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A Guide to the Most Scenic Drives in the Pacific Northwest

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A Guide to the Most Scenic Drives in the Pacific Northwest

The Pacific Northwest is renowned for its breathtaking natural beauty, from the rugged coastlines of Oregon and Washington to the majestic Cascade Mountains and lush temperate rainforests. One of the best ways to experience this stunning region is by embarking on a scenic road trip. Whether you’re looking to explore the Columbia River Gorge, marvel at the volcanic peaks of the Cascades, or discover hidden gems along the Pacific Coast, the Pacific Northwest offers an abundance of scenic drives to choose from.

The Columbia River Gorge Scenic Byway

Stretching along the border between Oregon and Washington, the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Byway is one of the most iconic and well-known scenic drives in the Pacific Northwest. This 80-mile route follows the path of the mighty Columbia River, offering panoramic views of towering basalt cliffs, cascading waterfalls, and lush forests. Some of the must-see stops along the way include the historic Vista House, Multnomah Falls (the second-tallest year-round waterfall in the United States), and the Bonneville Dam. Adventurous travelers can also hike to the top of Larch Mountain, which provides breathtaking vistas of the entire Gorge. 

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The Cascade Loop

Considered one of the most scenic drives in the United States, the Cascade Loop is a 440-mile route that showcases the diverse landscapes of Washington state. Beginning in the Puget Sound region, the loop winds its way through the Cascade Mountains, offering stunning views of glaciers, alpine lakes, and old-growth forests. Highlights of the Cascade Loop include the charming Bavarian-themed town of Leavenworth, the North Cascades National Park, and the Skagit Valley, known for its vibrant tulip fields in the spring. Drivers can also detour to the Whidbey and Fidalgo Islands, which offer a glimpse of the Pacific Northwest’s rugged coastline. 

The Pacific Coast Scenic Byway

Stretching the entire length of the Oregon coast, the Pacific Coast Scenic Byway (also known as the Oregon Coast Highway or U.S. Route 101) is a must-do for any Pacific Northwest road trip. This 363-mile route hugs the dramatic coastline, offering breathtaking views of rocky cliffs, sandy beaches, and crashing waves. Along the way, travelers can stop to explore charming seaside towns, visit the iconic Haystack Rock in Cannon Beach, and witness the awe-inspiring Sea Lion Caves. The byway also provides access to several state parks, including Ecola State Park and the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. 

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The Olympic Peninsula Loop

For those seeking a more rugged and remote driving experience, the Olympic Peninsula Loop in Washington is a fantastic option. This 330-mile route takes drivers through the lush temperate rainforests of Olympic National Park, past glacial-fed rivers and lakes, and along the wild and windswept Pacific Coast. Highlights of the loop include the Hoh Rainforest, the Quinault Rain Forest, and the Kalaloch Beach. Adventurous travelers can also detour to the Makah Cultural and Research Center to learn about the indigenous Makah people and their connection to the land. 

The North Cascades Scenic Byway

Winding through the heart of the North Cascades National Park, the North Cascades Scenic Byway (also known as State Route 20) is a 100-mile route that showcases the rugged beauty of the “American Alps.” Drivers will be treated to stunning views of jagged peaks, glacial-fed lakes, and thundering waterfalls as they navigate this scenic highway. Some of the must-see stops along the byway include the Diablo Lake Overlook, the Gorge Creek Falls, and the Rainy Pass trailhead, which provides access to numerous hiking trails. Visitors can also explore the charming town of Winthrop, known for its Old West-inspired architecture and vibrant arts scene. 

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The Chinook Scenic Byway

For those seeking a more intimate and less-crowded driving experience, the Chinook Scenic Byway in Washington is a hidden gem. This 92-mile route winds through the Cascade Mountains, offering stunning views of Mount Rainier and the surrounding wilderness. Along the way, travelers can stop to explore historic towns, visit the Crystal Mountain ski resort, and hike to scenic viewpoints like Tipsoo Lake. The byway also provides access to the Naches Trail, a historic trade route used by Native American tribes and early settlers. 

The San Juan Islands Scenic Byway

Situated off the coast of Washington, the San Juan Islands are a true Pacific Northwest gem, and the San Juan Islands Scenic Byway is the perfect way to explore this archipelago. This 74-mile route connects the islands of San Juan, Orcas, and Lopez, offering stunning views of the Salish Sea, the Olympic Mountains, and the Canadian Gulf Islands. Highlights of the byway include the charming town of Friday Harbor, the Moran State Park on Orcas Island, and the Lime Kiln Point State Park, which is known as one of the best places in the world to spot orca whales. Visitors can also take a ferry to explore the other islands and discover hidden beaches, historic lighthouses, and quaint seaside communities. 

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Conclusion

The Pacific Northwest is a region of unparalleled natural beauty, and its scenic drives offer travelers the opportunity to immerse themselves in the stunning landscapes that make this part of the country so unique. Whether you’re seeking towering waterfalls, rugged coastlines, or majestic mountain vistas, there is a scenic drive in the Pacific Northwest that is sure to captivate and inspire. So pack your bags, hop in your car, and get ready to embark on an unforgettable road trip through one of the most beautiful regions of the United States,

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