Pacific Northwest Road Trips

The Pacific Northwest offers an endless list of gorgeous panoramas, from stunning ocean coastlines to verdant forests dotted with pristine lakes to snowy volcanoes silhouetted against blue skies. And it's all accessible with your own four wheels, so fill up the gas tank and get ready for some unforgettable drives.

Olympic Peninsula Loop

Thick forests collide with an end-of-the-continent coastline that hasn't changed much since Juan de Fuca sailed by in 1592. Bring hiking boots and an umbrella – you'll need them as you explore this wild peninsula, replete with ancient rainforests and countless hiking, camping and adventurous exploration opportunities.

Why Go

Freakishly wet and fantastically green, the Olympic Peninsula makes a great loop through the lush forests that inspired Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series.

Start at Washington's capital, Olympia, a progressive city known not only for its bureaucrats but also for its music, arts and outdoor-loving population. Now go west on US 101 to SR 8, which turns into US 12 and then meets back up with US 101, where you'll turn north. Lake Quinault is a deep-blue glacial relic where you can stay at a historic lodge and explore nearby hiking trails.

To the north is ethereally beautiful Ruby Beach, dotted with offshore rock sentinels. A bit further up on a side road lies the surreal Hoh Rain Forest, home to the Hall of Moss Trail – a place taken out of Tolkien, with old-man's beard moss and ferns covering ancient trees.

Keeping on track, you'll pass Forks – the town made famous for Twilight vampires. Further east is Lake Crescent, where you can hike, fish and stay at another celebrated lodge. Not far away are Olympic Hot Springs and Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort. Now take another side road to Hurricane Ridge, a wind-lashed and high-altitude ridge with breathtaking views.

Next up is Port Townsend, a darling Victorian-esque seaside town with historic buildings and art galleries. To the south on yet another offshoot, Staircase is a drier section of Olympic National Park where you can camp on Lake Cushman and take in some glorious hikes. Finally, you'll end back where you started, at Olympia.

When to Go

There's less rain during the summer months from June to September.

The Route

From Olympia, head west on US 101 and eventually veer north toward Lake Quinault. Pass through Ruby Beach and (after a side trip to the Hoh Rain Forest) turn east past Lake Crescent, then take detours to Hurricane Ridge and Port Townsend. Finally turn south to close your loop.

Time & Mileage

Expect to log around 435 miles over four days on this peninsula.

Washington's Cascade Drive

In Washington's Cascades, high-altitude roads succumb to winter snow storms, and the names of peaks – Mt Terror, Mt Fury, Forbidden Peak – are intimidating. But there's also gorgeous scenery, amazing white water and small esoteric towns in this region, so fill up the tank and prepare for one of the best road trips of your life.

Why Go

Rugged and inaccessible for half the year, this brawny mountain drive is etched with a monumental, Alaskan-style beauty that once inspired Jack Kerouac.

Start in Everett, 30 miles north of Seattle, then head eastward on US 2. You'll climb to Stevens Pass at 4045ft, then down to Leavenworth, a beautifully located Bavarian-themed village where you can get German sausages, beer and cheese. Continuing south 22 miles, the scenery changes abruptly around Wenatchee, self-proclaimed 'world's apple capital.'

Now head north toward Chelan, home to a long lake of the same name that's very popular with boaters – you can camp and play on the beach at pretty Lake Chelan State Park. Next up is Winthrop, another themed town – but with a defined Wild West atmosphere that might bring out the cowboy in you. Further north, the outpost of Mazama is the place to stock up before hitting the desolate North Cascades.

Your gears will work hard on the engineering feat that is US 20, and the scenery will be spectacular. Stop at Washington Pass and Rainy Pass for stunning views of nearby peaks. If you feel like hiking, consider the 6.2-mile Maple Pass Loop Trail or the 7.4-mile trudge up to Easy Pass.

Hike, boat or just enjoy the wild scenery at Ross and Diablo Lakes. Heading west, the Skagit River Valley opens up as you drive through Marblemount and Rockport. Your road trip ends at Burlington.

When to Go

The summer months of June through September are the best times, when all roads are snow-free and passable.

The Route

From Everett climb southeast toward Stevens Pass, then down to Leavenworth and Wenatchee. Go north through Chelan and Winthrop to the outpost of Mazama, then climb up US 20 through the spectacular Washington Cascades. The road opens to a valley at Marblemount, then down to foothills and your drive's end at Burlington.

Time & Mileage

This loop is around 350 miles; expect to be on the road at least four days.

Worthy Detour

North of Burlington about 20 miles is historic Fairhaven, where you can start a beautiful Puget Sound tour that takes you south along Chuckanut Dr and through Whidbey Island to end at Langley, an endearing seafront community.

Lewis & Clark Trail

Few places symbolize the grandeur of the Pacific Northwest like the Columbia River Gorge. Start along this massive cleft of 4000ft cliffs and drive by countless waterfalls, while the mighty Columbia River follows along and Mt Hood lurks behind, in all its 11,250ft glory.

Why Go

Towering waterfalls, excellent hiking, unparalleled scenery, fruit farms and wineries – what else could you want from a long weekend? Add snowcapped Mt Hood, and the diversity becomes surreal.

Starting in Portland, drive east on US 84 and take exit 22 to US 30 (the Historic Columbia River Hwy). Soon you'll hit the Portland Women's Forum and Crown Point, both with absolutely stunning views over the gorge. Staying on US 30, you'll pass various waterfalls; Multnomah Falls is the most famous. Just to the east, Bonneville Dam and Bonneville Fish Hatchery are both fun and educational. And to stretch your legs, the beautiful Eagle Creek Trail is the gorge's most popular – and moderately easy.

Now cross the Bridge of the Gods to Washington, where you can visit the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center Museum. Further east, Dog Mountain is another popular hike, but strenuous – and with amazing views. At White Salmon, cross back to Oregon and stop at Hood River, a mecca for windsurfing and kite-boarding. Its downtown is a pleasant place to explore as well, and there are plenty of places to sleep.

Point your car inland now; you'll follow US 35 to US 26, then head west. At Government Camp, drive up the road to Timberline Lodge, a great place for awesome views of Mt Hood, along with food services and trailheads. There's plenty of camping and other hikes in the area, so fill up on the outdoors before heading back to Portland via US 26.

When to Go

Early spring is best for gushing waterfalls and wildflowers. The gorge is known for its cherries, which peak in early July, and apples and pears, best in the fall. Summer is great for hiking.

The Route

From Portland, your drive goes east on US 84, then onto the Historic Columbia River Hwy. Back on US 84, you'll head inland via US 35, then back to Portland via US 26.

Time & Mileage

This loop is around 175 miles; expect it to take two days.

Worthy Detour

At Hood River, keep heading east. You'll notice an abrupt change in the scenery as the western gorge's forests turn to dry mountainsides. Stop at Rowena Crest for mind-blowing vistas, and Columbia Gorge Discovery Center for the area's history. Further, on the Washington side, is the excellent Maryhill Museum of Art – and a full-size replica of Stonehenge.

Oregon's Cascades Scenic Byway

This trip epitomizes Oregon's outdoors aesthetic. It's perfect for the road-tripper who wants to hike for hours, find hidden waterfalls, swim in crystal-clear lakes, see endless miles of forest – and, at the end of the day, strip down to soak in a natural hot spring.

Why Go

The Oregon Cascades are a nonstop parade of forests, lakes, mountains and waterfalls. Start in Bend, the most outdoor-focused city in the state. Now head north to cute Sisters, with its mild Wild-West atmosphere.

You'll climb to Dee Wright Observatory, a unique viewpoint that looks over lava fields and to mountain peaks. Not far away is pretty Proxy Falls, an easy 1.3-mile hike. Further on, highly developed Belknap Hot Springs makes a great stop to soak away road sores.

McKenzie Bridge is a magnet for fishermen, but there's great hiking and white-water rafting too. Just south lies scenic Terwilliger Hot Springs, a much more rustic alternative to Belknap. To the south is Oakridge, Oregon's mountain-biking mecca, with hundreds of miles of glorious single-track trails. Beyond is another soaker, McCredie Hot Springs, along with Salt Creek Falls, Oregon's second-highest waterfall (after Multnomah Falls) at 286ft.

Now come the lakes – Waldo, Odell, Crescent, Davis, Lava, Elk, Sparks – and reservoirs like Wickiup and Crane Prairie. If you like to fish, swim, boat and camp, this region is your paradise. Finally, loop back to Bend and civilization.

When to Go

Go June through September for the best weather and to avoid seasonal road closures.

The Route

From Bend you'll head north to Sisters, then climb up Hwy 242 through the Cascades toward McKenzie Bridge and Oakridge. The loop then heads southeast via various lakes and reservoirs toward Mt Bachelor, then back to Bend.

Time & Mileage

This loop is 240 miles; expect to be on the road about three to four days.

Worthy Detour

Best known for its glorious, 500ft welded-tuff cliffs that attract rock climbers from all over the world, Smith Rock State Park also offers stunning scenery and hiking trails. It's just 25 miles north of Bend.

Sea to Sky Highway

This short drive reveals the essence of British Columbia's coast, with majestic sea and mountain views, opportunities to get active or watch wildlife, and a peek into rich Native American cultures and pioneer history.

Why Go

The coastal scenery here is magnificent, as are the deep forests, crashing waterfalls and lofty mountains. You can see it all in a day, making this trip nearly too good to be true.

Green-forested hillsides tumble down around the village of Horseshoe Bay, which has a pleasant small-town vibe. Grab some organic coffee and head up on Hwy 99 north to Porteau Cove Provincial Park, once a Native American fishing site and now a haven for divers and beachcombers.

Next up is Britannia Beach, an old copper-mine site where you can visit the Britannia Mine Museum and take a mine tour. Just north, Shannon Falls torpedoes 1100ft down, and Brackendale is home to the largest population of wintering bald eagles in North America. Nearby, Alice and Brohm Lakes offer hiking and swimming.

Further north is Tantalus Lookout, a viewpoint that looks across the Tantalus Mountain Range and Squamish peoples' old hunting grounds. Now go 14 miles to Brandywine Falls Provincial Park, where a dramatic waterfall plunges 230ft into a pool. Your last stop is gorgeous Whistler, famous for skiing in winter and hiking and mountain biking in summer – along with plenty of upscale shopping and restaurants.

When to Go

Visit from June to September for hikes, or November to March for snow.

The Route

It's a straight shot from Horseshoe Bay to Whistler, along Howe Sound's coastline and up Hwy 99 through mountainous forests.

Time & Mileage

You'll go 82 miles over one or two days on this route.

Highway 101 Oregon Coast

Oregon's scenic, two-lane Hwy 101 follows hundreds of miles of shoreline punctuated by charming seaside towns, exhilarating hikes and ocean views. Everyone from nature lovers to families can find their dream vacation along this exceptional coastal route.

Why Go

From the California border to Gold Beach – renowned for its Rogue River fishing and jet-boat excursions – is some of Oregon's most magnificent coastal scenery. Heading north, the quaint hamlet of Port Orford has a few art galleries, fine restaurants and stunning state parks, including Cape Blanco, home to Oregon's oldest lighthouse and some exhilarating views.

Further north, Bandon has a picturesque downtown harbor and beautiful rock formations just offshore. Check out the sandy hills at Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. These are the largest expanse of oceanfront sand dunes in the US, and hugely popular with hikers and dune buggies (but not in the same place!). The little town of Yachats offers great walks along its gorgeous coastline and nearby in Cape Perpetua.

In Newport, don't miss the first-rate Oregon Coast Aquarium. Just north is Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area, boasting amazing tide pools. If it's the season, take a whale-watching excursion at Depoe Bay, which claims to be the 'world's whale-watching capital.'

Keep heading north, stopping at the Tillamook Cheese Visitors Center for some free samples; Pacific Seafood, nearby in Bay City, is the place for the fastest oyster shucking you'll ever see. Meanwhile, small and upscale Manzanita offers a relaxing, laid-back atmosphere.

Exclusive Cannon Beach is great for people-watching, boutique shopping and fine dining. Finally, cute Astoria has a family-friendly atmosphere, plenty of services and great historical attractions to keep you busy.

When to Go

The best time to travel Oregon's coast is June through September. You'll get the warmest weather and most services, though accommodations will be at their scarcest and priciest.

The Route

Don't expect to drive fast on this direct US 101 route. Most of this highway is two lanes, with occasional slow trucks and RVs, and it goes through many small towns (or larger cities with stoplights).

Worthy Detour

Three Capes Scenic Drive is a worthwhile and beautiful 35-mile detour off Hwy 101. It passes Cape Meares, Cape Lookout and Cape Kiwanda, all with great walks and panoramic ocean views.

Time & Mileage

Oregon boasts 363 miles of coastline, all publicly accessible. Expect your adventure to take at least one to two weeks, depending on stops.

Snippets

  • Top Tips

On some of these trips (like the Washington or Oregon Cascades) gas stations are sporadic, so top up whenever you can. Leave yourself extra time to explore unexpected sights along the way. Pack a bag in case you fall in love with a place and decide to stay overnight!

  • What to Bring

Ensure you take your swimsuit, good walking shoes, rain gear and other layers, and sun protection.

  • Best Experiences

Whale-watching and beachcombing along the Oregon coast, counting volcanoes in the Washington Cascades, hiking inside ancient forests at Olympic National Park, and taking in spectacular views along British Columbia's Sea to Sky Hwy.