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First Trip to Pacific Northwest - Need Help Planning Itinerary

My wife and I (both 60 years old) are planning our first trip to the Pacific Northwest. We're hoping to spend about three weeks, give or take, and our priorities are nature, wine, food, music. Our budget is generous but not extravagent (though willing to splurge on a couple of musts). Looking for possible itinerairies with nice accomodation recommendations. Safe to assume a car is best? For the whole trip or are there rail trips that would be stunning or short flights that would help maximize time. Thanks for any and all suggestions.
Paul (Long Island, NY)

Posted by
6515 posts

Safe to assume a car is best?

Yes, except when spending time in Portland and Seattle. Both are places where you don't need a car and parking will be $$$, especially in Seattle. Both have good public transport and a lot can be seen on foot. But getting out to the woods, parks, and lovely beaches, you'll need a car.

I would get some library books or look at the websites for Washington State, Oregon, Seattle and Portland....they are quite good for planning purposes. You can order hard copy travel guides too if they are available (just allow plenty of time for shipping these days). Also, if your time allows, consider a side trip to Victoria or Vancouver - although you can easily spend an entire week on Vancouver Island and another week in Vancouver City. So maybe save British Columbia for another time. Right now the borders are closed anyway to Canada.

Posted by
20 posts

Thanks so much for the prompt and helpful reply, Agnes. Perhaps we'll save the car for a continuous middle stretch of time when we can make the best use of it and plan to go without it in cities at the beginning and end. Will look to get some literature asap. Thanks again!

Posted by
17892 posts

I haven't spent a great deal of time in that area but enjoyed the San Juan Islands, which at the time of my visit had decent ferry service. If you'll be renting a car, check to be sure there isn't a prohibition on taking the car onto ferries; I didn't realize that was a potential issue until I read about such limitations on this forum.

The rain forest on the Olympic Peninsula was also interesting.

Posted by
6208 posts

If you do a search on this forum for Oregon Coast, there are a few previous posts about things to see and do in both Oregon and Washington, with or without a car but mostly as a road trip. Things to see and do in both Portland and Seattle and places to go for food and wine and scenic areas particularly along the Oregon coast, which I think is more scenic than the Washington coast. I believe there was also a post awhile ago called the most beautiful mountain that talked about Mt Rainier and Mt Hood areas.

Posted by
3022 posts

It's a pretty area, but be prepared for visibility issues from clouds (does Mt. Rainier really exist?) and fog on the coast. I guess recommending not budgeting just 2 days for the Oregon Coast or 2 days for Mt. Rainier because you may not see anything in just 2 days and then you are moving on disappointed.

Posted by
2991 posts

One “do not miss” is the Columbia River Gorge. Scenic beauty, several excellent wineries, some good restaurants . . . Ticks most of your boxes. We enjoyed a stay at the historic McMenamin’s hotel and spa.

Posted by
142 posts

Agnes mentioned Victoria and Vancouver. We would also like to travel there soon, but I am not sure how easy it is to get into Canada, due to Covid.
Does anyone know what is required to get into Cananda? We have our vaccine cards, but that might not be enough.

Posted by
1239 posts

Canada is very sorry, but our Border is still closed to anyone from outside Canada for the forseeable future.
You can still plan, but you won't be allowed in right now.
Even Canadians who have tried to return from trips they took mid pandemic are being fined heavily if they try to get in without quarantining, testing, etc.
Maybe next year?

Posted by
6996 posts

Washington wineries are primarily located in eastern Washington. ( http://winecountrywashington.com/)

For nature, North Cascades, Mt Rainier, Mt Baker, Hurricane Ridge/Olympic National Park and Crater Lake in Oregon should provide experiences not found in NY

Posted by
95 posts

I am surprised no one has mentioned the Willamette Valley for wine. A large area with hundreds of wineries just south of Portland. The predominate wine is Pinot Noir but also a lot of chardonnay and Riesling. It is very scenic with rolling hills and a winery every mile of so. There are a number of very nice B&B's in the area. Look around Mcminnville or get a map for all the little towns.

The San Juan Islands are also lovely with many, many B&B's. Both there and Willamette Valley can be pricey and tend to book up early. In the San Juans there are a lot of vacation rentals. Check VRBO or homeaway if that interests you.

The cautions about Seattle are well founded and apply equally or even more so to Portland. Things are a little rocky in the city center of both. You can have a wonderful time here without ever entering either of those cities. Scenery, nature, wine and food are everywhere but the cities.

This is the west - we drive! Forget about planes and trains. Suggest a circle flying into Portland then to Columbia Gorge at least as far as Hood River. Then head over to the Willamette Valley. From there head to Oregon coast next and then north to Olympic national Park. Loop back down the Hood Canal and head to Mt St Helen's or Rainier or both and, if you have the time spend a few days in the San Juans then fly home from Seattle or drive back to Portland airport. Take your time! Get a map and don't be intimidated by the distances. Roads are pretty good and generally what I have suggested is quite scenic. Google maps driving time are reasonably accurate for this area.

Mid July to mid Sept is usually the best weather but no guarantees!

Posted by
4453 posts

Robbie offers good suggestions about the Gorge, Willamette Valley, Oregon coast, Olympic Peninsula, and Mount Rainier. I also think you would find both Seattle and Portland to be beautiful and interesting cities, with fine food, museums, and iconic sights like the Space Needle. They are big cities with the problems of big cities, which I'm sure you're familiar with in the NYC area, but as safe for tourism as any I know of. But unlike NYC they're spread out enough that a car would be useful except in the immediate downtown areas.

I'm biased but I'd suggest flying into and out of Seattle rather than Portland, because there's more to see up here and probably a better choice of flights. But either would do. An open-jaw plan with both cities would be most efficient if you can handle the dropoff charge for the car. Driving time between them is optimistically about six hours.

I didn't know about any problem taking a rental car on a Washington State ferry, and I'd recommend a ferry ride with our without car, preferably on a sunny day, for the mountain and water views and the experience of Puget Sound. There are many choices. The easiest is from downtown Seattle across to Bainbridge Island, without car, and return -- about half an hour each way and great views.

My home town has one of America's most beautiful state capitols, unfortunately closed now, but whenever it opens I'd recommend it highly. Come on a Friday morning and I'll give you a free tour! ;-)

Posted by
699 posts

You could come over to my house. Mount St. Helens is in the backyard.

Posted by
190 posts

I can't imagine visiting the Pacific Northwest without a car.

The following links have some good itinerary ideas :

http://www.edelweisstour.com/pnw-tour.html
http://www.edelweisstour.com/best-of-portland-tour.html

I'm not into the wine scene, but I know some of the best wineries in the area are along the 99W corridor near Newberg and McMinnville, southwest of Portland towards Lincoln City and the Oregon Coast.

Of course, Columbia River Gorge, the Oregon Coast, Olympic National Park, and the San Juan Islands are must-sees. But, some hidden gems that you might not find on the common hit lists:

  • Depoe Bay for whale watching (usually year round, but migration season in March-April, I believe).
  • Deep-sea crabbing from Garibaldi or Netarts Bay
  • Yaquina Head lighthouse (Newport - tons of harbor seals and beach access to excellent tide pools at Agate Beach)
  • Oregon Coast Aquarium (in Newport)
  • Fort Clatsop in Astoria
  • Mirror Lake and Trillium Lake (near Mt. Hood)
  • Silver Falls State Park (east of Salem)
  • Black Butte Ranch (NW of Bend)
  • Sun River area (south of Bend)
  • Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument
  • Ape Cave (south of St. Helens, accessed by road north of Vancouver, WA)
  • LeavenworthWA
  • Lake Chelan
  • Snoqualmie Falls (east of Seattle)
Posted by
6208 posts

I agree with Robbie about the Willamette Valley Wineries. If you do stay in McMinnville I'd suggest McMenamins Hotel Oregon in downtown McMinnville. Though my personal choice would be to find a place in either Newberg or Dundee, that's where some of the best wine tasting rooms and wineries are located (in the Dundee Hills wine region). Especially in Dundee, you can walk down the main street (hwy 99) to a dozen or so tasting rooms from award winning wineries. Depending on when you come several of the wineries do special farm to table dinners that are a great splurge for both wine and food in an outdoor setting. Also, depending on when you're here you can pick up winery tours so you don't have to drive yourself - that way you can drink more wine. :)

For nature, I'd suggest spending a couple of days on the Olympic Peninsula. Also the Mt Rainier and Mt St Helens areas are beautiful. The Columbia Gorge, as someone else mentioned is spectacular and there are scenic boat tours of the Columbia if that's of any interest. I also loved taking the ferries to some of the islands around Puget Sound and exploring them. Do some research on the Oregon coast, I'm sure you'll find many places that look good to you. If you decide on certain places/areas you can start another post for hotel and restaurant recommendations. There are many posters on here from the PNW that are happy to help.

Posted by
753 posts

Most important is when? This summer? Things may be open, but there's just as good a chance they won't. Canada is pretty much saying locals only for the foreseeable future so that's not really an option unless you're planning for next year.

You are going to want a car. There is public transportation inside the cities, but not outside. If you plan to stay in Seattle or Portland be prepared to leave the car in the hotel parking area (at $25/day). Which should also serve as advice on if you're planning to spend time in the cities stay near whatever you plan to see.

Most of the major museums are closed, and there's no planned date for them to open. Some are closed for good. The Flying History Collection in Everett is a good example; if Paul Allens money can't keep a place open don't expect others to survive. Major hotel chains are open, AirBnB or smaller places are iffy. Some didn't survive. This is very important the further out from the bigger cities you go, because you can't really plan with certainty.

Places to eat are pretty much the same. Over half of my favorite places around the Puget Sound have closed for good, some that have been around for decades. Fast food places are much more likely to have survived. (How bad is it? A recent article on the top new places for this year in Seattle had a large proportion of food trucks listed instead of sit down venues.)

I don't know of any State or Nat'l Parks that are fully open. Mt St Helens has only a small souvenir stand and restrooms'; no other facilities. The Hoh is still closed to tourists. The casinos are open, but a lot of the rest of the Rez are not. I haven't been north of Everett in a year so I can't get specific about what it's like up there, but most of the Olympics is open hiking trails but no visitor centers. There wasn't much open along the Hood Canal or out to Grey's Harbor recently.

The problem with all of this is it's really hard to tell you what to plan on seeing. If I had to do it when things were "normal" I'd say fly into Portland and out of Seatac. From Portland to Tillamook, then back to Astoria, cross the bridge, go up the coast to Aberdeen, then to Lake Quinault, out Forks/La Push, Port Angeles, then to Port Townsend, into Seattle, out to Rainier, take a look at Tacoma, and home. There's just loads of stuff to see and do.

Pick up a couple books. Wine trails of Washington, and the same for Oregon. Combined they probably weigh 8 lbs. There's a lot more wine up here than most people know. Again, the problem is going to be what's open. I'm not being defeatist; I'm actually trying to plan a trip to see friends and family in Spokane/Boise/Eastern Oregon and am having a heck of a time because there's been so much change over the past year.

One last thing. Prepare for rain, but also remember the sun comes up at 5am and it gets dark around 10pm. in Jun - Aug.

Posted by
20 posts

Thanks, everyone, for the very generous, thoughtful, sobering, and, ultimately, inspiring advice. I am beginning to wonder if this is a trip perhaps best taken next summer rather than this one.

Posted by
283 posts

Lots of good advice here. If this were me, I would postpone until next year just because so much is in flux here.

The tribal lands along the WA coast are still closed, such as Neah Bay/Cape Flattery and Shi Shi, but places like the Hoh, Hurricane Ridge, and many beaches are open.

The OR and WA coasts are so different. The OR coast is mostly developed where in WA, most of the coastline is rugged and you will not find destination towns. I love both, but for very different reasons.

Definitely keep a car for the entire trip, regardless of when it is.

The ferries are easy to use with a vehicle, but right now they are asking people to stay in their vehicles. That is not the experience that most people seek when they think of riding the ferry as in the past it was normal to park your car on the ferry then get out and go walk up on the decks.

The Willamette Valley is fantastic for wines as mentioned. We used to live in this area for many years. The wineries are back open, but mostly by appointment. There are over 600 wineries in this AVA alone, and I always recommend to hit the smaller ones for the best experience. One place that is not to be missed is Red hills Market in Dundee. Hands down the best wood fired sandwiches and pizza, and the carry many of the local beer and wines. Whenever I go back, I bring a pizza home;). The Inn At Red Hills in Dundee is a wonderful place to stay too. Dundee is tiny, but the number of tasting rooms has exploded the last few years.

In WA the vineyards are in eastern WA, but there are still a lot of wineries in Woodinville. They just ship the grapes over for crush in Woodinville.

Posted by
279 posts

There is so much to see. Over several trips our favorites have been Olympic National Park (mountains with ocean views, beaches, rainforest), Mount Rainier National Park, and the many state parks along the Oregon coast (I especially remember Honeyman State Park and Sunset Bay because we camped at both). The San Juan Island are also beautiful.

Posted by
95 posts

This summer or next? It's very hard to predict. The optimistic view is that things will be approaching "normal" by summer. Even if you put it off until next summer the tourist infrastructure will not have have completely recovered. Restaurants and other businesses dependent on tourists have been badly affected. Many have closed for good. Nevertheless, the sights will be there to see and, I believe, the national parks, etc. will be open. For example, the Paradise Inn on Mt Rainier will open, as usual, on May 22nd. FYI - highly recommend a night or two there if you can get a reservation. It's at the 5000' level on the Mountain. Meadows are full of flowers there after the snow melt (late June?) and there are many trails there. We have hiked from there to Camp Muir (10,000ft) which is the jumping off base for the summit ascents. Tough hike, you hit the permanent snow fields at around 7000ft and then its kicking steps in the snow the rest of the way. Dangerous if visibility is bad it is easy to get lost and wander into the glacier crevices.

Posted by
11905 posts

There are lots of possibilities if you do want to come this summer, as long as you accept that things will not be at their best. I would skip Seattle entirely——our city is definitely not back to normal yet, and while not dangerous it is also not particularly pleasant. But there are lots of nice places nearby you can head to after landing at SeaTac. You will definitely need a car! And do not worry about taking a rental car on the Washington State ferries; there are no such restrictions (as long as you are not heading into Canada, which is not possible now in any case). You DO need ferry reservations if you plan to visit the San Juan Islands, or to take the ferry between Port Townsend and Whidbey Island. All these places are nice to visit. Port Townsend is a personal favorite of mine and usually offers a continuous progression of music festivals—-blues, bluegrass, jazz—-but probably only “virtually” this summer. Look up “Centrum” at Fort Worden/Port Townsend if you are interested.

But what is your timing? The post above mentions wildflowers at Mt. Rainier in late June, but actually the Paradise flower fields are buried in snow until mid-July at least, and this year the snowpack is heavy and will last longer. I am hoping to see the flowers in August and we have reservations at Paradise Inn around the 10th. That may or may not hit the peak but it is always beautiful there.

The Paradise Inn is currently scheduled to open May 22 but if you go before mid-July you will be likely be joining the skiers and snowshoers up there. Still a place worth seeing. If you want to search for available rooms at whatever date, this is the website:

https://mtrainierguestservices.com/accommodations/paradise-inn/

Some good options in Washington that haven’t been mentioned yet:

Most of the vineyards in our state are indeed in Eastern Washington, but there are lots of wineries just north of Seattle in the community of Woodinville. These offer tasting, and some have music (the San Michelle Winery usually has an outdoor summer concert series, but I don’t know about this year). There is a nice upscale hotel near there (I forget the name but can look for it).

https://woodinvillewinecountry.com/

There are also wineries with vineyards on Bainbridge Island (a ferry ride from Seattle, and on your way to Port Townsend and the Olympic Peninsula) and around Sequim on the Olympic Peninsula. Lavender farms there too.

A popular multi-day loop drive through the North Cascades and back:
https://www.cascadeloop.com/

Lots of nice lodging in Leavenworth on Highway 2 and in the Methow Valley on the North Cascades highway. Note that this road, which traverses North Cascades National Park, may not open until June.

If you take the Cascade Loop anti-clockwise (Highway 2 first), you return westward on Highway 20 which ends at Anacortes, the location of the ferry terminal for the San Juan Island ferries. Catch your (reserved) ferry and the islands (Orcas and San Juan are the most popular, and offer kayaking, hiking, nice B and B’s, and whale watching tours). Upon return to Anacortes, drive down across Deception Pass and then Whidbey Island. If you still have time and the inclination, take the ferry from Coupeville on Whidbey to Port Townsend and spend a few days there. You could visit Olympic National Park, but it is a lot of extra driving, and it is going to be extremely crowded this summer so lodging is becoming scarce already. So I would suggest saving that for another trip. Instead, from Port Townsend you can head south by various routes either to Seattle to end your trip, or into Oregon if that is your plan.

I will leave Oregon to others who know the state best.

Posted by
5609 posts

RE: Mid July to mid Sept is usually the best weather but no guarantees!

Emphasis should be on "no guarantees". In these times of climate change/global warming, summer weather and fire season is longer and more intense. Wildfires degrade air quality. This is turning out to be another drought season here in Oregon. Be prepared to adjust plans for fire closures and smoke. July would be a better bet than September.

Posted by
2596 posts

Plan a stay at the cabins at Kalaloch in Olympic National Park, but you probably need to make a reservation long in advance.

When we made this trip years ago, there was still snow on the trails at Paradise in mid-July.

Posted by
1190 posts

I have friends in Seattle and Portland and many years have flown into one city, taken the very scenic amtrak route between and flown home from the other. I think I've been to visit almost every thing the others listed, add the pilgrimage to where Tillamook ice cream is made, the spruce goose is "on the way" from Portland

Its hard to know what shape you may find things in this summer..... my only parallel is visiting new Orleans the year after Katrina, things were rough around the edges, but for the most part wait staff. Etc, was THRILLED to have customers and still talking about what they had been thru in the past year.

Posted by
6996 posts

summer weather and fire season is longer and more intense. Wildfires degrade air quality. This is turning out to be another drought season here in Oregon.

The snow pack in the Washington Cascades & Olympics is 150% of historical norms/average. Some hope for a less severe fire season.

Posted by
784 posts

July is a great month to visit but September is grand.
If you come this year and want to visit wineries check to make sure they are open as many are currently by appointment only.
Seems like everyone assumes the 1-5 corridor but unique to Oregon is central Oregon with the volcano national monuments... and lava as far as the eye can see in some locations. And of course Crater Lake.
The Gorge is quite beautiful with Multnomah Falls the most visited place in Oregon.
In Washington the San Juan Islands are on my "must see" list as well as the rugged Washington north coast
I've lived in Portland and Seattle ….. they are cities with city things to do but the PNW has far more to offer then those to cities and the I-5 corridor.

Posted by
103 posts

I think 3 weeks is a great amount of time to spend in the PNW. Most visitors don't allow nearly enough time. The San Juan islands are a wonderful place to relax and unwind, with beautiful scenery, outdoor activities and amazing restaurants with locally sourced food. Give the islands at least 3 days, but I'm concerned that if this trip is planned for this summer you may have difficulty finding accommodations. Since Covid cancelled many vacations last year, it seems everyone is coming up here this spring and summer. Our little town is already slammed with visitors, particularly on the weekends. If you're coming all the way to our corner of the world, don't miss the islands. Jenny