A northern winter is a fine thing—it marks the passage of time, clears out the cobwebs, and gives you a chance to investigate the limits of that new parka. But if you live in the snow belt, and you want to keep right on hiking, biking, fishing, and paddling throughout the winter months, look to the northwest. Just be prepared for a little rain.
If you don't mind the vagaries of cool, wet weather, head for the Pacific Northwest. At the lower elevations (below about 2,000 feet), rain is much more likely than snow, and the locals don't let it keep them indoors.
January, February, and March are the prime eagle-viewing months on the Skagit River in Washington. The best way to see these solitude-loving birds is to take a guided rafting trip down the river on an easy-to-come-by cloudy day. On sunny days, the eagles are only silhouettes high in the sky. You'll see bald eagles in their nests at the tops of Douglas fir snags. If you're lucky, you may see one tearing at a spent salmon carcass at the edge of the river. (Unguided rafting is prohibited, to protect the eagles' nesting area.) The trip down the Skagit is relatively sedate, and takes about half a day, all told. Bring your binoculars.
The winter months are also a good time to view wildlife in the southwest part of Washington State. Along the lower Columbia River you'll see raptors, eagles, elk and deer, and Canada geese beyond counting. The Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge is a Pacific Flyway magnet stop: Watch for tundra swans December through March, as well as all the more common waterfowl and, of course, bald eagles.
And the reason that bald eagles are so plentiful in the Northwest this time of year? Well, it's the fishing, of course. This is the time of year for salmon, trout, and steelhead on the Upper Skagit (January to March), Skykomish/Snohomish (December to February) and Snoqualmie (December and January) rivers in western Washington, and the McKenzie and Rogue rivers in Oregon. We can't get anybody to give us the directions to their secret place, but if you find yourself in a fishing town, head on down to the bait shop and keep your mouth shut. Maybe you'll learn something. (Might take a while.) For more about fishing for the elusive steelhead in summer and winter see Shirtsleeve Steelheading.
If you're headed for the Columbia, don't neglect Portland, a port city at the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia rivers, with a shaggy lumbertown-hipster ambiance and a strong preference for year-round outdoor activity. A scenic drive from Portland along the south side of the Columbia River, the Columbia River Gorge Historic Highway, is blissfully uncrowded in winter and usually free of snow. The road travels along the floor of the river's gorge, a 600-foot-high cliff laced with mossy waterfalls, including the spectacular Multnomah Falls. You'll want to check the forecast before heading out—though winter temperatures usually run 35-40 degrees F, the area is subject to freezing.
It might seem strange to denizens of other climes, but winter and spring are the best times for whitewater paddling in Oregon. Rain and snow-melt raise the water levels of the rivers and the energy levels of kayakers. The rivers around Portland and up the Columbia Gorge on both Oregon and Washington sides can test the mettle of experts this time of year—as a general rule, stay on the lower portions for less difficult paddles, head upstream for Class IV adventures.
Check out our Portland Winter Escapes for more on whitewater paddling and the area's other diversions—everything from ice-climbing to surfing to hike-in hot springs. You might not always be warm and dry, but you'll find rich rewards outdoors in the temperate Northwest winter.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication