Exploring the Outdoors in the Pacific Northwest

Exploring the great outdoors of Washington and Oregon is an adventure that every nature lover should experience. From the rugged coastline to the towering mountains, these states offer some of the most diverse and breathtaking landscapes in the country. As someone who has spent a significant amount of time exploring the Pacific Northwest, I can say it is one of the unique parts of North America that shouldn’t be missed by any outdoor explorer.

Washington and Oregon is home to numerous national parks, state parks, and wilderness areas, each with its own unique beauty and charm. Here is a rough guide to understanding the area as you set out to explore.

The Diverse Landscapes of Washington and Oregon

Washington and Oregon are often referred to as the Pacific Northwest, sometimes grouped with Idaho, British Columbia, and occasionally Montana and Northern California. The area is known for their natural beauty and diverse landscapes. From the rugged coastline to the towering mountains, these states offer a wide range of outdoor experiences.

pacific northwest regions
An oversimplified map of the Pacific Northwest regions

One of the most iconic landscapes in Washington and Oregon is the Cascade Range. This mountain range stretches from British Columbia down to Northern California and includes some of the most famous peaks in the United States, such as Mount Rainier and Mount Hood. The Cascades are home to numerous hiking trails, alpine lakes, and snow-capped peaks, making them a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts.

Another unique landscape found in Washington and Oregon is the Columbia River Gorge. This scenic area is carved by the Columbia River and features towering cliffs, waterfalls, and lush forests. Visitors can explore the area by hiking, biking, or driving along the Historic Columbia River Highway.

Washington and Oregon also boast a stunning coastline that stretches for hundreds of miles. The coastline is characterized by rugged cliffs, sandy beaches, and rocky tide pools. Visitors can explore the coastline by hiking along the beach, kayaking in the ocean, or simply relaxing on the sand.

When many people think of the Pacific Northwest, they think of trees. While it is true that much of the Pacific Northwest is lush, wooded, and basically a rainforest, you don’t have to go far and you will see the landscape change to more arid  and windy plateaus.

The geology of the area really runs in vertical strips – starting with the coast, and moving to the mountainous Cascades, then to the high plateaus, and giving way to more mountains near Idaho.

Pacific Northwest Regions

oregon coast
Oregon Coast

I think of the Pacific Northwest as four regions (granted, that is oversimplified), and they span across Washington and Oregon. Each area has its own unique characteristics, key destinations, and activities that make them worth exploring.

The Coast (WA and OR)

The Coast of Washington and Oregon is a beautiful stretch of coastline that is perfect for outdoor enthusiasts. Key destinations in this region include Cannon Beach, Oregon and Olympic National Park in Washington. Visitors can enjoy activities such as beachcombing, surfing, and whale watching.

  • Where to Hike: One of the most popular hikes in this area is the Cape Lookout Trail, which is a 5.2-mile hike that offers stunning views of the coastline. I consider the trail moderate in difficulty. I am also a huge fan of Siuslaw National Forest, which hugs the Oregon coast and is underrated in its hiking options.
  • Birding:  I have found the Oregon Coast to be a great area for birding. There are lots of year-round species like Herons, Egrets, and Bitterns, and lots of other birds you can catch passing through. View lines are fantastic, too.
  • Paddling: The structure of the Pacific Northwest coast gives it lots of protected area for sea kayaking.  My favorite is the incredible San Juan Islands, but the paddling is also excellent around Long Point and Willapa Bay in Washington.
  • Scuba and Snorkeling: Lots of people don’t think of the Pacific Northwest when it comes to scuba or snorkeling, but it can be really good in areas. We like Deception Pass in Washington, which is protected from rough seas and usually has lots of marine life visible.

The Cascades (WA and OR)

The Cascades are the mountain range that runs through Washington and Oregon. This region is known for its stunning alpine scenery and is home to several popular destinations that you’ve probably heard of like Mount Rainier National Park, Olympic National Park, Mt. Hood, Mt. Bachelor, the Three Sisters, and Crater Lake National Park. It is a hotbed for things like hiking, skiing, and snowboarding.

  • Where to Hike: Where to start is a better questions, there are thousands of choices. One of the most popular hikes in this area is the Skyline Trail in Mount Rainier National Park. This 5.5-mile hike offers breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains and is considered moderate in difficulty.  Further inland, Lake 22 is a relatively easy hike not far from the Seattle area.
  • Another Hike:  Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park is a pretty intense place, and offers some really special hikes. One that I keep going back to is Hurricane Hill hike. It is a little over 3 miles round trip, so one that you can get out of the car and do while driving around the area. The Hurricane Hill overlook is arguably the best in the entire park, and drives home how rugged the surrounding area is.
  • Winter Sports: The Cascades are an outstanding ski and snowboard destination, and often have snowfall when the Rockies might not. Some of the more popular areas are Mt. Baker and Crystal Mountain in Washington, and Mt. Hood and Bachelor in Oregon.
columbia plateau
Columbia Plateau

The Plateaus (WA and OR)

The first time I saw the Oregon plateaus, I was shocked. Beautiful plateau country so close to such rugged mountains and coastline.

Key destinations in the plateau region include the Palouse region of eastern Washington and the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in Oregon. You can also follow the Lewis and Clark trail through this area, as they traveled both the Snake and the Columbia Rivers back in the early 1800s. This is another great area for birdwatching and hiking.

  • Where to Hike: A go-to for me is the Misery Ridge Trail in Smith Rock State Park. This 3.7-mile hike offers stunning views of the surrounding landscape but is a pretty difficult hike, making it rewarding.
  • Fly Fishing: If you fly fish, bring your waders for some casting on the Deschutes River, near the Western edge of the plateau area. The steelhead fishing is great, depending on the season.
  • The Bend area: While Bend is arguably in the mountains, we consider it a high plateau town at 3,600 feet of elevation. Bend is an outdoor lover’s paradise, and the mountain biking is really outstanding. If you are a cyclist, a few days in Bend can be a memorable trip.

Blue-Wallowa Mountains

Lots of people don’t know that the Pacific Northwest has a second mountain range. I didn’t at first either.

The Blue-Wallowa Mountains are a subrange of the Rocky Mountains that are located in eastern Oregon. As you would expect, there is stunning alpine scenery and it isBlue Mountains home to several popular destinations such as the Wallowa Lake Tramway and Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. Visitors can enjoy activities such as hiking, fishing, and horseback riding.

  • Where to Hike: A great hike in this area is the Ice Lake Trail, which is a 9.2-mile hike that offers panoramic views of the area. It is a hard trail.
  • Another Hike:  The Chief Joseph Mountain Trail is another long-ish hike at around 8 miles. It throws some pretty hard terrain at you but the variety that you see on the hike makes it worth it. Views are of streams and waterfalls, mountain overlooks, and Wallowa Lake.

Top National Parks and Recreation Areas

Olympic National Park

I highly recommend visiting Olympic National Park. The park boasts over 1,400 square miles of diverse landscapes, including rugged coastlines, ancient forests, and glacier-capped mountains. A must-visit location is the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center, which offers breathtaking views of the Olympic Mountains. For hikers, the park offers a range of trails, from easy strolls to challenging backcountry treks. The Hoh Rain Forest Trail is a personal favorite of mine, with its towering trees and lush greenery. It is like you are in a different world.

Mount Rainier National Park

crater lake
crater lake

Another favorite destination is Mount Rainier National Park, home to the iconic Mount Rainier, a towering 14,411-foot volcano. The park is a hiker’s paradise, with over 260 miles of trails to explore. The Paradise Visitor Center is a great starting point for visitors, offering stunning views of the mountain and access to several hiking trails. For a challenging but rewarding trek, I recommend the Skyline Trail.

Crater Lake National Park

Way to the south, Crater Lake National Park is a hidden gem located in southern Oregon. It is home to the stunning Crater Lake, which is the deepest lake in the United States. You can explore the lake by boat or hike along the Rim Trail, which offers breathtaking views of the lake and surrounding mountains.

Mt. Hood

Mt. Hood might be my favorite memory in the area, because it was the first real destination I ever visited up there. It’s located just outside of Portland, Oregon. The mountain offers a range of activities, including skiing on Mt. Hood,

mt hood
Mt Hood

snowboarding, and hiking. The Timberline Lodge is a great starting point for visitors, offering access to several hiking trails and stunning views of the mountain. For a quality hike, I recommend the Cooper Spur Trail.

Bend, OR area

The Bend, Oregon area is a great destination for outdoor enthusiasts, offering a range of activities, including hiking, mountain biking, and skiing. You find several national forests, including Deschutes National Forest and Willamette National Forest. A couple good places to explore are the Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway or skiing at Mt. Bachelor. The Bend Visitor Center is a great starting point for visitors, offering maps and information on local attractions.

Siuslaw National Forest

If you want a combination of mountains and coast in the same place, consider Siuslaw National Forest, stretching from the Oregon Coast to the lush Cascade Mountains. It is west of the popular Oregon college towns of Eugene and Corvalis. Check out the Cape Perpetua Scenic Area, where youcan marvel at the dramatic coastline from the highest point accessible by car on the Oregon coast. Spectacular rugged cliffs, lush forests, and the mesmerizing spectacle of the Pacific Ocean crashing against the shore. Don’t miss the tide pools at low tide, revealing a hidden world of marine life. If you want a hike, my favorite is “The Thumb”, a 4-mile moderate hike through coastal mountains to a quintessential Oregon coastal view.

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