The Pacific Ocean, Cascade volcanoes, the Coast Range, the high desert, coulee country: the Pacific Northwest has just about every type of terrain to offer. It goes to show that scenic drives in this rich and diverse region are strikingly beautiful, and we’ve covered many of them at Outdoor Project: waterfalls on the Olympic Peninsula, fall foliage at Steens Mountain, the Sea-to-Sky Highway. Point your headlights in any direction, and you might find one of your own. Before you go, here are a few under-the-radar drives you should consider.
There are four major routes that cross from the Willamette Valley over the Cascades into central Oregon, and each of them is a scenic drive that showcases Oregon’s volcanic geography. Interstate 84 to the Mount Hood Highway is perhaps its most scenic, passing through the Columbia River Gorge, Hood River and the Fruit Loop (a must-visit in early fall), and beyond to Mount Hood’s striking northern face. Highway 26 via Government Camp is a well-trod route that sees many a hiker, camper, and skier throughout the year.
Two more southerly routes wind their way to Oregon’s high desert terrain, and both possess scenic beauty in spades.
Highway 22 east of Salem ascends to Detroit Lake in stepwise fashion, and each dam it passes is an engineering marvel. Many and diverse adventures are in order along the way. Silver Falls State Park boasts no fewer than 10 waterfalls, and in the spring these falls are like water cannons, especially after a heavy spring rain when the temperatures warm. The neighboring areas have their own water displays, too, like that at Abiqua Falls. Opal Creek is a little too far out of the way on this scenic drive, but Niagara County Park is a simulacrum of its opal pools with a great view and a swimming hole. Detroit Lake is a summer destination for anyone who loves to paddle or lounge on a lakeside dock, and the views to Mount Jefferson are breathtaking. And don’t forget that Breitenbush Hot Springs is a short drive north.
244 miles, 5.5 hours
There are several routes that cut through the Cascades in Washington: Highway 12 circumnavigates Mount Rainier, and Highway 90 and Highway 2 connect Seattle to cities east of the mountain range. All are beautiful, and Highway 2 is particularly notable for its bucolic farms and roadside markets.
For rugged terrain, head north to Bellingham and begin traversing east into North Cascades National Park. Bellingham is a quiet college town with a high “beer snob” ranking and a small but vibrant local culture that includes a great theater and improv scene—Ryan Styles is a Bellingham local. Heading east, you’ll find the most rugged stretch of the Cascades on the Pacific Crest Trail (Section K), including Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan, Glacier Peak, and one of the most striking lookouts on the West Coast at Hidden Lake. That is, if you’re interested in leaving the car. One way or another, you won’t be disappointed, and once you reach Chelan, you can finish your trip with a ferry to Stehekin, a mountain enclave that can be accessed no other way.
There’s more to British Columbia road trips than the Sea-to-Sky. In all honesty, just about any highway north of the U.S. border is a alpine fantasy land. But there's a gem on the coast, too.
From Victoria, the Circle Route traverses the rugged western coast, bypassing two thru-hikes and quaint beach towns on its way to Cowichan and, eventually, back to Victoria. Don’t bother going back to Vancouver Island’s biggest city. Head north instead, forking off the Trans-Canada to head west for Tofino and Ucluelet. On the way you’ll find the island an engaging combination of rugged, scenic beauty and international influence—just talk to any of the industry people at the taverns and hostels you pass. The Juan de Fuca Trail is an extremely accessible 30-mile thru-hike with sandy and stony beaches, hidden waterfalls, suspension bridges, and beach tent sites. Once you leave cell service you’ll be at the mercy of Port Renfrew’s isolated but tight-knit community, where there are plenty of options for a meal and espresso. Port Renfrew is also the southern terminus of the West Coast Trail. Continue toward Cowichan, a lake community much like Detroit in Oregon.
Farther north, Route 4 passes Cathedral Grove, which features 600-year-old trees less than five minutes from the highway. You’ll also pass through Coombs—there is an old country market here called Goats on the Roof, which is exactly what it sounds like. Beyond: a rugged stretch of fjordal majesty that leads to Tofino, Ucluelet, and North Pacific surfing paradise with North Shore Kauai vibes. Go to Chesterman Beach when the surf is high for a long and slow break that's great for beginners and experts alike.