Updated: Aug 18, 2019
The Pacific Northwest U.S. features some of the most awe-inspiring natural beauty the country has to offer. From the majestic Olympic and Cascade Mountains to the picturesque Pacific Coast, you'll be hard-pressed to find a more scenic road trip. The Pacific Northwest road trip takes you on a journey through Washington, Oregon, and northern California. I recommend visiting in late summer to early fall, since the early summer along the Oregon Coast is often dreary, cool, and rainy. This region also offers unsurpassed camping experiences, so I highly suggest bringing a tent along. If you are new to camping, check out my tried-and-true camping hacks.
Route-trip distance: 1800 miles
Suggested trip length: 3-4 weeks
Seattle, Washington and Mt. Rainier National Park
On your arrival in Seattle, spend a day sightseeing. Visit Kerry Park, which offers a great view of the Seattle skyline with Mt. Rainier as a backdrop, as well as the Space Needle, Pike Place Market, and Pier 66. For a great lunch spot, check out Beecher’s Handmade Cheese for mouth-watering mac and cheese. If you’re into interesting architecture, visit the Seattle Public Library, featuring a honeycomb exterior. You can also make the two hour drive southeast to Mt. Rainier for a day hike. Mt. Rainier offers hikes through old growth forests, past waterfalls, and across mountain meadows, so the scenery will surely impress. I suggest spending at least two days in the Seattle area and Mt. Rainier National Park.
Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument
Head south from Seattle to visit Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, the site of the infamous 1980 volcanic eruption. You can still view the damage caused by the lateral blast which leveled the forests along the mountain slopes. However, wildflowers are in abundance during the summer months, a clear sign that the vegetation and forests are recovering. If you want to make the hike to the crater rim, you’ll have to apply for a permit, so plan well in advance since permits may be difficult to get during the busy season. Be sure to visit the Johnston Ridge Observatory, which offers a great view of the crater and an informative overview of the historic eruption. There are also numerous campgrounds in the surrounding national forest, so I recommend spending at least one night camping nearby.
Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area
Head south to Portland and then east along Interstate 84 to reach the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. Offering panoramic views of the Columbia River, impressive waterfalls, and the towering peaks along the High Cascades, you’ll want to get off the interstate to follow the Columbia River Highway, which provides easy access to the most notable spots. If you like waterfalls, check out Multnomah Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, and Wahclella Falls. For panoramic views, check out Angel’s Rest and Crown Point. For hiking, don’t miss Eagle Creek Trail. And for those interested in history and geology, don’t miss Beacon Rock, named by Lewis and Clark who happened upon it during their famed expedition. At the end of the highway, you’ll drive through historic Hood River, Oregon, before heading south towards Mount Hood. Mount Hood National Forest offers camping, hiking, and skiing depending on the time of year you visit. I visited in mid-July last time. It was 90 degrees on the mountain, but the ski slopes were still open!
Your next destination is Bend, Oregon, which lies in what is known as the High Desert, tucked in the rain shadow east of the Cascades. Visit Deschutes Brewery, which offers what I consider to be the best craft beers in the U.S. If you take a 90-minute detour east from Bend, you’ll find yourself at Glass Buttes. Glass Buttes contains a large obsidian (volcanic glass) deposit, and since it lies within Bureau of Land Management jurisdiction rather than a national park, you can legally collect as much obsidian as your heart desires. This will also save you from the temptation of collecting obsidian illegally when you visit the Newberry National Volcanic Monument, which features expansive lava flows, great hiking, and panoramic views of Mt. Bachelor and The Sisters, a pair of peaks to the west of Bend in the Cascade Range. Nearby, you can hike through a cinder cone at Lava Butte and the longest lava tube in Oregon at Lava River Cave.
Crater Lake National Park
After visiting Bend, continue two more hours south to Crater Lake National Park. Visit the Steel Visitor Center to learn about the fascinating history of Crater Lake (Spoiler: It features a massive volcanic eruption). Drive the Rim Drive loop around the lake for uninterrupted scenic views and consider hiking the portion of the Pacific Crest Trail, a National Scenic Trail that reaches from Canada to Mexico, that runs through the park. In the summer, I highly recommend hiking the Cleetwood Cove Trail to reach the edge of Crater Lake, where you can swim in the deepest lake in the United States (be warned that the water is cold even in late summer) and take a boat tour to Wizard Island, the cinder cone that ornaments the center of Crater Lake.
Crescent City, California
From Crater Lake National Park, drive south to Grants Pass, Oregon, to meet up with U.S. 199. Continuing south towards Crescent City, California, you’ll pass through old-growth redwood forests within the Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. Stop at the Hiouchi Information Center before making your way to the many trailheads, where you can hike through forests of the massive redwood trees and marvel at their immense size. Spend a couple days camping among the redwoods, but use one day to journey into Crescent City to rent a boat and embark on a Pacific Ocean fishing excursion.
Pacific Coast Highway (U.S. 101)
The next part of the road trip follows scenic U.S. Highway 101 along the Pacific Coast, known as the Pacific Coast Highway. There are numerous scenic overlooks, landmarks, and things to do all the way from Crescent City, California to northwest Washington. Also dotting the highway are magnificent seafood places masquerading as both roadside stands and upscale restaurants. So prepare to feast on fresh clams, oysters, and salmon.
Along the drive from Crescent City, California to Newport, Oregon, visit Battle Rock Wayside Park, Cape Blanco Lighthouse, Face Rock State Scenic Viewpoint, Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, Thor’s Well, the Oregon Coast Aquarium, and Yaquina Head Lighthouse. If you are a lover of breweries, check out Rogue Ales Brewery headquartered in Newport.
If you have time to spare as you continue north from Newport, I highly recommend making a quick detour to visit the Priory of Our Lady of Consolation near Broadmead, Oregon. It's a self-sufficient Brigittine Monastery where the cloistered monks create delicious artisan chocolate fudge and truffles to sell to the public. It's definitely worth the visit! Once you get back to U.S. 101, plan to stop for your next meal in Tillamook, Oregon, the headquarters of the Tillamook Cheese Factory. They serve deliciously cheesy recipes made with their smoked cheeses at the Tillamook Creamery, a restaurant inside the factory. Tillamook Cheese also goes great with smoked salmon, so buy some of both for snacking during the remainder of the drive.
Near Cannon Beach, visit Haystack Rock and Ecola State Park. In Astoria, visit the Astoria Column for great views of the mouth of the Columbia River. Just across the Columbia River from Astoria is Cape Disappointment, the site where the Lewis and Clark Expedition first laid eyes on the Pacific Ocean. Learn all about it at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center on site. Remember to relax and take your time making the drive north along the Pacific Coast Highway, since there are plenty of places along the route to pitch a tent, or you can decide to lodge at the many bed and breakfasts.
Olympic National Park
From Astoria, you’ll head to Olympic National Park in Northwest Washington. The route you take to get there is up to you - choose to continue along the Pacific Coast Highway or make your way back to Interstate 5. If you choose the former, you’ll pass several more scenic beaches, including Ruby Beach to the west of the park. If you choose the latter, you’ll once again get to view the majestic Cascades before meeting up again with U.S. 101 in Olympia, Washington. On reaching Olympic National Park, you’ll find that it offers a wide array of outdoor activities, as it encompasses shoreline, a rainforest, and the towering Olympic mountains. Numerous campgrounds are available in both Olympic National Park and the adjacent Olympic National Forest. Things to do include hiking, tide-pooling, fishing, backpacking, and stargazing. Many consider the park’s hiking trails to be among the best in the entire National Park System. I highly recommend planning to spend several days here camping and enjoying the wilderness, scenery, and solitude that the park has to offer.
Victoria, British Columbia
After enjoying Olympic National Park to the fullest, head to nearby Port Angeles and take the Coho ferry to Victoria, British Columbia (You’ll need to bring along your passport to make this leg of the trip!). Visit Craigdarroch Castle, a Victorian mansion, museum, and Canadian National Historic Site. Check out Centennial Square and tour the spectacular architecture of the British Columbia Parliament Buildings.
San Juan Islands National Monument
After touring Victoria, drive north to Sidney, British Columbia to catch a ferry to San Juan Islands National Monument, encompassing over 450 islands within the Puget Sound. The park offers amazing vistas along it’s beaches and hiking trails. The islands have a remarkable history (including a brief skirmish between U.S. and British forces in 1859 called The Pig War) and are definitely worth exploring.
North Cascades National Park
For the last stop along the road trip, take the ferry from the San Juan Islands back to the U.S. mainland and head east along state highway 20 to North Cascades National Park, approximately three hours away. I consider North Cascades National Park to be an underrated national park (Check out this post to learn why!). However, the views and scenery easily rival those of Olympic National Park and Glacier National Park in Montana. Enjoy the numerous campgrounds and hiking trails. Bicycling, horseback riding, boating on Ross Lake, and bird-watching are also popular activities in the park. Spend a couple days in the park before finishing the road trip loop by making the short two hour drive back to Seattle, completing your week-long adventure through the Pacific Northwest.
For more road trip ideas through other regions of the United States, check out my Ultimate Road Trip Series!