With its reputation as a rainy and dreary region, the Pacific Northwest is sometimes overlooked as a worthy destination for the worldly traveler. After all, turquoise tropical waters and ruby-red deserts are undeniably appealing environments. However, with some of the oldest and richest ecosystems in the world, the Pacific Northwest (PNW) USA is a unique locale that deserves your attention.
Touring through the PNW isn’t just an exercise in appreciating the natural world. It is also an opportunity to adventure through several of America’s historic cities. From old-growth forests to prospering pioneer towns, there is so much to discover in the Pacific states of Washington and Oregon. Demystify this misty corner of the country with our insider guide to the region’s top destinations.
1. San Juan Islands, Washington
The San Juan Islands of Washington state offer a different type of experience than your traditional ocean-bound adventures. The islands are an archipelago of laid-back vibes, whale-watching and cozy accommodations. Tucked into the shadow of Mt. Olympia, the San Juan Islands receive half the rain that Seattle does, all while maintaining moderate temperatures throughout the year.
With more than 150 named islands and reefs, it can be difficult to decide where to visit in the San Juans. Orcas Island is one of the most frequented destinations and a true refuge for artists, foodies and outdoorsy folks alike. Known as the “Gem of the San Juans,” the horseshoe-shaped island is 57 square miles of hills that will challenge cyclists and delight drivers.
The island is surrounded by orca-filled waters where you can go kayaking or cruise on a ferry—or whale watch from the shore. Spend hours perusing the collections at local co-op Orcas Island Artworks, the San Juan Historical Museum and the Museum of Art. Then, dine on farm-to-table meals at Inn at Ship Bay.
To reach the San Juans, fly to Seattle. From there, the islands are a short trip by ferry, water taxi, or even seaplane.
Plan your trip to the San Juan Islands here:
- Check flights to the San Juan Islands (via Seattle)
- Stay at Argyle House Bed & Breakfast
- Sip a cold pint at Island Hoppin’ Brewery
2. Seattle, Washington
Although not as serene as the westerly San Juans, Seattle is an amazing city to visit in its own right. A vacation to Washington’s largest city offers travelers the opportunity to explore food, culture and the outdoors like few other destinations do. Plus, if you pick the right time of year (July & August), you may just miss all the rain too.
Seattle is full of large, extravagant tourist attractions like the Pikes Place Market (home of the original Starbucks), the Space Needle and the Museum of Pop Culture. Yet, for such a large city, it’s the quiet places that speak the loudest. For example, Discovery Park in the Magnolia neighborhood of Seattle is a 534-acre natural refuge that juts into Puget Sound. The prairie beaches offer a glimpse into the way the area may have looked before settlers arrived on the coast of Washington.
Once you’ve left the peaceful embrace of Seattle’s green and blue spaces, you’re sure to be hungry. There are no shortages of eateries in this city, but the locals have a few special picks. The comfort food of Jewish bakery Zylberschtein’s is a must-try. Additionally, the Capitol Hill neighborhood is a central food hub, from Malaysian street food shop Kedai Makan to pasta pros Spinasse.
Plan your trip to Seattle here:
3. Klamath Falls, Oregon
If you’re looking to escape the urban hustle, Klamath Falls is the place to do it. The town is a gateway to Crater Lake National Park, one of the most sought-after outdoor experiences in the world. Created by volcanic activity, Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the country and offers stunning views, along with countless trails to explore.
Though Crater Lake is the reason most visitors journey to Klamath Falls, the town is worthy of exploration as well. The Baldwin Hotel Museum is an interesting and must-visit attraction. This historic hotel, built in 1905, has well-preserved rooms on display that feature original furniture. It’s a time capsule for those wanting to see how much traveler accommodations have changed over the years.
Locals tell stories of the haunted hill on Old Fort Road, where gravity is said to work backward (sometimes). But if you’re looking to skip the ghost stories, hit the OC & E Woods Line Trail. The 108-mile rail trail passes through several Oregon towns and offers plenty of spots to picnic, fish and watch for wildlife.
Plan your getaway to Klamath Falls:
- View flights to Klamath Falls (via Rogue Valley International – Medford)
- Stay at Running Y Ranch Resort
- Explore Crater Lake National Park
4. Astoria, Oregon
Astoria is the oldest town in Oregon and the first U.S. settlement west of the Rocky Mountains. Established in 1811, the city is rich in history and coastal experiences.
It has long been known as “little San Francisco” due to the architecture and city structure. Old Victorian homes sit atop cliffsides, facing out to the mouth of the Columbia River. In one stage of its long life, Astoria experienced popularity as a movie town. Now, travelers can visit the same locations where The Goonies, Free Willy and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III were filmed.
Another spot for entertainment buffs is the Liberty Theater. This 1920s theater once screened vaudeville performances and silent films. Now, the restored building is a performing arts center that hosts concerts, film festivals and speaking engagements from authors. Astoria may be a small town, but it is a big center for culture and art.
Plan your getaway to Astoria:
- Check flights to Astoria (via Portland or Seattle)
- Stay at the Atomic Motel
- Visit the The Lewis and Clark National Historical Park
5. Salem, Oregon
The town of Salem is a perfect cross between the nature-nestled Klamath Falls and the culture-driven hub of Astoria. As Oregon’s capital city, Salem represents all that’s great about the Pacific Northwest USA. Both the Cascade Mountains and the Pacific Ocean are only an hour away, while art museums, gardens, vineyards and eateries are even closer.
Locals recommend cheese tasting at the Willamette Valley Cheese Company. Follow it up with a glass of vino at Oregon’s oldest winery, the Honeywood Winery. Take your bottle for a trip to the beach: it’s only 84 miles to the shores of the Pacific.
Plan your trip to Salem here:
Final words on the Pacific Northwest USA
The Pacific Northwest USA has so much to offer, from local food experiences to outdoor adventures to arts and culture hubs. While the summer is certainly a prime time to visit, coastal environments maintain a moist (but temperate) climate throughout the winters as well. Shoulder season, from September through December, is often a great time to experience the region’s top destinations, but without the rush of crowds. Start planning your adventure today.
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FAQs about the Northwest USA
The Pacific Northwest is comprised of several states. Washington and Oregon are typically considered the states that make up the region. However, sometimes northern Idaho, as well as Northern California, may be included when people talk about this area.
Whenever you are planning to visit is the best time to do it! Jokes aside, temperatures in the Pacific Northwest peak during typical summer months (June-September), although the crowds tend to as well. Shoulder season is a pleasant time to visit the Pacific coast as temperatures remain moderate (average lows of 40° F) while crowds tend to thin. Keep in mind that the farther east you go, the colder and snowier it will get.
The Pacific Northwest (PNW) is rich in outdoor adventure, artistic discovery, and foodie hotspots. From the San Juan Islands in Washington down to Salem, Oregon, the Pacific Northwest features old-growth forests dense with ecological diversity. Cities in the region are bustling with inventive restaurants, museums, and galleries. Read this article for some of the most unique cities in the Pacific Northwest!
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