Armed with kayaks, crampons, fly rods, mountain bikes and full racks of climbing gear, adventure-loving people who migrate to the Pacific Northwest come to experience its world-famous great outdoors. There's a huge diversity of landscapes, and it's all reasonably accessible from the nearest town or city.

Best Times to Go

December, February & March The finest powder for skiing.

February–May Waterfalls are at their fullest.

November–June Whale-watchers can bark 'Thar she blows!'.

July–September Best for hiking, camping or cycling.

But Wait, There's More…

Horseback riding

Where?

Washington Cascades, WA

What?

reasonably priced day rides out of Easton

More Information Please

www.happytrailsateastonwa.com

Where?

Methow Valley, WA

What?

day rides with cowboy barbecue

More Information Please

www.sunmountainlodge.com

Where?

Pasayten Wilderness, WA

What?

multiday llama trekking

More Information Please

www.nationalparkcentralreservations.com/activity/deli-llama-wilderness-adventures

Where?

Long Beach, WA

What?

guided rides on beach & dunes

More Information Please

360-642-2576

Where?

Oregon Cascades, OR

What?

lava flows, lakes & forests

More Information Please

www.lhranch.com

Where?

Florence, OR

What?

romantic beach rides

More Information Please

www.oregonhorsebackriding.com

Where?

What?

More Information Please

Diving

Where?

Puget Sound, WA

What?

famously clear water, diverse marine life (giant octopuses!)

More Information Please

www.underwatersports.com

Where?

east coast of Vancouver Island, BC

What?

wolf eels, octopuses, navy ships

More Information Please

www.nanaimodiveoutfitters.ca/Travel

Paragliding & hang gliding

Where?

Lake Chelan, WA

What?

soar nearly endlessly; 100-mile flights are not uncommon

More Information Please

www.chelanflyers.com/fly-site.htm

Where?

Lakeview, OR

What?

warm thermals, towering cliffs & conditions for all levels

More Information Please

www.lakecountychamber.org, www.cascadeparaglidingclub.org/pages/lakeview.php

Where?

Fraser Valley, BC

What?

wide rivers, rolling farmland & verdant valleys

More Information Please

www.flybc.org, www.westcoastsoaringclub.com

Surfing

Where?

Westhaven State Park, Half Moon Bay & the Groins, all near Westport, WA

What?

extreme tides & rugged surfing conditions – especially outside summer

More Information Please

www.steepwatersurfshop.com, www.surfwater.org

Where?

short sands near Oswald West State Park, OR

What?

friendlier than most, good for all levels, great scenery

More Information Please

www.oregonstateparks.org/park_195.php, www.oregonsurf.com

Where?

Otter Rock near Depoe Bay, OR

What?

great for beginners & longboarders

More Information Please

magicseaweed.com/Otter-Rock-Surf-Report/317/

Where?

Tofino, BC

What?

dramatic waves, long, sandy beaches & spectacular forest backdrop

More Information Please

www.coastalbc.com

Hiking

The Pacific Northwest is blessed with some of the most sublime hiking landscapes and terrain imaginable. Summer sees crowds at their peaks, but the warming spring is the perfect time to witness gushing rivers, while fall is a splendor of foliage colors with temperatures remaining perfectly mild. In winter you'll practically be by yourself.

Ranger stations and visitor centers are excellent resources for permits, fees, safety and trail conditions.

The Best National & Provincial Parks of the Pacific Northwest

Crater Lake

Location

Oregon

Features

ancient volcano, deepest lake in North America

Activities

sightseeing, hiking, cross-country skiing

Best Time to Visit

Jul-Sep

John Day Fossil Beds

Location

Oregon

Features

technicolor landscape of prehistoric ash flows, one of the world's foremost fossil sites

Activities

sightseeing, walking

Best Time to Visit

year-round

Mt Rainier

Location

Washington

Features

alpine peaks, wildflowers; black bear, mountain goat, elk

Activities

hiking, climbing

Best Time to Visit

Jul-Sep

Mt St Helens

Location

Washington

Features

spectacular volcano; elk, black bear, deer

Activities

hiking, sightseeing

Best Time to Visit

Jun-Oct

North Cascades

Location

Washington

Features

alpine peaks, remote wilderness; mountain goat, grizzly bear, wolf

Activities

backpacking, climbing, fishing

Best Time to Visit

Jul-Sep

Olympic

Location

Washington

Features

alpine peaks, lush rainforests, wild coasts; black bear, elk, spotted owl

Activities

backpacking, climbing, fishing

Best Time to Visit

Jul-Sep

Oregon Dunes

Location

Oregon

Features

vast dune fields, remote coastlines, osprey

Activities

off-road vehicles, walking, horseback riding, canoeing, swimming, sandboarding

Best Time to Visit

year-round

Pacific Rim

Location

British Columbia

Features

wild coast, giant rainforest trees, world-famous Coast Trail; bald eagle, black bear, cougar

Activities

hiking, kayaking

Best Time to Visit

Jun-Sep

Strathcona

Location

British Columbia

Features

remote wilderness, solitude, highest Canadian waterfall; wolf, black-tailed deer, elk

Activities

backcountry hiking & adventure

Best Time to Visit

Jul-Sep

Washington

In the Olympic Mountains you can hike deep canyons and alpine meadows, and the glacier-carved valleys and towering ridges of Washington's North Cascade Mountain Range offer dramatic and unforgettable landscapes. For spectacular views of glaciers and peaks head up 3.7 miles to Cascade Pass, and either return by the same route or continue 19.3 miles on to High Bridge, where a shuttle bus runs to Stehekin (a tiny settlement at the head of Lake Chelan with no road links to the rest of the state). There are many other wonderful hikes in North Cascades National Park.

In the Southern Cascades, you can explore the foothills of Mt Adams, or trudge up the steep trail to smoldering Mt St Helens. To leave the crowds behind, try isolated Glacier Peak, which offers a sparkly lake and alpine goodness to satiate your inner hiker. The classic Wonderland Trail circumnavigates the snowcapped behemoth Mt Rainier, but it takes a commitment: it's a seven- to 10-day hike.

Oregon

The Oregon coast's windswept beaches and rocky bluffs offer rugged and grandiose beauty. Check them out from the tip of Cape Falcon or from the top of Neahkahnie Mountain – both in Oswald West State Park. The challenging hike up Saddle Mountain also offers unbeatable views. Further south, Cape Lookout has a magnificent coastal panorama.

Just east of Portland, you can hike in the Columbia River Gorge among lush fir forests and dramatic waterfalls. Multnomah Falls is the hallmark, but there are other knockout hikes nearby, such as the Eagle Creek Trail or Dog Mountain (which is actually in Washington). South of the gorge, the popular 40-mile Timberline Trail Loop circumnavigates Mt Hood through alpine forests, and offers outstanding views. Ramona Falls is another awesome area hike.

In the Cascades, the challenging South Sister hike offers spectacular views from Oregon's third-highest peak. For exceptionally lofty views of Crater Lake – that turquoise phenomenon – hike up Mt Scott, high above the rim. In remote northeastern Oregon, the Wallowa Mountains, Eagle Cap Wilderness and Hells Canyon are other outdoor paradises.

British Columbia

BC has hundreds of out-of-this-world parks and innumerable trails. On Vancouver Island, trails such as the 47-mile West Coast Trail in Pacific Rim National Park wind through ancient rainforests and gorgeous shorelines. Or take one of Whistler's gondolas and enjoy wandering on high alpine trails without making the high alpine climb. For a stellar coastal hike, you can do an extensive trip or a day hike on the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail.

Rock Climbing

With its wide variety of geology – think high granite cliffs and colorful volcanic rock – there's some world-class sport and trad climbing in the Pacific Northwest. Anyone from beginner to expert should find excellent, fun routes, many with views of surrounding mountains, forests or even bodies of water.

Washington's climbing mecca is Leavenworth, which refers to both the Bavarian-themed tourist town and its surrounding climbing area. You'll have hundreds of single and multi-pitch routes to choose from among the highly featured granite crags, and there's some great bouldering as well. Climbing here is best in spring or fall, as summertime can be very hot.

Just an hour's drive northeast of Seattle are the thin, clean cracks of Index Town Wall. The granite faces here rise up to 500ft from a verdant forest below. As most routes are 5.8 or higher, this area is best for advanced climbers. And close to the Oregon border is Beacon Rock, offering technically demanding multi-pitches. Other good destinations in Washington include Darrington, Mt Erie, North Bend and Vantage.

Smith Rock State Park is Oregon's premier rock-climbing destination – and a gorgeous place to visit even if you don't climb. Eroded from an old volcanic vent, the high canyon walls here are home to more than 1000 sport and traditional routes of all levels. The views are spectacular, especially from multi-pitch routes, and bouldering is also possible. As with Leavenworth, spring and fall are the best times to climb, as summertime sees high temperatures.

Other hot Oregon climbing spots are French's Dome near Mt Hood, Broughton Bluff near Troutdale and Horsethief Butte in the Columbia River Gorge. Also note that Beacon Rock is very close to Portland.

BC spoils its climbing community with places such as Squamish, located about 40 miles north of Vancouver. Featuring high-quality granite often compared with Yosemite's, this destination boasts more than 200 diverse routes including the Chief, a 2000ft-high granite dome with world-class multi-pitches.

Fleming Beach, Mt Wells, Mt MacDonald, East Sooke Park and Strathcona Provincial Park are all good climbing destinations on Vancouver Island.

Local Knowledge: Rock Climbing

For an easily accessible old-school slab that's close to Portland and never crowded, check out Windy Slab, says a Portland bartender who climbs on his days off. It's about 6 miles east of Stevenson, Wash., on Hwy 14 near milepost 54. Look for Windy Mountain looming in the background.

Bagging Those Peaks

The Cascade volcanoes and jutting spires in Oregon, Washington and BC present climbers with an unprecedented number of choices, from easier day-long up-and-backs to multiday technical challenges.

Inexperienced climbers should seek out guide services, as bagging these peaks can be a hazardous proposition. Professional guide companies include American Alpine Institute in Washington, Timberline Mountain Guides in Oregon and Canada West Mountain School in BC.

Oregon's Mazamas is a nonprofit mountaineering organization that offers hikes and climbs for both members and nonmembers. In BC, the BC Mountaineering Club (www.bcmc.ca) also offers climbs, courses and programs for members and nonmembers.

Washington

For climbers, the peaks to tackle include:

  • Mt Rainier The imperial landmark of the region.
  • Mt St Helens Noted for being one of the more geologically interesting climbs; sometimes blows smoke from its newly forming crater.
  • Mt Adams, Mt Baker, Mt Olympus & Glacier Peak Other popular climbing destinations in the state.

Oregon

Peaks to bag:

  • Mt Hood Oregon's highest mountain and one of the most climbed peaks in the world.
  • Three Sisters Just west of Bend; each is over 10,000ft; hard-core climbers do all three in one day (the 'Three Sisters Marathon').
  • Mt Bachelor, Broken Top, Mt Jefferson & Three-Fingered Jack Other lofty peaks.

Cycling & Mountain Biking

A cyclist could hardly ask for more than the Pacific Northwest has to offer. Big cities including Seattle, Portland and Vancouver are some of the most bike-friendly on earth, offering safe bike lanes, a supportive bike network and endless shops for parts and advice. Even smaller cities such as Olympia, Eugene and Victoria (which even has a cycling festival) are well known for their bike culture.

Outside the urban centers there are diverse and spectacular cycling opportunities on the coast, in high deserts, through lush rainforest and up alpine mountains. Many ski resorts turn into mountain-biking destinations in summer; Whistler has an especially amazing trail system. And the bike-touring possibilities in the region are nearly limitless.

Local shops are great resources for route and back-road suggestions, and visitor centers will have local route maps.

Bike Tours

A good way to start planning your tour is by deciding your vacation objectives and then building an itinerary around them. Go kayaking in the San Juans and have high tea in Victoria, but arrive by bicycle. Visit the Rose Garden in Portland then windsurf in the Gorge, but transport yourself by cycling the gorgeous landscape in between. The advantages are many: intimate experiences with the environment, staying in shape, rubbing elbows with the locals and traveling in an eco-friendly way. Maybe it seems intimidating, but once you get the hang of it, it’s surprisingly pleasant and often addictive. You can choose to go fully loaded with camping equipment, or take it 'easy' and pedal from hotel to hotel.

Check www.bikingbis.com for a current local perspective. Cycling Sojourner (www.cyclingsojourner.com), a pair of guides to multiday cycling trips in Oregon and Washington by Ellee Thalheimer, is another recommended resource. Don't want to deal with the logistics? Try a tour company.

Washington

You can have an unparalleled multiday cycling experience in the San Juan Islands that incorporates kayaking and hiking. Lopez Island is known for its flat terrain and bike-friendliness, but all the islands are worth a pedal. If you're cycling with kids, head to Bainbridge or Vashon Islands. For a challenge, cycle the scenic loop around Mt Rainier.

The Yakima Valley offers picturesque wine country, while Lake Chelan also has vineyards – but is more of a mountain-biking spot. In eastern Washington, go to Moses Lake for the loop around Potholes Reservoir.

Near Mt St Helens, the Plains of Abraham/Ape Canyon Trail and the Lewis River Trail provide top-notch mountain biking in staggering Cascade scenery. The Wenatchee Lake and Leavenworth areas also attract riders; here you'll find Devil's Gulch, which boasts the smoothest, fastest single track in the state.

Closer to Seattle is easy Rattlesnake Lake, along with more challenging trails such as Black Diamond Coal Mine and Tiger Mountain's Poo Poo Point. Expert mountain-bike riders should head to Galbraith Mountain and Phillip Arnold Park.

Oregon

The Historic Columbia River Hwy and mellow Sauvie Island loop are two classic rides near Portland. Around the Cascade Range there are magnificent cycling destinations: the Cascade Lakes Hwy (Hwy 46) is stunningly beautiful, as is the Diamond Lake to Crater Lake challenge. On the coast, Three Capes Dr near Tillamook has brilliant scenery and burly climbs. In the remote northeast, Hells Canyon Scenic Byway weaves more than 200 miles through dramatic landscape, and you can take side trips along the Snake River.

For mountain biking near Portland there's Forest Park's Leif Erikson Dr, Powell Butte and Hagg Lake. Mt Hood's Surveyor's Ridge Trail has tremendous scenery (and makes you work for it), while Sandy Ridge is a relatively new and amazing trail system. Post Canyon (near Hood River) has gnarly free riding with big jumps and extensive wood features.

Oakridge, east of Eugene, has premier mountain biking. Mountain Bike Oregon (www.mtboregon.com) is a well-known, three-day mountain-biking festival that happens twice in summer. The McKenzie River Trail is some of the best single-track trail in Oregon; it takes you past scenic lakes, streams, waterfalls and lava fields.

Bend is the unofficial mountain-bike capital of the state, with ecosystems such as alpine forests and high desert canyons. Fine trails here include the Deschutes River, Phil's and Riverside.

British Columbia

This whole region is full of roads begging to be cycled. Vancouver Island's Saanich Peninsula is definitely a highlight, as are the rolling hills and pastoral scenery of the Cowichan Valley wine country. For short island rides with picturesque seascapes, take a couple of days and hop around the Gulf Islands. Right in Vancouver, both tourists and local cyclists frequent the beautiful 1000-acre Stanley Park – especially its 5.5-mile Seawall Trail.

Mountain biking is everywhere in BC, both free riding and cross-country. Rossland has some of the best technical rides in the region. Whistler, Squamish and Nelson are famous for their diverse, world-class mountain trails, while North Vancouver, Sun Peaks and the Sunshine Coast have extensive trail systems.

Skiing & Snowboarding

A legion of mountainsides dusted with prime powder translates into top-drawer skiing or snowboarding in the Northwest. Add a down-to-earth, casual and family-friendly regional vibe – without the pretensions of many uber-fancy resorts (except for perhaps Whistler) – and you're sure to have a great, laid-back time on the slopes.

The peak season runs from about December to March, with shoulder seasons offering fewer crowds and the possibility of discount tickets. On Mt Hood you can ski any month of the year; it's the only resort in the US that offers year-round skiing (though it's closed for maintenance for two weeks around Labor Day in September). If you want to avoid waiting in long lines, go midweek.

Backcountry skiing is very popular in the Pacific Northwest. Obviously, you will need to be skilled in backcountry travel, know how to ski out of an avalanche and be trained in wilderness first aid (and carry a kit). A couple of books with great information are Backcountry Ski! Oregon by Christopher Van Tilburg and Backcountry Ski! Washington by Seabury Blair Jr. Local mountain shops should have recommendations on where to go, based on the latest weather conditions.

If you're willing to take the financial plunge, there's also heli-skiing/boarding. The North Cascade mountains are the place to go in Washington. In BC there's a wide variety. Check out www.heliskiguide.com.

Cross-Country Skiing & Snowshoeing

In the Pacific Northwest, snowy winters make for a diversity of wonderlands to explore on cross-country skis or snowshoes. And these sports are easy, accessible and appealing to almost anyone. You can tool around groomed trails for a couple of hours or head off on multiday backcountry adventures. Renting equipment is affordable but not always available on-site, so you may need to snag your gear before reaching your destination. Mountain-sport shops and ranger stations are great sources of local information.

Washington's premier destination is the Methow Valley, the second-largest cross-country skiing area in the USA, which boasts around 120 miles of groomed trails. You can also break trail through alpine meadows and evergreens in Olympic National Park. The Mt Baker area also offers many spectacular jaunts, with especially good trails around Silver Fir campground and at Heather Meadows. Meanwhile, Wenatchee National Forest holds some prime trails with mountain vistas, ice caves, ancient forests and solitude.

Oregon's Mt Hood area has fantastic spots including Teacup Lake, Trillium Lake and White River Canyon, all with great views of the mountain. Around Bend there's Mt Bachelor, a world-class Nordic center with extensive groomed trails, and Dutchman Flat, offering panoramas of the surrounding peaks. Further south you can ski around serene Odell Lake and through pristine snow along the rim of Crater Lake, which is gorgeous in winter – and devoid of crowds. And in eastern Oregon, near Baker City, is the Anthony Lakes Mountain Resort.

In BC, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are hugely popular, and there are endless possibilities all over the region. Vancouver has three ski areas less than 30 minutes from downtown, with Grouse Mountain especially popular. Ski resorts such as Big White and Whistler have tremendous trail systems.

White-Water Kayaking & Rafting

Water gushes down from ice-capped volcanoes and spires in the Pacific Northwest, creating a play-land for white-water enthusiasts. The region's diversity of world-class river landscapes is amazing; there's high desert, steep canyons or old-growth forest. White-water crazies run rivers year-round, but most people come out from May until September. Whether you spend half a day playing on a stream or embark deep into the wilderness on multiday trips, there is a river for you.

Washington's rivers are prime time. The Upper Skagit River has great rafting opportunities, along with a chance to spot bald eagles. The Klickitat flows through remote wilderness canyons, while the Tieton boasts the state's fastest white water. The White Salmon River is known for its smorgasbord of rapids and for hosting competitions for the extreme white-water elite. And let's not forget the Wenatchee and the Skykomish – both roaring, popular rivers – while the Hoh and Elwha offer milder, scenic adventures.

There are worthy rivers relatively close to Portland, such as the Clackamas and North Santiam (a locally known jewel). The Deschutes is another river very popular with Portlanders, and often boasts sunny, warm weather. The Rogue is a classic – a premier run protected by Congress and offering beauty, wildlife, history and amazing rapids. Other excellent rafting rivers include the North Umpqua (great forest scenery), John Day (longest free-flowing river in Oregon), McKenzie (with great hot springs and fishing nearby) and the Owyhee (in a remote but stunningly beautiful canyon).

On Vancouver Island, you can live it up rafting the varied waters of the Campbell, Cowichan, Nimpkish and Gold Rivers. Conveniently located near Vancouver is the Capilano, or travel about 1½ hours away for the Chilliwack River.

Sea or Lake Kayaking

To a kayaker, the Pacific Northwest is an oasis. It offers intricate and protected waterways, abundant marine life, coastal splendor, campsite access, alpine lakes and plentiful public parks. Sea or lake kayaking is more relaxed than white-water kayaking, inspiring quiet exploration of the natural world rather than rampaging through it with a big dose of adrenaline.

On a calm lake or estuary you can usually paddle around knowing just the basic safety fundamentals, but paddling on the ocean requires some technical knowledge and close attention to tides and currents. In temperate regions sea kayaking can be a year-round activity, but summer is really when sea kayakers luxuriate in their sport.

In Washington there is world-class kayaking on the Olympic Peninsula, in the San Juan Islands and in Puget Sound; avid sea kayakers shouldn't miss the stunning Cascadia Marine Trail. In BC, the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve's Broken Group Islands are kayaking heaven, but there are also great spots in the Southern Gulf Islands and around Victoria and Tofino. Oregon has plenty of coastal bays and inland lakes to explore, along with excellent rivers including the McKenzie, Deschutes and North Umpqua.

Nearly all outdoor towns and cities near large bodies of water have kayaking outfitters; tours and renting gear are both possible.

Cascadia Marine Trail

If you're an avid sea kayaker, don't miss the Cascadia Marine Trail, one of the best places in North America to sea kayak. This 160-mile inland sea trail stretches along a protected marine corridor from Olympia to the Canadian border. Along the way, over 50 campgrounds at state and county parks make convenient stopovers every few miles, giving paddlers the opportunity to plan limitless itineraries throughout Puget Sound. A few of these campsites require reservations and/or impose a modest fee, but others are free.

For more information and planning resources, contact the Washington Water Trails Association.

Windsurfing & Kiteboarding

The Columbia River Gorge is the gusty superstar of wind sports in the Pacific Northwest. Unlike any other river in the US, you can windsurf or kiteboard with the eastbound winds and float back on the westbound current. People pilgrimage to Hood River (ground zero for these activities) from all over the world to take on the gorge's famously strong and consistent winds. Check them at http://thegorgeismygym.com.

There are other first-class wind-sport sites, especially on the Oregon coast. These include the South Jetty at Fort Stevens State Park (in Astoria), Floras Lake (outside Port Orford) and Pistol River State Park (between Gold Beach and Brookings); the last hosts the Pistol River Wave Bash, a windsurfing competition that takes place in June. Sauvie Island, near Portland, is a great place to learn.

In Washington, Jetty Island in the Seattle area has world-class kiteboarding and is one of the top places for beginners, as is Lake Washington. Other outstanding places are Lake Wenatchee and Bellingham Bay.

The beaches of Kitsilano in Vancouver are popular launching points for urban windsurfers, while breezy Squamish Spit, 40 miles north, is BC's favorite spot to catch some kiteboarding wind. Tofino, on Vancouver Island's west coast, is the province's surf central, with dozens of operators (best for advanced kiteboarders).

Fishing

The waterways of the Olympic Peninsula, such as the Hoh, Queets and Elwha, are regarded as some of the best salmon rivers in the world. North of Seattle, the Sauk and Skagit Rivers are famous for winter steelhead. Saltwater fishing in Westport, Ilwaco and Puget Sound is revered by anglers.

The Deschutes River near Bend is famous for its trout and steelhead. Close to Roseburg, the North Umpqua – with 33 miles of river set aside for fishing – is touted for summer steelhead and small-mouth bass, along with its fall salmon runs. Other steelhead rivers are the Rogue, Sandy and Clackamas, while the McKenzie is home to trout and salmon. The John Day is great for small-mouth and large-mouth bass, and the mighty Columbia is hard to beat for its salmon and sturgeon.

On the coast, Tillamook Bay is a prime spot for salmon because several large runs converge here. Up and down the coast, however, are opportunities to cast a line and hook some albacore tuna, rockfish and halibut.

The Thompson and Skeena Rivers have made names for themselves with their plentiful salmon and steelhead. Near Vancouver, the Pitt River is known for its trout varieties. Over on the Sunshine Coast, the fruitful lakes and inlets are popular with anglers.

For state information on fish and fishing in Washington, Oregon and British Columbia, see www.dfw.state.or.us, wdfw.wa.gov and www.env.gov.bc.ca/fw.

Whale-Watching

The Pacific Northwest is one of the world's premier spots for whale-watching. Since the shoreline is so long, if you want to see whales at their peak, pick a particular coastal spot – then find out when most whales will be passing through.

Oregon

Oregon's long coastline offers many opportunities for whale-watching (especially at promontories that jut out to sea), but Depoe Bay and Newport are especially dedicated to the activity. Here you'll find several tour-boat companies willing to take you out, but if you'd rather stay on land that's fine too. An organization called Whale Watching Spoken Here rallies hundreds of trained volunteers to assist visitors in spotting whales at various sites all along the Oregon Coast. Check the website (www.whalespoken.org) for details.

And in Depoe Bay, be sure to check out the Whale Watching Center, offering exhibits and sea views.

Washington

You can spot gray and humpback whales from Washington's coastline, especially from Long Beach (near the Oregon border), Westport and Ozette. The most famous kind of whale in this state, however, is the killer whale, or orca.

About 90 resident orcas in several pods live year-round in the Puget Sound and San Juan Islands area, feeding on fish. The San Juan Islands in particular are the best place for spotting orcas, since they often swim close to shore. You can take boat tours from the islands or spot them from land – Lime Kiln Point State Park on San Juan Island is an especially good place. And while you're here, be sure to visit the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor.

The best time to spot orcas is from April to September; numerous charter companies run cruises from the San Juans, Puget Sound and Seattle. You might be able to spot orcas from a ferry too.

Out on the coast, any orcas you might see are part of transient pods that can roam from Alaska to California. These killer whales don't interact with resident pods, and their diet includes seals, sea lions and even small whales.

British Columbia

Every March, Tofino and Ucluelet – the communities surrounding Pacific Rim National Park Reserve on Vancouver Island – put on the Pacific Rim Whale Festival, celebrating the northbound travels of the gray whale during its spring migration. With an estimated 20,000 whales passing through, you're likely to spot a few blowholes around here from March to May.

Another good place on land to try spotting whales is Telegraph Cove, where orcas can often be seen; visit the Whale Interpretive Centre here. If you'd rather go for a super close-up, however, there are several boat-tour companies in Victoria.

Feature: Whale Watching in Oregon

The high capes and headlands of the Oregon coast are excellent vantage points to watch for gray whales. Gray and humpback whales have the longest migrations of any mammal in the world: more than 5000 miles from the Arctic to Mexico, and back again. There are both spring and fall migrations; the springtime journey, which peaks in late March, brings the whales closer to shore, while the winter peak is in late December. Favorite whale-watching spots include Cape Arago, Cape Blanco, Cape Perpetua, Cape Meares, Cape Lookout, Ecola State Park, Shore Acres State Park and Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area.

Depoe Bay and Newport are especially dedicated to the activity, and here you'll find several tour-boat companies willing to take you out. An organization called Whale Watching Spoken Here rallies hundreds of trained volunteers to assist visitors in spotting whales at various sites all along the Oregon coast. Check the website for details. And be sure to drop into the Whale Watching Center, offering exhibits and sea views.

Although whales can be seen with the naked eye, it's best to have a good pair of binoculars. After seeing a blow, watch for glimpses of the whale's head, knuckled back and flukes (tail). A whale's rhythmic breathing and diving usually follows a pattern of three to five short, shallow dives spread a minute or two apart, followed by one deep dive (called a 'sounding') lasting five minutes or more. A tail that breaks the surface usually indicates a sounding – the whale should reappear 300yd to 400yd from where it was last sighted. If you're lucky, you might even witness a breach, where the whale propels nearly its whole body out of the water!