Perfect Road Trips for When You Need to Escape Seattle
Hit the coast, explore inland, or do a little of both.
Whether or not you planned on leaving Washington this summer, COVID-19 probably obliterated your vacation plans. But, in lieu of lamenting, consider this an opportunity to embark on a road trip: that all-American, timeless pastime that we can’t quite get enough of, despite how many hours of the week we already spend in the car. It also happens to be an excellent mode of vacation for pandemic times, since you can completely avoid public transit, and select destinations that are relatively remote -- i.e., not full of other tourists.
Washington state is home to 100 state parks, three national parks, and 157 miles of scenic coastline, so we're basically spoiled for choice. But you definitely can't go wrong at any of 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 Park
Distance 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). 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).
San Juan Island, Washington
Distance from Seattle: Three hours, 20 minutes
San Juan Island is home to one of the largest lavender farms in the country, which also means it’s probably the best smelling destination on our list. Located in the middle of the island, Pelindaba Farm boasts 25 acres of rolling purple hills, plus excellent views of the Olympic Mountains. They are currently open to visitors, as are a slew of other spots on the island, like the Westcott Bay Shellfish Company (a good place for folks who enjoy shucking their own oysters), the San Juan Islands Museum of Art, and San Juan Island Brewing Co. (though the Whale Museum and Krystal Acres Alpaca Farm are 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. Most spots aren’t open for dine-in quite yet, but since it’s summer, that’s perfectly fine -- just order to-go at San Juan Bistro or Tops’l Seafood Bar and soak up that sweet (albeit fleeting) sunshine.
Diablo Lake, Washington
Distance 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. Campsites are now open per North Cascades National Park reopening guidelines, but note that group camping is still not permitted. You can make reservations for Gorge Lake Campground or Colonial Creek Campground South. Alternatively, if you have a boat, check out Thunder Point Campground -- it’s boat-in camping only, and is first-come, first-serve. It’s also the largest campground on Diablo Lake.
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.
Hanford Reach National Monument
Distance 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.
Distance 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 is also open and offers classic bar food like pizza and wings, but they’re serving a limited menu and doing carry-out only.
Distance 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 Gift Shoppe -- and consider your souvenirs a consolation prize in lieu of visiting the actual museum, which is temporarily closed.
Leavenworth is home to many festivals throughout the year, but Oktoberfest -- probably its most famous -- has already been cancelled for 2020, so don’t delay your trip until the fall. Instead, visit now while the sun is shining, and 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.
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; for something a little less posh, try Charmers Bistro, just down the street.
If you’re up for a drive north, it’s also worth going to the very tip of the island for Deception Pass State Park, which is shared between Whidbey and Fidalgo islands, and boasts almost 4,000 acres of ancient forest (as well as cliff top views and 38 miles of trails). Once you experience it for yourself, you won’t be surprised to hear that this is Washington’s most frequently visited state park. Finally, let’s not forget Penn Cove mussels: Whidbey Island is famous for them, so don’t leave without grabbing some to-go from Saltwater Fish House or local watering hole Toby’s Tavern before you hit the road.
Sign up here for our daily Seattle email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun in town.