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Home to iconic sights like the Space Needle and Pike Place Market, Seattle is a top destination for many travelers looking to explore the United States. It’s also a great place if you want to strike out and explore the Pacific Northwest, a unique region of geography and rain that stretches from the west coast across Eastern Washington to parts of Idaho and south across most of Oregon to the California border. There’s a definite vibe about living and traveling in the Pacific Northwest, hence the popular #pnw hashtag.
So while you might want to stay and explore the Emerald City for a while (maybe one day or 3 days?), it’s also fun to plan one of these Seattle road trips if you have the time. From Seattle’s downtown area, you can easily explore a number of incredible destinations across the state, with everything from beautiful beaches to outdoor activities to hot springs available at the end of each day’s drive.
I was lucky to live in Seattle for four years; I chose to move there from London because of the great weather, awesome soccer team, and beautiful surroundings. Over that time, I had the chance to explore a lot of the Pacific Northwest and had a chance to discover some of the best places for a scenic drive beyond the Seattle area.
So whether you’re living in Seattle and just need to get outta town or planning a Seattle trip and want to explore beyond the big city, read on. You’ll discover routes across Western Washington with natural beauty, small towns you’ll want to stop and explore, and so much more.
In this post, I promote travel to destinations that are the traditional lands of many Indigenous groups of Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
This post was originally published in May 2020, and was updated in November 2021 for 2022 travel.
If you see any errors, please let me know in the comments.
My Definition of a “Road Trip”
When I write any post, I always read other articles on the topic to learn what fellow travelers are recommending. I found a lot of junk, to be honest: most of the top results from Google list Seattle road trip destinations rather than Seattle road trip routes.
But here’s the thing: you already know cool weekend trip destinations from Seattle. There are a TON of them and they rock. But they’re not road trips just because you need a car to get there.
Here’s how I define a road trip: a road trip is a car/vehicle journey that takes you to a series of Points of Interest (POIs) or destinations over at least one night.
The focus of a road trip is as much on the journey (by car) as the destinations themselves. Road trip routes can be one-way, a loop, or an out-and-back – kind of like hiking. I generally prefer loops and made all of the Seattle road trips in this post into loops or partial loops.
In this post, you won’t find a list of the best day trips or best weekend getaways you can drive to. Instead, you’ll find nine awesome road trip routes that start and end in Seattle.
How I Make Road Trip Maps
You’ll notice that in this post, I use a map interface from Roadtrippers. I’m pretty obsessed with how much easier it is to make road trip maps using their tool than Google Maps, which was my go-to for years.
This post isn’t sponsored by Roadtrippers or anything, but gimme a sec to explain why you should use their maps instead of other map tools:
- Their name is Roadtrippers. They are obvs experts.
- Their map interface is way easier to use when adding POIs and reorganizing them.
- They provide the distance and time estimate data between each stop by default.
- Every trip has a total estimated time, distance, and gas cost. That last one is freaking gold.
Anyway, you’ll see a map for each Seattle road trip below; you can click the name of the trip on the map itself to jump to a bigger view with a lot more detail.
(If you dig these maps and want to make your own, I used Roadtrippers Plus to create this route; you can get $5 off Plus by clicking this link and using code BTR5QTP.)
The 9 Best Road Trips from Seattle
1. The Olympic Peninsula
When I first moved to Seattle, the Olympic Peninsula was one of the first road trips I made. Somehow in the span of just 600 miles circumnavigating the peninsula, you can experience the huge diversity of natural wonders in the Pacific Northwest. Olympic National Park, rocky Pacific Ocean beaches, wild coastal storms, towering mountains, the wild Olympic National Forest, and verdant sunny vistas in the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains… the Olympic Peninsula somehow has it all!
While you can do this trip in as few as three days (just cut out the extensions to Port Townsend and Cape Flattery/overnight in Neah Bay), four days is the perfect length of time for an Olympic Peninsula road trip, since you need to go around Puget Sound to reach the peninsula. (You could also take a ferry to Bainbridge Island or Bremerton to start this road trip, but it’s not really cheaper or much faster.)
I’ve got a whole guide for doing an Olympic Peninsula road trip if you’re sold on it.
2. The San Juan Islands
I’ll admit it: the San Juans are a bit of a stretch based on the definition of road trips I set up above. Really, a trip to the San Juans is more of a road+waterway trip – it has to be done by car and by ferry.
I’ve done a car-and-ferry trip to the San Juans in as little as three days, but I think it’d be less stressed and more leisurely in four days. This will give you a chance to explore three main points of interest by car and foot: Anacortes on Fidalgo Island, Eastsound on Orcas Island, and Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. You’ll need that car to explore the rest of each of the islands themselves too. On the way home, you’ll explore Whidbey Island before a final ferry ride to Seattle.
Like the Olympic Peninsula, I have a complete guide to visiting the San Juan Islands to help you plan your own “road” trip to the San Juans.
3. The PNW Coast Highway
However, if you want to do a loop of it, do it as a “Pacific Northwest” Coast Drive along the Washington State and Oregon coasts. From Seattle, head to the coast at Aberdeen then turn south and wind your way down Highway 101; you can instead start in Olympia and add on the Olympic Peninsula to drive from the highway’s origination point. On the way home, stop in Portland to rest.
4. Along the Columbia River
If you’re looking for an unconventional road trip from Seattle, consider this: the Columbia River runs from the Pacific inland along the Washington-Oregon border before turning north to the Canadian border and its headwaters.
To do this road trip, make your way from Seattle to Long Beach for the first overnight, then follow the river into Portland and up the Columbia River Gorge Hood River for the second overnight. Continuing east along the river at Hermiston, turn north, and drive up to Richland and Vantage in turn. This will give you a sample of the Columbia’s powerful force, carving through the Pacific Northwest.
5. Connecting the Cascade Volcanos
- Suggested Days: 5 minimum
- Suggested Overnights: Mount St. Helens, Mount Hood, Mount Adams, Mount Rainier
One of my favorite parts of living in downtown Seattle and the surrounding area is the looming specter of Mt. Rainier. Just one of the pearls, the Cascade mountain range is a string of volcanoes including Rainier: Adams, St. Helen’s, and Hood to name a few more. Why not string them together into a rustic road trip of car camping on the slopes of each one?
(The Cascade mountains also stretch all the way to California, and I have a similar road trip on my list of San Francisco road trips, too.)
On this 5-day/4-night road trip, you’ll visit each of the major volcanoes near Seattle in a big loop, including Mount Rainier National Park. It includes a fair amount of driving on mountain roads and you’ll need to bring camping gear so upgrade to something bigger for a more comfortable road trip.
6. The Cascade Lakes Loop
- Suggested Days: 4 minimum
- Suggested Overnights: Diablo Lake/Ross Lake, Lake Chelan, Leavenworth
So far, I haven’t recommended any Seattle road trips in the northern part of Washington; let me make up for that now. This road trip, which I’m calling the Cascade Lakes Loop, takes you up into the mountains near North Cascades National Park to some of the state’s beautiful mountain and alpine lakes – and even to Leavenworth for a little Bavarian R&R.
To do this road trip, take I-5 north to Highway 20. Follow WA-20 east to Diablo Lake and Ross Lake. Then take US-97 to Lake Chelan, before turning westward on US-2 to toward Leavenworth. If you haven’t had enough water visiting the lakes, I’ve done a lovely river float in Leavenworth in the summer months (as part of a Leavenworth bachelorette party, actually!).
If you’re looking for another route, I also have an Eastern Cascades road trip that goes a bit further south and shows off more of what that side of the state has to offer.
7. Glacier & Yellowstone National Parks
- Suggested Days: 7 minimum
- Suggested Overnights: Spokane, Glacier NP, Missoula, Yellowstone NP, Boise, Walla Walla
Road tripping to Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks is the biggest road trip on my list of Seattle road trips – you need at least 7 days, but adding a few extra days will make it much more enjoyable. I’ve put together this itinerary to combine cities with natural wonders: it includes stops in Spokane, Missoula, Boise, and Walla Walla.
But, of course, the real highlights are Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Park. Rather than rushing it, give yourself a full day in each park in between driving days to and from.
Here are tips for maximizing your time in each park:
- One day in Glacier, from the National Park Service
- One day in Yellowstone, from my blogger friend Marissa at Postcards to Seattle
8. The Sea to Sky Highway
Whenever I think about my favorite drives, the Sea to Sky Highway in British Columbia is on my mental list. I last drove the Sea to Sky southbound as the final leg of driving the Alaska-Canada Highway from Alaska. I remember being held in the mountains on a winding timber road, and then the expansive blue waterways of Howe Sound opened up in front of the car in all its Pacific Northwesterly glory.
In this road trip, I recommend doing it the other way and ascending from sea level to the mountain passes. Making it a loop, you can stop in Whistler to breathe the mountain air, then head east to Kamloops for a bit of the high arid desert of Southcentral BC. From then, it’s back to big-city Vancouver to round out the different climates and settings on this quick road trip.
9. The Oregon Wine & Cheese Route
Okay, here we go – one last Seattle road trip for the foodies out there. Some of the road trips on this list are well-known and named – others are ones I’ve put together and named myself. This is one of the latter, and I couldn’t help but name it honestly: it’s a road trip to sample Oregon’s best wine and cheese.
The first stop is McMinnville, home to many of Oregon’s best wineries. You can spend the evening of the first day on a wine tasting – or stretch it to a full day afterward. Then head west to the Oregon coast to Tillamook where the cheese of the small town namesake is made. Lastly, you can head back to Portland for a night where you can find any other food and drinks you might want beyond cheese and wine.
This is a delicious and quick road trip from Seattle, and probably one you’ve never considered.
Which road trip will you plan first, once this is all over? Let me know in the comments – or any questions you have too!