From tiny high desert hamlets ringed by snow-tipped peaks to weather-worn villages perched along the seashore, many of the Northwest’s smallest communities brim with regional character, friendly locals, authentic adventures and peaceful main streets. At these small towns – all with populations under 9,700 – you can slow your pace and spend a weekend (or longer) exploring their charms.
Joseph, Eastern Oregon
Cowboy culture, centuries-old Nez Perce ties, the Wallowa Mountains and visual arts come together in rural Joseph, located about 114 miles east of Pendleton. First, get your bearings by taking the self-guided Joseph Art Walk, a series of life-sized bronze sculptures that dot Main Street, along with a handful of quirky shops, art galleries and restaurants. (Psst, chocolate-lovers. Arrowhead Chocolates are not to be missed.) Then tour the Josephy Center for Arts and Culture, where you can view art, watch performances, take a workshop while learning about the history and culture of Wallowa County. If you’ve ever dreamed of pedaling on the rails, be sure to book a ride on the Railriders’s Joseph Branch. Their unique riders look like a cross between a railroad handcar and a recumbent bicycle.
Cottage Grove, Oregon
This former gold rush town, situated on the Willamette River some 22 miles south of Eugene, is home the largest concentration of covered bridges in the state. Sprinkled around the town and its environs, six of the seven brides are historic, including the only remaining covered railroad bridge in the West. Several are open to pedestrians and cyclists (Dorena Bridge is the only one that can be driven through) and all are connected by the 36-mile, multi-use Covered Bridges Scenic Bikeway. If you prefer not to walk or ride all 36 miles, there’s several parking areas along Row River Road and Dorena Lake where you can access the path. In the fall, the lake and bikeway are rife with red, purple, orange and gold foliage.
Seaside, Oregon Coast
For an old-fashioned, turn-of-the-century holiday along the seashore, grab those beach toys and head to Oregon’s first resort town. Located some 78 miles northwest of Portland, Seaside has been welcoming visitors since in early 1900s. Along with enjoying the sandy beach, be sure to stroll along the 1.5-mile, 1920s-era promenade, locally known as “The Prom.” Then test your luck playing vintage arcade games at the Seaside Carousel Mall. At Seaside Brewing Company, you’ll find good food and beer in the town’s former jail and town hall, built c. 1914.
Friday Harbor, San Juan Island, Washington
Washington’s Salish Sea islands are dotted with small yet vibrant communities and the charming port town of Friday Harbor is no exception. This energetic hub, located on San Juan Island, measures just one square mile. You can walk the marina, take a kayaking tour as well as browse art galleries, bookstores and antique shops. Nibble on fresh sandwiches and artisan cheeses at San Juan Island Cheese. Learn about Orcas and the local ecosystem at the Whale Museum. If time permits, drive to Lime Kiln Point State Park for the island’s best whale-watching spot as well as iconic views of the lighthouse. Note: Friday Harbor is most easily accessible via a lovely 1.5-hour ferry ride from Anacortes.
These days it’s more and more unusual to find an authentic small town in the Northwest that’s also a heavy-hitter in our thriving wine industry. But Prosser is just that, ever since the late Dr. Walter J. Clore convinced local farmers in the 1970s to plant vineyards in and around the town and the surrounding Horse Heaven Hills. When you arrive, stop first at the Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Center, where you can learn about local wines through demos, tastings and classes. Prosser is also home to more than 30-40 tasting rooms, including 14 Hands Winery, Alexandria Nicole Cellars, Wit Cellars, Domanico Cellars, DavenLore Winery, Martinez & Martinez and Bunnell Family Cellar. Cheers!
In Sandpoint, outdoor adventures such as boating, kayaking, hiking and fishing are just steps away. That’s because this attractive resort town (located about 70 miles northeast of Spokane, Washington) sits on the northwestern shore of 43-mile-long Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho’s largest lake, and is surrounded by three mountain ranges – Selkirk, Cabinet and Coeur d’Alene. When you’re not playing in the water or exploring the trails, you can head downtown to visit the shops and restaurants. Learn more about local wildlife and explore forested wetlands at the WaterLife Discovery Center or catch some thrilling rides at Silverwood Theme Park. In winter, hit the slopes at Schweitzer Mountain Resort.
If you like centrally-located small towns filled with rural beauty, easy access to outdoor recreation and 19th century architecture, then Hailey is the one for you. Situated about eleven miles south of the world-famous Sun Valley town and resort in the lovely Wood River Valley, Hailey is also surrounded by the Sawtooth National Forest and the Central Idaho Rockies. Here you can hike, mountain bike, ski, fish and more without the crowds. Or go north to enjoy a soak in local natural hot springs at the Sawtooth National Recreation Area or Easley Hot Springs. For a scrumptious meal, head back to town to CK’s Real Food restaurant to experience some of Idaho’s best upscale farm-to-table dining.