If you’re the type of person who likes to snuggle down into your recliner and turn on old westerns then, boy, have I got some vacation destinations for you.
For some reason, Washington and Oregon are always left out of conversations when people are talking about the Old West but they were a vital part of the westward movement.
Shipping, trade, gold, they had it all. I guess maybe they just didn’t have quite enough dust for people to think of them as “western”.
Well, whatever the reason, if you’re looking to travel to the Pacific Northwest there are three different towns that you should visit that will convince you that western towns are just at home in Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia as Utah or Wyoming.
Now, these aren’t just full of crumbling old buildings. They’re vibrant vacation destinations with enough going on to interest the whole family, including your kids.
Best Western Towns In Washington, Oregon, & B.C.
Barkerville, British Columbia, Canada
Church of Saint Saviors (Restored) – Barkerville B.C.
If you’re looking for a western town in the extreme northern reaches of the PNW then Barkerville is for you. While you might find that it has a feel more in common with an Alaskan gold rush town it should satisfy even most diehard western lovers.
The town has many attractions but the highlight is probably its residents. During the months of May-September (weather permitting) Barkerville residents dress up in period-correct clothing and provide tours and demonstrations throughout the town.
You can visit an operating 1870s schoolhouse, ride the stagecoach, visit the general store (which is stocked and functioning), and see demonstrations of people’s late 1800s occupations including dressmaking, blacksmithing, cabinet making, and more.
Once your belly is empty you’ll find that there are bakeries, saloons, and restaurants where you can get yourself fit to hit the trail again.
Barkerville is typical of the many towns that sprang up overnight in the 1860s to support the stream of miners heading for gold. The thing that makes it unique is that many of the original buildings are still standing and used (albeit in restored condition).
I would recommend planning a trip in the fall when crowds abate and you’re more likely to have some of the tour guides to yourself.
There is not a very convenient airport to Barkersville so be prepared for a drive (500 miles from and around 450 miles from Vancouver). You’ll want to figure out your lodging beforehand if you’re planning on staying in Barkerville as there are a limited number of options. If you’re not looking to stay in the town, however, you’ll find plenty of places in Wells, less than 10 minutes away.
If you’re looking for a western “experience” then Winthrop is a great place to visit. While the town is true to its heritage, it’s not exactly original.
In the 1960s Winthrop was nothing more than a sleeping little town that had little in the way of enticing tourism, business, or anything else that a town needs to thrive.
What it did have was a picturesque location and lots of pioneer spirit.
Kay and Otto Wagner were residents of Winthrop that had often dreamed of restoring the town to an 1890s frontier version of itself. In their minds, this meant no cement sidewalks, buildings that looked straight from the late 1800s, and certainly no neon signs.
After Otto’s death, Kay had an architect draw up some plans and pitched them to local business owners. With the help of some financial incentives Kay was able to get the business owners on board and they transformed the 20 storefronts in Winthrop’s old town.
The false-fronted buildings finally gave tourists a reason to drive the 90 miles north from Wenatchee to reach the town. With an influx of tourism the town’s “westerness” grew.
Now, Winthrop’s city ordinances dictate that all new structures in the old-town area have to meet the visual standards of buildings that were built from 1850 to 1890. So, when you visit, you can expect to find many false-fronted buildings made with rough-cut lumber.
While in town, be sure to visit the still-standing cabin of the town’s founder: Guy Waring. Standing on a hill above the town, his original home has been transformed into the Shafer Museum where you can view tons of authentic western artifacts and learn a bit more about the town and era.
One of the major perks of visiting is that you’ll be able to get here via the North Cascades Highway, possibly the most beautiful drive in all of Washington state. If you choose to visit later in the year you can expect some incredible autumn colors in addition to the pines. If you’re here during this time, be sure to book a horseback escape into the mountains to complete the western experience.
Once there you’ll find plenty of western-themed gift stops, restaurants, hotels, and everything else you need for a pleasant trip.
Winthrop is also a popular winter destination as it has a huge network of world-class cross-country skiing trails around the town. Not to mention the fact that the cascades are at their most beautiful in the winter.
Whatever time of year you visit be sure to check ahead of time on the town’s website as you might luck out and visit during a festival time, Throughout the summer residents of the town don authentic western clothing and participate in demonstrations of skills, shootouts, etc.
You can learn more about their festivals and the town on their website.
If you’re near Medford, Oregon, do yourself a favor and make the short drive west to Jacksonville, an 1850s goldrush town that has managed to maintain much of its original spirit and looks.
In fact, more than 100 of the town’s original buildings are still standing and have been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. They have managed to stand the test of time because you won’t find any shoddy fly-by-night goldrush timber buildings here. Instead, you’ll find a carefully preserved street full of buildings built of brick and local stone.
Many of these buildings along the iconic California Street (the setting for many movies) house antique stores, art galleries, and gift shops that you’ll want to visit.
The original Jackson County Courthouse which was built in 1883 now houses the Jacksonville Historical Museum which is a must-visit. Also be sure to look out for the original homes, hotels, banks, and even churches that are still standing from the early days.
While they’re not particularly western in dress or appearance, around 2200 residents currently live in Jacksonville and help keep the spirit alive.
Like many old western towns, Jacksonville has a (possibly haunted) cemetery which you should be sure to visit. We played a game here of trying to find the oldest headstone in the compound. Our best find dated back to 1859, see if you can do better when you visit.
Be sure to visit the town’s website before making reservations.
Hopefully, these iconic PNW towns have enough western flavor for you. While they’re probably too spread out to enjoy all in one trip, there’s enough to do in the Pacific Northwest that adding one of these to your next vacation will just be the icing on the cake.