When people think of the Pacific Northwest (PNW), they often think of water. Whether that water comes from the consistent rain that creates the lush forests this region is known for, or the Puget Sound, the PNW is a beautiful place to seek water activities and boating. Finding a place to boat in the Pacific Northwest is only tricky if you cannot decide what kind of water you want to explore. Open ocean and coastal bays, inland seas, rivers both lazy and full of whitewater, and large inland lakes are all possibilities in Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia. Boating here is year-round, due to the temperate maritime climate, though the winter months can be rainy, foggy, and windy. Types of boats you can rent on the Pacific Northwest include pontoons, sailboats, speedboats, luxury yachts, and more.
Here is a look at some of the top boating regions, and the kind of activities that they have to offer boaters visiting the Pacific Northwest.
Boating on the Pacific Coast
Ocean lovers, sailors, and circumnavigators all love cruising along the coast here. From the shores of northern California all the way up through British Columbia, you can find great boat rental opportunities on the ocean of the Pacific Northwest.
The waves can be strong here, but there are several bays, ports, and harbors to keep safe during inclement weather, including Gray’s Harbor, Willapa Bay, and Coos Bay, among others. Highlights on the Pacific coast include whale watching tours and fishing. Gray whales are prevalent out here, as are minke whales. Humpbacks are occasional, and if you go far enough out, you may even be lucky enough to see a blue. Deep-sea fishing here can be rewarding as well — salmon, halibut, and rockfish/snapper are among the prized fish that people look to catch. If staying on the coast, the razor clam fishery is a fun and popular diversion in between boating trips. Oysters and kite festivals are frequent draws along many of the coastal towns as well. The coast requires a boat that can handle high winds and swells, and that is equipped with the proper offshore safety gear as prescribed by the coast guard.
Boating in Northern Washington
The Salish Sea is the name for the vast inland sea that begins at the north end of the Olympic Peninsula of Washington and heads inward toward the cities of Olympia and Seattle. It is comprised of several sections, each of which has its own popular boating activities.
Strait of Juan de Fuca
The Strait represents the Northern border of the continental United States, as it sits between Washington and Vancouver Island in Canada. To the north, the city of Victoria is a small, cosmopolitan city with wonderful European influences and top-notch cultural amenities, like high tea at the Empress Hotel (proper attire required). To the south, several tribal reservations and the towns of Port Angeles and Port Townsend (wooden boat capital of the US) offer moorage and a good meal. The Strait is almost as rough as the coast when it comes to waves, but it is also a mecca for halibut fishers, surfers, and windsurfers. As it gets close to Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands, there is more protection, and moorage and shelter opportunities increase.
San Juan Islands
These islands have two particular claims to fame. First, they are considered the sunniest locale in western Washington. Second, they are home to the famed resident orca population of Washington state, which is one of the most friendly and reliable whale watching communities in the world. You must rent a boat or at least book a whale watching tour when exploring the San Juan Islands. Kayak rentals are also popular here too. Getting there requires a boat that can handle the occasional massive wave, as swells up to six feet are standard, and tidal currents can be swift, so plan your path accordingly. Scuba divers with experience diving in cold water will also enjoy the San Juans, as the turquoise water and bright-colored, abundant wildlife is beautiful and diverse. Always pay attention to whale watching rules if you are looking to follow the tour boats.
This inland region is home to the cities of Bellingham, Seattle, Tacoma, and Olympia, and is home to one of the nation’s largest international shipping ports. Puget Sound is diverse and is also the gateway to a number of small, quiet bays and beautiful beaches. Rent a boat to explore Puget Sound when visiting the Pacific Northwest and you’ll get a taste of everything this region is so famous for. Tides and currents can be very extreme here, with a range of 16 or more feet in a single day, so if you lack boating experience, book a captained boat or yacht charter or boat tour.
Whale watching is popular in Puget Sound, and you’ll have a good shot at seeing both resident and migratory species on a whale watching tour. In addition to the whales and porpoises to be seen here, boaters regularly see harbor seals, sea lions, and bald eagles. There is no end to the activities that boaters can enjoy in Puget Sound — fishing, diving, kayaking, sailing are all easy and fun here. The sound is well protected and the wildlife and scenery are beautiful and diverse.
Boating on the Columbia River
The Columbia River marks the boundary between Oregon and Washington. It is the historical site of the first European visit to the west coast and a major international port. Boating on the Columbia is a fun and exciting endeavor. The first leg of the journey brings with it very strong wind, making it ideal for sailors and windsurfers. As the winds calm near Portland, the adjacent region is a wonderful way to explore this island city by boat. Fishing and swimming can be fun here, as the water is calm and warm. As you head inland, sheer bluffs with fossilized trees and sagebrush plateaus replace the towering evergreens, and large dam and lock systems raise boaters into higher elevations. The Columbia connects with the Snake River, which can be a fun side-trip for whitewater enthusiasts. The Hell’s Canyon section of this river is deeper than even the Grand Canyon and well worth a visit.
Lakes Near the Cascades to Go Boating
This region of the Pacific Northwest is often forgotten beside the lush rainforests, inland seas, and snow-capped mountains. However, the dry sagebrush plains of eastern Washington and Oregon comprise a much larger percentage of both states by area. Within these regions, there are some large rivers and a number of lakes, though many of the boating lakes are in fact reservoirs. Swimming, fishing (often stocked), waterskiing, and small boats are plentiful and fun in this region. Several resort towns or famed parks sit on the edge of many of these eastern lakes, including Lake Chelan, Detroit Lakes, and Crater Lake.
Inside Passage to Alaska and Boating
For those heading north to Alaska by boat, this is the sheltered, preferred passage. The Inside Passage starts to the north of the San Juan Islands, and sits to the east of Vancouver Island, off the coast of British Columbia. This area includes the Gulf Islands and continues into southeast Alaska. A boat trip through the Inside Passage can be epic and beautiful, but it requires experience and thorough planning. Your boat must be enclosed enough to protect its passengers from storms, shallow enough to make it through the tighter channels, efficient enough to stretch between fuel stops, and powerful enough to fight currents when needed. Weather makes the summer the appropriate time to make this trip. Additionally, strong tidal currents can stall an engine thoroughly if the wrong side of a channel or island is chosen during a flood tide. Fuel stops are rare and remote, and a good knowledge of a boat’s capabilities is highly recommended. Finally, many marine hazards are not well marked or known here, and boaters must be very cautious. Extreme views and remote wildlife abound, and there is often the ability to feel like the only boat on the water. This passage is, for many, the best boating trip of their lives.
Whether you are a new boater or a lifelong captain, there are many wonderful ways to experience the Pacific Northwest by boat. A trip here makes it easy to see why boating is one of the most enjoyed sports in the region. The best part of boating here is the diversity of the region. Whether you love lakes and rivers, inland seas or the open ocean, small boats, yachts, or sailing, there is an unforgettable boating adventure waiting to be had in the Pacific Northwest.
Venturing to the Pacific Northwest? You can find and rent boats on-the-go with the GetMyBoat app. Download it for free and search through hundreds of options for boat rentals, kayaks, and other water experiences to soak up the beauty of the Pacific Northwest on the water.