The Great Pacific Northwest, . . . Seattle, “Portlandia” rain forests, glacier-covered volcanoes, salmon, coffee and, . . . rain. Less known is that the Cascade Mountains running north to south through both states divide Oregon and Washington into a dry “east side” and the wetter “west side.” And, despite its reputation for rain, the west side has a nice summer while the east side gets downright hot. But on either side of the mountains there are places and events rooted in the traditions of the Pacific Northwest to explore throughout the year.
Below is a listing, by month, of some of the uniquely northwest places and activities that you can experience throughout the year. Many are well known, some even most locals aren’t aware of, a few are barely known outside of the area that they’re in, but all are uniquely northwest. After the monthly listing is a short list of a few more special places and events throughout Oregon and Washington State.
NOTE: We’ve been to all these places, but where we didn’t have adequate photos of our own we’ve borrowed shareable stock photos off the web to accurately depict some of the areas.
January: Winter comfort in the Columbia Gorge, Stevenson, Washington:
The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area is a massive canyon cut through the Cascade Mountains by the Columbia River. It stretches over fifty miles eastward from the arid sage lands of the east side through the forested mountains. I can’t think of anywhere else in the United States where the environment changes so dramatically in so short a distance. In January the Gorge is cold and wet, but that brings a special beauty to the area with ice rimming the many waterfalls, bald eagles patrolling the river, and fresh snow sparkling in the mountains.
A comfortable way to enjoy it all is a stay at the Skamania Lodge in Stevenson, Washington only 45-minutes from Portland, Oregon. Relaxing in front of the massive stone fireplace on a wintery night after a day of exploring forests and mountains isn’t a bad way to go. And the food is superb with a Sunday brunch of prime rib and plank-roasted salmon. For wintertime comfort a stay at the Skamania Lodge can’t be beat. http://www.skamania.com
February: Eagles and more eagles; the Skagit River Bald Eagle Preserve, Rockport, Washington:
Each year the largest congregation of bald eagles in the United States outside of Alaska gathers along a stretch of the Skagit River near Rockport, Washington just two hours north of Seattle. It’s not unusual to see three, four even more eagles in a single tree as they hunt for salmon carcasses along the shore And they’re easy to spot with their brilliantly white heads and tails contrasting against the dark forest around them.
There are many viewpoints along highway 20 that runs through the preserve or local outfitters operate eagle viewing boat tours down the river. A good way to fully experience the area is an overnight stay in a cozy cabin near Marblemount. Either way it’s a great way to spend a cold winter day. http://skagiteagle.org
March: Solitude, Sunsets and the Wild Pacific Coast, La Push, Washington:
There are over 53,000 miles of salt-water coastline in the United States outside of Alaska and Hawaii, but only the last 73 miles along Washington State’s extreme northwestern tip in Olympic National Park are designated wilderness. March is still wintertime in the Pacific Northwest, but that doesn’t mean you have to wait for summer to experience the wild ocean coastline. In fact, the stormy days of March can be an excellent time to visit the wilderness coast with few people around and the surf washing up through massive piles of driftwood logs, the mist drifting through the forests, tide pools full of starfish and anemones, and strange rock formations rising from the sea. Even in March breaks of calmer weather do come through and a fine winter day can be had watching the sunset over the stormy Pacific from a driftwood fire on the beach.
To enjoy this in comfort there are cabins or Bed & Breakfasts in nearby Forks, or at the beach within the Quileute Indian Reservation at La Push, outside of Forks. For the more adventurous there are overnight backpack routes along the coast starting at La Push or nearby Rialto Beach where you can hike for days along the beaches, cliffs and forests of the North or South Coast Wilderness Areas (wilderness hiking permits required from the U.S. Park Service at Lake Quinault or Port Angeles). When hiking along the coast be sure to carry a tide table with you and be aware of incoming tides. For more detail see our post, Backpacking Washington State’s Wild Pacific Coast in our Trip Reports section under America’s Pacific Northwest & Alaska. http://www.nps.gov/olym/index.htm
April: Tulip Time in Puget Sound, La Conner, Washington:
The lower Skagit Valley is only 1 ½ hours north of Seattle. It’s one of the nation’s premier flower growing regions where tulips, daffodils and irises are grown by the millions for their bulbs. And in April they’re in full bloom with the huge fields of red, purple, and yellow visible for miles. The quaint seaside town of La Conner is in the center of the area and makes a good base from which to explore the region. You can visit many farms in a day and walking through these masses of colors is quite an experience.
Tulip time in La Conner is no secret to Seattleites and weekends can be mobbed, so best to plan a weekday visit – pick a sunny day if you can. There are Bed & Breakfasts near La Conner or hotels in nearby Anacortes (from which you can also visit dramatic Deception Pass and Whidbey Island). For more detail on Tulip Time see our post, Tulip Time in the Cascades in our What’s New section. http://www.visitskagitvalley.com/upcoming-events/spring/annual-skagit-valley-tulip-festival/
May: Secrecy, War, and the World’s First Nuclear Reactor:
No matter what side of the nuclear debate you’re on, touring through the world’s first operating nuclear reactor is fascinating and a truly unique experience. Now decommissioned and designated a National Historic Landmark, B-Reactor was the focus of the Manhattan Project, America’s top secret project to build a nuclear weapon towards the end of World War II. B-Reactor produced the plutonium used in the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan in August of 1945. Today B-Reactor sits alone far out in the arid sage lands of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Hanford Site near Richland, Washington.
Built in just 13-months, in secrecy, and with 1940s technology its amazing it even worked – and worked so well. It’s a mysterious, windswept artifact from another time and the U.S. Department of Energy offers free tours of it. May is a good time to visit B-Reactor before the summer heat of Eastern Washington begins. But, you have to get tickets as soon as the Department of energy’s website opens in February – they go fast. Richland, Washington makes a good base for the tour with its miles of parks and bicycle paths along the Columbia River and its many wineries, restaurants and golf courses. http://manhattanprojectbreactor.hanford.gov
June: Where the hell is Walla Walla? Walla Walla, Washington:
The small city of Walla Walla in the southeastern corner of Washington State is in the middle of wine country, but has more to offer than wine tasting. Situated at the base of the Blue Mountains it is a pleasant college town with its turn-of-the-century restored brick downtown area and Victorian mansions surrounding Whitman College. The Fort Walla Walla museum is surprisingly good and there are many hikes to take in the nearby mountains.
The renovated Whitman Hotel near downtown makes an excellent base to explore the area, or Walla Walla can be visited as a day trip from Richland, Washington only an hour away. Either way, it’s a nice place to spend a day or two with the rolling Palouse hills covered in wheat giving way to the forested mountains behind town. A couple hours east from Walla Walla is massive Hell’s Canyon and to the south the upper Columbia River with interesting parks and basalt cliffs. http://www.wallawalla.org/about-walla-walla
July: Where have all the hippies gone? Oregon Country Fair, Elmira, Oregon:
That’s Oregon COUNTRY Fair, not county fair. Ever wonder where all the hippies went as the 1960s ended? Well as an old hippy myself I can tell you that many of them went to Oregon, and as soon as they got there they established the Oregon Country Fair; a celebration of counter-culture fun and happiness.
During the second week in July the rural fields and pastures around Elmira come alive with drumming circles, body-painted fairies, wizards, unicorns, music and celebration. Trails wind through meadow fairgrounds lined with stalls selling counter-culture drafts, clothes and food; ending at stages where music and magic are performed all day long. There’s always something happening somewhere and that’s just during the day – wait till night falls out in the campgrounds! http://www.oregoncountryfair.org
August: A Northwest Tradition; the Morton Logger’s Jubilee, Morton, Washington:
Not lumberjacks, not Paul Bunyan. In the Pacific Northwest people that cut timber and haul it from the forests are called loggers. The logging tradition runs deep in the Pacific Northwest, and what could be more northwest than an old time logger’s celebration with axe throwing, spar tree climbing and log rolling.
The logging town of Morton in Washington’s Cascade Mountains has one of the biggest logger’s jubilees in the west. Nearby is the Mount St Helens Volcanic Monument and Mt Rainier National Park, so a day at the jubilee can be combined with visits to these spectacular areas. All-in-all a great weekend can be had experiencing the logging tradition with the beauty of the surrounding mountains and forests.
September: Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival, Port Townsend, Washington:
Another Northwest tradition is the great age of sailing and wooden ships. Seattle was the departure port for the sourdoughs (gold miners) heading north to Alaska in the 1890s and the ports throughout the Pacific Northwest bustled with sailing ships carrying timber and salmon across the oceans. Port Townsend in particular was a shipping center and ship building area where well off sea captains lived in Victorian mansions and the abundant forests supplied ship-building materials. But as the age of sailing ended the small city almost disappeared into oblivion until a group realized what a special place it was. Since the 1970s Port Townsend has been restored to its former glory celebrating its past with the Wooden Boat Festival every September.
Sail ships from around the world converge on Port Townsend during the festival and there are some beauties. Port Townsend itself makes a perfect place to host the event with its main street lined with Victorian buildings and the forested islands stretching away across Puget Sound; the volcanic glacier-covered cone of Mt Rainer rising above it all. Finding somewhere to stay in Port Townsend during the festival can be difficult (and expensive), but an alternative is to stay on Whidbey Island across Puget Sound from Port Townsend. Whidbey is connected to Port Townsend by daily ferry service, so you can leave your car on Whidbey, walk on the ferry, and avoid the cost of staying in Port Townsend or the hassle of driving a car through the crowded festival.
October: Hot Springs Tour, Oregon, State-Wide:
People have always been attracted to thermal waters bubbling up out of the ground and since the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and Washington are permeated by volcanoes, there are lots of hot springs. Other places around the United States have hot springs, but not in old-growth forests of ancient, giant trees or far out in desert canyons with antelope and eagles. Some of Oregon’s hot springs have been developed into spa resorts like Breitenbush and Belknap. Others are semi-developed, but more natural requiring short hikes to reach like Bagby or Terwilliger. Others are truly remote like Alvord or Owyhee’s Three Forks far out in the deserts of eastern Oregon. I’ve found some nice ones by studying Bureau of Land Management or U.S. Forest Service topographic maps, hiking into them, and sure enough found hot mineral water bubbling out of the ground in some of the most remote areas in the state.
So, if hot springs are your thing, Oregon is the place and early October a perfect time to go as the dark days of winter approach and everything is much less crowded yet the mountains not too snowy yet. Pack a swimsuit for the more popular springs, swimsuits optional in the less-developed areas, and out in the outback – forget the suit and just enjoy it au natural. Hot springs are found throughout the state, but mostly in the mountains of the Cascades or the far eastern borders of the state. http://soakoregon.com
November: Thanksgiving on a Volcano; Timberline Lodge, Government Camp, Oregon:
Thanksgiving; my favorite American holiday. Without the hype of Christmas or the summertime crowds of Independence Day, it’s just a time to feast and enjoy friends and family. But, for a uniquely Northwest experience, try Thanksgiving at Timberline lodge on the slopes of Mount Hood outside of Portland, Oregon. After your full course turkey dinner you can relax with a cognac in front of the massive 1930s stone fireplace or go skiing right outside the door.
There are day trips out of the lodge to the Columbia Gorge or south into eastern Oregon and the mountains around Mt Bachelor. Portland is just an hour and a half away though you’d never believe it as you relax in the hot tub watching the glaciers of Mt Hood fade into the twilight. You’d be hard pressed to find a more uniquely Northwest way to spend Thanksgiving than this. http://www.timberlinelodge.com/thanksgiving-at-timberline
December: Snowshoes, Lodges and Backcountry Skiing, Winthrop, Washington:
To finish out the year its wintertime in the Methow Valley along the Canadian border in central Washington. By January most small rural towns in Washington have settled into a quiet hibernation, but the ranching-turned-ski town of Winthrop is just getting going. With the largest network of cross-country ski trails in the United States, Winthrop has lots to do in winter. The ski trails are groomed and the backcountry open to those that want more adventure. There are guided snowshoe tours, untracked routs into the wilderness, or just relaxing in luxury at Sun Mountain Lodge or a cozy cabin along the river.
At night there’s live music in the bars, a selection of good restaurants, and moonlit walks along snowy roads by the river. The Methow Valley also has the largest herd of mule deer in the Pacific Northwest and herds are commonly seen grazing in last year’s alfalfa fields. There are plenty of guides and ski instructors available or you can strike off on your own along 120 miles of groomed trails networked throughout the valley. It’s a fine way to end the year. http://www.winthropwashington.com/things-to-do/winter-recreation/
More Uniquely Northwest Adventures:
The Omak Stampede; Omak, Washington:
There are rodeos and there are rodeos, but nothing like this one. A combination rodeo and northwest indian pow wow set in the open mountains of north-central Washington State. Held the second week in August, the Omak Stampede is located on the edge of the Colville Indian Reservation where northwest tribes converge for a huge pow wow featuring traditional dancing and drumming. The rodeo itself is held in the fairgrounds, and it’s a good one, but the highlight of the day is the Suicide Race. Here riders plunge down a steep hillside into the Omak River, bareback and on ponies painted with indian designs before galloping into the nearby rodeo grounds to finish. The whole weekend is eventful with lots to do. http://omakstampede.org
Sea Kayaking through the San Juan Islands; Anacortes, Washington:
You can go sea kayaking in lots of nice places around the United States, but not with killer whales, bald eagles and glacier-covered volcanoes overlooking it all. There are a number of kayaking guide services available in Washington and Oregon and no experience is necessary for beginners’ cruises. Some of the more spectacular are in the San Juan Islands or from Whidbey Island north of Seattle. Trips run from two-hour paddles on calm water to full day whale-watching trips in the big water of Haro Strait that separates Washington State from Canada. One thing guaranteed, you’ll see wildlife and we’ve been scolded by 500-pound sea lions, watched whales spout off San Juan Island, seen salmon jumping in Puget Sound, even had a harbor seal climb out of the water onto our kayak at Whidbey Island (see our post Seals, Whales and Kayaks in What’s New). But just paddling over kelp forests and past deserted beaches is reward enough and a day on the water in a kayak is a day well spent.
The Festivals; Folklife, Bumbershoot, and the Fremont Street Fair; Seattle:
Want a taste of Northwest culture? Try one or more of the many festivals in Seattle. Our hands down favorite is the Folklife Festival over the Memorial Day holiday at the Seattle Center grounds. Entry is free and the grounds are full of tattooed street bands playing everything from tubas and banjos to washboards and steel guitars. The more professional groups play on outdoor stages set up around the grounds. We like the rough and unpolished street buskers, but it’s all good. Somewhat more sophisticated, but still in keeping with the Northwest’s musical roots, is the Bumbershoot festival over Labor Day, also at the Seattle Center (bumbershoot – British slang for umbrella). With a modest entry fee Bumbershoot doesn’t have the raw edge of Folklife, but there is still great jazz, bluegrass, Latin bands and blues on the stages spread throughout the grounds. Then there’s the Fremont Summer solstice Street fair in mid-June. In Seattle’s free-wheeling Fremont neighborhood the fair kicks off with the “unofficial” bicycle parade of nude cyclists body-painted as fanciful animals and characters. The official parade is as funky as the bicyclists, except with clothes (see our post, Seattle’s Funky Fremont Fair in What’s New). http://www.nwfolklife.org http://bumbershoot.org http://www.fremontfair.org
Glaciers and Volcanoes; Artist Point; Bellingham, Washington:
You drive right up to many magnificent volcanoes in the Pacific Northwest; Mt Rainier, Mt St Helens, Mt Hood. But nothing compares to the overwhelming view of the Cascade giants, Mt Baker and Mt Shuksan, from the viewpoint of Artist Point that straddles between the two. Driving highway 542 eastward from Bellingham near the Canadian border is one of the most beautiful drives in the United States. Starting in pastoral farmlands the road winds through mountain hamlets, by waterfalls and finally giant old-growth trees until you finally creep up the hairpin turns to road’s end at Artist Point, 58 miles from Bellingham. Artist Point us an alpine highland between glacier-covered Mt Shuksan and volcanic Mt Baker. The view is so spectacular that we’ve used it as the cover photo for our website. You can wander along easy pathways for hours through heather and glacier-polished rock. Bring a picnic lunch – you won’t get tired of the view – it’s too majestic. Artist Point is usually snow-free by mid-July until the first snow flies in early October. http://summer.mtbaker.us/summer-activities/artist-point-road
The Oregon Outback; Burns, Oregon:
Want to get WAY out there? Then head to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in the southeastern corner of Oregon. Combined with the adjacent lands of the Hart Mountain Antelope Refuge it is a huge area of high desert, deep canyons, isolated ranches, lonely mountain ranges and remote hot springs. In the center of it all is Steen’s Mountain, a massive, glacier-carved uplift and highest point in eastern Oregon. So high in fact that aspen forests grow on its slopes and what little precipitation blows in from the west is blocked by the mountain to form the Alvord Desert, a large salt-pan playa at its eastern base. East of Malheur are the even more remote Owyhee Canyonlands, to the south the seldom-visited Pueblo Mountains. Places to stay are few and far between in this vast, open country so unless you’re a camper consider a hotel in Burns or better yet a room in the turn-of-the-century hotel at the isolated outpost of Frenchglen. In any case, the area is full of wildlife including the Kiger Stallions, a herd of wild horses. This is what the wild west used to look like except here it still is the wild west. http://onda.org/where-we-work/central-Oregon
There’s many more places and much more to experience around the Great Pacific Northwest. The descriptions above are just a taste. And while summer is fun, there’s plenty to see and do in winter too. As we’ve discovered, the more you push yourself, the greater the reward – usually.