When people plan for travel in America, they tend to lean towards places like New York and D.C. on the East Coast, California on the West Coast, the theme parks and beaches of Florida, or Vegas’ endless entertainment.
But if you’re after a quiet, relaxing, and natural escape, the Pacific Northwest offers the perfect place for a detoxifying road trip through nature.
America’s Pacific Northwest centers on the states of Washington and Oregon. There is so much natural beauty in these two states including national parks and rugged undeveloped coastline. Best explored via a road trip, there are plenty of charming towns to pass through and accommodation options to suit any type of traveler.
Many of the Pacific Northwest’s natural attractions are easily accessible, while reaching some of its hidden gems may require you to look at getting your vehicle off-road ready.
Before embarking on your Pacific Northwest getaway, look at upgrading your vehicle’s suspension, lighting, and getting fresh wheels such as the VR-801BL which are not only the lightest and strongest wheels currently out there, but also are designed for off road use so you can get to all the places the Pacific Northwest has to offer.
Top Natural Road Trip Destinations to Visit in America’s Pacific Northwest
Olympic National Park
You could spend a lifetime exploring Washington’s Olympic National Park’s roughly million acres of pristine wilderness. The park offers up over 600 miles of trails, made up of long day hikes, multi-day treks, and easier short walks.
My husband and I fast-tracked our way around the park in about 4 days, and managed to still see many highlights. The Hoh Rainforest is a must with its fairytale-like hikes such as the Hall of Mosses. These old growth temperate rainforests are some of the most peaceful in the country.
The park also incorporates around 70 miles of rugged coastline where you can check out beaches like Rialto with is tide pools and offshore islands as well as the beautiful Ruby Beach and Kalaloch Nature Trail. Be sure to keep your eye out for eagles, sea otters, seals and whales.
Meanwhile, the Sol Duc Valley is home to a short hike to the Sol Duc Falls overlook. You can also do some kayaking on either Lake Crescent or Lake Quinault, both of which have really nice lodges to stay at. We stayed at the Lake Quinault Lodge.
Hurricane Ridge is another great spot and is great for both spring and summer hiking as well as winter cross-country skiing and snowshoeing and sledding.
North Cascades National Park
About half the size of Olympic NP but no less remarkable is North Cascades National Park. It’s actually a park within a park, combining Ross Lake National Recreation Area and Lake Chelan National Recreation Area.
This park is wild, rugged, and remote, with only one main paved road (Highway 20) passing through it. Technically, Highway 20 takes visitors mostly to the highlights within the Ross Lake Recreation Area which is home to sites like Diablo Lake and Sterling Munro Trail.
To set foot in the actual North Cascades National Park, take your 4WD vehicle on the narrow and windy unpaved road that leads to the Cascade Pass Trailhead within the park. To get a taste of Olympic National Park check out the old growth forest of the Cedars Nature Walk which is somewhat similar.
Another fun and funky place to seek out is Ladder Creek Falls which can be reached via a short walk past the Gorge Power Plant and over a suspension bridge. The falls are unique in that they are artificially lit up every night from dusk until around 11pm with all different colors of the rainbow.
Due to its remoteness, North Cascades NP is one of the least visited parks in the country. The park only sees well under 50,000 visitors annually.
For those that do seek out the park and its surrounding wilderness areas, there are plenty of sites like Rainy Lake, Blue Lake, and Thunder Knob as well as a wide range of camping options in the forested areas that surround the park complex.
Columbia River Gorge
Heading to Oregon, one top natural stop is just 30 miles from Portland, making the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area very convenient to visit. Here you can enjoy hiking, biking, and windsurfing.
The top natural landmark would have to be Multnomah Falls, which towering at over 600 feet, is Oregon’s tallest waterfall. Other great waterfalls in the area are Bridal Veil and Latourell.
Hikers can seek out springtime wildflowers that pop up along Rowena Crest or opt for a challenging climb up Dog Mountain. If you are more into mountain biking, Columbia River Gorge offers up numerous biking trails including easy, moderate, and challenging rides. Some trails are rugged switchbacks while others are paved and free of vehicles.
You can learn how to windsurf on the Hood River thanks to local outfitters renting out equipment and guides giving lessons in the sheltered lagoon area known as The Hook.
After getting wet and then drying off, be sure to get some incredible panoramic views of the area by heading to the Crown Point Vista House observatory which dates back more than 100 years.
Staying in Oregon, let’s head to somewhere a bit different. We often envision temperate rainforest and rugged coastline like I have already covered, but Oregon is also home to the famous Painted Hills which sits about a 2-hour drive from Bend, Oregon.
Much like the North Cascades National Park, the Painted Hills is just one of the three units that make up John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. The other two include Sheep Rock and Clarno. However, the Painted Hills are by far the most popular thanks to its special scenic wonder.
The Painted Hills gets its name from the various layers of soil that sport different colored stripes such as red, orange, various light brown hues, and darker almost black shades. The semi-desert mountainous area seems a bit out of place, but offers a really unique place to visit in the Pacific Northwest.
John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is renowned for its richness of fossils that range from the Eocene period some 45 million years ago to the Miocene about 5 million years ago. While you may encounter fossils during a hike, you are encouraged to leave them in place and simply observe.
The Painted Hills are best observed during sunrise, sunset, and after recent rain when colors are more vivid. Summer can be a bit hot here, while winter can sees light snows conceal the colored hills. Your best bet is to visit during the spring or fall.
There are five trails to choose from, most rather short and easy to manage like the Painted Cove Boardwalk Trail. Other short hikes include the Red Scar Knoll Trail, Leaf Hill Trail, Overlook Trail, and Carroll Rim Trail.
I’ve saved my personal favorite of the Pacific Northwest for last and it seems like National Geographic agrees, seeing that has named Cannon Beach as one of the world’s most beautiful places.
Situated in the northwestern corner of the state, Cannon Beach is a small seaside destination that really packs a punch. Its biggest attraction is its 235-foot-tall Haystock Rock which is said to be one of the largest sea stacks in the world.
In case you wondering what a sea stack is, it’s a vertical column of rock that juts out of the sea. The Twelve Apostles along the Great Ocean Road in my home of Australia are also considered to be sea stacks.
In addition to the big old sea stack in Cannon Beach, there are many tide pools to seek out various sea creatures like starfish, sea anemones, crabs, and limpets. It’s like a big wild natural touch tank like you might find at an aquarium.
Nearby is Ecola State Park which offers up nine more miles of coastline to explore. You can hike out to the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse lookout and wave to this lonely lighthouse perched on a rock in the sea.
The picturesque Indian Beach is another highlight as is the chance to spot the beautiful tufted puffins during spring and early summer as well as Roosevelt elk.
These are just a small sampling of the natural wonders and stunning wild landscapes that await you in America’s Pacific Northwest.
I haven’t even mentioned Washington’s gorgeous Snoqualmie Falls, climbing Mount Rainier, or taking a ferry to the San Juan Islands which sit in-between Washington and Vancouver Island.
There really is so much to explore in this part of America, and a road trip is the best way to experience most of it.