Table of Contents
The best part of any national park trip is the variety that you’ll find. Not only will you see some of the most scenic landscapes in the country, but you’ll also typically find some amazing historical sites as well. Washington is no different.
From the coastal waters of Olympic National Park to the mountains of North Cascades and the nuclear reactor at the Manhattan Project, you really will find a little bit of everything right here in this not-so-small corner of the country.
So, if you’re looking for an epic road trip, look no further than Washington’s national parks. Make it an RV trip and you’ll really find yourself immersed in some of the most scenic landscapes in the country.
(Disclaimer: When we link to places you can buy our stuff or places we stayed, we are using special codes which earn us commissions on the sales at no additional cost to you. Please see our Review Policy for more information.)
With 11 different national park units all over the state, finding a logical path through all of them was not easy. Add in the fact that we were RVing AND doing an Alaska cruise in the middle of the trip and, yep, this itinerary was downright tough to figure out.
Ultimately, we ended up spending 24 days in eight different campgrounds. Had we been a bit more nimble (tent camping and/or staying in hotels), we certainly would have done things differently. But, this itinerary allowed us to see everything we wanted to see in the time we had.
We did decide to skip two sites: Klondike NHS in Seattle and Fort Vancouver NHS just north of Portland, OR. Sadly, we just didn’t have time to actually visit either city so we decided to save them both for another time. Trust me, I am NOT upset that we “have” to return to Washington!
Without further ado, here is our 3.5-week Washington RV trip itinerary. With this itineray you can visit nearly all of Washington’s national park sites with ease.
1 – Arrive at Charbonneau Park Campground near Richland
2 – Visit Manhattan Project NHP
3 – Day trip to Whitman Mission & Nez Perce
4 – Drive to Bridgeport State Park
5 – Day trip Lake Roosevelt NRA
6 – Day trip to Stehekin at Lake Chelan NRA
7 – Drive to Glacier Peak Resort in Marblemount
8 – Visit North Cascades NP
9 – Visit North Cascades NP
10 – Drive to Lake Pleasant RV Park, Bothell (just north of Seattle)
11 – Day trip to San Juan Islands NHP
12 -Day trip to Ebey’s Landing NHR
13 – Rest Day at campground
14 – Drive to Cougar Rock Campground in Mount Rainier NP
15 – Drive & Hike in Mt. Rainier
16 – Drive & Hike in Mt. Rainier
17 – Drive to Elwha Dam RV Park in Port Angeles
18 – Visit Olympic NP – Hurricane Ridge & Lake Crescent
19 – Visit Olympic NP – Sol Duc & Cape Flattery
20 – Drive to Forks 101 RV Park in Forks; Visit Hoh Rain Forest
21 – Visit Olympic NP Beaches
22 – Visit Olympic NP – Quinault Rain Forest
23 – Drive to Seaquest State Park (near Mt. St. Helens)
24 – Visit Mt. St. Helens
Keep reading for more information on where we stayed, how we enjoyed it and what we would do differently next time.
Also, be sure to check out the following posts for more information on each area:
- Eastern Washington National Park Sites
- Exploring the North Cascades National Park Complex
- A Quiet Getaway at Stehekin in North Cascades NP
- Discovering Washington’s Island Parks
- Three Days Immersed in Mount Rainier National Park
- Day Hiking in Olympic National Park
What Worked and What Didn’t Work
While overall this itinerary worked for us, hindsight is always 20/20. I do think that we would schedule things a bit differently if doing this again. Top of that list is the first week or so, which was our time in the Eastern part of the state.
Honestly, we just did too much driving through not-exciting terrain over multiple days for it to really be enjoyable. If doing this again, I would certainly rather move campsites after one or two days than do all the driving we did this time.
The other thing we would do differently is to just have more time to relax. Unfortunately, we only have a limited amount of time for our summer break. And driving between Georgia and Washington takes a while. Thus, we had very little “extra” time anywhere.
The biggest difficulty in setting any itinerary is finding the right balance between quality and quantity. That is, making everything you want to see and do fit into the amount of time you have. Sure, we could have spent less time in Olympic NP and made time to visit Seattle. That just wasn’t worth it for us.
Instead, we chose to skip Seattle this time and fly back later. We can easily visit Seattle over a long weekend and take advantage of our airline and hotel rewards and public transportation. That wouldn’t necessarily work for a visit to Olympic NP.
Our route to Washington, from our hometown near Atlanta, GA brought us in on Interstate 90 across Montana and Idaho. It did not take us long, after leaving the interstate to realize that the landscape here is not what the state is known for.
Driving south (and later east) we found wide open spaces, very few trees and only a smattering of small towns. We quickly realized why we had difficulty finding a good place to stay. The Richland-Pasco-Kennewick area is really the only large town in the southeastern part of the state.
We generally like to stay in one campground for at least two or three nights since setting up and taking down camp is somewhat time-consuming. So, after much consideration, we chose to camp at the Corps of Engineers Charboneau Park campground near Richland. From here we made day trips to Manhattan Project National Historical Park and Whitman Mission National Historic Site plus Nez Perce National Historical Park in western Idaho.
Charbonneau Park was a great base for visiting Manhattan Project NHP, where we toured the nuclear reactor that produced the plutonium used in the Nagasaki atomic bomb. Our drive in each direction was about 45 minutes.
One thing to note: tours of the Manhattan Project are only offered on certain days during the summer. Plan ahead to make sure you actually get a tour!
The drive over to Whitman Mission and Nez Perce definitely made for a long day of driving at about 2-3 hours each way. Add in the fact that we spent no more than an hour at either site and it was really just a day full of driving.
From Richland, we drove nearly due north to Bridgeport State Park for our next three nights. Bridgeport was our base for visiting Lake Roosevelt NRA and Lake Chelan NRA. Again, we mostly chose this particular campground location because we did not want to relocate the camper several nights in a row. Again, that wasn’t necessarily the best decision.
The drive east to Lake Roosevelt was another tough one over some fairly sparse terrain. Add in the fact that the area of the NRA we actually wanted to visit (Fort Spokane) was on the far side and we had yet another very long day of driving.
One thing we have come to learn about national recreation areas is that they typically are geared towards boaters. This means that if you are not getting out on the water, you probably are going to be underwhelmed with your visit. Thus was the case at Lake Roosevelt NRA.
At the Fort Spokane area of Lake Roosevelt NRA, we found a small visitor center and a couple of buildings along with the old parade ground. Again, I think we spent nearly two hours driving in each direction for only a 30-45 minute stop.
Thankfully, the drive west to Chelan the next day was not bad at all. And, we actually LOVED our visit to Lake Chelan NRA, which is part of the North Cascades National Park Complex. Really, the only reason I would do anything differently with this part of the trip is the ferry trip required to get to the actual recreation area on the north end of the lake.
If we were doing this trip again, we would definitely do things differently for this first part. Honestly, there was just way too much backtracking through terrain that isn’t all that scenic.
Here is our suggestion for an alternate route, still entering from central Idaho:
- Start in Spokane. Camp here one or two nights and do a day trip to Fort Spokane at Lake Roosevelt NRA.
- From Spokane, drive south to Walla Walla. From here, visit Whitman Mission NHS and Nez Perce NHP. You’ll need one or two nights depending on arrival time and how much you want to drive in one day.
- Next stop: Richland. You’ll definitely need two nights based on the tour times for Manhattan Project NHS.
- From Richland, drive north to Chelan. You’ll need two nights to accommodate a day trip to Stehekin (Lake Chelan NRA).
North Cascades NP
From Bridgeport, our next stop was North Cascades National Park. Inside the park, there are several campgrounds, but most only accommodate a tent or small RV and there are no hookups. So we chose to stay on the west side of the park at Glacier Peak Resort in Marblemount.
From here we spent two days hiking and exploring North Cascades NP and Ross Lake NRA. Two days was a perfect amount of time here. This allowed us to visit the overlooks and nature trails along Hwy 20, do a couple of longer hikes and drive to the actual national park border.
The lodging (and dining) options in and around the park are extremely limited if you are not tent camping. The Glacier Peak Resort was not a bad campground and we would have no problem recommending it as a place to stay. That said, I do not feel as though it is a “must-stay” campground.
On the east side of the park, you’ll find the charming small town of Winthrop. Here you will find several hotels and restaurants and a few campgrounds, but a significantly longer drive to most of the sights in the park.
Honestly, where you should stay is a bit of a toss-up. Since options on both sides of the park are limited, you may have to just take what you can get. Tent campers and those in small RVs will have the most options, with several well-located campgrounds in the park.
Island NPS Sites
Continuing west from North Cascades, you’ll arrive at the two park sites located on Washington’s islands: San Juan Islands National Historical Park and Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve. Because we also needed to store our camper for the week-long Alaska cruise, we chose to stay in the north metro-Seattle town of Bothell at Lake Pleasant RV Park.
I’m not going to lie, the drive from Bothell to Anacortes just to get on the ferry to San Juan Island was not a fun one. We did it because we needed to. And the campground was fabulous. But, there are plenty of other options that would be a lot closer.
Ebey’s Landing NHR, on Whidbey Island, can be accessed without a ferry from the north (again, a long drive from Bothell). It can also be accessed from the south via a ferry from Mulkiteo, which is a reasonable drive from Bothell.
Bothell is a good-sized town on its own with all the standard shopping and dining options. As part of the greater Seattle area, if you can’t find what you are looking for in Bothell you are sure to find it nearby. We actually found the town verging on being over-crowded in some areas.
Overall, though, we enjoyed Bothell and would certainly recommend it as a good base for exploring in and around Seattle. While the drive into Seattle is a little long to do several days in a row, the RV park is nice enough to balance that out.
And, if you are looking for RV parking while on a cruise, Lake Pleasant RV Park was perfect!
If you are just visiting the islands, I would suggest staying in or near Anacortes. From here you can easily catch a ferry to San Juan Island or any of the other nearby islands. You can also drive south to Whidby Island and Ebey’s Landing.
There are even a couple of campgrounds on San Juan Island. If you are interested in camping on the island, don’t forget to factor in the cost of taking the ferry with an RV. That is doable…seriously, anything will fit on those ferries, but the cost may or may not be worth it to you.
From the islands, you can easily continue south to Mount Rainier or even catch a ferry over to Port Townsend and continue on to the Olympic Peninsula.
Mount Rainier National Park
From the Seattle area, it is a bit of a toss-up as to where to go next: the Olympic Peninsula or Mount Rainier. Both are about two hours from Seattle. We chose to drive south to Mount Rainier first.
We spent about 2.5 days in Mount Rainier National Park. In this time, we drove the park roads across the southern and eastern edges of the park. Along the way, we stopped at most of the scenic pullouts and explored the Longmire, Paradise, Ohanapecosh and Sunrise areas. We also had time for a few short hikes.
The area around Mount Rainier is not highly-populated, so dining and lodging are somewhat limited. But there are few good options both in and outside the park. We chose to stay inside the park at Cougar Rock Campground.
There are no hookups at any of the park campgrounds, but sites are large enough to accommodate a mid-size RV. We enjoyed our campsite, but we were definitely pushing the RV size limits with a 27-foot trailer.
I would say that 2.5 days is a bare minimum if you want to see all the main sites and do a bit of day hiking. We certainly could have spent more time here. A third full day would have allowed us to do a few additional hikes that we just couldn’t fit in on this visit.
Olympic NP – Port Angeles
From Mount Rainier, you can get to Port Angeles in about three hours. We chose to take a bit of a detour and approach from Olympia. This added a couple of hours onto the drive, but gave us the chance to drive the eastern edge of Olympic National Park.
Port Angeles makes a great base for exploring the Hurricane Ridge, Lake Crescent and Sol Duc areas of Olympic NP. We also drove out to Cape Flattery, the northwesternmost point of the contiguous United States.
We enjoyed the town of Port Angeles – there are some great dining options and plenty of hotels. The camping options do seem to be limited, with Elwha Dam being one of the few. For us, the campground was ok. The location was great, but space was a little tight.
From Port Angeles you can catch the ferry to Victoria, British Columbia should you desire to make your trip international.
Olympic NP – Forks
To explore the western areas of Olympic NP, I suggest staying in Forks. Located about an hour southwest of Port Angeles, Forks was our base for visiting the coastal area and the Hoh and Quinault Rain Forests.
Forks is considerably smaller than Port Angeles but does have a good grocery store and several decent restaurants. You will not find a lot of stuff here but you can definitely find the basics.
Our stay at the Forks 101 RV Park was great. The owner and other campers were friendly, bathrooms and laundry were clean and it is in a good location. We definitely recommend this campground.
The drive to Quinault Rain Forest is a bit long at a little over an hour. But there are very few options further south and it does offer a great opportunity to stop at the beach if you are interested.
Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument
Mount St. Helens is operated by the US Forest Service, so it does not count as one of the 417 national parks units. But, we are including it because, well, it is an interesting site! The visitor centers are found on the west side, where we visited. The south and east sides offer viewing and recreation areas as well.
The mountain (volcano) is actually located about an hour east of I-5. If you are short on time, there is a nice visitor center and viewing opportunity at Silver Lake, just about 5-10 minutes off the interstate. If nothing else, be sure to watch the 30-minute film and take a quick walk along the boardwalk at the lake.
Hopefully, the weather will cooperate and allow you a view of Mount St. Helens. When we were there, it was too cloudy to see anything. Thankfully, the next day was clear and sunny with fabulous views!
Across the street from Silver Lake, you will find Seaquest State Park, which is where we camped. The full hook-up sites were well-maintained and the bathrooms were clean. Our favorite part of the campground, though, was the tunnel under the road taking you straight to the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center.
One thing to note: this visitor center is operated by Washington State Parks, so admission is not included with the NPS America the Beautiful Pass.
Johnston Ridge Observatory
For the really good views of (what’s left of) the mountain, you’ll need to drive east to the Johnston Ridge Observatory. As you drive along Hwy 504 you’ll get several peeks of the volcano.
The Forest Learning Center offers exhibits, a film, souvenirs and great views of the mountain and river valley. This is definitely a good place to stop and stretch your legs and take in the scenery. Best of all, admission to the Learning Center is free.
Located about as close as possible to the mountain, the Johnston Ridge Observatory offers a few exhibits and another film. There are also several hikes of varying length and difficulty, affording fabulous views of the crater.
Here, you really get an up-close view of just how much of this mountain was blasted away by the eruption. It really is staggering!
There are several hiking and other recreational opportunities in and around Mount St. Helens. If you are driving to the observatory, you’ll want at least half a day for your visit. Add in a little hiking or several visitor center stops and you could easily spend a full day here.
For all you National Park lovers, the America the Beautiful Pass DOES cover entrance to US Forest Service lands. So, you’re visit to the Johnston Ridge Observatory is included if you have the pass.
Planning Your Trip
Exactly how you route your trip will depend on where you are entering from, any additional sights you want to see and how much time you have. While we enjoyed this trip, having more time to slow down, relax and really enjoy the scenery would have made it that much better.
With more time, we could have visited Seattle, Klondike NHS, Fort Vancouver NHS and more of Washington’s breweries and wineries. Alas, it just didn’t work out this time.
As you start planning your trip, I think the best part about this itinerary is how well the “big pieces” can be moved around.
Entering from Oregon? Simply reverse the order.
Flying into Seattle and driving a car or renting an RV? Circle to the east for most of the sights and add on the Olympic Peninsula at the beginning or end.
Only have a few days? Just pick one part of the trip and see that area.
Want to add on the two sights we skipped (Klondike NHS in Seattle and Fort Vancouver NHS in Vancouver)? You should be able to see each with just about a half-day stop in each city. That might be a little difficult with an RV but probably not impossible.
Yep, the options are just about endless.
When most folks think of Washington, they think of Seattle and rainy weather, but there is a lot more to the state.
We really enjoyed the variety of Washington, both in terms of the types of sites and the terrain. Where else can you drive a few hours in one direction and find a nuclear reactor along the semi-arid banks of the Columbia River and then find a rainforest a few hours in the opposite direction?
The biggest thing we wanted on this trip was more time. It’s tough to really explore this state in less than a month, so bear that in mind when you are planning your trip.