Beyond Bellingham: Family-friendly roads trips in Washington state

West Beach is popular at Deception Pass State Park.
West Beach is popular at Deception Pass State Park. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

If your starting point is Whatcom County, the Northwest is full of family-friendly attractions well worth a night or two on the road.

If you’re tempted to save money by visiting some of these places on a long day trip, just imagine yourself at the wheel of a car full of cranky family at 9 p.m., with another hour of driving ahead. If you’ve already done that, you know that a couple of hours of unpleasantness at the end can blot out memories of the good times when hearts were light, and make both parents and kids reluctant to get out again.

Let’s start with the sunny side. Early in summer, when clouds and rain linger, you can pack your sunglasses and be in dry, bright Eastern Washington in just a few hours.

The change in climate and geography from western to eastern Washington never ceases to amaze. The drive across the state — via Interstate 5, U.S. 20, or State Route 20 — provides a vivid real-life lesson in geography, geology, and climatology.

Here are two road trip suggestions: Plan for a night or two on the road, although both trips could be extended to fill as much time as you have.


This city of about 200,000 people boasts the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, with a large collection of Native American art, and the Mobius Children’s Museum. The city is full of fascinating old buildings from the railroad and mining boom years of the late 19th Century. Try historicspokane.org for more info. Nearby Riverside State Park is the state’s largest, at 14,000 acres, with boating, kayaking, fishing, and hiking.

Close to the halfway point on the five-hour drive is Lake Easton State Park, not far from exit 70 on I-90. It’s a pleasant spot for a picnic and a quick dip in the lake..

On the return trip from Spokane, if you’re not pressed for time, return home via US 2 through Wenatchee and the colorful Bavarian-themed town of Leavenworth, which can be a fun place for a meal and a stroll.

Route tip: One sunny Sunday, I decided to take the US 2 route home in hopes of avoiding Seattle traffic. Bad mistake: the highway was jammed with returning westbound funseekers like us, and traffic was stop-and-go from Gold Bar to Everett. You might encounter similar traffic backups on I-90 and I-5, too, on a Sunday evening, so it’s pick your poison or return on Monday if your schedule permits. If you must brave Sunday evening traffic, check out the Washington Department of Transportation website for advisories to help you pick your westbound route.

Grand Coulee Dam and Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park

If you like to get off the beaten track and away from the crowds, this part of the state may appeal to you. The legendary dam on the Columbia River is in the middle of nowhere, (apologies may be in order for residents of nearby Electric City and Wilbur), about five and a half hours drive time from Bellingham via SR 20 and 155.

Route tip: If you’re headed east on SR 20, follow Cook Road east from exit 232 off I-5 south, and pick up SR 20 in Sedro-Woolley. This avoids the commercial congestion in Burlington.

The drive through the North Cascades on SR 20 is breathtaking as well as nerve-wracking for the driver, with hairpin turns and steep grades. Plan to stop and enjoy the mountain majesty a time or two before you get to Winthrop, a good stopover at about the three-hour mark. It’s an enjoyable Old West-themed tourist trap that could easily keep you distracted for the rest of the day, and it offers lots of choices for lunch.

Yes, Dry Falls is a non sequitur. There is a spectacular cliff, with no water going over it. But at the end of the Ice Age, when there was a lot of melting going on, the falls were four times the size of Niagara.

At the dam, two more hours of driving from Winthrop, you’ll find a visitor center explaining the history of the massive structure that provides both power and irrigation water.

Once everyone is done gawking at the dam and learning 20th century history, head downriver along SR 155, US 2 and SR 17 to Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park. You can swim or fish in the lakes, and marvel at the geologic history at Dry Falls, where there is a visitor center.

Yes, Dry Falls is a non sequitur. There is a spectacular cliff, with no water going over it. But at the end of the Ice Age, when there was a lot of melting going on, the falls were four times the size of Niagara. Too bad you missed it, but the scenery is still spectacular — the kind of landscape you would expect to find in Arizona rather than the Evergreen State.

From there, the fastest route home is pretty much a toss-up: You can wind south on SR 17, 28 and 283, getting your money’s worth out of that GPS, until you see that reassuring sign for I-90 west to Seattle. Or you can follow US 2 west into Everett via Leavenworth (see above.) Either way will be about four and a half hours’ driving, not including traffic snarls.

San Juan Islands

On our wet western side of the state, some of the best family road trip options involve ferry rides, which amuse everyone who doesn’t have to rely on them for a daily commute. Get out of the car, explore the passenger decks, grab a bite to eat, and watch for whales.

The San Juan Islands ferries depart from Anacortes and stop at Shaw, Lopez, Orcas, and San Juan islands. Reservations and fare information are available at wsdot.wa.gov.

All four islands have their attractions, but San Juan Island has something for everyone: dining and shopping in Friday Harbor, possible whale sightings off Lime Kiln Point State Park, and regional history at the two sections of San Juan Island National Historical Park. Those two sections — American Camp and English Camp — also have excellent shoreline for beachcombing. English Camp features an old blockhouse fort built just before the Civil War, when troops from both the U.S. and Great Britain were dispatched to the island to support the two nations’ rival territorial claims.

Port Townsend

Another excursion with ferry trip will take you to Port Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula, departing from the Keystone ferry terminal on Whidbey Island for a 45-minute cruise. First-timers take note: The state now calls this the Port Townsend-Coupeville ferry, but the ferry dock is nowhere near downtown Coupeville. Follow the signs for the Port Townsend ferry and stay on SR 20. Don’t take the left turn towards Coupeville — an interesting old waterfront town that is well worth a visit for its own sake, either as a day trip or part of a longer stay to sample the delights of Whidbey Island. (We’ll get to that in a minute.)

Many Whatcom County residents make Port Townsend a day trip, but if you can spend a night or two on the peninsula, more attractions are within striking distance.

The waterfront section of Port Townsend is crammed with intriguing shops and restaurants in wonderfully restored turn-of-the-century buildings. The nearby neighborhoods are studded with amazing Victorian mansions, some of which now take in bed-and-breakfast lodgers.

As soon as you and the kids get tired of that sort of thing, Fort Worden State Park is right at the edge of town, with two miles of beach and a number of historic buildings.

Many Whatcom County residents make Port Townsend a day trip, but if you can spend a night or two on the peninsula, more attractions are within striking distance. My personal favorite would be Hurricane Ridge, on the north side of Olympic National Park, south of Port Angeles. From Port Townsend, it’s about an hour and 40 minutes of driving.

Once you enter the national park, the road becomes winding and scenic, working its way through deep forests to alpine meadows at the tree line. At the ridge itself, the parking lot may be ringed by snowbanks early in the summer.

Whidbey Island contains three spectacular state parks — Deception Pass, Fort Casey and Fort Ebey — which we have visited individually as day trips on many occasions.

The view from Hurricane Ridge is hard to beat, assuming the weather is clear. To the north, you can see the Strait of Juan de Fuca, with freighters headed for Tacoma and Seattle. Mount Baker shimmers in the distance. To the south, the steep hillsides of the Hoh River Valley are cloaked in ancient rainforest, while snowfields glisten on the Olympic Mountain crags that loom above. There’s a visitor center and snack bar on the ridge. The nearby picnic areas are excellent if they aren’t covered in snow. Expect to be visited by too-tame deer hoping for handouts, and by gray jays that will swoop in and steal food right off your plate without an invitation.

Whidbey Island

As I noted above, Whidbey Island is on the way to the Olympics, and the island itself has a number of destinations that justify an extended stay even if you don’t plan to cross the water to the peninsula. One is the aforementioned Coupeville, a refurbished old-time seaport with shops, restaurants, and turn-of-century charm.

Whidbey Island contains three spectacular state parks — Deception Pass, Fort Casey and Fort Ebey — which we have visited individually as day trips on many occasions. If you have time to stay a night or two on the island, you could visit all three. All three parks have campgrounds. If you’re not a camper, check out the Captain Whidbey Inn, which dates from 1907 and is close to Fort Ebey.

Fort Ebey and Fort Casey both feature creepy old military fortifications that you can explore. A flashlight is a good accessory for both. The parks also have sweeping views of Admiralty Inlet and the Olympic Mountains beyond, plus generous stretches of beach. My favorite time to visit the parks would be on a cloudy but not-too-rainy weekday, when you have a lot more elbow room.

Travel Tips

Traveling with children can bring out the best and the worst in both parents and kids. Ann Marie Read, a registered nurse and pediatric nurse who serves as an adjunct faculty member in parenting education at Bellingham Technical College, offers some tips:

▪ Realistic expectations: “If you have young kids, you have to go at their pace.”

▪ Don’t drive more than two or three hours without a good break for food and exercise.

▪ Make time in the car enjoyable: Songs, alphabet or license plate games, snacks, and books help the miles fly by. Yes, that old-school stuff still works— but don’t forget all the necessary charging devices for phones and other hand-held entertainment systems, too.

▪ Keep a surprise or two up your sleeve to change the mood if things get edgy: A few small toys or special snacks can work wonders.

Here’s a tip from me: Give the kids as much say as possible about where to go and what to do. This does risk descent into anarchy, but dragging unwilling kids on a trip will end in anarchy every time.