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Pacific Northwest Travel Ideas

Updated on March 4, 2013

The Pacific Northwest is one of North America’s most fascinating travel destinations. Boasting world-class cities, rugged mountains, coastal beauty, and otherworldly temperate rain forests, it offers a staggering variety of once in a lifetime experiences.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that, with so many different things to see and do, it can be tough to wrap your mind around the variety of ideas for destinations – let alone plan a trip.

The region deserves an exhaustive catalogue of its various options. But the first time visitor needs an overview of ideas for travel in the region. While the breadth of ideas can be intimidating, that shouldn’t discourage the adventurous traveler.

Here’s an overview of the region's offerings and travel options

Seattle. Many visitors base their exploration of the Pacific Northwest out of Seattle, which functions as the region’s main city – at least on the American side. And, indeed, the city can serve as a vacation destination in and of itself. Once a sleepy lumber town, it has emerged over the past generation as a trendsetting powerhouse. The city features multiple attractions, ranging from the iconic Space Needle to a world-class zoo. It also has an endless series of neighborhoods ripe for urban exploration.

The nation's first Starbucks is located in Seattle, WA
The nation's first Starbucks is located in Seattle, WA

The Cascade Mountains

Just east of Seattle lie the Cascade Mountains, providing the opportunity for a classic mountain wilderness adventure. To the southeast is Mt. Rainier National Park, itself surrounded by vast national forests. To the north are the North Cascades, offering miles of rugged backcountry and alpine day hikes for outdoor enthusiasts of all skill levels.

Olympic Peninsula is home to Olympic National Park

The Olympic Peninsula

The Olympic Peninsula to Seattle’s west is a microcosm of the Pacific Northwest region as a whole, featuring its own staggering diversity of environments. The peninsula is dominated by Olympic National Park, which is unique amongst national parks in its lack of interior roads. Instead, the park is ringed by a road, with the difficult-to-reach Olympic Mountains dominating the park’s interior. (An exception is Hurricane Ridge, accessible by car on the park’s northern edge.) The western edge of the park features some of the region’s most fascinating natural attractions. The beaches just south of the northwestern corner of the peninsula (and, by extension, the corner of the continental United States) aren’t much good for sunbathing. But they more than make up for that by offering unique offshore “tabletop islands” and, depending on a visit’s timing, teeming tidal pools. Just inland, the wet Pacific air pushes up against the Olympics to create lush, otherworldly temperate rain forests. And, yes… this is the place for a Twilight reality tour, if you’re so inclined.

Beautiful geographic formations off the Olympic coast
Beautiful geographic formations off the Olympic coast

The San Juan Islands

A world away from rugged mountain wilderness or glowing-green rain forests, the San Juan islands are a sun-drenched archipelago just north of the Olympic Peninsula. Served by the iconic Washington State ferries, they offer quaint inns and bed and breakfasts surrounded by small seaside villages, sparkling water, and countryside ranging from rolling fields to sheer fjords. They also provide the opportunity to view the abundant sea life in the surrounding ocean, most famously the resident pods of orcas.

Whale watching is a popular activity in the San Juan Islands, and it's a great way to enjoy the natural beauty of the islands.
Whale watching is a popular activity in the San Juan Islands, and it's a great way to enjoy the natural beauty of the islands.


This famed hipster haven punches above its weight in terms of providing travelers with an authentic urban experience. In the 1970s, Portland bucked the trend towards suburbanization and enacted policies designed to concentrate development within its core. The result is a compact, medium-sized city that has the energy and city amenities of much larger destinations


Another world-class city is just north of the United States-Canadian border. Of the region’s city’s, Vancouver probably has the most international, big-city feel. A destination for immigrants from throughout the Pacific Rim, it has a decidedly cosmopolitan flair. It is also a gateway to British Columbia’s outdoor playgrounds. For example, Whistler, host to many of the 2010 Winter Olympics alpine events, is a short drive up the famous Sea to Sky Highway.


British Columbia’s capitol offers a very different Pacific Northwest urban experience. Smaller in scale than the region’s other showcase cities, it is renowned as Canada’s most British-influenced city – a distinction that may surprise, given its location. Nestled around a harbor on Vancouver Island, its compact core is idea for exploring. Just outside town is the world-renowned Butchart Gardens.

Victoria, BC has lots to see and do.
Victoria, BC has lots to see and do.

Of course, these options are just the “highlights.” And, with a region this exciting and diverse, any traveler is bound to find a few of their own favorites. So be sure to approach the Pacific Northwest with a sense of adventure. Happy travels!


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