Follow for unique side trip options to get off the interstate — a Seattle to Portland drive road trip planner.
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 Salish Sea, in Washington State. On Christmas Eve we’d have a celebration in my hometown 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 (I5) 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 — check out this article.
Seattle to Portland drive — Table of Contents — road trip planner
- Ways to get between Seattle and Portland
- Road trip planning — Interstate 5 or scenic routes?
- Federal Way, WA — nature stops
- Tacoma, WA — museums
- Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge
- Olympia, WA — Washington’s State Capitol
- Centralia, WA
- Castle Rock, WA — country roads take me home
- Mt. St. Helens and Silver Lake
- Longview, WA — cross the Columbia River to Oregon
- Sauvie Island — Portland’s nature playground
- Kalama, WA — Alternate routing on the Washington side of Columbia River
- Interactive Map
Ways to get between Seattle and Portland
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. Stay tuned for lots of 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 (parts are closed in winter), 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 interactive map displayed after this article shows the route described as well as notable stopping points along the way.
Pro tip: Exits along I5 begin with #1 in Vancouver, WA (just across the Columbia River — 10 miles from Downtown Portland), and in general, indicate the distance along the way. For instance, the exit for Pacific Bonsai Museum, mentioned below is #143 — it is 143 miles from Vancouver, WA. An exit for Downtown Seattle is #165.
Federal Way, WA — suburban nature
Federal Way, Washington hugs I5 about 30 minutes from Seattle. While it might seem like only urban sprawl with fast food joints, consider making a visit to one of the several beautiful green spaces. Dash Point and Saltwater State Parks glide along the Salish Sea while PowellsWood is an unassuming botanical garden. The Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden and Pacific Bonsai Museum (right next to one another), are quick options near the freeway to soak up countless varieties of plants — and even buy something unique in the expansive plant store. (Exit #143)
In winter, West Hylebos Wetlands Park can be a magical option. Stroll along wood planks through one of the last remaining natural bogs in the area. Gaze at giant western red cedar, Sitka spruce, and amazing Douglas fir. I stop here often and have an entire article about this amazing place. (Exit #142B)
Tacoma, WA — museum city
There is a lot more to Tacoma than the usual traffic around the Fife curve leading to and from the iconic dome. My mom was born and raised here, so I hold a special place in my heart for this quirky city. While Point Defiance Park is a perennial favorite, it’s easy to make quick stops at one or more of the museums near I5. The Museum of Glass and America’s Car Museum are two fun options (Exit #133). Farther down the freeway, the Lewis Army Museum serves up everything military — from vintage fighter jets to tanks (Exit #119).
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. 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 the Salish Sea, 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 Salish Sea marvel of nature.
Olympia, Washington — road trip planner
Before the railroad ended up in Tacoma and Seattle, Olympia was slated to become the largest city in the Washington Territory. The seat of government was set up in this town which wraps around the southern end of the Salish Sea. Olympic marks the end (or beginning if driving north) of the Seattle/Tacoma metropolis, so this might be an opportune place to stretch your legs and search for refreshments. Both can easily be achieved by taking Exit #105 and following signs to the historic downtown area of the state capitol. Parking is easy and there are a few good restaurants, as well as coffee shops, throughout the cohesive downtown community.
After food and fuel, drive a little farther to the grand lawn that eloquently frames the giant concrete and limestone capitol building, with a dome rising high above the placid 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, Washington — Seattle to Portland road trip
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 McDonald’s 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 a 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.
Castle Rock, WA — country roads take me home — road trip planner
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, riverbanks, 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.
Mt. St. Helens Visitor Center and Silver Lake stroll
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 the 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 holocaustic 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. (The Mt. St. Helens Visitor Center may be closed for renovation, but the Silver Lake boardwalk is still open.)
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, Washington 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 floats in the air.
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.
Kalama, WA — road trip planning on the Washington side of the Columbia River
The routing over the Lewis and Clark Bridge can add a bit more time to the journey if going to places on the south and east side of the Portland Metro area. If you prefer a faster version, continue on I5 through Kalama, WA. The McMenamins Kalama Harbor Lodge — the territorial Hawaiian-styled building along the Columbia River — makes for a nice place to stop to stretch the legs (Exit #30). The 2.3-mile paved promenade is a peaceful place to take in the river, count the ships passing by, and perhaps enjoy food and beverage at the McMenamin’s Pub.
I also recommend using this lodge as a stopping point along I5 if you’re interested in breaking up the trip to visit different areas on the south side of Mt. St. Helens, near Cougar, WA. Check out these two articles for more information: Amazing lava and lakes — explore the south side of Mt. St. Helens and Spirit Lake Washington road trip — the secret side of Mt. St. Helens.
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!