Fog shrouds towering evergreens, clouds catch on snowcapped volcanic peaks, and fish-filled rivers roll toward the Pacific. Is this California? Alaska? Somewhere in between? It could be any of those places or all of them, because scenes like this repeat up and down the western edge of North America. They’re the emblems of a bioregion—defined by natural characteristics such as topography and climate, not by borders people draw on maps—that encompasses the West’s coastal ranges as well as the Columbia River’s vast watershed. It even has a name: Cascadia.
Embracing 600,000 square miles of some of the wildest beauty on the continent, Cascadia is united by its rivers and waterfalls, its volcanoes and vast mountain ranges, its wildlife (including bears, orcas, and elk) and its indigenous human cultures. Visiting any one part of it will give you a feel for the entire region. But the more you explore, the more you’ll understand how each spot fits into the greater bioregional whole. The effort will also lead you to see familiar terrain in a new way.
Olympic National Park, Washington
Just a couple of hours from Seattle, you can walk among spruces, firs, and hemlocks in the rain forest of Olympic National Park. “It’s the way things used to look before humans,” says David Banis, a geographer at Portland State University. The loudest sounds come from rushing creeks, crashing waterfalls, and booming grouse.
Some of the best and most popular views pop up along the steep, winding 19-mile drive from the rocky coast at Port Angeles to Hurricane Ridge in the Olympic Mountains; it’s a greatest-hits package of the landscapes that define Cascadia. But the roads here barely penetrate the rain forest, and drivers enjoy only a small taste of the real park. “To really get into the wilderness, you have to power yourself,” Banis says.
The Boulder Creek Trail, in the Elwha Valley near the park’s northern border, leads to natural hot springs. Hikers in the glacier-carved Enchanted Valley, along the Quinault River in the park’s southwestern corner, lose count of the rain-fed waterfalls plunging down rocky cliffs. Colossal forces of nature might have created the park and Cascadia, but along these and Olympic’s other rain forest trails, it’s the stillness that you notice.