The mountains of the Cascade Range run north and south through the state of Washington, dividing it into distinct regions that differ in topography, climate and politics. West of the Cascades, the climate is relatively mild with rainy winters and dry summers – perfect for temperate rainforests with their dense stands of evergreens. On the eastern side of the Cascades, the climate is much drier, with large areas of semiarid land and some desert terrain. In addition, western Washington – including the 3.6 million-plus people in the Seattle metro area - is traditionally liberal, while eastern Washington, with the exception of Spokane, is generally conservative.
Home to glaciers, alpine peaks and two national parks – North Cascades National Park and Mount Rainier National Park – the Cascades are part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, a ring of mountains and volcanoes on the perimeter of the Pacific Ocean. The range in Washington had been quiet for more than a century. Then, on May 18, 1980, the northeast face of Mount St. Helens exploded, killing 57 people. It felled forests like matchsticks and blanketed large areas of the state in ash. The violence of this eruption and the destruction it wrought recalled a Native American legend in which the Cascade peaks, like chieftain gods, made war by hurling fire and rock at each other.
Before explorers from Europe arrived in the Pacific Northwest, numerous Native American tribes made the region their home. Names such as Seattle, Puyallup and Walla Walla are reflections of this early history. Today, Washingtonians and others have embraced the striking art of the northwest coast Indians, especially their dramatic totem poles, masks and stylized depictions of animals, such as the logo used by the Seattle Seahawks.
Washington was named for the first president of the U.S., but another man with a similar name also figured prominently in the state's history. In 1844, pioneer George Washington Bush - half Black, half Irish - together with his Caucasian wife, led four white families into the territory. To avoid Oregon's racist settlement laws, they established a community named Bush Prairie near modern-day Olympia, WA. This settlement initiated migration north of the Columbia River and was pivotal to the organization of Washington Territory.
Today, Native Americans make up just 1% of the state’s more than 7 million residents. 78% are white, 11% are Hispanic, 7% are Asian, 4% are multiracial and 3% are black. The fifth largest Asian population in the US resides in Washington, and in 1997, Gary Locke, a Chinese-American, was the first Asian-American to be elected governor. Moreover, Asians make up the fastest growing group in Washington, a state where racial and ethnic minorities have been growing faster than the white population since 2010. Thanks in part to these trends, the Evergreen State is the eighth fastest growing state in the country.
In 2015, Washington ranked 14th in the nation with a total gross state product of $446 billion. The median household income as of early 2016 was $59,578, putting it in the top 15 wealthiest states and nearly $6,000 above the U.S. median. Washington also boasted 10 Fortune 500 companies in 2015, including Microsoft, Amazon, Costco, Starbucks, Nordstrom, Expedia, Weyerhaeuser and Alaska Air Group. There’s also Boeing, which is headquartered in Illinois but employs roughly 85,000 people across the state. Providing further economic drivers, Washington abounds in powerful rivers that have been dammed to provide hydroelectric power, a major contributor to the economy, while Seattle (#4) and Tacoma (#9) are among the top 10 busiest ports in the U.S.
Statewide, the median home value as of early 2016 was $304,694, roughly $120,000 above the U.S. median, while the median rental price was $1,349. In Seattle, the largest city with over 660,000 people within the city limits, the median home value was significantly higher at $539,541. Approximately 45 minutes south of Seattle, Tacoma (population 205,000+) had a more affordable median home value of $238,910. Finally, Spokane (population 212,000+), along the eastern border with Idaho, had an even lower median home value of $167,672. If you’re thinking of relocating to one of these cities, you’ll be interested to know that Washington is one of only seven states with no income tax. The state makes up for it with a higher sales tax and gasoline tax, however.