Talk to me about a Pacific Northwest Road Trip(ish)...
January 4, 2018 8:41 AM   Subscribe

For celebratory reasons, we're planning a trip (two adults) to the Pacific Northwest next year. If I run my vague (very very early planning) notions past you, do you have suggestions? Additions? Things to avoid? Details/special snowflake stuff inside...

* We are thinking of flying into Portland, and out of Seattle
* We will rent a car, but we aren't adverse to walking Portland
* We will most likely spend a few days in Portland (I have friends to visit)
* I'd like to hike the Mt St Helens area
* We're thinking about a casual drive up/around 101 to Olympic Nat Park/Forest
* I'd probably want to split that drive up across a few days (maybe stopping for an overnight in Astoria)
* He'd like to hike the Hoh rainforest
* The trip could be between 7-10 days, including flight days
* I'm not against a splurge or two, as far as meals or hotels
* He's omnivorous, I'm a borderline vegetarian, but we are food tourists
* Powells is 110% on the to-do list
* The drive will be part of the adventure, so I'm ok with stopping and doing small side hikes or detouring to see something unique/spectacular
* We're most likely looking at anytime between July - December

Thoughts? Anywhere we should stay? Eat? Shop? Can't miss? Avoid? What time of year? Are we crazy?
posted by librarianamy to Travel & Transportation around Washington (16 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I'd definitely aim more for the July/Aug/early-Sept timeframe. After that you'll have a significantly higher chance of rain and cloudy grey days. Summer will obviously be busier, but as a born-and-raised (canadian) Vancouverite (which gets the same weather as the PNW) my depression about dealing with the next 6 months of grey weather kicks in early October.
posted by cgg at 8:57 AM on January 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

I think if it were me I'd skip Mt. St. Helens because you'll have more than enough to do with the Portland/Hoh part of the trip especially if you want a day or two in Seattle (and if you're food people I'd suggest that). The rainforest area really has enough to fill a few days if you wanted. Would also suggest more summertimeish or into September. Autumn isn't really rainy but it can be grey, damp, etc. Portland airport is right on public transpo, so you could save some $$ by not renting a car until you leave town.
posted by jessamyn at 9:05 AM on January 4, 2018

Completely agreed with cgg on weather (they took the July-Aug-early Sept timeframe right out of my mouth!)

Summer in the Pacific NW is a gloriously sunny and dry time, particularly if you're used to hot and muggy Eastern summers. It's also by far the best time to do anything outdoors, as snow can start in the mountains very early in the season, and a lot of the outdoors stuff in the region is mountainous or at altitude.

At Mt. St. Helens I recommend the Harry's Ridge Hike, which gives you both really nice views of the mountain and of Spirit Lake.

And finally, I know it isn't mentioned in your list, but if you are a food tourist and you can swing it in your schedule, I highly recommend making it to Vancouver, BC -- don't get confused as there's another Vancouver in WA, just across the state line from Portland. (Even if it doesn't work for this trip, perhaps another time.)

IMO (and as a Chinese/Taiwanese-American who grew up in the LA area) Vancouver has the best Chinese food in North America, as well as an excellent Asian food scene in general. If you can pass through on a weekend the Richmond night market is fabulous. Stanley Park is also one of the top urban parks and a great bike ride.
posted by andrewesque at 9:07 AM on January 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

A couple things to consider on the Olympic Peninsula:

-Cape Alava Loop: gentle hike to, and along, the coastline. Sea stacks, petroglyphs.

-Hurricane Ridge: drive to a 5200 ft elevation, park, walk around and gape.

Getting to Seattle via the Bainbridge Island ferry makes for a lovely approach (you can drive to Bainbridge from the Olympic Peninsula side). Views of Seattle, Mt. Rainier (on a clear day) and the Olympics. Deposits you downtown.
posted by baseballpajamas at 9:29 AM on January 4, 2018 [2 favorites]

If you're leisurely going up 101 from Portland, this drive is a little longer, but way prettier than the alternatives. A large portion of it hugs the Colombia and takes you through some really lovely forests. It's not as traveled as other highways out to the caost. You could do worse than launching off your northbound trip in Astoria. is pretty great. It's a lovely little town.
posted by furnace.heart at 9:59 AM on January 4, 2018

Response by poster: Not threadsitting (but thank you all so far!)
Previous trips we loved: Vancouver, Coastal Alaska, Seattle
Future trips planned for when we can truly take our time: All of the islands in Puget Sound, the greater British Columbia surrounds (basically, I need to earn another week's vacation before we do those...)
posted by librarianamy at 10:04 AM on January 4, 2018

You can cross "all the islands in the Puget Sound" off your list. Not really worth the effort, IMO. The San Juan Islands, yes, not to be missed. But they're not in the Puget Sound.
posted by humboldt32 at 10:21 AM on January 4, 2018

Well you'd need your own boat and a couple seasons for 'all' the islands but definitely get on the ferry even for an out and back. A day trip out of Anacortes is incredible.
posted by sammyo at 11:23 AM on January 4, 2018

Ooh, I always adore this question, for this corner of the country is my favorite. Here’s an answer I gave a while back that delves a bit further south, but includes some wonderful stuff on the Oregon coast that doesn’t require heading down 101 very far.

One thing to keep in mind if you’re going to do the Hoh, *ahem* is that what cgg said about glorious summer weather is entirely true. From July through August we are the driest—statistically least likely to get rain—region in the entire country. But I don’t consider that a bonus, not if you’re in the Hoh. I’ve been there in August, and it’s usually dry and boring. Sure, there’s still lots of moss hanging everywhere, but it all looks like tinder. If you’re expecting a temperate rainforest, July and August are your worst chances to see what you’ve no doubt imagined—and September is hit or miss. In short, I'm completely at odds with cgg's and jessamyn's preferences for sunny weather. Cloudy, gray, and wet is what defines the PNW, and when I personally think it is at its most beautiful. There's a silvery cast the light gets here through our persistent very low cloud deck that I've never seen anywhere else, where the light is so diffused, all shadows simply vanish, like the air itself is producing a silvery light. It's breathtaking, and even a bit eerie when you start looking for it, and you won't see it in summer.

Also, if you’re driving from Portland along 101, you will be hard pressed indeed to stretch this trip 7-10 days as the entire way is easily covered in a single day even first heading over to 101 from Portland (It's a 3 hour drive, including horrendous traffic, if you come straight up I-5). If you’re enjoying the idea of a road trip, I’d also consider heading over the passes into eastern Washington. The terrain over there is glorious, and unbelievably different from that west of the Cascades. It's difficult to express just how extreme the terrain differences can get here, and they're all beautiful. The Columbia river gorge, the Channeled Scablands, the Palouse, Grand Coulee dam, there’s loads and loads more to see on the East side. I've mentioned it before, but Washington state's East side is like a foreshortened geographic recapitulation of all the terrain you'll encounter driving through South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho.

No matter what you decide though, and when you decide to do it, this corner of the country is still very, very pretty. Oh, and here's another answer I provided covering a few of the things in Seattle. Enjoy your trip, and welcome to the PNW!
posted by los pantalones del muerte at 11:51 AM on January 4, 2018

Seconding making the trip out to the Columbia River Gorge; there's a scenic highway there that's very pretty, Multnomah falls, etc.

If you don't mind trying something a bit out of the way (1.5 hour drive south from Portland), I personally love hiking at Silver Falls State Park.
posted by Aleyn at 1:08 PM on January 4, 2018

The Lewis and Clark sites if you like history.
posted by brujita at 1:40 PM on January 4, 2018

Take a least a day trip down the Columbia Gorge, preferably at least as far as The Dalles or Biggs, with a stop in Hood River for food and shopping. Better yet, take two. Stay the night in Hood River, and add some time visiting waterfalls. I'd recommend driving one way on I84 (Oregon side), and the other on Hwy 14 (Washington side).

Oh, and try for September or before. If you want to avoid a lot of the tourists, September (and sometimes October, depending on if it's warm and dry or rainy and wet) is excellent. Just be warned - there *are* the rare years (like 2017!!!) where the wildfires make life miserable, and can really mess up life for even the locals, not just traveling plans.
posted by stormyteal at 1:46 PM on January 4, 2018

Um, August and September have the most glorious weather when the PNW is not on fire. Which it increasingly has been during those months in the past few years. Also I completely agree with los pantalones that cloudy, gray and wet is what defines the PNW, but if you're not into that, I would go for June or early July, just to be sure of avoiding the worst of the smoke.
posted by HotToddy at 2:19 PM on January 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

HotToddy has a good point about the wildfires... It might not be so bad next year, but you're taking your chances. July is a really good month for this area I think.

Mt. St. Helens -- If you haven't been in a lot of recently-active volcanic areas before, I think St. Helens is totally worth seeing. The Johnson Ridge observatory is really well done (see the short films!) and there are some nice hikes, including Harry's Ridge mentioned above, starting from there. There should be wildflowers in July.

If you don't have one already, from your description, it might well be worth getting an annual pass for national parks/forests. It costs $82 or something and gets a car into national parks and serves as parking pass for national forests where a fee is charged. Johnson Ridge observatory charges $8 per person, but the pass gets 4 people in.

Unless you specifically want the view of fog/clouds, don't plan your best sightseeing to be early in the day. The fog here is serious, especially in the gorge and on the coast, but elsewhere too. It usually lifts by midday.

Research trip reports to find out about trail AND road conditions. Don't hesitate to call park staff/forest service to check for road closures (wildfires, landslides, etc.).
posted by bread-eater at 5:33 PM on January 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

We were in the Hoh this past August. It wa# sunny and warm and not tinder-like at all. Plenty of water in the river and tributaries.
posted by lhauser at 6:58 PM on January 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

I've done something like this twice, once in April and once in October. It was amazing both times.

Portland. Pretty compact and walkable. On the April trip, we rented bikes for the day, which expanded our range somewhat. The Japanese Garden is worth it, and is pretty accessible via transit. (Blue or Red to Washington Park which is where the zoo is, and there is a free hop-on-hop-off bus that takes you to the gardens.) There is also a Chinese garden, which is small but nice especially if they have an event of some kind. After Powell's, have an ice cream flight at Ruby Jewels. Once you're done with Portland proper, take the train to the airport and rent your car.

Columbia River Gorge. We did several hikes along the gorge (Mt Hood was closed for snow, however) and stayed overnight in Hood River before heading back east-ward. Multnomah Falls was huge but very crowded; we skipped it.

Astoria has very classic Victorian/Queen Anne architecture. The view from the Astoria Column is amazing. I was less than impressed with the town, though it's a good place to break the long journey from Portland to Hoh.

The Hoh Rainforest is huge. We spent two nights in Quinault, in the SE corner of the park, followed by one night in Port Angeles which is about three inches from Canada. Definitely do the Hurricane Ridge trail if you are staying in PA. First time (April) we had to turn back because of heavy fog; but the second time (October) it was sunny and clear and cold and absolutely stunning. Ruby Beach is closer to the Quinalt section of the park (borders Hoh reservation) but is worth the detour.

Enjoy your trip!
posted by basalganglia at 3:40 PM on January 5, 2018

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