Places to Visit in the Pacific Northwest
Guest Post by Matt Hansen of Westcoast Wayfarers
The Pacific Northwest is one of the most beautiful parts of North America, featuring everything from snow-capped mountain peaks and alpine lakes, to temperate rainforest and the rugged Pacific coast. There are an unbelievable number of beautiful places to visit in the Pacific Northwest, which stretches from Oregon up to British Columbia, Canada.
While the wild and beautiful places in the PNW (Pacific Northwest) are worth the trip alone, there are also some incredible cities to visit if the outdoors aren’t your thing. Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver all have thriving food and drink scenes, including a combination of the best donuts and coffee you’ll find anywhere, and are uniquely positioned to be within a few hours of some of the best wilderness in the world. If you’ve never been to the Pacific Northwest before, now’s the time to start planning your trip.
Below, you’ll find 7 amazing places to visit in the Pacific Northwest, along with the best things to do and see in each place.
What is the Pacific Northwest?
While the Pacific Northwest doesn’t have an official definition, most people consider the Pacific Northwest to be a region along the Pacific Coast of North America, stretching from Oregon to British Columbia. That definition includes Oregon, Washington State, and British Columbia. Some people also include Idaho, which is just east of Washington and Oregon, but it’s not on the Pacific, so for the purposes of this guide, it will be excluded.
When to Visit the Pacific Northwest
The short answer to “what is the best time to visit” is “it depends.”
If you’re visiting the coastal areas, like the gorgeous Oregon Coast or Olympic National Park, the northwesternmost part of the contiguous United States, then the best time to visit is a wider range. Anytime between spring and fall will be lovely, though you’ll need to be prepared for rain outside of the months of July and August.
If you’re visiting the mountains, like Mt. Rainier National Park or Mt. Hood, the window is much smaller due to snow that lasts into the summer at higher elevations. The best time to visit these areas is going to be July, August, and September, with many hiking trails and roads impassable at other times of the year. As you might imagine, the crowds descend on these places during the short season, so be prepared to book accommodations early and arrive at the trailhead first thing in the morning for the more popular hikes.
Eastern Oregon and Washington, which are far less visited than their western counterparts, are hot and dry thanks to the high desert. Summer is hot, winter is cold, and there’s not a whole lot of precipitation, at least compared to the coastal areas. The best time to visit is going to be in the spring or fall.
For cities like Seattle and Portland, summer will bring warm temperatures, long days, and a break from the rain. It will also bring crowds and higher prices – late spring and early fall are also nice times to visit, with far fewer tourists.
Read More: Deschutes River Rafting
The Best Places to Visit in the Pacific Northwest
Below, you’ll find 7 places to visit in the Pacific Northwest, along with the best things to do and see in each area. They are organized from north to south.
Vancouver Island, which is just off the western coast of Canada and across the Strait of Juan de Fuca from the Olympic Peninsula, is a nature-lovers paradise. Whatever your interests are, you’ve got options on Vancouver Island.
There’s the charming city of Victoria, full of historic buildings, creative restaurants, and coastal viewpoints, which is practically begging for you to plan a weekend getaway. As you travel north on the island, things get more and more remote.
Tofino is a well-known destination among surfers and storm watchers, and the rugged west coast of Vancouver Island is home to Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, with some of the biggest temperate rainforests in the world.
Even further north, the town of Campbell River is a great place for hiking, with a plethora of waterfalls for you to discover, and spotting grizzly bears.
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Places to Visit in the Pacific Northwest: North Cascades National Park
Just south of the Canadian border is one of the most underrated national parks on the West Coast. The hiking in North Cascades National Park is some of the best in the region, with trails for all fitness and experience levels.
For beginners, the Blue Lake trail is a relatively short and easy hike to a gorgeous alpine lake. More experienced hikers should check out the Maple Pass trail is one of the best hikes in Washington State, with beautiful wildflowers blooming in July, and golden alpine larches dotting the landscape in October.
For an unforgettable overnight backpacking trip, head to Cascade Pass and the Sahale Arm or Hidden Lake Lookout to spend a night above the treeline (and likely with some mountain goat friends).
The Alpine Lakes Wilderness, home to the Enchantments, a basin full of numerous alpine lakes, rugged rocky peaks, and (sometimes annoying) cute mountain goats is so popular at this point that thousands and thousands of people apply for a handful of permits each summer. But if you didn’t happen to win the lottery for permits, you can do it in a day.
To explore the Enchantments in a day, head to the Colchuck/Stuart Lake Trailhead and do the 8-mile out-and-back hike to Colchuck Lake. It is one of the best hikes in the Pacific Northwest, particularly if you do it in the early morning.
If you’re feeling extra adventurous, you can do the entire 19.3 mile through hike in a day, though you’ll need to start before sunrise and finish after the sun sets and be prepared with plenty of food and water for the journey. A better option is doing it as a 3 day, 2 night backpacking trip so you can revel in the pure natural beauty of the Enchantments.
Places to Visit in the Pacific Northwest: Olympic National Park
Olympic National Park is one of the most diverse parks in the United States. With several different ecosystems – the temperate rainforest, Pacific Coast beaches, and alpine wilderness, there’s something for everyone to explore.
The highlights that you won’t want to miss are:
- Hiking to the viewpoint at Hurricane Hill (3 miles RT), which has sweeping 360-degree views including north to Vancouver Island, west to Mt. Baker, and south to the Olympic Range.
- Exploring around Lake Crescent, hiking to Marymere Falls and the summit of Mount Storm King, which has amazing views across the lake.
- Walking along Rialto Beach to Hole-in-the-Wall, particularly at sunset.
- Camping on the beach! This is one of the few places along the coast that you can pitch a tent on the beach. You’ll need a wilderness permit and a bear canister, but it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Shi Shi Beach and Second Beach are two of the most popular spots.
Mt. Rainier National Park
The best days in Seattle are the ones where you can see Mt. Rainier’s 14,000+ foot peak towering over the city to the south. Visiting Mt. Rainier from Seattle is relatively straightforward, and makes for a perfect weekend getaway from Seattle. There are three regions of the park to think about, but the most popular and action-packed regions are Paradise, the south side of the mountain, and Sunrise, which is on the eastern slope of Rainier.
At Paradise, the most popular part of the park for visitors, hike the Skyline Trail, which gets you up close and personal with Rainier. Along the way, you’ll have great views of the Tatoosh Range to the south, and you’ll most likely encounter a marmot (or ten) begging for food (don’t feed the marmots!). Make sure to visit Reflection Lakes for a picture-perfect reflection of Rainier, and the many waterfalls in the area, like Myrtle and Narada Falls.
Sunrise, which is the highest point in the park that you can drive to at 6,400 feet, has some of the best hikes at Mt. Rainier, but it’s only accessible for a small window each year due to snow (usually early July to early October). Hike to the Mt. Fremont lookout to check out one of Washington’s famous fire lookouts, which has an incredible view of the mountain, or the Burroughs, which take you right up to the face of Rainier. In July, Berkeley Park is a wildflower paradise for about a week, with lupine and other flowers blanketing the fields and hillsides.
Places to Visit in the Pacific Northwest: Mt. Hood
Mt. Hood is one of the premier hiking destinations in Oregon, with an incredible number of great hikes within a relatively small area.
For an easy – except for the river crossing – hike to a towering waterfall, head out to Ramona Falls (7 mile loop). For sweeping views of Mt. Hood and the valley below, head up to Tom, Dick, and Harry Mountain, a 9-mile climb where the views are worth the effort. Mirror Lake, which you’ll pass along the way up, is a good shorter option for families and less experienced hikers (3 miles RT).
The hike up to McNeil Point, has views of the face of Mt. Hood from beginning to end, is a difficult hike that climbs 2,500 feet over the 11 mile journey, but the juice is worth the squeeze. The views at the top, where you’ll feel like you can reach out and tough Mt. Hood, will knock your socks off. Bring plenty of water and food.
Crater Lake National Park
Tucked away in southern Oregon, just north of the California border, is Crater Lake National Park. You’ll have to see the sapphire blue water of the lake for yourself to believe it. Crater Lake was formed thousands of years ago when a volcano erupted and collapsed. Driving the road along the crater rim is a must-do when you’re in the park, particularly before 9am, when the crowds are thin and the light is good.
The best hike in the park is the quick climb up to Mount Scott, where you’ll find an old fire lookout and views over the lake and the surrounding landscape of southern Oregon, including Mt. Thielsen to the north.
You also won’t want to miss sunset over the lake. Head up to Garfield Peak, which is near the Rim Village Visitors Center, to watch the sun dip below the horizon over the western side of the lake.
About the Author
Matt and Alysha are West Coast natives, growing up in Seattle and the Bay Area, and they work with local experts to write helpful, practical, and well-informed guides to their favorite spots on the West Coast. They love to walk, whether it’s hiking a new trail or exploring a neighborhood on foot, and they created West Coast Wayfarers to help you plan the perfect West Coast adventure.