A Pacific Northwest road trip may not have the notoriety of Route 66. It doesn’t have the Big Surs of the great California coast or the Zions of a Southwestern road trip.
To be honest, it’s a lot of time spent between towns with names you’ve never heard of. Single lane highways that snake beside pine trees and glacial streams. Yellow road signs share straightforward messages, like “ROCKS”with a jagged pictogram that you’re left to assume is a rock.
Roadside diners where people wear camouflage cargo pants and wait for bottomless cups of coffee while their loaded crossbow waits in the front seat of their car. Breakfast of the day is always a greasy cheese omelet and a slice of Marionberry pie.
Cherries sold by the bag and life-sized wooden signs shaped like ice cream cones inviting you to stop by for soft serve. Public high schools that “Welco_e the Class of 2020” on a giant signboard outside even though they lost the letter “m” more than a decade ago.
But the absolute best part of a Pacific Northwest road trip is exactly those things. Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia are hospitable and fiercely local. And it doesn’t hurt that you’ll find brilliant lakes, hot springs, glaciers, alpine forests, and a shockingly high craft brewery: population ratio.
Ready to go on an adventure? Here’s a big ol’ guide to planning your Pacific Northwest road trip including everything from route planning to suggested itineraries to making reservations to costs.
BEFORE YOU GO
CHOOSE YOUR PACIFIC NORTHWEST ROAD TRIP ROUTE
The Pacific Northwest refers to the Northwestern stretch of the USA bound by the Pacific Ocean and the Rocky Mountains. By all definitions, it includes Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. That can sometimes also include Idaho, Montana, Northern California, and Alaska. I’m going to be fast-and-loose with the term to make sure you plan the best damn road trip!
So, where should we begin? Before you plan your Pacific Northwest road trip, start by putting together a list of the cities, towns, and parks you want to see while you’re out there. Grab a guidebook or check out some of our featured City Guides and National Park Guides. Destinations with buttons below link to a more detailed article.
Recommended Time: 3-5 days
Recommended Time: 1-2 daysSAN JUAN ISLANDS, WA
Recommended Time: 2-3 days
Recommended Time: 3-5 days
Recommended Time: 2-4 daysVANCOUVER, BC
Recommended Time: 3-5 days
Recommended Time: 2-3 daysMOUNT RAINIER NP, WA
Recommended Time: 3-5 daysOLYMPIC NP, WA
Recommended Time: 3-5 days
Best Cities & Towns: Portland, OR ● Bend, OR ● Willamette Valley, OR ● San Juan Islands, WA ● Seattle, WA ● Bellingham, WA ● Vancouver, BC ● Victoria, BC
Best Parks & Wilderness: Crater Lake National Park, OR ● The Oregon Coast, OR ● Mount Hood, OR ● Mount Rainier National Park, WA ● Olympic National Park, WA ● North Cascades National Park, WA ● Ross Lake National Recreation Area, WA
It helps to narrow your scope to one place at a time. Check out photos, watch videos, or explore things to do to see if it sounds like your speed. Choosing stops can be easy if you already know where you want to go, and very daunting if you don’t. If you fall into the second camp, ask yourself: how long do you have? What type of experience are you looking for? What season are you traveling in? What’s your overall budget for the trip? And go from there.
PACIFIC NORTHWEST ROAD TRIP MAP
To get you started, we made a Pacific Northwest Road Trip Map with some of our favorite points of interest, sample road trip itineraries, and driving directions.
A quick disclaimer: Sample itineraries are based on maximizing time in nature and seeing as much as you can in just a week or two. If this style and pace of travel is not your thing, take a look at some of the individual destinations listed below and plan your own route.
SUGGESTED PACIFIC NORTHWEST ROAD TRIP ITINERARIES
One Week Road Trip Itinerary
With just one week, you can start to experience the relaxed vibe the Pacific Northwest is so famous for. You’ll spend a lot of time on the road (up to 5 hours per day), but as a result, you can experience National Parks like Crater Lake and Olympic, the rugged Oregon coast, and have some time leftover to experience Portland and Seattle.
Suggested Route (from Portland): Portland > Crater Lake National Park > Bend > Cannon Beach > Olympic National Park > Olympic National Park > Seattle
Two Week Road Trip Itinerary
Two weeks is when you can really start to enjoy your Pacific Northwest road trip. Here’s an itinerary that makes the most of your two week trip.
Suggested Route (from Portland): Portland > Portland > Crater Lake National Park > Mt Hood > Cannon Beach > Olympic National Park > Olympic National Park > Seattle > North Cascades National Park > North Cascades National Park > San Juan Islands > San Juan Islands > Vancouver
Other Suggested Road Trips
MAPPING IT OUT
Google My Maps is a huge asset for road trip planning. By dropping points of interest onto your map, you’ll be able to see which spots are closest together and which are seriously out of the way. From there, it’s simpler to add or cross things off your itinerary based on how much time you have and what you want out of your road trip.
Before finalizing any of your travel arrangements, test out drive times to make sure it’s a realistic (or desirable) amount of time to spend in the car. What looks like the shortest drive won’t always be the shortest route, so this is pretty important. Figure out where your park entrances are and campsites are. Think about when you’ll really need a shower or when you’ll want a short drive and take account of that.
Spend some time on this!
Tip: Before you go, make sure that all the maps you need are available offline. Service is often limited or non-existent in rural areas and you’ll always want to have your driving directions accessible.
HOW TO START PLANNING
A Pacific Northwest road trip is best planned 6 months ahead of time, though of course, you can plug things in as you go. Reservations for NPS campsites and lodges almost all open 3-6 months in advance. If you’re planning backcountry travel, these permits are also up for grabs 3-6 months out. Reservations for the most popular campsites and hikes sell out within seconds of going online (no exaggeration!). So, if you have you’re really set on something, be sure to book early.
Already late? Some parks have walk-up campsites and permits available for that very reason. There are also plenty of campgrounds and hotels outside of the park boundaries and hikes that don’t require backcountry permits. You should always be able to find a hike and a campsite, even if they’re not the exact ones you had in mind.
Read more: How to Plan a US National Park Road Trip
ROAD TRIP RESOURCES
WHEN TO GO
Like most places, the PNW National Parks and nearby cities are hugely popular during the summer, especially between June and August. But as you also might know, the Pacific Northwest is notorious for rain that falls pretty relentlessly between October and March. After living in Seattle for the last year, I can confirm that sh*t is TRUE.
To get the fewest crowds and best weather, plan your Pacific Northwest Road Trip in May or September. The only drawback traveling in the shoulder season is that some roads and trailheads will be closed for snow and nights can get cold.
BUDGETING & COSTS
A Pacific Northwest road trip may cost more than you think (especially if you spend any time in expensive cities like San Francisco, Seattle, or Vancouver).
Some costs you’ll want to factor in for your own road trip are park entrance or your America the Beautiful Pass, vehicle costs, gas, food & drink, entertainment, gear, campsites & accommodation, and permits. For the sake of example, we spent about $50 per day on our Pacific Northwest road trip in 2019. This was mostly camping and self-prepared food with a few motel nights and 3-4 meals out each week. Within this budget, we stayed with friends and cooked at home when we visited the cities; if you plan to pay for hotel stays or specialty cocktails, budget at least $150 more per night. We also had the benefit of traveling with our own vehicle and splitting many of our costs in half.
Own vs Rental Car
If you own a car…
There’s no doubt you’ll be putting a lot of miles on it. Before leaving on your Pacific Northwest trip, schedule to have your vehicle serviced. Get the tires rotated, the oil changed, the fluids topped, the brake pads tested, and everything else you can think of. You’re guaranteed to be in remote areas on parts of your trip, and you’ll want your car to be in the best possible shape to survive it. Just to be on the safe side, you might want to upgrade your insurance policy, get a AAA membership, and gear up your car with a roof box and emergency supplies.
If you’re renting a car…
While it’s totally possible to do this trip with a regular car, there are some rugged trailheads and roads. Set yourself up for the best kind of trip with a 4WD or high-clearance vehicle so you don’t have to worry about it. Other things to keep in mind when choosing a vehicle for your Pacific Northwest road trip are that you have plenty of space to stash your gear (and enough to cover it up when your car is left unattended) and adequate tires for the potential rain. If you’re traveling during winter, you also might need to have traction tires or approved chains.
Escape Campervans offer fully equipped campervans which can be a really fun way to travel! While they don’t have 4WD or get as good of gas mileage, you might be able to save by having an indoor spot to sleep on the nights you may have splurged on a hotel.
Before booking your rental car, be sure to ask about total cost (incl. airport fees, additional drivers, mileage, etc.) and insurance coverage. Give it a scan to check for any existing damages and be sure to return the car with a tank of gas to avoid the surcharge.
Every state has its share of bad drivers, but Oregon and Washington are considered some of the worst. Other drawbacks of driving in the Pacific Northwest are high gas costs, poor roads, and high accident rates.
As is true in every state, stick to the right lane except when passing. The norm is to drive the speed limit, and more than 5 mph over can be grounds for a ticket.
Road etiquette on single track roads is to pull over and let someone pass if they’re trailing too close behind you. And if you want to look at something, and use your turn signal long before dipping into a pull off.
Be sure to travel with a full tank of gas, gallons of water, and emergency supplies. There will be long stretches of road without much development or passing cars, so it’s good to be as self-sufficient as possible.
Another important note is that you must have a valid driver’s license to drive in the US. This can be a state drivers license, or if you’re a foreign driver, your valid driver’s license and passport are sufficient. You’ll only need an International Drivers Permit (IDP) if you plan to drive for more than 3 months.
HITTING THE ROAD
The best part about mapping out your Pacific Northwest road trip itinerary ahead of time is that all the hard parts are over by the time you finally go. The adventure of this kind of trip then changes with the weather. The detours. The wildlife sightings and road closures. You do your best to prepare, then whatever the hell happens will happen.
Got questions about your Pacific Northwest road trip itinerary? Ask me in the comments below! And if you’re traveling in the Pacific Northwest…