some of the area and nation’s best cellars – with tasting rooms downtown, this area is popular for winery tours.
But don’t expect the stodginess of elitist wine areas elsewhere; the Willamette Valley in Oregon and the Columbia River Plateau in Washington have many affordable and welcoming communities with small town roots.
Outside the main cities of Portland and Seattle, public transportation is scarce and is not of much use for extensive sightseeing, so renting or arriving by car is advisable.
Although distances can be long, most roads are paved and well-maintained. Be aware of distances between gas stations and plan accordingly when traveling in rural areas.
By light rail
Portland and Seattle have light rail systems that can quickly deliver passengers from their respective airports to their downtown cores. However Portland’s system is better developed and offers more options when traveling around that region.
Portland and Seattle are considered some of the most bike-friendly cities in the United States with extensive bike lanes and infrastructure developed for bicyclists including bike racks on buses and designated spaces on light rail.
However even rural areas in both states are popular with bicyclists including Oregon’s winding coastline.
Much like any area in the United States, the Pacific Northwest is generally very safe, and the chance of you running into any criminal trouble is unlikely.
Marijuana and Drugs Use
Penalties for using illegal drugs can be severe. There is very little tolerance in this area and a number of tough laws were passed in response.
Note: Do NOT try to transport marijuana or other drugs that are illegal under federal law across US state lines, as doing so is drug trafficking, and could subject you to a lengthy prison term or deportation.
However use of the most widely available drug; marijuana, is somewhat more lax, as both Oregon and Washington have decriminalized possession, and Washington has legalized its use outright.
In Oregon, possession of a user-quantity (1 oz or less) is a civil violation and can be punished by a fine of $500–$1,000. In Washington, adults 21 years or older may legally possess up to “one ounce of useable marijuana”, 16 ounces of marijuana-infused product in solid form, 72 ounces of marijuana-infused product in liquid form or “any combination” of all three.
But this does not give permission for people to simply smoke in public, and restrictions while driving under the influence of marijuana are very similar to those for alcohol in both states.
Medical marijuana is legal in both states and shops are prolific. However, a doctor’s prescription is needed to buy from dispensaries.
Certain areas of larger cities can become seedy after dark and it is therefore advised that one avoid being out alone very late at night.
Use sensible precautions and don’t leave any valuables unattended or in plain sight in your car, especially at trail heads or other areas where you might be leaving your car for some time.
Environment & Wild life Safety
The good news is that the Pacific Northwest does not have any regular catastrophic events to worry about on an annual basis. Tornadoes are very rare and hurricanes are non-existent.
There is a fair amount of rain, but rarely intense storms. However the area is not immune to major disasters.
Though many of the animals in the area are used to seeing humans, the wildlife is nonetheless wild and should not be fed or disturbed. Stay at least 100 m away from bears and 25 m from all other potentially aggressive animals!
Check trail head postings at parks for recent activity and be aware of rules keeping a distance from Orca whales and other marine animals while boating.
Regulations for orcas, also known as killer whales, require that boaters stay 200 yards away and keep clear of the whales’ path.
Don’t disturb resting seal pups; keep children and dogs away and report to the local stranding hotline.
Seal pups ‘haul out’ to get much needed rest when they are young and are often alone for many hours. They are extremely vulnerable at this time and should be left alone.
Only about 50% of Pacific Northwest seal pups make it through their first year, so please help to protect their health.
In the Cascade Mountains (which divide the states into halves) there can be significant snow accumulations during the late fall and winter months. This poses a danger for avalanches whenever these areas experience warm periods, regardless of how brief they may be.
Mountain passes are sometimes closed for avalanche control and may affect travel plans, especially along I-90 from Yakima to Seattle. Check the Washington State Department of Transportation website for information regarding Avalanche control.
If going into the mountains during the winter and early spring, refer to the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center website for information regarding the current avalanche dangers throughout the Cascade region of the state.
During the summer months, the temperatures east of the Cascades often exceeds 100 degrees Fahrenheit. If you are to be outside for long periods of time, be sure to drink plenty of water and limit the intake of alcohol and caffeine to prevent dehydration and heat stroke.
Should you plan to venture off into the surrounding landscape, follow desert survival guidelines. Make sure you KNOW where you are going, tell someone where your destination will be, and take an ample water supply with you.
Tsunami evacuation signs are common along the coast such as this one in Seaside, Oregon.
Being on the Pacific Rim means that earthquakes and even tsunamis are a possibility no matter how remote the chances are, it’s best to be aware and prepared. Areas along the coast have tsunami evacuation routes well marked.
Any earthquake should be considered a potential precursor to a tsunami, which is a large amount of water moving toward the coastline.
One of the first signs that a tsunami may be imminent is what appears to be a very low tide, or substantial withdrawal of water from both the mouth of rivers and the ocean itself.
Move uphill and away from the coast without delay if there is a major earthquake or signs of a tsunami.
A tsunami is like water being disturbed in a tub: it sloshes back and forth until it calms. In some cases, the second inundation may be greater or higher than the first, so avoid the temptation to explore after the water recedes.
During the winter months, the western side of both states often receive significant rainfall which soften the grounds to such a point that landslides sometimes occur.
Be especially alert when driving. Embankments along roadsides are particularly susceptible to landslides. Watch the road for collapsed pavement, mud, fallen rocks, and other indications of possible landslides or debris flows.
If you encounter a landslide, leave the area immediately if it is safe to do so and call the local fire, police or public works department.
There are several large volcanoes in the region, such as Mount St. Helens, which, in 1980, let loose the largest volcanic eruption in US history.
However, the probability of a volcanic eruption in the Cascades is very low, and events usually comes with weeks, if not months, of warning. Simply using common sense and heeding any warnings should be more than enough to keep any traveler safe.
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September 6, 2018 3:19 pm