The Rough Guide to The Pacific Northwest 3 (Rough Guide Travel Guides)

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9781858286860: The Rough Guide to The Pacific Northwest 3 (Rough Guide Travel Guides)
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INTRODUCTION

Few areas of North America owe so little to national and provincial boundaries as the Pacific Northwest. A loosely defined region cutting across the western redoubts of both the United States and Canada, it’s geographically isolated from the rest of the continent and looks out across the Pacific almost as much as it refers back east to the older, federal centres of power in Ottawa and Washington DC. Extending from Oregon and Washington in the south, then hopscotching through British Columbia and the Canadian Rockies to the Yukon in the north, it encompasses – most impressively of all – richly varied and awe-inspiring landscapes. Mountains, lakes and pristine wilderness are the finest features, with abundant wildlife offering the chance to see creatures – from whales to wolves – in their natural habitats. But it is also a region of high historical adventure, the stuff of a thousand cowboy movies, and home to intriguing Native-American and Inuit cultures, superb cuisine (seafood in particular), state-of-the-art museums and some of the most urbane and civilized cities in North America.

Leading the way in this last respect are Vancouver and Seattle, both dynamic, cosmopolitan and instantly likeable – and destined to be pivotal points of any trip. Vancouver is preceded by a well-deserved reputation as one of the world’s most beautiful cities, cradled in a mountain and seafront setting that provides its laid-back citizens with all manner of hedonistic possibilities from hiking, skiing and sailing to world-class theatre and the more simple West Coast pleasures of bar-hopping and beach-bumming. Seattle, though somewhat grittier, also benefits from a dramatic setting: its hilly suburbs bump around the deep blue of the Pacific Ocean, while its busy, bristling centre is alive with great restaurants and some of the finest live-music nightspots around.

Of the smaller cities, genteel Portland is perhaps the most agreeable, its downtown peopled by latte-drinking urbanites and graced with whimsical street sculptures. But not far behind comes Victoria, on Vancouver Island, which offers an ersatz taste of old England as well as one of the continent’s finest museums. Calgary comes alive during its famous Stampede, and also boasts a glittering oil-funded downtown, an appealing base for trips to the Rockies and the fine sights of southern Alberta. Similarly well-placed is Oregon’s Bend, a relaxed and energetic resort just a few minutes’ drive from the mountains and a medley of fascinating volcanic remains.

Indeed, many visitors regard the cities of the Pacific Northwest as little more than a preamble to the region’s land and seascapes, and it’s certainly true that these attract inordinate amounts of purple prose – with every justification. Put baldly, this is one of the world’s most beautiful places, embracing majestic peaks, icy glaciers, thundering rivers, swaths of Arctic tundra, smoking volcanoes, dramatic sea cliffs, long driftwood-covered beaches and endless forests. There are some scenic surprises too amongst the less familiar terrain of the Pacific Northwest, ranging from the sun-scorched, sagebrush plateau of eastern Oregon and to wetlands, house-sized sand dunes, brightly coloured fossil beds, temperate rainforests and benignly rippling grasslands. Much of this remains as wilderness, wild and empty and barely touched by the twentieth century, yet at the same time rendered accessible by a network of superbly run national, state and provincial parks.

Almost any part of this giant-sized wilderness will provide enough jaw-dropping scenery, hiking trails and outdoor pursuits to last a long vacation. There are, however, several obvious highlights beginning in the south with the magnificent sand- and rock-strewn Oregon coastline and, just inland, the southern reaches of the Cascade Mountains, which shelter elegiac Crater Lake and the geological oddities – cinder cones and lava caves and forests – of the Newberry National Volcanic Monument. In Washington you can choose from the lush landscape of the Olympic Peninsula, with its glacial peaks, temperate rainforests, and storm-tossed seashore, and the northern continuation of the Cascades, including Mount St Helens, whose dramatic eruption captured world headlines in 1980. Across the Canadian border, the Rockies continue in a huge northward sweep towards the Yukon, displaying some of their grandest scenery within Alberta’s Banff and Jasper national parks. West of here, offshore enclaves like Vancouver Island, the Haida Gwaii and the San Juan archipelago offer a unique and beguiling blend of mountain and maritime scenery. Further north, the Yukon is a foretaste both of Alaska’s dramatic landscapes – vast glaciers nestling between ferociously cold mountains, and caribou roaming across the tundra – and of the often individual-cum-eccentric outlook of the people who choose to live on one of the world’s last frontiers.

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ROUTES AND ITINERARIES

Any one of the region’s many wilderness areas could easily occupy a two- or three-week trip – and frankly it’s hard not to be seduced by the legendary beauty of the Canadian Rockies or the stunning diversity of the Olympic Peninsula. That said, if you’re planning to tour, the best idea is to combine a city or two with a mixture of land and sea routes, getting acquainted with some of the gorgeous scenery en route. Permutations, of course, are endless: you might visit Seattle before heading to the mountains of the Cascades; spend time in Calgary before visiting the Canadian Rockies; hole up in Vancouver before tackling southern British Columbia or Vancouver Island; base yourself in Portland as a preliminary to exploring the Oregon Coast; or stay in Bend to root around the southern portion of the Cascade range including Crater Lake. In all this, you’ll be facilitated by roads that probe even the most remote areas, a reasonable public transport system (better in the Canadian parts of the region), and a network of ferries that cobwebs most of the coast – though it’s important to remember that the further north you go, the further you’ll have to drive between places of interest.

Certain itineraries do, however, suggest themselves, starting with Oregon where the coast offers lovely scenery and a sequence of appealing little towns – just an hour or two’s drive from the southern reaches of the Cascade Mountains, which you should dip into at least once or twice on any visit. Coming to Oregon from the east, on the other hand, your best bet is to follow the route of the old Oregon Trail, across the plains and down the Columbia River Gorge. Further north, Washington State offers more stunning Cascade scenery – again you should try to sample at least a couple of the mountain roads – as well as the Olympic Peninsula, which you can either drive round or visit from a nearby base like Port Townsend or Sequim. Further north again, in British Columbia, Vancouver Island and at least a part of the Canadian Rockies should be high up on anyone’s itinerary. To undertake the long overland journeys in the far north you’ll need plenty of time, a spirit of adventure and patience to cope with the featureless stretches: choose from the wild Cassiar Highway through northern BC; the Klondike Highway to Dawson City, site of the Klondike gold rush; and the Yukon’s Dempster Highway over the arctic tundra to Inuvik. There’s also the 1500-mile Alaska Highway which slices up through Alberta and British Columbia to Alaska’s Fairbanks, though a nautical alternative is available here with ferry boats leaving Bellingham (and other ports) to sail up along the so-called Inside Passage, one of the world’s great sea journeys stretching all the way north to Alaska.

The vastness of the region, and the resultant climatic variations, make it difficult to generalize about the best time to go, although you should bear in mind that during winter many areas – such as the higher peaks and passes of the mountain ranges – are altogether inaccessible, while many more are simply unbearably cold.

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