Fodor's National Park Road Trips:
The 15 Most Magical Outdoor Stairways in the World
A trip to Washington’s three national parks—plus a visit to Mount St. Helen’s National Volcanic Monument—takes you through rugged Pacific coastline and high alpine terrain as well as lush temperate rainforest, glaciers, waterfalls, and some of the largest remnants of ancient forests in the U.S.
At a Glance:
Miles Traveled: 312
Suggested Duration: 8 Days
Start & End Point: Sedro-Woolley, WA
Parks Visited: North Cascades National Park, Mount Rainier National Park, Olympic National Park
Best Time To Go: Apr - Oct
Day 1: Welcome to Washington State
Stop Locations: Sedro-Woolley, WA
For those coming from out of state, the nearest airport is Seattle-Tacoma International, where you can start your journey by picking up a rental car. Depending on when your flight gets in, you can rest up at a nearby hotel for the night or make the 85-mile, 1½-hour drive to Sedro-Woolley, Washington, where you can spend the night.
Day 2: North Cascades National Park
Stop Locations: North Cascades National Park, WA
From Sedro-Woolley, drive east for 46 miles along Route 20, also known as the North Cascades Highway, to the entrance of North Cascades National Park. Take your first stroll through an old-growth forest on the Skagit River Loop (1.8 miles), which starts at the visitor center near the town of Newhalem, about 9 miles from the entrance, then devote the rest of the day to driving through the park on Route 20, stopping at various overlooks. Exit the park and continue through the scenic Methow Valley and on to Chelan (about 190 miles from the park’s western boundary) to stay the night.
Another option would be to exit the park the way you came in, at the western entrance near Newhalem, then head west toward Arlington (about 60 miles away, via Routes 20 and 9).
Days 3-4: Mount Rainier National Park
Stop Locations: Mount Rainier National Park, WA
From Chelan, get an early start to drive to Ohanapecosh, the southeastern entrance to Mount Rainier National Park. When you arrive, take a drive on the spectacular Sunrise Road (about 30 miles round-trip), which reveals the “back” (northeast) side of Rainier. Book a room in nearby Ashford (about 19 miles east of the park’s Nisqually entrance) and make that your base for the next two nights.
The next day, energetic hikers will want to tackle one of the four- to six-hour trails that scale the park’s many peaks. Less ambitious visitors can take one of the shorter hikes in the Paradise Inn area or join a ranger-led walk through wildflower meadows. Another option is to hike to Panorama Point (a strenuous 4-mile round-trip), near the foot of the Muir Snowfield, for breathtaking views of the glaciers and high ridges of Rainier. Finish your day with dinner at the Paradise Inn, where you can watch the sunset on the peak.
Day 5: Mount St. Helens and the Olympic Foothills
Stop Locations: Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, WA
Today, drive south to spend the day visiting the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, where you can enter from the west side via Route 504 and see the destruction caused by the 1980 eruption. After leaving the monument, follow Route 504 back to Interstate 5 and head north to Olympia, winding through scenic Puget Sound countryside, skirting the Olympic foothills, and periodically dipping down to the waterfront en route to Port Angeles, where you’ll spend the night.
Days 6-7: Olympic National Park
Stop Locations: Olympic National Park, WA
The next morning, launch into a full day at Olympic National Park. From the Port Angeles entrance, drive 17 miles south to Hurricane Ridge, where you’ll find several trails taking you through meadows and subalpine forest. The Hurricane Hill Trail (3.2 miles round-trip) delivers panoramic views of the mountains and ocean. Afterward, head back to Port Angeles for the night.
On Day 7, follow U.S. 101 west to La Push, a skinny satellite of coastal land that’s part of the national park (69 miles from Port Angeles). From La Push, hike 1.4 miles to Third Beach for a taste of the wild Pacific coastline. Back on U.S. 101, head south to the town of Forks and then east to the Hoh Rain Forest, also part of Olympic National Park. Explore the moss-covered alders and big-leaf maples, then follow a circular route on U.S. 101 to Lake Quinault, winding west toward the coast, then back to the lake and the national park. Check into the Lake Quinault Lodge, then drive up the river to access one of several trails—the Graves Creek Trail is a popular choice—through the lush Quinault Valley.
Day 8: Heading Home
Stop Locations: Sedro-Woolley, WA
Catch your flight back home from Seattle–Tacoma International, about 130 miles (a 2½-hour drive) from Olympic.