A Beginners Guide to Exploring the Pacific Northwest
So, you want to explore the Pacific Northwest but don’t know how to begin?
There’s no denying the iconic beauty of the stretch of land that makes up Washington state and Oregon—from glacier-capped volcanoes to majestic waterfalls. The northwest corner of the United States is a must-see addition to any bucket list, especially when traveling by car. The journey along the way is just as intriguing as the scenic stops on the road, but if you’re a first-time visitor planning a road trip to the rugged coast, your options can be overwhelming. A trip to the Northwest will leave you feeling like you barely scratched the surface, so I’ve created a quick guide to some of my favorite stops worth visiting between Seattle and Portland.
Start in Seattle, Washington
Seattle is a great starting point for your Pacific Northwest road trip. If you fly into Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA), you can hit the ground running. There is no shortage of neighborhoods to explore, foods to try, and, of course, outdoor adventures. Be sure to stop at the Pike Place Market for fresh fish, produce, and specialty foods.
There are over 100 islands off the coast of Washington—Vashon, Blake, and Bainbridge Islands make for great day trips from Seattle. They are accessible via ferry and are less than an hour and a half away. You can indulge in kayaking, fishing, or biking on the islands.
Mount Rainier National Park features an active volcano that can be seen from hundreds of miles away. The massive park can be intimidating, but the good news is you don’t have to wander too far to get jaw-dropping views. The Paradise area of the park lives up to its name, offering short, relatively easy hikes that lead to hidden waterfalls, lakes, and stunning viewpoints.
Mount St. Helens
Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument is another iconic place to visit in Washington State. The volcano last erupted in 1970 and is actively monitored and relatively safe for visitors. If you’re up for a thrill-packed adventure, you can apply for a permit to climb the active volcano. There are also plenty of Washington camping options in this location. You don’t have to be a hard-core mountain climber to enjoy trails around Mount Rainier. There are plenty of scenic and interpretive trails to enjoy the unique characteristics in this area of Pierce County.
Continuing to Portland, Oregon
Fun fact: Portland has more craft breweries than any other city in the United States. That alone is reason enough to visit the "Weirdest City in the USA." It’s a guarantee you won’t be short of entertainment in this metropolis. Aside from being home to another major airport, it’s also a great central hub to take day trips from. You can enjoy the hustle and bustle of the city or chase waterfalls in the Columbia River Valley.
No road trip to the Pacific Northwest is complete without stopping at Cannon Beach, one of Oregon’s most iconic landmarks. The quaint beach town is most known for its dramatic coastline featuring Haystack rock, and you can capture breathtaking panoramic views of the entire coast at Ecola State Park nearby. A $5 fee is required to enter the protected land, but it’s worth every penny; in addition, because overnight parking is not allowed, I suggest staying at an adorable seaside cottage or boutique hotel.
Tillamook, located on the bay, is best known for the Tillamook Creamery. However, this unique town offers way more than delicious cheese and ice cream. Cape Lookout State Park, a few miles south, is a great place to stop for a picnic and explore some shorter trails that’ll reward you with fantastic views of the Pacific Ocean. You can also make a stop in Oregon’s wine country for a tasting or a tour of lavender fields and lessons on making essential oils.
Mount Hood is a vast territory known for the famous Timberline Lodge and several lakes and waterfalls available to explore nearby. In the wintertime, it’s a snowy ski resort, but in the summer, the same area provides Oregon with the most beautiful hiking trails. One of the most common ways visitors photograph Mount Hood is via lake reflections on a clear morning. If you’re looking to capture some beautiful Oregon waterfalls, consider taking the long (but worthwhile) hike to Ramona Falls or the easier trail to Tamanawas Falls.
If You Have Time
The Pacific Northwest is loaded with scenic routes and fun outdoor activities. If your schedule allows for it, there are several other noteworthy adventures to include on your road trip. You can spend time in Washington at Diablo Lake, Ross Lake National Recreation Area, or the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. You can also head to the Olympic Peninsula to take in mountain views and relax at the hot springs. In Oregon, you can visit Crater Lake National Park, paddleboard down the Hood River, hike God’s Thumb, or have fun exploring Devil’s Punchbowl. No matter what route you decide on, you’ll be in for a coastal treat that will leave you coming back for more.