Road Trip Ideas: PNW Magic

It’s time for some new adventures! Reconnect with the best of the Northwest with a summer road trip to the central Oregon Coast, or Seattle and Mount Rainier.  

Image courtesy Erin J. Bernard

Pack the van! Summer vacation is back up for grabs, and there’s no better way to reconnect with your family’s sense of adventure than a good, old-fashioned road trip. The Pacific Northwest has endless options for getting out there with littles underfoot. Our selections for surefire summer fun include a pick-n-mix adventure in Seattle, Olympia and the foothills of Mount Rainier; and an exhilarating tour of the scenic central Oregon Coast.

Gather the crew and set your compass points. It’s time to explore.  


The Central Oregon Coast

Image courtesy Erin J. Bernard

An Explorer’s Paradise with Room to Roam

Hoping to avoid the worst of the coastal crowds? Skip Oregon’s lovely, but immensely busy north coast and angle the family chariot down U.S. Highway 101 to the upper half of the central coast. This winding stretch of road-trippable shoreline offers loads of family-oriented lodging, dining and recreation, dotted along the water like a string of pearls. And it’s got lighthouses, too!

Your Home Base: Lincoln City

Full of classic seashore diversions (and sometimes rather windy!) Lincoln City is the perfect place to drop your bags while exploring the wonders of the central coast. The Anchor Inn Resort offers staterooms and funky cabins set around a jovial courtyard peppered with kitschy nautical treasures. This large, kid-calibrated compound has everything from a tree-and-sand-lined croquet course to a game room, sandbox, and covered fire pits perfect for roasting marshmallows and weenies in any weather. Pro tip: Unless the roar of diesel engines is your idea of a lullaby, request a room set back from the highway. Rising early to set out in search of adventure? It’s just a hop across the highway to the Otis Café. Bring a hearty appetite to this long-lived local breakfast spot; the portions are huge.

Depoe Bay

The main drag is bursting with antique shops and treat stops, but the crowning jewel of this busy little town, which doubles as the world’s smallest harbor, is Oregon Parks and Recreation Department’s Whale Watching Center. (Hours have varied since COVID-19 began, check the schedule before you go.) Summer isn’t prime whale migration season, but the whale-spotting odds are always good at this seawall. Crabbing here is also year-round, though you’ll have the best luck in late summer, when those tasty crustaceans really fill out. If the weather is disagreeable, watch for those telltale spouts from the comfort of The Horn Public House & Brewery, a delicious pub across the way from the Whale Watching Center whose spacious upstairs features prime views, minus the whipping winds. Their non-greasy, fresh-caught seafood preparations and strong drinks are perfect for bolstering parental resolve after a day spent schlepping littles.

Otter Crest Loop and Otter Rock

Rain or shine, a drive along Otter Crest Loop really delivers when it comes to scenic stop-offs. The loop’s high point (literally!) is the Cape Foulweather viewpoint, perched 500 feet above the ocean and proffering soaring, mist-shrouded views. Selfie time! End your drive at Otter Rock, an adorable hamlet famous for the Otter Rock Marine Reserve and Devil’s Punchbowl State Natural Area, featuring a frothing hollow rock formation that spits out waves large enough to occasionally douse bystanders. A riot of swirling colors makes this unique rock intriguing (and photogenic) at high tide or low. Right nearby is Otter Crest Beach, a sprawling surfer stop perfect for wading or rockhounding. Pro tip: It’s a long climb down from street to sand. This beach isn’t suited for strollers, mobility devices, or anybody who requires assistance walking. Before you leave, grab a bite at Mo’s West. Tiny, vintage-y and full of personality, this is easily the cutest of the restaurants in the Mo’s Seafood chain. (Seasonal hours vary.)

Yaquina Bay, from Land and Sea

Double your fun with visits to the lighthouses at the Yaquina Bay State Recreation Site and Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area. These sister sentinels are situated at opposite ends of Newport and both have fun interpretive centers and dramatic ocean vistas. Don’t forget to investigate the stellar tidepools at Cobble Beach, tucked just beneath the Yaquina Head lighthouse. Next, head to Newport’s Historic Bayfront to see Yaquina Bay in action. Older kids comfortable in the water can learn about the bay’s thriving fishing community and local wildlife on the Oregon Boating Foundation’s guided two-hour kayak tour. No experience or special gear required! Afterward, feast on locally sourced seafood and panoramic views at Newport’s upscale-yet-surprisingly-kid-friendly Clearwater Restaurant. Watch for sea lions; these rubbery clowns love to cozy up along the outdoor dining deck.


Seattle, Olympia and Ashford

Image courtesy Erin J. Bernard

Urban Adventuring with a Side of Mountain Air

Our northerly neighbor is calling!

On water and on land, Seattle is jam-packed with family fun, but why rush a good thing? Break up the journeys there and back with a pit stop in the happening capital of Olympia and a worth-the-detour drive to Ashford, a cozy town nestled west of the main entrance to Mount Rainier National Park.

Pit Stop: Olympia

Stop midway and stretch your legs in Washington’s congenial state capital. Pick up an artisan sandwich to-go at The Lucky Lunchbox where kiddie options abound and the turkey club is a true crowd-pleaser. Grab something caffeinated from Olympia Coffee Roasting next door, then head to the Hands On Children’s Museum to get those wiggles out. Paint on the walls in a maker space, pull the taps at a pint-sized play brewpub, and explore a replica longhouse. Pro tip: Babies under 17 months play for free!

Worthy Detour: Ashford and Mount Rainier National Park

Craving some extra-fresh air? Hop off I-5 and head for the wilds of Mount Rainier National Park. Ashford, six miles from the park’s southwest entrance, is a great jumping-off point for sampling the park’s wonders, which include wildflower meadows, waterfalls and a mighty old-growth forest, all in their prime from May to October. Pick up a hearty trail lunch from Basecamp Bar & Grill, then hit the Nisqually Vista Trail, which delivers stunning glacier views along an easy mile-long jaunt. The 1.75-mile Alta Vista Trail loop poses a worthy 1.8-mile challenge for older kiddos with its 600-foot elevation gain. The reward: fantastic summit views. Cute nearby lodging is abundant if you decide to stay over. Pro tip: To avoid the worst crowds, hit Rainier in June or September and arrive at the park entrance bright and early; by 10 am, things get busy.

Your Home Base: Seattle

Forget Seattle’s overpriced boutique hotels and far-flung Airbnb rentals and check into the Hampton Inn & Suites Seattle-Downtown. This affordable lodging option scores points for its suites, which come with a pullout couch and separate bedroom (great for those traveling with babies), plus a balcony, full kitchen, and generous breakfast buffet that’s open early. Pro tip: Request a room with a view of the Space Needle. It’s just a 10-minute walk to Seattle Center, home to the Space Needle, Chihuly Garden and Glass (best for older kids), and Artists at Play, an artist-designed playground boasting an eye-popping 30-foot rope climbing tower, ADA-accessible carousel and whimsical labyrinth.

Downtown Seattle Done Right

Try hitting Pike Place Market between 8 am to 9 am — fish aren’t yet flying and stalls are still setting up, which equals a remarkably less-chaotic visit. Make your sticky contribution to the legendary Gum Wall, then skip the tedium of the endless line outside the original Starbucks and step instead into the colorful neighboring storefront, Maíz. Fresh masa is just the beginning of the magic at this Mexican tortilleria and street food stop, whose fun snacks feature 59 types of corn. Our faves: The tamales and the stellar fresh-fruit cups. You can also fill your belly (and soul!) with fluffy fry bread and Indian tacos at Off the Rez Cafe, a Native American grab-and-go spot on the University of Washington campus.

Watery Delights

Seattle sits on an isthmus, with 41% of its total area underwater! No surprise, then, that so much of the fun here happens on or near the wet stuff. Book a one-hour Viator Seattle Harbor Cruise and explore Elliott Bay and Seattle Harbor as you learn about Seattle’s historic waterfront and motor through the city’s mighty shipping terminal. Ahoy! Next, test your mettle aboard the Seattle Great Wheel, a formidable Ferris wheel at Pier 57 that towers 175 feet high and glows with 500,000 LED lights on weekend evenings. Another great water-adjacent pick: The Ballard Locks. This national historic site, operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, keeps Seattle’s water traffic flowing through two working locks, moving everything from kayaks to ocean tugs, and you can catch the action up close. The Fish Ladder Education Center and a well-appointed museum round out the attractions.   

Keeping Seattle Weird

No tour of Seattle is complete without a visit to see the city’s snaggle-toothed unofficial mascot, the Fremont Troll. Grab pastries from the nearby Milstead & Co., then live the steampunk dream at Gas Works Park, a one-of-a-kind 20-acre park set in the shadow of a former gasification plant along the shores of Lake Union. The playground has structures accessible to all ages and abilities, and the waterfront grass makes a dreamy picnic spot. 

Erin J Bernard
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