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Washington / USA

16 day road trip in Washington state

Driving around Washington, in the northwest corner of the USA, is not one of the most common car holidays for us Swedes. You've probably already driven Highway one in California, driven to Key West in Florida, sunbathed in Hawaii, visited Las Vegas and New York, and maybe even admired the Grand Canyon. But it is now somewhere that you realize that what you have seen so far in the United States, is only the smooth surface of the great country. You want to see more of the snow-capped Rocky Mountains, more of the Pacific Ocean, more of the rumbling volcanoes, and more of the wildlife. It's time to hit the roads in Washington state. Here is a suggestion for a 16-day (and 300-mile) long road trip starting and stopping in Seattle, with plenty of time for both good food, adventure and a lot of country music on the car stereo.

Who is this road trip suitable for? Anyone who likes nature, animals, car holidays and hiking. Small and large!

Is this the ultimate itinerary for a Washington State driving vacation? Absolutely not! We were late with motel reservations and learned the hard way that accommodations sometimes run out. We had to live in different places than we originally planned (with longer driving distances per day than planned) and live at a very lower standard than we thought. I can't say that any of the accommodations after the road made a lasting impression, they have been smeared together in a two-star-motel-memorial gag...

When is the best time to go on this driving holiday? Many of the roads in this itinerary are only open seasonally, but usually the roads open in June and stay open into September/October. Please note that it is difficult to plan a driving holiday in Google maps before the roads have opened for the season, which is why I have not been able to use the usual 'from-to' function in the map below, but have shown the roads we actually drove .

What would we do differently if we went again? We would have booked cancelable accommodation as soon as we decided to go here (even before booking the flight), we would have spent more time hiking the volcanoes and we would have expected warmer weather - the temperature in July was up in 40 degrees several days(!), despite the fact that there was snow on the ground.

What do we need to think about before going on a driving holiday in the USA? Check out my driving holiday guide: 10 tips for the perfect driving holiday in the USA

Travel route (about 300 miles)

Day 1-3: Seattle
Day 4: Whale watching in Anacortes (13 miles)
Day 5-6: North Cascades National Park (19 miles)
Day 7: Among the cherry orchards in Chelan (35 miles)
Day 8: Dry falls and Gingko Petrified Forest (30 miles)
Day 9-10: Mount Rainier National Park (28 + 39 miles)
Day 11-12: Mount St Helens National Monument (30 + 45 miles)
Day 13-15: Olympic National Park (27 + 20 + 10 miles)
Day 16: Back to Seattle (13 miles)

Map with route

The different days are drawn in different colors, with sights and accommodation highlighted. However, the exact car route could not be plotted on the map, as Google maps only shows the current status of the roads - which in this case means closed roads and winter.

Days 1-3: Seattle

Driving a long distance on the same day you land in the USA, with a bad night's sleep on the flight and a 9 hour time difference, is not recommended. So just pick up the rental car and drive to your hotel and check in. On the first day, you usually crash just in time for dessert at dinner. The remaining two days you explore museums and sights in Starbucks' hometown.

One of the city's most famous places is Public market, the city's indoor market with flowers, musicians, hippie art and fish vendors. The most popular fish seller threw fish and crabs between them and had a monkfish that said "tickle me" on it. When children got close, they pulled a string that made the fish jump. Very popular with the younger members of the family.

Dare to defy the Starbucks monopoly and have a coffee at Seattle Coffee Works or Tully's instead. Similar to local coffee chains, but much cozier. Go up the famous observation tower Space needle, although there are a lot of people. From the top of the tower you can see the surrounding mountain ranges with the impressive Mt Rainier standing out higher than all the other volcanoes.

The last day in Seattle is recommended Woodland Park Zoo, shopping at Seattle premium outlets or a visit to Boeing's giant airplane factory.

See more of my photos from Seattle: Photo album from Starbucks hometown

accommodation: Just outside of Seattle

Day 4: Orcas in Anacortes

Seattle -> Anacortes -> Bellingham (13 miles)

Time to leave the big city's museum and shopping and head out on our road trip! Adventure – here we come! Before you leave civilization, make sure to buy lots of bottled water to take with you on the trip and preferably also a cheap cooler to keep your lunch cool during long driving days.

Today will be a full day out at sea on whale watching at Anacortes. Encounter curious killer whales, majestic bald eagles, and several species of whales before heading north toward Bellingham.

Read more Battle of the killer whales at the San Juan Islands

accommodation: Bellingham

Day 5: North Cascades National Park

Bellingham -> Mount Baker -> Bellingham (19 miles)

Today you take lunch with you in your backpack and drive in Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forestt towards Mount Baker Ski Area. Visit the waterfalls Nooksack falls, wander by Heather Meadows and see snow-clad Mount Shuksan reflected in the surrounding lakes Artist Point. The snow up here stays for a long time, so the roads are usually not plowed until June/July. Full day excursion with beautiful driving and even more beautiful hiking trails.

Read more Adventure around the North Cascades and Mount Baker.

accommodation: Bellingham (same as day before)

Day 6: Route 20 through North Cascades National Park

Bellingham -> Omak (35 miles)

Today will be a long day's drive, but also one of the most memorable. North Cascades Scenic Highway, or Route 20, runs straight through North Cascades National Park and offers sweeping views, numerous waterfalls and deep forests. Collect brochures and information in North Cascades Visitor Center outside Newhalem, so you know which roads and footpaths are open for the season. One of the highlights after the road Diablo Lake Overlook overlooking Diablo Lake's turquoise waters and white mountain peaks. Hike Ruby Creek Trail (easy hiking trail) or Diablo Lake Trail (slightly tougher hiking) and look out for all the furry inhabitants of the park – bears, lynxes, cougars and mountain goats.

Before you arrive at the evening's accommodation in Disappointment, you pass the Western lair winthrop with its classic wooden sidewalks and small shops with wooden fronts. Take the opportunity to have a rustic dinner at a saloon before leaving town.

Read more Adventure around the North Cascades and Mount Baker.

accommodation: Disappointment

Day 7: Among the cherry orchards in Chelan

Omak -> Wenache (16 miles)

Today you will ride in the valley of the orchards. The area around here Chelan is known for its warm climate, many hours of sunshine and its Rainier cherries. Rainier cherries are a slightly extra fine cherry with creamy yellow flesh and light yellow/light red skin. Stop after the roads and buy lots of sun-ripened apples, cherries and strawberries and stop at local cafes and eat homemade ice cream. Today is pleasure day. Two side stops to go to near Wenache are the historic pioneer village and museum Cashmere and the more German than German (!) city Leavenworth.

accommodation: Wenache

Day 8: Dry falls

Wenache -> Dry falls -> Yakima (30 miles)

Today there will be a small detour via Waterville and the great plateau that stretches east of Wenatche to Dry Falls. Rolling grain as far as the eye can see with abandoned farmhouses. At the end of the plateau you descend into a deep and dry desert crack in black-red lava rock. Dry Falls is what remains after a natural disaster during the Ice Age, which created the world's largest waterfall - 10 times larger than the current Niagara Falls. The natural disaster was caused by the rupture of an ice dam on a large lake in Montana, creating a tsunami wave of water that consumed everything in its path toward the Pacific Ocean. Mammoths, dinosaurs and large rocks - everything went. The wave dug out of the ground and created what is now the Dry falls gorge. According to the remains, the disaster happened not once, but about forty times, each time digging out more of the earth.

Stop and explore the area for a while before continuing towards Yakima, where you stay for two nights. On the way you also stop at Gingko Petrified Forest with the large tree fossils and the delicious view of the Colorado river. Watch out for rattlesnakes, here there is a little more than usual ringing in the bushes.

accommodation: Yakima

Dry falls - Washington state

Day 9-10: Mount Rainier National Park

Yakima -> Sunrise -> Yakima (28 miles)
Yakima -> Paradise -> Chehalis (39 miles)

The next two days you will spend hiking on the snow-capped volcano Mount rainier i Sunrise and Paradise. One of Washington's absolute highlights! After the second day in the park, you go on to Chehalis, where the next motel and a hearty dinner await.

Read more about what there is to see and do in Mount Rainier on the page Mount Rainier National Park: Glaciers and summer snow. 

accommodation: Yakima (Day 9) and Chehalis (Days 10-11)

Summer snow hike - Mount Rainier - Washington

Day 11-12: Mount St Helens National Monument

Chehalis -> Mount St Helens -> Chehalis (30 miles)
Chehalis -> Mount St Helens -> Ocean Shores (45 miles)

Another lovely volcano themed day! For the next two days you will visit Mount St Helens, best known for its major eruption almost 40 years ago.

Read about activities and attractions at Mount St Helens on the page Hiking in the trail of the eruption on Mount St Helens.

accommodation: Chehalis (Day 11) and Ocean Shores (Day 12)

Windy Ridge - Mount St Helens

Day 13-15: Olympic National Park

Ocean Shores -> Port Angeles (27 miles)
Port Angeles -> La Push -> Port Angeles (20 miles)
Port Angeles -> Hurricane Ridge -> Port Angeles (10 miles)

We save the very best national park for last. Olympic National Park has both snow-capped mountains, rainforests and misty beaches and it's easy to spend a week here without getting tired.

Read more about sights and hiking trails in the national park at Olympic National Park: Misty beaches and alpine meadows.

accommodation: Port Angeles (Day 13-15)

Day 16: Back to Seattle

Port Angeles -> Seattle (13 miles)

16 days go by quickly when you're having fun... If you have time before your flight, you might end up with a last shopping spree at the large Westfield Southcentral mall or brush off the road dust and book into one of Seattle's many award-winning restaurants. A good vacation should end in style, right?

Want to read more from Washington?
About the blogger

Travel blogger, gastronaut, photographer and family adventurer with over 55 countries in his luggage. Eva loves trips that include beautiful nature, hiking boots and well-cooked food. On the travel blog Rucksack she takes you to all corners of the world with the help of her inspiring pictures and texts.

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