Moving to Vancouver, WA? Here’s What It’s Like [INSIDER’S GUIDE]
Living in Vancouver, Washington means having one foot in the country and the other in suburbia. Vancouver is the fourth largest city in Washington State and part of the Portland, Oregon Metro Area. Yet rivers, foothills, and mountains of the Cascade Range dominate the visual landscape. You’ll feel like a part of civilization but live only a short drive from backcountry wilderness.
If you’re moving to Vancouver from somewhere outside the Pacific Northwest, living here might require a few small adjustments. Homes here are probably cheaper than the place from which you are moving. There’s a good chance your quality of life will improve (especially if you love the outdoors). But, you will need to endure long, gray winters to reap those benefits; perhaps a small price to pay for all the upside.
If you’re thinking of moving to the area, be sure to check out two additional resources on Great Vancouver Homes: an article similar to one you’re reading now about moving to Portland, OR and all the homes for sale in Portland.
1775 marked the first recorded contact between Europeans and Native Americans in Vancouver. That did not bode well for the native peoples; the introduction of smallpox wiped out most (but not all) of the native population by the time the Lewis & Clark expedition reached the region in 1806.
In 1824, Hudson’s Bay Company established the fur trading post of Fort Vancouver. The fort was a busy economic hub for the remaining first peoples (who for a very long time operated elaborate bartering and trading systems among tribes) and a mix of newcomers: French-Canadian; Scot; and English to name a few. By the 1840s, the fort was the largest population center on the west coast of North America and the most important outpost on the frontier. In a response to increasing tension between indigenous people and settlers, the United States set its first Army base just above Fort Vancouver in 1849. The city was incorporated shortly thereafter in 1857.
Ft. Vancouver National Historic Site + Mt. Hood
Interesting Fact: You can tell which groups settled parts of Vancouver and Southwest Washington by the names given to certain locations. French-speaking pioneers used the term prairie and English-speakers used the term plain to describe flat, open areas. Thus, we have the names Brush Prairie and Fern Prairie where French settlers did the naming and Mill Plain and Fourth Plain where English settlers did the same. That’s some inside ball right there; most locals don’t know this. You can establish some street cred right off the bat by popping this bit of trivia into a well-timed moment of a conversation.
Did you know Civil War general and U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant was quartermaster for fifteen months (1852-53) at the Vancouver Barracks? Another notable military figure and future Nobel Peace Prize recipient George C. Marshall also served here.
In the early 20th century, Vancouver’s shipyards were a major source of jobs, including ship building efforts for WWI. Even with the strategic importance of the area, Vancouver had not yet become a modern city. In fact, that didn’t occur until the construction of the Interstate Bridge in 1917, two years before the end of the Great War. Prior to that, traveling between Vancouver and Portland required passage by ferry.
Everything changed a generation later. Vancouver quickly quadrupled its population when ship building activity spiked for the war effort during WWII. You could hardly find a better place for it; Vancouver already had a shipyard and benefitted from cheap hydroelectric power produced from recently-completed and nearby Bonneville Dam, a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Henry Kaiser opened another shipyard in Vancouver (one of many he owned on the West Coast).
Vancouver, WA Weather
Gray skies and precipitation play significant roles in Northwest culture. This is the birthplace of grunge music, after all, and outdoorsy, book reading, craft beer quaffing hipsters are the norm.
It rains here. A lot.
If you didn’t grow up in the Pacific Northwest and don’t hail from a place that can sustain three months in-a-row of overcast skies and rain, moving to Vancouver will be a formative experience in your understanding of how meteorological forces of nature work on the human psyche.
In the late fall, when the leaves turn, the hillsides around town are a patchwork of orange, brown, and reddish hues. It lasts for a few weeks before they are blown to the ground. If you pay close attention, you’ll notice that fall has a bittersweet, mulchy smell of lightly decomposing leaves. The change of seasons here is visceral.
Cascade Foothills and Mt. Hood in the Fall
On clear winter days, Mt. Hood gleams bright white from freshly fallen snow. The foothills of the Cascade Mountains also shimmer in the sun after a dusting of the white stuff, too. While it snows often in the surrounding foothills, snow within Vancouver is infrequent and generally no more than a nuisance. About once per decade, a foot or more will accumulate.
Here’s the good news: when the rain subsides – sometime around June – you will be richly rewarded. All that rain that comes down during the fall, winter, and spring creates a very verdant landscape. Green is everywhere and in large proportions. Trees here grow tall. You might even buy a home with a 200-foot-tall Douglas Fir tree in your front yard.
The summers here are amazing. While the conifers remain green year-round, the deciduous trees add another layered canopy to the forested areas when in bloom. Meaning, summers here are even greener.
What’s more, summer days are much longer because of Vancouver’s latitude which is slightly higher than 45° North (halfway between the Equator and North Pole). There are more than enough daylight hours to enjoy the warm weather. Summers here are mild compared to many other places in the United States. Temperatures rarely pop above 100°F.
Vancouver Weather – Annual Averages
Vancouver, Washington's climate is mild. According to U.S. Climate Data, the annual average high temperature is 62.1°F and the annual average low temperature is 41.8°F.
Vancouver Rainfall + Temperatures (Weather.com)
As mentioned, living in Vancouver, Washington means enduring a lot of rain and cloudy skies from October to the end of May and even parts of the summer. Vancouver averages 41.67 inches of rainfall each year. That's less than Houston, but rain there tends to come in heavy bursts. Here, rain will slowly drizzle for several days in a row. Nearby Camas and Washougal, which are closer to the mouth of the Columbia River Gorge, get a tad more wind.
The trick to living in Vancouver, WA -- or anyplace that gets this much rain -- is to stay busy. Most folks suggest the best way to deal with the climate here is to get out and into it. Not surprisingly, that’s what a lot of people do. It works. Waterproof jackets with hoods are essential and umbrella sales soar.
The cliché is true: people in the Northwest tend to be outdoorsy. In winter, skiers and snowboarders drive to nearby Mt. Hood for a day of snowy fun. For something closer, hiking among the many trails in the Columbia River Gorge or Cascade Range foothills. Anytime you reach a ridge, you’re bound to be rewarded with sweeping views.
In summer, sunny skies and warmer weather open up a bevy of recreational options. Hit the Columbia River, Vancouver Lake, Lacamas Lake, or Washougal River for boating, fishing, or swimming.
Vancouver has eight 18-hole golf course and more in surrounding cities and counties. Courses here are known for their lush, green fairways. For quick practice, there are also several 3-par courses in town.
Mt. St. Helens is open to climbers (with reservations) from late spring to early fall and is a non-technical climb. With some food, water, and a reasonable level of fitness, you can climb to the crater rim and look down into the heart of a volcano.
A Panoramic View from the Rim of Mt. St. Helens
The Oregon and Washington Coasts are roughly 100 miles away, perfect for day and weekend getaways.
The Vancouver Parks & Recreation Department operates several community and neighborhood parks, sports fields, trails, and natural areas. There are 113 parks (76 developed) and 20 miles of trails. Soccer is big in Vancouver; every weekend the city’s parks are filled with youth games and most weeknights you will find adult leagues bashing the ball around the fields. Adult softball leagues are another popular activity in the summer.
If you generally prefer staying inside or are just looking for something to do when the weather is too brutal, you still have plenty of options.
In addition to managing parks and outdoor recreational facilities, Vancouver Parks & Rec also operates community centers and pools, including:
- Firstenburg Community Center - climbing wall, fitness classes, gyms, and pool
- Marshall Center - gym, fitness classes, and pool
- Luepke Community Center - a center where folks “50 years-old and better” can participate in classes, card games, dancing mahjong, a book club, and more.
- Vancouver Tennis Center – private lessons, group lessons, leagues, tournaments
If you're in the mood for something a little more 'low key' perhaps a better bet is to crawl under a blanket and start reading from your stash of books, ebooks, and periodicals you borrowed from the Vancouver Community Library (the main branch of Fort Vancouver Regional Libraries). Or, pay them a visit in person. The recently-built (2011) 83,000-square-foot library is the second largest in the Portland Metro Area. It is a beautifully designed modern building crafted from glass, wood, and concrete.
Ft. Vancouver Regional Library
America’s favorite indoor pastime, shopping, comes with a twist in Southwest Washington. Residents here tend to buy big ticket items across the Columbia River in Portland because Oregon does not have a sales tax. Technically, Washingtonians who purchase goods in Oregon are required to report and pay state taxes on those transactions. But no one does and this rule is not enforced. However, that is not the case with car license tabs. While living in Vancouver, your car must have Washington State licensure or you could face a major fine. What’s more, Washington does not impose an income tax, so earning income in Vancouver and spending it in Portland is packs a one-two punch in terms of purchasing power.
Wine tours are another way to stay busy when staying indoors. You can take a wine tours anytime, but during the holiday season is best; it’s a great way to get together with friends and family for a fun day trip. Thanksgiving weekend is a particularly good time to visit wineries and tasting rooms, many of which serve snacks that weekend that they would not normally have on hand for visitors.
Clearly the nightlife in Vancouver is not going to be mind-blowing. Portland has a few clubs that are a tad hipper and more urban, but it still pales in comparison to a major metropolis. If you need a high level of stimulus, you can grab a flight to L.A. or a red eye to N.Y.C. The Portland Airport is just across the Columbia River.
The scene in Vancouver is laid-back and often revolves hanging out with friends, sipping wine, and quaffing beer at local pubs and taprooms.
The Summer Concert Series at Esther Short Park has three concerts programs that run from July to August during the dog days of summer. The Six to Sunset Concert Series runs on Thursday evenings. The Noon Concert Series is live on Wednesdays at noon. Lastly, the Sunday Sounds Concert Series runs on Sunday evenings.
For three days every August, the Vancouver Jazz & Wine Festival presents world-class jazz artists and music legends. The lineup is always eclectic and includes blues, gospel, contemporary jazz, and many other styles.
Vancouver Jazz & Wine Festival (Image: Ruby V.)
The Sunlight Supply Amphitheater hosts national artists who play in an outdoor theater next to the Clark County Event Center at the Fairgrounds.
The Food Scene
The food scene in Vancouver matured significantly since the 1990s (not coincidently due to the surge in people moving to the area from other cities and states).
More restaurants than ever in Vancouver create contemporary culinary offerings at high, medium, and low price points. What’s more, ethnic food choices have also swelled, widening the selection of styles and tastes available in the area.
By far the biggest category of restaurants in Vancouver are casual eateries and hang out spots that serve craft beer. They are everywhere and new establishments open with great frequency. The number of brewpubs per capita seems a little excessive; one could easily be led to believe we are close to a tipping point where the supply of craft beer exceeds the demand. Only time will tell.
A step above beer and brewpub fare are many mid-range dining options. For more upscale fine dining, a trip to Portland will be necessary, a small price to pay for some outstanding culinary choices.
The only beverage more popular than beer in Vancouver is coffee. Vancouver is soaked in coffee culture as much as any other city in the Northwest. For either beverage, true aficionados always seek the highest quality of craft beer or third-wave espresso respectively. On any given day, a pretty decent chunk of denizens here cycle through two mildly mind-altering substances: caffeine by day, alcohol by night.
Sampling Beer at McMenamins (Image: Micheal S.)
Since 1990, the Vancouver Farmers Market has been a part of the whole foods movement, offering farm fresh produce, prepared foods, and artisanal goods to the city’s hungry masses. Once a humble operation downtown, the market now sports three locations, open from spring to fall each year:
- Downtown Market (Saturdays and Sundays) – 6th & Esther Street, Downtown Vancouver
- East Vancouver Farmers Market (Thursdays) – 1300 Franklin Street, Vancouver
- Franklin Street Farmers Market (Wednesdays) – 17701 SE Mill Plain Blvd, Vancouver
Downtown Vancouver WA Farmers Market (Image: Shawn T.)
Working in Vancouver
Vancouver’s population growth is fueled, in part, by changes to the American economy, specifically the remote workforce. Many professional jobs only require a computer and decent broadband connection. Once bound to company headquarters in big cities, white-collar workers can now live anywhere they choose.
Clark County is a direct beneficiary of this trend; it attracts remote workers, freelancers, and small business who can freely choose a place to live based on the quality of life.
That said, a lot of people are still part of the traditional place-bound employment picture. The largest private employers in Vancouver, WA are:
- Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center
- Fred Meyer Stores
- The Vancouver Clinic
- SEH America
- Dick Hannah Car Dealerships
- BNSF Railway
- Banfield Pet Hospital Headquarters
- Columbia Machine
- Nautilus, Inc.
Some people living in Vancouver commute to Portland for work. In fact, thirty-four percent of residents work out of state. The largest employers across the river include Intel, Providence Health & Services, Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), Legacy Health, and Nike.
Vancouver, WA Schools
Public schools in Vancouver, WA are operated by two school districts. Vancouver is also home to one community college and one university.
Vancouver School District
The Vancouver School District boundaries extend from the Downtown Vancouver Area and reach a few miles north as well as neighborhoods to the east, almost as far as the 205 Freeway. It serves 24,000 students in:
- 21 elementary schools
- 6 middle schools
- 5 high schools
- 5 arts, tech, adult, and specialized schools
Evergreen School District
Evergreen School District sits between the Vancouver and Camas School Districts. Serving 27,000 students, it is one of the fastest-growing districts in the state and fifth largest. ESD operates:
- 21 elementary schools
- 6 middle schools
- 8 high schools
- 5 alternative schools
Founded in 1933, Clark College started as a private two-year college, then converted to a public institution in 1958, and later incorporated into the statewide community college system in 1967. In 2014, Clark offered its first four-year degree program. There are 12,804 enrolled.
Clark College is home to Washington State’s largest Running Start program which allows academically motivated high school juniors and seniors to take college courses. Students simultaneously high school and college credit, culminating in an associate’s degree and accelerating their timeline to earn a bachelor’s degree. Graduates of the program enter four-year universities as a third-year student. 2,433 Running Start students attend.
Washington State University Vancouver began as an extension campus in 1989 and transitioned to a full four-year university in 2006. WSU Vancouver offers bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees. 3,500 students attend and take coursework in 40 fields of study.
WSU Vancouver Campus + Mt. St. Helens
Annual Events in Vancouver
There's something going on every week and weekend in Vancouver. Keeping busy and entertained is easy from small gatherings to big events. Did you know the Vancouver Wine and Jazz Festival is the largest jazz festival in the Pacific Northwest (13,500 visitors)? Here are some of the big, annual events that locals look forward to with much anticipation:
- Clark County Fair
- Vancouver’s Fireworks Spectacular (4th of July)
- Vancouver Jazz & Wine Festival
- Recycled Arts Festival
- Vancouver Brewfest
- Dine the Couve
- Community Tree Lighting
- 3 Days of Aloha
Interesting Facts About Vancouver
- Nicknames: Vantucky, The Couve, Vantersdam
- Pearson Field is one of the oldest operating airfields and is the only airport in the United States that operates entirely within the boundaries of a national historic reserve.
- The world's first transpolar flight took place in 1937 and its pilot, Valery Chkalov, landed at Pearson Field in Vancouver, stopping short of his planned destination, Oakland, CA. Vancouver made the history books by happenstance: an aircraft fuel shortage.
- For a brief period (1859-60), Vancouver was the capital of the Washington Territory
- Vancouver’s Old Apple Tree was planted in 1826 and is thought to be the oldest in Washington. It is regarded as the matriarch of the state’s apple industry.
- Estimated Population: 185,000
- Land Area: 51.84 square miles
- Population Density: 3,569 people per square mile
- Elevation: 171 feet
- Downtown Vancouver to PDX: 12 miles
- Downtown Vancouver to Downtown Portland: 8.7 miles
Final Thoughts: Moving to Vancouver, Washington
Living in Vancouver Washington is a perfect fit for people who love outdoor adventures and the relatively slower pace of suburbia. Vancouver has enough art, culture, music, food, and civic engagement to generally keep one satisfied, but it is also only a short drive from slightly more urban intensity in nearby Portland - say, when you need to take a theatre play, symphony, or visit a big museum.
If you can hack long stretches of cloudy days and rain, you’ll feel quite at home in Vancouver. One thing is sure: the vistas in town are breathtaking when the sun comes out. Especially in late fall and winter. Just when you’re losing your mind, a break in the clouds will pull back the curtains on snow-capped foothills, neatly patterned by dusted Doug Fir trees. The sight of the Mt. Hood and. Mt. St. Helens in the distance will pull you from your slumber, if only for a short while.