The Pacific Northwest is one of America’s most picturesque regions. The PNW is known for spectacular national parks, famous urban centers, mild weather and welcoming local residents. For this trip, I wanted to create an active itinerary that would incorporate some of the greatest attractions of the area. And so, I settled on a seven-day trip that combined some of the best urban and natural highlights. On this trip I to start in Seattle, the region’s most important city. Then we will proceed to Vancouver via one of the most beautiful train rides in the region and explore this smaller, urban center just over the Canadian border. Afterward, we make our way back to the states for a 2-day world-famous road trip – the scenic mountain loop, with a twist. And finally, back to Seattle where we explore more and learn about this iconic city and its history.
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One last thing…
7 days in the Pacific North West – A vacation itinerary overview:
Day 1: Seattle
Day 2: Seattle to Vancouver Via Amtrak, Vancouver
Day 3: Vancouver
Day 4: Vancouver, Seattle to Vancouver via Amtrak
Day 5: Seattle, Start Cascade Mountain Loop
Day 6: Cascade Mountain Loop
Day 7: Finish Cascade Mountain Loop, Seattle
Please Note: This post may contain some affiliate links
Day 1: How to spend a day in Seattle
Seattle has a big reputation. Situated in one of America’s most beautiful regions, Seattle is well known for nature, coffee, and a booming technology market. The birthplace of companies such as Starbucks and Microsoft, this urban oasis has much to offer. There are museums, fine restaurants, plenty of unique local traditions (flying fish anyone) and a great party scene. Marijuana is legal in Washington State, which makes Seattle an even bigger party town than it used to be.
On day one, I suggest you pick a place to stay close to the Pike Market, as this will make a great base for exploring both the market and the waterfront. If you are arriving in the morning as I was, drop your bags off in your hotel and make your way down to the Market, a great place for lunch. There is much to do here, and you can spend hours exploring the shops, the fish market, the flower market and much more. After watching some flying fish, I made my way to the second floor and had lunch at Honest Biscuit, a small place with delicious biscuit sandwiches, easily accompanied with a beer from next door. You can find restaurants in every price range at Pike Place Market ranging from cheapest sandwich joint to a high-end seafood restaurant.
When you are done with your meal don’t walk to the Starbucks on the corner for coffee, instead, explore one of the gourmet coffee shops in the market. I wound up at the Storyville Coffee Company. Here grab an amazing coffee in a comfortable atmosphere with a fireplace and a view of the famous marketplace sign.
The Gum Wall
After you wander the market a bit, make your way to the nearby Post Place alley and check out the famous chewing gum wall. Misnamed, rather than a wall, this is actually an entire alley covered with bubble gum. The bubble gum smell here is very strong, so this stop is definitely not for the squeamish. If you are so inclined feel free to attach your own – but be careful, gum is everywhere and can turn into a rather gross experience. For myself, I made it right out of the alley after taking just a few snapshots and to the water.
If solo travel is not your cup of tea (or you just don’t love planning aspect) a number of companies offer really great tours for the region. A really well reviewed one is the GAdventures tours the National Parks of the Pacific Northwest.
The beautiful Seattle waterfront has much to offer and you can spend hours strolling here. Make sure to explore all the piers, so if you are facing the water, start out by going left, which will take you to the amusement park, the aquarium and other attractions on the lower piers. Now, turn back towards where you came from and begin to walk towards pier 66. Walk up all the stairs at pier 66 for a fantastic view (great sunrise shots can be had from here if you are into photography). After you’ve explored the nearby Olympic sculpture park on the waterfront, I suggest one of two options. The first is to stay at the waterfront and get a beer with some views and the second is to walk or get a taxi to the Chihuly Glass museums and gardens.
Chihuly Garden and Glass
Even if you are not normally a museum person I would still recommend a stop at the Chihuly Garden and Glass Museum (free entry with the Seattle City Pass). This incredible attraction is more a wonderland than a true museum. Every room challenges the imagination and is a feast for the eyes. The most famous room, the glasshouse, is a fantastic place for vacation pictures, the diffused light and glass flowers put you right into an Alice in Wonderland for the social media age atmosphere. The museum is a fairly quick stop and takes about an hour to visit. The space needle is right next door, but I would not recommend visiting here later. I will write more about this topic later, but for now, let’s get back to the waterfront.
For dinner, make your way back to the waterfront or to Pike Place. There are no shortages of places to eat here. I spend my evening at pier 66 watching (and photographing) the sunset. I hope you have enjoyed your first day in Seattle, we will get to explore this city much more at the tail end of your trip. For now, prepare to move to Vancouver, a Canadian city just a few hours north of American Seattle.
Day 2 – Seattle to Vancouver via Amtrak Cascades Route
If you are an American, you are probably used to taking road trips within short distances and flying over longer distances ones. Today, I’d like to challenge you to another mode of transport, one you may not have considered yet. Amtrak train system is similar to the train system in Europe although it does not cover nearly as many locations. However, the trip from Seattle to Vancouver runs along a beautiful waterfront route, with the speedy border crossing and a bit of old-world glamour to boot. The Amtrak Cascades route, which takes you from Seattle to Vancouver must be booked in advance, I suggest at least a couple of months in advance for this popular route.
The train to Vancouver leaves at 7:45 am, and so you will need to get up early today. I would suggest aiming to be one of the first set of people to check in because seating assignments are done on the spot and your best chance for window views on the water side is to show up early at the station. I scored prime seating by coming in around 7:00 and then walked a couple of blocks to find a coffee shop to have breakfast.
Jewel of the Northwest
The “jewel of the northwest” cascades route, is a prime time to relax, take pictures or just look out of the window. You’ll get into Vancouver right around 12 pm, just in time for lunch. The station is only a few minutes away from downtown Vancouver and I suggest staying in the middle of it all. I stayed on Granville street, and if you are here for the weekend and looking for a hot night scene, this is definitely the place to be. Many streets in the neighborhood are closed to traffic on weekend nights and the entire area turns into one big bar. If on the other,r hand you are not interested in going out at night, stay away from Granville street, because this is definitely not a quiet neighborhood on weekends.
Explore Vancouver by Water
Gadventures also has some really great group tours in covering Vancouver.
After you arrive in Vancouver, Canada and leave your bags at your hotel, make your way to the water. There is much to do in this town, but on the first day, I suggest exploring the area. One of the best ways to do so is by boat, and there are a couple of very efficient and inexpensive options in this city. Aquabus and its smaller competitor False Creek Ferries, are basically motorized bathtubs driven by older teenagers. Although this may not sound particularly appealing, believe it or not, this is a great way to explore False Creek, including the famous Granville Island.
The little boats show up every 5 to 10 minutes and will take you to any of the 7 different stops in the false creek – Hornby Street, Granville Island, David Lam Park, Stamp’s Landing, Spyglass Place, Yaletown, Plaza of Nations and the Olympic Village. Of these, most can be accessed by other means such as walking, public transport or taxi – but the water taxi is the most fun way to get there. And Granville island can only be accessed by water, so you’ll need a ticket to explore this famous island anyway. And speaking of Granville – the place is a foodie’s paradise, so now that you are on the water I suggest you make this your first stop.
Whatever you are looking for – whether its fast and cheap, fancy, fresh, desert or anything in between you’ll find it on Granville Island. The island is basically one large shopping area, complete with a fresh market, restaurants, souvenir shops, artisan shops and much more. One thing I have never seen in all my travels is the towers of berries prominently on display in the market. These make for unusual social media pictures, so if you are into that kind of thing definitely be sure to stop by the fresh market. Once you are done with lunch, dessert, and coffee, make your way back to the boat and hop on to another stop.
Spend the rest of your day exploring the stops – there is much to do at every single one. My favorites were Yaletown for the cool umbrella display (another place for a great social media picture) and the village – for the opportunity for incredible evening shots. There is so much to explore at these stops I am certain I missed a few notables, so if you find something great please be sure to let me know in comments on this article!
After you are done exploring all the stops, get back to Granville for an evening of partying Canada style or a quiet night in your hotel far away from this trendy neighborhood.
Day 3 – Things to do in Vancouver, Pacific Northwest
If you are interested in whale watching while on this trip I would suggest whale watching in Vancouver rather than the American side. There are more whales further north and the favorable exchange rate means you’ll get a better deal in Vancouver. I would also recommend a smaller boat, as they can turn faster, you’ll have far more space and won’t be fighting with hundreds of people for a view or a shot. For whale watching, I traveled with Seabreeze Adventures. The boat, which only holds about 20 people was far more intimate than some competitors, and because you are closer to the water you get a much better perspective. I really enjoyed this trip and so if you follow my itinerary I highly recommend Seabreeze Adventures.
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The other recommendation I would make is to book the whale watching tour for the first day of your trip. Sometimes the excursions can get canceled – and if they are canceled due to bad weather, you still have another day to try again. Additionally, in the highly unlikely event that you don’t see a whale, Seabreeze will take you out again the next day, thus greatly increasing your chances of actually seeing the whales. I booked my tour on day 3 of the trip, however, about 2 hours before we were supposed to go out I got an email that due to bad weather the tour is canceled. Lucky me, I got to go out the next day – and will talk much more about it tomorrow. Depending on the weather you can easily alternate my suggested itinerary for day 3 and day 4 in Vancouver.
Next to whale watching, the most famous attraction in Vancouver is almost certainly the Catalano Bridge. This famous suspension bridge (one of the longest in the world) is very safe and constantly tested. The bridge is inside of a family-friendly nature park (entry to the park and therefore the bridge is paid). Here you’ll find miles of elevated walkways, ponds stocked with fish to attract birds, great educational activities, and guides.
This park is a fantastic place to visit for a day. I spend a few hours here wandering the trails and listening to the guides, and I could have easily spent the whole day. Although this is not the usual “off the beaten path” type of adventure I would recommend, this was a great stop and lots of fun. If you are looking for something different, check out one of the many museums in Vancouver – such as the Museum of Anthropology or the Vancouver Maritime Museum and learn much more about the history of British Colombia.
There is a great full-service restaurant at Catalano Park, and it’s the perfect place to have lunch before finishing your exploration for the day. Catalano park is located in the suburbs and there is not much else in the neighborhood – the commute from the center is about an hour by public transport or forty-five minutes by car.
Once you get back to center, I suggest going out to dinner in Gastown. You can join one of a dozen free walking tours here – ask your hotel for a recommendation. The tour guides (who work on tips) will walk you through the neighborhood and share a bit about this famous area’s history and notable attractions. Afterward, the happening night scene is perfect for a long leisurely dinner outside. There are plenty of clubs and bars to hit in the area if you are so inclined.
Day 4 – Whale Watching in Vancouver
One of the great joys of traveling to the pacific north-west is the incredible variety of wildlife you will spot here. In just a couple of days in Vancouver, I saw countless birds, including entire flocks bald eagles. Beavers making dams in crystal clear city water. And of course – some of the largest mammals on earth – the beautiful whales. For my whale watching excursion, I picked Seabreeze adventures, a company that has several smaller boats going out each day. As I’ve spoken before, try to stick to smaller boats and you will have a better experience overall.
I booked my trip for day one, and unfortunately, it was canceled due to high winds. However, on day two the winds were mild enough to go out so I finally got a chance to get out on the water. Whales are not particularly predictable creatures. They rarely signal where they are going, so it takes a team effort of multiple boats (similar to the teamwork of drivers on my Tanzania safari) to find the whales. Once a boat spots them, word spreads quickly and all the whale watching boats carefully approach the area.
After searching for some time we saw two “killer” whales hunting for a meal. These majestic creatures are fairly quiet and stealthy, they are after all, hunters. However, after they finally caught prey (we believe it to be a seal) there was quite a celebration with a several water leaps and overall joy. Killer whales live in small pods and this pod had two members, and possibly others who were hiding nearby and waiting for the successful hunt completion.
Having fulfilled your mission of a successful whale watching experience its time to start heading back to Seattle. Of course, if you end up going out to the water on day one of your itinerary you can simply switch the experiences around and go to Catalano bridge on day two. Either way, get back to the city around 2 pm for your trip back via the beautiful Amtrak route to Seattle. The train leaves at 5.45 (be sure to book tickets at least a few weeks in advance as they go quickly) but I was able to get to the station early and score a great window seat. We were able to board the train around 4 pm which meant we did not have to wait in a long immigration line and instead got to relax in comfort until the train began to move. The café car is available as soon as you board, so this is a good place to eat if you haven’t had a chance to do so yet.
The train is timed to the sunset, so you’ll watch the light change from day to night over the many lakes and waterways you’ll pass. Keep your eyes peeled for more bald eagles and other wildlife. You’ll get into Seattle around 10 pm, and tomorrow is another big day – so get some sleep.
Day 5 – Seattle to Cascades Washington Road Trip Loop
When you are researching your trip to the Pacific Northwest, you will likely read somewhere that a visit to the Space Needle in Seattle is a must (free with the Seattle city pass). However, at this point, I’d like to diverge with the common opinion and argue that the Space Needle is not a “must” and a bit of a waste of time. The lines at the tower are huge – just to pick up tickets, the wait is about 45 minutes. After that, another line inside will take 45 minutes to get to the elevator to actually go up. This is on a Monday morning – I can’t even imagine how bad the lines get on a Saturday or a Sunday. Therefore, I would argue that this is one stop you can skip. Later, I will discuss a much better alternative – here the lines are shorter and the view is more classic Seattle – the Skyview Observatory.
The other well-known tourist attraction in Seattle is the Museum of Pop Culture. Here too, I would argue: skip this well-known attraction. The museum feels badly done, with few exhibits appealing to a general audience. Most exhibits are fairly narrow and the only appeal to people who are very familiar with this specific franchise, for instance, a fantasy exhibit which is primarily lord of the rings based. I found little to do here and the only exhibit I actually wanted to visit –Star Trek was closed. So unless you are coming in looking for a specific thing (and before you purchase tickets be sure to check at the cash register that it is open, I was not told Star Trek was closed) I would advise skipping this stop. Instead, go next door to the stunning Chihuly museum.
Alternatively, if you’ve already done the Chihuly, museum consider the Boeing factory tour. Here you can even stroll a working factory floor of a Boeing assembly line – a cool experience definitely worth a visit.
Otherwise simply spend your morning strolling downtown Seattle and enjoy a leisurely breakfast in one of the trendy restaurants lining the streets.
Should you get the Seattle CityPass?
A word about the Seattle City Pass. What attractions does Seattle City Pass include?
- Space Needle
- Seattle Aquarium
- Argosy Cruises Harbor Tour
- Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP) OR Woodland Park Zoo
- Chihuly Garden and Glass OR Pacific Science Center
The City Pass cost is $99 for an adult and $79 for a child. Should you get the Seattle City Pass? That depends on what you are looking to do while in Seattle. If you are looking to go off the beaten path – probably not. If, on the other hand, you want to hit all the major attractions City Pass makes sense. The pass is valid over a generous 9 days of use – so its ideal for a vacation of a week or more.
Around 11 pm, check out of your hotel and start making your way to pick up the rental car of your choice. For the next two days, we are going to drive the Cascade mountain loop – a stunning road trip you must see to believe. Of course, ensure you prearrange the car rental a few weeks in advance for best options. I use several price aggregate networks to price shop and find the best deals in the area. For the best prices, I price compare Hotwire and SkyScanner Auto . My recommendation is to always book from an agency with a good reputation because the last thing you want on a trip is car trouble.
Chose your mountain loop
Now that you have your car, begin to drive to route 5 north which will take you out of Seattle. Take 5 all the way up to 530 east. Once you reach Darrington, you’ll have two options. The first is to go right and follow the Cascade Mountain Loop, this is the shorter trip that will take about a day. The second is the loupe I recommend – it the longer way around to Lake Diablo and Ross Lake National Recreation Area. Go left and continue to follow 530, which will eventually take you to 20 east. As you drive down 20 east, you’ll pass through a few small towns prior to entry into the national recreation area, including those that have stores and hotels.
If you are looking for a hotel to stay for the night your last chance is in Marblemount. Here too is your last chance for a restaurant and a store. If you are looking to camp, like I was, keep driving until you are in the recreation area. There are dozens of campgrounds here – US and private, and several free ones. If you want to have a reservation prior to arrival, take a look at the large and beautiful Colonial Creek campground which rests right on lake Diablo. Otherwise, you can probably find a place to stay for the night in one of the many available campgrounds, especially on a weekday. In many paid US campgrounds, you can drive in, fill out a self-registration form, deposit cash into an envelope and pick an unoccupied campsite.
I stayed in a free national campground and although most of the spots were taken, there was still several places you could have set up a tent at 10 pm. This is for travel on a Monday in June, I think by August or on a weekend you should probably have a reservation.
In the forested national parks, I find “the bug bite thing” completely indispensable. It sucks out the mosquito (or other bugs’) saliva and helps you heal faster. It works especially well for kids who are sensitive or allergic to bites.
You’ll have opportunities to pick up wood before entering the national recreation area, so be sure to do so if you plan on enjoying a fire, and some smores on a beautiful evening in Washington State.
Day 6 – Cascades Large Mountain Loop Washington State Road Trip
As you keep going east on 20, you will eventually make your way out of the Ross Lake National recreation area. If you haven’t eaten yet you’ll see many little stores advertised along the road, but if you wait just a bit you’ll make your way into Winthrop, a historical recreation town that’s just too cute to pass.
All the stores in Winthrop have old west storefronts and decorations, and there are no shortage of restaurants or places to shop here. Winthrop makes the perfect stop for your return to civilization. Sherry’s Sweet Shoppe (which is much more than a candy shop) is a popular spot to stop, but all the other restaurants are just as good.
After you’ve had your fill, get back in the car and continue to drive down route 20 until you hit route 153. Here, take 153 to route 97 which will eventually take you all the way through Chelan Falls. Do not go into Chelan, which is an industrial area with nothing to see, but go to Chelan Falls instead. Eventually, 97 turns into 2, which you will take to Cashmere and finally Leavenworth. There are many places to stop along the way including beautiful scenery spots, recreation areas, and plenty of places to take pictures.
As you drive further south you’ll notice a very different type of environment, with smaller trees and more shrubs. For a part of this trip, the rainforest of north Washington is replaced by almost desert-like plants of middle Washington.
Leavenworth is another town that’s definitely worth a visit. This German-influenced town is a bustling little metropolis with tons of shops, restaurants, and hotels. If you want to sleep in a hotel a Leavenworth is a great place to stay. I would make a reservation prior to arrival because although there was no shortage of hotels here, there were a lot of tourists too. If you are up for another night of camping, on the other hand, continue your path into the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. The forest starts as soon as you leave Leavenworth so this is your last chance to pick up supplies.
In the national forest there are many park camping facilities, and once again I had no trouble finding a place to camp. Although this national forest is not quite the thick rainforest of the north, the trees here are much larger than you would have noticed on your drive south. Of course, the mountains are visible from almost anywhere and there is plenty of beautiful lakes, rivers, and waterfalls. I really suggest camping out in the Okanogan forest if you have the chance to.
Day 7 – North Cascades Large Mountain Loop to Seattle
After you wake up, proceed on route 2 and you will exit the forest within just about 40 to 50 minutes. Here you’ll find little stores and diners along the way, perfect for a breakfast stop before you enter civilization again. You are located very close to Seattle now so at this point get back to highway 5 which will get you back to Seattle in time to return your car by 12 pm.
After you return your car, its time to check out one more great Seattle neighborhood you haven’ visited yet.
Fremont, previously known as the artist district, is now a tony area of high end shops, restaurants – and to this day, unusual art. Here you’ll really get to know Seattle’s weird side. If you are hungry, go straight to lunch in what is called one of America’s best sandwich shops – Paseo Caribbean Food. This hole in the wall is always packed with diners, and their classic sandwiches are a must try while in Seattle.
Now, its time to tour the Freemont neighborhood. There are many Freemont Walking tours or you can create your own. Start at the waiting for the interurban sculpture, where figures build in the 1970s are waiting for a train that no longer functions, a memorial to the method of transit that used to connect this neighborhood with the rest of Seattle. Note the dog’s face – that’s the face of a famous resident of the Freemont neighborhood and the man who invented recycling.
Proceed to the Freemont Troll. He lives under a large, architecturally interesting bridge. He was either build here because this spot was the center for a drug trade, and the ingenious solution was to get tourists into the area – thus pushing the dealers out. Or he is here to highlight the beauty of the bridge. Pick a theory that works for you.
Now, walk a bit over to the Lenin sculpture. This was work commissioned in Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia, and it’s actually a subtle protest piece. Instead of making Lenin a father like presence, as common in Soviet republics at the time, the artist created an angry, striding figure. Although most similar statues were destroyed at the fall of the Soviet Union, this one stands because residents of this neighborhood thought it was a resistance piece worth saving.
Make a quick pass by the Freemont rocket, which was supposed to be pointed at city hall but when the installers couldn’t figure out how to do it, they just pointed to the sky.
Next, comes my favorite stop, Theo chocolates. This high-end shop provides all the free chocolate samples you can eat and free coffee. This is a fantastic place to pick up souvenirs of your trip, as I find nobody is ever disappointed at getting a gift of high-end chocolate. If you’d like you can join the factory tour here as well, although they are pretty popular, so you may need to wait a bit.
Now, walk along the ship canal where you will see houseboats and past the lake to the famous abandoned gas works complex. Besides the cool industrial abandoned gas plant, a famous Seattle site, here you will be able to see the Seattle skyline in all its glory. A great end to the walk exploring the Freemont neighborhood.
I did this walking tour with Seattle Sidewalks, although you can do it on your own, I love to join the free walking tours (the guides work on tips) and learn tidbits of fascinating information I wouldn’t know otherwise.
Finally, tonight, there is one more stop to make before leaving town. Earlier in the itinerary, I talked about the famous Seattle Spaceneedle. I mentioned that many people who visit here don’t consider this a great stop. Instead, I suggest visiting the sky view observatory. The sky view observatory is located close to downtown, is a fantastic way to finish off your trip to the pacific northwest. Here, on the 70th floor (much higher than the sky tower) you can watch the sunset over the big city. There are no lines here and only a few dozen other people share the windows with you. It even costs less than the space needle, and of course, you will get classic Seattle pictures featuring the needle. I would suggest coming here an hour or so before the sunset and watch the sky slowly change from blue to red to black, as the lights come on beneath the windows.