Western USA Overview

Western USA Tours

Western USA

Why Visit

The Pacific Northwest presents a unique combination of nature just outside the backdoor of some of America’s most inviting cities. In this remarkable region you might look for resident orca pods in the calm waters of the San Juan Islands or marvel at more waterfalls than you’ve ever seen on a Columbia River cruise. In Seattle, you can enjoy world-class wine at an organic small-plate café.

Discover hundreds of islands in the coastal waters between mainland Washington and Vancouver Island. These islands draw visitors with their tranquil forests and serene waters. Ferries, private boats, kayaks, and orcas fill the waters, while float planes and bald eagles fly overhead. You’re likely to find the San Juans to be the loveliest of these islands. A San Juan Islands cruise gives visitors an all-access pass to view orca, dive in the rich waters of Puget Sound, learn about the area’s Native American cultures, and photograph spectacular scenery and wildlife.

A Snake and Columbia River cruise is a magnificent way to experience wild America, just like explorers Lewis and Clark. Float through the Snake River’s Hell’s Canyon—the deepest gorge in North America. Voyage through a series of eight locks on the two rivers, with a change in elevation of over 700 feet—nearly 10 times that of the Panama Canal. From whitewater rafting to hiking, bird watching, windsurfing and more, the Columbia River Gorge is a year-round paradise for outdoor enthusiasts of all levels. It’s also home to more than 50 vineyards and 30 wineries. Along the way, visit the castle-like Maryhill Museum of Art in Goldendale, Washington. End your tour with a visit to charming Astoria, Oregon, the oldest American settlement west of the Rockies.

Seattle offers visitors vibrant city life—a lively music scene, world-class wine and delicious cuisine—nestled among pristine waterways, two mountain ranges and three national parks. To the west lies the only temperate rainforest in the continental U.S. To the east, a world-class wine region where dozens of wineries await your touring and tasting.

Discover the outdoor playground of the Pacific Northwest! Get away from it all while experiencing some of nature’s most spectacular wonders and America’s most alluring communities.

History

The coastal waters of the Pacific Northwest contain hundreds of islands. Some are little more than sandbars, others rise 3,000 feet. Among these are the 700 islands of the San Juan Archipelago. Over 170 of the San Juan Islands are named—the three largest being Orcas, San Juan, and Lopez. Sixty are populated, but many only have a house or two. Ten of the islands are state marine parks—some only accessible by kayakers navigating the Cascadia Marine Trail. Ferries, planes and private boats facilitate travel to San Juan Islands for tourists and residents alike.

Lying in the rain shadow of the Olympia Mountains, the region enjoys a moderate and dry climate, receiving only about 29 inches of rain each year. Historically, Native Americans favored the islands for this climate, along with the safe harbors and abundance of resources found here.

Island wildlife includes three longtime resident pods of about 75 to 95 orcas each. Red fox, black-tailed deer, stellar sea lions, seals and humpback, gray and minke whales also live here. More than 300 species of birds have been recorded, including the highest concentration of bald eagles in Washington. Birders come to catch a glimpse of cormorants, harlequin ducks, trumpeter swans, oyster catchers, and the brilliant orange Rufous hummingbird, to name a few.

The area’s clear waters are a diver’s paradise, with good visibility and a wonderland of marine sights—anemone, sea cucumbers, colorful invertebrates, pectin scallops, abalone, wolf eel, spiny sea stars and the remarkable sunflower starfish (which can grow up to two feet across with more than 20 arms). Jacques Cousteau remarked that the Salish Sea was his second favorite place in the world to dive.

Francisco Eliza of Spain first explored and named the San Juan Islands in 1790, but they were claimed by Britain and occupied by the Hudson Bay Company after George Vancouver visited them in 1792. Later, British and American forces simultaneously occupied San Juan Island for more than 12 years during the Pig War (1859-1872). This bloodless standoff began when a British pig unknowingly invaded an American potato patch and was shot for its infraction. After a third party—Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany—settled the dispute, the islands officially became part of the United States. San Juan Island National Historic Park today is divided into English and American camps to commemorate this period.

The Pacific Northwest also played a role in American history as the famous destination of explorers Lewis and Clark on their Corps of Discovery expedition. The pair set off down the Missouri River in May 1804. Eventually they reached the Snake River and followed it via canoe to reach the mouth of the Columbia River in October 1805. The party navigated the whitewater, wind and weather of the Columbia before reaching their ultimate goal—the Pacific Ocean—in November of the same year. In total, their extraordinary journey would take two and a half years, covering 8,000 miles through uncharted wilderness by foot, horseback, canoe and boat. Columbia River cruises offer modern-day travelers a chance to retrace some of the steps of these famous adventurers.

Photos: © WOLFGANG KAEHLER