Perfect Fall Road Trips for When You Need to Escape Seattle
Hit the coast, explore inland, or do a little of both.
Welcome to the best time of the year to go for a drive in Washington: The leaves are turning, the weather is still relatively warm, and, undoubtedly, we’re all itching for a vacation. And while it’s still not quite acceptable to hop on a jet plane and take that European holiday you’ve always dreamed of, the Pacific Northwest is offering up the next best thing. Think seaside towns, sprawling national forests, and scenic byways; this is one corner of the world in which there is always more exploring to do.
The long and the short of it is that you truly can't go wrong at any of the scenic road trip destinations in Washington below, all within a few hours of Seattle. Just remember, Washington still has a statewide mask mandate—so you’ll need to wear one wherever you go.
Olympic National ParkDistance from Seattle: Two hours, 45 minutes
While many national parks around the country are not yet open to the public, Olympic National Park is undergoing a phased reopening—meaning that while some sections are still closed (namely Shi Shi Beach and Second Beach), all roads and campgrounds are now open. Some areas are also closed for non-COVID-19-related construction (that’s Hurricane Hill Trail/Road as well as Spruce Railroad Trail at Lake Crescent). And, most recently, East Beach Road at Lake Crescent is closed at Highway 101 due to wildfire debris. But, with almost one million acres and over 70 miles of coastline, there’s still plenty to see.
Notably, there are no roads that cross through the park, so keep that in mind when you’re planning your trip, and wear your hiking boots. You can consult the park’s mileage chart to check distances between certain landmarks (most can be reached by Highway 101, which wraps around the Olympic Peninsula). Weather permitting, you should be able to spot some marine wildlife at Kalaloch or Ruby Beach, or take a scenic hike on the Peabody Creek Trail, which starts right at the Park Visitor Center (check out the map here).
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San Juan Island, WashingtonDistance from Seattle: Three hours, 20 minutes
San Juan Island is home to one of the largest lavender farms in the country, which also means, come summertime, it’s probably the best smelling destination on our list. You can still visit Pelindaba Farm in the fall and winter though—it just won’t be quite so aromatic, since harvest season is over (grab some lavender-scented items from their gift shop to tide you over ‘till spring). Westcott Bay Shellfish Company is also open (and a good place for folks who enjoy shucking their own oysters), as are the San Juan Islands Museum of Art, the Whale Museum, and San Juan Island Brewing Co. (though the Krystal Acres Alpaca Farm is unfortunately still closed).
Once you decide to take a trip out to the island, you might want to book a whale-watching tour ahead of time; the same goes for your ferry reservations (you can do so here). And don’t forget to eat a meal (or at least take in the view) at Friday Harbor -- the historic seaport right next door to the ferry landing. Some spots have even opened for limited capacity dine-in; try Blue Water Bar & Grill for excellent views of the harbor from your dinner table.
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Diablo Lake, WashingtonDistance from Seattle: Two hours, 30 minutes
You know those picturesque photos people post on Instagram of crystal clear turquoise water and mountain views? Diablo Lake is the ideal Washington state destination to experience one for yourself IRL. Most campsites are now closed for the season, so you probably want to make this a day trip, but both Gorge Lake Campground and Colonial Creek Campground South are still open if you just can’t tear yourself away.
Whether or not you’re spending the night, make sure to take the lake’s namesake trail up to the Diablo Lake Vista Point—it’s a must-see for the milelong views you’ll get in every direction. There’s also plenty of other trails in the area if you’re up for extra exercise: the Ross Dam Trail, Pyramid Lake Trail, and Thunder Knob Trail are all within five miles of the lake.
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Hanford Reach National MonumentDistance from Seattle: Two hours, 45 minutes
The Hanford Reach National Monument is just as scenic as any other Washington state destination, but not in the way you might expect; contrary to the ‘Evergreen State’ nickname, the climate here is dry, hot, and made up mostly of grasslands and desert. If you venture out in the evening, take a walk on the White Bluffs Trail; you’ll get an epic sunset over the sand dunes on the Columbia River for a particularly stunning happy hour. You might spot a bald eagle or some red winged blackbirds in the marsh areas; once you’re in the sands, look out for lizards and other small critters.
The Hanford Reach National Monument is unique for another reason that has nothing to do with its ecosystem: It was created out of the buffer zone surrounding an old nuclear testing site. Arguments over what to do with the land ended with it being federally protected by President Clinton in 2000. And while the Manhattan Project B Reactor National Historic Landmark is incredibly interesting -- and free! -- you’ll have to come back another time to visit. It’s unfortunately closed because of COVID-19.
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Westport, WashingtonDistance from Seattle: Two hours, 20 minutes
Just south of Olympic National Park and perched on the very tippy-top of the south peninsula at the entrance to Grays Harbor is Westport, Washington. Westport is a small, quaint fishing town (with a population of just over 2,000), and it's got all the subsequent trappings: a scenic boardwalk overlooking the harbor (you can fish here or just watch the professionals at the marina), beautiful beaches (don’t miss Westport Light State Park), and plenty of shops and restaurants. There’s also a 2.2 mile dune trail that leads to the Grays Harbor Lighthouse as part of the Westport Maritime Museum’s History Trail.
If you’re hungry, check out these spots for some good beach-friendly takeout: Aloha Alabama BBQ & Bakery (probably the best Southern-style smoked meats in the PNW) or Bennett’s Fish Shack (open for dine-in, too). Blackbeard’s Brewing recently reopened their beer garden—pop by for a limited menu that features fried pickles, hand-tossed pizzas, and more.
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Leavenworth, WashingtonDistance from Seattle: Two hours, 20 minutes
Tucked away in the Cascade Mountains is Washington state’s very own bonafide Bavarian village: Leavenworth. An easy stopover for skiers going into the mountains, you don’t need to be into winter sports in order to have a good time here; on the contrary, you’ll find you can stay busy all day wandering through the Alpine-style buildings, sipping German beer, and snacking on food from Front Street. For some local (and centuries-old) flavor, visit the Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum—and don’t forget to do a little shopping at their ultra quaint “Gift Shoppe”.
Leavenworth is home to many festivals throughout the year, but Oktoberfest—probably its most famous—was cancelled this year due to COVID-19. Not to worry—just take a walk down Front Street and the surrounding side streets, where you can grab an authentically German bite from Andreas Keller Restaurant (open for dine-in) or pick up a meal to go from the Leavenworth Sausage Garten.
For an experience a little more off the beaten path, check out Waterfront Park or Tumwater Canyon (the Tumwater Pipeline Trail is beautiful pretty much any time of the year).
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Whidbey Island, Washington
Distance from Seattle: One hour, 15 minutes
Whidbey Island is so close to Seattle, and yet worlds away from urban living—a blissful departure from the city complete with beaches, rolling hills, and ample farmland. Once you’re there, stop by Ebey’s Landing in Coupeville for the seaside historical reserve or Double Bluff Beach in Freeland, where you’re likely to spot Mt. Rainier on a clear day. Afterwards, visit the tasting room at Mutiny Bay Distillery for some blueberry liquor (there’s a blueberry farm right next door), or grab some locally roasted coffee from Mukilteo. There’s also a harborfront farm-to-table restaurant around the corner once you get hungry, appropriately named Gordon’s On Blueberry Hill (by the way—if you find yourself on the island for Thanksgiving, they’re offering an excellent holiday dinner package to-go).
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