Mountains, ocean, rivers, cities, deserts—everything is just a few hours away in the Pacific Northwest. But don’t try to tackle it all in one trip; each of these day trips from Seattle has scenic splendor and tons to discover.
The Olympic Peninsula
Even taking the ferry west from Seattle is breathtaking on a clear day, with the Olympic Mountains towering over the state’s greenest corner. As you drive, you’ll stick to the edges of the rectangular peninsula—those peaks crowd the middle—so be prepared to drive several hours to make it to the coastal side.
Stops to Consider
- Port Townsend, a historic Victorian seaport, has the region’s best dining and gallery shopping, and the state park at Fort Worden is crammed with hundred-year-old bunkers and other military installations to explore.
- Farther west, the peninsula offers grand old national park lodges at Lake Crescent and Lake Quinault, lavender fields in Sequim, soaking tubs at Sol Duc Hot Springs, and the crashing waves of the Pacific on the coast.
- Twilight fans will enjoy a stop in the tiny town of Forks, which still celebrates its literary fame.
The San Juan Islands
Located northwest of Seattle in the middle of Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands are a cluster of tiny to mid-sized retreats, accessible only by ferry or airplane. Make reservations in advance to guarantee passage for automobiles, or take a scenic floatplane that lands in one of the island bays or coves.
Stops to Consider
- The biggest of the islands, San Juan, is home to the charming town of Friday Harbor and a number of whale-watching companies. Drive across the island to take in the rolling hills of rural island life, complete with farm stands and small, casual resorts.
- Mount Constitution towers over Orcas Island, also home to a brewery and a network of trails.
- Lopez, one of the flatter islands, is popular for cyclists—especially because bikes are easy to take on the ferry.
Driving east from Seattle, you’ll see that the Cascade Mountains form a wall as long as the state. A number of highways wind their way through passes, the two most traveled being Interstate 90 and Highway 2. The latter takes longer but is a little more scenic, inching through tiny mountain towns and by churning rivers.
Stops to Consider
- Located among the eastern peaks, Leavenworth is a small slice of Bavaria in a Washington town—by town ordinance, buildings must have German-looking exteriors. The Oktoberfest celebrations are, appropriately, epic.
- Farther northeast, the town of Chelan sits on the south end of a lake with the same name, a 50-mile body of water that stretches from the peaks of the North Cascade National Park to dry, sunny Central Washington.
Rainier and Mount St. Helens
The state’s two most famous mountains sit a few hours apart, both with iconic shapes. Rainier, the tallest, is closer to Seattle, ringed with lush wildflower meadows and a playground for extreme mountaineers. Its biggest visitor center at Paradise has exhibits and an eatery, and the historic Paradise Inn next door is a classic example of National Park style.
Further south, Mount St. Helens has a lopped-off top from where it erupted in 1980. Today the Johnston Ridge Visitor Center is perched at the perfect vantage point to see in the massive crater, and trails snake around the reshaped volcano.
The Columbia River Gorge
Washington state’s biggest river winds from one corner of the state to the other, partially forming the border with Oregon. It’s that section of the river, a few hours south of Seattle, that makes for an ideal road trip, driving up one side and down the other.
Each small town has its own character, with the most services in The Dalles and the most fun eateries, breweries, and riverside parks in Hood River. Keep driving east to reach the dramatic views of Maryhill, where a stately old home holds an art museum and a reproduction of Stonehenge sits on a bluff.
The Canadian border runs just two hours north of Seattle, so it’s easy enough to take an overnight to Canada’s west coast city. With its tall, glassy skyscrapers and overwhelming dining options, Vancouver is a solidly international city that pulls from around the globe. The museums and art performances are top-notch, and there’s even a ski resort on the north side of the city. Leave time to wander Stanley Park or to walk the cobbled streets of Gastown.