Can you truly take a summer road trip on Northwest highways void of traffic and tension?
Yes! I know because we just did that. Four fun days of leisurely cruising.
The trick is simple: avoid freeways and divided highways. Seek out small towns and big rewards.
Look at a road map of Washington and Oregon. See those state highways marked by thin red lines? Not the roads shown as fat red or yellow lines. And not the thinner black lines, though many of those can be good choices.
For us, two-lane state highways stretched out empty and inviting, from last Thursday into Monday morning. We bookended a sunny summer weekend, yet we still owned the pavement.
Give it a try. Maybe you’d even enjoy our rural route.
After dodging I-90 traffic to Ellensburg, we ditched our plan to drive through scenic Yakima River Canyon (SR 821) so that we could arrive in time for a scrumptious dinner at Santiago’s Mexican restaurant in Yakima. Normally, we’d take the Canyon Road, which you shouldn’t miss.
Leaving Yakima we steered east via SR 24 to Hanford and turned right on SR 240, skirted the Tri-Cities, and turned east on SR 124 at Burbank. That took us to Prescott and Waitsburg, where we joined U.S. 12 and drove into Walla Walla.
Yikes. Paving equipment clogged the entire downtown core, where barricades blocked streets ripped open down to bare dirt. Avoid Walla Walla until its roads reopen!
SR 125 led us through College Place into Oregon, where the road becomes OR 11. The few cars we faced dwindled drastically once we turned east at Weston onto OR 204, which climbs steeply into the Blue Mountains past Spout Springs ski area and down to Elgin. From there OR 82 runs through Wallowa, Enterprise, and Joseph to gorgeous Wallowa Lake, nestled at the foot of the mountainous Eagle Cap Wilderness.
We drove north from Joseph on OR 3, gawking at mountain vistas and sniffing the sweetly scented pine forests. Joseph Canyon Viewpoint looks down into the centuries-old winter home of Chief Joseph and his Nez Perce tribe. This marks the last highlight before OR 3 twists steeply and narrowly down steep canyons into Washington and over the Grande Ronde River, where the road – now SR 129 – resumes its harrowing route up steep canyons, then across prairies to Anatone, Asotin, and Clarkston.
U.S. 12 was nearly deserted as we cruised westward through Pomeroy, its downtown delightfully renovated to a nostalgic era, and on to SR 261, which flanks the Tucannon River past tiny Starbuck to four noted landmarks: the 3,920-foot-long Joso Trestle, once the longest and highest railroad bridge in the world; the Lyons Ferry Bridge, which spanned the Columbia River at Vantage from 1927 until it was dismantled in 1963 and later reassembled over the Snake; the 11,000-year-old Marmes Rock Shelter, once the oldest known human settlement in the Western hemisphere; and Palouse Falls, five miles farther up the road beyond Lyons Ferry.
Union Pacific railroad tracks border the edge of Palouse Falls State Park, set in a narrow gorge gouged out of solid basalt between 1910-1914 by Chinese laborers working for the Oregon Railway and Navigation Company. On Sunday our timing was perfect – a train chugged our way just as I reached the tracks.
From there we followed SR 261 to SR 260, which took us through Washtucna Coulee to Kahlotus and Connell. We soon turned north on SR 17 to Moses Lake, where we re-engaged the interstate ratrace. Not for long, though – we veered off I-90 at Vantage and took old U.S. Highway 10, now SR 10, up and over the hills through Ellensburg and on to Cle Elum.
The two-lane highway portion of our journey spanned 730 miles. We relaxed, stopped for countless pictures, and oohed and ahhed at our scenic Northwest. You can too.