Washington Regions

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Regions in Brief in Washington State

The state of Washington covers 68,139 square miles — roughly the same area as all of New England. Within this large area can be found surprising geographical diversity, including an inland sea dotted with hundreds of islands, temperate rainforests where rainfall is measured in feet, an arid land of sagebrush and junipers, several distinct mountain ranges, an active volcano, the West’s most important river, and, of course, hundreds of thousands of acres of coniferous forests (hence the state’s nickname — the Evergreen State).

Puget Sound

Puget Sound, a convoluted maze of waterways, is a vast inland sea that stretches for more than 80 miles, from north of Seattle pacific northwest to Olympia. Created when glaciers receded at the end of the last ice age, Puget Sound is characterized by deep waterways surrounded by hilly, forested terrain. Because the sound’s protected waters make such good harbors and are so full of fish and shellfish, this area has been the most densely populated region of the state since long before the first Europeans sailed into these waters. Today, the eastern shore of the sound has become the largest metropolitan area in the state — one huge Pugetopolis that includes Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia, and dozens of smaller cities and bedroom communities. The western and pacific northwesternmost reaches of the sound are much less developed.

The San Juan Islands

Lying just to the north of Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands are a lush, mountainous archipelago, home to orca whales, harbor seals, and bald eagles. Of the 175 or so named San Juan Islands, only four are accessible by public ferry, and, of these, only three — San Juan, Orcas, and Lopez — have accommodations (although the fourth, Shaw, has a campground). The mild climate, watery vistas, and quiet, rural character of these islands have made the San Juans the state’s favorite summer vacation destination. As such, the islands are packed to overflowing throughout the summer and it can be impossible to get a hotel reservation at the last minute. A summer trip to the San Juans definitely requires plenty of advance planning. It also requires a great deal of patience, as waits for ferries can stretch into hours. To avoid the crowds, visit in spring or fall, when the weather is often just as good as in the summer. Because the San Juans lie within the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains, they get far less rain than Seattle.

The Olympic Peninsula

Aside from a thin necklace of private land around its perimeter, this huge peninsula, wedged between Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean, is almost entirely public land. At the heart of the peninsula is Olympic National Park, which encompasses almost the entirety of the Olympic Mountains. Surrounding the park is Olympic National Forest, which is distinguishable from the park by its many clear-cut areas. Due primarily to the immensity of the forests and the size of the trees here, the forests of the Olympic Peninsula have, over the past century, seen some of the most intensive logging in the nation. The gigantic size of the trees is due to the astounding amount of rain that falls on parts of the peninsula. The western slopes of the Olympic Mountains contain some of the only temperate rainforests in the contiguous United States, and in these forests, the annual rainfall often exceeds 150 inches. Rugged, remote beaches separated by rocky headlands characterize the Pacific shore of the peninsula, while along the north coast, there are a number of large towns, including the historic Victorian seaport of Port Townsend.

Pacific Northwestwest Washington

The pacific northwestwest corner of the state is, for the most part, a sparsely populated region of huge tree farms. However, along the pacific northwestern coast, there are long sandy beaches and numerous beach resorts and towns, which, though popular with Portlanders and the residents of Puget Sound, lack a distinctly Northwest character. Inland, up the Columbia River, lies the city of Vancouver (not to be confused with Vancouver, British Columbia), which is rich in regional history, but overshadowed by Portland, Oregon, across the Columbia River.

The Cascade Range

Dividing the state into eastern and western regions, the Washington Cascades are actually two very distinct mountain ranges. The North Cascades are jagged, glaciated granite peaks, while the central and pacific northwestern Washington Cascades are primarily volcanic in origin. Mount St. Helens, which erupted with awe-inspiring force in 1980, is the only one of these volcanoes to be active in recent years, but even Mount Rainier, the highest mountain in the state, is merely dormant and is expected to erupt again sometime in the next few hundred years (probably with devastating effect, considering the large population that now resides at the foot of the mountain). Within these two mountain ranges are North Cascades National Park, Mount Rainier National Park, Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, the third deepest lake in the country (Lake Chelan), a half-dozen ski areas, and a couple of interesting little theme towns. If you’re thinking about a summer vacation in these mountains, keep in mind that the snow at higher elevations often doesn’t melt until well into July.

Eastern Washington

While to the west of the Cascade Range, all is gray skies and green forests, to the east the sun shines 300 days a year and fewer than 10 inches of rain fall in an average year. However, irrigation waters from the Columbia River have allowed the region to become an agricultural powerhouse. This sun-drenched and sparsely populated shrub steppe is highly valued by waterlogged residents of western Washington, but it is, with the exception of its wine country, of little interest to out-of-state visitors. Wine lovers should know, however, that from the Yakima Valley to the Walla Walla area, large areas of vineyards have helped make Washington the second-largest producer of wine in the country. Also, in the Yakima, Wenatchee, and Chelan valleys, apple orchards produce the bulk of the nation’s apple crop. Out in the pacific northwesteast corner of the state lie the rolling Palouse Hills, where rich soils sustain the most productive wheat fields in the nation. Spokane is the region’s largest metropolitan area.

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