The Great Pacific Northwest Road Trip is an epic journey that showcases the PNW’s most iconic scenery as well as a number of hidden gems.
This trip has it all. Get ready to embark on a grand tour of the region encompassing all that makes the Pacific Northwest a special place beloved by adventurous people. The coast, the Cascades, the desert, the rainforest, and every town along the way all add to the magic of the PNW. It’s time to see it all for yourself.
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The Great Pacific Northwest Road Trip
Traversing the most epic territories within Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, this road trip leaves plenty of room for customization. This is an excellent route broken down into several sections. For each section, you’ll find highlights, interesting side trips, places to stay, plus some place where you can save some time if you’re on a tight schedule.
This epic PNW road trip includes:
- 2870 Miles
- 54 Hours of driving
- 14 National Forests
- 4 National Monuments
- 4 National Parks
- 3 States
The journey as we put it together starts and ends in Seattle, but the road also passes through other urban areas including Portland, Boise, Bend, and Spokane. You can start this loop from wherever you’d like.
Take a look at the complete route on Google Maps to follow along as you read the guide below. At a comfortable pace, the entire journey will take about two weeks. Make it your own, though, and enjoy the ride.
Related Read: The Ultimate Portland to Seattle Road Trip Itinerary
PNW Road Trip Section by Section
Seattle to Spokane
This first stretch of the Great Pacific Northwest Road Trip starts off in the skyscraper canyons of downtown Seattle. Our chosen route travels northward along the eastern edge of the Puget Sound and then turns east as it winds through the magnificent Northern Cascades.
Once you’re done exploring the evergreen mountains, you’ll drop down to the Columbia Plateau and cross over an early stage of the grand Columbia River at Chief Joseph Dam before arriving at The Lilac City of Spokane.
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North Cascade National Park
The rugged mountain landscape and heavy snowfalls of North Cascades National Park severely limit winter exploration of the area, but the roadside views are spectacular throughout the year. The entire park is mostly protected as wilderness. There are wondrous hikes and backpacking trails aplenty for the most intrepid of explorers.
Ross Lake National Recreation Area
Ross Lake is a popular recreation destination in the Northern Cascades. It’s a 23-mile long reservoir that extends beyond the national border into Canada. There are camping and hiking opportunities galore, and the lake is renowned for its stellar fishing. You can also opt to spend some time at the unforgettable floating Ross Lake Resort.
Certainly worthy of its own mention, Lake Chelan is the largest lake in the state of Washington and is the 26th deepest lake in the world with a maximum depth of 1486 feet. Visitors can stay at the remote tourist town of Stehekin which can only be accessed by long-distance hikers, such as those that arrive via the Pacific Crest Trail or by boat. The Lady of the Lake passenger ferry is a relaxing and romantic trip that carries travelers across the lake.
Where to Stay
Spokane to Boise
Incredibly scenic and remote, this section of the Great Pacific Northwest Road Trip starts with a short drive to the beautiful lakeside town of Couer d’Alene. Leaving the city behind, the road turns south and hugs the Salmon River as it threads its way between three different national forests.
Our route loops out to eastern Idaho to include the Sawtooth Mountains and the Craters of the Moon National Monument. Though these are stupendous places worthy of a visit, this part can be easily cut out to save a full day or more of driving by rerouting directly to Boise.
The waterfront district of Coeur d’Alene is a delightful place to grab a meal or stay the night. The marina, golf course, restaurants, and parks allow for hours or even days of entertainment. Tubbs Hill is a fantastic urban hiking area along the waterfront with easy trails and excellent views of both downtown and the lake.
Take a Hike: Guide to the Best Hikes Near Spokane
Craters of the Moon National Monument
Craters of the Moon is an awe-inspiring destination. It is literally a vast ocean of lava rock. Here you can explore 410,000 acres of basalt floodplain filled with lava caves, gigantic cinder crags, and, of course, plenty of extraordinary volcanic craters.
Wallowa Whitman National Forest
Full of hiking and backpacking trails, the Wallowa Whitman National Forest stands out because of its sky-high granite peaks and the lush diversity of its flora and fauna. It’s an expansive forest that includes the Eagle Cap Wilderness within its borders, a hidden gem of the Pacific Northwest reminiscent of California’s Sierra Nevada.
Taking a detour a Lewiston, Idaho will lead you toward Joseph, Oregon and Wallowa Lake, as well as the primary entrance into the grand Eagle Cap Wilderness. The town of Joseph is named after Chief Joseph, of the Nez Perce Tribe. The area is rich in indigenous history. The lake is gorgeous, and there is a spectacular tramway that can take you straight to the mountain tops.
Save Time: Stay the course due south on Highway 55 and head straight to Boise.
Boise to Bend
This is an arid trek through Eastern Oregon with many geological oddities to see and plenty of pioneering history to explore. The route we chose travels north to Baker City and cuts through John Day. The southern Highway 20 is a quicker route, but the northern passage is much more interesting.
You’re on the historic Oregon Trail now, and there are plenty of points of interest in the early stages of this section for history buffs to discover. Most of the towns on this road have the look and feel of the Old West, and that’s because some of these places haven’t changed much in the last 100 years.
Baker Historic District
Located smack dab in the middle of downtown Baker City, this district is rife with artifacts and properties that date back to the 1800s. The Baker Heritage Museum is a treasure trove of interesting stories to absorb, and the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center lies just 5 miles down the road.
John Day Fossil Beds National Monument
The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is actually divided into three sections, two of which are on this route. The Sheep Rock Unit features a mesmerizing canyon drive and an awesome fossil museum filled with animals that no longer exist which were discovered in the nearby John Day Fossil Beds. The Painted Hills Unit is another spectacle deserving of a pit stop.
Lake Owyhee State Park
If you’re interested in a remote, lightly-visited state park to spend some time exploring, Lake Owyhee is a gorgeous place to stay. It’s a long lake that fills a deep canyon, the walls of which are vibrant with colorful volcanic rock. Bighorn sheep frequent the area, and there are several varieties of fish to catch in the reservoir.
Smith Rock State Park
Smith Rock is known as the birthplace of rock climbing, but you don’t have to scale the cliff faces here to enjoy their beauty. This is a relatively small park with a 4-mile loop trail that covers most of what there is to see, but it is absolutely stunning. There are often dozens of climbers at a go which can be just as interesting to observe as the lovely scenery.
Where to Stay
Bend to Crescent City
Outdoor lovers could easily spend a week or more in Bend without running out of fun things to do and places to explore. From backpacking around the Three Sisters to skiing to slopes of Mount Bachelor and kayaking the white water of the Deschutes River, the recreation opportunities are truly endless.
Yet there is so much else out there between Bend and the coast that you’ll have to whittle down your options to make the most of your time. Your mind will be blown the first time you see Crater Lake in person, Cave Junction has awesome spelunking tours, and a walk through the Northern California redwood forests can be a life-changing experience.
Crater Lake National Park
Oregon’s crown jewel, Crater Lake‘s sapphire waters are breathtaking to behold. This is the only national park in all of Oregon. It is a natural wonder that one could see from every possible angle without growing tired of its presence. There are trails and roads all the way around its rim to explore.
Take a Hike: Guide to the Best Hikes in Crater Lake National Park
Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park
For as much time as you spend looking down at Crater Lake, you’ll be spending an equal amount of time looking up at the mighty redwoods at Jedediah Smith. These behemoths are a world apart from any other type of tree on this road trip, and they are a marvel that can only be truly experienced in person with your own eyes. This park contains 70% of all the old-growth redwood trees remaining in the entire world.
Newberry National Volcanic Monument
If you chose to skip over Craters of the Moon, you still have miles upon miles of lava to explore just outside of Bend. This monument features the Newberry Caldera, a large walk-thru lava cave, two lakes, the Deschutes River, and many hiking trails. Here you’ll also find the High Desert Museum which succinctly encapsulates the area’s geological and biological diversity.
Oregon Caves National Monument & Preserve
Near the Oregon town of Cave Junction lies the Marble Halls of Oregon. There is a massive marble cave to check out, parts of which are family-friendly, ADA-accessible, well lit, and offer interpretive signage. Cave tours are given by rangers. Within the cave lies the River Styx, the only designated subterranean Wild and Scenic River, which was named after the underground river from Greek mythology.
Save Time: Head northwest from Crater Lake toward Eugene and cut over to the coast at Florence, or head straight up to Portland.
Take a Hike: Guide to the Best Hikes Near Eugene, Oregon
Where to Stay
Crescent City to Portland
The Oregon Coast is special not only for its pacific beauty, but also because all 362-miles of coastline are designated as public land. From the sea up to the existing line of vegetation, all ocean beaches in Oregon are open to the public. This scenic coastal drive is made all the better by the fact that you can pull over at any of the countless waysides to dip your toes in the sand and surf.
And each town along the coast offers its own unique experience to travelers. Coastal towns are welcoming to tourists because tourism is a large part of the coastal economy. There are dunes for off-roading all up and down the coast, lighthouses and state parks aplenty to visit, and numerous charming seaside shops and restaurants to try with excellent seafood fare and cute beach town gifts.
At a glance, most people who see Astoria on a map would assume it’s just another coastal town, but it’s not actually on the pacific coastline. Astoria is a historic port town set on the southern bank of the Columbia River Delta. Nearby Fort Stevens State Park is a popular beachside park and campground, and the Lewis and Clark National Historic Park is another historic park worth a visit.
The big city has its appeal too, and it’s a nice change of pace after a long trip up the laid back coast. Portland has its own vibe, and it’s generally a pretty friendly city to explore on foot. If you’ve still got the itch to get outside and hike, though, you’ll want to take a look at our article on the best hikes in and around Portland.
The Beach, Everywhere
No two stretches of beach are the same in Oregon. Some are riddled with dazzling agates to collect, others are home to mini-ecosystems like tidepools and sea caves, while others are loaded with piles of driftwood, broken apart by freshwater streams, or adjacent to lively boardwalks. You’re sure to find something special about each beach you visit along this route.
Shore Acres State Park
Once a lavish estate of a wealthy timber baron, Shore Acres State Park is a beautiful combination of both natural and human-made wonders. Much of the park rests atop tall sandstone cliffs above the raging ocean where waves crash against upturned strata. A large, manicured botanical garden is maintained on the property, and there are multiple magical beach coves to discover.
Take a Mailboat up the Rogue River
This is less of a side trip and more of a thing to do, but you can turn this into an overnight or multi-day excursion. The Wild and Scenic Rogue River is mostly accessible only to hikers, rafters, and these mailboats. You can take a ride over 100 miles long and stay at a remote lodge far upriver from civilization and deep within the Wild Rogue Wilderness.
Where to Stay
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Portland to Seattle
It’s all about those snow-capped Cascade peaks, baby! This final stretch of the Great Pacific Northwest Road Trip winds through the region’s tallest mountains. Starting with a scenic drive up the Columbia River Gorge, the road skirts past awe-inspiring Mount Hood and then crosses the river to weave between Washington’s regal giants.
Mount Adams, Mount St. Helens, and Mount Rainier are the climax of this grand tour. But the final leg of the journey sweeps back over to the coast for one last glimpse of the Pacific Ocean and a tranquil ride through the temperate rainforests of Olympic National Park before arriving back at the Seattle Metropolitan Area.
Columbia River Gorge
A scenic drive unlike any other, the Historic Columbia River Highway follows the gorge upriver as the scenery transitions from temperate rainforest to arid grassland. Attractions along this road include dozens of plummeting waterfalls, volcanic geological oddities, and the ever-present looming peaks of Mount Hood and Mount Adams.
Mount Adams and Goat Rocks Wilderness
Driving by Mount Adams, you may not be able to help yourself from finding a trail to hike. There are several popular paths up to sky-high trails on Mount Adams and within the neighboring Goat Rocks Wilderness. Here, on a clear day, you’ll find alpine lakes, wildflowers, goats, marmots, and epic views of the surrounding mountains.
Olympic National Park
Return once again to the coastal beauty and dark rainforests of the Pacific Northwest’s coastline, but crank all of it up to 11 here at the national park. Olympic National Park is a verdant wonderland set just outside of Seattle. It’s wet, wild, and everything is covered in green. Moss and lichen abound, as do the terrific ocean views.
Mount Hood and the Timberline Lodge
You’ll miss much of the majesty of Mount Hood by bypassing it along the Columbia River Gorge. If you have a spare day, we suggest heading up to the mountain from the town of Hood River. The lodge is quite an interesting place, and it provides access to year-round ski slopes as well as the Timberline Trail which circumnavigates Mount Hood.
Take a Hike: Guide to Best Hikes at Mount Hood
Mount Rainier National Park
The pinnacle of the Pacific Northwest’s Cascade Range, Mount Rainier reigns above the region and can be seen from all across Washington and Oregon on a clear day. The national park provides a closer view of this iconic monolith. The mountain is what you make of it. There are miles of trails, suburban tourist attractions, scenic gondola rides, and so much more to discover on this mountain’s slopes.
Take a Hike: Guide to the Best Hikes at Mount Rainier
Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument
Known for its destructive eruption from a few decades past, Mount St. Helens offers a unique experience for adventurous folks who seek to climb or hike around the active volcano. You can experience first hand the remnants of the recent lava flow, the newly formed glacier, and numerous lava caves.
Save Time: Cut out either the mountains or the coast, or both, by heading up I-5 directly to Seattle.
Where to Stay
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Enjoy the Pacific Northwest
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