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The Ultimate Fall Road Trip: Pacific Northwest to Yellowstone

09.27.17

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The Ultimate Fall Road Trip: Pacific Northwest to Yellowstone
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  • Looking west from the summit of Mitchell Point.- The Ultimate Fall Road Trip: Pacific Northwest to Yellowstone
  • View of the Columbia River Gorge at the approach to the summit.- The Ultimate Fall Road Trip: Pacific Northwest to Yellowstone
  • A small cascade below Dry Creek Falls.- The Ultimate Fall Road Trip: Pacific Northwest to Yellowstone
  • A view into the Columbia River Gorge from the peninsula.- The Ultimate Fall Road Trip: Pacific Northwest to Yellowstone
  • Atop the highest rocks on the peninsula.- The Ultimate Fall Road Trip: Pacific Northwest to Yellowstone
  • Low flow during some autumns allows for a more accessible view of Punchbowl Falls.- The Ultimate Fall Road Trip: Pacific Northwest to Yellowstone
  • Unnamed waterfall along the Wuna Point Trail.- The Ultimate Fall Road Trip: Pacific Northwest to Yellowstone
  • Munra Point.- The Ultimate Fall Road Trip: Pacific Northwest to Yellowstone
  • Multnomah Falls and Benson Bridge.- The Ultimate Fall Road Trip: Pacific Northwest to Yellowstone
  • The view from the Women's Forum State Scenic Viewpoint looking toward the Crown Point Vista House.- The Ultimate Fall Road Trip: Pacific Northwest to Yellowstone
  • Louis Rasmussen Day Use Park beach on Columbia River.- The Ultimate Fall Road Trip: Pacific Northwest to Yellowstone
  • Red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus).- The Ultimate Fall Road Trip: Pacific Northwest to Yellowstone
  • Great horned owl (Bubo virginianus).- The Ultimate Fall Road Trip: Pacific Northwest to Yellowstone
  • Boardwalk from the Riparian Overlook in Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.- The Ultimate Fall Road Trip: Pacific Northwest to Yellowstone
  • The path to the Nisqually River Overlook.- The Ultimate Fall Road Trip: Pacific Northwest to Yellowstone
  • View of The Brothers (6,842 ft) in the Olympic Mountains from Lincoln Park.- The Ultimate Fall Road Trip: Pacific Northwest to Yellowstone
  • The old-growth of Rockport State Park has never been logged. - The Ultimate Fall Road Trip: Pacific Northwest to Yellowstone
  • Dwarf dogwood (Cornus unalaschkensis), which is also known as bunchberry, along the Thornton Lakes Trail.- The Ultimate Fall Road Trip: Pacific Northwest to Yellowstone
  • View of the North Cascades from the Thornton Lakes Trail.- The Ultimate Fall Road Trip: Pacific Northwest to Yellowstone
  • View of Thornton Lakes.- The Ultimate Fall Road Trip: Pacific Northwest to Yellowstone
  • View south across the Skagit River Valley of the surrounding North Cascades.- The Ultimate Fall Road Trip: Pacific Northwest to Yellowstone
  • View of Mount Degenhardt.- The Ultimate Fall Road Trip: Pacific Northwest to Yellowstone
  • View north to the surrounding North Cascades from Trappers Peak (5,966 ft).- The Ultimate Fall Road Trip: Pacific Northwest to Yellowstone
  • Visitors at Diablo Lake Overlook.- The Ultimate Fall Road Trip: Pacific Northwest to Yellowstone
  • Ross Lake at sunset.- The Ultimate Fall Road Trip: Pacific Northwest to Yellowstone
  • Mushrooms thrive in the damp autumn conditions.- The Ultimate Fall Road Trip: Pacific Northwest to Yellowstone
  • North Cascades National Park from the Pacific Northwest Scenic Trail.- The Ultimate Fall Road Trip: Pacific Northwest to Yellowstone
  • Liberty Bell Group.- The Ultimate Fall Road Trip: Pacific Northwest to Yellowstone
  • View north to the Methow Valley from Sun Mountain Lodge.- The Ultimate Fall Road Trip: Pacific Northwest to Yellowstone
  • Bison in Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park.- The Ultimate Fall Road Trip: Pacific Northwest to Yellowstone
  • First open expanse en route to Sepulcher Mountain.- The Ultimate Fall Road Trip: Pacific Northwest to Yellowstone
  • Rock formations of Sepulcher Mountain.- The Ultimate Fall Road Trip: Pacific Northwest to Yellowstone
  • Fall color in the West Fork of Big Smoky Creek.- The Ultimate Fall Road Trip: Pacific Northwest to Yellowstone
  • Fall colors in the Salmon River Headwaters.- The Ultimate Fall Road Trip: Pacific Northwest to Yellowstone
  • Another nice view of Iron Creek at the first trail junction.- The Ultimate Fall Road Trip: Pacific Northwest to Yellowstone
  • Leash regulations vary by season in the Sawtooth Wilderness.- The Ultimate Fall Road Trip: Pacific Northwest to Yellowstone
  • Sawtooth Lake.- The Ultimate Fall Road Trip: Pacific Northwest to Yellowstone
  • Hot water cascades from above, creating natural showers.- The Ultimate Fall Road Trip: Pacific Northwest to Yellowstone
  • Boulders in the pools offer natural seating.- The Ultimate Fall Road Trip: Pacific Northwest to Yellowstone
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By the Numbers: 35 hours, 2,010 miles, 7-14 days.

As the autumn sun slides slowly below the western horizon earlier and earlier, it leaves just enough room for fall to wiggle its way into our corner of the United States. As the days grow shorter, harvest crops proliferate, and with them the fall colors that turn the valleys and hillsides into a crayon box of goldenrods, brick reds, and burnt oranges.

For most this means hot toddies, tacky mountain bike trails, and fall harvest, but for some, this means hitting the road and chasing dry-ground adventure before the snowy whirl of winter sets in. 

This fall road trip originates in Hood River, Oregon (not coincidentally my hometown) and ends in the Yellowstone area. Major cities and towns along the route include Hood River, Portland, and La Grande in Oregon; Seattle, Winthrop, and Spokane in Washington; Coeur d'Alene, Sun Valley, Stanley, and Boise in Idaho; and Missoula and Bozeman in Montana.

Below the itinerary you'll find a list of Featured Adventures, all which show up along the route. This is by no means exhaustive—I only included adventures and lodging that was along or immediately accessible from the proposed driving route. Get out your maps and dig deeper into Outdoor Project to find adventures that best suit your preferred adventure method.

Happy trails! Pro tip: Don't forget the Swedish Fish.

The Ultimate Fall Road Trip on Google Maps 

Part 1 — The Columbia River Gorge

Big views from Mitchell Point. Photo by Shane Kucera.

Fall in the Columbia River Gorge is a sensationally overwhelming and prolific time of year. Drive just south of town, and the valley opens up and is set afire by changing leaves in the expansive pear, apple, and peach orchards. Gain any elevation and you’ll find yourself in mushroom territory. Chanterelles abound late September through November and add a rich, meaty, umami flavor to fall dishes.

Lodging Highlights:

River Gorge Cabana ($153/6 people) — A clean, minimalist house just a mile away from downtown and two miles from the waterfront.

Hideaway in Hood River ($113/9 people) — A small one bedroom, one bathroom located just south of Hood River.

Viento State Park Campground — Located just west of Hood River, this campground is situated right off the highway. Though super convenient, it also is subject to noise from the train and I-84

Adventure Highlights:

Mitchell Point Hike — This is an excellent “starter hike” in the gorge, quickly earning bird’s-eye views of the massive Columbia and the surrounding fall-colored hills.

Multnomah Falls + Lodge — Though flows are heavier in the winter and spring, there’s hardly a more spectacular time to see this iconic waterfall than in the fall when the surrounding cliffs are teeming with red and orange foliage.

*Please note that while the highway through the Gorge is now open, most hikes and destinations on the Oregon side are closed due to the Eagle Creek Fire. For an alternative with more accessible adventures, cross the Columbia River and check out the Washington side of this fantastic scenic area.

Part 2 — The Greater Portland Area

Dry Creek Falls in the Columbia River Gorge. Photo by Daniel Sherman.

This notoriously quirky city is great to visit any time of year, but fall is especially beautiful. Catch Portland on a sunny fall day and beeline to one of many vistas within city limits—the sweeping, colorful valleys surrounding Mount Hood, Mount Adams, and Mount St. Helens will take your breath away.

Lodging Highlights:

Caravan – The Tiny House Hotel ($25/night) — Aside from being one of the most affordable options in town, this small, pet-friendly hostel is situated in the heart of the Alberta Arts district next to excellent food options and things to do.

Reed Island State Park Campsite — Be careful if your plans are contingent upon staying here—there’s only one site, and it’s unable to be reserved. The site boasts lovely river and mountain views.

Paradise Point State Park Campground — Situated just north of Portland, this campground is just off of I-5, making it noisy but convenient. For a better experience, expend the energy to stay at one of the nine walk-in sites.

Adventure Highlights:

Whipple Creek Park — Visit this park for an excellent, quick peek at a towering old-growth forest. Take your time along the 4.3 miles of Douglas fir trees and a dense understory full of native flora such as sword fern and trillium.

Ridgefield National Wildlife Reserve — If you’re a birder, this is a must. This is by far the best spot in the region to go look for wildlife and the numerous species of birds migrating through to seek warmer climates for winter.

Part 3 — The North Cascades Scenic Byway

Incredible views in the North Cascades. Photo by Tyson Gillard.

Even though Seattle is lovely in the fall (it’s lovely year round, really), fall sometimes means gray sky and rain in the city, and it’s not always friendly toward a tight budget. Instead, hightail it to the North Cascades Scenic Byway—the jagged, granite peaks and high alpine lakes set off staggeringly beautiful fall color and provide endless opportunities for adventure. You could easily extend this part of the trip by heading north from Concrete, Washington, up to Baker Lake and the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

Lodging Highlights:

Goodell Creek Campground + Group Sites — Though this campground has limited amenities, it’s far enough removed from the nearby busy Newhalem Creek Campground to make it much preferred. Plant your tent under massive old-growth and among colorful, changing bushes.

The Rolling Huts — Situated just outside the adventure mecca Mazama, these minimalist cabins feature the necessities: a kitchen, a mattress, a wood burning stove, an attached outhouse, and spectacular views in a great setting. Bring your own bedding.

Sun Mountain Lodge ­— If you’re going to splurge on lodging at any point during your trip, do it at Sun Mountain Lodge. Perched on a bluff overlooking the mountain, the resort is situated on 3,000 acres of pristine private wilderness, including 120-acre Patterson Lake.

Adventure Highlights:

Thornton Lakes Trail + Trapper Peak — Any time of the year you can catch 360-degree views of the jagged North Cascades. In fall, though, the entire old-growth forest is aflame in firey reds and yellows. This is one to go out of your way for.

Diablo Lake Overlook — This roadside attraction is a must. Diablo Lake’s turquoise waters set against golden autumn leaves is staggeringly beautiful, and it is only enhanced by the ring of mountains that tower over you.

Patterson Mountain — This enjoyable loop rises 800 feet to a vantage point 2,000 feet above the Methow Valley with sweeping views of the North Cascades.

Part 4 — Missoula and the Bitterroots

Be sure to hit Spokane and Coeur d’Alene on your way through, but if you’re on any sort of time crunch, the Bitterroots offer the most bang for your buck. The tamarack trees that dot these wild woods electrify the quiet landscape and make even a walk through town an enchanted experience.

Lodging Highlights:

There are a number of places to camp near Missoula, though the fall nights can quickly leave you with frost on your tent and a chill in your toes. Consider nabbing a room in a cheap hotel if you’re not well equipped with all-seasons camping gear.

Adventure Highlights:

Even though Missoula itself is a destination for whitewater kayaking, fishing, mountain biking, climbing, and hiking, the Bitterroot Mountains just to the southwest are worth as much time as you can afford to spend. The Forest Service has compiled a comprehensive list of day hikes within the Bitterroot National Forest, and though some hikes are more spectacular than others, in this part of the world, you can’t go wrong. For starting points, check out Blodgett Canyon, the Kootenai Creek Trail, the Bear Creek Overlook Trail, and the Canyon Creek Trail.

Part 5 — Bozeman and North Yellowstone

Hiking in to the Hoodoos. Photo by Stephanie Keene.

Bozeman is the quintessential extreme adventure town. Nestled in the shadow of the Bridger Range and the Spanish Peaks, it’s also a marvel in the fall with colorful subalpine and western larch dotting the hillsides alongside Rocky Mountain maple and fiery red boxelder. It’s the epicenter of the nation’s ice climbing scene, and it hosts hordes of fly fishermen, kayakers, rafters, hunters, backcountry skiers, and extreme athletes all year. There’s craft beer on every corner, usually alongside a cowboy dive bar, and hardly a conversation you’ll overhear that doesn’t center on adventure plans.

Lodging Highlights:

There are a number of campgrounds outside of Bozeman, including several that are close and provide plenty of amenities. As is standard for all Rocky Mountain towns, the temperature tends to drop quickly in the fall, and more often than not snow begins to appear in October. Consider finding a hotel, motel, or bed and breakfast if you’re not toting all-season camping gear.

Adventure Highlights:

Mount Blackmore — The elusive subalpine larch tree boasts a fantastic color in fall before it drops its needles but is hard to find. Mount Blackmore hosts several stands of these trees along with the lower-elevation Rocky Mountain maple and a number of other colorful deciduous trees. Not to mention, the views are spectacular.

Lamar Valley — Even though it’s a bit out of the way, a visit to Lamar Valley is well worth the drive. It’s busy, but rightly so—people flock to the area for the chance to get a peek of bison, wolves, elk, coyotes, bears, moose, pronghorn deer, and eagles.

The Hoodoos — These aren’t the Hoodoos like those you’d expect to see in Bryce Canyon—they are actually large travertine limestone boulders that fell in a landslide from nearby Terrace Mountain. This is one of the lesser-traveled hikes in Yellowstone, even though it features enormous house-sized boulders and excellent views of Terrance Mountain.

This region of the US is sprawling with must-see adventures and a fall exploration of the vast Yellowstone National Park is never a bad idea - so add on a few more days (or weeks) to this road trip and check out the best of Yellowstone!

Part 6 — The Sawtooth Mountains

Fall color in the West Fork of Big Smoky Creek. Photo by Matt Leidecker.

The last phase of the trip is arguably the most triumphant in its display of fall colors. The Sawtooth National Forest is a swath of land that encompasses over 2.1 million acres in Idaho and Utah and, not surprisingly, was one of Ernest Hemingway’s favorite playgrounds. Stands of quaking aspen ignite valleys and hills in shimmering gold hues, making fall the best time of the year to visit.

Lodging Highlights:

Alturas Lake Tent-Only Campsites — Because of its tent-only designation, this campground doesn’t see too much traffic and is much quieter than the nearby options at Redfish Lake.

Sockeye Campground — Situated on the banks of Redfish Lake, this is the newest and most popular campground in the area. It’s hard to secure a spot at the 23-site campground in the summertime, but it’s unlikely that you’d have much difficulty in the shoulder season.

If you’re feeling uneasy about camping out at high altitude in chilly weather, Sun Valley and Ketchum to the south, and Stanley to the north are the closest big towns to the National Forest and provide plenty of options.

Adventure Highlights:

Smiley Creek to Big Smoky — If you’ve thrown your bike on top of your car for the trip, you’ll delight in this all-day loop south of Alturas Lake. The 18 miles of this loop travel along a remote drainage, earning access to show-stopping fall colors.

Alpine + Sawtooth Lakes, Iron Creek Drainage — As far as alpine lakes go, these are relatively easy to access, and for that reason they are sometimes crowded. Nevertheless, sunning views over glaciated bowls punctuated with fall alpine color is worth it a million times over.

Kirkham Hot Springs — Even though these hot springs draw crowds, most pools are shareable, and the short hike into the beautiful Payette River makes it all worth it. These hot springs are some of the most accessible and scenic in the region.

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