Looking for some cool Washington state road trips? Since I moved to Seattle a few years back, I’ve taken no fewer than four road trips around the state, checking out everything from the natural beauty of its mountains and coastlines to the character of its small towns.
This article lays out four lengthy Washington state road trips. Some include big cities like Seattle and Spokane. Other include the state’s three national parks. One provides the opportunity for whale watching from shore. Another covers lots of kooky roadside attractions and historic locations.
Some of these can be done as weekend or day trips from Seattle. Others may require a couple extra days if you really want to get your money’s worth.
These are the four Pacific Northwest road trips I recommend. Read on for lots of details and photos for each one!
1. National Park Road Trip (Seattle > Mt. Rainier > Olympic National Park)
2. Central Washington (Leavenworth > Wenatchee > Ellensburg)
3. Coastline + Mountains (Seattle > Anacortes > Cascades National Park)
4. Spokane + Eastern Washington (Spokane > Coulee Dam > Coeur d’Alene)
Road Trip #1: Washington National Parks Road Trip
(Mt. Rainier & Olympic)
If you want to cross off two amazing national parks in one road trip, follow this route. You could spend a week in Mt. Rainier and another in Olympic National Park, but it’s possible to experience them both in just a few days if you just want to see the highlights.
Mt. Rainier is that massive, imposing, incredible snow-covered peak that you see flying into Seattle. Rainier is actually an active volcano that last erupted around 1890. The peak is more than 14,000 feet high, and it’s by far the most topographically prominent mountain in America, as it towers 13,200 feet above the surrounding landscape.
Mount Rainier National Park is an awesome place for hiking and camping. It’s best to give Rainier at least a couple days, but you can see the main highlights in a single day if you’re short on time. Stop at the Henry Jackson Visitor Center and take some of the hiking trails by the parking lot. Visit Narada Falls, Reflection Lakes, Kautz Creek Nature Trail, and any other areas that look cool as you drive past. Here’s an extensive list of things to do at Mt. Rainier.
Once you eventually leave Rainier, preferably after a night’s sleep at Paradise Village Hotel, head to the Olympic Peninsula. I like to take the northern route to Port Angeles. Grab lunch there and explore the town.
If you have an extra day (and your passport!), you can even leave your car and take the ferry across the Salish Sea over to Victoria, the capital city of British Columbia, Canada! It’s close enough that you can see Victoria across the water, and you can pick up Canadian radio stations as you drive.
From Port Angeles, you’re not far from the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center in Olympic National Park. That’s a great place to grab brochures and hiking maps. Be ready for the altitude – at 5245 feet, it’s nearly a mile high!
The High Ridge Trail is a nice easy hike at the visitor center. It’s a 1.5-mile loop that dips into an open valley and some more forested patches.
Spend the night in Port Angeles if you like. Most of the lodging options here are national chains like Days Inn or smaller local motels. The Royal Victorian Motel is one of the best of the bunch. In the morning, make the two-hour drive to Hoh, one of the largest rainforests in the U.S.
PRO TIP: There aren’t many places to eat between Port Angeles and Hoh Rain Forest, so plan accordingly. The small town of Forks does have a few sit-down restaurants and a Subway sandwich shop.
The Hoh Rain Forest gets about 128 inches of rain annually, making it one of the rainiest places in the lower 48 states. Hoh is part of the national park, and it has a visitor center.
Watch for elk near the road when you get close to the visitor center. Be sure to walk the nature trails in the immediate area, including the Hall of Mosses, a trail that passes through a forest of tress draped in moss. It’s a really unique sight.
Once you depart Hoh Rain Forest, get back on Route 101 and head to the shore! The road reaches the Pacific Ocean at Ruby Beach. There are several pullouts and places to park along the 11-mile stretch of road between Ruby Beach and Kalaloch Campground. The rocky shoreline has some awesome scenery.
I recommend staying at Kalaloch Campground, which is also part of the national park (so book early!) This is a nice campground with sites atop the rocky cliff that overlooks the ocean. The views are incredible, and if you come at the right time, you can even see gray or humpback whales swimming right offshore!
Gray whales usually pass by here in April-May, and again in October-November, when they migrate between Alaska and California. But you can sometimes see them at other times. I stayed at Kalaloch in late August and saw several whales swimming past. I couldn’t believe how close they were. The 40-foot beasts were literally right beyond where the waves were breaking!
After leaving Kalaloch, it’s only three hours back to Seattle. On the way back, you’ll pass through Olympia and Tacoma. If you have time, finish your road trip by checking out the state capitol building in Olympia and the Museum of Glass and Chihuly Bridge of Glass in Tacoma.
Road Trip #2: Quirky Attractions of Central Washington
(Leavenworth, Peshastin Pinnacles, Wenatchee, Dry Falls)
This one is actually my favorite of the Washington state road trips from Seattle. Even though it doesn’t include any major cities, the Central Washington excursion passes by some of the quirkiest attractions in the state, including the Bavarian town of Leavenworth, the largest (dry) waterfall in the world, and a gas station shaped like a teapot. Plus two truly unique state parks!
Heading east from Seattle through the mountains on Route 2, stop first at the Wayside Chapel in Sultan. The empty church is just four pews, and there’s nobody inside, unless you bump into other folks who like oddball roadside attractions.
Next, pause at the Espresso Chalet on the side of the road in the town of Index. That’s where you can pose with a Bigfoot statue, created in honor of the 1987 film Harry and the Hendersons. The movie filmed in this location, and the coffee shop has all sorts of Bigfoot-themed memorabilia for sale three decades later.
Then comes Leavenworth, a city of 2000 whose entire business district is designed to look like a Bavarian town. Between the design of the buildings and the shops selling bratwurst, chocolate, cheese, you may feel like you’re in Germany.
Leavenworth is hugely popular on weekends, when Seattle residents flock there for festivals and fun. That’s doubly true during the holiday season, when the city gets decked out in Christmas decorations.
Leavenworth is a good place to spend the night, though rooms can be pricey and they can sell out. The Bavarian Lodge is your best bet, since it’s within walking distance of everything. That will give you a chance to casually stroll down the main street and grab a few brews before bed.
On day two, head east from Leavenworth and you’ll notice the landscape immediately change from green forest to brown desert. This part of Washington is completely different from the forested regions people are used to. Start with a morning hike on the hillside at Peshastin Pinnacles State Park, where sandstone spires tower into the sky.
Then comes Wenatchee, a medium-sized city with lots of Mexican restaurants. One of them has a 10-foot-tall triceratops statue in its parking lot, for no apparent reason. More fun roadside kitsch!
Drive east 75 minutes to reach Dry Falls, the largest waterfall in the world! At least, it was the largest some 20,000 years ago. When the last ice age ended, melting glaciers caused waters to rush over these 350-foot cliffs. Dry Falls were five times the width of Niagara Falls. Imagine how powerful they must have been!
Today, there’s a visitor center and an overlook at the spot where the falls once flowed. There’s even a gravel road that goes deep into the canyon. You can hike around the lakes and meadows that have formed in the open space.
Head through the town of George, Washington (get it?) and swing by the Shree’s Truck Stop gas station to take a selfie with the statue of George Washington himself.
Then, head south and cross the mighty Columbia River to stop at Gingko Petrified Forest State Park. The park has a cool museum and a “Trees of Stone” interpretive trail where you can see several different kinds of petrified wood remnants preserved in the ground. Fun fact: Petrified wood is Washington’s official state gem!
The next historic site on your central Washington road trip is the Hanford Reach National Monument. This place has an interesting history. The Hanford Nuclear Reservation was used in the 1940s to manufacture the plutonium that was used in the Nagasaki atomic bomb from World War II.
The reactor ceased operation in 1968, and the land has been untouched since then, so in 2000 it was turned into a national monument. Some areas of the monument are open to the public for day use, while other sections are not. I chose to just drive by and grab some distant pics of the “B Reactor” which made that historic bomb.
From there, it’s onto another gas station. But this one doesn’t actually sell gas. The Teapot Dome Service Station in Zillah, Washington gets lots of visitors because it’s shaped like a teapot! Look at it there, with its handle and spout. The pumps no longer dispense gas. The building now serves as the Zillah visitor center.
You can either make the 105-minute drive straight back to Seattle, or stay the night in Ellensburg at Hotel Windrow, the city’s nicest hotel, and drive back in the morning. If you choose the latter option, grab dinner at the Palace Café, an Ellensburg institution since 1892. And don’t forget to take a photo with the bizarre coyote-human statue at 209 N. Ruby St.
I was really happy with how many cool sights were packed into a two-day road trip. Don’t ignore this central part of the state!
Road Trip #3: San Juan Islands + Cascade Mountains
(Anacortes & North Cascades National Park)
Driving time: 6 hours, 30 minutes
Total time needed: 3-5 days
Where to Stay: San Juan County Park campground or Earthbox Inn (San Juan Island); Moran State Park Campground or Landmark Hotel (Orcas); Campgrounds in North Cascades National Park
As weekend getaways from Seattle go, this one’s got to be one of the coolest for people who love the outdoors – AKA, everyone! This road trip essentially combines the San Juan Islands Scenic Byway and the North Cascades Scenic Byway.
The San Juan Islands offer tons of opportunities for camping, hiking, and seeing orca whales from shore, while North Cascades is one of the USA’s most overlooked national parks.
The San Juan Islands are the series of islands between the mainland of Washington state and Canada. Seattleites love these islands. We flock there in droves every weekend during the summer to get away from the city.
The two main islands people visit here are San Juan Island itself, which is where several orca whales swim past nearly everyday; and Orcas Island, which is bigger and has attractions like the Mt. Constitution peak.
Bring your tent and camping gear, and definitely bring a kayak if you have one. Reserve a camping spot in advance and stay a night or two on either or both islands. Book spaces on San Juan campgrounds here. Or grab a fancy room at Earthbox Inn & Spa.
Start by making the 90-minute drive from Seattle to the ferry terminal in Anacortes, where you’ll catch a ferry to the island of your choice. You can drive your car right onto the ferry. It’s about $34 round-trip to take a standard-sized car to Orcas Island, or $40 to go to Friday Harbor (San Juan Island). Budget another $17 if you want to ferry between Orcas and San Juan.
If you visit San Juan Island, be sure to stop at Lime Kiln Point State Park, which is regarded as the best place in the entire world to see orca whales from shore. Seriously, you can sit on a picnic bench and watch the orcas swim past everyday!
There’s no telling what time they might visit. Sometimes it’s in the morning, and other times it’s late afternoon. During my only visit to Lime Kiln, I missed the orcas (sad face). They have signs letting visitors know where and when the orcas were spotted.
If you choose to explore Orcas Island instead, you’ll have hiking and camping options there, too. I stayed for a couple nights in Moran State Park and did some kayaking on Mountain Lake. I recommend camping at Moran State Park or grabbing a room at the gorgeous Landmark Orcas Island Condo Hotel.
I also hiked (okay… I drove) to Mount Constitution, the highest point in the San Juan Islands at 2410 feet. That may not sound very high, but remember that the surrounding terrain is basically at sea level.
There’s a tower from the 1930s at the peak of Mt. Constitution, giving visitors a chance to climb even higher to get some awesome views of the water and nearby islands. You can see American islands and Canadian islands all in the same glance, because they’re so close together here!
You could spend a full week just in the San Juan Islands if you want to. But I recommend you drag yourself away and make the trip to North Cascades National Park. Most of North Cascades is inaccessible by car. It’s deep, remote forest that few humans ever venture into.
Stop off at the visitor center to pick up a map and choose which hiking trails you might want to try. Or plan ahead and get yourself a spot at a campground so you can stay overnight and have more time to explore the national park before making the 2-hour drive back to Seattle.
Hiking is the main recreational activity for casual visitors to North Cascades. Many of the hikes ascend mountains and provide stellar views at the top, so you’ll have some great rewards if you want to work for it.
NOTE: This road trip really only works from around April to October. During the winter months, much of the North Cascades Scenic Byway (Route 20) closes entirely because the high-elevation area gets dozens of feet of snow.
Road Trip #4: Spokane + Eastern Washington
(Soap Lake, Coulee Dam, Coeur d’Alene)
The best Washington state road trips should include both natural beauty and man-made wonders, and this one does that. It’s a road trip from Spokane for folks on the eastern side of the state.
If you’re not a Spokane local, check out some of its more interesting places before leaving the city. Attractions include the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture, the Bing Crosby Boyhood Home and Museum, the Gonzaga University campus, Spokane Falls, and Riverfront Park.
Start your road trip by taking a leisurely 2-hour drive west on Routes 2 & 28. If you love small towns, this part of the trip will be awesome. You’ll pass through one little town after another, before reaching Soap Lake. With its population of 1500, Soap Lake is a “booming metropolis” compared to the other towns on this road.
Soap Lake itself, the body of water, is a popular swimming area. The lake got its name from the soapy-looking foam that sometimes froths up on its shore. This is caused by the huge amount of naturally-occurring minerals in the water. The foam doesn’t appear often anymore, but it’s still cool to see the lake.
Grab a meal at a diner in Soap Lake, then head north to Grand Coulee Dam. This engineering feat is considered one of the largest concrete structures ever built. Finished in 1942, the dam took eight years to build. It stand 550 feet and stretches nearly a full mile long. It was named one of the seven civil engineering wonders of the U.S. Woody Guthrie even wrote a song about it.
You’ll want to be at the dam in the evening, because that’s when you can see the nightly laser light show. The free 30-minute show projects laser lights on the dam, with music and narration to tell the story “One River, Many Voices.” Stay at the nearby Columbia River Inn and you can walk right to the dam.
On day 2, it’s time for a ghost town! Govan, Washington emerged in 1889 as a stop on the Central Washington Railway. A community of farmers and rail workers sprang up, but the town essentially died after a 1927 fire destroyed the business district and in 1933 when a major road was built around the town instead of through it. Today, only a few buildings remain standing in Govan – a couple houses, and the 1905 schoolhouse.
Next, it’s on to another historic attraction, Fort Spokane, which was built along the Columbia River in 1880 to maintain peace between white settlers and native people. The visitor center is operated by the National Park Service and includes a museum with exhibits about the “Indian Frontier” and the history of the area.
Drive two hours east toward the town of Nine Mile Falls (unfortunately, there isn’t an actual waterfall here anymore.) Nearby Riverside State Park is a good place for a picnic lunch and/or an afternoon workout on the park’s 55 miles of trails. Or, drive another hour east to Mount Spokane State Park, which has 100 miles of scenic trails in the forests of the Selkirk Mountains. Drive or hike to the top of Mount Spokane (5883 feet) and you’ll be able to see all the way to Canada.
Finally, you can’t visit Spokane without heading 30 minutes east into Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. This city has grown a lot in recent years, with the addition of ski resorts, theme parks, and other tourist attractions.
If you like history, check out the Museum of North Idaho. The museum isn’t anything special, but it does educate visitors on the history of the region’s people and industries. And it’s only four bucks for admission.
From the museum, you can walk right to Coeur d’Alene City Park. It’s a great downtown park with a large sandy beach on Lake Coeur D’Alene. If you visit during the summer, expect to see lots of folks at the beach.
Spend the night in Coeur d’Alene at the Greenbriar Inn, a historic building from 1908 which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In the morning, if you’re not ready to head back to Spokane just yet, drive another hour east to check out the mountain town of Wallace, Idaho. The historic mining town is full of character, with breweries, museums, and outdoor activities like ziplining and kayaking. Then head back to Spokane to wrap up your journey.
Other Washington State Road Trips
These four road trips are enough to keep you busy for quite some time, but the amazing thing is that we haven’t even covered everything that Washington has to offer.
Other possible Washington state vacations include a trip to the Columbia River Gorge, the National Scenic Area which forms the border between Washington and Oregon. The canyon runs for 80 miles and it’s a paradise for outdoor activity.
Another of the top Washington state road trips is a visit to the southeastern part of the state. Stay in the city of Walla Walla and explore its surrounding wine country region.
Do you have a favorite weekend trip from Seattle?