The first-ever trip I took without parental supervision was a road trip down the California coast with three of my best childhood friends for spring break. I like to think that trip was the beginning of an adulthood of endlessly searching for the next adventure, with my preferred state being “en route.” We were 17 and hopelessly straight-edge, so the biggest shenanigans we got into were more along the lines of eating an entire packet of Pop Rocks in one mouthful than Spring Breakers-style lawlessness. But I will never forget listening to Ocean by the John Butler Trio on repeat, wending our way down Highway 1, dreamily watching the cliffs fall away into the sea.
Road trips offer a special kind of freedom: the knowledge that, with enough gas money and time, you could make it to Patagonia. The Yukon. Mexico City. I used to get in my friend’s car in college in Chicago and, even if we were just driving to the grocery store, instinctively long to drive all day and night until I made it home (needless to say, four years of Chicago meant four years of intense homesickness for the Pacific Northwest). There’s a sense of near-limitless possibility and inevitable adventure when you’re driving, windows down during the golden hour, on your way to anywhere.
I’ve pieced together some of my favorite places in the northwest corner of the states because, of course, I think the best way to experience my homeland is on wheels. There’s so much to see: three incredible cities, charming small towns, and, of course, an insane stretch of coast and (in my opinion) two of the most incredible mountain ranges in the United States. Though the best road trips are ones with plenty of wiggle room for spontaneous detours, long stopovers, and changes of plan, an itinerary never hurts. Here the ten destinations on my ideal summertime Pacific Northwest road trip, best undertaken when you’ve got at least a month—and ideally more—to roam:
Your journey starts in Portland, where you can rent a fully equipped Sportsmobile from ROAM rentals. Pick up some reading material for the days ahead at Powell’s, the world’s largest independent bookstore, grab some killer donuts and coffee (but skip Voodoo, best known in recent years for mind-boggling lines), and hit the road.
Head to Manzanita, Oregon, a tiny coastal town with great car camping, gorgeous, uncrowded beaches, and excellent surfing at nearby Short Sands. Reserve a campsite at Nehalem Bay State Park, and be sure to check out the tiny bioluminescent critters in the water at night if you’re there in late summer.
Drive north up the lush, coastal Highway 101 and visit Westport, Washington. The sleepy fishing town is home to some of the best surfing in Washington, with mellower, messier breaks at the Jetty and cleaner, more consequential surfing in the Groins. If the frigid Pacific Ocean isn’t enough to wake you up, follow your morning session with coffee at Tinderbox Roasters, and follow up your evening session with a big bonfire at camp in Twin Harbors state park.
Head further north to explore the Olympic National Park. Any outdoor person can find their rhythm in the diverse park, which features rainforest, glaciated peaks, and dramatic beaches. Mellow alpine climbing await on Mt. Olympus and the South Brother, the Hoh River offers scenic hiking and fly-fishing, and the coast has stunning beach camping and surfing (hit La Push if you’re looking for waves).
Drive to Port Angeles, where you (and your vehicle) can catch a ferry to Victoria, British Columbia. The small town on Vancouver Island is a great launch-point for myriad adventures on the island, from hiking and climbing around Mt. Washington in Strathcona Provincial Park to sea kayaking and sailing along the rugged coastline. Many tourists don’t make it past Victoria, so give yourself some time here. Huge expanses of wilderness, a small local population, and remoteness make Vancouver Island one of the best places in the Pacific Northwest to experience gorgeous wilderness without crowds.
If you haven’t had enough of the cold water and the misty coast, drive a scenic four hours to Tofino, a foggy, remote town home to some of British Columbia’s best surfing. Camp at Bella Pacifica Campground near Mackenzie Beach, and don’t forget to try Tofino Brewing Company’s Kelp Stout, which is actually brewed with seaweed.
From Victoria, catch another ferry to the mainland and explore Vancouver, a hip water- and mountain-bound hub for the arts. Check out the rotating exhibits at the Vancouver Art Gallery and learn about the culture of the First Nations at the Museum of Anthropology, which houses a remarkable collection of artifacts from indigenous groups. Thirty percent of the population of Vancouver is of East and Southeast Asian origins, so check out the wide array of Asian food, from Taiwanese dumplings to a popular Japanese Izakaya.
From Vancouver, drive up the beautiful Sea to Sky highway toward Garibaldi Provincial Park. Nearby Whistler and Pemberton offer small-town charm, and the park itself is home to plenty of wilderness adventures. Visit Garibaldi Lake, surrounded by glaciated peaks and tinged an impossible turquoise, thanks to microscopic glacier flour suspended in the water.
Swing back into Washington to Bellingham, home to great beer and killer mountain biking at nearby Galbraith Mountain. Bellingham’s also a great gateway to the North Cascades National Park. If you’re feeling ambitious, Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan are two of the most coveted summits in Washington, but both require some know-how. If you’re not feeling like breaking out the crampons and ropes, Cascade Pass and Desolation Peak are two of the most gorgeous hikes I’ve done.
I-5 will take you straight to Seattle from Bellingham in a short couple hours. To be honest, I don’t know where to start with Seattle. Alki Beach in the summer, road biking on the Burke-Gilman trail, playing tourist at Pike Place Market, afternoon beers in Green Lake, bar-hopping on Capitol Hill; Seattle’s my favorite city in the world. Elliot Bay Books‘ excellent staff recommendations and massive collection have long stocked my reading list, vintage shopping in the U-District along the Ave (University Way) made me broke in high school, I learned to rock climb at the incredible Seattle Bouldering Project, and I whiled away plenty of summer afternoons sunbathing and swimming along the shores of Lake Washington. Eat, drink, catch some live music. Then get back on the road.
Photos by Abbie Barronian.
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