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One Family’s Road Trip Through the Pacific Northwest

Pacific Northwest

Pacific Northwest

The scheming, my scheming, started around this time last year. Could I plan and pull off a two-week family road trip that would wind our troop of four through the Pacific Northwest — an area I had never actually been to but had a very clear picture of in my mind? I floated the idea to my husband, and I knew he was intrigued when I wasn’t met with the usual concerns that govern our daily lives.

I wanted this trip to be something different. Real time away. Time away from how we normally live, time away from the heat, and, yes, time away from the tiny computers that have taken up almost permanent residence in our hands. I wanted to explore, camp, and celebrate a summer where our kids, still only a few years removed from the baby days, would find it all completely magical.

austin travel pick pacific northwest
The author’s trusty Polaroid camera was never far from her side as she and her family worked their way through the beaches, mountains and cities of the Pacific Northwest.

Confession: I love trip planning. I would have been a great travel agent. Give me a few disparate coordinates and I am tickled to connect the detailed dots. Armed with friendly endorsements (I mean, what is the point of a dinner party if not to file away your tablemates’ recent trip) and travel stories from the Sunday paper, I relish plotting it all out in advance. The trick being, by the time said trip actually arrives, everyone involved, myself included, has the illusion of spontaneity.

All of this — my Pacific Northwest wanderlust and travel agent dreams — came to an auspicious head one stormy weekend last fall. With all four of us trapped inside for a full 48 hours, movies were cued up, forts were built, and the planning began. But where to start?

The home of a best childhood friend seemed perfect. We could arrive at this softest of landing pads, let the kids entertain one another, and catch up with old pals. The fact that this happy home also happened to be in the Bay Area, Alameda, to be exact, certainly didn’t hurt. We would get to explore San Francisco, all the while getting organized for the camping and traveling that lay ahead.

austin travel pick pacific northwestAfter that initial flurry of planning many months before and a more recent scramble to make sure our flight, packing and rental car basics were covered, arrive we did. By July 16, we had already spent two days riding ferries, eating every dumpling and Tartine morning bun we could get our hands on, and dashing through the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Once we had decided to kick things off in the Bay Area, I knew Redwood National and State Parks would be our next, and really first, road trip stop. This is where we would revel in the majesty of those larger-than-you-can-ever-capture-in-a-photograph trees and try our hand at camping with children.

Let me stop you here. Before having children, my husband, Matt, and I were occasional campers. Nothing crazy. Since having children, the idea had seemed laughable, but now, armed with REI’s finest air mattresses and an almost six- and four-year-old, we were ready to give it a shot. Because here is the thing about camping: The Type A advanced planners among us (me) get rewarded with the most-postcard-worthy spots.

For us, to drive onto a coastal redwood forest dirt road, that meant that six months to the day earlier I had been reserving a coveted Gold Bluffs Beach camping spot. Oh man, was the online scrambling on that early January morning worth it. We pulled up in awe. The Pacific was to our front, foggy, tree-covered cliffs to our back, and we were nestled among the dunes somewhere in between.

austin travel pick pacific northwest
After a few days spent camping in Redwood National Park, Portland’s Wald House, originally designed in the ‘70s by architect James G. Tropfenbaum was a welcome change.

Now we just needed to set up our brand-new tent and act as if we knew what we were doing. Check. Matt wrestled with the poles and rainfly while I went beach-combing with the kids. An hour later we were triumphantly reunited, as the kids unloaded handfuls of rocks, shells, and crab limbs and Matt proudly fired up the Coleman stove.

The following days more or less unfolded in the same comforting rhythm. Slow meals, beach walks, hikes to our campsite adjacent Fern Canyon, and round after round of Go Fish. All punctuated by nightly campfire s’mores and a foggy chill that was too good to be true. Miraculously our kids found the whole experience thrilling. Forty-eight hours later, properly in touch with nature and ready for a shower, we packed up, waved goodbye to our campsite neighbors, and continued our drive north.

By now Oregon was in our sights, and we were heading for Portland. Yachats, a small beach community with a stunning coastline, turned out to be the perfect go-between. Waves crashed, and turnoff after turnoff promised another tucked-away beach path. We happily took a break from the drive, dusted up on our tide-pool-spotting skills, and were rewarded with sea lions, starfish, and some clean laundry.

austin travel pick pacific northwestAs we continued to Portland and said goodbye to the beach for a few days, we prepared ourselves to hop back into city life. After camping and being on the road, I couldn’t wait to check into our Portland digs — the urbane Wald House — and meet my sister, who was hooking up with us for the rest of the trip. After a flurry of unpacking and catching up, we settled in with a glass of wine on the porch of this high-design and forested HomeAway property. The kids tripped over each other to regale their Aunt Caroline with camping stories (“We ate a snack inside a tree!”), while Matt announced we were heading to Pok Pok NW for dinner. Thai for all!

Our Thai dinner led into the following morning’s Blue Star Doughnuts and Chemex-prepared coffee (I told you it was urbane), which bolstered us for what turned out to be a day filled with the Portland Japanese Garden, Powell’s Books, Ace Hotel photo booth shenanigans, and walks along the Willamette River. No, we didn’t make it to Tusk, and we couldn’t bear the long wait at Salt & Straw, but since we all completely fell in love with Portland it’s no doubt we’ll back to tackle the next round of must-dos.

Williams’ husband Matt, and her son Ford walking along Ruby Beach in Mt. Olympic National Park.

For this next leg we would head back to the sticks and reunite with my favorite type of people: national park people. And reunite we did. Before long we were setting up camp at Mount Rainier National Park’s Ohanapecosh Campground. This time we had traded sandy dunes and fern-covered walls for subalpine rapids and lush meadows, all pointing toward the massive Mount Rainier. As we consulted with our sock-footed and Birkenstock-wearing park ranger about the best hikes to tackle while in the park, I fell a little more in love with everything these protected lands represent: access to the wild, freedom from the mundane, and respect for the natural world. Ken Burns, are you out there?

Hiking was mostly well-received by the younger set, but swimming in the campsite’s Ohanapecosh River was certainly the highlight for our kids. Between the hike, swim, endless rounds of Uno, and what had to be s’more number 50, we all tucked into our tents as the stars came out.

austin travel pick pacific northwestThe next morning my sister and I would trick my kids (fruit by the foot!) into one last hike as Matt packed up the car for our second-to-last stop: Olympic National Park. This time we would be sleeping within the confines of a cozy cabin at Kalaloch Lodge — or so we thought.

Upon arrival, the thing that I had secretly feared since I first began planning all those months ago happened. The lodge’s manager, Joe, politely explained that our cabin had been given away just an hour earlier. This is the cabin I had booked first during that rainy weekend, had anchored the whole of the trip, and was the spot my husband was most excited about. Upon seeing my panic — we were more or less in the middle of nowhere on the Olympic Peninsula with two starving kids — he correctly guessed that we had gotten our dates mixed up. They thought we were 24 hours late and therefore a no-show while I assumed we were right on time. Matt found a cell phone signal and somehow managed to make me feel worse when he optimistically explained there were available rooms at a casino resort two hours away. This was not good news.

Thankfully Joe had higher ambitions for our group of five. He cajoled an innkeeper in the nearest town, Forks, Washington (yes, that Forks), into breaking his no-children-on-the-top-floor policy. We basically yelled our credit card number over the phone, swore up and down our kids were quieter than others (sure), and raced over to hold the room we knew others would be all too happy to snatch up. In the midst of the chaos Joe had found us a cabin for the next two nights so our foggy, fern-filled, beachside Olympic dreams could be fulfilled. Bless him.

austin travel pick pacific northwestAll would be right. We would in fact still get to explore the Hoh Rainforest, picnic alongside grazing elk at the Hoh River (a blue I’ve never seen before), climb on the sea stacks at famed Ruby Beach, and once again search for starfish at low tide.

As our dusty and overflowing SUV screeched to a halt in front of Seattle’s historic and elegantly updated Hotel Sorrento, I sheepishly explained we had been on the road for the past two weeks. Thankfully they welcomed our Chaco-wearing feet with open arms and even had cookies waiting in our room. The marble-clad and art-filled elegance rubbed off on us as we tried our best to spruce up for a walk around the city.

The last two days were a happy blur — fish-related pranks at Pike Place Market, swimming in the sound at Golden Gardens Park, a proper brunch at Oddfellows Café + Bar, and a visit to the top of the Space Needle, which was built at a time of seemingly endless optimism. We closed out our days the good kind of exhausted and grateful for this time spent together as a family.