Where else in America can you wallow in natural hot springs in the morning, take photos of mountains at lunch time, roll up in one of the world’s coolest cities by mid-afternoon, sample a mind-boggling assortment of locally brewed beers by evening and rock out until dawn? The Pacific Northwest is a charmer and its offbeat character and quirky sense of humor make it fun to be around and hard to say goodbye to. Here are just some of the reasons why we love the Pacific Northwest:
San Juan Islands, Washington: Sailing to the San Juan archipelago is like entering another world; a greener, cleaner America where bark-stripped madrone trees outnumber buildings and cars play second fiddle to bicycles. There are 450 landfalls in this expansive archipelago if you count every rock, sandbar, islet and eagle’s perch between Anacortes and the Canadian border, though only about 200 of these islands are named, and of these, only a handful are inhabited. Washington State Ferries service the four largest – San Juan, Orcas, Shaw and Lopez Islands.
Mt Rainier, Washington: At 14,411ft, majestic Rainier is the Cascades’ highest peak and a longstanding northwestern icon. The mountain’s snow-capped summit and forest-covered foothills contain numerous hiking trails, huge swathes of flower-carpeted meadows and an alluring conical peak that presents a formidable challenge for aspiring climbers. Rising commandingly over the bustling population centers of Puget Sound, one brief glimpse of this indomitable and often cloud-enshrouded mountain – with its 26 glaciers and notoriously fickle weather – is enough to inspire a sharp gasp in most visitors.
Seattle, Washington: The largest city in the Pacific Northwest also happens to be a perfect distillation of all the great things the region has going for it. Known as the Emerald City, it’s home to about 3.3 million people and is a lively, progressive urban center. In addition to being lush with parks and surrounded by natural beauty, Seattle has a phenomenal café and music scene and has some of the best outside art – including a 7-ton bronze statue of Lenin and a giant troll under a bridge.
Vancouver, British Columbia: It’s Western Canada’s largest city, a magnet for 8.7 million annual visitors and best known around the world as a utopia of joie de vivre ringed by dense waterfront forest and looming snow-topped mountains. City highlights include Stanley Park’s sea-to-sky vistas, artsy Granville Island, Gastown’s bars, West Side’s beaches and South Main’s hipster shops. The Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia (UBC) is Vancouver’s best museum and the perfect spot to delve into First Nations culture.
Portland, Oregon: Call it what you want – PDX, P-Town, Puddletown, Stumptown, City of Roses, Bridge City, River City or Beervana – Portland kicks booty. It hums with a youthful vitality and personal style that aren’t easy to pigeonhole. It’s a place where Gore-Tex rain jackets in fine restaurants are as common as sideburns on a hipster. It’s a haven for activists, cyclists, vegetarians, outdoor nuts and dog-lovers, all supporting countless brewpubs, coffee houses and independent shops. It’s a livable metropolis with pretty neighborhoods and a friendly, small-town atmosphere.
Crater Lake, Oregon: The gloriously still waters of Crater Lake reflect surrounding mountain peaks like a giant dark blue mirror, making for spectacular photographs and breathtaking panoramas. Crater Lake is Oregon’s only national park and also the USA’s deepest lake at 1943ft deep. You can hike and cross-country ski in the area, but most visitors just cruise the 33-mile loop Rim Drive, which is open from around June to mid-October and offers over 30 viewpoints as it winds around the edge of Crater Lake.
Victoria & Vancouver Island, British Columbia: Vancouver Island is laced with colorful, often eccentric settlements, many founded on logging or fishing and featuring the word ‘Port’ in their name. Picture-postcard Victoria, the capital of British Columbia and the island’s main city, was long-touted as North America’s most English city. This was a surprise to anyone who actually came from Britain, since Victoria promulgated a dreamy version of England that never really was. For those interested in cycling, Victoria has more cycle routes than any other Canadian city.
Oregon Coast, Oregon: Driving along Oregon’s coast is a must-see highlight any time of year. Rocky headlands loom high above the ocean, providing astounding vistas, while craggy rocks lie scattered along the shoreline like oceanic sentinels. The Coast Range is deeply etched by great rivers and patched with forests, offering outdoor enthusiasts excellent boating, fishing and hiking opportunities. The Oregon Dunes – among the largest coastal dunes in the world – stretch for over 50 miles, and, offshore, gray whales migrate offshore from Alaska to Mexico and back.
Mt St Helens, Washington: What it lacks in height Mt St Helens makes up for in fiery infamy dating back to the catastrophic volcanic eruption in May 1980, which rocked the mountain and the surrounding countryside. When the smoke finally lifted, Mt St Helens sported a new mile-wide crater on its north side and had lost 1300ft in height. A visit to Mt St Helens National Volcanic Monument will demonstrate how nature has restored much life to the mountain, although the devastation wreaked by the explosion is still hauntingly evident.
Olympic National Park, Washington: Hidden away in the nation’s extreme northwest, Washington’s spectacular coastline and heavily forested interior showcases over 350 miles of wild, storm-lashed beaches along with some of the country’s most untainted and pristine rural ecosystems. The jewel in the crown is the unique Olympic Peninsula and its eponymous national park, a remote and rugged amalgamation of glacier-coated mountains, misty cliffs and lush, temperate rain forest that encases a vast primeval wilderness where human habitation has been kept to a minimum.
Mt Hood, Oregon: Oregon’s highest peak, Mt Hood (11,240ft), pops into view over much of northern Oregon whenever there’s a sunny day, exerting an almost magnetic tug on skiers, hikers and sightseers. In summer wildflowers bloom on the mountainsides and hidden ponds shimmer in blue, making for some unforgettable hikes; in winter, downhill and cross-country skiing dominates people’s minds and bodies. Timberline Lodge, a handsome wood gem from the 1930s, offers glorious shelter and refreshments year round, and can’t be missed.
John Day Fossil Beds, Oregon: Within the soft rocks and crumbly soils of John Day country lies one of the world’s greatest fossil collections. Discovered in the 1860s by clergyman and geologist Thomas Condon, these fossil beds were laid down between six and 50 million years ago, when this area was a coastal plain with a tropical climate. Roaming the forests at the time were saber-toothed, feline-like nimravids, bear-dogs, pint-sized horses and other early mammals.
Columbia River Gorge, Oregon: Cleanly dividing Oregon and Washington is the spectacular Columbia River Gorge. Driving east on I-84 (or, more leisurely, on the scenic Historic Columbia River Highway) has you passing high waterfalls and nearly vertical mountain walls, all while paralleling the mighty Columbia. Hikers will be entertained by the steep trails that lead through canyons lined with ferns and pretty waterfalls. Wind sport enthusiasts will be blown away (quite literally) by the world-class windsurfing and kite boarding conditions. There are also mountain biking and rafting possibilities, especially around Hood River.
Yakima Valley, Washington: With its scorched hills interspersed with geometrically laid-out vine plantations and apple orchards, the Yakima River valley glimmers like a verdant oasis in an otherwise dry and barren desert. Arising from the snowy slopes of Snoqualmie Pass and flowing deceptively southeast (and away from the Pacific) until it joins courses with the mighty Columbia, the fast flowing Yakima River supports a lucrative agricultural industry that churns out copious amounts of cherries, hops, vegetables and peaches, along with the world’s largest yield of apples.
Ashland, Oregon: This popular city is best known for its internationally renowned Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), which attracts 100,000 playgoers from all over the world and runs for nine months of the year. In fact, Ashland wouldn’t be the cultural center of southern Oregon without the OSF but a visit is well worth it.
Start planning your Pacific Northwest trip - be sure to check out Lonely Planet's Pacific Northwest Trips and go further afield with USA's Best Trips: 99 Themed Itineraries Across America.