For most family vacations these days, the journey is not the destination. We want to just hurry up and get there, already. But there was a time when piling into the car and hitting the open road was the quintessential summer adventure, the kind of trip where family bonding (and squabbling over what’s on the radio) was inevitable, where memories of mileposts and milkshakes were created. It’s time to bring back the family road trip!
These six driving routes from the Seattle area will immerse you in the heart and soul of Northwest landscapes and communities: You’ll feel the spray of waterfalls, smell the desert sage, stop at funky attractions for fun photo ops and fill up at fantastic roadside eats.
Each stop is handpicked to add a unique experience to your trip. Choose your own adventure — and with gas prices lower than they have been in recent years, this summer is the perfect time.
Monte Cristo Railway | Photo credit: WESLB, Flickr CC The Mountain Loop
Distance from Seattle: 175 miles round-trip, 4.5 hours of driving time
There’s gold in them hills! Known for bluegrass music, a rich mining history and occasional Sasquatch sightings, the Mountain Loop is the wilderness gateway to Glacier Peak, one of our most active volcanoes. This state scenic byway is peppered with tight-knit communities that depend on tourism for their economies — a fact that’s even more poignant since the massive mudslide that ripped through Oso in 2014. Much of the route follows the old Everett & Monte Cristo Railway, where many relics of the mining era remain. Make this loop in mid-July to hear the sounds of the Mountain Loop at Darrington’s Bluegrass Festival (July 17-19).
The route: From Seattle, head north on State Route 522 E through Snohomish, then on SR-92 E to Granite Falls and the Mountain Loop Highway. The road twists and turns through the emerald canyons of the central Cascades until you reach Darrington. SR-530 W takes you from Darrington to Interstate 5, and that takes you back home. Stops along the way
MILE 29: Rock City Café (Snohomish): Here’s your morning pit stop for lattes (they roast their own beans) and gluten-free muffins.
MILE 45: Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America (Granite Falls): This Shinto shrine on the Pilchuck River is the only one of its kind in the continental U.S., with lovely grounds and unique elements including hanging “omikuji,” or fortune-telling paper strips (open daily 10 a.m.-4 p.m.).
MILE 46: Granite Falls Historical Museum (Granite Falls): Wondering how much gold was really up there, or why the railway to Monte Cristo was scrapped? Answers here (open Sundays noon-5 p.m. or by appointment, 360-691-2603).
MILE 47: Lime Kiln Trail/Robe Canyon Historic Park (Granite Falls): This easy trail follows the Stillaguamish River along the long-gone Everett & Monte Cristo Railway, built in the 1890s. Look for artifacts of the limestone mining era all along the trail, from moss-cloaked saw blades to a 20-foot-tall old lime kiln. Turn around at the kiln, about five miles round-trip.
MILE 47: BBQ Bucket (Granite Falls): Perfect post-hike grub. Order the brisket plate with your favorite sides and sauces, such as rhubarb-habanero sauce.
MILE 100: Old Sauk Trail (Darrington): An easy trail that meanders alongside the beautiful Sauk River through a mossy wonderland. The first portion of the trail is gravel and can be hiked with a stroller. Northwest Forest Pass required.
MILE 103: Mountain Loop Books and Coffee (Darrington): Stop in for delicious sandwiches to eat here or take with you; kids can load up on reading materials.
MILE 117: Boulder River Trail (Oso): If towering, moss-draped trees and pounding waterfalls are your thing, you’ll love this trail because it has plenty of both. The second waterfall, just over a mile in, is a good turnaround point. Northwest Forest pass required. Where to stay
If your kids are into Paca Pride Guest Ranch (Granite Falls): camping in yurts and petting alpacas, stay here.
It’s one of the few hotels in the area and nothing fancy, but rooms are clean and some have kitchenettes (360-436-1776). Darrington Motor Inn (Darrington):
Purple Haze Lavender Farm North Olympic Peninsula
Distance from Seattle: 108 miles one-way, 3.5 hours of driving time, includes ferry
Small-town charms, breathtaking scenery and maritime history converge on this road trip that follows the north coast of the Olympic Peninsula and ends up with a close-up look at the newly dam-free Elwha River. Consider making this drive in September for a chance to see spawning Chinook salmon.
The route: From Seattle, drive north on I-5 to Edmonds and board a ferry that crosses Puget Sound to Kingston on the Kitsap Peninsula. You’ll take SR-104 W across Hood Canal, then join U.S. Route 101 N through Sequim and Port Angeles to the Elwha River. Stops along the way
MILE 32: Port Gamble General Store (Port Gamble): Stroll around the small national historic district “downtown” where you’ll find an old-fashioned general store and café — below the general store is a history museum that unveils the story of a town built on timber.
MILE 65: Purple Haze Lavender Farm (Sequim): Stop here for a family photo op among the 15,000 aromatic lavender plants.
MILE 69: Pane d’Amore Artisan Bakery (Sequim): Stop here for rosemary bread, cheese sticks, kid-favorite cinnamon twists and morning glory muffins.
MILE 74: Dungeness Spit (Sequim): This hike along a 5.5-mile-long sand spit that is designated a national wildlife refuge is as flat, scenic and driftwood-tossed as they come. Bundle up the kids — it can be windy. On the way back, turn around to the best view of the Olympics anywhere.
MILE 91: Webster’s Woods Art Park (Port Angeles): This short hike is a free outdoor art museum with more than 100 installations. Kids will be enthralled with the whimsical sculptures, from sinewy tree trunks wrapped in glittery fabric to a giant chair made of logs.
MILE 93: Cock-a-doodle Doughnuts (Port Angeles): These hand-forged doughnuts — the signature creation is a bacon maple bar — are made fresh daily.
MILE 108: Elwha River (Port Angeles): When two dams were built on this scenic river a century ago, the bountiful salmon runs ceased to return. Those dams are now removed, and a visit to this beautiful watershed tells the fascinating story of how a vision of ecosystem restoration has become a reality. Stop at the Olympic National Park Visitor Center in Port Angeles for information on the best observation stops along the Elwha. Where to stay
Each cozy waterfront cabin has its own outdoor fire pit and deck. Sunset Marine Resort (Sequim):
A budget hotel in a vintage downtown building. Downtown Hotel (Port Angeles):
This kid-friendly campground has stunning views, a playground and tidepools; half of the 92 campsites are first-come, first-served ($20–$28). Salt Creek Recreation Area Campground (Port Angeles):
Lake Chelan | Dan Nevil, Flickr CC Wenatchee Valley to Lake Chelan
Distance from Seattle: 180 miles one-way, 3.5 hours of driving time
Editor's note: Wildfires are active near Lake Chelan and surrounding areas as of late August 2015. Check conditions carefully before heading out on a road trip to this region.
Get an early start for this one, grabbing a hearty breakfast before spending the rest of the day sampling fresh fruit at roadside stands as you drive through the orchard-lined Wenatchee Valley (in June and July you’ll find cherries, peaches and plums). By late afternoon you’ll be ready to cool off, just in time for the evening admission rate at Lake Chelan’s waterslide park.
The route: From Seattle, go north on SR-522 E through Snohomish, then take US-2 E across the heart of the Cascade mountains all the way to Wenatchee. From there, choose US-97 Alt N to Lake Chelan.
MILE 24: Maltby Café (Snohomish): Find favorites like country eggs benny, old-fashioned oatmeal with marionberries and mammoth cinnamon rolls.
MILE 75: Deception Falls (Stevens Pass): Stop to stretch your legs on a short interpretive trail to feel the cool mist from this tumbling, tiered waterfall.
MILE 118: Munchen Haus (Leavenworth): Enjoy German bratwurst with spicy mustard and apple cider kraut in the courtyard at Leavenworth’s most essential nosh stop.
MILE 121: Smallwood’s Harvest (Peshastin): Moo! This kid-oriented farm stand has a cow train, a petting zoo and fresh-picked fruit for sale.
MILE 130: Aplets & Cotlets (Cashmere): It’s a real candy factory where the workers sort pretty confections on conveyor belts and stir piping-hot vats of caramel. Take a tour.
MILE 150: B&B Fruit Stand (East Wenatchee): Family-run since the 1960s, this roadside fruit depot is a favorite of locals for tree-ripened apricots, peaches, plums and cherries.
MILE 180: Slidewaters (Chelan): Set on a hillside overlooking beautiful Lake Chelan, this water park has a thrilling waterslide for every age. Admission is $15–$19, but they offer a “PM Plunge” three hours before closing time (7 p.m.) that is about 20 percent off. Where to stay
Family-friendly suites make this a top pick in Wenatchee. Comfort Suites (Wenatchee):
This family-run resort offers an old-school vacation vibe right on the sandy shores of Lake Chelan. Campbell’s Resort (Chelan):
Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad Mount Rainier Loop
Distance from Seattle: 107 miles round-trip, 2.5 hours of driving time
This route pairs a sampling of Mount Rainier National Park’s stunning beauty with the best of some of the park’s most charming gateway towns.
The route: Take the back way to Rainier through Puyallup on WA-161 S to Eatonville, then onward until the road ends, where you’ll turn left onto WA-7 S all the way into the park. In Elbe, take SR 706 through Ashford to the Nisqually Entrance. Stops along the way
MILE 55, (Eatonville): A tram carries you through hundreds of acres of meadow and pond habitat where you’ll spot bison, moose, elk, mountain lion, grizzly bears and more ($8.25–$19.75). Northwest Trek Wildlife Park
MILE 60, Cottage Bakery (Eatonville): Nosh like a local at this regional favorite for great fruit smoothies, apple fritters and breakfast sandwiches.
MILE 63, (Eatonville): Kids get a hands-on experience, complete with real chores, of what daily pioneer life was like. Climb in a Conestoga wagon, try braiding leather and visit the blacksmith shop (tours $8-$9). Pioneer Farm
MILE 75, (Elbe): Park the car and board a vintage steam train! This fun two-hour round-trip ride ambles through the forest and foothills of Rainier, stopping at a railroad museum so you can see more steam locomotives up close ($18–$32, 2 and under free. Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad and Museum
MILE 81, (Ashford): Artist Dan Klennert transforms scraps of metal into imaginative animal sculptures — a must-stop for a photo op. Donation suggested. Spirits of Iron Sculpture Park
MILE 96, (Longmire): Once you’ve entered the park through the Nisqually entrance, stop for a brief visit at the small but substantial museum — a former park headquarters — to learn about the history, geology and wildlife of the park, then set out on the stroller-friendly Trail of the Shadows loop across the street ($15 per vehicle to enter the park. Longmire Museum and Trail of the Shadows
MILE 104, (Paradise): While wildflowers have come and gone this season, there's no shortage of stunning scenery to be viewed from the paved loop trails just above Paradise Inn, with whistling marmots and bubbling streams providing the soundtrack. The visitor center here is packed with interactive exhibits and has a café with refreshments. Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center and Paradise Trails
MILE 107, Reflection Lakes (Paradise): Drive three miles east of Paradise for the park’s best photo op — Mount Rainier's reflection in still, mirror-like subalpine lakes. Stay
(Ashford): This budget option has plenty of charm and history, originally built for loggers and later housing mountain climbers and hikers. Families should book one of the private rooms with en suite baths. Whittaker’s Bunkhouse
(Mount Rainier National Park): Paradise Inn and the National Park Inn at Longmire are both lovely historic lodges for families and have onsite restaurants, gift shops and trails right outside the doors. Paradise Inn
Steamboat Rock State Park | Credit: Michael D. Martin (martinvirtualtours) on flickr CC
Distance from Seattle: 263 miles one-way, 4.5 hours of driving time
Eastern Washington provides a stark landscape for a family road trip, but the craggy sage-dotted hills are punctuated by oases, from flood-carved lakes to the mighty Columbia River through Vantage and a smattering of interesting rural towns. This trip also showcases the chance to learn about the region’s renewable energy sources.
The route: From Seattle, head east on I-90 over the Columbia River until the tiny town of George, where you’ll turn north toward Quincy. From Quincy, take SR-28 E to Soap Lake, where you’ll change to SR-17 N then SR-155 N to the Grand Coulee Dam. Stops along the way
MILE 83: Cle Elum Bakery (Cle Elum): Refuel with a maple-frosted cinnamon roll at this family-run favorite.
MILE 101: Thorp Fruit and Antique Mall (Thorp): From the highway, look for the giant barn that screams “Cherries! Peaches!” Stock up on locally grown fruit and other goodies for your afternoon hike.
MILE 115: Olmstead Place State Park (Ellensburg): Take a step back in time to Central Washington’s pioneer history on this 217-acre farm homestead first settled in 1875 (Discover Pass required).
MILE 135: Wild Horse Renewable Energy Center (Ellensburg): You’ve seen the giant wind turbines, now you can tour this modern visitor’s center to find out how abundant resources like wind and sun are sustainably turned into electricity.
MILE 155: Gingko Petrified Forest State Park (Vantage): This ancient fossil forest fronts the western shore of the Columbia River. A short trail leads to petroglyphs, and inside the interpretive center kids can see and handle real petrified wood.
MILE 163: Wild Horse Monument (Vantage): On a bluff above the Columbia River sit these huge wild horses, a sculpture installation made with welded steel plates by Spokane artist David Govedare.
MILE 185: Ancient Lakes Trail (Quincy): This easy five-mile hike features scalloped hills of sage and coulee walls surrounding azure lakes that connect via stream waterfalls.
MILE 196: The Grainery (Quincy): Take a seat at one of the funky sewing machine tables and dig into grilled sandwiches, unique soups and zesty salads.
MILE 264: Steamboat Rock (Electric City): Take a short hike at this popular state park through desert wildflowers with fragrant sagebrush whipping in the warm wind.
MILE 274: Grand Coulee Dam (Grand Coulee): Kids will love learning about the ins and outs of hydropower and the massive dam’s unique history at the interactive visitor’s center. Stay till sundown for the phenomenal laser light show. Where to stay
This vintage resort is known for family fun in the sun, from sandy beaches to golf. Choose from lakeside cabins or villas. Sunbanks Lake Resort (Electric City):
These deluxe yurts set in a vineyard atop the Columbia gorge are as good as glamping gets. They also have inn rooms and cliff houses. Cave B Inn (Quincy):
Pitch a tent on the shores on Banks Lake in the shadow of a columnar basalt bluff; a few of the sites are first-come, first-served. Steamboat Rock State Park Campground (Electric City):
Sunshine Coast Tourism The Sunshine Coast, B.C.
Distance from Seattle: 243 miles one-way, 6.5 hours of travel time, including one ferry crossing
Northwest of Vancouver, B.C., stretches the Sunshine Coast Highway, a scenic drive along sheltered bays fringed with fir-scented forests and through offbeat, artsy towns. The entire stretch of rocky outcrops and sandy beaches lies in a rain shadow, and in late summer the water is warm enough for swimming.
The route: From Seattle, stay on I-5 until you cross the border into Canada and get on BC-1 W. Continue on BC-1 W to the Horseshoe Bay ferry terminal and sail to Langdale (reserve at bcferries.com/res). From here, the rest of the road trip is primarily on the Sunshine Coast Highway. Stops along the way
MILE 61: COA Mexican Eatery (Mount. Vernon): This place serves authentic Mexican food starting with crispy chips and fresh salsa the minute you sit down.
MILE 174: Black Bean Roasting Co. (Gibsons): A short distance from the ferry is Gibsons, a quaint seaside town; stop at this café with its sunny patio for great coffee and breakfast sandwiches.
MILE 175: Sunshine Coast Museum (Gibsons): Find a quick history lesson on the way of life for First Peoples on the Salish Sea and the fishing and logging industries that still dominate today. Also of note: an exhibit on The Beachcombers, a popular Canadian TV show that was filmed in Gibsons.
MILE 191: Porpoise Bay Provincial Park (Sechelt): Set on Sechelt Inlet, this park has a sandy swimming beach for a summer dip. Keep an eye out for the pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins that frequent the fjord.
MILE 194: Lucky’s Smokehouse (Sechelt): This tasty, casual lunch spot features some of the best barbecue on Canada’s west coast: expect tangy, tender ribs slow cooked to perfection, plus pulled pork and homemade mac ’n’ cheese.
Sunshine Coast Tourism
MILE 215: Francis Point Provincial Park (Madeira Park): You’ll pass an old-growth stand of madrona trees (called arbutus trees in Canada) on your hour-long beach walk to a lighthouse and back.
MILE 227: LaVerne’s Grill (Madeira Park): Perfect fish-and-chips and classic milkshakes served in old-fashioned metal cups.
MILE 246: Rapids at Skookumchuck Narrows (Egmont): As the tide goes in and out, water pours through these “narrows” with a strong current, creating the Sechelt Rapids. Skookumchuck Narrows Provincial Park has trails and viewing areas. Where to stay
Set on two wooded acres overlooking the ocean, this century-old inn has child-friendly suites with views. Bonniebrook Lodge (Gibsons):
Get a seaside room and you’ll see this place is literally a stone’s throw from the water. Rooms are basic but nicely furnished, some with kitchenettes. The Driftwood Inn (Sechelt):
*Mile markers are from Seattle, but are approximate and may vary depending on your starting point and exact route.
Are we there yet?
Road trip tips:
You’ve got your itinerary, full tank of gas and cooler packed with snacks. But, oh yeah — the kids. Here are three tips for keeping kids content and entertained along the way.
Let them “drive.” Kids can follow the journey with Google Earth’s app, which locates your device with one click and displays your car’s precise location on a 3-D map.
Play classic road trip games. Buy or print premade cards for Road Trip Bingo. One of our favorite spontaneous games is Color Car, where each person picks a car color and counts how many they can spot.