First-Time Visitor’s Experience on a Washington and Oregon Road Trip
A standing invitation to visit family on Vashon Island off the coast of Seattle began our dreaming of a multigenerational road trip to the Pacific Northwest. We had never been to this part of the U.S. before so there were a lot of things quickly added to our to-see list. Our daughter’s family would be traveling with two little ones, so wisely decided to limit their trip to 8 days, but we added onto the front and back of the Pacific Northwest road trip to fit in everything we wanted to see.
Note: this was our first trip since the pandemic began. We chose this PNW road trip itinerary as we could participate in outdoor activities in a region of the US without elevated risk. All adults have been vaccinated, and everyone masked indoors and in crowded outdoor spaces. We chose not to have room service in hotels, and dined only at restaurants with outdoor seating. Please consider your health risk before planning a trip.
- Our Itinerary
- Highlights & Recommendations
- Chihuly Glass and Garden
- Columbia River Gorge
- Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum
- Mt Rainier National Park
- Northwest Trek Wildlife
- Olympic Peninsula
- Misses… What we’d do differently
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First impressions – ups and downs is right. The mountains seem to start at the waterfront, with towering trees and steep ledges.
We began the trip in Portland, taking a few days to enjoy the city and the Columbia River Gorge. Then on to McMinnville, OR, for our Willamette Valley wine tasting tour. McMinnville is a charming town with lots of dining options, and a great little book store!
Next destination, Mt Rainier National Park (staying in Ashford, WA), and then onto Vashon Island.
After our daughter’s family flew home, we drove the Olympic Peninsula, staying in Sequim and Port Townsend, both towns with lots to enjoy!
Hits! Highlights and Recommendations
Some destinations are guaranteed hits. We planned our family trip around the Willamette Valley wineries, Mt. Rainier National Park, and relaxed days on Vashon Island. These spots did not disappoint.
The weather cooperated with glorious days in the National Parks. We had two cloudless days in Mt Rainier, pleasantly overcast days for our wine tasting, and a perfect last evening on Vashon. Our only rainy hours were in the evening or on ferry commutes.
Mt. Rainier National Park (with little ones)
As we were traveling with small kids, we took the advice of a social media friend, Kristine Lowder, author of 12 Top Trails at Mt. Rainier, and selected four short and interesting hikes. We spread these over two days, working around one child’s nap schedule, and limiting driving time to forestall carsickness in the other. (great excuse to take our time enjoying the park and our lodging as well) Entering the park both days was easy with our lifetime NPS Senior Passes.
On our first afternoon we entered the park from rt. 123 at the Stevens Canyon entrance, within a mile of the Grove of the Patriarchs trail. This is an outstanding hike to introduce the family to Mt. Rainier. An out-and-back ~1.5 miles, including a (low) suspension bridge over the Ohanapecosh River, culminating in an old growth stand of Douglas Firs, hemlocks, and cedars. It’s an easy hike, but not stroller or wheelchair accessible.
On our second day we explored the southwest section of the park. We entered the park at the Nisqually entrance, drove out to Reflection Lakes (16.8 miles, about 30 minutes) and worked our way back, stopping in the Paradise and Longmire area. Each of these three stops offered a very different experiences of Rainier.
The view of Rainier in the Reflection Lakes can be enjoyed from a car as there’s plenty of parking along the road, but we chose to walk a few trails to see the mountain from different angles and enjoy the abundant wildflowers.
On to the Paradise area where the Henry M. Jackson Visitors Center is located. Though the visitor’s center here was closed due to the pandemic, park rangers were available to answer questions and hand out Junior Ranger books. This entire area is gorgeous, especially on a crystal clear day like the one we had. There are many trails depart from this area. We chose to walk a paved .5 mile trail to Myrtle waterfall. The trail passed through wildflower fields, reminiscent of an alpine meadow, with a towering Mt Rainier in the near distance.
NOTE: This is at high elevation so, though stroller accessible, prepare to get winded pushing your child.
Our last stop was in Longmire to walk the Trail of Shadows. (.75 mi). This very easy trail features mineral springs, the Longmire cabin, and meadow views. I think this might have been our 4-year-old’s favorite.
If you go: plan early to reserve a room at the Paradise Inn. Breathtaking location! But note that some of the area we visited is inaccessible in the winter months. Road status within the park is posted on the NPS site.
Family Days on Vashon
Anyone who has traveled with preschoolers knows that routine and simple days are essential to a successful trip. Our little ones were remarkably resilient, but definitely enjoyed these days the most. We stayed with family on Vashon Island, right off the coast of Seattle, but a world away. The family home had all the requirements to keep our 4 year old happy – three dogs, one cat, a garden with grapes, tomatoes, and apples to harvest, and best of all, a great-aunt and uncle to love. Add in cousins and playmates to get to know, and our visit was perfect!
Northwest Trek Wildlife Park-
A perfect stop for families on the way to Seattle, Northwest Trek has something for everyone. In addition to the well designed habitats for local wildlife, there is a free ranging area accessible by tram (not running currently), ranger led self-drive on the Wild Drive, or in a private Jeep on the Keeper Tour.
There is also a play area for little ones, and a zip line for older kids. Plan on a half day to fully enjoy the park.
If you go: located in Eatonville, WA, Northwest Trek is easily accessible from Portland, Tacoma, or (as we did) from Mt. Rainier NP. Reserve timed tickets in advance for the Wild Drive or Keeper Tour if you’re interested. (price includes park admission!)
Willamette Valley Wineries
Even devoted parents and grandparents need a day off! And what better to do than enjoy the day on a wine tasting tour.
The Willamette Valley is famous for its Pinot Noirs. The marine sedimentary soil is perfect for dry farming the grapes. We booked a tour with Amanda of Oregon-Posh tours. She was wonderful to work with and kept us on track during our day in the valley. We visited four wineries, each quite different, and enjoyed learning about the region. Even if you’re not a wine connoisseur, being out in the countryside is a great way to enjoy an area and chat with locals.
If you go: book a tour, or hire a driver who knows the Willamette wineries. Your guide, or your hotel, may be able to arrange to have your purchases shipped to your home. Ask in advance to avoid being disappointed.
On our own: Favorite stops on our extended PNW road trip.
These were the add-ons that made this trip extra special. We allotted a few days on both sides of our family road trip to explore more of the area. After a lot of research, we narrowed our itinerary to include just a few bucket list activities. Along the way, we lucked into a few more! These were our favorites.
Washington Park in Portland
What an incredible city park! 410 acres of public lands including the renowned Hoyt Arboretum, Japanese Gardens, International Rose Test Garden, Portland Zoo, and many more attractions.
We arrived expecting an easy stroll through the arboretum, and were stunned to see the huge trees, and the extent of well kept, and somewhat challenging, trails. After consultation with some outstanding park docents, we walked the Redwood and Wildwood trails so as to end our hike near the rose garden. Another beautiful (and free!) spot we’d underestimated!
If you go: GO! This park is not to be missed. There’s something here for everyone, and there’s a free park shuttle to bring you back to your starting point when you’ve enjoyed your day. Parking is available ($2/hr) or the park is accessible by MAX light rail.
Columbia River Gorge Waterfalls
The famous waterfalls of the Columbia River Gorge were the reason we booked extra time at the start of our trip. Within the Columbia River Scenic Area there are almost 90 waterfalls. Most of these are difficult to access, but a half dozen of these spectacular falls are easily accessible from the Historic Columbia River Highway.
This highway, known as the “King of Roads”, begins 30 miles east of Portland (exit 17 off Rt. 84) and winds its way along 70+ miles of the gorgeous Columbia River National Scenic Area.
If you go: parking for most of the trails and waterfalls was no problem, with pull offs on both sides of the road. But Multnomah Falls is the big draw ( more than 2 million visitors each year!) and parking is very limited from the Historic Columbia River highway. Good news is that there is a large lot off eastbound rt. 84 (exit 31) with a walkway to the falls. Go to that lot directly if you are tight for time.
We added a few days onto the end of our trip to explore the Olympic Peninsula. Our primary goal was to visit Olympic National Park, with its old growth forests and storied rainforest. The trees in this park are huge! The world’s biggest Sitka Spruce, 1000 years old and 191 feet tall, is just a short walk from the Lake Quinault lodge.
We stayed on the northern coast of the peninsula and thoroughly enjoyed the coastal area. This is where you’ll find the lovely town of Sequim, many, many lavender farms, the Dungeness National wildlife refuge, and the Victorian town of Port Townsend.
Fun fact: Port Townsend was founded with the idea that it would be the busiest port in Washington. Ultimately, Seattle’s better access to railroads, ended that dream. But, luckily for us, the gorgeous town of Port Townsend flourished with its picturesque streets, delicious restaurants, and easy access to sporting activities on Puget Sound.
If you go (and want to fully explore the National Park): Plan early to reserve a room at one of the Olympic National Park Inns. Staying at a park lodge is always fun, but in Olympic National Park, the proximity to popular areas is an added advantage.
The Lake Quinault Inn is lovely, with a great dining room, and wide lawn leading to the waterfront. The Lake Crescent appears to be more kid focused, with cottages along the lake front and lots of swimming options. The Kalaloch Lodge is an ocean beach front lodge, and also fills up early.
Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum
Home of Howard Hughes’ ‘Spruce Goose’. We hadn’t planned on stopping here, but when another visitor to Portland’s Washington Park told us about it, my husband’s interest was piqued.
The facility consists of several large hangers (including one that’s a water park!). One hanger houses the aviation exhibit, and another the space exhibit. Both fascinating and well worth the visit!
If you go: The Evergreen museum is located on rt. 18 in McMinnville. Admission is currently $20 for adults, $15 for veterans and seniors, $10 for kids with under 5 free.
Watch Scorsese’s The Aviator, before you go. Great movie about the eccentric Howard Hughes.
Chihuly Garden & Glass
Seattle is a smallish city, so it was easy to walk from our hotel on the waterfront to the Seattle Center where the Space Needle, Memorial Stadium, and Chihuly Garden & Glass museum are located. (Well, easy if you know to use one of the waterfront elevators that help you ascend the steep hills of the city.)
The Chihuly Garden & Glass feature the work of world renowned glass artist, Dale Chihuly. Originally from the Seattle area, Mr. Chihuly’s stunning art creations can be found around the world.
Fortunately for us (and for Seattle!) this museum displays some of the most extraordinary works of fine art in glass. Definitely a must see for any visitors to the area.
If you go: Bring your camera! And try to time your visit to enjoy lunch in the courtyard while watching glass blowing demonstrations.
Washington State Ferries
The Washington State Ferries were an outstanding way to get around. On most runs you pay only in one direction, simplifying things and speeding up the boarding procedures. We took short ferry rides between Vashon and the mainland, but really enjoyed the one hour trip from Bremerton on the Olympic peninsula to downtown Seattle. What a civilized way to commute! If you go – don’t hesitate to use the ferry. Check the ferry schedule before planning your trip to ensure you’re making the most of your time.
F is for Ferry
Planning activities for the little ones is the secret of a fun family road trip. We put together several travel games, but it was our A to Z photo scavenger hunt that all enjoyed the most. Our 4-year-old practiced letter recognition by finding things for each letter of the alphabet. A is for Airplane, B is for Bridge…
Now that we’re home, we’re putting together a photo book with all our finds. A great travel souvenir for us, and a learning tool for her little sister.
Misses – Learn from our MIStakes!
Mis-packed – We should have packed warmer clothes. Washington and Oregon had been experiencing a heat wave before we left home, so we eliminated the puff jackets and fleeces from our packing. What a surprise when the temperature dropped rapidly and we had few options to keep us warm! Fortunately we’ve dealt with this before and knew to begin layering. We’d packed several merino wool favorites, including our Icebreaker base layers, so could use these over and over without needing to launder. As an outer layer, my Wool& cardigan was worn on 10 of the 14 days of the trip!
Misestimated food availability – we’ve visited many National Parks and have always found the area near the entrances lined with restaurants and shopping. The approach to Mt Rainier was entirely different. There were few restaurants and the grocery stores we found had limited selections. Especially difficult as two of our group had food sensitivities and another was a four-year-old!
If you go: shop for groceries in the city before you head out. Plan on making some of your meals, and packing picnic lunches. If you’re traveling with children, buy familiar foods that the child enjoys. A PB&J on “regular” bread will go a long way.
Mistimed national park – I am a planner. I usually research a location extensively before we travel. Unfortunately, this time we underestimated our travel time, and ended up arriving too late to enter some of the National Park areas. The parking lots were full, with a two hour wait, so we were forced to turn around. Disappointing, but a reason for a return trip.
If you go: plan on getting to the most popular areas of the National Parks early, before 10 a.m., or later, after 4 p.m. Some parks will post updates on Twitter re. parking lots and road closures. Check this out before you go.
Miscalculated driving distances and Misjudged energy levels – Adding 400 miles to the last few days of the trip was too much. Especially after a wonderful week with little ones. We will try to be less ambitious and schedule down time into our road trips going forward…
This was our first trip since 2019 and we loved traveling again. We thoroughly enjoyed being back in the National Parks again. We were a bit too ambitious for a two week trip. On paper our road trip was 772 miles, but in reality we drove ~40% more miles, finishing at 1075.