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Washington Road Trip: Mount Rainier to North Cascades to Olympic National Parks

There is so much to see and many adventures to be had on this Washington road trip from Mount Rainier to North Cascades to Olympic National Parks. We love the Pacific Northwest and have had a ton of great adventures exploring this part of Washington over the past 7 years of full-time RV living with our 5 kids.

Can’t Miss Things In Mount Rainier, North Cascades, & Olympic National Park

My top favorites of this Mount Rainier to North Cascades to Olympic National Parks road trip that you don’t want to miss are:

  • Hiking to Panorama Point from Paradise Visitor in Mount Rainier National Park and Mount Fremont on the Sunrise side of the park
  • Snap a pic of Liberty Bell from Washington Pass viewpoint, hiking Maple Pass just east of North Cascades National Park, and views of Ross Lake
  • Hoh Rainforest in Olympic National Park, camping a Kalaloch, and hiking out to Second Beach in La Push
Mount Rainier to Olympic to North Cascades Road Trip
Plan the perfect Washington State road trip from Mount Rainier to North Cascades to Olympic National Parks with this complete guide!

Planning Your Mount Rainier to North Cascades to Olympic National Parks Road Trip

Best Time For A Mount Rainier to North Cascades to Olympic National Park Road Trip

July and August are the best months for this Mount Rainier to North Cascades to Olympic National Park road trip because they are the driest and warmest months. Plus, this is the best time to see wildflowers in the Sunrise area of Mount Rainier National Park.

Mount Rainier is open year-round, you can only drive from the southwest entrance to Paradise. While this would still provide you with incredible views of this 14,000-foot volcano, you wouldn’t be able to hike in the winter and even in the spring you’d need ice spikes or crampons.

Olympic National Park in northwest Washington’s temperate rainforest remains accessible year-round, except for the winter closure of Hurricane Ridge Road. Remember, this vast park boasts diverse topography, ensuring a range of conditions even during summer visits.

The road from Colonial Creek campground closes from November to May, limiting access to North Cascades’ beauty.

Average Highs & Lows in Mount Rainier, North Cascades & Olympic National Parks

Common Questions About A Washington Road Trip

How far is Mount Rainier National Park from North Cascades National Park?

It’s a little over 200 miles from Paradise Inn at Mount Rainier to North Cascades Visitor Center if you go the most direct way via Seattle. Although, I recommend the scenic route (see blog below).

How far is North Cascades National Park from Olympic National Park?

It’s a little under 200 miles from Paradise Inn at Mount Rainier to the Olympic National Park Visitor Center in Port Angeles.

Which is better North Cascades or Mount Rainier?

Mount Rainier has more to do and see in our opinion, however, the area outside of North Cascades National Park (particularly the east side) is prettier, less crowded, and has a lot to do and explore.

Is North Cascades Worth Visiting?

I would personally prioritize Mount Rainier, then Olympic, then if you have the time, add in North Cascades. However, I also really love the towns of Leavenworth, Chelan, and Winthrop (which are east of North Cascades) and if you do this section of road trip, you may as well add in North Cascades.

Where To Fly In for this Mount Rainier to Olympic to North Cascades National Park Road Trip

Seattle or Tacoma are easier to find flights and rental cars but Everett or Bellingham are smaller airports, which I prefer because they are easier and less crowded.

Can You Drive a Big RV on this Mount Rainier to Olympic to North Cascades National Park Road Trip

I personally wouldn’t want to drive my 42-foot 5th wheel through these National Parks. I would look for a campgrounds on the west side of Mount Rainier & North Cascades so that I wouldn’t have to drive over the passes by these two national parks. Driving through Olympics is much easier with a big rig, but it would also be easy to base camp in Port Angeles and do day trips.

Other Stops To Consider

  • Leavenworth (Hike The Enchantments)
  • Lake Chelan
  • Winthrop
  • Mount Baker
  • Snoqualmie Falls

Tips For Visiting Mount Rainier National Park

Of the three parks, Mount Rainier is my favorite. From the mid-summer wildflowers and waterfalls to the green meadows and alpine lakes, Mount Rainier is sure to be a place you love too.

It’s a much smaller park that you can drive almost all the way around in the summer. But because it’s close to Seattle, it’s also the most crowded.

Starting from the west, you’ll want to stop at Longmire, stop by the visitor center to learn about the area and do the easy Trail of the Shadows hike before heading up the beautiful windy road to Paradise.

Related Blog: 11 Tips for Planning Your Mount Rainier Trip

If you loop this road trip or drive out to Sunrise, you may want to add in Crystal Mountain ski resort and ride the gondola to the top.

Best Hikes in Mount Rainier

  • Panorama Point via Skyline Trail
  • Mt Fremont Overlook
  • Pinnacle Peak

Related Blog: Best Hikes in Mount Rainer

Where to Stay or Camp in Mount Rainier

2 of the 3 developed campgrounds in Mt. Rainier offer reservations. I love staying at Cougar Rock but if you have a big RV, you may want to camp down near Ashford. I also love how beautiful and way less crowded it is on the Sunrise side of the park. You can camp at White River Campground or there are a lot of national forest campgrounds on the northeast side of Mount Rainier.

If camping isn’t your thing, I highly recommend staying at Paradise Inn for the best views of Mount Rainier and to get to experience it in the twilight hours when it’s much less crowded.

Related Blog: Best Campgrounds in Mount Rainier

4 Amazing Stops Between Mount Rainier & North Cascades National Park

You could keep this part of your Washington National Parks road trip shorter and take the I-5 from Mount Rainier to North Cascades. Instead, I think it’s worth the extra time to leave Mount Rainier eastbound and explore parts of the Cascade Lakes Highway, Leavenworth, Lake Chelan, Winthrop, and especially the National Forest area just east of North Cascades.

If you have a surplus of time, you could also add in Snoqualmie Falls and one of the epic hikes I’ve been dying to do near Cle Elem- Tuck and Robin Lakes or Marmot Lake and Jade Lake.

Watch our YouTube video of us trying to do these hikes too early in the season.

Leavenworth

The Bavarian town of Leavenworth is an outdoor enthusiasts’ playground due to the abundance of rock climbing, biking, mountain biking, paddle boarding, kayaking, and swimming, and that’s just in the summer!

Bring river tubes and ask at the local mountain shops where to get in and out sign up for a guided float with Leavenworth Outdoor Center, located next to Der Hinterhof.

For amazing views and epic adventures, be sure to head up Icicle River Road which is filled with endless hiking, camping, and rock climbing. We love all the cheap forest camping and there is even a spot where RVers can free camp at.

After a day of adventure, head to Icicle Creek Brewery for great beer, good llanjager (smoked beef sticks), and good vibes. I love that Leavenworth is full of artisan food shops. Head to Cured for great salami, cheese, sausage, and more. Pick up some coffee at J5. If you’re lucky and are visiting on a Thursday, stop by the fabulous, local farmers market at Little Lion Park. 

If you’re brave, hike the famous Enchantments a strenuous 19-mile day hike (unless you can get the elusive backpacking permits). While it is extremely strenuous, the views you get up here are worth every step. Even though this was one of the hardest day hikes we’ve ever done, it is also one of the absolute best hikes we’ve ever done. For a shorter hike, check out Colchuck Lake.

Lake Chelan

The warm water of Lake Chelan in summer draws boating enthusiasts galore. And even if you don’t have a boat, Lake Chelan is perfect for inner tube floating or swimming. We loved playing at the Old Swimming Hole in Manson where you can swim out to the wooden pillars and jump into the lake.

Lake Chelan, Cascade Loop road trip
Floating on Lake Chelan

Be sure to drive a bit north out of town to Blueberry Hills Farm where you’ll find blueberries, waffles, sandwiches, and pies galore.

On the northern end of Lake Chelan lies Stehekin, which is part of the North Cascades National Park. Getting here can be a bit of a challenge though as it requires 4wd or you can take a boat or plane. But if you do make it out this far, there are so many incredible hikes and backpacking trips you can do and the camping is epic!

Related: 10 Unforgettable USA Road Trip Itineraries

Winthrop

Winthrop offers an old-west ambiance and diverse dining options. Ideal for adventure seekers, it’s a hub for hiking, mountain biking, and river activities. The RV lot northwest of town is a spot for river tubing, but local shops can guide on to exit points.

Washington Pass, US & Canada road trip
Washington Pass

Washington Pass

I enjoyed this area of northern Washington more than North Cascades NP itself. There are a ton of trails for hiking and mountain biking as well as a lot of free or cheap camping.

Mountain bikers will love to take on the challenge of Cutthroat Pass feel the burn in your legs and take in the beauty at the top of the Pass where the trail meets the PCT.  Hikers will love exploring Maple Pass, Blue Lake, or Black Peak. If you Trad climb, don’t miss the opportunity to summit Liberty Bell.

best campground Washington
Blue Lake

Tips For Visiting North Cascades National Park

With over 300 glaciers and countless snowfields, the North Cascades has more glaciers than anywhere in the U.S. outside of Alaska (it has even more glaciers than Glacier National Park!) The challenging part is getting to them though since many of the most epic hikes are only accessible with 4wd.

North Cascades lacks a singular highlight like Rainier but boasts stunning views of Diablo Lake and Ross Lake. With rugged peaks, it offers diverse activities like hiking, water sports at Ross Lake, climbing in Skagit Gorge, biking in Methow Valley, presenting a challenge to explore fully.

The North Cascades Highway provides stunning scenic views like Glacier’s Going-to-the-Sun Road but with wider, well-maintained paths. However, it lacks nearby towns or development, so plan ahead.

Related: Grand Teton to Glacier National Parks Road Trip

Best Hikes in North Cascades

Tip: If you detour to visit Mount Baker, check out these rad hikes: Blanca Lake, Heybrook Lookout, Heybrook Ridge, Gothic Basin, or Ptarmigan Ridge

Where to Stay or Camp in North Cascades

We loved camping under the massive trees at Colonial Creek Campground. There are several other campgrounds just off the main road and then trails heading further away from the main road to more remote backcountry areas. We’ve also camped in the national forest area east of Washington Pass and enjoyed those areas a lot.

Related Blog: Best Campgrounds in Washington

If you don’t camp, you’ll want to look for a hotel in the closest towns of either Mount Vernon, to the west, or Winthrop, to the east.

Amazing Stop Between North Cascades & Olympic National Park

San Juan Islands & Deception Pass

I’d highly recommend you visit San Juan island because we got to see killer whales. It was very exciting, however, the orcas swim by on their schedule so it’s something that requires some patience.

Drive just west of Anacortes to Washington Park where you can take the ferry to the San Juan islands. Public transportation is very easy on the islands so you can just leave your car on the Mainland.

Tip: Orcas are on San Juan Island, not Orca Island. The lighthouse has a lot of information on the pods that live in the area.  If you go, bring binoculars to help see the whales better.

Consider extending your stay at the lovely Washington Park campground on Fidalgo Island’s west end. It’s an ideal base for leaving your vehicle and spending a day exploring the San Juan Islands. The campground features a fantastic 2-mile trail through forested hills, a stunning beach adorned with driftwood, and captivating views of the San Juan Islands.

Camping Considerations: If staying at Fairholme Campground, book in advance if possible, especially during peak seasons.

Explore Washington’s famed Deception Pass, just a short drive from the San Juans. This popular State Park offers hiking, biking, fishing, and camping across two islands connected by a bridge. With 172 tent sites and 134 partial hookups, reservations fill quickly due to its high demand. Secure your spot early!

For the occasional climber that may be reading this: Mount Erie has some incredibly scenic climbing and we loved being able to overlook the ocean while enjoying Top-Rope routes.

Detour North: If you have time, you may want to detour north towards Bellingham & Mount Baker before heading down to Anacortes. Bellingham & nearby Fairhaven have great hiking and MTB trails and are some of our favorite towns to eat our way through. Check out the farmer’s market, eat at one of the many food trucks, and grab a pint at Aslan Brewery. Mount Baker has numerous trails for all levels of hikers that will take you to incredible alpine lakes.

Tips For Visiting Olympic National Park

If you want to see a massive diversity in ecosystems, Olympic National Park should be at the top of your list of places to visit.

Olympic National Park offers diverse climates and ecosystems, from beaches to temperate rainforests and subalpine mountains. Yet, exploring its richness requires ample time.

Since Olympic National Park is so large and spread out, visiting it just by car will only allow you to see the edges of the park.

Olympic National Park spans almost a million acres across four diverse regions with distinct ecosystems. The first stop on your road trip is Hurricane Ridge, just a few miles south of Port Angeles.

Hiking Insights: For hikers, always carry essentials like water, snacks, a map, or a GPS device, and wear appropriate footwear.

Tip: You might want to hang out a few days in Port Townsend. You’ll love its small-town charm incredible artisan, bright storefronts, and its passion for music. In fact, it hosts an annual Olympic Music Festival in July and August and the weeklong Jazz Port Townsend in July.

Discover stunning summer wildflowers, epic hikes, and subalpine trails leading to lakes in this biodiverse park. At Lake Crescent, enjoy a picnic, hike to Marymere Falls, or opt for the more challenging Spruce Railroad Trail. Cool off with a daring swim in the lake!

Other things to explore include the hot springs, Neah Bay, and Lake Ozette, or drive Obstruction Point Road, which is fine for 2WD but no RVs or trailers.

There is a campground nearby at Fairholme, which is a good option because Second Beach can get crowded.  The third area is right next to Forks and La Push, which is an Indian reservation popularized by the book/movie Twilight. The coastline here is a unique combination of fauna and beach.  We loved the forested trails and haystack beaches that were great for tide pooling.

best campground Washington Second beach

A popular thing to do here is to camp overnight at Second Beach.  It’s a short 0.7-mile hike from the parking lot.  Make sure to get a wilderness camping permit, pack plenty of potable water, and a bear canister, and choose a spot above where high tide will rise. 

The lush rainforest in the next three areas of Olympic National Park feel as if you’ve entered another planet. 

Spruce Trail Hoh Rain Forest Best Hikes in the PNW

Explore Hoh Rainforest’s lush greenery, home to elk and stunning epiphytes. Kalaloch’s beaches offer sea life sightings, while Quinault’s scenic loop and hikes showcase elk in protected areas.

Best Hikes in Olympic NP

  • 2nd Beach
  • Mount Storm King
  • Hurricane Ridge
  • Ruby Beach
  • Hole in the Wall from Rialto Beach
  • Sol Duc Falls Nature Trail
  • Hoh Rain Forest Hall of Mosses
  • 7 Lakes Basin
  • See all the popular trail on AllTrails

Where to Stay or Camp in the Olympic

Most campgrounds at Olympic NP are first-come first-served. Kalaloch has places to stay and nice beaches. It can be good for families. The kids loved camping at Kalaloch beach. It’s a beautiful campground that sits on miles of rugged coastline, has tidepools with purple sea urchins, and a ton of marine wildlife. Plus, the ranger presentation there was outstanding!

8-Day Washington Road Trip Itinerary

  • Day 1: Mount Rainier National Park (Paradise Side)
  • Day 2: Mount Rainier National Park (Sunrise Side)
  • Day 3: Leavenworth 
  • Day 4: Lake Chelan & Winthrop 
  • Day 5: North Cascades
  • Day 6: Olympic National Park (Hurricane Ridge to Forks)
  • Day 7: Olympic National Park (Hoh to Quinault)

We hope this helps you plan the perfect Mount Rainier to North Cascades to Olympic National Parks Road Trip! If you have any questions, leave us a comment, and be sure to join our email list for more travel inspiration.

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Paul

Monday 27th of May 2024

Nice and helpful for my Washington State roadtrip. Thanks.

Gabi

Thursday 4th of July 2024

You're very welcome!

mario

Saturday 19th of August 2023

Wondering if you could help us. Me, my wife and two 20-something sons are planning a 10-day road trip in mid-September (olympic, rainier, northern cascades). But given the sourdough fire, it is looking increasingly more likely that we will have to scrap the cascades portion. What is your best suggestion to fill the two days we were going to spend there. Some forums say the San Juan islands. Or should we just add a day to Olympic and Mt Rainier and hit stuff we otherwise would have rushed through? Any other ideas we might be missing. Thanks in advance, Mario

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