Beautiful and Diverse: The National Parks of the PNW
4 min read
The Pacific Northwest is an incredibly diverse region. Various sources define its boundaries slightly differently, but, for this article, we are going to look at the states of Washington and Oregon and the upper portion of Northern California.
With so much land to explore, it's no surprise there are a wide variety of National Parks to visit throughout the region. From deep forests to volcanoes to beaches along the coast, there are plenty of places to enjoy nature in this part of the country.
The following list will introduce you to some of the most popular National Parks in the Pacific Northwest as well as some gems that you may not have heard of.
Crater Lake National Park
Located in southern Oregon, Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the United States. It formed when the 12,000 foot high Mount Mazama volcano collapsed 7700 years ago. The collapse became a significant event in the mythology of the local Makalak Native Americans, who say that the volcano fought with the sky. The lake is one mile deep and surrounded by sheer cliffs. In winter, the area averages 43 feet of snow, making it one of the snowiest in the entire United States. Crater Lake, the fifth oldest National Park, is a great place for hiking, skygazing at night or at sunrise/sunset, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and playing in the snow. Keep in mind the north entrance and Rim Drive are closed to vehicles in winter.
Mount Rainier National Park
The Pacific Northwest is volcanic country. So, we’ll stick to that theme for a few parks. Mount Rainier is the mightiest of the volcanoes in the Cascade Range, which stretches from Northern California to Canada. Still an active volcano, it is also the most glaciated peak in the lower 48 states. The park is home to 14 glaciers that spawn five major rivers. The snow and ice make it a destination for those training to climb Denali and Everest, but it is also a wonderful place for the casual outdoor explorer. In spring, you will find extensive wildflower meadows that attract thousands of visitors each year. In winter, because many of the park’s roads close to vehicle traffic, you can choose to snowshoe or cross country ski your way around.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
This is our final volcanic-themed park. Located in northeastern California, it was established as a National Park in 1916. The park encompasses the southernmost volcano in the Cascade Range: Lassen Peak, the largest plug dome volcano in the world. It last erupted in 1915. In 2021, the Dixie Fire burned through a massive portion of the backcountry in the park. However, visitors can still visit the section of the park that is accessible by road. You’ll find the park’s volcanic geology on display at Bumpass Hell, a boiling mud pot, and you can enjoy a stunning 360 degree view from the top of Lassen Peak though we recommend this only for the very experienced mountaineer in winter.
North Cascades National Park Complex
This unforgettable park complex (made up of North Cascades National Park and Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas) will take you right up against the Canadian border. The park is full of glaciated peaks (over 300 glaciers total), but, because of the swooping river valleys that characterize the Cascade Range, it also brings visitors lower terrain and a wide array of ecosystems. It is a beautiful place for fishing, boating, biking, backpacking, hiking, horseback riding, and wildlife viewing. The days are unbelievably long in the summer because of how far north the park sits, but they can be short and cold in winter. So, if you want to enjoy this wonderland in winter, come prepared.
Olympic National Park
You will find this park on the Olympic peninsula, which is a wide stretch of land that sits between the Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean. Like North Cascades, this park also represents many ecosystems, in this case, forest, mountain, and coastal. It is both a World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve. Hiking and backpacking are the most common activities in the park, but you can also enjoy fishing, boating, and tidepool exploration. The mountains receive heavy snowfall in winter, but much of the park exists in a temperate zone that experiences mainly rainfall. The coastal area is great place to watch epic storms come in during the winter.
Redwood National and State Parks
Home to the world’s tallest trees, these parks are located along the northern coast of California. The tallest tree, called Hyperion, stretches to a height of 380 feet. You will weave in and out of these parks as you drive Route 101 well north of San Francisco. The drive also offers stunning views of the California coast. Stop and hike along the way, tour a tree-turned-cabin, camp in one of the many campgrounds, and stand in awe at the majesty of the giant trees. Like Olympic National Park, this is a temperate rainforest zone. You should be prepared for rain at all times of year, and it is pretty much guaranteed every day in winter and spring. However, you will not need to contend with snow.
Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area
Though this is technically not a National Park, we didn’t want to leave it off our list because it offers an underpublicized side of the PNW. Extending forty miles along Oregon’s coast, between Florence and Coos Bay, this park has some of the largest sand dunes in the world. They tower almost 500 feet above the shoreline and combine with numerous lakes, forests, and rivers to make this recreation area a truly memorable place. Year-round visitors come from far and wide to picnic, camp, tour the dunes, boat and fish the rivers and lakes, birdwatch, and hunt down mushrooms and berries.
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