The Pacific Northwest is probably best-known for its coffee (thanks, Starbucks), followed by its stunning nature, including Mount Rainier, Mount Saint Helens, the Olympic National Rainforest, and miles upon miles or largely unadulterated coastline from the San Juan Islands to Gold Beach. It is also home to two bustling metropolises, and a Seattle to Portland drive is the perfect way to take in all the region’s greatest assets.
Each city has a distinct character, an array of natural and human-made attractions, and bragging rights as the hometown of at least a few pop-culture sensations. They also have a spirited rivalry, and residents of either will not hesitate to provide a laundry list of reasons theirs is superior. But why not see for yourself?
There are a few ways to make the trip, and many a Northwesterner (yours truly included) has tried them all. By far, the most enjoyable and possibly most affordable is a road trip down the I-5 corridor. Here are a few spots you won’t want to miss in your Seattle to Portland drive, as well as tips to make the most of your trip.
Planning a Seattle to Portland Road Trip
Before we get to the fun stuff, we need to talk logistics. The I-5 corridor one of the most-used interstate freeways in the country, which is generally a good thing for travellers.
As far as transportation, you have a few options for your Seattle to Portland road trip. Both cities have great public transport systems within city limits and decent transit options to their suburbs as well. However, outside of that, your best options are Greyhound which, let’s be real, is not always great, or Amtrak, which is often more pleasant. Amtrak runs four trains per day between the two cities.
The downside of taking public transportation is it limits your ability to stop when and where you choose, and you might miss some interesting spots or the chance for impromptu adventures. That’s why driving is really the best option. If you don’t have a car of your own, you can rent one for a reasonable price from RentalCars.com which aggregates the best prices across major providers.
You can even rent an RV from Outdoorsy for ultimate flexibility, particularly if you’re planning a longer trip from Portland to San Francisco or to Los Angeles. Although Seattle and Portland are distinctly urban, large swaths of the Northwest are still relatively untamed wilderness. There are plenty of campsites, especially in forested and seaside locales. This is particularly advantageous as an affordable, flexible lodging option.
Outside of urban hubs, most of the U.S. is lacking in hostels, so camping tends to be your best (cheap) bet, and the Pacific Northwest is no exception. That said, if you prefer creature comforts, or just a real bed to sleep in, there are also plenty of fantastic hotels in the area too, including some unique stays.
Along the main stretch, road conditions are generally good (unlike the east side of Washington state), and you shouldn’t have to worry about closures due to snow or rock blasting unless you decide to take a detour and pass over the Cascades. That said, if you are embarking on your Seattle to Portland road trip in winter, check the Department of Transportation website or app before you take off to ensure you won’t run into any hang-ups.
Besides relatively well-kept roadways, there are also plenty of rest stops, gas stations, roadside truck stops, and cafes (many open late) along the route.
The only downside of using such a high-traffic roadway is, of course, the traffic. But this is only really a concern within the Seattle area. Not only is Seattle one of the most populous cities in the nation, but people commute to the Emerald City from various smaller surrounding towns, which means you will either want to start before 7:30 a.m. or wait until 11 a.m. or so to take off on your Seattle to Portland drive to avoid congestion. Once you’re out of King County, though, it should be smooth sailing.
How Far is Portland from Seattle?
The distance from Seattle to Portland is approximately 180 miles (290 kilometres) and only takes about three hours if you stick to the I-5 freeway and don’t make any stops. If you decide to take the train or bus, the duration will be about the same, three-and-a-half hours, if you take a direct route.
But within that 180-mile stretch, there are several spots worth checking out, and even more if you’re willing to venture a little further off the main stretch.
If you really want to make the most of your trip and get a taste of all the region has to offer, I suggest spending at least three days for a truly enjoyable, scenic drive from Seattle to Portland.
8 Best Seattle to Portland Drive Stops
Without further ado, here are the best stops to make if you’re driving from Seattle to Portland!
Point Defiance State Park, Washington
The first stop on your Seattle to Portland itinerary could be Point Defiance State Park. Located just outside of Washington state’s third-most populous city, Tacoma, Point Defiance State Park is a sprawling urban park that includes a massive zoo and aquarium, Fort Nisqually Living History Museum, rose and rhododendron gardens, and beaches and trails.
If you want to spend a bit more time in the Tacoma area, stop into the city itself, which is just a little over an hour south of Seattle. LeMay — America’s Car Museum, Museum of Glass, and Antique Row downtown are some of the top tourist attractions. Bob’s Java Jive, a kitsch coffee-pot-shaped restaurant-turned dive-bar, is a great pick if you want to share a pint or two with the locals.
Ask many non-Northwesterners what the capital of Washington is, and they are likely to say Seattle. It’s an understandable mistake, but in fact, Washington’s state government is based in Olympia, a mid-sized city about two hours south of Nirvana’s birthplace and Starbucks’ headquarters. While it might not have Seattle’s prestige, Olympia has plenty of character of its own and is worth visiting on a Portland to Seattle road trip.
Check out the historic town center and limestone capitol building and mall. Then stop by some of the area’s small shops and cafes for Northwest-made goods like locally-roasted coffee and one-of-a-kind artwork. Olympia isn’t only noteworthy as the state’s government seat but also because it is a thriving community for creatives of all kinds.
Ever heard of Bikini Kill or Sleater-Kinney? The town was the birthplace of the riot grrrl movement and is home to some major indie labels, including Kill Rock Stars and K Records. If you have the time check out some local live music while you’re there.
Mount Rainier National Park, Washington
Mount Rainier is the symbol of Washington state. This majestic glacier-capped 14,410-ft mountain is stunning and formidable on its own. But the National Park surrounding is amazing as well.
Ascend 6,400 feet to Sunrise, the highest point accessible by car, to get the best view of Rainier and other mountains in the Cascade Range, including Mount Adams. Just 1,000 feet lower in Paradise overlook are several hiking trails and, in late spring and summer, beautiful, sweet-smelling wildflower meadows.
Consider stopping and camping at Mount Rainier National Park if possible. It truly is massive, with an abundance of things to see and do. Even with two full days, you won’t get to everything, but 48 hours is long enough to hit the highlights without feeling totally knackered before hitting the road again for your Portland to Seattle drive.
Mount St Helens
When you think of volcanoes and rainforests, Washington state probably isn’t the first locale that springs to mind. But that’s part of the Pacific Northwest’s intrigue: its trove of unusual and beautiful treasures. Mount St Helens erupted in 1980, rocking the Northwest and spewing approximately thousands of feet of ash into the sky, which spread from Castle Rock to Spokane in the east and the Pacific Ocean in the west.
The Forest Learning Center in Seaquest State Park on the Spirit Lake Highway is a must-visit for anyone on a Seattle to Portland road trip. Learn about the area’s geology and history and the aftermath of the momentous explosion, hear from local survivors, and check out the “eruption chamber” to get an up-close and personal experience.
You can also visit a second center, the Johnston Ridge Observatory if you have a bit more time. This one is about an hour away and the best place to view (and photograph) the mountain.
As a native Washingtonian, it is my responsibility to note that Washington, too, has some gorgeous coastal areas and stunning seaside towns (including the San Juan Islands and Port Townsend north of Seattle). However, I must admit Oregon has us beat.
I vividly and fondly remember summer road trips to both coasts as a kid and lived on the Washington coast for a bit after college. But, for much of my 20s, my go-to summer road trip destination was almost always the gorgeous, sandy stretches of coastline outside of Portland.
The first stop you won’t want to miss on the Oregon side of your Seattle to Portland drive is Astoria, nestled between the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean. Founded in 1811, the quaint town, the oldest in Oregon, is peppered with beautiful Victorian-era houses and shops. Astoria was also the setting of The Goonies and Kindergarten Cop, so it’s an excuse to practice your best Arnold impressions.
Oregon’s shores may not be as famous as those of neighboring California, but the views are nonetheless stunning. There is a raw ruggedness to the Washington and Oregon coastlines that you won’t see in many other seaside destinations in the U.S.
Many of the beaches are pebbled or rocky and the water is almost always chilly. But for those drawn to the Pacific Northwest, these elements just add to the landscape’s stark, mysterious beauty. The other perk is you won’t have to deal with hoards of tourists and, outside the peak summer months, you may even have the beaches mostly to yourself.
Of the coastal destinations that do attract throngs of summertime tourists, Seaside and nearby Cannon Beach are among the most popular.
Seaside is a quaint town perfect for solo travellers, couples, and families alike. It’s famous for its surf breaks and 1920s promenade, and the starting point of the Tillamook Head National Recreational Trail, which ascends to Ecola State Park for a stunning view of the 19th Century Tillamook Light House. Here, you’ll see some of the Northwest’s most beautiful wildlife, including bald eagles and, in season, grey whales en route to or from Alaska.
Just a little way south and inland from Seaside is Tillamook. If you’ve heard of this small town, it’s more than likely been in the context of the famous dairy products, namely ice cream, and cheese, produced at Tillamook Creamery. Provided you aren’t lactose intolerant or otherwise dairy-averse, the creamery and the ability to take your fill of samples may be more than enough reason to visit.
Located in Tillamook Bay, the town is also close to a beautiful stretch of coastline just beyond the bay, including Cape Meares Beach and Oceanside Beach to the south. Both of these are well worth a stop if you have the time in your Seattle to Portland drive.
Cannon Beach, Oregon
Cannon Beach is probably Oregon’s most famous and picturesque coastal point. It’s a little ways off the I-5 but way worth it. When you’re not lounging on one of the Northwest’s few sandy beaches, take a walk to Haystack Rock and its population of tufted puffins, or stroll the downtown core and its assortment of quintessential coastal town cafes and boutique shops.
On the north end of Cannon Beach is Ecola State Park, another haven for nature lovers. While there are several hiking routes, the longest 8-mile trail is a segment of the Oregon Coast Trail and part of the Lewis and Clark Historic Trail. Trekking through, you’ll walk in the footsteps of the famed explorers and enjoy sweeping views of the coastline at Indian Beach and Ecola Point.
Where to Stay on the Seattle to Portland Drive
If you’re planning on making a few of these stops when driving to Portland or Seattle, you’re likely going to want to find a place to rest your head for a night or two. Staying near Mount Rainier National Park is a great option as it will give you adequate time to be able to properly enjoy the park and it’s beauty.
Mountain Meadows Inn – Located in the town of Ashford within easy reach of the entrance of the National Park, this Inn is the perfect place for those looking for a rustic and comfortable place to stay. There are a number of rooms to choose from, a helpful staff and a beautiful location to ensure that your stay is a great one. Click here to see their availability
Alexander’s Lodge – Situated only about 10 minutes walking distance from the entrance to Mount Rainier National Park in the town of Ashford, this historic lodge is a great accommodation option close to the park. They have a range of rooms available to suit all kinds of travellers and there is a restaurant on site, as well. Click here to see their availability
Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to see more options near Mount Rainier!
The Society Hotel — Situated close to all of the best that Portland has to offer, this hotel is an excellent accommodation option for those looking for a clean, comfortable and stylish place to stay in this Oregon city. There are a number of rooms available and they also have a restaurant on site. Click here to see their availability
Kimpton Riverplace Hotel — If you’re looking for a bit of luxury during your stay in Portland, then look no further than this chic hotel. Situated on the Willamette River, this centrally located hotel has a range of plush rooms to choose from and a host of luxe amenities to make your stay a memorable one. Click here to see their availability
Travelers House — A perfect choice for budget or solo travellers, this hostel is one of the top-rated in Portland. There are both private rooms and dorm beds available, they have excellent self-catering facilities and comfortable common areas that make it easy to meet other travellers. Click here to see their availability
Private Rental — If you’re keen to experience Portland through the lens of a local, then finding a private apartment or home rental is a great choice for you! There are lots of great properties to choose from in the city, such as this quaint, centrally located cottage. Click here to find the best private rentals in Portland!
Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more hotels in Portland!
The Mediterranean Inn — Located a stone’s throw from the iconic Space Needle, this hotel is a great place to stay in Seattle. They have a number of clean and comfortable rooms available (each includes a small kitchenette) and a helpful staff to ensure you have a great time in this Washington city. Click here to see their availability
Inn at the Market – Located at Seattle’s iconic Pike Place Market, this boutique hotel is a great option for those travelling on a higher budget. There are a number of lovely rooms to choose from, a rooftop bar where guests can sip cocktails and admire the skyline and an unbeatable location in the heart of the city. Click here to see their availability
HotelHotel Hostel — If you’re travelling solo, on a budget or are simply looking for a social atmosphere, this hostel is a great choice for you! They have a range of both private and dorm rooms on offer and good common areas that make meeting others easy. Click here to see their availability
Private Rental — If you want to see what it’s like to live in Seattle or are after a unique accommodation option, then going for a private holiday rental may be a great choice for you. There are a myriad of interesting properties to choose from in the city, from unique properties like this urban treehouse to cool, inner-city apartments. Click here to find the best private rentals in Seattle!
Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more hotels in Seattle!
This is just a sampling of the things to do and see between Seattle and Portland. If you have the time and inclination, a few other spots to consider including in your Seattle to Portland itinerary include Lewis and Clark State Park, Bachelor Island, Longview, Washington, and Westport, Oregon.
The region is ripe with opportunity for adventure, and wherever you end up on your Seattle to Portland drive, you’re almost certain to find something remarkable.
Are you planning a Seattle to Portland drive? Have you visited any of these places before? Let us know in the comments!