Hit 3 Stunning National Parks On This West Coast Road Trip Route

Washington state often takes a backseat to Washington, D.C. in the news, which is understandable, given that D.C. is the nation's capital. However, if you're ready to load up your own back seat and take a road trip with your family or some fellow hikers, Washington state might be the better travel option. It could be the start of a longer road trip to see the beautiful Pacific Northwest coastline, including parts of Oregon and Northern California. Or you could just limit your driving to one state and easily stay occupied exploring Washington's three national parks for a week or two.

The state's Olympic Peninsula is home to the beautiful Olympic National Park, where you can explore everything from rainforests to mountain glaciers. Washington's tallest mountain, Mount Rainier, an iconic landmark in its own right, is the centerpiece of Mount Rainier National Park. Less visited each year, but equally beautiful in terms of its scenery, is North Cascades National Park near the Canadian border.

There are slightly more than 300 miles and approximately six and a half hours of driving time without traffic, between these three national parks. However, given that the route passes through Seattle, you may want to stop off there and grab some coffee at one of the city's countless shops, like the original Starbucks in Pike Place Market. You also may want to take time to enjoy Washington's three national parks to the fullest with some of these outdoor activities.

Olympic, Mount Rainier, and North Cascades

Olympic National Park covers almost a million acres, and since it stretches along Washington's coast for more than 70 miles, it offers the chance to see impressive sea stacks and explore tidepools rich in marine life. One spot for that is the trail along Rialto Beach to the Hole-in-the-Wall rock faces. Further inland, at Lake Crescent and Lake Quinault, you can rent canoes and kayaks to explore both of these glacially carved lakes.

Walking among the moss, ferns, and towering trees of the Hoh Rain Forest or one of Olympic's other three rainforests is a must. In the Elwha Valley, the old resort at Olympic Hot Springs has long since given way to unmaintained pools. However, from spring to autumn, the relaxing Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort and its cabins are still a good place to not just rest your weary bones, but also soak them in mineral water.

At Mount Rainier National Park, you can drive the Chinook Scenic Byway, ride the Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad, hike up to the Mount Fremont fire lookout, survey the Boulder Cave Natural Area, or rediscover history at the Pioneer Farm Museum and Ohop Indian Village. North Cascades has camping, boating, and horseback riding options, and despite its name, Cutthroat Lake is one of several options for hiking with kids if you're road-tripping with family. However, those traveling alone or with other adults who plan on roughing it should be careful not to charge heedlessly into adventure in Mount Rainier or North Cascades.

Safety in Washington's national parks

One thing to remember about Mount Rainier, is that it's an active volcano. While it hasn't had a major eruption in 500 years, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is still monitoring it. It's been pegged as the most dangerous U.S. volcano (via National Geographic), and as reported by Time, it's one of the world's most dangerous volcanoes overall, according to experts. According to the USGS, what makes it potentially perilous more so than lava is the flow of mud and debris that would be triggered by the melting of glaciers on top of the mountain during an eruption.

This isn't meant to discourage anyone from visiting Mount Rainier National Park, but it's worth noting in general that it's a place where you should exercise caution. In addition to common-sense hiking safety tips everyone should know, the U.S. National Park Service recommends that hikers take special care not to enter Rainier's collapsible ice caves or be overconfident when crossing streams or hiking in springtime.

North Cascades also comes with a warning: It's the place with the highest death rate in the U.S. national park system (via NBC News). The mountains here are what's really cutthroat, not so much the lake of that name. Some cite the ban on bolted anchors as a contributing factor in mountaineering accidents in North Cascades. Even experienced climbers have fallen victim to such accidents. It all goes to say, as you're enjoying the remote, rugged beauty and wilderness of each of Washington's three national parks, the same safety tips apply.