copyright Alan A. Lew, 2004, all rights reserved


Pacific Coast Virtual Field Trip

Note: Links marked with an asterisk (*) are optional.




Regional Boundaries

This chapter first discusses the general physical geography characteristics that apply to the entire Pacific Coast region, focusing on the portion west of the Cascades and Sierra Nevada Mountain Ranges. This is followed by a regional discussion of the physical and human geography of all of California and then of the Pacific Northwest, focusing on Oregon and Washington.

The Pacific Coast region comprises California, Oregon, and Washington. The states of Alaska and Hawaii are also closely tied to this region, both socially and economically. However, they are both distinct enough to be treated separately in the next chapter. Subregions of the Pacific Coast are California and the Pacific Northwest. While California is easy to identify, the Pacific Northwest often extends beyond the borders of Oregon and Washington to include northern California, Idaho, western Montana, and British Columbia in Canada.

Physical Geography of the Pacific Coast


The major physiographic features that constitute the Pacific Coast are

The Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Cascade Range

Formation of these mountain systems was discussed in the Mountain West region. For review, the major tectonic force that created them was the subduction of Pacific plates under the North American plate. In the Cascades, which extend well into northern California, this subduction is still taking place*, causing them to be volcanically active. The Sierra Nevada Range was once an intrusive granite batholith deep inside an older mountain system. Subsequent erosion and more recent uplift have resulted in a significant barrier to east-west transportation today. Like the Rocky Mountains, both of these ranges experienced considerable alpine glaciation during the ice ages. Yosemite Valley in California is a giant U-shaped valley cut by a glacier. In Oregon and Washington, smaller, year-round glaciers are still present on upper slopes, providing summer skiing opportunities. (The "Coast Mountains" of BC are a northern extension of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Ranges, but not of the California, Oregon, and Washington "Coast Range." Canada's Coast Mountains are the tallest coastal mountain range in the world.) Peaks in both the Cascades and Sierra Nevadas (and the Coast Mountains) reach 12,000 to 13,000 feet in elevation.

US Geology Map


The Coast Range

The Coast Range extends along the entire Pacific Coast of the US. In Canada, it becomes Vancouver Island and then largely disappears, except for a few islands farther northward toward Alaska. Baja California is the southern extension of the Coast Range feature into Mexico. As discussed in the Mountain West chapter, the rapid westward movement of North America caused subduction- created mountains to occur farther inland from the coast in North America than in South America, where the major mountain chains are located right on the coast. This allowed a small strip of the continental shelf to extend west of the mountains. The Coast Range was created by crumpling along this forward edge of the continental shelf. With the exception of the San Gabriel Mountains (surrounding Los Angeles), the Siskiyou and Klamath Mountains (in southern Oregon), and the Olympic Mountains (in northern Washington), all of which are tall intrusive granite masses, most of the Coast Range peaks are under 6,000 feet high.

The Pacific Ring of Fire and San Andreas Fault

The Pacific Coast of the US is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire: a circle of volcanic and earthquake activity that surrounds the Pacific Ocean. Volcanic activity caused by subduction still occurs in Oregon, Washington, Alaska, and northern California. However, in most of California, the North American and Pacific plates are not subducting but, rather, are sliding against one another. This is known as a "strike-slip," "transverse," or "lateral" fault line. California's San Andreas Fault is the most famous of thousands of cracks and fissures along the western edge of North America. Los Angeles, which is on the Pacific side of the fault line, is gradually moving northward, while San Francisco, on the North America side, is either stationary or slowly moving southward. The major line of faulting between the plates leaves the coast north of San Francisco. The entire San Andreas Fault zone has the potential for devastating earthquakes. The 1989 San Francisco earthquake measured 7.1 on the Richter Scale and will likely be the most expensive natural disaster to ever occur in the US. (The projected "big one" for San Francisco is expected to be 10 to 30 times as devastating as the 1989 quake.)

Lateral Fault and Slip Faults

Pacific Ring of Fire & World Tectonic Plates Map


Physiography and Plate Edges Map


San Andreas Fault in San Francisco Bay - 3D X-ray Image


California Earthquakes Map - example of a typical week of earthquakes


The Inland Valleys

Between the Coast Range and the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Ranges are the inland valleys of California, Oregon, and Washington. As the high inland ranges rose upward, the areas to their immediate west were tilted down to create these structural valleys. The Gulf of California in Mexico and the Strait of Georgia (between Vancouver Island and the mainland) in BC are the southern and northern extensions of this depression. In California, this valley is known as the Central Valley, with the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys forming its southern and northern portions, respectively. In Oregon, it is the Willamette Valley, and, in Washington, it forms the Puget Sound lowland. Because of the Coast Range rainshadow, these valleys receive as little as one-half of the precipitation levels on the coast. All three, however, are major agricultural areas.

US Rice Production Map - 1998 - Rice is a major crop in the California's Central Valley


US Grass Cover Map - note California's Central Valley, the Columbia Plateau & the Colorado Plateau


Climate: Major Air Patterns

In the Eastern US, the climatic patterns are primarily influenced by continental cold polar air masses from the north and warm and humid tropical air from the Gulf of Mexico. While there is a similar transition from northern cold to southern warmth in the Pacific Coast region, the dominant air system influencing this area is the west-to-east flow of air coming off the north Pacific Ocean.

US Precipitation by County Map - 1998

Mediterranean Climate

The Mediterranean climate area of the Pacific Coast is situated west of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Ranges and, depending on the map one is looking at, may extend from southern California to as far north as Washington. The Mediterranean climate type is comparatively rare throughout the world and is characterized by wet winters and warm, dry summers. While Oregon's and Washington's summers are not entirely dry, they are much more so than their winters. The Pacific Mediterranean summer is created by the Pacific High (pressure system), which moves northward in the summer months. This pushes the low pressure Pacific frontal storms northward into Canada. The Pacific High dominates most of the Pacific Coast of the US, bringing warm, dry weather. In the winter, the Pacific High moves south, allowing the north Pacific low pressure storms to migrate southward, bringing winter rain, snow, and cold to California.

North American Air Masses


Maritime Influences

Much of the US is affected by continental climatic patterns caused by the summer warming and winter cooling of the continent. Because wind patterns over the US primarily move from west to east (southeastern summers being the only regular exception), the Pacific Coast of the US is seldom affected by this continentality. Coastal snows are very rare, even into British Columbia, because of the maritime influence of the relatively warm oceans. Along the entire coastline, temperature changes are moderate and mild, with summer highs only a few degrees greater than winter lows. This maritime influence extends inland to the valleys but disappears at the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Ranges. Heavy winter snows are the norm on the upper slopes of these high mountain systems.

Ocean Currents Map


The California Current

In the north Atlantic Ocean, the currents circle in a clockwise direction, creating the Gulf Stream. Similarly, the north Pacific currents circle clockwise. Warm, tropical waters rise up the coast of Asia to Japan, then cross to the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, where they become very cold before plunging down the Pacific Coast of the US as the California Current. This cold water provides the humidity for the north Pacific low pressure storms. As with the Labrador Current in New England, it also provides a rich source of oxygen for fishing, an important industry in the Pacific Northwest. Farther south in California, the cold California Current waters come into contact with warm and dry (high pressure) air, resulting in frequent fog. Some areas in southernmost California (and in Baja California in Mexico) receive more precipitation from fog than from rain.

Orographic Rainshadow Effect

(The rainshadow effect was already discussed in the Mountain West chapter. Some additional comments are made here.) When air rises up a mountainside and cools, causing condensation, clouds, and precipitation, the process is known as "orographic uplift." This happens to Pacific air masses twice as they cross the Pacific Coast region. The first time is on the low Coast Range. Evaporation occurs on the east side of the Coast Range, causing a slight rainshadow in the inland valleys. Orographic uplift occurs again on the west slopes of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Mountain Ranges. Most of the year-round water sources of the Pacific Coast region are fed by winter precipitation on these high mountain ranges.



The state of California is diverse in the extreme. It contains the continent's lowest point, in Death Valley (282 feet below sea level), and the highest point in the 48 contiguous states (Mt. Whitney at 14,494 feet). Its desert areas are part of the Basin and Range Province and are among the hottest and driest in the US, yet the northern coast receives up to 200 inches of rain a year. It is the most populous state in the US (over 31.4 million in 1994) and the most urbanized (over 93%). Over half of the people living in California were born somewhere else (compared with about one-third for most of the rest of the US). Ethnically, 26 percent of the state's residents are Hispanic, 7.4 percent are Black, and 11.6 percent are Asian (1996 figures). Only Asian and Hispanic are higher than for the US overall.

Population per Square mile in the West - 1995 Map



California is the most economically productive state in the US. Despite its high level of urbanization, it also maintains the highest agricultural value output of any state and leads in the US production of asbestos, boron, tungsten, and gypsum. It is also a major producer of oil (ranking fourth) and natural gas. The state is a leader in aerospace and electronics industries and supports three of the top research universities in the country (Stanford, UC Berkeley, and UCLA). The city of San Francisco also serves as the traditional financial center for the West, as New York does for the Eastern US.

USDA Crop Maps* - most recent US government data

California's Physiography

As previously discussed, the heavily faulted Coast Range, the Central Valley, and the Sierra Nevada Mountains form the three major physiographic regions of California. In addition to these, however, are several other distinct regions which fall within the political boundaries of the state. Northernmost California is dominated mostly by a mountainous plateau area which forms the southern extension of the Cascade Range. Mount Lassen and Mount Shasta are the most prominent of the volcanic Cascades in California, but several others also exist. The arid Mojave Desert in southeastern California is part of the Basin and Range Province, discussed in the Mountain West chapter. The vegetation here is comprised of steppe grasslands and shrub deserts.

Salton Sea and the Imperial Valley

California's Imperial Valley is the northernmost extension of the Gulf of California depressions. As such it is part of the Pacific Coast inland valley system. It also borders on the Basin and Range physiographic province of the Mountain West region with which it shares a similar climate. It is also possibly the richest agricultural valley in the US due to its year-round sunshine, rich soils, and availability of irrigated water from the Colorado River. The Salton Sea is arguably the largest man-made feature on the earth's surface -- and interestingly it was created by accident! In 1900 there was no Salton Sea. It was created when an accident occurred in the construction of the Imperial/All-American Canal in 1906 which resulted in the entire Colorado River draining into the Imperial Valley for several months. The resulting Salton Sea is about 15 miles wide and 35 miles long (though it has been larger in the past) and about 230 feet below sea level. It has become a popular fishing lake and attracts many hundreds of different bird species, having replaced other California wetlands that have been lost to development. It maintains its size through some 300,000 acre-feet of irrigation water a year from the Colorado River, which is scheduled to end in 2002. What will happen then is uncertain.

Salton Sea History Site*

Salton Sea International Bird Festival*

Save the Salton Sea*

A Brief History of California

The US government's original plan for settlement of the West was to divide it into squares, aligned with the US Public Land Survey lines. Each square state would be based on a single major metropolitan center. This plan developed fairly smoothly for most states: Colorado was centered on Denver, New Mexico on Albuquerque, Utah on Salt Lake City, Arizona on Phoenix, Washington on Seattle, and Oregon on Portland. Unlike the other states, however, California has two major urban centers: Los Angeles and San Francisco. (Nevada's triangular shape developed in response to the shape of California.)

The reason for California's being different lies in the state's history, much of which parallels that of Texas. Several hundred Americans began settling in California starting in the 1840s (a couple of decades later than Texas). In response to their requests, the US government offered to purchase California from the Mexican government but was rebuffed. In 1846, war broke out between the US and Mexico over Texas. Before the news reached California, the Americans there declared their independence from Mexico, and established the Republic of California. The republic did not last very long for a month later (July 1846) the US military claimed California and began an easy defeat of Mexican forces. California was officially transferred to the US by Mexico in the 1848 Treaty of Guadeloupe Hildago. Because California has historically been treated as a distinct entity, even an independent republic for almost a month, it was able to maintain its identity, which eventually came to include the two major urban centers of Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Los Angeles


The Los Angeles Basin is surrounded on its inland sides by high mountains, associated with the San Andreas, San Gabriel, and numerous other faults. Unlike many other large American cities, most of the growth in this arid location occurred in the twentieth century. Up until World War I, the Los Angeles Basin was primarily a large agricultural area. After World War II, Los Angeles boomed into a major urban area. Today, Los Angeles is the second largest metropolitan area in the US, with almost 13 million people, and another 2 million extending down the coast to San Diego. Within the Los Angeles Basin itself, there are 14 cities with populations of 100,000 or more, the largest of which are Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Reasons for Growth

Most of the traditional explanations for urban growth do not fit the Los Angeles situation very well. Natural resources for heavy industry (such as coal and iron ore) are virtually nonexistent. The port at Long Beach, while important today because of the large population, was neither an outstanding site nor an important break-in-bulk point for inland access. Financial activities in the West have always been based in San Francisco, not Los Angeles. Many miscellaneous reasons have been proposed for the area's dynamic growth, including

1. the importance of irrigated agriculture in the early years,
2. the discovery of oil, both on and off shore,
3. the prominence that the Hollywood movie studios brought the area,
4. the mild Mediterranean climate, and
5. the aerospace industry.

None of these is very satisfactory in and of itself, although they probably all contributed to bringing people to Los Angeles.

The Aerospace Industry

The strongest reason for the post-World War II population growth probably has to do with a large influx of federal and private dollars into the aerospace industry of Los Angeles. California receives 20% to 25% of Department of Defense spending and 50 percent of all NASA spending. Los Angeles was the leading center in the nation for aircraft manufacturing, most of which are for military purposes. In the 1980s, a third of all manufacturing employees in the city and one in 10 persons in the entire labor force was employed in jobs related to the aerospace industry. These percentages have declined considerably in the 1990s. By the mid-1990s, the entertainment industry surpassed aerospace as the leading employer in the Los Angeles region.

Los Angeles and the Automobile

The period of urban growth in Los Angeles coincided with the era that automobiles were first coming into use. They were introduced after World War I and became an indispensable part of American life after World War II. Automobiles changed the pattern of urban development, by allowing greater access to locations outside the urban core areas. Leapfrog suburban developments and strip commercial development distinguished the new expansive city from the older urban cores. Almost all of the Los Angeles Basin came to be comprised of this expansive form of city development. Today, Los Angeles has more cars per capita than any other city or region in the US. It has one of the weakest public transit systems of any major American city (along with Phoenix, Arizona). Over one-half of the land area in central Los Angeles is devoted to roads and parking (which is not uncommon in western US cities).

Downtown Cores in the Los Angeles Basin

Downtown Los Angeles is a major center for business and retailing, with tall buildings and crowded streets. However, within the Los Angeles Basin, downtown Los Angeles is only the largest among several downtown areas. Each of these downtowns is the center for a different city. Divisions between the cities, however, are unclear, as the entire land area between them has been filled in with development. Because of this, residents do not necessarily hold allegiance to the downtown of their home community.

Temperature Inversions and LA Smog

Normally, a rise in elevation is accompanied by a fall in temperature. This phenomenon fosters the movement of hot gasses from the surface of the earth into higher altitudes to be dissipated. Los Angeles, however, frequently experiences a temperature inversion. This occurs when higher elevations are warmer than lower elevations. Hot gasses then become trapped under the inversion and cannot dissipate. Temperature inversions in the Los Angeles Basin are common and natural, caused by air particles being warmed by the sun but at the same time being trapped in the LA basin by the mountains and onshore winds. These winds are able to cool the lower surface air but leaves the upper air warm. Even the early Native Americans of the area had pollution problems, caused by their campfires. Today, however, automobiles are the primary source of air pollution in the Los Angeles Basin.

Temperature Inversion Diagram


The Los Angeles Basin has a fog-fed steppe climate. Rainfall is highly unpredictable, ranging between 10 and 40 inches a year. It has been said that Los Angeles is the largest city ever built in a desert. Most of the water for the cities in the Los Angeles Basin come from the Sierra Nevada Mountains via elaborate systems of viaducts and canals down the now arid Owens Valley on the east side of the range and the Central Valley on the west. Water is a major political issue dividing northern and southern Californians, which leads to periodic calls from the north to create two separate states.


Los Angeles has long had a reputation as a place for free spirits, avant garde behavior, and fads. It is also a place where large numbers of people have ventured to start a new life. These include both Americans who arrived several generations ago and new citizens arriving daily. Seven million people live in Los Angeles County (basically, Los Angeles and Long Beach). Over half are of recent immigrant ancestry. The approximate breakdowns (1980) are

Ancestry Approx. Population
Mexican 2.1 million
Guatemalan 200,000
El Salvadoran 200,000
Iranian 200,000
Armenian 175,000
Japanese 175,000
Korean 150,000
Chinese 150,000
Filipino 150,000
Arab 130,000

There are also more Native Americans in Los Angeles than in any other city in the US. It is estimated that there are 104 languages spoken on a daily basis in Los Angeles County. Spanish is a major second language, and Los Angeles outshines even Miami as the premier Hispanic city in the US.

Hispanic Distribution Map (1990)

San Francisco

The Gold Rush

The San Francisco Bay area marked the northern extent of Spain's interests in North America. In addition to being the year that California became part of the US, 1848 was the year that gold was discovered in the Sierra Nevadas above Sacramento. San Francisco soon became the largest city on the Pacific Coast, a position it held until 1920. Its early growth to prominence was because most of the '49er gold prospectors, and others after the prospectors' wealth, arrived in California by ship through San Francisco Bay, after sailing around South America.

Site and Situation

The site and situation characteristics of San Francisco Bay more clearly explain the area's urban growth than in the case of Los Angeles. San Francisco Bay is one of the finest natural, deep water harbors in the world. Although Oakland's port facilities are today more important than those of San Francisco, the entire Bay Area ranks as the most important port on the Pacific Coast.

San Francisco Bay is ideally situated for access to the agricultural hinterlands of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys. These are among the richest agricultural regions in the entire US. In addition, the first transcontinental rail line from St. Louis to Sacramento, completed in 1869, was soon extended all the way to San Francisco Bay. In addition, the Bay Area has historically had very strong economic connections to Asia.

San Francisco Today

Due to its historic architecture, mild year-round climate, dramatic topography, and scenic vistas of the Bay and ocean, San Francisco is one of the most popular cities in the US. It is still the financial center of the Pacific Coast, although competition from other cities continues to rise. With the largest Chinatown outside of Asia, it has become a favorite destination for Asian immigrants and investments. The latter have pushed real estate prices to among the highest in the country.


Around the Bay

San Francisco comprises only about 700,000 of the 5.7 million people living around the bay. Oakland is a working-class city situated next to the university city of Berkeley, on the east side of the bay. Most of the industrial activity in the Bay Area, as well as the renowned Silicon Valley computer center and Stanford University, is located in the south bay, toward the city of San Jose. North of San Francisco is Marin County, where high-income elites and counterculture lifestyles are scattered among smaller communities in this mountainous area.

The Pacific Northwest


Identifying the Region

The Pacific Northwest always includes Oregon and Washington. Idaho is frequently included, as well. Occasionally, western Montana, British Columbia, northern California, and Alaska are also included. Related terms include the "North Pacific Coast" (the western portions of northern California, Oregon, Washington, British Colombia, and southern Alaska), and "Ecotopia." Ecotopia is a term coined by Ernest Callenbach in his 1975 novel about the secession of northern California, Oregon, and Washington from the US to form a new, counterculture country based on ecological and egalitarian values. The discussion of the Pacific Northwest (PNW) in this section will focus primarily on Oregon and Washington.

Physical Geography

The major physiographic regions of the Coast Range, the Willamette Valley, and Puget Sound lowland, and the volcanic Cascades have already been discussed in this chapter. The Cascades are still active volcanoes because the small Juan de Fuca plate (which is separate from the Pacific Ocean plate) is still subducting under northern California, Oregon, and Washington. Only Mount St. Helens (1980) in Washington and Mt. Lassen in California (1914-21) have erupted in recorded history. However, most of the others rumble periodically. Anomalies within the Coast Range include the over 6,000-feet-high Klamath Mountains, an ancient granite batholith separating Oregon from California, and the almost 8,000-feet-high Olympic Mountains located on the Olympic Peninsula between the Puget Sound and Pacific Ocean. The Puget Sound was formed by glaciers cutting deep into the lowlands between the Olympic and Cascade Mountains in Washington.

Visit the Cascades Volcanoes* - USGS website


Volcanic Peaks in the West

Active Volcanoes around the Globe* - the link to Mount St. Helens shows a series of photos leading to the 1980 eruption.


The Columbia Plateau

Located in the rainshadow east of the Cascades is the high and arid Columbia Plateau, which was briefly discussed in the Mountain West chapter. The boundaries of the Columbia Plateau are the Cascade Mountains to the west, the Bitterroot Mountains and Snake River Valley in Idaho, the Blue Mountains in Oregon, and the Rocky Mountains in southern BC to the north. Much of the area that constitutes the plateau was created when giant fissures opened up and poured forth 200-feet-thick lava flows, which today create a 50,000-square-mile area of old lava several thousand feet thick. Additional volcanic debris, blown from the Cascades, adds the accumulated material forming the plateau. Except for Hawaii, no other state has more of its land area composed of volcanic material than the states of Oregon and Washington.

Columbia Plateau & Cascade Range Map

Columbia Plateau Features Map


The Columbia River Basin

The Columbia River Basin*, also known as the "Inland Empire," lies in eastern Washington at the center of the Columbia Plateau. Along with the "Great Sandy Desert" in southeastern Oregon, it is the driest area in the entire PNW (less than 10 inches of rain a year). The Columbia River flows out of British Columbia and through the basin before it turns west to form the boundary between Washington and Oregon. It is an important source for agricultural development in eastern Washington and Oregon. Its major tributaries are the Snake River from Idaho and the Hood and Willamette Rivers, which drain the east and west sides of Oregon's Cascades, respectively. The Hells Canyon portion of the Snake River, located between Oregon and Idaho, is actually deeper than the Grand Canyon. However, its more homogeneous material (old lava flows) makes it a more uniform, V-shaped canyon. Further downstream, the Columbia River Gorge forms a deep and spectacular boundary between Oregon and Washington.

Marine West Coast Climate

The north Pacific low pressure storm track migrates up and down the coast from summer to winter and back to summer. As one moves farther north, however, the Mediterranean climate pattern is less pronounced. Oregon and Washington experience relatively high precipitation throughout the year, because, even though the storms have moved north (and out of California), they are close enough to occasionally slip down into Oregon, and more frequently into Washington, during the summer months. The coastal climate of Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and southern Alaska is known as a "marine west coast" climate. It is characterized by high, year-round precipitation. The transition between the clearly Mediterranean climate of California and marine west coast climate occurs somewhere between northern California and southern Washington.

US Precipitation Map


The coasts of Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and southern Alaska receive the heaviest precipitation (rain, snow, hail, etc.) in all of North America. Most areas average over 75 inches a year. The Olympic Peninsula receives up to 200 inches a year and has high latitude rain forests within its humid valleys. The source of this humidity is the low pressure storm track over the northern Pacific Ocean. These storms flow one after another in the winter months, bringing heavy winds to coastal locations and almost constant cloud cover to the inland valleys. Snow, however, is rare on the coast and in the valleys because of the maritime influence of the ocean. This pattern is similar to that of northern Europe, though storms are sometimes more intense. More pleasant weather returns as the entire system moves northward in the summer.

PNW Isolation

The Pacific Northwest shares with New England and Appalachia the characteristic of being in the shadow of the major economic activities of the country. It contains less than 3 percent of the population of the US (Washington = 4.5 million; Oregon = 2.7 million) and is over 2,000 miles from most of the major market areas of the country. Transportation costs, therefore, make products from the PNW more costly to market.

Early Native American Societies: Coast Indians

The pre-Columbian Indian peoples of the Pacific Northwest consisted of two major cultural and lifestyle traditions, reflecting the two major ecosystems of the region. Coast Indians resided on the wet western side of the mountains ranges, from northern California to southeastern Alaska. This was an environment with a rich and plentiful supply of food, which allowed a relatively dense network of prosperous and complex communities to develop. Two features that are most closely associated with these societies are the totem pole and the potlatch feast. In the potlatch, the greater the quality and quantity of foods and gifts that can be given away, the higher the giver's prestige and rank in a community. Guests of a potlatch were expected to reciprocate with their own potlatch. In the nineteenth century, the potlatch was sometime used to bankrupt one's enemies. Another difference between the Coast Indians and native peoples in many other parts of the American West was that their tribal organizations served more as a social organization, rather than kin relationships, reflecting their comparatively higher densities. Some of the major Coast Indian tribes include the Coos, Umpqua, Siuslaw, Tillamook, Clatsop, and Snoqualmie.


Plateau Indians

The Columbia Plateau Indian tribes were (and are) primarily the Nez Peirce, Yakima, Klamath, Columbia, Kalispel, Wenatchee, and Flathead. Due to the more difficult environment on the dry eastern side of the Cascade Mountain Range, native population densities were much lower. (This pattern exists with nonnative peoples in the Pacific Northwest to this day.) Plateau Indians settled primarily along rivers and lived a lifestyle more akin to plains Indians, including the rapid adoption of the horse once it was introduced by the Spanish.

The Oregon Controversy

Captain James Cook of England reached the north Pacific Coast (Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia) in 1779, after sailing across the Pacific and visiting Hawaii en route. George Vancouver, also sailing for England, explored Puget Sound in 1792, and in 1811 the American Fur Company established the first permanent European settlement in the Pacific Northwest at Astoria, Oregon (named after the company's founder, John Astor). In addition to the fur trade, Astoria was an important whaling center at this time. Both England and the new United States claimed the Oregon Territory, and the "Oregon Controversy" was a major presidential campaign issue in 1844, under the popular slogan "Fifty-Four Forty or Fight." In 1846, however, the US signed a treaty accepting a boundary line with Canada at 49 degrees north latitude, some 5 degrees south of the desired 54 degrees 40 minutes.

The Oregon Trail

The Oregon Trail was the primary means of access to the Pacific Northwest from 1842 to the 1870s. At that time, it took six months to make the 2,000-mile migration from the Mississippi River into the Willamette Valley and Puget Sound lowland. Railroads were finally introduced in the 1880s, replacing the old overland trail route.

Mormon Trail, Oregon Trail, and California Trail Map


PNW Economy

Although important high-tech and aerospace industries can be found in the Portland and Seattle metropolitan areas, most of the economy of the Pacific Northwest is dominated by primary industries. Dependence on fishing, agriculture, and lumber makes the economy sensitive to price fluctuations for these commodities. Boom-and-bust cycles plague many rural communities throughout the region.

Salmon Fishing

As with New England, whaling was once a major basis of the PNW economy. Whaling ended decades ago due to overfishing and international restrictions. Salmon, however, were and still are very important. Salmon are an anadromous fish. They are spawned and born in fresh water streams and rivers but live most of their adult lives in the saltwater Pacific Ocean. Large dams (blocking upstream spawning), overfishing, and the destruction of streams by lumber activities, grazing and farming, and urbanization have all contributed to the destruction of the cold headwaters and coastal estuaries where the wild salmon live for the first two years of their lives. In Oregon, an estimated 1.4 million chi salmon migrated upstream in 1900, but only about 21,000 did so in 1990. The decline has been so precipitous in recent years that, in 1994, all coho fishing was banned on the West Coast of the US. Most of the salmon caught today come from British Columbia and Alaska, while fish farms in Norway and Chile are major sources for US supermarkets. In 1995, the wild coho salmon (already extinct in California's waters) was proposed for listing as a threatened species.

Coastal Tourism

Tourism has become a major supplement to fishing on the Oregon and Washington coast. In Oregon, the coast is the best known and most frequently visited attraction in the state. Most out-of-state visitors come in the summer months for beachcombing, sports fishing, and dune buggy riding. Oregonians themselves, however, are also drawn to the coast in the winter to watch the high waves and violent winds brought by storms moving in across the ocean.


Washington, Oregon, and northern California produce over half of all the lumber in the US. Although the rich forests of the PNW have been a major asset since the early European settlement of the area, their importance to the rest of the country has been only relatively recent, after adequate transportation connections were developed between the PNW and the major population centers of the US. Douglas fir is the most important lumber tree west of the Cascades, while ponderosa pine and other evergreens predominate to the east. Major controversies surround the lumber industry in the PNW as environmental groups fight to preserve the redwoods in northern California and old-growth Douglas fir in Oregon from clear cutting and insecticide spraying.


Agriculture in Oregon's Willamette Valley and Washington's Puget Sound lowland is less productive than that in the central valley of California because of the higher humidity and precipitation in the PNW. The dominant crops are "grass seeds." Grains, such as wheat and oats, are grown, but the high humidity makes them unsuitable for consumption. Instead, the seeds are sold to drier areas of the US (and world) for planting. The Willamette Valley is the most important grass seed growing area in the US. Washington's famous apple-growing region is located on the east slopes of the Cascades, where the orchards receive plenty of warmth and sunshine, plus irrigated runoff from the snowcapped mountains. The soils that formed on top of the old lava flows of eastern Oregon and Washington are very rich. These soils, combined with major Columbia River irrigation projects, particularly in the "Inland Empire," make eastern Washington and Oregon important wheat-producing areas.

Hydroelectric Energy

The high precipitation, both rainfall and snowfall in the Cascades, results in large volumes of water flowing through the PNW. Much of this water is managed in a complex network of dams. For most dams, the primary objective is flood control, which was a major problem in the western grass seed valleys in the past. Hydroelectric power generation is a major secondary purpose. The PNW contains 40% of the hydroelectric potential of the US. The Columbia River, as it drops over 1,000 feet from the Canadian border to the Pacific, provides the main source of hydroelectric power in the PNW. Fourteen dams, the largest being Grand Coulee, are situated on the Columbia River. They are managed by the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), a federal agency. Inexpensive hydroelectric power has attracted some industries -- most noticeably, aluminum smelting, which requires large amounts of electricity.

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