Although PNW technically stands for the ‘Pacific Northwest’, we’re thinking of changing it to ‘Perfect Next Wander.’ Okay, that was cheesy, but we really can’t get enough of the indie vibes, a notorious foodie scene, and all of the nature — which is so beautiful, it deserves a little extra emphasis.
That’s why we’re laying out the perfect pit-stops on your next road trip from Portland to Seattle (or vice versa). Even though there’s only 145 miles of concrete separating the two cities, a drive along the I-5 corridor provides the makings of an epic road trip. Instead of doing the trip in three hours, take a full day (or more) to stop, linger, and enjoy the journey.
Experience the #VanLife
A magical way to experience the Pacific Northwest is by renting a Volkswagen Vanagon and camping between cities. Not only will you experience delightfully fresh air and exquisite scenery this way, but you’ll be able to navigate the road yourself, stopping when you want to stop and lingering at a location that speaks more to you without worrying about a reservation.
Whether you choose to spend your days actively hiking, eating, exploring a cultural center — or simply reading a good book in the peaceful shade of mountains — the #VanLife may just be the lifestyle for you. Rentals with companies like PacWesty come fully kitted with camping gear, so all you’ll need to do is stop at a grocery store for provisions before hitting the road.
And the best part? When you make it to Seattle (or Portland, depending on your itinerary) you can drop the van off and take a blessed shower when you make it to a Kimpton.
So. Ready to hit the road?
Lan Su Chinese Garden
Portland’s Lan Su Chinese Garden is a great place to kick off the road trip: It’s peaceful, it’s beautiful, and it’s small enough to see everything in an hour.
The site’s “Garden of Awakening Orchids” is considered the most authentic Chinese garden outside of China. And every week there are new events in the garden, ranging from poetry readings to brush painting demonstrations. There’s even a phone-based scavenger hunt to keep the kids occupied.
Where to stay in Portland: Kimpton Hotel Vintage or Kimpton RiverPlace
Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge
Waterfowl abounds at this 5,300-acre stretch along the Columbia River, making it a popular spot for birdwatchers and dads who like making duck noises. A 2-mile self-guided hiking trail offers great vantage points, especially in the spring and fall when sandhill cranes migrate through the region.
Fun fact: The refuge also is home to the most intact archaeological site on the lower Columbia.
Mount St. Helens
It’s not exactly right off I-5, but the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument is definitely worth a visit. While most mountains in the region look like triangles, this one looks like an empty ice-cream cone. The volcano exploded and turned the sky grey in 1980, leaving a horseshoe-shaped crater that is now partially filled with a lava dome and glacier.
The area, managed by the U.S. Forest Service, is open to the public year-round and the visitor center in Castle Rock provides information about the history of the park. Most trails are moderately strenuous, so pack your hiking boots if hitting the trails.
Chehalis-Centralia Railroad & Museum
Get your best choo-choo sounds ready for a ride on the steam trains at this iconic destination. A restored 1916 locomotive runs train cars 6.5 miles from the depot in Chehalis southwest to Milburn and back, gently rolling through forests, farmsteads, and past country homes.
Dinner and holiday-themed train journeys are available, and the depot itself has a small museum that tells the story of the train’s history in the region.
Olympic Club Pub
This old-timey pub in Centralia dates to 1908 and is a great spot for burgers, pizza, and (so much) local beer. Menu items incorporate fresh seasonal ingredients from local farms — and you know we love a good farm-to-table vibe. Pro tip: The cajun tots are the best in the Pacific Northwest — order your own basket.
There’s also a pool hall with seven original Brunswick billiard tables and shuffleboard.
Olympic Flight Museum
Vintage planes and helicopters are on display at the Olympic Flight Museum, an underappreciated spot at the regional airport in Olympia. The museum features more than a dozen aircraft in all, including some that date back to the 1950s.
The facility itself sits inside an old airplane hangar, and is a great stop to stretch your legs and learn some unique history of the region.
Museum of Glass
Look (but don’t touch!) at Tacoma’s Museum of Glass, which provides a comprehensive look at glass blowing as an activity. Traditional exhibits take you through the history of blown glass and introduce you to local artist Dale Chihuly (and his protégés).
On the ground level the museum has a working “hot shop” where visitors in stadium-style seating can watch professionals ply their craft during live demonstrations.
West Seattle and Alki Beach
Finally, on the approach to Seattle proper, head west toward the Western Seattle peninsula and stop at Alki Beach Park where you’ll find a sandy beach greeted by the gentle waves of Puget Sound.
This is a great spot for ferry-watching, and locals say it offers the best perspective from which to gaze east upon the Emerald City. Considering how the buildings glimmer in the distance, we couldn’t agree more.
Where to stay in Seattle: Hotel Vintage Seattle, Hotel Monaco Seattle, or the Palladian
Check out our full #RoadTrip series to discover all of our favorite road trip routes throughout the country and abroad by following the tag below.