The Pacific Northwest region of the United States is known for its stunning natural beauty, vibrant culture, and rich history. Nestled between the Pacific Ocean and the majestic Cascade Mountains, the region boasts a fascinating past that dates back centuries. For a vacation with authenticity, why not explore some of the oldest-founded towns in the Pacific Northwest? While traipsing through national parks and stroll along beaches, visitors will discover interesting tidbits about these towns and cities’ historical significance and contributions to America’s development, while taking in the breathtaking scenery that surrounds these places.
Oregon City, Oregon
Oregon City, situated on the Willamette River, was the first incorporated city west of the Mississippi River. Founded as a hub for the Oregon Trail pioneers in 1844, it became the first capital of the Oregon Territory and a main terminus of the trail.
The historic center of Oregon City lies at the base of Willamette Falls along the eastern bank of the Willamette River. The Clackamas Indians called the area below the falls home for thousands of years where they traded fish and fishing rights with other native tribes.
Oregon City first published the Oregon Spectator in 1846, and in 1915 built the infamous municipal elevator that transports pedestrians from the city center to the residential area built on top of a cliff.
Today, visitors can take in the sights of Oregon City’s historic downtown area or hike in Clackamette Park or Rivercrest Park. The city also hosts the Oregon City Festival of the Arts, which celebrates local artists.
Vancouver sprung up around Fort Vancouver in 1825. The fort was a fur-trading outpost and once served as the center of HBC’s operations. In modern times, visitors can explore the historic site on which the reconstructed fort still stands and delve into the history of the wildly successful fur trade.
There is also Esther Short Park, the oldest public square in Washington, and the scenic views offered by the Columbia River Renaissance Trail. Everything about Vancouver has a historic flavor to it and the city celebrates its rich history with the Clark County Historical Museum, Officers Row District, and Pearson Air Museum.
Named after The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints leader, Franklin D. Richards, and founded by Mormon pioneers in 1860, the town of Franklin in Idaho is a historical and agricultural wonder. The pioneers were of English and Scandinavian heritage, and they made the most of the fertile land in the area, establishing their agricultural community.
When the cold winters and harsh climate took a toll on agricultural activities, the settlers developed new farming techniques to ensure their crops thrived. Other businesses sprang up, including sawmills, blacksmiths, and general stores, all of which boosted the town’s economy.
Franklin is still an agricultural community albeit a bit diminished, and makes an effort to preserve its historic buildings. Being the oldest town in Idaho, Franklin offers something for every traveler, including the Franklin Mill House and several unique ruins.
Walla Walla, Washington
Originally a trading post, Walla Walla became a center for fur trading, agriculture, and mining. It played a pivotal role in the early development of the Pacific Northwest, with its fertile soil attracting settlers after the Lewis and Clark expedition encountered the Walla Walla people near the Walla Walla River.
The gold rush of the early 1860s and the expanding agricultural industry awarded Walla Walla the title of the largest city in Washington Territory by 1880.
In 2023, Walla Walla is a paradise for bird watchers, with over 337 bird species in the region. The birds inhabit the Walla Walla River Delta, McNary National Wildlife Refuge, Fish Hook Park, Rooks Park, Bennington Lake, and more. The McNary Wildlife Refuge lies on the east bank of the Columbia River and is a prime location for waterfowl, beavers, squirrels, mule deer, and otters.
Moreover, visitors can enjoy jet skiing and boating in the sparkling waters of the rivers in the area or biking a variety of trails that offer spectacular views of Walla Walla’s natural beauty.
For the history buffs, there is Fort Walla Walla, the Whitman Mission National Historic Site, and the amazing Museum of Unnatural History.
Established as an agricultural and trading center in 1840, Salem, the capital of Oregon, became the seat of the territorial government in 1951. Salem also played a significant role in the formation of the Oregon Territory.
Salem was once called Chim-i-ki-ti, named so by the Kalapuya people. Later, the town’s name hailed from the Hebrew word “Shalom” which means peace.
The first American settlement was the Jason Lee Methodist Mission, established in Wheatland, north of Salem.
Today, the city provides ample outdoor recreational activities for tourists and locals, including the stunning Minto-Brown Island Park. The park offers hiking and cycling trails, picturesque fishing spots, and evergreen forests.
The Enchanted Forest attraction is a must-see for the entire family with its themed areas and fun rides. There is also the Riverfront Park, located along the Willamette River, with its gorgeous carousel, beautiful pavilion, and an outdoor amphitheater.
Oroville was a bustling mining town during the California Gold Rush. The rush attracted thousands of fortune seekers hoping to find their own personal treasure in the nearby Feather River.
Oroville started out as a gold-mining camp called Ophir City, and after the mining activities died down, it became a gold mine of a different kind, namely citrus fruit, and olive grove farming. The camp got its new name, Oroville, in 1854 when the first post office opened, and the city was officially incorporated in 1906.
The City of Gold brings the charm with its Old West atmosphere and breathtaking landscapes including the Sierra Nevada. Must-see attractions include the Chinese Temple and Museum Complex where visitors can get their Zen on. The Lake Oroville Recreation Area offers picnicking, horseback riding, boating, fishing, and swimming.
For more outdoor fun, there is the North Table Mountain Ecological Reserve which spans 3,300 acres. Across its basalt surface a vernal pool shimmers, and wildflowers thrive. Hunters are welcome here, with deer, quail, and turkey present during the hunting season.
Olympia, the capital of Washington, became a town at the southern end of Puget Sound in 1859 and a city in 1882. It emerged as a center for government, commerce, and transportation, contributing to the region’s development.
However, before the first Europeans explored Olympia in 1792, the Steh-Chass people had inhabited the site for millennia.
In 2023, Olympia is a mid-sized city with all the charms of a small town. Surrounded by the Washington Coast and the Olympic and Mount Rainier National Parks, visitors and locals will never run out of things to do. Several wildlife refuges also call Olympia home, including the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. The Nisqually estuary and river delta lies at the southern end of Puget Sound where the freshwater mixes with saltwater. This creates a nutrient-rich environment that supports a variety of sea life.
Another fun activity includes a trip to the Olympic Flight Museum where vintage warplanes and helicopters rotate in a fascinating exhibit. For those who love learning new things, there is the WET Science Center in the downtown area, which provides interactive games and exhibits.
A day out in Olympia wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Percival Landing Park where a giant carved orca welcomes revelers to the playground and vast picnic areas.
Seattle had humble beginnings as a small lumber town in 1851 which has since transformed into a thriving metropolis. Located on Puget Sound, it became a gateway to the Klondike Gold Rush and was crucial to the area’s economic growth.
The seaport city is the largest in the state of Washington and the entire Pacific Northwest region. Known for excellent coffee and the Space Needle, Seattle offers a smorgasbord of architecture, green spaces, music, and livable neighborhoods.
If wanting to visit Seattle, it is recommended to set aside a minimum of ten days to catch a glimpse of all this wonderful city offers. The Pacific Science Center brings galaxies to life, while the Pacific Northwest Ballet will move attendees to tears with heartrending performances.
The Central Public Library is any bookworm’s dream, while the city’s first skyscraper, Smith Tower, provides 360-degree views of the surrounding landscapes.
And, as Derek Shepherd of Grey’s Anatomy fame might call to mind, there is nothing quite like a ferry boat ride across Puget Sound as the sun sets in the distance!
Port Townsend, Washington
Port Townsend served as a vital seaport and shipping center during the late 19th century, after it was established in 1851. It was once considered a potential contender for the title of the largest city in the Pacific Northwest. The city experienced a boom in the late 1880s and dozens of Victorian buildings and homes saw the light, some of which still stand.
Other than the intricately beautiful architecture, there is much more to admire about Port Townsend. Visitors can have a lazy picnic at Chetzemoka Park or try their hand at fishing in Fort Worden State Park. There are bunkers to explore here too – massive, abandoned structures that would look great on an Instagram reel!
The downtown area offers boutiques and restaurants in Victorian-era buildings as well as art galleries for the creative.
Founded on the banks of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers in 1845, Portland grew rapidly due to its strategic location and transportation connections. Two of the city’s earliest inhabitants flipped a penny to decide its name and several gold rushes ensured a steady flow of immigrants along the infamous Oregon Trail.
Today, it stands as the largest city in Oregon and is a vibrant cultural and economic hub. Portland is home to the wildly popular Voodoo Doughnut store which offers more than 50 different flavors. After trying out as many doughnuts as possible, take some time to walk off the calories in the Portland Art Museum which is one of the oldest galleries in the US.
If you fancy an outing with a difference, you can go rose-sniffing in the International Rose Test Garden, which is the oldest test garden in the US.
For an even greener experience, there is the largest forested area in a city in the US, aptly named Forest Park, situated ten minutes from the downtown area. The park boasts 80 miles of hiking trails overlooking the Willamette River and provides sneak peeks of the abundant wildlife surrounding the trails.
Astoria, located at the mouth of the mighty Columbia River, is the oldest settlement west of the Rockies. Founded by the Pacific Fur Company in 1811, Astoria was once an important trading post during the early times of Western exploration when the fur trade was booming.
After its incorporation by the legislative assembly in 1856, Astoria was officially Oregon’s first town and is its oldest town today.
Astoria is home to around 10,000 residents and boasts several historic sites and museums. A decision was made to name the town after John Jacob Astor, even though the founder of the American Fur Company never set foot here or in the Pacific Northwest region. The stunning town also served as the backdrop for the 1985 film, The Goonies.
Discover the beauty of Astoria by visiting the spellbinding Youngs River Falls and having a scrumptious picnic on its banks. Hike the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park while reflecting on the expedition that gave the park its name before visiting the magnificent Astoria-Megler Bridge, which is still the longest truss bridge in the US.
Before leaving the town limits, spend some time at the Columbia River Maritime Museum which provides a glimpse into the city’s seafaring past.
Bellingham’s location between the Cascade Mountains and the San Juan Islands made it a crucial trading post and transportation center after its incorporation in 1903. The Coast Salish peoples inhabited the coastal areas and islands around Bellingham Bay for thousands of years before the first Europeans reached its shores in 1853.
In 2023, Bellingham is a thriving city known for its picturesque outdoor areas and recreational activities. The downtown district is filled with cafes, historical buildings, and art galleries. If visitors have a good appetite, they will not be hungry for long with all the excellent restaurants and bars in the area. Bellingham’s craft beer scene is on point with 18 breweries to choose from.
It may be a good idea to limit alcohol intake if going to partake in one of the newest activities that are all the rage in Bellingham and the US – axe throwing! In Bellingham’s indoor axe-throwing venue, you get to toss hatchets at wooden targets for points.
For those searching for something a little more relaxing than throwing axes around, take a drive on the Chuckanut Drive Scenic Byway which meanders through lush forests and sparkling bays while hugging the mountainside.
Steilacoom, situated on the shores of Puget Sound, was the first incorporated community in Washington Territory. Founded in 1854, Steilacoom played a big role in the early settlement and served as the territorial capital for a brief period. Before the settlers arrived, around 600 Steilacoom Tribe members inhabited the area, some of whom were present when Peter Puget recorded his tour of southern Puget Sound in 1792.
Steilacoom is home to the first brick building constructed north of the Columbia River, and the first Protestant church building. The Tribal Cultural Center and Museum in the heart of Steilacoom’s downtown area keeps the history of the Indigenous people alive.
Away from the brick-and-mortar buildings, Pioneer Orchard Park offers unmatched views of Puget Sound, while Chambers Creek Regional Park provides two miles of shoreline. For a fun-filled day out, tourists can take the local ferry to Anderson Island to experience true tranquility.
The Pacific Northwest’s oldest-founded towns and cities are a testament to this part of US history and the pioneering spirit of those who settled there. These towns have played an essential role in shaping the cultural, economic, and political landscape of the region. Exploring their origins and contributions offers a glimpse into the past, reminding us of all of the resilience and vision of those who laid the foundations for the flourishing communities that live there today.