This post offers unique side trip options to get off the interstate while driving between Seattle and Portland. Volcano to country farms.
My life is a tale of two cities. I was born and raised in the Portland area but my mom and a ton of family hailed from the Puget Sound, in Washginton State. On Christmas Eve we’d have a celebration in my home town of Scappoose with one side of relatives, then pile in our 1967 Plymouth Fury, all five kids and two parents, for a rocket ride up Interstate 5 to Tacoma for Midnight Mass. The morning would come too soon and we’d wake up for Christmas brunch with more relatives, and back in the Fury for nonstop service home. Not even 24 hours! Now that’s an express holiday.
All this crazy shuffling happened when I was very young, and as the years continued my parents chose to keep their sanity by gradually reducing the 24 hour road trips. But, jaunts between the two main areas of the Pacific Northwest, roughly 180 miles apart, never ceased. I’ve experienced this journey by just about every method and route possible. For more information on other ways to get between Seattle and Portland — including air and train — see the information at the end of this article below.
Seattle to Portland drive
There are a number of options to get between Seattle and Portland. But, if you want a car in either city, or the price point is too high to shuttle on the rail or in the air, then a nice drive down I5 is the main option. On a good day the drive takes roughly three hours, of course depending upon the area of town. On a bad day, well… just have good days!
Gradually over the years I evolved from a frantic, impatient I5 driver to a more relaxed, take-it-all-in-stride kind of person. I’ve finally accepted that Pacific Northwest drivers are unaware of their surroundings and don’t get me started on philosophies around who should be using the left lane. Now, I enjoy my time to either catch up on podcasts or meditate, which might sound strange but the monotonous movements racing straight on a well maintained road, going 70+, seem to allow the brain to relax.
If not in a place of zen, or taking this drive for the first time, perhaps some stops along the way would be welcome. In the next section of this post I’ll outline options to weave off and then back on I5 while making way between Seattle and Portland. First time visitors to the area will enjoy a diverse itinerary including a state capitol building, Volcano, forestry industrial area and country farms.
Plan a unique road trip on the Seattle to Portland drive
The Pacific Northwest is a sparsely populated area of the United States, and as a result, there are not a lot of highways between the main cities. After I5, the options consist of sleepy country roads. There are four additional scenic routes that represent the best of the Pacific Northwest but obviously require more time resources — journey around the Olympic Peninsula, the scenic Pacific Coast Highway, the majestic Mt. Rainier path, or intriguing Spirit Lake on the secret side of Mount St. Helens (closed in Winter).
This article will zero in on options closer to the main Interstate 5, since these detours add only a few hours to the trip. The stops along the way between Seattle and Portland are listed from a southbound perspective, but just reverse if traveling north from Portland to Seattle. The map displayed below shows the route described as well as notable stopping points along the way. I write about my personal favorites below but there are other stops not described in this passage worth checking out if time allows (like the Ft. Lewis Museum near Tacoma, WA).
Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge
Stretch legs after an hour of driving from Seattle (in normal traffic) by taking exit #114 — to explore the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. The visitor center is not open, but walk through to the viewpoint of the marshy lake. From the parking lot ($3 per day), there are several trails with interpretive signs highlighting the plants and animals in the region. Head to the viewpoint of the rushing Nisqually River and, if time allows, continue on the spectacular boardwalk that winds over wetlands to a destination gazebo — complete with sweeping views of Puget Sound, the estuary and the top of Mount Rainier on a good day. Plenty of birds, crabs, sea lions and other creatures await discovery along the way. Read a more in-depth article about this Puget Sound marvel of nature.
Before the railroad ended up in Tacoma and Seattle, Olympia was slated to become the largest city in the Washignton Territory. The seat of government was set up in this town which hugs the very southern end of the Puget Sound. After heading through the metropolis combining Seattle and Tacoma, legs might need a stretch and food could be on the agenda. Both can easily be achieved by following signs to the historic downtown area of the state capitol. Parking is easy and there are a few good sandwich type places, as well as coffee shops, throughout the cohesive downtown community.
After food and fuel, drive a little further to the grand lawn that eloquently frames the giant concrete and limestone capitol building, with dome rising high above the placid sound waters. It’s easy to wander around the area, perhaps witnessing state politicians shuffling between meetings and grade school tour busses spilling students of all ages onto the commanding steps leading to the doors of the legislative building. With more interest and time, tours of the capitol dome can be arranged.
Road trip planner tip: Olympia is the best jumping off point along I5 for either the Olympic Peninsula loop, or Pacific Ocean trek along Highway 101 down to the Oregon Coast.
Centralia gets its name for being, well, central between Portland and Seattle. Before traffic became a thing, this meant drivers were exactly halfway along the trip. I fondly remember this stop as the childhood place where McDonalds Happy Meal dreams came true, which was only the case when driving with our mom because our dad was a nonstop machine.
Today, if shopping is a priority, there are plenty of items to buy in the numerous outlet malls. If fast food is on the mind, I’m partial to Burgerville. Otherwise, push past all the noise and delve deeper from the highway towards the historic downtown area. Not even two miles away there is a quaint Amtrak station and the sleepy main avenue serves up quirky shops with antiques and other treasures to peruse. McMenamin’s Olympic Club offers guests an eclectic atmosphere with movie theater, restaurant and bar. The hotel rooms upstairs are modest and affordable.
Road trip planner tip: For a multi-day trip, the McMenamin’s Hotel would be an interesting location to overnight and pick up the next day for more exploring Mt. St. Helens, which is about 90 minutes away.
Country roads and Castle Rock
When driving the interstate becomes too much of the same, consider a short detour by diverting off I5 at exit 63 for Winlock. Once off the freeway there is a service station with a parking lot view of Mt. St. Helens. Check out the view, fill up the tank, locate Military Road and turn left. This stretch of road seems to have it all; picturesque barns, a pottery studio, timber, hills, river banks and lonely railroad tracks. Head toward Castle Rock, which was the sleepy town depicted in Stephen King’s story, Stand By Me, although the movie was filmed in Brownsville, Oregon.
Castle Rock isn’t far from the overpass that crosses I5, so if wanting the northbound version, get off the freeway at Castle Rock exit 49 and work northbound on the same highway to re-merge with I5 at the Winlock exit 63.
Road trip planner tip: Love’s Truck Stop, on exit 72 in Napavine, is an excellent example of truck stop culture on the US West Coast. If you’re looking for a small slice of Americana take a little breather here. Also open 24 hours.
Mt. St. Helens Visitor Center
On May 18, 1980 the Pacific Northwest was rocked by a waking giant, as the almost 10,000ft high dormant Mt. St. Helens volcano feverishly blasted away about 1300 vertical feet of mountain into a cauliflower plume rising miles into the sky. My hometown of Scappoose was only 40 miles away. The blast pushed north and east, away from us, so our skies did not immediately turn gray with ash. But later when winds shifted I remember several inches of fine powdery gray dust covering everything around us, like an eerie haulocastic storm. Read a more detailed account of this historic day in Pacific Northwest history.
Today, visitors have several options to learn more about this major world event and even more about the geology of the area, plants, animals and the forestry industry. The main visitor center is close to the freeway and a longer, more scenic hour-long drive to the Johnston Ridge Observatory (closed in winter) adds a few more hours but is an excellent option well worth the effort.
From the Castle Rock exit 49 head up the hill about 5 miles to the Mt. St. Helens Visitor Center. There should be plenty of parking and entrance to the museum is $5 for adults. The movie outlining the events of May 18, 1980 is important and exhibits informative. In front of the center meet up with the trailhead that uses a sturdy boardwalk to wind around the marshy Silver Lake. Lake views and timber forests open up to perfectly frame what’s left of Mt. St. Helens.
Road trip planner tip: From the informative visitor centers to hiking trails along the moon-scape like debris field of the eruption, the Mt. St. Helens National Monument area has a lot to discover and makes a great dedicated day trip. Consider staying in Centralia (southbound trip) or Kelso (northbound) to break up the journey.
Lewis and Clark Bridge and the Oregon side of the Columbia River
By the time the freeway rounds Kelso towards the industrial hub of Longview, Washignton my homeland, Columbia County, is within sites in the distant hills across the Columbia River. Take exit 36 from I5 and wind through the industrial zone with sights on Oregon. The main source of jobs for a hundred years focused around logging, and the drive across the towering Lewis and Clark Bridge opens up views of the expansive docks covered with stripped Douglas fir timber ready for export on one of the massive marine vessels waiting in the river.
For expansive views take the northbound exit (towards Clatskanie) up the steep hill to Rainer View Point turnout that opens up views of the Columbia River and Longview. Pull off the busy road, count the number of ships in the waterway and look for Mt. St. Helens in the distance.
Eventually head south on Highway 30, following signs to St. Helens or Portland. There are a few quick stop options to stretch legs along the way, like simple but serene Pixie Park in Columbia City, beautifully situated on the bank of the Columbia River.
Road trip planner tip: For a little outdoor activity, stop in at Scappoose Bay Paddling Center and rent kayaks to explore the estuary environment.
Nature Abounds on Sauvie Island
Sauvie Island is a bastion of nature formed by sediment collected as the Columbia River made a major turn north. The nutrient rich soil is great for agriculture, and today the island is mostly farms and a wildlife reserve amongst an intricate series of lakes and waterways. The island is essentially within the city limits of Portland, but with only one simple grocery store, the feel is very rural. Country peace and quiet.
Although the winter months serve up mostly dormant fields, the wildlife reserve always holds unique beauty along with opportunities to watch birds. The island comes alive in the summer and fall, attracting u-pick enthusiasts, bicyclists and nature lovers. Then comes an October craze with the world searching for their Great Pumpkin at one of the local farms with corn mazes and other autumn fun.
No matter what time of year, make this stop to commune with nature. Procure some fresh produce at one of the stands and head to Howell Territorial Park, or with more time venture to the farther side of the island to one of the many beaches. But be aware, the hippie culture that made Portland famous is alive and well with a few clothing optional beaches.
Road trip planner tip: Cistus Nursery offers viewing some interesting and rare varieties of plants, both indoors in a greenhouse and around the external yard area. For more tips on this area, including a Google Maps chart with specific stops, check out another post about a day-trip itinerary from Portland to Vernonia and Sauvie Island.
Seattle to Portland drive — a day trip of unique detours
The drive between Seattle and Portland doesn’t have to be a slog, and hopefully these hints make for a unique, fun day exploring local areas along the route. Get an early start, be open to the possibilities and enjoy plenty of stops and food along the way. All in, the meandering of this complete itinerary could take up an entire day, and is well worth it to enjoy these diverse options. Now get out there and road trip!