The Pacific Northwest: A Travel Itinerary
We spent two sun-filled weeks exploring the Pacific Northwest in July 2021. As much as we love our camper, this trip was more feasible for us if we flew. If that seems out of reach for you, here are the ways we make this type of travel more affordable for our family:
Flying: We use Southwest Airlines points and companion passes in order to fly our family of five affordably. Pre-covid, business travel helped us earn SWA points. Post-covid, we have a SWA credit card and earn points that way. If you fly early in the day and midweek you can usually get more for you points. On a trip like this, we book the cheapest flights we can and then build the vacation around those dates.
Lodging: Without our camper, of course, that means we need lodging as well. We stay at Hilton properties wherever they are available, again utilizing points. I love Hilton properties. Even in less desirable locations, they have always been reliably clean and consistent on our travels. There is also a “points and money” option when booking, which can help you spread your points out more and get a great room at a lower price than other places. Keep in mind, not all Hilton properties include a free breakfast. Something to consider when budgeting for your meals. One other thing to note about accommodations is that we have a family of five. So, we bring along a travel cot for our “extra” child. It is a cot that is lightweight and folds up into it’s own canvas travel bag. It doesn’t have a mattress, it is more of a canvas sling style cot. It has been essential to us in our overnight stays since most places are set up for only four people. It is also often cheaper to get a room for only four people and then use our cot. I always message the owners of the AirBnB properties to make sure that’s ok, and they typically don’t mind at all.
Food: When we travel without our camper, we also don’t have a kitchen. We bring an empty cooler along and check it with our bags. We store our empty water bottles in it during the flight. Remember when you are planning to hike at high altitudes in warm weather, you are going to need lots of water bottles! Once we arrive, we hit the grocery store and load the cooler with snacks and lunch food. This is essential when visiting remote areas where lunch won’t be available, when trying to stick to a specific diet, or if you want to save money on your food budget. Three restaurant visits a day for a family of five can get costly.
However...if you can do this trip with your trailer, that would be ideal. There are some really cool campgrounds along the coast where you can camp right on the beach, or very close to it. You would have to plan far in advance to book those sites though, as they are a hot commodity. Forest service land is also plentiful throughout the PNW, so you would have no problem finding sites to boondock throughout most of this itinerary as well, which doesn’t typically require advance reservations. Camping allows you to immerse yourself in your surroundings in a way that hotels and rental houses just can’t, and we found ourself missing our camper often on this trip.
Ok, now on to the itinerary that we followed for our two week road trip through the PNW.
Fly into Portland and pick up your rental car.
Depending on your flight’s arrival, you could see some of the sights around Portland on this day. Ours was a long day and all we wanted was to eat and sleep.
Overnight in Portland, OR
We stayed at a Hilton Property on the west side of town, since that was the direction we were heading in the morning. We chose a local McMenamins restaurant location within a short drive from our hotel. Portland seems to love their McMenamins, which is kind of like a local version of Applebees, but with more unique locations. We didn’t know it at the time, but this began our two week long fried food tour of the Pacific Northwest. Great food was not really something we found a lot of in the PNW. We ate a lot of fish & chips and cheeseburgers & fries.
McMenamins locations: https://www.mcmenamins.com/eat-drink
Visit Cannon Beach, Ecola State Park, and
Lewis & Clark National Historic Park
Cannon Beach is a PNW staple that everyone knows from the Goonies movie. Haystack Rock is a well known and an easily identifiable landmark that you’ll want to see. As with every beach you’ll visit on this trip, going at low tide is best. You can walk all the way out to Haystack Rock at low tide, and explore the tide pools at its base. You can easily spend a day in Cannon Beach if you want to shop and eat. It’s a fun little town. We stayed in Astoria because we were using Hilton Points, but this would also be a fun location for an overnight in a rental.
Cannon Beach Info: https://www.cannonbeach.org
Ecola State Park and Indian Beach are just north of Cannon Beach. The drive to the beach takes you through a forest with some big trees. The open space at the top of the beachside cliffs offers great views. There are trails here as well if you have the time to hike.
Ecola State Park: https://www.ecosia.org/search?q=ecola+state+park
Lewis & Clark ended their trip west here at Ft. Clatsop. They built the original fort for their winter accommodations, as they had in other locations along their route. You won’t need to spend much time here. There is a replica of their fort, visitor center where you can get your Jr Ranger books/badges or passport books stamped, and some trails. It’s worth a visit.
Lewis & Clark National Park: https://www.nps.gov/lewi/index.htm
Overnight in Astoria, OR
The Hampton Inn Astoria is a great facility located right on the Columbia River. There is a nice outdoor sitting area where you can sit and watch the ships come and go on the river. Download the app Marine Traffic and you can type in the name of a passing ship to see where it is headed, what it’s carrying, and where it came from. My husband and kids love to do this and will even check in later to see where a favorite ship is located once we’ve left the water front. This hotel also has a paved walking path that you can follow along the river in both directions. A short walk out on the nearby pier will bring you to a coffee shop and brewery for lunch or dinner. There is a very small, quaint museum of local history on the pier as well, since it was originally the home of a Bumble Bee Tuna cannery.
Drive north & visit the Quinault Rainforest
This was our first visit to the temperate rain forest, and our first stop in Olympic National Park. Drive the south south side of Lake Quinault and stop along the way to hike to the waterfalls and see the massive trees. What you choose to stop and do is really up to you and your schedule. Download the waterfall guide linked below to help you decide which ones fit into your plan. The number of waterfalls that you can visit in the PNW can be overwhelming!
This website was very useful in finding waterfalls to visit throughut the peninsula:
The world record Sitka Spruce tree is located on an easy trail near the southeast corner of the lake. After you've driven the length of the south side of the lake, the paved road will end. As you drive east you will follow a river for a bit until you find a bridge to cross over to access the north side of the lake. You may feel like you are lost, or if you are like my husband, you may feel like you have finally started having fun when your tires hit the dirt road. But if you don’t go this way your other option is to backtrack west and then drive the north side of the lake to the visitor center and backtrack again to get back to the highway. Circling the lake will bring you to the first Olympic NP visitor’s center you will come to, hidden back at the northeast side of the lake. Grab your Jr Ranger books, get your passports stamped, and make sure you notice the beautiful ceramic artwork that you will only find at two of the Olympic visitor centers. We loved the Maple Glade Nature Trail at this location. It’s a quick and easy one with some really nice examples of Big Leaf Maple trees that are different than the maple trees we grow back home in Indiana. There is also a homestead here if you have more time or interest in exploring that.
World Record Sitka Spruce trail: https://www.alltrails.com/trail/us/washington/worlds-largest-sitka-spruce-tree
After your time in the Quinault area, continue to head north. We also stopped at Ruby Beach this day, but it wasn’t anything special for us. Probably because we didn’t make a point of visiting at low tide. We were supposed to look for the Tree of Life here, but kind of forgot and never found it.
Overnight in Forks, WA
We stayed in Forks for the next 3 nights. We opted for an AirBNB while in Forks. There are no chain hotels here, but there are a few small, local hotels. We love having an AirBnB with a kitchen when possible. There are very limited restaurant options in Forks, so having a kitchen here is smart.
Visit Rialto Beach
This beach had the best tide pools that we saw on the whole trip. There were so many and they were full of ocean creatures. We walked all the way down to the Hole in the Wall rock feature, which was a fun easy hike. As the fog cleared we able to see that there are pretty massive rocks and islands along the shore. Not sure they were ever fully revealed to us. So, coming here at high tide or on a sunny day would give you a totally different experience. Low tide was at 7:30 am on the day we visited this beach, which meant we woke pretty early (maybe 5:00 am?) so that we could see the tide pools. We were not the only crazy ones doing this. Parking lot was pretty full when we got there and there was a steady stream of people walking along the foggy shoreline with us. Another benefit of the early morning visit was that we saw a sea otter come out of the ocean right in front of us. He went in and out of the waves a few times and finally crossed the beach to scamper his way up into the woods. It was adorable.
We headed to La Push for lunch next. There is one restaurant located on the waterfront in La Push that we were told has excellent fish and chips. Unfortunately for us, they were closed for lunch that day because they were hosting an event. But if you can make time for a meal there, it has an excellent view of the island rocks.
River's Edge Restraunt in La Push: https://www.yelp.com/biz/rivers-edge-restaurant-la-push
We chose to pay the few dollars to visit the Forks Timber Museum while here, because my husband has his degree in Forestry. Forks calls itself the Lumber Capitol of the World so we had to see why. It’s an interesting place if you have an interest in the timber business.
Forks Timber Museum: http://forkstimbermuseum.org/index.html
Visit Hoh Rainforest
We visited the rainforest during a drought and unseasonable warm temperatures so the experience was not the lush, dripping wet, completely green one we were expecting. When we arrived in the parking lot, we got to see a park ranger armed with a paintball gun trying to encourage a large aggressive bull elk to leave the premises. So that was fun. We heard there were several female elk with calves hanging around at the campground as well. There is both a campground and visitor center at this location.
Hoh Rainforest: https://www.nps.gov/olym/planyourvisit/visiting-the-hoh.htm
The summer of 2021 was a very busy one in many national parks. The road into the Hoh Rainforest parking lot had signs posted that said “1.5 hours from this point,” “1 hour from this point,” “45 minutes from this point,” etc. This meant that the line to get into the parking lot that summer was consistently backed up each day. We again woke with the sun to insure ourselves a spot early and had no wait at all when we arrived around 8:00 am. When we left about noon, sure enough the line had formed and was all they way back to the 1.5 hour wait mark. So, always arrive early!
For the afternoon, we headed to see the Forever Twilight in Forks Collection, which is a small museum. The Twilight books are set in Forks, WA, so there are a lot of book and movie related things to do in this area. The Twilight museum has a lot of costumes from the movies. It was free and we have teenage daughters so why not?
Twilight Museum in Forks: https://forkswa.com/ftfcollection/
Because we were visiting during an unusual heat wave for the area, the temperature reached 90 degrees a few afternoons. We visited a local county park beach on Lake Pleasant where we heard there was a nearby waterfall that was fun for swimming too. So after swimming at the beach we found Beaver Falls and spent some time there wading in the pool at the bottom of the falls and jumping off logs.
Beaver Falls Trail: https://www.alltrails.com/trail/us/washington/beaver-falls
Drive Forks to Port Angeles
Along the way we stopped and did a short hike to Sol Due Falls. This was a great hike and the falls are really unusual. Totally worth it. You could visit the hot springs resort pools that are here too.
So Duc Falls Trail: https://www.alltrails.com/trail/us/washington/sol-duc-falls-nature-trail
The next leg of the drive brought us to Lake Crescent. We loved this lake. There are two different national park resort locations on this lake. One has a very Cape Cod feel to it with cedar sided cottages and a lodge with a restraunt. The other has a more northwoods feel with its log cabin style. Both offered rentals of kayaks, paddle boards, and other things. They also have life vests free to anyone swimming. The water in this lake is so deep, clear, blue…and cold! It was super refreshing for those that could get themselves to venture in (everyone except me). We loved it so much that we came back to swim the next day as well. It was a relaxing way to spend the late afternoon hours after hiking.
We dropped our bags at our next AirBnB in Port Angeles, grabbed some Jimmy Johns for dinner, and drove up Hurricane Ridge. The views of the Strait of Juan de fuca and the surrounding Olympic Range were beautiful as the sun set. We saw lots of deer and a few marmots. Its a really easy drive up the mountain to Hurricane Ridge.
Hurricane Ridge: https://www.nps.gov/olym/planyourvisit/visiting-hurricane-ridge.htm
Overnight in Port Angeles, WA
Port Angeles is larger than Forks, so you will have more options for chain restraints and food. There are still not a lot of hotel options, so we opted again for an AirBnB. It was just a block from a grocery store so easy to restock the cooler and buy some dinners to cook in our kitchen. We spent both of our nights in Port Angeles at the same AirBnB.
Visit Hurricane Ridge
We woke early again this day so that we would be guaranteed parking at Hurricane Ridge. We hiked some great trails right off the parking lot and the views were epic. After lunch we drove the dirt road out to Destruction Point. If you can handle driving a narrow two way dirt road that is often only passable by one vehicle, then this is a fun drive leading to solitude. Much fewer people at the trail head and parking lot out there.
After spending the bulk of our day at Hurricane Ridge enjoying the views, we headed back to Lake Crescent to swim one last time.
Drive the Hood Canal
We left Port Angeles and made our way south, down the eastern side of Olympic NP. There isn’t a lot to do here that is park related. You will also be driving the length of the Hood Canal, which is a glacial cut fjord. We found it difficult to find a spot to stop for a waterfront lunch or picnic, and ended up at some random marina on Quilcene Bay. Also along the drive we stopped and drove up Mt. Walker, where we caught our first glimpse of Mt Rainer off in the disantnce, as well as a view of Seattle across the Hood Canal. This stop is easy, quick, and worth the views.
My husband really wanted fresh caught oysters. We were surprised at the lack of local caught seafood along the entree Olympic Peninsula actually. So when we passed the Hama Hama Oyster Farm, we stopped and he ate a bucket all himself. It was a fun stop.
Hama Hama Oysters: https://hamahamaoysters.com/pages/visit-the-farm
There are several waterfalls you can stop and see along the Hood Canal. We opted to stop at Rocky Brook Falls, which was a short walk to access and had lots of locals swimming in the pool at the base of the falls. It would be a great place to cool off if you wanted to swim.
Rocky Brook Falls: https://www.alltrails.com/trail/us/washington/rocky-brook-falls
Option: If you wanted to cut this trip shorter, this is where you can choose to head all the way back to Portland and then fly hone the next day.
Option:If you wanted to add Seattle to your road trip, you can choose to catch a ferry on the west side of the canal and take it over to the east side, or directly into Seatlle. You could spend your night there (instead of Olympia) and continue on to the rest of our trip intenerary.
Overnight in Olympia, WA
We were back at a Hilton in Olympia this night which allowed us to drive by the state capitol, which sits at the southern end of the Hood Canal. Another option would be to drive a bit further to Ashford, WA so that you would be closer to Mt Rainerr NP, giving you a little more sleep in the morning.
Drive to Mt. Rainer
We woke early again so that we could get to Mt Rainer and not have difficulty with mid-day parking. We skipped the Longmire area and drove straight to Paradise. It’s hard to stop along the way when you know that Paradise awaits. And Paradise did not disappoint. It was incredible. Compared to Mt Olympic, Mt Rainer is so accessbilbe. It feels like you drive right up to the summit practically. The hiking here is intense. There is a lot of elevation gain to most hikes. Hike what you can handle and bring lots of water. We did several hikes here and spent the day. It was late July and the wildflowers were unlike any we have ever seen before. It truly feels like paradise. After already spending a week at Olympic NP, I was thinking that we should've maybe only planned a week and headed home at this point. Boy am I glad we didn’t do that. Mt. Ranier was the highlight of our two weeks. It’s a must for any NP traveler. There are lots of options for hikes here from the visitor center parking lot.
Mt. Rainer NP: https://www.nps.gov/mora/index.htm
Overnight in Packwood, WA
Though visiting Mt Ranier NP was our highlight, our accommodations here were actually the oppostie. They were the worst accommodations of our trip. Packwood is a great location as it sits near the southeast corner of the NP, but the town is small and there are very few options for lodging and food. The AirBnB rates that I saw were out of our price range so we stayed in two different local hotels. We were only able to get single nights, so though we spent two night in Packwood, we had to pack up and move to two locations. They were both way below what I think is acceptable for cleanliness, unfortuantely. If I had to do it again I would either book really far in advance to try and get the best AirBnB rate available, or splurge and get one anyway. For meals, Cliffdroppers had really good burgers and fries, including an elk burger option. The Packwood Brewery had decent “pub food” and we visited the Ice Cream Airstream both of our nights in Packwood. The upside of Packwood were the elk. The elk are plentiful in town and you are pretty much guaranteed to see some.
Packwood Brewery: https://www.yelp.com/biz/packwood-brewing-co-packwood-2
Visit Mt Rainer
Our second day in Mt Rainer NP brought us to Sunrise. This northeastern side of the park is similar to Paradise, but gives you a great view of the Emmons Glacier, which has the largest area of any glacier in the US. The hikes here were equally as nice as Paradise. We hiked, ate lunch in the picnic area, and hiked some more. Pick the hikes that work with your schedule and abilities.
Visit Mount St Helens
We were sad to leave Mt Rainer, but excited to move on to see Mount St Helens next. Anyone alive in the 80’s when it was erupting would love to visit this place. It was eerie during our visit due to forest fire smoke from around the state, which seemed to create a perfect ambiance for where we were. The neat thing about Mount St Helens is its story of succession and the fact that scientists have been surprised at how quickly life is returning to the land.
Mount St Helens: https://www.fs.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsinternet/cs/main/!ut/p/z0/04_Sj9CPykssy0xPLMnMz0vMAfIjo8zijQwgwNHCwN_DI8zPwBcqYKBfkO2oCADIwpjI/?pname=Mt+St.+Helens+National+Volcanic+Monument+-+Home&ss=110623&pnavid=null&navid=091000000000000&ttype=main&cid=null
Overnight in Ranier, OR
We opted for an AirBnb in Ranier for this night because it fit within our budget. We had used up all of our Hilton points with other stays, so this worked for us. You could also head back to a Portland location for this overnight just as easily.
Visit the Columbia River Gorge
Our last few days of vacation were spent visiting the Columbia River Gorge. We arrived at the Gorge on a Sunday, which meant large crowds. Our first stop was at the Crown Point Vista House, which offers great views from a high vantage point. We had plans to do more after this, but after locking the keys to our rental van in the vehicle and waiting quite a long time for a locksmith to come get them out, we were done for the day. We instead opted to go straight to our hotel in Hood River.
Columbia River Gorge: https://www.oregon.com/attractions/historic-columbia-river-highway
Overnight in Hood River, OR
Our Hilton was located right across the street from a pond and beach, making it a short and easy walk to the water. If you are able, get a water side room so you can watch the kite surfers from your room. We headed straight to the water upon arrival where we sat and watched the kite surfers, and then swam in the pond.
Hood River had the best dining options of all of the places we had visited in the PNW thus far. We ordered wood fired pizza to go and sat at the riverfront park to eat. We brought our own drinks that we purchased at the gas station along the way, again trying to stick to our budget. It was perfect.
Hampton Inn Hood River: https://www.hilton.com/en/hotels/pdxhrhx-hampton-suites-hood-river/
Visit the Columbia River Gorge
For the last leg of our Columbia River Gorge visit we first drove a little further east to see the change of landscape in The Dalles. The green, tree covered slopes of the gorge open up more, flatten out a bit, and are instead brown and lacking trees. There is more of a high dessert feel in the Dalles, which we hadn’t seen anywhere else on our trip. Then we headed back west to continue seeing the sights along Historic Route 30. Multnomah Falls, which is a very hyped location along the route, wasn’t nearly as nice as I expected. There were throngs of people even for a Monday, which meant we had to park 1/4 mile away and hike to it. Though it is technically a public land managed by the US Forest Service, it feels like a tourist trap. We found another great burger for lunch at the East Wind Drive In, Cascade Locks. We ate so many burgers on this trip.
East Wind Drive In: https://www.yelp.com/biz/east-wind-drive-in-cascade-locks
Overnight in Portland, OR
We spent our last night in a Hilton near the airport on the east side of Portland. We did head downtown for a nice dinner and to drive past some of the quintessential sights like Voodoo Donuts and Powell Books.
We had a short 15 minute drive to the airport and we were on our way back home. Goodbye PNW. Thanks for the memories.