Life as a Pacific Northwesterner

People in the Pacific Northwest are pretty cool cats, living a relatively laid-back lifestyle. But this doesn't mean Northwesterners don't care about what's going on around them. On the contrary, they're highly attuned to the economics and politics of the region, as well as to what's going on outside it. Everyone is quick to voice their opinion, whether it's about the right to own guns, 'local' versus 'organic' produce or the wisdom of the region's new marijuana laws.

The People

A Texan, a Californian and an Oregonian were sitting around a campfire drinking. The Texan took a swig of whiskey, threw the bottle in the air and shot it with his pistol while yelling, 'We have lots more whiskey where I come from!' The Californian sipped his Zinfandel, grabbed the Texan's pistol, threw the wine bottle in the air, and shot it while yelling, 'We have lots more wine where I come from!' The Oregonian guzzled his microbrew, grabbed the Texan's pistol, threw the empty in the air but caught the bottle and shot the Californian. He said 'We have lots of Californians where I come from, but I need to recycle this beer bottle.'

While not everyone in the Pacific Northwest is a tree-hugging hipster with activist tendencies and a penchant for lattes, many locals are proud of their independent spirit, profess a love for nature and, yes, will separate their plastics when it's time to recycle. They're a friendly lot and, despite the common tendency to denigrate Californians, most are transplants themselves. Why did they all come here, from all edges of the globe? Among other things, for the lush scenery, the good quality of life and the lack of pretension that often afflicts bigger, more popular places. Primping and putting on airs is not a part of Northwestern everyday life, and wearing Gore-Tex outerwear to restaurants, concerts or social functions will rarely raise an eyebrow.

In a broad sense, the Northwest shares the general cultures of the US and Canada but adds its own personal twist. In rural parts of eastern Oregon and Washington, the personality of the Old West is still very much alive. Fishing towns have a distinctive and often gritty sensibility that comes from making a living on the stormy Pacific Ocean. Urban centers have a reputation for progressive, somewhat maverick politics. Also, some folk do put emphasis on 'old family' legitimacy and connections, boasting of ancestors who came across the Oregon Trail or who were early Brits in Victoria. And while most urban Americans and Canadians are tolerant of individual eccentricities, rural Northwesterners tend to be conservative and perhaps a little skeptical of strangers.

There is indeed a wide mix of peoples in this great region, but they do tend to share several things in common: a do-it-yourself ethic, a respect for the outdoors, and the desire to keep frills to a minimum. And a certain affableness – if you're friendly to a local, whether they're a city slicker or a country bumpkin, they often can't help but be friendly right back.

Livin' the Life

The region's gorgeous waters, forests and mountains certainly help define the lifestyle of Northwesterners. Here, people can be close to nature without sacrificing the comforts of a sophisticated metropolis. During the week they'll work in city centers, dine at world-class restaurants and take in fine theatrical productions or cutting-edge live music. Then on weekends they'll head to the beach or the ski slopes, or hike to the nearest mountaintop. And while they love their outdoors, Northwesterners can be just as happy inside their warm homes – especially when snow, drizzly rain and gray skies take over in winter. Reading, watching movies and drinking (be it beer, wine, coffee or a craft cocktail) are a few popular indoor pastimes, and the area is known for its bookstores, funky cinemas, breweries and cafes.

The Pacific Northwest lifestyle is generally relaxed, and a certain degree of eccentricity is even expected: that shabbily dressed, green-haired woman next to you at the coffee shop might be a tattoo artist – or a software developer at Microsoft. Portland's unofficial motto is 'Keep Portland Weird,' while Seattle's popular Fremont neighborhood proclaims the 'freedom to be peculiar.' And let's not forget gays and lesbians, who are widely accepted and especially attracted to the Northwest's liberal cities. Girls, forget San Francisco – lesbians love Portland.

However, not everything is perfect in paradise; in big cities, urban sprawl and rising real-estate prices are a problem. And despite the large percentage of bicycle commuters, as well as great public-transportation systems, freeways get jammed during rush hour. Unemployment continues to be a big problem, as more and more people continue to be attracted to the region. Northwesterners are an adaptable lot, however. Like their ancestors who came over the Oregon Trail (or from California, the East Coast or Hong Kong), they've learned to change with the times – even as they voice their opinions the whole way.

Multiculturalism

Combined, the current population of Oregon and Washington is 10.9 million, which amounts to about 3.5% of the total US population. By far the greatest concentrations of people huddle in Washington's Puget Sound area and Oregon's Willamette Valley. Oregon and Washington are among the fastest-growing states in the USA.

With a population of around 4.6 million, British Columbia (BC) is the third most populous Canadian province, partly due to immigration largely from Hong Kong and to movement within Canada. The greater Vancouver area is home to over half those people.

Most US Northwesterners are Caucasian; minority groups include Latinos, Asians and African Americans. BC, while largely founded by British settlers, has a much more racially mixed population. Over 40% of Vancouver's population is made up of minority groups, most with an Asian background.

The US government recognizes over three dozen Pacific Northwestern Native American tribes, for whom reservations or trust lands have been set aside. A number of other Native American groups in the region have no federally recognized status – without which they are ineligible for government assistance to support tribal schools and cultural centers. Moreover, without legal recognition, it is difficult for tribes to maintain their cultural identity. The total Native American population of Oregon and Washington is around 194,000 (or 1.8% of the population).

In Canada, tribal bands control small tracts of land called reserves (though less than half of the country's native peoples actually inhabit these lands). First Nations inhabitants of BC number roughly 196,000 (about 5% of BC's population).

Offbeat Beliefs

Only a quarter of Pacific Northwesterners have a religious affiliation, and a good chunk of those are adherents of Christianity, Judaism and the Mormon Church. Asians have brought Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism and Islam – especially to Vancouver – and New Age spirituality isn't a stranger here. However, some even stranger and more exotic beliefs and religions have claimed footholds in the Northwest.

Ramtha's School of Enlightenment, known for channeling and out-of-body experiences, is headquartered in Yelm, WA (the movie What the Bleep Do We Know was filmed partly in Portland's Bagdad Theater, and its three directors were devotees). The Living Enrichment Center was a large 'New Thought' church located in Wilsonville, OR; it closed in 2004 because of a financial scandal. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh – an Indian spiritual leader who started the Osho movement – created a community in Antelope, OR, that voted the city council out of office and legalized public nudity (among other things). He was deported in 1985. Witchcraft-practicing Wiccans, despite their positive exposure on popular TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charmed, fear persecution and continue their tradition of secrecy; in fact, revealing oneself to others is called 'coming out of the broom closet.'

The Sporting Life

Outdoor-loving Pacific Northwesterners cherish their sports, whether they're players themselves or just watching their favorite teams go at it.

The Pacific Northwest's only National Football League (NFL) franchise is the Seattle Seahawks, owned by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen (who also owns the Portland Trail Blazers and part of the Seattle Sounders). They played their first game in 1976 and have made it to the Super Bowl three times – in 2006; in 2013, when they beat the Denver Broncos by a huge margin (43 to eight); and in 2015. The American football regular season runs from September to December.

Generating nearly as much enthusiasm are contests between university teams, most notably the University of Washington Huskies, the Washington State University Cougars, the University of Oregon Ducks and the Oregon State University Beavers. The college football season runs from September to February.

Vancouver is home to the Canadian Football League's BC Lions, who have won the Grey Cup six times, most recently in 2011 against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. The season runs from June to November.

The Seattle Mariners are the region's only Major League Baseball (MLB) team. Minor-league baseball has its fans as well, and is played by teams that include the Vancouver Canadians, Spokane Indians and Eugene Emeralds. Baseball season runs from April to October.

Portland's Trail Blazers are currently the region's only National Basketball Association (NBA) team; the season runs from late October through mid-April. Seattle's professional women's basketball team is the WNBA's Seattle Storm; the city hasn't had a professional men's basketball team since the Supersonics moved to Oklahoma in 2008, though hopes are high that renovations to Key Arena will lure a team.

Visiting Vancouver during the October-to-April hockey season? Catch Canada's favorite sport, pastime and religion. The National Hockey League's Vancouver Canucks have never won the Stanley Cup, but they came close a few times, most recently in 2011. Seattle's Thunderbirds and Portland's Winter Hawks are a couple of the region's other ice-hockey teams.

Major League Soccer (MLS) has become a wildly popular spectator sport in the Pacific Northwest – especially in Portland, where the Timbers FC is supported by some of the most enthusiastic fans of any sport anywhere. Games consistently sell out, and the city is planning to expand the stadium. The Seattle Sounders and the Vancouver Whitecaps are the region's other two MLS teams, kicking it from March to October.

The National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) was established in 2012 and is represented in the Pacific Northwest by the Seattle Reign FC and the Portland Thorns FC.

Sidebar: Big Brands

Oregon is home to Nike and Columbia Sportswear, while Washington is the birthplace of Starbucks and REI. Vancouver doesn't care – it scored the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Sidebar: Death with Dignity

Washington and Oregon are the only US states with a 'death with dignity' act, by which some terminally ill patients are allowed to voluntarily end their lives.

Sidebar: Bicycle Commuters

Outdoor-loving Pacific Northwesterners like to commute to work by bike: it's 3.5% of commuters in Seattle, 4% in Vancouver and 6% in Portland (the highest big-city percentage in the nation, whose average is a paltry 0.5%).

Sidebar: Same Sex Marriage

Gays living in the Pacific Northwest have more rights than in most other states and countries. In Washington, Oregon and Canada, same-sex marriage is legal.

Sidebar: Republic of Cascadia

The Pacific Northwest's spirit of independence is most extremely exemplified by the 'Republic of Cascadia' movement, which calls for Oregon, Washington and British Columbia to secede from the US and Canada. Currently, however, there's no danger of this happening.

Sustainable Pacific Northwest

The Pacific Northwest is one of the most sustainable regions in the world. Seattle, Portland and Vancouver all lead US and Canadian cities in recycling, bike friendliness, public transportation, renewable-energy use and green architecture. In Seattle, eco-roofs adorn City Hall and the Ballard Library; in Portland, many street swales filter stormwater that would otherwise run off; and in Vancouver, electric-vehicle stalls are now required in all new condominium complexes. These are just a few examples of the region's culture of sustainability.

Of course, there's a flip side to every story. Urban sprawl is an issue in the suburbs of Seattle and Portland, and traffic congestion is worsening. Clear-cut forests cause hillsides to erode and fill streams with silt, which, along with the hundreds of hydroelectric dams in the area, impact wild-salmon populations. And global climate change is occurring faster in the Pacific Northwest than in many other places in the world, affecting snow packs, melting glaciers and raising water levels in Puget Sound.

But most people living in this beautiful region realize that protecting what they have is a key to their future. They'll keep recycling, biking to work and doing whatever else they can to keep their environment as 'sustainable' as possible – and enjoy their glorious surroundings as reward.

Don't Dam the Salmon

Salmon depend on cold, clear waters during the early stages of their development. Unfortunately, logging (which creates erosion above rivers and streams) and global warming are two strikes against them. A third is dams – and the Pacific Northwest has lots of them.

Dams hurt young salmon because they slow down water, which increases its temperature and the travel time for fish to get to the ocean. Many fish are also killed by hydroelectric turbines. And on the way back – going upstream – adult salmon have a hard time getting through dams, even with fish ladders to help them.

But things are slowly changing. Dams have been taken down on many rivers throughout the Pacific Northwest, and more are slated for removal. Even though some of these barriers aren't huge – at times they're only a few feet high – every dam bit (removed) helps when you're a fish fighting your way upstream.

What's the Alternative?

Renewable energy is big – really big – in the Pacific Northwest. The region leads North America in green-power sales, and nuclear power is yesterday's news – in 2006, the Trojan nuclear power plant in Rainier, OR, was imploded to great fanfare.

Hydroelectric energy is huge in the Pacific Northwest, helped by all the rain feeding streams and rivers, which in turn power dams. In fact, the region gets up to 70% of its power needs from hydroelectric – more than any other region in the US. Some of the biggest systems here are the Grand Coulee Dam (itself the largest power generator in North America), the Bonneville Dam and the Bridge River Power Project. The Columbia River is North America's largest power-producing waterway.

Wind power is another huge player in the region, and in 2012 surpassed hydroelectric power for the first time in the Columbia River Gorge area. This area is the perfect home for wind farms: inland heat draws air from the coast through the narrow gorge, creating a tunnel that produces reliable and forceful winds. Oregon and Washington are two of the fastest-growing wind-energy producers in the country.

Solar energy is, surprisingly, alive and well in the drizzly Pacific Northwest. This ain't Arizona, but the region does get enough sun to make this alternative energy viable – and even popular. Solar panels are becoming more and more common on rooftops here, on both homes and businesses, and the region boasts multiple leading solar-energy manufacturing companies.

Wave, tide and geothermal energies are other potential sources of power in this geologically active area.

Eco-Cities of the Future

Seattle, Portland and Vancouver consistently top the 'Greenest Cities in the US' (or Canada) lists. With good public transportation, hundreds of miles of bike lanes and high-density-population neighborhoods, these urban centers have made it a priority to live respectfully within their natural surroundings.

And they're getting better. Vancouver wants to become the world's 'greenest city' by the year 2020; it already uses less energy and land per resident than its southerly big-city neighbors. Seattle is one of the top 'green building' cities in the country, and Portland has nudged its carbon emissions to 15% below its 2000 levels.

The 'New Urbanism' or 'Urban Village' concepts are also popular in the Pacific Northwest, emphasizing compact, walkable communities that cut down the need to drive everywhere for work, schools and shopping. These inner-city neighborhoods also facilitate a strong community feel to bring people together, a trait that can seem lost in this era of modernism and urban sprawl.

Seattle, Portland and Vancouver are some of the top cities embracing the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification system for 'green' buildings. These buildings use safe, sustainable building materials and incorporate water- and energy-efficient systems. Local examples include Seattle's Justice Center and Hyatt Hotel at Olive 8, Portland's Ecotrust building and Avalon Hotel & Spa, and Vancouver's Port Authority. Also keep an eye out for eco-roofs, which are covered with soil and living plants. These green (literally!) roofs absorb and filter rainwater, provide insulation, create wildlife habitats and lower surrounding air temperatures – and look ubercool to boot.

Sideba: Better & Brighter

Since 2012 the city of Portland has been converting all its streetlights to LED lights, saving an estimated $32 million over 25 years and halving the amount of energy required to light the city's streets.

Sidebar: Wind Power

Some people dislike wind power because of its association with bird and bat deaths. But when you take into account the wildlife killed by electric transmission lines and oil spills and the pollution created by dirty energy, the figures pale in comparison.

Sidebar: Columbia River

The Columbia River System has over 400 dams – more than any other river system in the world.

Music & the Arts

Blame it on the weather, or maybe it's all that natural beauty, but the Pacific Northwest is ground zero for right-brain thinkers and mind-blowing art. From music-makers to famous writers to glassblowers and cutting-edge architecture, you'll find creativity galore in this progressive and inspiring region.

The Seattle Sound Then & Now

No other music genre is associated with the Pacific Northwest like grunge – that angst-driven, heavily riffed and distorted sound born in the late 1980s out of Seattle's garages and cherished by generation X. Evolved from music to a lifestyle (flannel shirt and ripped jeans, anyone?), grunge became a way to voice cynicism and disillusionment in a society of vanity and materialism.

Grunge started in the mid-1980s and was heavily influenced by a cult group called the Melvins, inspiring Seattle bands with their sludgy and aggressive mix of hardcore punk and heavy metal. Alternative rock band Green River also had a heavy hand in the genre's beginnings – vocalist Mark Arm even coined the term 'grunge' (and its members later went on to start Mudhoney and Pearl Jam).

The real success didn't explode until record label Sub Pop – which signed many of the bigger grunge band names – put out Nirvana's Nevermind in 1991, skyrocketing the 'Seattle Sound' into mainstream music. Purists, however, shunned Nirvana for what they considered selling out to commercialism while overshadowing equally worthy bands like Soundgarden and Alice in Chains. In fact, some bands renounced their own fame and fortune, claiming it went against the spirit of the movement.

The general popularity of grunge continued through the early 1990s, but the very culture of the genre took part in its downfall. Bands lived hard and fast, never really taking themselves seriously: playing to friends for fun was more important than being successful in business. Many eventually succumbed to internal strife and drug abuse. The final blow was in 1994, when Kurt Cobain – the heart of Nirvana – found peace with a shotgun.

In the mid-1990s, post-grunge was born. It was a commercially friendly, more accessible version of grunge, borrowing the sound and aesthetics of its predecessor but with an uplifting spirit. Popular bands showcasing this new genre were Foo Fighters (with ex-Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl), Creed, Bush, Candlebox and Matchbox Twenty.

Beyond Grunge

Rock wasn't born in the Pacific Northwest, but the region has certainly attracted more than its share of creative musicians. Jimi Hendrix, Anthony Ray (Sir Mix-a-Lot) and the Wilson sisters (of Heart) all grew up in the Seattle area. Bryan Adams, Sarah McLachlan and Nelly Furtado have BC associations. Courtney Love (of Hole) was a teenage rockster in Portland, while Paul Revere and the Raiders put Oregon on the rock-music map in the mid-1960s.

A few cities have especially connected with indie music. Seattle was the original stomping ground for Modest Mouse, Death Cab for Cutie and Band of Horses – and still has fantastic local bands and some legendary venues. Olympia (WA) has been a hotbed of indie rock and riot grrrls, and birthplace of the now-defunct groups Sleater-Kinney, Beat Happening and Bikini Kill. BC can claim popular indie bands like The New Pornographers, Black Mountain and Hot Hot Heat, as well as the punksters Subhumans.

It's Portland, OR, however, which has really attracted indie bands: the city has boasted such diverse groups as folktronic hip-hop band Talkdemonic, alt-band The Decemberists and multi-genre Pink Martini, not to mention The Shins, The Dandy Warhols, Blind Pilot, Blitzen Trapper and Elliott Smith.

Meanwhile, jazz and blues are alive and kicking, thanks to the region's early African American inhabitants. Seattle jazz was raging back in the 1930s and '40s, but today avant-garde artists like Bill Frisell and Wayne Horvitz hold their own. Portland's Grammy-winning jazz artist Esperanza Spalding has played in the White House twice, while blues musicians Robert Cray and Curtis Salgado got started in Eugene. Jazz performer Diana Krall lives (with hubby Elvis Costello) part-time in Vancouver, also home to blues musician Jim Byrnes. All three major cities host popular jazz and blues festivals, and are home to major operas and symphonies.

Rocking Out

  • Black Mountain (Vancouver, BC) Black Mountain (2005)
  • The Dandy Warhols (Portland, OR) Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia (2000)
  • Death Cab for Cutie (Bellingham, WA) Plans (2005)
  • The Decemberists (Portland, OR) The Crane Wife (2006)
  • Foo Fighters (Seattle, WA) One By One (2002)
  • Hot Hot Heat (Victoria, BC) Make Up the Breakdown (2002)
  • Modest Mouse (Issaquah, WA) Lonesome Crowded West (1997)
  • The New Pornographers (Vancouver, BC) Mass Romantic (2000)
  • Pearl Jam (Seattle, WA) Ten (1991)
  • Pink Martini (Portland, OR) Sympathique (1997)
  • The Postal Service (Seattle, WA) Give Up (2003)
  • The Shins (Portland, OR) Chutes Too Narrow (2003)
  • Sleater-Kinney (Olympia, WA) Call the Doctor (1996)
  • Talkdemonic (Portland, OR) Beat Romantic (2006)

Pacific Northwest By the Book

Many great writers have either grown up in the Pacific Northwest or now call this region home. Washington's late Raymond Carver, known for his grim vision of working-class angst, has a collection of best stories in the volume Where I'm Calling From (1988). Novelist Mary McCarthy (1912–89) inspired the play Imaginary Friends by Nora Ephron and was known for her satirical, semi-autobiographical prose. David Guterson is famous for his award-winning Snow Falling on Cedars (1994), a vivid tale of prejudice in a San Juan Island fishing community. Popular author Tom Robbins, a La Conner resident, has won numerous devotees for his wacky, countercultural novels, including Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1976).

Jon Krakauer is the award-winning author of Into Thin Air (1997) and Under the Banner of Heaven (2003), while Sherman Alexie is a Native American author who adapted his short story This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona into the excellent movie Smoke Signals (1998). Timothy Egan, the Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist and journalist, lives in Seattle.

Oregon's biggest literary name is the late Ken Kesey, whose One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962) became a textbook of 1960s nonconformity and inspired a movie that won five Oscars; Kesey also penned the brilliant Sometimes a Great Notion (1964). Cheryl Strayed, whose much-adored 2012 memoir Wild – about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail – also became a well-loved movie, is a Portland resident. Novelist Chuck Palahniuk, best known for Fight Club (1996), lives part-time in Portland and writes about it in Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk in Portland, Oregon (2003). Portland also boasts two famous novelists with a bent toward science fiction and fantasy: the prolific and multi–award winning Ursula LeGuin is responsible for The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and The Farthest Shore (1972), while Jean Auel is best known for her widely read Clan of the Cave Bear series.

BC's ever-active literary scene has cultivated a wide range of talent. The English novelist and poet Malcolm Lowry, who's best known for his semi-autobiographical Under the Volcano (1947), lived in BC for many years before his death in Sussex, England. BC resident WP Kinsella's award-winning novel Shoeless Joe (1982) was adapted for the film Field of Dreams (1989). Douglas Coupland (Generation X, 1991) makes his home in Vancouver, as does science-fiction guru William Gibson, who coined the term 'cyberspace' in his 1984 novel Neuromancer.

The Pacific Northwest's First Art…

The first artists drawn to the Northwest's beauty were coastal Native Americans, whose tribes included the Haida, Salish, Tlingit and Tsimshian. The most well-known form of art in this region is the totem pole, clan symbols which denote wealth and prestige. Made of Western red cedar, these totems used stylized geometric shapes and the motifs of sacred animals (such as eagles, ravens and bears). They could reach 80ft in length and take up to a year to complete.

Carved wooden masks are another popular form of Northwest coast art. These were originally used in dances, traditional ceremonies and even wars, often depicting supernatural beings or animal heads. They'd often be painted in red and black, and decorated with hair, feathers, fur and shells. Valued highly by private collectors, these Native American masks can go for tens of thousands of dollars today.

The fanciest Haida dugout canoes, which could be up to 60ft long, sometimes boasted carved prows and were decorated with beautiful animal images. Some other art forms practiced by the region's native peoples are basketry and blanket weaving.

…and Artists

Well-known Northwest coast artists include Bill Reid (1920–98), an outstanding Haida artist who acquired his skills from Mungo Martin, a Kwakiutl master carver of totem poles. He's a descendant of Charles Edenshaw, another legendary carver and silversmith. Robert Davidson, a contemporary BC craftsman also of Haida descent, is a master mask and totem-pole carver who has been highly awarded for his interpretation of traditional Haida forms. Yet another BC resident is Susan Point, who has combined personal style with traditional Salish art elements in a variety of artistic mediums; many of her works can be seen in public areas, such as at the Vancouver International Airport.

Architecture & Notable Buildings

Architecture in the Pacific Northwest is as progressive and eclectic as in any other modern region. Outside the big cities you can find architecturally quirky places like Leavenworth (boasting Bavarian buildings), Winthrop (with its Wild West feel) and Port Townsend (a Victorian lover's dream).

Buildings

Seattle's 605ft Space Needle is likely the Pacific Northwest's most famous structure. Completed in 1961 for the 1962 World's Fair, this landmark can withstand 200-mile-an-hour winds and has had several people jump off the top – with parachutes on. The Emerald City also boasts the Columbia Center, the region's tallest building at 937ft; head to the observation deck on the 73rd floor for an awe-inspiring view of the city. The Central Library and EMP Museum are other noteworthy buildings here.

Portland's controversial Portland Building, designed by Michael Graves, is a great example of the postmodern period. Out front is Portlandia, the second-largest hammered-copper statue in the world (after the Statue of Liberty). The glassy twin towers of the city's Oregon Convention Center are hard to miss from the freeway as you enter town; inside is the world's largest Foucault pendulum. And outside Salem is the Mount Angel Abbey, which boasts a modernist library designed by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto.

Vancouver's most notable structures include its huge, coliseum-like public library building and concrete-and-glass Museum of Anthropology, inspired by Native American dwellings. The Shangri-La building is the city's tallest glass tower, and a stunner.

Bridges

With all those rivers, the region is famous for its bridges. Seattle’s Spokane Street Bridge is a concrete, double-leaf swing bridge and has received awards for its innovative design – and it claims to be the only one of its kind in the world. The city’s Elliot Avenue Helix (pedestrian) bridge is a stunner, with its DNA ladder–like good looks.

Portland has 10 bridges spanning the Willamette River, plus the new Tilikum Crossing, a train-, pedestrian- and bicycle-only cable bridge. The lovely St John’s is the city’s only suspension bridge, while the Hawthorne is the world’s oldest vertical-lift bridge and the Steel’s lower and upper decks can move independently of each other – a unique trait among the world’s bridges.

Meanwhile, Vancouver’s landmark Lions Gate Bridge connects the city to the north shore, and is a lookalike to San Francisco’s Golden Gate.

Possibly the area’s most infamous bridge was the 1940 Tacoma Narrows Bridge (aka ‘Galloping Gertie’) in Puget Sound, which existed for only four months. It collapsed spectacularly in a windstorm due to structural flaws; its replacement was designed much more carefully.

Music Festivals

  • Early January

River City Bluegrass Festival Highlights mostly bluegrass but also features country, folk, swing and even gospel; held in Portland.

  • February

Portland Jazz Festival Big-name national and international artists from American jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders to Brazilian singer-composer Luciana Souza.

  • Late May

Sasquatch Music Festival Gorgeous location at the gorge amphitheater in George, WA, this festival has headlined fine indie and alternative acts; held Memorial Day weekend.

Northwest Folklife Festival Vibrant folk music, as well as dance, crafts, visual arts, workshops and films. One of the largest folk-oriented celebrations in North America; held in Seattle.

  • June–July

Vancouver International Jazz Festival Showcasing regional and international artists like Wynton Marsalis and Tito Puente Jr.

  • Mid-late July

Vancouver Folk Music Festival Everything from Utah Phillips to hip-hop to Tuvan throat singers. Great location on the beachy sands of Jericho Beach Park.

  • August

Blue Waters Bluegrass Festival Takes place at Medical Lake in eastern Washington; enjoy world-class line-ups and fun workshops.

  • Early September

MusicfestNW Indie, hip-hop and punk bands play at this successful music fest in Portland.

Bumbershoot Fun and famous Seattle music festival drawing up to 150,000 people; 15 stages showcase top-shelf music acts of all kinds. Held Labor Day weekend.

  • October–November

Earshot Jazz Festival Seattle's three-week, eclectic jazz-concert series that highlights the work of innovative names who are redefining the genre.

Sidebar: Hip-hop

Seattle has contributed to a more socially conscious form of hip-hop spearheaded by local boys Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, who had the huge 2012 hit 'Thrift Shop,' extolling the virtues of secondhand clothes over bling.

Sidebar: Powell's Books

Powell's Books claims to be the largest independent new and used bookstore in the world. The main store takes up a whole city block, and it's been a part of Portland book culture since the early 1970s.

Sidebar: Glass Sculptures

Glassmaster Dale Chihuly is known for his blown-glass sculptures, infused with lush color and sensual textures. His installations are scattered around the Seattle area, but Tacoma has the lion's share.

Top Film Festivals

  • Portland International Film Festival, February
  • Seattle International Film Festival, May–June
  • Vancouver International Film Festival, September–October
  • Northwest Film & Video Festival (Portland), November

Top Native Art

  • Seattle Art Museum
  • University of Washington's Burke Museum
  • University of Oregon Museum of Natural & Cultural History
  • Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art (Vancouver)
  • UBC Museum of Anthropology (Vancouver)
  • Royal British Columbia Museum (Victoria)

Modern Art

  • Seattle Art Museum
  • Roq la Rue Gallery (Seattle)
  • Portland Art Museum
  • Schneider Museum of Art (Ashland)
  • Vancouver Art Gallery
  • Contemporary Art Gallery (Vancouver)

Dale Chihuly

Dale Chihuly was born in Tacoma in 1941. After an education in design and fine arts, he apprenticed at Murano, the renowned glassmaking center near Venice. When Chihuly returned to the Seattle area in 1971, he helped found the Pilchuck Glass School, credited with transforming glass – previously used mostly for utilitarian or decorative purposes – into a medium of transcendent artistic expression. Chihuly's blown-glass sculptures are infused with lush color, sensual textures and a physicality that is both massive and delicate.

Chihuly's 25,000-sq-ft studio, called the Boathouse, is on Lake Union. In 1976 a car accident left him blind in one eye (he wears a trademark patch), and a few years later he dislocated a shoulder in a bodysurfing accident; ever since, he's hired others to do the glassblowing. He now oversees a team of artisans who perform the principal construction of his works.

The Seattle area boasts a number of Chihuly installations, including the beautiful Chihuly Garden and Glass. Tacoma has some huge pieces in the entrance of its Federal Courthouse, and the best feature at the nearby Museum of Glass is an outdoor pedestrian bridge with a glass ceiling. For smaller-scale work, don't miss Chihuly's permanent collection at the Tacoma Art Museum.

Pacific Northwest in TV and Film

The Pacific Northwest has attracted the film and TV industries with low production costs, artistic talent and a range of gorgeous backdrops. However, many films produced in the region are set somewhere else: Oregon's Cascades doubled as the Colorado Rockies in The Shining (Mt Hood's Timberline Lodge had a cameo as the Overlook Hotel's front exterior); Roslyn, WA, stood in as Alaska in the TV series Northern Exposure; and the Vancouver area has represented everything from Tibet in Martin Scorsese's Kundun to New York City in Jackie Chan's Rumble in the Bronx.

But the Northwest often appears as itself in motion pictures, too. Seattle's skyline and quirky lifestyles are recognizable internationally, thanks to such productions as Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and the hit TV shows Frasier (1993–2004) and Grey's Anatomy (2005–). The cult TV series Twin Peaks (1990) was filmed in North Bend and Snoqualmie. Some of many movies filmed in Washington include An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), The Hunt for Red October (1990), My Own Private Idaho (1991) and The Ring (2002). The blockbuster Twilight movie series (2008–12) was partly or mostly (depending on the movie) filmed in Washington, Oregon and Vancouver.

Oregon has an equally lively résumé of movie credits that include One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), Animal House (1978), The Goonies (1985), Stand by Me (1986), Point Break (1991) and The Road (2009). Portland often serves as a menacing backdrop for the brooding films of resident filmmaker Gus Van Sant, whose résumé includes Drugstore Cowboy (1989), My Own Private Idaho (1991) and Elephant (2003), all filmed in the Pacific Northwest. Portland-born Matt Groening created the hit cartoon show The Simpsons (1989–), which has many references to Portland's streets. TV series currently filming in Portland include Portlandia (2011–) and Grimm (2011–).

British Columbia is one of the centers of film in Canada, and Vancouver is a hot spot. Past movies and TV series shot in BC include The X-Files (1993–2002), Roxanne (1987), The Butterfly Effect (2004) and An Unfinished Life (2005).

Wild Things

The Pacific Northwest is home, sweet home to a wide range of spectacular wildlife. The region's mix of ocean, forests, grasslands, deserts and mountains creates a great diversity of habitats for both animals and plants, and many of these environments are protected within national wildlife refuges and parks. And while many animals , like gray whales or Roosevelt elks, can be relatively easily spotted from the shoreline or a vehicle, others are much better at hiding in dense vegetation and rugged terrain. Be patient, and perhaps with a bit of luck you may be able to spot a bald eagle, a pronghorn antelope or even a killer whale. Just remember to bring your binoculars and a sense of discovery, and start seeking them out!

Fire and Ice A Geologic History

From 16 to 13 million years ago, eastern Oregon and Washington witnessed one of the premier episodes of volcanic activity in earth's history. Due to shifting stresses in the earth's crust, much of interior western North America began cracking along thousands of lines and releasing enormous amounts of lava that flooded over the landscape. On multiple occasions, so much lava was produced that it filled the Columbia River channel and reached the Oregon coast, forming prominent headlands like Cape Lookout. Today, hardened lava flows can be seen at places such as Newberry National Volcanic Monument and the McKenzie Pass Area, in central Oregon; for a cool lava tube head to Mt St Helens' Ape Cave, in Washington.

The ice ages of the past two million years created a massive ice field from Washington to BC – and virtually every mountain range in the rest of the region was blanketed by glaciers. Even more dramatically, tongues of ice extending southward out of Canada prevented the 3000-sq-mile glacial Lake Missoula in present-day Montana from draining. Consequently, on about 40 separate occasions, these massive ice dams burst, releasing more water than all the world's rivers combined and flooding much of eastern Washington up to 1000ft deep. Grand Coulee and Dry Falls of northeastern Washington are remnants of these spectacular floods, as are the crowd-pleasing waterfalls (such as Multnomah Falls) of the Columbia River Gorge that plummet over cliffs carved by the floods.

The Banana Slug: Don't Tread on Me

While walking down a forest path in one of the Pacific Northwest's many woodsy parks, you might come across a large, yellow slug sliming slowly along the trail and minding its own business. Don't panic and smash it underfoot; this isn't your typical garden pest but rather the Pacific banana slug – a native slug usually found in damp, coastal coniferous forests from California to Alaska. Banana slugs are part of healthy forest ecosystems, and their food sources include decaying plants, seeds, mushrooms and dead animals.

The official mascot of at least one university (UC Santa Cruz), the banana slug can come in several colors, from yellow to green to brown; many have black markings too. These gastropods can grow up to 10in long and are hermaphroditic (both male and female). Perhaps the most bizarre part of their mating ritual is that they often have to gnaw off each other's penises to separate after doing the deed. Then they keep crawling along their merry way – as newly formed females.

Top Tide Pools

Who doesn't like exploring tide pools? These miniature, fun-filled ecosystems are home to pretty starfish, colorful anemones, prickly sea urchins and secretive abalone. You can see hermit crabs scuttling about, small fishes darting around and mussels snapping shut. One or two hours before low tide is the best time for tide pooling; this gives you some time to explore before the tide comes back in.

Some words of warning, however: be aware of incoming tides and never get so absorbed in watching tide pools that you forget about the ocean. Sneaker waves are a serious danger and have swept away unwary beachgoers. Also, don't remove anything from a tide pool (it could be illegal!), and remember to watch where you step – hundreds of little lives will thank you.

Some exceptional places in the Pacific Northwest for exploring tide pools:

  • Haystack Rock, Cannon Beach, OR Lots of critters in the pools, and there are often docents to explain what you're seeing. Also, keep a lookout for puffins.
  • Yaquina Head Outstanding Nature Area, OR Fabulous pools, and rangers often guide tours to them. These tide pools are actually an old abandoned rock quarry.
  • Yachats, OR A couple miles of rocky shore to explore, all along the town. Also head south towards Florence and look for potential tide pools, as there are many in the area.
  • Rialto Beach, Olympic National Park, WA Head less than a mile north of the parking area, through 'Hole-in-the-Wall' (a hole in a rock), and seek out the tide pools. A beautiful, rugged beach, too.
  • Beach 4 near Kalaloch, Olympic National Park, WA Great tide pools, and large sandstone rocks with starfish and anemones clinging to their bases at low tide. Rangers here give nature talks, too.
  • Botanical Beach, Juan de Fuca Provincial Park, Vancouver Island, BC Host to one of the richest tidal zones on the West Coast. Granite and sandstone rocks shelter pools and their inhabitants.

Animals

Elk & Land Mammals

Among the Pacific Northwest's signature animals is the Roosevelt elk, whose eerie bugling courtship calls can be heard each September and October in forested areas throughout the region. Full-grown males generally reach up to 1100lb and carry 5ft racks of antlers, so you won't soon forget catching sight of these creatures. During winter large groups gather in lowland valleys and can be observed at a number of well-known sites such as Jewell Meadows Wildlife Area (about 65 miles northwest of Portland), Dean Creek Elk Viewing Area (along the Oregon coast near Reedsport) and along the Spirit Lake Memorial Hwy in Mt St Helens National Volcanic Monument. Also, Olympic National Park is home to the world's largest unmanaged herd of Roosevelt elk.

The open plains of eastern Oregon and Washington are home to pronghorn antelope, curious-looking deer-like animals with two single black horns instead of antlers. Pronghorns belong to a unique antelope family and are only found in the American West. They are famous for being able to run up to 60mph for long stretches – they're the second-fastest land animal in the world. Boasting keen eyesight and an acute sense of smell, pronghorns keep their distance from humans, though they are sometimes spotted along highways, especially in the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge in southeast Oregon.

One of the elusive animals in Mt Rainier and other parks is the white mountain goat, which lives on high peaks and alpine meadows. Black bears and mountain lions also inhabit Mt Rainier and other Pacific Northwest forests, but their encounters with humans are rare. The beaver is another little-seen creature, but in the late 18th century they were so numerous that fur trading essentially started the exploration of the Pacific Northwest. It's also North America's largest rodent.

The marmot, another big rodent (which looks more like a fuzz ball), is often seen around mountain parking lots and campgrounds, especially in popular places such as Olympic National Park or Manning Provincial Park. Marmots are adorable and might beg for food scraps, but no matter how lovingly they gaze into your eyes, resist the temptation to feed them – or any other wild creature.

If you're very lucky, you might spot wild mustangs in southeast Oregon's Steens Mountain Range.

Fish

The rich ocean environment of the Pacific Northwest creates ideal conditions for a tremendous variety of fish and for the marine mammals that feed on them. Attesting to this fact are the many harbors and small fishing towns lining the coast.

Although salmon could be considered the lifeblood of the Pacific Northwest, even locals can be forgiven for having a hard time keeping the names of different species straight. Not only do scientists argue over how to name and separate the seven species of salmon that are currently recognized, but these important fish have been given dozens of confusing common names such as king, coho, chinook, sockeye and pink, to name but a few.

Salmon have a unique lifestyle of migrating out to sea as juveniles, then returning to the stream of their birth to breed and die as adults. The annual run of returning salmon used to be one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on the planet, with 11 to 16 million salmon in the Columbia River alone. Dams, habitat destruction, overfishing and hatcheries have reduced these majestic runs to mere shadows of their former selves, but conservation efforts – including the taking down of some dams – are being made to help bring back their numbers. You can easily view salmon in places such as the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River, which has a fish-viewing window (October and November are the best months).

Close to the Bonneville Dam is the Bonneville Fish Hatchery, where you can glimpse the odd-looking white sturgeon (and say 'hi' to Herman the 10ft sturgeon, who has his own Facebook page). Historically, this monster fish can weigh up to 1800lb, grow to 20ft and reach 100 years old – and it is a living fossil from the time of the dinosaurs. Unfortunately, in the Columbia River system the white sturgeon has been severely overfished and adversely impacted by other factors, including the river's many dams, poaching and sea-lion predation.

Orcas & Marine Mammals

The 'killer whale', or orca, is one of the few animals capable of attacking adult seals. This fierce predator is the largest dolphin in the world and the undisputed spirit animal of Pacific Northwest waters. Spending their entire lives in pods led by dominant females, orcas have complex societies and large brains that rival those of humans. Several resident pods live around the San Juan Islands and prey on fish, while transient pods migrate along the outer coast and hunt seals, sea lions and sometimes whales. While on a ferry around Washington's Puget Sound, keep your eyes peeled – if you're lucky you may spot a dorsal fin or two. Vancouver's Telegraph Cove is another orca hot spot.

Anywhere on the Pacific Coast, it's hard to miss seals and sea lions. Most numerous are small, leopard-spotted harbor seals that drape themselves awkwardly over rocky headlands. From April to July harbor seal pups may be found resting on beaches while their mothers are hunting at sea. Well-intentioned people often take these pups to animal shelters without realizing that their mothers are nearby, so it's best to leave them alone.

The much larger and darker sea lions, with external ears and the ability to 'walk' on land by shuffling on their flippers, are renowned for the thick manes and roaring cries that give them their name. Sea lions easily adapt to human presence and can be common around docks and jetties, where they sometimes steal fish from fisherfolk.

Other famous marine mammals include gray and humpback whales, which make the longest migrations of any mammals in the world. The best time to view them offshore is November to December and April to May; Depoe Bay in Oregon is an especially good place to spot them. Once hunted to near extinction, these majestic creatures have made a comeback and are a major reason for visiting the Pacific Northwest coast.

Birds

The Pacific Northwest is a stronghold for bald eagles, who feast on the annual salmon runs and nest in old-growth forests. With a 7.5ft wingspan, these impressive birds gather in huge numbers in places like Washington's Upper Skagit Bald Eagle Area and Oregon's Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges. Other raptors include ospreys, often seen along large bodies of water like the Columbia River; peregrine falcons, happy to nest along sheer cliffs or under urban bridges; and the northern spotted owl, which can only live in old-growth forests. Common coastal birds include pelicans, cormorants, sandpipers and puffins.

The region's two prominent jay species include the dark-blue, black-crested Steller's jay, which occupies conifer forests throughout the Pacific Northwest and is notable for its loud screeching calls as it swoops down on picnickers. Meanwhile, hikers and skiers in the high mountains may encounter the gray jay (or 'camp robber'), with its soft cooing whistles and gentle demeanor; these inquisitive jays are fearless in taking food from people's hands.

Clark's nutcracker, first observed by William Clark (of Lewis and Clark fame), is often found in high-altitude pine forests. Crows and ravens are other very commonly seen members of the corvid family; they're happy in both wild and more urban environments throughout the region. Sandhill cranes can sometimes be seen in fields, such as those on Sauvie Island near Portland.

In a more urban setting, Vaux's swifts put on an unforgettable show every September in northwest Portland, when up to 35,000 individuals (the largest congregation in the world) spiral down Chapman school's old chimney to roost for the night. The event has become a popular local attraction, and hundreds of people take blankets and snacks to watch the phenomenon occur at sunset. See http://audubonportland.org/local-birding/swiftwatch.

Plants & Trees

The west and east sides of the Cascade Range are like day and night when it comes to geographical differences. The wet and wild west side captures most rain clouds coming in from the ocean, relieving them of their moisture and creating humid forests full of green life jostling for space. Meanwhile, the dry, deserty east side – robbed of rains by the tall Cascades – is mostly the stomping ground for sagebrush and other semi-arid vegetation. However, there are still plenty of lush pockets here and there in this region, especially along the foothills of several beautiful mountain ranges.

West of the Cascades

This region supports the most impressive gathering of conifers anywhere in the world, with individual trees from six of the 30 or so species exceeding 500 years in age and reaching heights of over 195ft and diameters of 6ft to 10ft. This lofty and grand forest is not only home to many creatures but also the foundation for a vast logging economy that props up countless small rural towns throughout the region.

The most ecologically and economically significant conifers are the Douglas fir, western hemlock and western red cedar, with Sitka spruce being dominant in the coastal fog zone. Taken together, these four trees account for the majority of the forested landscapes from ocean edge to high Cascades peak.

On the west side of the Olympic Peninsula and in other coastal areas where rainfall may surpass 195in per year, these same trees reach incredible sizes and become engulfed in thick carpets of bright-green moss. These are the world-famous temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest.

Anyone hiking in these forests will soon come to recognize a common group of plants that form the typical understory. Included in this group are densely clumped sword ferns that cover entire hillsides, as well as taller thickets of small-leaved huckleberries bearing heavy loads of delicious fruit. The state flower of Washington, the pink-flowered rhododendron, and the state flower of Oregon, the holly-leaved Oregon grape, are abundant in these areas and add much color when in bloom.

East of the Cascades

Technically, the parched regions of eastern Oregon and Washington are semi-arid grassland or sagebrush steppe. Forest cloaks some of the higher slopes and mountains, but the most common plant at lower elevations is the pungent sagebrush, the ubiquitous plant of the arid American West. Native grasses, cleared for crops or grazed out by cattle, are being replaced by an aggressive alien species called cheatgrass that leaves spiky seeds in your socks.

Common trees east of the Cascades include the stately ponderosa pine with its orange bark and sweet vanilla smell. A grove of ancient unlogged ponderosa pines is one of the most beautiful habitats in the Pacific Northwest; unfortunately, these are rare. In drier areas pines are replaced by densely foliaged western junipers, whose scaly needles look like miniature lizard tails. Junipers produce crops of attractive blue-gray berries, which provide the major food for half-a-dozen types of bird.

A surprising sight east of the Cascades is the fall colors displayed by cottonwoods. These trees require a lot of water to survive, so look for patches of golden yellow and orange along rivers and streams – and enjoy a bit of color in this mostly dry region.

Top Bird-Watching

  • Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges, OR
  • Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, OR
  • Sauvie Island Wildlife Area, OR
  • Skagit River Bald Eagle Interpretive Center, WA

Top Five Geographic Wonders

  • Crater Lake, OR
  • Columbia River Gorge, OR & WA
  • Mt St Helens, WA
  • Haystack Rock, OR
  • Alvord Desert, OR

Sidebar: Rain Forest

The Great Bear Rainforest of coastal BC is the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world, and many environmental groups are working to keep it that way. See www.savethegreatbear.org.

Sidebar: Wildlife Viewing

Seasonal Guide to the Natural Year: A Month By Month Guide to Natural Events by James Luther Davis presents a seasonal breakdown and reveals the premier places to view wildlife in the Pacific Northwest.

Sidebar: Pika

The adorable American pika is quickly becoming an endangered species. Pikas live mostly in alpine environments, and these are being lost to climate change. For your chance to spot one, keep your eyes peeled on Mt Rainier or at Crater Lake.

Sidebar: Salmon

Salmon conservation includes protecting populations around the entire Pacific Rim from the Russian Far East to northern California. Learn more at www.wildsalmoncenter.org.

Sidebar: Orcas

Orcas have pretty long life spans: on average, males live to 30 years, while females live to 50. While in captivity, however, most orcas live less than 10 years.

Sidebar: Bird Watching

Bird-watchers in the Pacific Northwest have a unique online resource at http://thebirdguide.com.

Sidebar: Redwoods

Redwood trees outside California? Yes there are: Sequoia sempervirens' northernmost distribution is near Brookings, Oregon's southernmost coastal town.