Road Trip

Portland to Seattle: How to Survive the Drive on Interstate 5

Hippie sandals, squirrel bridges, playgrounds, a car museum, hot pot, skydiving ... take a few breaks on the drive between Portland and Seattle.

By Cassondra Bird, Michelle Harris, and Margaret Seiler

The inevitable Nisqually wreck, the mysterious JBLM slowdown, the interminable Tacoma traffic jam—it won't take many trips on Interstate 5 between Portland and Seattle to turn most people into major Amtrak fans. But sometimes you can't avoid the drive. What you can do, though, is plan to take a little more time and spot for more than just gas and pee breaks. Here are some suggestions.

Exit 9: Birkenstock Northwest

Sandwiched between the Clark County Fairgrounds' RV Inn Style Resorts Amphitheater and a LASIK center, the little house right off the highway in Ridgefield isn't exactly where you'd expect a longtime shoestore vet to decide to go all in on the cork-footbed German sandals. But, hey, you can't beat the visibility, and you can only drive past it over and over again for so many years without finally stopping. Inside, careful not to trip over canes, crutches, or knee walkers, as plenty of recently injured folk come here to pick up some slip-on shoes that can accommodate swelling. And catch the excitement of brides-to-be on the hunt for white sandals and a rainbow for their bridal party, too.

Exit 21: Hulda Klager Lilac Gardens

The orderly paths in the English-inspired proper gardens surrounding a modest farmhouse in Woodland, Washington, make a perfect antidote to the insanity of people passing you on the right on I-5. The garden is most fragrant during Lilac Days in the spring, but the grounds and mini arboretum are inviting year-round. Seasonal hours have fluctuated greatly during the pandemic, so be sure to call or check the website before you pull off. (If it's warm out, Horseshoe Lake Park, just off the same exit, is a good spot for a quick dip—you might even catch the ice cream truck if you're lucky.)

Exit 36: Longview Squirrel Bridges 

A 10-foot squirrel statue stands near the squirrel bridges in Longview.

The “Nutty Narrows” bridges stem from an idea of Longview resident Amos Peters, who designed the original suspension bridge in 1963 to save squirrels from becoming roadkill. There are now eight squirrel bridges in Longview, which can be seen in an easy loop, including a miniature replica of Portland’s Fremont Bridge and a copper-covered bridge which purports to be the first covered squirrel bridge in the world. Longview’s annual Squirrel Fest celebrates the town’s adoration of the furry bridge-goers, and a 10-foot-tall wooden squirrel statue stands as a memorial to Peters. —CB

Exit 52: Laughlin Round Barn, Castle Rock  

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this barn was built in 1883 and is one of only five round barns still standing in Washington. The round barn style became popular in the 1880s as it was promoted in the Midwest for more efficient farming, and fell out of favor as electricity became commonplace. Rare to find, the Laughlin barn shows the woodworking skills early settlers had in the area, as it is built with all hand-hewn and planed logs. If you stop here on a hot day, head to the Mickey Mouse bridge afterward for a relaxing local swimming hole. Yes, this is the kind of thing your dad made you stop at as a kid. But it’s cool now. —CB

Exit 60: Skydive Toledo  

If you get a wild hair on the way up to Seattle, why not see your whole journey from the air? You’ll also see eight volcanic peaks, the Pacific Ocean, and a whole lot of sky. Skydive Toledo offers tandem flights (and solo for licensed jumpers) with a short freefall and then a slow parachuted glide back down to earth. Not many pit stops afford you the possibility to check something off your bucket list. If you fall in love with the adrenaline, they also offer lessons to become licensed and fly solo. —CB

Exit 67: Recreation Park   

The city of Chehalis might not be the most creative when it comes to park names, but the play structure at one end of this park and the seasonal spray park at the other make up the lack of imagination in naming. In between, a new-ish aqautics center charges $5 for open swim at its seasonal outdoor pool, which might be well worth if your passengers include kids who need tuckering out—and it's a heck of a lot cheaper than a night just up the road at Great Wolf Lodge—MS

Exit 82: Fort Borst Park

Fort Borst Park

Grab takeout from the world's northernmost Burgerville or stop at Safeway for picnic supplies, and then duck into the shaded oasis of Fort Borst Park, just behind the grocery. Picnic tables and a playground make a good lunch spot, and the dog park just beyond the playground can serve the needs of some four-legged road trippers. Or you can just stroll the forested paths connecting the park's historical structures and looping around a fishing pond. Watch out for masses of youth sports teams at the baseball complex nest door. —MS

Exit 88: Cobblefield Lavender Farm

It wouldn’t be a PNW road trip without a lavender farm to stroll through, and Cobblefield’s working farm in Rochester is a perfect place to stretch your legs. This small farm is run by the Haight family, and they grow six varieties of lavender to choose from. Cut your own lavender or enjoy lavender treats: homemade cookies and cookie mixes, lavender ice cream and lavender lemonade. Bring a picnic lunch and stay awhile. You can also sign up for a lavender wand making classes or learn how lavender is distilled into essential oil (and even see the process if you visit on the weekend). Open seasonally, the far is already closed for 2022. Watch for it to reopen in late June 2023. —CB

Exit 133: LeMayAmerica's Car Museum 

You don’t need to be a car enthusiast to appreciate the sprawling collection of automobiles at this museum, adjacent to the Tacoma Dome (a landmark easily spotted from the highway). The collection was donated by Harold and Nancy LeMay, who were owners of one of the world’s largest private automobile collections. A nice reprieve from the inevitable Tacoma traffic jam (looking at these cars is certainly better than staring at the bumper of the non-moving car in front of you), the four-story facility has a rotating collection of cars with over 300 displayed at a time, which includes everything from carriages and early autos to the 1994 Flintmobile that was made for the Flintstones movie that same year. Of course, you can’t visit without taking the obligatory group photo in the 1923 Buick. The museum also has a variety of family-friendly hands-on activities, including “The Road Trip Challenge,” a kiosk that teaches strategies about sustainable energy use. —MH

Exit 143: The Many Charms of ... Federal Way!

You made it through the wilderness of Tacoma traffic. (Somehow you made it through-ooo-ooo.) You're almost to Seattle, so why should you stop at this extremely paved suburban collection of strip malls? Well, there's an Ivar's Seafood Bar, a Korean spa, a Daiso discount Japanese home-goods store with Mall 205 vibes, a hot-pot conveyor-belt restaurant (I repeat: a hot-pot conveyor-belt restaurant), and a banh mí place that surely beats Subway for road food. You're just going to get stuck in traffic again in Seattle, so you might has well be rested and fed. —MS