Life is too short not to take the scenic route
There’s something magnetic about Washington’s varied scenery that draws us from the bustle of city life out onto the open road. If you’ve got a cooler packed with snacks, a road map and a tank full of gas, you’re ready to take the family on one of these photo-worthy drives. The scenery steals the show, but leave time to get out and stretch your legs at some of our recommended stops along the way and experience the natural beauty, cultural history and tasty bounty of scenic Washington.
Motor along a scenic cliff near Bellingham, where blue waters of Puget Sound are backdropped by the beautiful Olympic Mountains. Also known as Highway WA 11, Chuckanut Drive is famous for its resemblance to California’s Highway 1, though at 10 miles this drive is much shorter.
This scenic stretch begins in the quaint town of Edison, where the Farm to Market Bakery is a must-stop if you like good coffee, fresh-baked bread and unique desserts. Head out of town on W. Bow Hill Road, driving under a mile until you come to the intersection with 11, or Chuckanut Drive. Take a left.
Cross the Samish Flats as you head north. This fertile delta is a haven for thousands of migrating shorebirds (and the falcons that hunt them) in wintertime. Soon you will meet the shoreline at the foot of Blanchard Mountain. As you skirt the mountain’s edge with the water of Puget Sound down below, keep an eye towards the sky to spot hang gliders who frequently launch from the cliffs above.
There are two stops to tempt you out of your car here. View-seekers with strong legs will enjoy the 6.5-mile roundtrip hike to the top of Oyster Dome (the trailhead is right on Chuckanut Drive). Just up the road, shellfish-lovers will find their bliss over lunch at Oyster Bar, a popular local restaurant that clings to a cliff above Taylor Shellfish Farms.
From here, the road twists and turns as it winds its way around Blanchard and then Chuckanut Mountain. Larrabee State Park comprises most of Chuckanut, and the five-mile Fragrance Lake Trail is a family-friendly excursion. Chuckanut Drive soon leaves the mountains behind and comes to an end in the Fairhaven neighborhood of Bellingham.
North Cascades Scenic Highway
From tulip fields to the wild west, Highway 20 cuts across the rugged North Cascades and delivers an unrivaled variety of scenic stimulation.
Head east from Sedro-Woolley and you will soon enter the lush foothills of the North Cascades. Next is the town of Concrete, where Lake Shannon just to the north provides pleasant kayak paddling with stunning views of Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan. If you’re looking for a picnic spot, wait for Howard Miller Steelhead Park just up the road in Rockport where you can enjoy your lunch along the Skagit River. After lunch, cool off with a stop at Cascadian Farm’s roadside stand for a cone of ice cream made from their organic berries. It’s the best!
From here, the landscape becomes more forested as you begin your ascent into the North Cascades. Along the Skagit River, fishermen cast for steelhead, the same salmon that draws hundreds of bald eagles to this corridor each winter. Navigate the sharp twists and hairpin turns as you increase in elevation, keeping your eye on the road as you steal glances at the stunning Cascade peaks and the aquamarine Diablo Lake. Highway 20 bisects North Cascades National Park, so the scenery here is wild and pristine.
Get up close to this wildness with a short hike along the Thunder Creek Trail near Diablo Lake. Back on the highway, continue east and watch for the turnout viewpoint at Washington Pass (elevation 5,477 feet), not to be missed for the views on a clear day. As Highway 20 descends into the Methow Valley, the granite, glaciered peaks of the North Cascades give way to open Ponderosa Pine forest. Your journey ends in the Western-themed town of Winthrop, just in time for dinner on the Chewuch River at the Old Schoolhouse Brewery.
Hood Canal’s South Shore
From a stunning shellfish bounty to the constant backdrop of snow-capped Olympic peaks, the drive along Hood Canal’s south shore delivers in many ways.
From Belfair, take Highway 3 south to the turnoff of Highway 106, which hugs Hood Canal (which is not a canal at all, but a glacier-carved fjord) as it winds through small communities that dot the south shore. You will pass right through Twanoh State Park, a 182-acre marine and camping park with over 3,000 feet of saltwater shoreline, great for swimming in the relatively warm saltwater of Hood Canal. Soon you’ll enter Union, set right on Hood Canal’s elbow. Stop at Hunter Farms to see livestock or purchase fresh produce from their general store (and frolic in their pumpkin patch in autumn).
Continue around Hood Canal’s elbow and when the road ends, turn right on Highway 101. On your left will be one of Washington’s oldest family-owned wineries, Hoodsport Winery. Its tasting room is open seven days a week, so stop in to quaff their creations made from local blackberries and pears . A little further up the road is Lilliwaup, home of the Hama Hama oyster beds, where you can stop for a shucking lesson and some delectable little bivalves.
North Olympic Peninsula
Scenery and history converge on the north coast of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Pack your camera — the route spoils day-trippers with photo opportunities, from maritime heritage to military history to the abundance of wildlife.
Start your drive in the Victorian town of Port Townsend, where Fort Worden State Park transports you back to various times of war. After picking your jaw up off the ground from the panoramic view over the Strait of Juan de Fuca, take a short tour of the Coast Artillery Museum, full of military memorabilia like uniforms from several war eras and antique artillery rounds.
From Port Townsend, take Highway 20 south over the rural, scenic Quimper Peninsula to the junction with Highway 101. Turn right (north) towards Sequim, hugging the west shore of Discovery Bay. The highway leaves the water for a spell, rejoining it at Sequim Bay, where Sequim Bay State Park offers some short trails and a nice dock to stretch out upon for a rest in the sun. Once you reach the city of Sequim, head over to Purple Haze Lavender Farm to take in the pungent aroma of over 15,000 lavender plants and snap some gorgeous family photos in the colorful fields.
Hungry? Try a burger or quiche at the The Oak Table, a family-friendly café in Sequim that makes its delicious menu items from scratch. Once past Sequim, the snow-capped Olympic mountain peaks are in full view from Highway 101, but more scenery awaits on a flat, easy hike within the Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge, home to a 5.5-mile long sand spit that juts out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Wear layers — the spit can be windy even on the warmest days. Hike for as long as you want on the spit, then turn around to peep the best view of the Olympics anywhere.
Lauren Braden is a Northwest writer with a focus on recreation and local travel. She blogs at nwtripfinder.com.