Road Trip Adventures in the Pacific Northwest

I caught the road-trip bug early from my father, an avid motorcyclist and strong believer in the basic essence of traveling embodied by long days on the road. Traveling by wheel, especially back roads and highways, is the best way to get up close and personal with the feel of a particular area of the country. Every character imaginable, and some that aren’t, travel the road, thus making it far removed from the vacationer’s bubble. Transportation by car (or bicycle, if you are so inclined) is especially rewarding in the United States, where the road lends itself to experiencing the sheer space and diversity of geography so many traveling destinations are lacking (Western Europe comes to mind). Most of my own road experiences have focused on the Pacific Northwest, and what follows is a checkerboard listing of highways and destinations both on and off the proverbial beaten path.

Road trips are the perfect vehicle for embracing the quirky and the eccentric. Stay in small towns and roach motels, and eat at Mom and Pop’s and kitschy diners. Camping on the road is a great way to keep costs down and cultivate good stories. KOA (Kampgrounds of America) is an association of highway accessible campgrounds made for people who are looking for a good place to re-charge, crash, and hit the road in the morning. As such, the campgrounds often have comparatively luxurious amenities (i.e. showers, flush toilets, BBQ pits, pools, supply stores), but lack the outdoorsy, backcountry feel that the uninitiated assume goes hand in hand with camping. For those of you who are AAA members, head to your local branch to pick up maps, destination guides, and motel and campground listings – all for free. Finally, learn to love your rest stops. Rest stops are like mini oasis’ to break up the day (all risqué bathhouse associations aside – although you should probably stay away after dark). You’d never believe the unexpected treats you can find in an unassuming rest stop vending machine.

The Pacific Coast Highway (PCH): This is the granddaddy of West Coast scenic roads, running the entire length of the US Pacific coastline. When looking at a map, the official PCH is only a small stretch of road around Los Angeles, but Highway 101 and CA Route 1 is colloquially referred to as the Pacific Coast Highway. For the most part it is a beautiful and winding two lane highway along beaches and cliffs, cutting through picturesque seaside towns at regular intervals. Its popularity is also its biggest drawback, as it can be congested and crowded in vacation months, and those picturesque towns can be absolutely over run with tourists. Don’t let that deter you, however, as I once traveled from Seattle to San Francisco along the PCH on a 4th of July weekend and didn’t hit crawling traffic once (which was somewhat of a miracle). My personal favorite stretch of the highway runs from Southern Washington to Northern Oregon, an area offering incomparable cliff vistas and less of a beach resort feel. Here are a couple highway highlights:

  • Tillamook cheese factory: The famous Oregon cheese factory and farm is open to the public for tasting and tours. Located right on Highway 101 just north of the town of Tillamook, it is usually crowded with other road-trippers, but worth the extra time for any dairy lover. Their ice cream is among the best in the country, let alone Oregon.
  • Southern Oregon: Southern Oregon’s PCH (south of Newport) has the best comely little towns ready to charm travelers as well as a string of shady wooded campgrounds in the Siuslaw National Forest for sleeping off a day on the road. An added bonus is the Dunes National Recreation Area (the largest expense of coastal sand dunes in North America) where you can rent ATVs and embrace your inner redneck smack dab in the middle of the granola Oregon coast.

Highway 26 (east-west Oregon Highway): For everyone who thinks of Oregon as a green, misty, “middle sibling” state, this unknown and relatively empty highway (except for the Portland to coast stretch) gives visitors an entirely different perspective. The golden hills and burgundy barns give the impression of stepping into a Hopper painting (the artist of lonely diners and abandoned gas stations). Even for the most cynical city dweller, it’s almost impossible to keep from feeling nostalgic for simpler times when winding through this part of agricultural central Oregon. Although the road and scenery itself merits a ride through, the highway is a good way to cross the state.

Stonehenge: This scale replica of Stonehenge, built by Sam Hill on the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington to memorialize WWI soldiers, is only one of countless bizarre bits of Americana to be discovered when traveling by highway. Located on a largely uninteresting stretch of road near Maryhill in Eastern Washington, the lone monument contrasts surreally with the dusty, farm industry wasteland surroundings. Almost more interesting than the actual monoliths are the signposts detailing the life of Sam Hill, a legendary road-builder straight out of Old West legends.

Lava Beds: The desert location of this national monument in Northeastern California makes it prohibitively hot in the summer, prohibitively cold the rest of the year, and far from most main highways. Therefore, it’s rarely over-crowded and if you visit in a fringe month you can enjoy one of the strangest geological oddities in the West all by your lonesome. The park’s claim to fame is a network of lava bed caves that are actually a series of partially connected underground tubes formed by rapidly cooled lava. It doesn’t look like much from the nearby campground and visitor’s center, but the caves themselves are unbelievable – imagine every National Geographic photo you’ve ever seen of volcanic rock turned in upon itself. Many are over a half mile long, and actually require “duck-walking” to make it out the other end. Even more unbelievable is the fact that you’re allowed to take your own personal tour through the pitch black, sometimes freezing, maze-like caves with unstable footing. While unbeatable for embracing your inner explorer, those afraid of the dark or small enclosed spaces should probably decline. Seriously, don’t forget your flashlight.

Avenue of the Giants: This scenic bypass in Northern California shadows Highway 101 for approximately 31 miles, and cycles you through bend upon bend of stately redwoods as well as crisscrossing the Eel River-a good stop for a picnic and a dip. If you’ve ever wanted to drive your car through a massive, hollowed out tree trunk or climb a two story tree house in-you guessed it-another hollowed out tree trunk, the southern end (or beginning) offers you your chance.