The Pacific Northwest is the closest American terrain comes to resemble Middle-Earth. With endless evergreen forests and a relatively low population density, even along the spectacular coast, a road trip through here is quite literally a breath of fresh air. Along the way, you'll discover plenty of lush, sylvan landscapes where you could swear you saw a glimpse of magic in the air.
On this mammoth 1,240-mile road trip through the Pacific Northwest, you'll wander the redwoods of northern California, see sand dunes ringed by shore pines on the Oregon Coast, and be enchanted by the fairy forests of the Olympic Peninsula.
A trip like this requires planning and we have you covered. Read on to discover the best routes, relaxing places to stay and must-see national parks and attractions along the way.
Where are the forests of the Pacific Northwest located and how long will it take to visit them?
|Inland City Breaks
The jury is still out regarding which areas make up the Pacific Northwest. The entirety of Washington and Oregon, along with their inland neighbor of Idaho, are almost always included. Some lists include parts of Wyoming and even British Columbia, Canada. Northern California doesn't always make the cut, but there's an undeniable continuity of landscape and laid-back culture.
Sometimes this region is also called Cascadia after the Cascade Mountain Range, which stretches all the way from British Columbia to Lassen Peak in Northern California.
We've decided to include parts of California on this road trip because they are truly breathtaking and add variety to the trip.
With over a thousand miles between San Francisco and Seattle, following the scenic routes below, this trip requires at least 25 hours of continuous driving.
This is best spread out over a minimum of 6 days. You could easily spend a month covering this route if you want to camp and backpack at some of the many exceptional wilderness areas famous for the Pacific Northwest.
Best Pacific Northwest road trip route to visit the magical California, Oregon and Washington forests
The two routes largely follow the same Pacific highway, US Route 101 (US-101). One starts in San Francisco and the other further north and inland in Redding, CA where there is an airport if you choose to fly in and rent a car to set off on this magical road trip.
They both take you all the way around Washington's Olympic Peninsula and wind up in Seattle, with an optional stop at the North Cascade National Park, which has been included in the mileage above.
On this route, the mesmerizing waves of the Pacific Ocean will be your constant companion all the way from San Francisco to Seattle. Along the way you'll witness the evolution of the north coast from the rugged cliffs of Mendocino to the mossy forests of Washington.
Though this route as we've laid it out skips over Portland, OR and Olympia, WA, you could easily modify it if you'd like to see these thriving cultural hubs up close.
You'll start your journey in the hills of San Francisco and take the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin, where you'll change from US 101 to CA Route 1 (CA-1), also known as the Pacific Coast Highway. Within the first hour of your drive, you'll pass two tempting stops, Muir Woods and Point Reyes National Seashore.
After passing the colorful coastal towns of Bodega Bay, Mendocino, and Fort Bragg, CA-1 makes a short inland detour to merge into US-101 in Leggett. You will take this road the rest of the way north. While still on the California side of the border you'll pass Eureka with its colorful Victorian homes and the enchanting Redwood National and State Parks.
Across the border in Oregon, you'll meander by sand dunes and cliffs as you approach Coos Bay. A little further north, you'll pass the port town of Astoria, OR where much of the iconic 80's movie “The Goonies” was filmed.
On the route's final leg in Washington, US-101 takes you all the way around the Olympic Peninsula with the chance to make trips into the Olympic National Forest at several entrance points.
From the town of Port Angeles at the northern tip of the peninsula, you could opt to take US-101 and WA Route 104 directly towards Seattle or take WA Route 20 a little further north and east into the ruggedly alluring North Cascades National Park before wrapping up your trip in Seattle.
Inland City Breaks
While this route doesn't totally leave the coast behind, it allows you to dip into the interior of the Pacific Northwest and sample the cultural delights of the mid-sized towns hidden among the trees.
This route starts in the thoroughly NorCal town of Redding and makes its first coastal contact at Arcata, CA.
This route has some added mileage from backtracking along US Route 26 from Ecola State Park to Portland, but between Portland and Olympia, you make up for lost time by cruising on Interstate 5.
It also misses some of the quaint, coastal Californian towns and scenery you would pass by if you follow the route from San Francisco.
Starting in the shadow of Mt. Shasta in Redding, for the first leg of the journey, you'll take the winding CA Route 299 between two massive national forests, Shasta-Trinity and Six Rivers.
You'll finally meet up with the broad waves of the Pacific Ocean in the off-beat town of Arcata, from where you can also take a quick trip south to Eureka.
From either of these towns you can navigate to US-101. Follow it north past Redwood National and State Parks and across the Oregon border. After taking in the scenery at Coos Bay, OR and Ecola State Park, you will start heading inland on US Route 26 East, which will take you all the way to rose-filled Portland.
Hop on Interstate 5 North to get from Portland to Olympia, WA at the very southern tip of the Puget Sound. From here, you'll start navigating back to US-101 via WA Route 8 West through Montesano and Aberdeen.
Once you're back on US-101, this route around the Olympic Peninsula is the same as above, with the optional stop in North Cascades National Park before reaching Seattle.
Best places to stop while visiting California, Oregon and Washington forests
There are long stretches of this trip where all you'll see is the azure hues of the ocean on your left and every shade of green on your right. This abundant natural beauty influences the reflective, outdoorsy, and artistic cultures of the communities dotted along the coast. Here are a few places we recommend to stop and savor.
Find every kind of adventure in Eureka, California
Eureka! After miles and miles of rural roads and woodlands, this island of civilization, with its wide selection of restaurants and beautifully restored Victorian buildings, can be a welcome sight.
This stop potentially works for both routes but is more directly on the Coastal Route and comes about a fourth of the way into the journey.
With the vestiges of wealth built up during the heyday of the logging industry of Humboldt County, Eureka today is a cultural center along the foggy coast with an active arts scene and easy access to beaches, a bay, and redwood forests.
With its ornate homes and galleries galore, Old Town Eureka is an underappreciated gem along California's northern coast. The Clarke Historical Museum is a wonderful place to take in the richness of the Wiyot culture, including art and narratives about the surrounding landscape.
Finally, the incredible Carson Mansion is worth a stop for an unforgettable photo to capture your time here.
The Hydrangea Inn is a boutique B&B built within a restored historic house. It features thoughtfully appointed rooms with big, comfy beds and many amenities, including a complete kitchen so you can whip up one of your favorite dishes or heat up leftovers from lunch.
We liked how the rooms are practically apartments, which give you the freedom to do your own thing and feel like you have a home base after a few days on the road. With free onsite parking, coming and going is a breeze.
The hotel is only a few blocks away from US 101 and a five-minute drive from Old Town Eureka. So, in addition to being easily accessible, it is also close to most attractions and cute locations in town and along the bay.
From Eureka it is only a 10-minute drive to Arcata and a 40-minute drive to Redwood National and State Parks, which is a glorious place to explore in the early morning.
Hike with an ocean view in Cannon Beach, Oregon
A combination of comforting amenities and a peaceful beachside location make Cannon Beach an ideal stop for both routes we've outlined above.
This is one of the most popular destinations on the rugged Oregon Coast, with sunsets that will leave you speechless. It also supports another notable creative community and a fine selection of craft breweries.
Cannon Beach is home to one of the most recognizable natural monuments in Oregon, Haystack Rock. It is also just 3 miles from Ecola State Park, with trails and sweeping views over ocean outcrops as well as meadows where wild elk graze. This is all set against a dense rainforest with its own maze of mossy trails.
We simply cannot stop singing the praises of the Inn at Cannon Beach. In addition to spacious rooms, fresh baked cookies at the front desk, and games and movies you can check out, adorable bunnies hop around the premises and at night gently croaking frogs add to the rustic atmosphere.
In the morning after a complimentary breakfast with good coffee, you can grab one of their beach towels and take a private trail to the beach. After a day of hiking, few things are more welcome than soaking in one of their Jacuzzi tubs.
This property is also just off US 101 and is only a 5-minute drive from Tolovana Beach State Park. It is just over a mile from the cute downtown of Canon Beach and the iconic Haystack Rock is a short walk away.
Please check our comprehensive guide out to learn more:
Where to stay when you reach Washington
Located on the shores of the Salish Sea, across from the island of Victoria in Canada, Port Angeles is a scenic and vibrant town at the meeting of mountains and the waves. You'll pass here about three-quarters through your journey.
Port Angeles is at the edge of Olympic National Park and is one of the most popular entry points to explore this treasure of the Northwest. The downtown area is filled with a variety of restaurants, museums, and boutique shop, making it one of the liveliest towns on the Olympic Peninsula.
In addition to easy access to Olympic National Park, you can also make this an international trip by boarding a 90-minute ferry to Victoria, Canada. Back in town, you'll find ¬cultural highlights like the Port Angeles Fine Art Center and the Elwha Klallam Museum.
The Olympic Lodge by Ayres is located practically at the doorstep of Olympic National Park. This gorgeous hotel truly has the feeling of a spacious, upscale lodge.
The meticulous landscaping accents the Olympic Mountain views in the backdrop. Here you can pamper yourself at an onsite spa and unwind by the fireplace in the common lounge. All the rooms are tidy with big, soft beds to ensure you're rested for each day of adventure.
The hotel is less than a mile from the Port Angeles Fine Arts Center and just over 2 miles from the national park's visitor center and the Peabody Creek Trail. Hurricane Ridge Road runs from the visitor center for 18 miles to another cluster of high-altitude trailheads.
When it is finally time to bid adieu to this magical peninsula, Olympic Lodge is situated just off US-101, so it couldn't be easier to get up and go whenever the next destination calls.
Things to see on a road trip through California and Washington
This is a trip that will appeal to those who thrive in the great outdoors and simply can't get enough of every kind of foliage. One taste of the magic of the Pacific Northwest will have you planning your next trip here. Here are a few highlights we recommend seeing on each route.
The Coastal Route
- Muir Woods, CA - One of the most popular and accessible coastal redwood forests in California. Just in case you can't wait to see the towering redwoods of Mendocino and Humboldt Counties, this would serve as a good taste, but it is best to avoid the weekend crowds. To park at Muir Woods, reservations are required. There is also no cell service, so download any guide you might need beforehand.
- Point Reyes National Seashore, CA - This 80-mile-long preserve of pristine shoreline has breathtaking trails, a post-card perfect lighthouse, and one of two waterfalls in California that empties directly into the sea, Alamere Falls.
- Bodega Bay, CA - This port town is a popular weekend getaway for people from the SF Bay Area. Especially if you're visiting from out of state, this is a great place to get a little taste of the California wine country or unwind over a morning kayak trip.
- Gualala Point Regional Trail, CA - This stunning, yet hidden, trail climbs a bluff snuggled between the ocean the Gualala River. The nearby town of Gualala is also adorable and has a few tasty places for lunch.
- Mendocino, CA - This quiet town at the edge of the redwood curtain is well known for its unique wooden houses which look like they belong on the other coast. Downtown you'll find delectable dining options making it a choice place for a date night.
- Avenue of the Giants, CA - This detour on CA Route 254 runs parallel to US 1010 for 31 miles through a continuous tree tunnel of towering redwoods. It has the signature Pacific Northwest vibes that make this trip so special. Keep an eye out for the turnoff before Phillipsville.
The Inland City Breaks
- Shasta Lake, CA - If this is your first time near Redding, then take the little detour north on Interstate 5 to Shasta Lake. Here you can hike and take in the views of Mount Shasta in the distance or take a boat out on the water for a day of swimming or fishing .
- Portland, OR - Portland has a slightly more industrial edge than its sister cities San Francisco and Seattle. Its climate is perfect for a wide variety of gardens, though this entails a fair amount of rain. Indoor attractions like the Portland Art Museum and Voodoo Doughnuts are great stops for when the rain just doesn't let up.
- Olympia, WA - Though not as widely known as Seattle, verdant Olympia is, in fact, Washington's capital city and boasts some stunning surroundings. After seeing the beautiful capitol building, go to Brewery Park at Tumwater Falls to see the remnants of a once-famous brewery, see some waterfalls, and watch the salmon run at the river.
- Arcata, CA - Whether you eat granola every day or only begrudgingly admit that you have an inner hippie, Arcata is a crunchy, green haven for artists, tree huggers, and creatives of all types.
- Trinidad State Beach, CA - This is an incredibly easy to access, yet wild and endlessly photogenic beach. For these reasons, it can get crowded at times, but especially if you're making this trip during the week or during the low season, it is worth the stop to admire the stone outcrops and bluffs carpeted with forest.
- Fern Canyon, CA - This is the indisputable highlight of Redwood National and State Parks. Located near Gold Bluffs Beach along Home Creek, this narrow canyon looks like it is the inspiration for that new trend of covering the courtyard and patio walls with hanging plants.
- Brookings, OR - This is the first harbor-side town on the Oregon Coast that you'll pass. Whether you stop for a few hours to walk along Harris Beach and have lunch or want to spend the night, keep in mind that this is the last major town for many miles.
- Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor - This is where you really get a taste of the splendor of the Oregon Coast. There are countless viewpoints and trails on either side of the highway, which could easily take you 6 hours to drive, so plan to spend a whole day driving this gorgeous stretch of road.
- Siuslaw National Forest - The mingling of forests, cliffs, and coves makes this a stop for the truly adventurous at heart. This area is full of trails including ones that go by rolling expanse of the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, a signature feature of the Oregon Coast.
- Ecola State Park - Hike the 7-mile trail that meanders through coastal fog, revealing spell-binding views of the Pacific Ocean from Ecola Point. Another fabulous trail near here is the one to Indian Beach.
- Astoria, OR - Here you can ride a historic trolley along the town's riverfront, learn about the importance of the river for industry at the Columbia River Maritime Museum, or seek out the house featured in “The Goonies.” This is a town with many sweet surprises and would make a good overnight stop if you're not planning on going inland to Portland.
- Quinault Lake, WA - This lake is at the southern edge of Olympic National Park and as good a place as any to get acquainted with this utterly enchanting temperate rainforest. There's an easy, half-mile interpretive trail along Willaby Creek, especially for people who can only walk limited distances but want to have an immersive experience in the forest.
- Hurricane Ridge, WA - Less than 20 miles south of Port Angeles in the Olympic National Park this stunning ridge offers unparalleled views of the deep blue Olympic Mountains and is easily accessible by road. If you're tired of driving, you can also take the Clallam Transit Shuttle from Port Angeles to hiking trails and viewpoints here.
- Hoh Rainforest, WA - Draped in every shade of green this bona fide fairy forest is in the central area of Olympic National Park. It is one of the most pristine temperate rainforests in the country and has various trails ranging from the ethereal 0.8-mile Hall of Mosses Trail to the 18.5 mile Hoh River Trail.
- The Whale Trail (Olympic Peninsula), WA - A few dozen marine mammal species live off the Olympic coast, including orcas and grey whales. This trail includes 15 designated spots with interpretive signs and viewing tips from South Beach to Port Angeles.
- North Cascades National Park, WA - This epically beautiful national park just south of the Canadian border is known as the American Alps for good reason. Boasting jagged peaks, graceful glaciers, multi-hued meadows, and sprawling forests, any avid trekker would want to make some time to explore this park.
Best time to go on a road trip to visit California and Washington forests
As you can imagine, it takes a lot of rain for an area to become a rainforest. Though the majority of the precipitation happens in the winter, the Pacific Northwest is known for being drizzly throughout the year.
Especially around the Olympic Peninsula, snow can close roads and trails even up until the beginning of June, so winter isn't an ideal time to make this trip. Even if the temperatures don't fall near as low as in other parts of the country, it might still be too cold to enjoy the great outdoors.
For the slightly warmer weather and a greater chance of sunny days for hiking and enjoying beaches, the summer is the most popular time to do a road trip around the Pacific Northwest. This also means that hotels fill up more quickly and a few smaller attractions might feel crowded.
Still, the Pacific Northwest doesn't experience anything like the summer rush you might see at Yellowstone or Yosemite, so it is an excellent option for people who want to get out in nature without bumping elbows.
The shoulder seasons of spring and fall can also be beautiful times to adventure through the evergreen forests of the Pacific Coast. In the Californian stretch of the trip, you might catch a few wildflowers in late spring and in fall, some of the deciduous trees peppered around Oregon light up with color.
The whale migration usually takes place around April and May in the northern regions of Washington, so if you plan your trip around this time, you might be lucky enough to spot a whale or two!
The Portland Rose Festival is a series of events, parades, and concerts that happen between April and August. In June, Portland also hosts the PDX Cider Summit, a celebration of all things crisp, tart, and bubbly.
If you thoroughly enjoy being in your birthday suits, consider joining in the popular World Naked Bike Ride in Portland at the end of July.
Further north, the Northwest Folklife Festival in Seattle boasts diverse folk arts and usually takes place in late May.
If you make this trip in September and can't get enough Ferris wheels and kettle corn, stop by the Washington State Fair in Puyallup, WA, just 35 miles south of Seattle.