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Are you looking for an escape from the summer heat? An epic road trip that is low on crowds but high on scenery? Then this Washington Coast Road Trip is for you!
Our itinerary takes families from the mouth of the Columbia River at the Oregon border to Cape Flattery, the most northwestern point in the Lower 48. We will spend time on gorgeous beaches in Olympic National Park and remote coastal villages. Sound like fun? Read on for the details!
Washington Coast Road Trip Stop 1: Cape Disappointment and Long Beach Peninsula
I know, it sounds weird to begin a road trip in a place that has “disappointment” in the title. But Cape Disappointment was named in 1788 by British trader John Meares who mistakenly thought the mouth of the Columbia River was only a bay, not because it is a disappointing place to visit. Expect to spend a couple days enjoying this region filled with history and beauty.
Cape Disappointment State Park
This state park is a popular spot for camping. There are yurts, cabins, and vacation homes available in addition to traditional sites. Families enjoy exploring the park’s eight miles of trails, as well as beach combing and clamming on the beaches.
It is also home to the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. A half-mile trail from the parking lot to the Center passes Battery Harvey Allen. This battery, along with the battery at Fort Stevens and Fort Columbia, worked to protect the mouth of the Columbia River during several wars.
At the Interpretive Center, there are several hands-on exhibits, a timeline of Lewis and Clark’s famous journey to the Pacific Coast, and a short movie about their expedition.
There are two lighthouse inside the park. The Northhead Lighthouse is near the Interpretive Center and is open to visitors ages seven and older.
Cape Disappointment State Park along with Fort Stevens State Park, Fort Clatsop State Park, Fort Columbia State Park, and Ecola State Park also make up the Lewis and Clark National Historic Park. There is a Junior Ranger program associated with this park.
Fort Columbia is a short distance from Cape Disappointment. It is small, but families will enjoy seeing the officers’ homes and kids can never seem to get enough of exploring the artillery batteries.
Fort Clatsop State Park is just across the Columbia River in Astoria which is a lovely coastal town worth exploring. Read all about it in our guide to visiting Astoria.
The fort is also the home base for the National Historic Park. Fort Clatsop was home for the Lewis and Clark Expedition during the winter of 1805-06.
During the summer months, this replica fort has several costumed re-enactment programs and ranger-led activities designed to teach guests about what life was like back in the early 1800s. My kids especially loved when the rangers fired off old guns.
Drive on the Beach on the Long Beach Peninsula
After spending time in Cape Disappointment, head north up 101 to the Long Beach Peninsula to drive your car right on the beach! There is a 13.5-mile stretch of sand that open year round to cars. The town proclaims it is the “world’s longest beach”, but that is up for debate.
Four-wheel drive is recommended, and it is always advisable to stay on the hard-packed sand and check tide tables because you really don’t want your car flooded with salt water!
Also keep in mind that swimming in these waters is extremely dangerous due to driftwood, freezing temperatures, and rip currents.
If you are looking for a nice place to stretch your legs, the Long Beach Boardwalk stretches for almost half mile along the beach, suspended above sand dunes.
It is not a boardwalk filled with carnival rides and fried food. It is a place to get out and enjoy the natural beauty of the region. During August, Long Beach is home to a marvelous kite festival that takes place near the boardwalk.
See more of the state. Here are our picks for the best things to do in Washington State with kids.
Washington Coast Road Trip Stop 2: Olympic National Park Beaches Near Kalaloch
In the southern reaches of the coastal portion of Olympic National Park is Kalaloch. This area is home to several different beaches, a couple campgrounds and the Kalaloch Lodge. Many of these beaches are wide and sandy with wonderful tide pools.
These are not swimming beaches. The water is freezing, the currents are strong, and massive driftwood logs can be deadly. Still, these beaches are beautiful and wild, begging you to explore them.
Kalaloch Tree Cave
The Kalaloch Tree Cave is a tree that somehow clings to life on the edge of a cliff, creating a cave that needs to be seen to be believed. To visit, park in the Kalaloch Campground Day Use Area.
On the left side of the lot there is a trail down to the beach. When you reach the beach, head right and walk for a couple minutes until you see the tree. If you want to get great photos of the massive tree, visit during low tide so that you have enough sand between you and the tree to capture the entire thing.
There are so many great beaches in the area. Ruby Beach is one of the most popular. It is known for its pinkish sand, gorgeous sea stacks , and wonderful tide pools. It is one of the most popular beaches on the coast and parking can be tricky midday, so arrive early.
The lack of creativity in naming Beaches 1-4 is not a reflection of the beauty and uniqueness each of these beaches offers.
Beach 1 is known more for the trail which leads you there. It heads through a forest of spruce trees, several of which have massive burls that look like tree goiters.
Beach 2 is the wide and sandy beach. It is a good spot to fly a kite and build a sand castle.
Beaches 3 and 4 are most well known for their incredible tide pools. Stepping onto these beaches is like walking into tide pool heaven.
During low tide, sea anemones hang from massive boulders like dripping blobs of flubber and sea stars gather on towering rocks in massive clumps, using their steel grips to hang on and wait for the tide to return.
Mussels carpet the lower portions of most boulders giving them the appearance of having massive shellfish beards.
Low tide returns too quick to explore all the pools, scale all the boulders, and discover every last crab in every last crevice. Here the coast still feels wild, remote, and undiscovered.
On the seemingly never-ending stretches of sand, massive spruce and fir logs are scattered about, smooth and silvery from being tossed in the surf like matchsticks.
On the day my family visited, the sun and clouds were in an epic battle for coastline dominance. And on that day, as with most days in this part of the country, the clouds won. It may have been sunny and warm just a quarter mile up the trail at the parking lot but at the beach, overcast skies dominated the scene.
Washington Coast Road Trip Stop 3: La Push
North of Kalaloch and west of the town of Forks, lies the tiny village of La Push. Twilight fans know this area to be the setting for the popular series.
Plywood signs indicating we had entered “werewolf territory” stood on the side of the highway as we entered La Push, and a life size cutout of a brooding Jacob hung out next to fish mounted on walls inside the tiny Three Rivers Resort Restaurant (home to an incredible salmon hash).
Luckily, this Quileute Indian community has its own identity beyond the Twilight fandom. The only trace of the popular series that could be found inside our cozy beachfront cabin at the Quileute Oceanside Resort was a fleece wolf throw draped over the couch.
Read my full review of the Quileute Oceanside Resort.
I regretted not booking more time at the cabin after spending about ten seconds on its deck, rocking in my chair and listening to the waves crash onto the beach just beyond us. As dusk settled in, the clouds had grown too thick for us to actually see the ocean but its constant chatter reminded us that it was still there.
In the morning, the simple gray skyline was replaced by one that included expansive ocean views and James Island, a tiny island dominated by a colossal, tree-covered rock that serves as the final resting place of several Quileute chiefs.
First Beach, in front of the resort, is a great place for beachcombing but the real highlight for my children was walking up the trunk of a massive spruce tree that had washed ashore years ago.
Down the road just outside of town, Second Beach is a popular spot for camping. There is a 0.7 mile trail through the lush forest which leads to the beach. This beach is known for its stunning sea stacks and a natural arch. Keeps your eyes out for sea otters which live in the area.
Washington Coast Road Trip Stop 4: A Side Trip to the Hoh Rainforest
Olympic National Park’s Hoh Rainforest is just 45 minutes from the coast near Forks, making it a perfect day trip destination during your Washington Coast road trip.
Temperate rainforests are rare in the United States. In the centuries leading up to the 1800’s, the Pacific Northwest coast was covered with an impenetrable forest of old growth trees. However, as pioneers moved into the northwestern reaches of the country, timber quickly became a cash crop and the tall trees came tumbling down.
Luckily, the Olympic Peninsula’s remote interior was difficult to reach, and stands of old growth in the Hoh rainforest survived long enough to receive government protection.
The rain forests of Olympic National Park are impressively wet, receiving about 150 inches of rain per year. One of the best places for families to receive an introduction to this rare ecosystem is on the Hall of Mosses Trail inside the Hoh Rain Forest.
This 0.8-mile loop trail winds through a pristine old growth forest where families will marvel at trees growing from the logs of fallen giants, mosses hanging like forest curtains, and a stream so clear that you can see a tiny forest of water plants growing along its bottom.
Those looking for a more extensive hiking adventure may want to spend a couple days hiking the Hoh River Trail, which leads 17.3 miles to Glacier Meadows, and Mount Olympus.
While summer is less wet than other times of year, the forest is usually damp with rain or moisture left by heavy clouds, so be sure to bring a rain jacket and wear close-toed shoes with good soles.
Explore more of the park. Here are the Best Things to do in Olympic National Park with Kids.
Washington Coast Road Trip Stop 5- Cape Flattery
The perfect place to end your Washington Coast road trip is Cape Flattery, the most northwestern spot in the Lower 48. The ¾ mile trail to the edge of Cape Flattery is a lovely walk through the rainforest.
Massive trees, dripping with ferns and condensation, line the trail. The trail begins as a wide, dirt route but quickly narrows into a cedar boardwalk through a boggy forest. Suddenly trees give way to a safety-railed cliff’s edge and the scenery feels a bit like Big Sur meets the Pacific Northwest.
When my family climbed up the short ladder to the viewing platform, we were disappointed to hear we had just missed a gray whale sighting. But, a bald eagle soaring in the currents and puffins diving into the water provided us with our own “Wild Kingdom” moments.
Before we bid farewell to the sapphire blue water of Cape Flattery and headed back into dark and lush forest, the kids and I stopped at an overlook to catch one last glimpse of the wild Olympic Coast. In that moment I felt incredibly blessed to discover the beauty of a remote coastline most American families will never see, but should.
Disclosure: The author received a complimentary stay at the Quileute Oceanside Resort in coordination with the Olympic Peninsula Visitor’s Bureau. All opinions are unbiased and her own.
Excited to visit national parks with your kids? We are too! Visit our National Parks with Kids page for extensive coverage, tips & tricks for all our nation’s National Parks.