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What is the PNW? | Ultimate Guide to the Pacific Northwest

What is the PNW? PNW stands for Pacific Northwest. It's an area in the western part of the United States that includes Washington, Oregon, western Idaho, and parts of northern California.

The PNW, or the Pacific Northwest, is a region of the United States than extends to over 24 million acres (and also sometimes includes a part of Canada). It encompasses multiple states and is home to millions of people. It's a well-loved vacation destination, especially along the coast, where you can see stunning sheer cliffs that butt up against the ocean.

What is the PNW?

Where is the Pacific Northwest?

The PNW, or the Pacific Northwest, is along the west coast of the United States. There are a few different ideas regarding where the boundaries for this area of the country should be, but, on Traverse the Pacific Northwest, we consider it to extend from the southern parts of Canada down to northern California, including Washington and Oregon along the way.

What States Are in the Pacific Northwest?

To summarize, the states in the Pacific Northwest are:

  • Washington

  • Oregon

  • Northern California

  • Western Idaho

  • And the southern part of the province of British Columbia, Canada

Pacific Northwest Map

Here is a map of the major landmarks, cities, and more in the Pacific Northwest designed for Traverse the Pacific Northwest.

Pacific Northwest Map
Map of the Pacific Northwest by Emma H. Baldwin (All Rights Reserved)

What is it Like to Live in the Pacific Northwest?

Likely, the first thing you think of when you imagine the Pacific Northwest is rain. But life in the PNW is far more than dreary, cold Seattle days. When the weather is good, it's really good.

Portland, Oregon
Portland, Oregon with Mt. Hood looming in the background

The landscapes, and their weather, vary by a great deal. Within a few hours' drive, you can pass through deserts, like that you'll find in eastern and central Oregon, to North Cascades National Park, where you'll find some of the most isolated and dangerous mountains in the country.

You could also find yourself along the California coast, where stunning mountain cliffs run right to the water's edge or where huge sea stacks, like that found in Cannon Beach, burst straight out of the water.

What is the Pacific Northwest Like?

The Pacific Northwest is a huge region of the country, so no one place is like the other! But, the entire west coast is marked by incredibly diverse landscapes that are filled with stunning waterfalls, volcanoes, rivers, and mountains.

The Pacific Northwest has some truly notable natural features. For example, the region hosts the country's deepest lake (Crater Lake), the tallest waterfall (Colonial Creek Falls), one of the top 5 tallest mountains in the continental US (Mount Rainier), one of the largest national parks (Olympic National Park), and the second-largest state park in the country (Smith Rock State Park).

How Much Rain does the Pacific Northwest Get?

In short, a lot! It does rain a lot in the Pacific Northwest. It's something that you just get used to over time. Although that doesn't mean that it isn't annoying after it's been near-constant for several winter months.

On average, the US gets around 30 inches of rain a year (excluding Alaska and Hawaii). You can compare that number to the averages for Washington and Oregon below:

Spokane, Washington
Spokane, Washington is one of the largest cities in the PNW

Major Washington Cities Rain Averages

Here are the rain averages for a few big cities in Washington:

  • Seattle Average Rainfall - 150 days of rain a year, an average of 35 inches a year.

  • Spokane Average Rainfall - 115 days of rain a year, an average of 17 inches a year.

  • Bellingham Average Rainfall - 158 days of rain a year, an average of 36 inches a year.

  • Tacoma Average Rainfall - 154 days of rain a year, an average of 39 inches a year.

Major Oregon Cities Rain Averages

Here are the rain averages for a few big cities in Oregon:

  • Portland Average Rainfall - 164 days of rain a year, an average of 36 inches a year.

  • Salem Average Rainfall - 152 days of rain a year, an average of 39 inches a year.

  • Eugene Average Rainfall - 151 days of rain a year, an average of 40 inches a year.

  • Bend Average Rainfall - 72 days of rain a year, an average of 12 inches a year.

Salem, Oregon
Salem, Oregon is a large city in the PNW

Reading through these numbers, you'll immediately notice that Bend, which is in central Oregon, has far fewer rainy days than anywhere else listed. It's one of the cities in the Pacific Northwest that's located in a more desert-like climate.

So, if you're thinking about moving to the Pacific Northwest and want to avoid the rain, where should you live?

Driest Cities in the Pacific Northwest

View from Castle Rock
Looking down at Wenatchee, Washington

Here are a few of the driest cities in Washington and Oregon:

  • Klamath Falls, Oregon

  • Chiloquin, Oregon

  • Hines, Oregon

  • Lakeview, Oregon

  • Wenatchee, Washington

  • Ellensburg, Washington

  • Yakima, Washington

  • Walla Walla, Washington

How Do People From the Pacific Northwest Stand the Rain?

It's a good question, especially if you're from a dry state or city and are thinking about visiting or even moving to one of the Pacific Northwest states. Usually, you can expect rain throughout the winter and into the spring months.

It usually starts around the end of November and will be on the forecast till the beginning of May. But it's not unusual to have rain years that last from October to the beginning of July. No year is like the next (especially when it comes to snow!).

Seattle, Washington
A rainy day in Seattle, Washington

Most people in the Pacific Northwest get used to the rain over time. In fact, if you're visiting Portland or Seattle on a rainy day, you're likely to notice that few residents actually carry or use an umbrella. The rain becomes such an everyday presence that umbrellas are more of an annoying nuisance to remember than something that's actually helpful (unless it's really pouring).

It's also important to note that most cities in the PNW only deal with light rain throughout the rainy season. It's not a constant downpour, and true rainstorms and thunderstorms are very, very rare.

8 Major Cities in the Pacific Northwest

The biggest cities in the Pacific Northwest are spread out from Vancouver in British Columbia, Canada, to Portland in northern Oregon.

  1. Seattle, Washington - Population 704,000

  2. Portland, Oregon - Population 658,00

  3. Spokane, Washington - Population 229,00

  4. Tacoma, Washington - Population 219,200

  5. Vancouver, Washington - Population 192,000

  6. Salem, Oregon - Population 177,000

  7. Eugene, Oregon - Population 175,000

Pacific Northwest Flora and Fauna

Curious about plants in the Pacific Northwest? Well, there is a whole lot to choose from. The region holds 17 national forests, a national grassland, and much much more.

You'll find evergreen coniferous forests that are unique to the region and to the rest of the world. These coastal, temperate rainforests are home to thousands of species of plants and animals.

Common Pacific Northwest Plants

Broadleaf Lupine
The common Broadleaf Lupine

Some of the most common native plants in the Pacific Northwest include:

  • Goatsbeard

  • Alpine strawberry

  • Broadleaf lupine

  • Camassia

  • Blanket Flower

  • Blue Columbine

Common Pacific Northwest Trees

A Douglas Fir
A Douglas fir tree

If you're learning more about what the PNW is and hiking around anywhere in the region, you're also likely to see these Pacific Northwest trees:

  • Big leaf maple

  • Douglas fir

  • Hemlock

  • Western red cedar

  • Sitka spruce

  • Alder

  • Cottonwood

Common Pacific Northwest Animals

A Stellar Jay
Stellar jays are common in the PNW

Native animals in the Pacific Northwest include:

  • Robins

  • Stellar jays

  • Chipmunks and squirrels

  • Coyotes

  • Blue herons

  • Otters

  • Cougars

  • Skunks and rabbits

What is the Major Mountain Range of the Pacific Northwest?

The major mountain range of the Pacific Northwest is the Cascade Mountains. They stretch north to south from British Columbia to northern California and include Mount Rainer, Mount Hood, Mount Adams, and the infamous Mt. Saint Helens. Washington and Oregon mountains are truly incredible, especially if you venture off the beaten path and into the outstanding landscapes of the North Cascades.

You're also like to get a glimpse of the Olympic Mountains if you visit the western part of Washington.

We wrote about the Pacific Northwest Mountains in detail in our list of the best mountains to climb in the Pacific Northwest:

You can also read more about Oregon, Washington, and Idaho-specific mountains in these articles:

Cascade Mountain Range Map

Here is a one-of-a-kind map of the Cascades Mountains, featuring some of the most important mountains in the range:

The Cascade Mountains
Original Map of the Cascade Mountains, created by Emma H. Baldwin (All Rights Reserved)

Most Beautiful Places in the Pacific Northwest

The most beautiful places in the Pacific Northwest are hard to choose from. There are unending destinations to explore, but here are some of the best:

Leavenworth, Washington

A small town in west central Washington that's well-known for its Bavarian style. In the 60s, a group decided that they needed to take drastic measures to revitalize the economy of this one-upon-a-time railroad town.

Leavenworth, WA
The main street of the Bavarian town of Leavenworth, WA

Today, you can enjoy German food, horse and carriage rides, and unique shopping experiences, and in the winter, a gorgeous lights show. You can also enjoy some truly incredible hikes in Leavenworth that take you into some of the most remote parts of Washington.

Whidbey Island, Washington

The small yet well-worth-noting Whidbey Island is one of the best destinations around Seattle. It's usually accessed by ferry, but you can also drive there through Deception Pass State Park and over the bridge.

Whidbey Island, WA
Views from Whidbey Island, WA

Columbia River Gorge, Oregon (and Washington)

The Columbia River Gorge is a sweeping destination that runs between Washington and Oregon. On the northern side is the Washington border, with Oregon to the south. It's well-known for its waterfalls (including the stunning Latourell Falls and Tamanawas Falls).

The Columbia River Gorge
The gorgeous Columbia River Gorge

Crater Lake is Oregon's only national park. It's also a truly gorgeous destination that you have to see to believe. The park is based around an enormous lake (in the crater of what used to be Mount Mazama).

A view of Wizard Island in Crater Lake
A view of Wizard Island in Crater Lake

Mount Shasta, California

Mount Shasta is one of the tallest mountains in the Pacific Northwest. It's also visible throughout much of Northern California. The peak rises to an incredible height of 14,179' and is capped by snow throughout the year. It's at the exact point where the Great Basin Desert meets the Cascade Range making the landscape unique.

Mt. Shasta
The snow-covered Mt. Shasta

Pacific Northwest National Parks

So what really makes the PNW special? One of the allures of the Pacific Northwest is its gorgeous national parks. The area is well-known for containing some of the most beautiful, protected wilderness in the country. When people visit Washington or Oregon, they're likely also interested in spending time in Olympic National Park or at Crater Lake National Park.

Check out this complete list of all the National Parks in the Pacific Northwest:

Washington state has three national parks. They are:

North Cascades National Park

Located in northern Washington, the national park is an incredible wilderness, the vast majority of which is inaccessible by road.

A view of Snowfield Peak and the Colonial Glacier deep within North Cascades National Park

The North Cascades Highway (Highway 20) is the most common way that people access the park and is very conveniently located near destinations like Diablo Lake, Ross Lake, and the Maple Pass Trailhead.

Olympic National Park

Located in western Washington, this national park is one of the biggest in the country, stretching to 922,650 acres.

Mt. Stone
A hiker nearing the summit of Mt. Stone in Olympic National Park

It includes an entire mountain range, miles, and miles of coastline, and is the largest wilderness in the continental United States. The park was said to be the home of the famed Tree Octopus, an internet hoax.

Mount Rainier National Park

Located in south-central Washington, this national park is oriented around the inescapable Mount Rainier, which takes up nearly 400 miles.

Mt. Rainier viewed from Tatoosh Wilderness
Mt. Rainier viewed from Tatoosh Wilderness

In the park, you can enjoy waterfalls, miles and miles of hiking trails, and innumerable other smaller mountains.

Oregon only has one national park! It is Crater Lake National Park.

Crater Lake National Park Located in central Oregon, this commonly visited national park is based around the extinct Mount Mazama, which erupted over 7,000 years ago.

Crater Lake in the Snow
Crater Lake in the snow

Today, it's famous for its blue waters, resort, hiking trails, snowshoeing, and more.

Northern California National Park

Northern California has two national parks. They are:

Redwood National Park

This is one of the better-known national parks in the Pacific Northwest. Redwood is in northern California and includes 131,983 acres.

Redwood National Park
Looking up in Redwood National Park

Most visitors come for the coastline and to admire the amazing Redwood trees.

Lassen Volcanic National Park

This is a lesser-known national park that's located just southeast of Redwood National Park.

Lassen Peak
Lassen Peak in the National Park

It's home to the Lassen Volcano and its surrounding lakes and trails. It, too, stretches to over 100,000 acres.


Is the Pacific Northwest tree octopus real?

Unfortuantly, no. The PNW tree octopus is an internet hoax.

Is Pacific Northwest capitalized?

People do different things, but generally, Pacific Northwest is capitalized.

Is Alaska part of the Pacific Northwest?

No, Alaska is not part of the Pacific Northwest. It only extends into southern British Columbia.

Is Montana in the Pacific Northwest?

No, Montana is generally not considered to be in the PNW.

What caused the fires in the Pacific Northwest?

The fires in the Pacific Northwest are caused by different things. Usually, it's either a campfire that's gotten out of control or a lightning strike.

When is whale watching in the Pacific Northwest?

The best whale watching is usually considered to be in the winter in the Pacific Northwest.

How big is the Pacific Northwest?

The region is generally considered to be around 24.7 million acres. It includes 16 national forests, multiple national parks, and hundreds of state parks.

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