AAA Travel Tips / Best Pacific Northwest Road Trips (and When to Take Them)

Best Pacific Northwest Road Trips (and When to Take Them)

AAA/Katie Broome
By AAA Travel Editor Katie Broome
December 04, 2019
The northwest corner of the United States is home to some spectacular sights. From the rugged coastline of Oregon to the snowcapped peaks and volcanoes of Washington state, awe-inspiring scenery is around just about every corner in the Pacific Northwest. And for those who crave a bit of city life, the densely populated areas near Seattle and Portland provide a seemingly endless selection of fun things to see and do.
One of the best ways to explore this scenically blessed region is by car, and AAA travel editors have rounded up everything you need to know about taking a Pacific Northwest road trip before hitting the highway, including when to go, what to see and how to fit it all in. Plus, we’ve linked to a few of the region’s most scenic road trips to help you plan your route.
View of the Seattle skyline from the King County Water Taxi to West Seattle, Washington.
AAA/Katie Broome

The Pacific Northwest States

By definition, the “Pacific Northwest” refers to the northwestern region of the United States near the Pacific Ocean that includes the following states:
• Washington
• Oregon
Note: Idaho and the westernmost Canadian province of British Columbia are sometimes associated with the Pacific Northwest, but these areas are covered in separate AAA road trip guides.
Route 101 in Oregon.
flickr / CC BY/daveynin

Best Pacific Northwest Road Trips for Scenic Views

If you’re planning on taking a road trip in the Pacific Northwest, you may be overwhelmed by the options. Active volcanoes, dramatic ocean cliffs, towering waterfalls and temperate rainforests—there’s a wide range of geography to marvel over in this region.
If you have a full day or more to spare, consider one of these popular scenic drives recommended by AAA travel editors that provide the most bang for your buck. (Click the links for a sample road trip itinerary and interactive maps.)
Grand Pacific Northwest Road Trip - A scenic loop through northern Oregon and southern Washington that includes Portland, the Historic Columbia River Highway, Multnomah Falls, Yakima Valley, Mount Rainier National Park and other top sights.
Northern CA & Southern OR Coast Road Trip - A one-way journey that starts in California’s Central Valley and continues north up Oregon’s coast, with views of state parks and quaint beach towns along the way.
Pacific Coast Scenic Byway, Oregon Coast Road Trip - A one-way trip up Oregon’s coast on the Oregon Coast Highway (US 101) that offers some of the best whale watching in Oregon.
Olympic Peninsula Road Trip - A scenic loop from Seattle that circles the Olympic Peninsula and the lush rain forests of Olympic National Park, with stops in Tacoma, Olympia, Port Angeles and Port Townsend.
flickr/Frank Kovalchek

Best Time of Year for a Pacific Northwest Road Trip

Figuring out the best time of year to visit the Pacific Northwest largely depends on what you want to see and what sort of weather conditions you can handle. The climate can vary widely across the region, so it’s best to be prepared for a wide range of temperatures and conditions.
In areas west of the Cascade Range near the Pacific Ocean, the climate is relatively mild, with sunny and dry summers and wet, cloudy winters. The rainy season typically starts in October and lasts through March in this part of the Pacific Northwest, but clouds, fog and a light drizzle can linger along the coastline year-round. If you don’t mind a drizzle, the rainy season could be a good time for a road trip, as hotel rates may be cheaper and crowds lighter.
In areas east of the Cascade Range, the climate is much drier, but seasonal temperature swings can be more dramatic.
mt, mount, hood, oregon, mountain, lake, snow, stratovolcano, volcano
Courtesy of Oregons Mt. Hood Territory

What to Know About Winter Road Trips

From the first snowfall of the season (which can occur as early as October) through April or May, expect road closures on mountain roads and around some national parks in Oregon and Washington. Areas near ski resorts are typically the first to be plowed after a heavy snowfall, and some mountain passes through the Cascade Range are open year-round.
If you want to experience the Pacific Northwest mountains in winter, the Grand Pacific Northwest Road Trip offers great views of Washington’s Mount Rainier and is accessible year-round. To see Oregon’s Mount Hood up close, consider the Mt Hood Scenic Loop, Hood River County Tour Route Road Trip.
Penner-Ash Wine Cellars, Winery, Vineyard
AAA /Brett Vanderbrink

How to Tour Washington and Oregon Wine Country

Did you know that Oregon’s leading wine region is just south of Portland? Explore the wineries of the Willamette Valley—they number more than 500—on a scenic drive through the rolling hills of the Oregon countryside. Here are two road trips in Oregon’s southern Willamette Valley that are close to wineries and vineyards:
Willamette Scenic Highway - See a historic covered bridge and venture into Willamette National Forest before ending at the foothills of the Cascade Range.
Rogue-Umpqua Scenic Byway Road Trip - Begin near Roseburg, home to many wineries, and travel into the mountains of Umpqua National Forest before stopping near Crater Lake.
In Washington state, you’ll find most wineries and vineyards in the Yakima and Walla Walla valleys. The best way to explore this wine region is on the Grand Pacific Northwest Road Trip, which takes you through Kennewick, Richland, Prosser, Yakima, Zillah and other wine-focused cities.
Courtesy of the National Park Service

Inspiration for a National Park Road Trip

Whether you want to go hiking or just admire the scenery from your car window, national parks make great road trip destinations. Visit the parks in spring or summer to see wildflowers in bloom, or plan your trip during the fall for plenty of leaf peeping opportunities.
To see Mount Rainier National Park in Washington, consider the Grand Pacific Northwest Road Trip or the Chinook Pass Scenic Byway Road Trip; note that the latter is closed in winter. Olympic National Park is best explored on the Olympic Peninsula Road Trip, particularly in July when you can see colorful fields of lavender near Sequim.
Considered one of the most beautiful drives in the United States, the North Cascades Scenic Highway Road Trip cuts through North Cascades National Park on SR 20 past mountains, forests and glacial lakes. If Crater Lake National Park is on your vacation itinerary, take the scenic route from Roseburg, Oregon, on the Rogue-Umpqua Scenic Byway Road Trip, which ends near Diamond Lake.
View of the Seattle skyline from the King County Water Taxi in Washington.
AAA/Katie Broome

Quick Day Trips from Seattle

Here are a few ideas for scenic road trips that would be an easy day trip from Seattle, Washington:
• Drive along the Hood Canal for views of water and mountain peaks on the Hood Canal Scenic Route Road Trip and Pacific Coast Scenic Byway, Hood Canal Area Road Trip.
• Take a ferry ride across the sparkling waters of Puget Sound on the Whidbey Scenic Isle Way Road Trip.
• Explore ice caves in Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest on the Mountain Loop Scenic Highway Road Trip.
• Check out horse country and see snowcapped Mount Rainier on the Chinook Pass Scenic Byway Road Trip.
Mount Hood and the Columbia River.
flickr / CC0 /Western Landscapes

Scenic Road Trips from Portland

If you’re visiting Portland, Oregon, and have a few hours to spare, consider heading out on one of these scenic road trips:
• See Mount Hood from across the Columbia River on the North Shore Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Byway.
• Travel deeper into Mount Hood National Forest on the Mt. Hood Scenic Loop, Hood River County Tour Route Road Trip.
Domestic Travel Boiler Plate Graphic
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