The artsy, coffee-sipping cities of Portland and Seattle tend to draw in the most crowds to the Pacific Northwest. Situated humbly between these two popular city-break destinations is the less-visited region of Southwest Washington, an area rich with history and dramatic landscapes. It’s a place unaffected by the mad rush for housing and the extensive tourism developments that have shaped the more famous parts of the Northwest. Escape here to discover vast swaths of wilderness with dramatic, awe-inspiring scenery, and to relax in the charming cities hidden within these landscapes.
Start your exploration of Southwest Washington in Vancouver. Not the famous Canadian metropolis, of course, but the smaller conurbation on the border with Oregon. The Columbia River separates the city from Portland, but Vancouver has a different character to its southern neighbor. It’s quieter, but also (whisper it) less pretentious, with plenty to entertain its visitors. The Clark County Historical Museum charts the story of the region, while the Pearson Air Museum is a must for aviation enthusiasts. Fort Vancouver is one of the area’s sightseeing highlights, a recreated pioneer town with interactive exhibits for the whole family.
U se Vancouver as your base for exploring the wildernesses of Southwest Washington. It’s hard to miss the towering peak of Mount St. Helens, a volcano famed for its explosive eruption in 1980. See it by hiking through the surrounding park, flying over the peak, or trekking into its lava tubes. The Cascade Mountains run through this corner of the state, too, with Mount Rainier’s snowcapped peak standing watch over forests and lakes with gorgeous hiking trails. The ancient trees in Mount Rainier National Park are one of the big draws of the region, with some that are over a thousand years old.
End your trip in Centralia, a town about 90 minutes south of Seattle by car. Even within the town limits, you can relax in wide green spaces, such as Fort Borst Park. The downtown area here features a selection of historic murals and a main street with an enchanting old-world atmosphere. Linger in Centralia to visit charming theaters, family-run restaurants, and lively farmers’ markets.
Top Three Sights in Southwest Washington
Mount St. Helens
Make your way to the Johnston Ridge Observatory or to Norway Pass for the best views of Mount St. Helens, Southwest Washington’s most fearsome and awe-inspiring natural landmark. Marvel at the semicircular crater blasted out of the volcano, which last had a major eruption in 1980.
It’s an active volcano, so it’s monitored by geologists constantly. Don’t worry, though; you can still freely explore the surrounding Gifford Pinchot National Forest, home to some of the best hiking trails in the state. The national park service maintains several biking trails and campgrounds in the park, too, making it a destination that could take up several days of exploring. For an unusual way to experience the volcano, head into the lava tubes that were formed by lava-buried trees that subsequently rotted. You can spot them by following marked trails through the park, while some have ladders that allow you to descend into these unusual formations.
Fort Vancouver National Historic Site
Picture yourself as an international trader in the 19th century or as a powerful politician in Fort Vancouver. This popular family attraction was once a hub of culture, commerce and politics in the Pacific Northwest, from the early 1800s onward. Today it’s a reconstructed fort, where costumed guides shed light on what life was like here during its money-making heyday.
The exhibits in the museum cover a variety of topics. Learn about the Native Americans who first called Washington home and read about the Hudson’s Bay Company, which traded from this strategic location. The National Historic Site also encompasses the historic home of the fort’s founder, John McLoughlin, as well as Pearson Field, which features a museum dedicated to the history of aviation.
Columbia River Gorge
Lace up a pair of hiking boots and trek along the edges of the Columbia River Gorge, which forms the dramatic natural boundary to Washington State. Basalt cliffs tower above the wide, winding river, which cuts through the Cascade Mountains and flows out into the Pacific Ocean. Drive along the edge of the river on the Lewis and Clark Highway to appreciate the varied landscapes of the gorge. The National Scenic Area features several places to stop, on both the Washington and the Oregon sides, with hiking trails that head up into the hills. Small towns such as White Salmon and Carson make for scenic places to rest along the way.