To the surprise of many first-time visitors, who are expecting only evergreen forests, natural lakes, and lots of saltwater towered over by snowcapped mountains, Washington has a dual personality. It is divided into the dramatically different eastern and western halves by the Cascade Range, which extends 600 miles from Canada through Washington and Oregon before flattening out and disappearing in Northern California. The Cascade Range has a powerful effect on the state’s climate and scenery. The mountains wring moisture from the clouds, dumping rain and snow on the western flanks but leaving little for the dry and sunny east side. Those who expect to see only the evergreen land of the state’s promotional campaigns are surprised when they travel through the broad wheat fields of eastern Washington. This country has its own beauty, and in places resembles the wide-open spaces of Wyoming or Montana—not an image commonly associated with Washington.
Much smaller but with an equally dramatic silhouette, the Olympic Range is quite different from the ancient and volatile Cascades. The Olympics (the backbone of Olympic National Park ) are some of the world’s youngest mountains, just one or two million years old. Though not exceptionally tall (Mount Olympus is the highest at 7,965 feet), the Olympics produce dramatically varied weather. Storms spawned over the Pacific dump 70–100 inches of annual rainfall on the coastal plains, and 150 inches or more (with a record of 184 inches at Wynoochee Oxbow) in the rainforests on the western and southwestern slopes—the heaviest precipitation in the contiguous United States. But on the northeast slopes of this range, Port Angeles , Sequim , Port Townsend , Whidbey Island , and the San Juans are in the driest area of western Washington, receiving only 12–20 inches annually. The most familiar example of this is Sequim , which sits in the rain shadow of the Olympics and is so dry that farmers must irrigate their crops.