When the sun makes a welcome and overdue appearance in the Pacific Northwest, the open road beckons to even the most weather-weary driver. Whether you are seeking a roadside adventure, need a weekend getaway or just looking to enjoy the ride, here are a few ideas for exploring our scenic byways.
Small cove off Samish Bay on Chuckanut Drive
About 45 minutes north of Seattle, I-5’s exit 231 drops you on to one of the Northwest’s most scenic drives. From Burlington to Bellingham, Highway 11, or Chuckanut Drive, opens to sweeping farmland and gives way to evergreen forest, dramatic coastline and island views. For much of the short drive, the road hugs the rocky shoreline at the base of Mt. Chuckanut, and its curves are a driver’s delight. Stop at one of the many roadside vistas and take a deep breath, or visit the 2000-acre Larrabee State Park (Discover Pass required), Washington’s first state park, for an overnight campout or a day hike to the beach. Several trailheads along the east side of the drive lead to giant cedars, waterfalls, and mountain lakes. If you’re hungry, you’ll find several oyster restaurants offering decadent sustenance, and Taylor Farms Shellfish Market has seasonal shellfish available for take-home or an onsite picnic.
At the north end of Highway 11, you’ll find yourself in Bellingham’s historic Fairhaven, with the original Tony’s Coffee – one of the first coffee roasters to promote fair trade and sustainable beans, quaint cafés, and intriguing boutiques. Backroads will also take you to the beachy town of Birch Bay, with waterslides and a family fun center, as well as Semiahmoo Resort, a luxury retreat built on a sand spit just south of the Canadian border.
Strait of Juan de Fuca Highway
Just west of Port Angeles is a driver’s paradise, both for the open, winding road and the unbeatable scenery. Pick up Highway 112 this side of Joyce, and follow the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Neah Bay. At just under two hours, it’s a classic top-down, volume-up cruise, with few reasons to stop until you near the end of the road. In Neah Bay, explore the Makah Cultural & Research Center, or follow signs to the Cape Flattery trailhead, where you can hike a mile and find yourself at the most westerly point of the contiguous United States, and some of the most spectacular scenery around. A Makah Recreation Pass is required and can be purchased at the general store.
If you’re coming from Seattle by way of the Edmonds ferry, you’ll cross the Hood Canal Bridge – at nearly one-and-a-half miles long, it’s reportedly the longest saltwater floating bridge* in the world – and drive through historic Port Gamble; Port Townsend, an official Victorian seaport on the national registry and considered by many the wooden boat capital of North America, is just a short side-trip away. For fans of the Twilight series, take a hard left from Neah Bay and you’ll be in Forks in just over an hour. Or if rain forest is more your speed, visit the Hoh Rain Forest in Olympic National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and take a walk along a lush interpretive trail through temperate (and likely wet) old growth forest.
Artist Point at Mount Baker
Mountain Loop Highway
While not the smooth excursion of the drives previously mentioned, the Mountain Loop Highway is, in part, a venture back in time, with a storied history of fits and starts. Built along old railroad, mining roads, and horse trails, early residents lobbied for the road during the depression years, after the trains stopped running and they needed a route for logging and tourism. The 55-mile loop through the Mt. Baker / Snoqualmie National Forest was built in stages and traverses the western Cascade Mountains.
Because it’s a loop, Arlington is your start and finish. To get there, take I-5 to exit 208 and follow the picturesque Stillaguamish River to Granite Falls. Your GPS will be handy to find the start of the “official” loop highway (but it should be well-signed). The paved road eventually gives way to gravel until you near Darrington, home of the Darrington Bluegrass Festival, where you can pick up Highway 530 back to Arlington. Throughout the route, you’ll see stunning mountain vistas, wildlife, old growth forest, and if you’re so inclined, you can explore hiking trails of varying difficulty, picnic at the ice caves, or take a low-key four-mile jaunt to a ghost town with a self-guided tour.
Off-road vehicles aren’t necessary if you stick to the main highway; if you want to explore some of the forest roads, a four-wheel drive is essential. Be sure to check road conditions before you go because the area is prone to nature’s whims, although summer months are typically clear. Hikers and campers will need a National Forest pass.
Hood Canal Bridge
Before you go
While day trips don’t require reservations, if you plan to stay awhile and have your heart set on a destination, it’s best to call ahead. Olympic Park lodges, along with national and state park campgrounds often fill up at the beginning of the summer season, and while they may have vacancies or cancellations, it’s good to plan ahead or have a backup plan. Forest passes can be purchased online in advance, or at retail outlets and ranger stations along the way. Wherever you decide to explore next remember that it’s always a good idea to plan for any weather, no matter the forecast.