Looking for a travel guide to the Pacific Northwest? Is there more to this area than fog and coffee? Well …. probably? Luckily for all of us, I brought in a local to share her best PNW travel tips – where to go, what to do, and how to do it all cheaply and safely.
Hi! I’m Sam from The Philosophy of Kindness. Five years ago I flew to Seattle on a whim. It was love at first sight. One month later my bags were packed and I never looked back.
When I think of the Pacific Northwest I think of it’s the green forests, cities that incorporate nature at every turn, mountains, farms, harbors, coffee shops on every corner, thrift shops and half off bookstores everywhere, and the quirkiness of cities that celebrate being offbeat.
Must go in the Pacific Northwest
The Oregon Coast
If breathtaking is what you are looking for the coast is where you need to head. It’s 363 miles of isolated beaches dotted with quaint seaside towns, cliffs, sand dunes, sea stacks jutting out of the ocean, picturesque lighthouses and great spots to view sea lions.
Stanley Park is a breath of fresh air if you are looking to escape the city. There is so much to do here! Tour the Rose Garden, visit the First Nation totem poles or stand inside a 700-year-old cedar tree. However, a stroll around the seawall shouldn’t be passed up. If the tide is in enough you can look over the side and see huge purple starfish clinging to the rock below.
The quaint town isn’t so much the destination, but it is the main stopping point to get info and park passes for Mountain Loop Highway. The Highway cuts its way through the Cascade Mountain Range where you can find camping sites, lakes, hiking trails, and picnic areas can be can be found throughout the area.
The biggest attraction are the Big Four Ice Caves, which are a short hike from the highway. Further down the road is Monte Cristo, once a booming prospectors city now it’s a ghost town.
If you’re looking for a unique event, Seafair is a summer-long festival that takes place throughout Seattle. At any given time you can take part in the Solstice Parade celebrating artists, watch milk carton boat derbies, or check out the Seafair pirates storming the beach. Every town also seems to host their own street fairs where you can check out the local handcrafted scene.
Get out of the city
Hood Canal, Olympic National Park, San Juan Islands, Mount Rainier, Mount St. Helens, Earth Sanctuary, Mount Baker, Mount Hood – the list goes on! If you’re visiting a city, you can easily find a National or State park within a hour or two drive from where you are staying. The Cascades surround the area and are beautiful to view from the city but are spectacular to hike through.
Take a ferry
They’re inexpensive way to get around and offer some of the best views around. And since they aren’t a traditional tourist attraction, they will drop you off in non-tourist spots that are fun to explore.
Must eat in the Pacific Northwest
The coffee culture in the Pacific Northwest is unlike anywhere else in the US. Skip Starbucks or anything with a name you recognize and go to any of the local cafes. Many coffee shops roast their own beans and if they don’t, they surely buy from local roasters. Try a pour over to bring out the flavor profiles or a Chemex to share.
It’s sweet, tender, meaty, and best of all it’s a sustainable seafood. There are so many ways to cook it. You can find it in crab cakes, chowder, wontons, but my personal favorite is just to dip it in butter and savor the flavor.
Cultural tips for traveling in the Pacific Northwest
The Pacific Northwest is a really liberal area. We’re very much about environmental causes, sustainability, buying local and organic. You will see trash, recycling, and compost bins everywhere.
People here are really friendly, especially in the the more touristy areas. Bus drivers were one of the best sources I found in regards for help in getting around and information on what to see and do.
Cheap travel tips for the Pacific Northwest
Outside of the cities transportation can be difficult. However buses and bikes are a great way to get around. There are two options for traveling between Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver.
Amtrak operates between the cities and you can get great views of the ocean from the train. The Bolt Bus also runs between the cities and you can get a seat for as low as $1.
In the summer is when the Pacific Northwest comes alive. There are festivals, an abundance of parks to visit, Shakespeare in the Park, Pow Wows, farmer’s markets (usually there is live music), and parades. All of these things are free or very minimal cost.
"Zero waste travel? That sounds ... joyless," my friend teases as we pick at a pile of nachos. "It really does, doesn't it?" I laugh. When I first started thinking about my carbon footprint and how much waste I produce while traveling I pictured myself eating lentils...
I'm struggling to figure out the minimalist hipster microwave in my Airbnb when I hear my phone ping. I fuss with the buttons and knobs on the microwave (maybe it's not a microwave?) as my phone pings again and again and again. I've just posted a video tour of the...
Is it possible to travel cheaply in Portland - what with all those world-class restaurants, great live music, and some of the best hiking in the country? It sure is! I brought in a Portland native to give us the low-down on the best food carts, $3 cocktails, and how...
And Whistler. You must go to Whistler. It's the best place on earth.
AHHHHH! The PNW is still firmly on my bucket list. We didn't quite make it up there on our North American road trip, alas.
Awesome guide! Any recommendations on a time of year to visit?
My husband is from Vancouver and we just (finally) moved out to the PCNW this past year. Stanley Park is one of my favorite places on Earth, truly. On a sunny day there can literally be thousands of people there (and take part in a pot or a pride parade regularly–seem they are always going on). It's super family-friendly, too, so many beaches and jungle gym parks.
We went sailing off the coast of Orcas Island (san Juan islands) and you can find great deals for things like that on living social. Mt. Baker has a great free spot to sled if you don't want to pay for ski tickets but still want to head up and spend time in the snow.
We have only tapped into the most north-western part of Washington (the 2 hours above Seattle) because that's the area we live, and there is SO much to do in this small area. Bellingham (20 min south of Canadian border) has beautiful hiking areas, waterfalls and free swim pockets (on the hike) if you're brave.
Mt. Vernon area (1 hr north of Seattle) right now (April) is has a HUGE tulip tour every year because that's when they're blooming and it's so pretty. You can go around to see the tulip farms and they have a bike tour, too. Just imagine fields of every different color. I believe it's the second largest tulip area outside of The Netherlands.
Once you get into BC, the sky is basically the limit for anything outdoor/sport related. If winter climate, there are amazing mountains all within a short drive. Summertime is basically July-September, but already this year has been beautiful and sunny! Clearly, I love where I live.
Thanks for the great tips! I've Always wanted to go the the Northwest, I'm definitely gonna pin this guide for then! 🙂
@nancytyna The summer is the best time to visit, hands down. For us here in the Western part of the PNW (west of the Cascade mountain range), summer doesn't truly get going until after the 4th of July, traditionally. It's a short summer, but truly spectacular. World's best, I'd say. In fact, it's what keeps most of us staying here through all of the gray, dark, seemingly endless months of rainy winter. Imagine very low humidity, 80-90 degree days, clear as can be blue skies.
I think something important to note is that the PNW is fairly diverse, geographically-speaking. I'm from WA state, and the eastern side of the mountains feels more like what people might imagine the inter-mountain west to feel like. It's dry and hot in the summers and very snowy in the winters. The landscape is a mix of desert and irrigated orchards/farmlands. Here, on the western side, it's full of evergreen trees and rain, unless it's the brief spring-fall time of year.
I'd say that folks visiting MUST check out the Olympic Peninsula. There's a national park there and even a rainforest! Think Twilight, but even more beautiful than what the film could ever capture (especially since I believe it was filmed in OR and BC anyway). Also, the North Cascades. Oh, and Seattle, of course!
Yes, they're so into recycling…nice throwaway coffee cups in the picture above. If the hippies aren't using their own mugs, what hope have we?! (Sorry to be snarky, but it makes me seriously sad. Bring your own travel mug, people. Like, do you love the planet even a tiny little bit?)
@nancytyna: Summer is a great time to visit, but spring or very early fall are also sometimes really nice. It's been amaaaaazing here in Portland lately with sunshine and all of the trees blooming. It's a bit of a gamble, though.
For visitors to Oregon, Portland has really great food, and Powells bookstore is a must-visit if you like books even a tiny bit. Oh, and the Columbia River Gorge has spectacular views and waterfalls and is just a short drive from the city.
The farthest north along the Pacific Coast I've ever been is a few hours north of San Francisco (Point Arena, to be exact), but I soooo want to explore the PNW! I can't get over the gorgeous trees and landscapes in that area. Definitely want to make it up that way soon. 🙂
Take some time to check out the eastern half of Washington; it's a totally different climate and has some of the world's best wines. Walla Walla is about 4 hours by car from Seattle and 45 minutes by plane (with a complimentary glass of vino!). Beautiful weather, great local restaurants, tons of awesome wine, and the nicest people.
I've lived in the Pacific Northwest my whole life (In the Vancouver, WA area, not Vancouver, BC). I love this area. Bend, OR has some of the best whitewater rafting in the whole pacific northwest on the Deschutes River (plus some awesome beer). Very famous rivers exist here for whitewater kayakers as well, the White Salmon and the Little White are in the Gorge are of Washington. It may rain here, but without all of that rain, we wouldn't have such lush forests.
Awesome! I am going to a wedding in Seattle in August, and figure if I’m flying across the country (I live in NY), I should make it a longer trip and see some of the Pacific NW.