8 travel highlights of the USA’s Pacific Northwest

From exploring Seattle’s underground artists and Portland’s buzzing food scene, to marvelling at painted hills and whale-inhabited waters, the Pacific Northwest is rich with natural and cultural wonders…

Gareth Clark
18 May 2023

Looking to take on an epic road trip around the Pacific Northwest? This region is known as one of the most scenic in the USA, with rainbow hills, moss-blanketed forests and whale-inhabited waters. But there’s also cultural secrets to be uncovered in its cities, from Seattle’s underground artists, to Portland’s buzzing food scene. Here, we describe some unique things to do in the states of Washington and Oregon.

1. Underground Seattle, Washington

Take a tour of underground Seattle (Serge Yatunin/Shutterstock)

Few realise that modern-day Seattle is the 2.0 version. In 1889, the Great Seattle Fire reduced the city to ashes, destroying around 25 blocks. No one died, but even by then, the first spark of pioneer life had already dimmed. Seattle had been originally built on tidal flats, and in heavy rains its streets used to swill with mud and sewage. Little time was spent mourning their passing, and the money and jobs that came with its rebuilding revitalised the town. Brick buildings replaced wooden ones, and the decision was taken to ‘raise’ the new city above the mud, lifting the streets up to seven metres in places. Eventually the old walkways were covered over, and in the late 20th century, the basements and underground around Pioneer Square became a freeing space for the LGBTQ+ community and local artists (Seattle even claims the first ever ‘Art Walk’). Underground tours with Beneath the Streets now delve into these lost areas to tell a fascinating story of counterculture, the arts and the rebirth of a city.

2. San Juan Island, Washington

Rare orcas can be seen year round (Monika Wieland Shields/Shutterstock)

San Juan Island is the main hub of an eponymous archipelago that scatters the Salish Sea between Washington and Canada’s British Columbia. The pace here couldn’t be further removed from tech-obsessed Seattle – the island doesn’t even have traffic lights. The island is known especially for its marine life, with visiting humpbacks often sighted in the Haro Strait on boat and kayak tours (peak: Jun–Sep), or even spied kelping off Lime Kiln Point State Park. The waters are also home to a pod of rare southern resident orca that can be seen year round, while bald eagles dominate the skies. Beyond its wildlife, San Juan has a curious history, ranging from the lime-mining exploits of Roche Harbor’s McMillin family to the story of the 1859 Pig War, a bloodless standoff between the US and British sparked by one rogue porker, which is now told across a pair of National Historical Parks. For a good overview, drop by the tiny San Juan Historical Museum in Friday Harbor, which has some incredible photography of early life on the island.

3. Hike Olympic National Park, Washington

Trees drip with moss in Olympia National Park’s forests (Shutterstock)

Encompassing some 1,480 sq km of old growth forest, the wilderness of Olympic National Park is never less than spectacular. Strolling trails through dense groves of spruce and fir, their branches dripping with moss, is the only way to see it. However, the park is huge and has plenty of entry points. To the north-west, Hoh is the most popular of its temperate rainforest areas, with trails to its Sol Duc falls often packed in summer. At peak season, you’re better off heading south to Quinault or to the lesser seen Queets rainforests. Lake Quinault Lodge makes a great base and is wrapped by short, accessible trails. For more of a challenge, the hike from Graves Creek to the Enchanted Valley offers a dramatic overnight return, while Tommy Farris of Olympic Hiking Co (hikeolympic.com) runs multi-day guided treks between Hoh and Quinault that leave the crowds far behind. You could also make for the west coast, where a strip of the park brushes up against the shore at Rialto Beach and its huge sea stacks are battered by the Pacific swell. It’s one of the state’s most breathtaking sights.

4. The geology of Washington and Oregon

The Painted Hills at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument (Josemaria Toscano/Shutterstock)

The history of the Pacific Northwest is written in its landscape. Active volcanoes still menace the horizon today, even in big cities like Seattle where you can spy the ‘Shy Giant’ (Mount Rainier) looming among the clouds. In the south of the state also lurks the stratovolcano Mount St Helens, which can be hiked in a day on guided tours accompanied by a local geologists, who unravel its mysteries en route. Beyond the Cascades, things are no less dramatic in Oregon, with Smith Rock State Park now something of a mecca for climbers, while cave tours of the lava tubes and fields around Bend let you wander the epicentre of an eruption. Lastly, out in Oregon’s central high desert, perhaps nothing quite matches the sight of the rainbow slopes of the Painted Hills at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, a landscape striped in yellows, reds and blacks that was created from falling ash over 30 million years ago.

5. Portland’s food carts, Oregon

People lining up outside Portland’s popular food carts (Hrach Hovhannisyan/Shutterstock)

No city has embraced street food as enthusiastically as Portland. But while the first recorded food cart here dates back to the early 1900s, the current boom is very much a modern phenomenon. The scene blew up in 2008’s Great Recession, just as finances were collapsing. A perfect storm of low licence fees, shuttering restaurants and households in need of a side hustle emerged. Now, around 1,000 carts scatter the city, typically grouped in ‘pods’. A tour with Lost Plate is a good place to start, as it delves into the densely clustered Hawthorne neighbourhood, introducing a number of vendors, their stories and the social history of the area. Wherever you eat, it’s a welcome introduction to the diversity of the city, offering up everything from Ukrainian dumplings (Pelmeni Pelmeni) served in the grounds of a former asylum to Chinese jianbings (Bing Mi!) in affluent Nob Hill, to the sweet punnery of Fried Egg I’m in Love on Pioneer Square. Bon appétit.

6. Bend, Oregon

An aerial view of Old Mill District in Bend (AH Turner/Shutterstock)

Bend began life as a logging community in the early 1900s. The city’s name even comes from the ‘Farewell Bend’ in the Deschutes River, where logs floated down to the coast would disappear from sight. Life back then was a far cry from what it is today, not least Bend’s reputation as an affluent destination for snow lovers and adventure sports fanatics – the Jackson Hole of Oregon. House prices here outstrip even those of Portland, and the town’s collection of boutique stores, breweries (Deschutes is one icon among many) and hip spots to eat (try Drake) make it a tempting jumping-off point as you explore lava tubes, ski down volcanos, bike across the high desert or paddle the rapids of the Deschutes. You can even still glimpse Bend’s logging past in the buildings of the Old Mill District, preserved as part of an outdoor mall.

7. Central Oregon’s dark skies

Stars can be seen clearly above Mount Hood National Forest (Jon Bilous/Shutterstock)

Back in 2021, the Prineville Reservoir State Park became the first International Dark Sky Reserve in Oregon. It may be the first of many. The high desert of Central Oregon is filled with vast stretches of land with little but the swaying of sagebrush to bother the eye and next to no light pollution. Ochoco National Forest’s annual Oregon Star Party already attracts thousands of stargazers each year, and the region is in the process of applying to create the world’s largest dark sky network, linking up Central Oregon’s least populated counties. In the meantime, just venture a few miles outside of any town at night to see the stars shine or maybe even catch the Milky Way. Or book with Wanderlust Tours (no relation) who run moonlit canoeing and stargazing trips on the Cascades Lakes from their base in Bend. Clear skies are available on most nights.

8. Kayak the Willamette, Oregon

Kayaking the Willamette River Water Trail (Trica J. Photos / Alamy Stock Photo)

The Willamette River Water Trail runs for around 300km south of Portland, down through Oregon’s wine country and past state capital Salem and Eugene, offering up multi-day paddling adventures. But if you prefer a quick burst of paddling fun, head to Oregon City, were you can bag a short kayak tour up to Willamette Falls, the second-largest waterfall in the US (by volume). Tours with eNRG Kayaking don’t take long to reach the falls from their base. The setting is oddly industrial, yet it makes for a captivating contrast with the power of the falls. Along the way, you may spot the odd curious California brown sea lion, who prey on the exhausted salmon that make their way up the fish ladders. They’ve become a menace to fish stocks in recent years, but are nevertheless an impressive sight as they slick through the water backed by the roar of the falls.

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