I love a good road trip. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of setting off to some distant place, knowing it will take you days to reach it, not knowing what adventures await you along the way. There are many reasons I enjoy living outside of the US, but few places can rival my homeland’s epic assortment of road trips just begging to be embarked upon. Several years ago, my friend Brandon and I drove through most of the western US visiting some of the most stunning natural wonders I’ve ever seen. Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, and the absolutely stomach-churning Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park were but a few of the highlights.
Road trips are the equivalent of human wings. Ask me to go on one, anywhere. We’ll stop in every small town and learn the history and stories, feel the ground and capture the spirit. Then we’ll turn it into our own story that will live inside our history to carry with us, always. Because stories are more important than things.Victoria Erickson
That trip three years ago helped ignite a desire inside to better explore my home country, so when my friend from New Zealand mentioned wanting to road trip down to California, I immediately began planning the ultimate Pacific Northwest road trip: following Highway 101 down the Washington and Oregon coasts into California to see the redwoods before crossing the Cascades and driving back home via Crater Lake National Park.
Day One: From Skagit Valley to Port Townsend
Skagit Valley made a good starting point for our adventure, and not only because that’s where I’m from. It is the access point for getting to Whidbey Island, and the destination for westward-bound Highway 20 when it comes over the Cascade Mountain Range. With the route I’d planned, everything worked out to a nearly perfect loop. With our bags packed, cooler loaded, and an epic road trip playlist all queued up, we set off along Highway 20 bound for our first stop: Deception Pass State Park.
Deception Pass State Park
Named by George Vancouver after he and Joseph Whidbey failed to find it while exploring Skagit Bay, the site is now the most-visited state park in Washington State, and for good reason. Pebbled beaches, several lakes, and a great trail system make it an awesome spot, to say nothing of the queasiness-inducing bridge towering 55 meters over the churning waters below. Be sure to walk across the bridge — see if you can do it without grabbing onto the handrails!
Fort Ebey State Park
Whidbey Island is home to the area’s Naval Air Station but was an even more integral part of the West Coast defense network during the Second World War when the Japanese threat was imminent. A number of forts lined the island — replete with concrete bunkers and gun batteries trained on the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Several of these forts have been turned into state parks, including Fort Ebey and Fort Casey. Visitors can wander the concrete passageways, crawl into foxholes, and immerse themselves in a troubled history. If the pall of military gloom is too much, head to the bluffs and breathe deeply of the Puget Sound.
Easily one of the most charming towns in the PNW, Port Townsend is a National Historic Landmark due to its abundance of Victorian-era architecture and features many waterfront dining options for visitors. Taking the ferry to Port Townsend by way of Whidbey Island is by far preferable to driving around Puget Sound through the urban anthills of Everett, Seattle, Tacoma… ugh. No, the best way to reach what was once called the City of Dreams is to approach from the Sound, watching the turrets and trims of the antiquated buildings draw near.
Day Two: From Port Townsend to Seaside
Our second day of the trip would be spent skirting Olympic National Park on our way to the Oregon border. An iconic area of Washington State, the park protects a significant portion of the Olympic Peninsula and contains four distinct regions. We would be visiting three of them: the alpine region of the Olympic range, the coastline, and the temperate rainforest between them.
Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park
First up was Hurricane Ridge, a place I hadn’t been to since childhood and one of the most accessible views in the entire park — you can drive right up to it! A park ranger was giving a talk as we arrived, so we sat down and listened to him tell us about the history of the park and the stages of conservation which have taken place since its founding. After, we walked along some of the meadow trails which criss-cross the ridgeline, soaking in panoramic views of the surrounding peaks.
Continuing along the peninsula eventually took us south, through the utterly unremarkable town of Forks, and into the forests of the park before bringing us at last to the Pacific Coast. We knew we’d arrived because the blue sky disappeared beneath a funereal shroud of fog and the temperature dropped alarmingly. The first chance to see the ocean while heading south along Highway 101 is at Ruby Beach, so we pulled off and walked among the tidal pools and sea stacks. It’s a good spot to visit if you haven’t purchased a pass for the national park, as none is required to enjoy the beach.
Quinalt Rainforest Trailhead
Just off the 101 along a narrow loop road, the Quinault Rainforest Trailhead is a well-maintained, easily walked 1/2-mile interpretive trail which gives visitors a glimpse into the lush ecosystem that is a temperate rainforest. Old-growth trees, decomposing nurse logs, and a woodland creek are all hallmarks of the trail, and the sound of birdsong is a constant companion.
Day Three: From Seaside to the Oregon Dunes
Our drive down to Seaside from the Washington-Oregon border the night before had been in darkness, so we spent the morning exploring the popular resort town with my parents, who were staying there on holiday. With its beachfront boardwalk, saltwater taffy, and overall infusion of nostalgia, Seaside is the kind of place that hearkens back to the glory days of American beach vacations and is a favorite for both young and old.
Saltwater Taffy and the Seaside Boardwalk
Taffy is one of those love it or hate it treats, usually a fond callback to a childhood memory for those who enjoy it. That’s what it is for me and my family, so a visit to one of the many saltwater taffy shops in Seaside was a must for our visit. The variety of flavors can be overwhelming, so sometimes it’s best to get a small sampling of everything to determine which ones you like the most. Once your taffy haul has been secured, head out along the boardwalk or to the sand to enjoy a day on the beach at Seaside.
Further down along the Oregon coast is the stunning town of Cannon Beach, with the imposing Haystack Rock dominating the view no matter which end of the beach you’re at. Rent a fat bike to ride along the shore, or take your shoes off and go for a stroll. If you time your visit right, you might even see some puffins nesting on the rocks offshore.
As anyone who knows me will attest, I have an unhealthy affection for ice cream. Unhealthy, but not unwanted. I love ice cream, even if it’s cold outside, and anyone who lives in the PNW knows that Tillamook Creamery makes some of the best ice cream out there. That creamery lies right on the 101 and offers visitors the chance to take a free walking tour through a section of the factory. It’s fascinating, even if you’re not an ice cream fanatic, and there are a cafeteria and shop downstairs for those looking to pick up some ice cream, cheese, or other concoctions for themselves.
The coast of Oregon is dotted with many secluded beaches and coves, with sand that your feet will sink into and cliffs that waves crash themselves against tirelessly. One such beach that is relatively easy to access is in Pacific City, but the main draw here isn’t the beach itself. Rather, it’s the brewery built right at the edge of the sand, serving up refreshing pints and fantastic food as the surf rumbles in the distance. It’s one of my favorite breweries (location-wise) and well worth a stop as you work your way south.
Cape Perpetua Scenic Area
Seventy miles to the south is the Cape Perpetua Scenic Area, a 2,700-acre protected area where the Siuslaw Forest meets the Pacific Ocean. Jagged cliffs rise from the churning water below, topped by a thick covering of trees — some bent and warped by the incessant wind. A few picturesque lighthouses dot the coastline, like Heceta Head Lighthouse, pictured below. It’s an area worth stopping in, perhaps even for the night!
Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area
We didn’t stay in Cape Perpetua, however, having a long day ahead of us on the morrow. Instead, we drove straight down to the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, enjoying a stunning sunset over the dunes before making our way to a nearby campground in darkness. The dunes are both along the shore and further inland, with a whole host of dune-related adventure activities on offer for those staying a little longer. Riding dune buggies, dune boarding, horseback riding, and more… all are possible in and around Dunes City!
Day Four: From the Oregon Dunes to Klamath Falls
We woke up early the next morning, emerging bleary-eyed to a place we’d only seen in darkness the night before. Breakfast was a simple affair, and we set out soon after for our first stop of the day: Jedidiah Smith Redwoods State Park in California. That turned out to be a longer drive than expected, however, and there was a lot to see on the way, so we ended up stopping at Battle Rock Beach instead…
Battle Rock Beach
Named for a battle which took place in the 19th century between the Quatomah tribe and men led by Captain William Tichenor, founder of the nearby settlement of Port Orford, Battle Rock is a community-maintained park with a nice little beach and the chance to spot gray whales offshore. There’s a visitor’s center, as well as toilet facilities, making for a great little stop just off the 101.
Jedidah Smith Redwoods State Park
After crossing from Oregon into California, we said goodbye to Highway 101 and took 197 south before turning east onto Highway 199 — also known as the Smith River Scenic Byway. The difference from the coast was stark, and we found ourselves swallowed up in a towering grove of redwood trees. By redwood standards, the trees weren’t the largest, but they were still pretty darned tall. When we disembarked in Jedidiah Smith Redwoods State Park, it was hard not to keep staring up at the giants around us as we walked around.
There’s a river flowing lazily past the parking area there, water sparkling and pristine. Feeling the summer heat and worn out from a morning of driving, we changed into swimsuits and swam in the perfectly chilled water. Best idea ever!
That was our last stop before making it to Klamath Falls — smoke from wildfires down near Mount Shasta choking out the sky above and forcing us to drive with the windows rolled up. It was an ominous feeling, and we half expected to come around a bend in the road and be face to face with a wall of flames.
Fortunately, there was nothing but smoke, and even that had mostly dissipated by the time we reached Klamath Falls.
Day Five: From Klamath Falls to Bend
We had crossed the southern edge of the Cascades the day before and found ourselves in an arid desert with shrubs and short, gnarled trees intermixed among the ponderosa pines. We had a relatively short day of sightseeing that day, with most of the day devoted to exploring Crater Lake National Park to our north.
Crater Lake National Park
The drive up Highway 62 into the heart of the park is stunning, with numerous viewpoints to stop and check out gorges, waterfalls, and more. But nothing compares to cresting the rim of the crater and getting out of your car to see the lake in all its splendor stretched out before you.
Much to Melissa’s chagrin, I’d planned a short hike for the day, and we set off along the dusty switchbacks to the top of Garfield Peak. It’s a relatively easy hike accessible from the main parking area, made uncomfortable by the almost total lack of shade on the way up. But the view from the top — seen above — is just incredible.
We made some friends along the way, little ground squirrels waaay too familiar with humans. It’s important not to feed them, as this only worsens their acclimatization to humans.
Deschutes Brewery and Public House
Our destination that day was Bend, Oregon — a cool little town that reminds me in many ways of my university town of Bellingham. It’s something of a Beer Mecca and — at the end of last year — had 22 breweries in operation. For a city of 80,000 people, that’s not bad! Perhaps the most well known of these is Deschutes, responsible for such beers as Black Butte Porter and Mirror Pond Pale Ale. It’s a great place to experience Bend, and has a wide range of dishes to choose from — including some vegetarian options.
Day Six: From Bend to Twisp
The penultimate day of our trip was to be the longest and most brutal — 8+ hours of driving along the kind of long, straight roads that make you want to just take a wee nap behind the wheel. We’d be going north from Bend into Washington State, then winding our way up to the little frontier town of Twisp.
The Ghost Town of Shaniko
First up was Shaniko, a Wild West-styled town that has been all but abandoned. A few residents have stuck it out, keeping the heritage of their town alive in the walk-through exhibits that can be found in some of the buildings. There’s a jail where you can see what it’s like to be on the other side of the bars, a schoolhouse, and even a still-operational general store with a grumpy granny manning the till.
The Murals of Toppenish
Our next stop was on the Washington side of the border, in the little town of Toppenish. Located on the Yakima Indian Reservation, it’s another frontier-style town with a unique feature that sets it apart from others in the state: it’s absolutely covered in murals. There are more than 75 throughout the town. They show the history of the area, both from the Natives who first lived in the area and the settlers who arrived later.
Lake Chelan is one of the most popular summer destinations for Washingtonians, with tons of water-sport activities, numerous resorts and campgrounds dotting its shore, and good hunting opportunities in the surrounding hills during the fall. It’s a stunning area, and well worth taking the time to explore — even if it’s just for a dinner break. The lake itself is over 50 miles long, so we only saw a small portion of it from the town of Chelan.
Day Seven: From Twisp to Skagit Valley
We’d arrived at our AirBnB the night before, thoroughly exhausted after an entire day on the road. It was a small studio at the back of a couple’s property — cozy and quaint. After staying in a city the night before, it was nice to fall asleep to the sound of crickets.
Breakfast at Cinnamon Twisp Bakery
A hidden gem in Twisp is the Cinnamon Twisp Bakery, located just off the main drag and serving up the eponymous pastries which give the restaurant its name. They have meals too, and it made for the perfect little breakfast spot. Highly recommended!
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Sheri’s Ice Cream in Winthrop
A short distance from Twisp is the town of Winthrop, yet another Western-style town turned into a tourist destination. It’s a particularly special place for me, as my dad’s side of the family would go there every summer for a week of camping, playing in Lake Pearrygin, and eating ice cream at the best ice cream shop in the state… Sheri’s Ice Cream! With homemade ice cream, candy, and more, it’s a paradise for children and the young at heart, and I love it just as much as I did as a child. A visit to Winthrop is incomplete without a trip to Sheri’s… I recommend the lemon custard!
Blue Lake Trail
We left Winthrop and drove along Highway 20 over the Cascades, a mountain range I grew up seeing every day on my way to school. It’s a road full of nostalgia for me, as it was the route we took to Winthrop every year. Now, it’s a hiking paradise, and I’d done a great hike to Cutthroat Pass on the PCT several weeks previously with my friend Brandon. Melissa isn’t as much of a trail addict as us, though, so I’d lined up an easier jaunt in the form of the Blue Lake Trail. It’s a short hike with an epic payoff: an alpine lake hemmed in by towering peaks… just stunning.
Diablo Lake Overlook
The weather turned on us partway through the hike, and a freezing rain made us hasten back to the car. However, by the time we’d gone a little further, it began to clear, giving us the perfect window to enjoy the vista of Diablo Lake below us. A manmade lake created by the damming of the Skagit River, it’s known for its stunning turquoise color from the rock sediment ground off by glaciers in the mountains above.
I think it’s one of the most beautiful spots in the PNW. Don’t you?
The drive back home seemed to stretch forever. I’d driven over 1,500 miles, and I was ready to not touch the seat of a car for at least 24 hours (though I would’ve preferred a week!). But that feeling of rolling up the driveway after a long, epic road trip… that was pretty awesome.
Want to do a similar trip? I’ve put together a route with key interest points in the Google Map below — feel free to use it and let me know what you think of the places I recommended!
For some epic hike and brewery recommendations, check out Beer Hiking Pacific Northwest — the book my friend Brandon and his partner Rachel (writing as Beers at the Bottom) have written that pairs 50 hikes with 50 breweries in the PNW. It’s the perfect accompaniment to this adventure!
How about you? What’s an epic road trip you’ve done recently? What tips can you share for others looking to follow a similar route? Share your stories and recommendations in the comments below!