The Ultimate Pacific Northwest National Parks road trip
Updated: Nov 9, 2020
A 14 day road van-camping trip through, Lassen, Crater Lake, Olympic and Rainier National Parks
Summer time is road trip season! And this year, we decided to take on several shorter road trips, instead of one long one like last year's 6-week Canadian Rockies Road Trip. There are so many gorgeous National Parks in the USA, and several are within driving distance from the Central Coast of California. So this year, we decided to design van travel itineraries that could explore the western side of our own country. The National Parks that we selected for this road trip were new to us. Admittedly, I hadn’t even heard of Lassen National Park before the trip. But I was happy to find that there was much to explore and it was far less crowded, even over a holiday weekend. Olympic National Park is another destination full of surprises: rainforests and snow-capped mountains, rugged, sea-stacked coastline and sulphuric hot springs - multiple diverse micro-climates, all within the same park. Crater Lake of course, blew me away with its vast, vibrant blue waters. And we found so much more to Rainier National Park than just its infamous central peak. So in hindsight, we could have easily added four or five more days to this itinerary. However, what we did see, left us wanting for more. And that’s a good thing, right? So if you have only two weeks to explore, let us take you up the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway on what we believe is the Ultimate Pacific Northwest road trip.
2017 Mercedes Sprinter Van – 4x4; 19’ long; diesel engine, gets 14-17mpg; 14-15 gallon water tank; 2 solar panels, AC and DC power; shower head (between rear doors out back with snap-on curtain); hot water heater; DC space heater; electric penthouse canopy; sleeps 4 (but 2 adults have most room); outdoor roll-out canopy; automatic sideboards; off road lights; air compressor; fridge; sink; microwave; lots of storage. Code name: the Stover Rover.
See more photos of the interior or our van as well as a full review of our favorite features here.
Time of year
July - We took advantage of the Independence Day weekend and started our trip ON the actual holiday. There was a lot less traffic on the road and we made good time to our first destination.
National Park campgrounds and lodges fill up far in advance for summer months. So book ahead to save your spot. You can always cancel if your plans change. But waiting until the last minute is not recommended. If you plan to wild-camp on BLM or Forest Service land, this won't apply.
NOTE - We were surprised at how much snow was still on the ground! The western USA had a heavy rain year and many trails at higher elevation were still snow-packed or impassable. We were glad we brought trekking poles, but many times wished we had packed our micro-spikes, in order to improve traction.
Average daily cost
We monitored three areas for this on a weekly basis: Food (groceries, restaurants, alcohol), gas, and miscellaneous spending while on the road. We grocery shopped for breakfast and snacks items and cooked at least four or five dinner meals a week on our Coleman stove. We did not skimp, ate at a few restaurants on occasion, and averaged $106/day or $742 US/week. We actually spent more on food than we did on gas, despite the distance we covered.
Campground fees, hotels - total: $486. We were able to free camp most nights at trail heads or on BLM land or Forest Service roads throughout the trip. But occasionally chose campgrounds close to where my husband wanted to get sunrise or sunset shots, without requiring a long drive. This is an area of expense that can be modified according to budget and/or availability of free camping spots. But overall, it added an average of $35/ day, including one really nice resort room in Sunriver, Oregon at the end of the trip.
Stop 1 – Lassen Volcanic National Park, California
The dominant feature in this park is Lassen Peak.Topping out at 10,457', it is the largest plug-dome volcano in the world and the southernmost volcano in the Cascade Range.The area around Lassen Peak is still active with boiling mud pots, fumaroles and hot springs.
Drive time – 8 hours*
Nights - 2
Camping options: Forest Service Roads available off Highway 89 as you approach the park. Or check out several campgrounds within Lassen National Park.
TIP - Lassen National Park’s Kohn Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center near the Southern entrance allows overnight parking for a limited number of vehicles on a First Come First Served (FCFS) basis . It was only a $10 parking fee. There are also walk-in tent campsites available as at this location as well. Again, not reservable. We arrived on Holiday weekend and there were plenty of parking spots in the ‘overnight area’.
Accommodations within the Park
Hotels in the area
Mill Creek Falls, just off the Visitor Center parking area, is a nice evening hike (~3 miles RT) when you arrive. Kings Creek Falls is another worthwhile stop. For a longer hike (11 miles), Cluster Lakes loop takes you past seven or eight scenic lakes and some very diverse terrain. Plus you get some fantastic views of Lassen Peak from the trail. If you are a photographer, don’t miss an opportunity to get the classic Lassen Peak sunset shot from across Lake Manzanita. Camp there a night and walk the path that surrounds the lake, from the southwest side. If you have more time and want to see how diverse this park really is, check out the mud pots and fumaroles of Bumpess Hell Basin or drive over the east side and explore the trails near Prospect Peak, Cinder Cone and Painted Dunes.
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NOTE - we wanted to climb Lassen Peak. But in July, the trailhead parking lot was clear but was still surrounded by more than 10 feet of snow! The trail was not passable unless you had crampons or micro-spikes. And by the looks of it, it would be August before it was melted.
Stop 2 – Mount Shasta, California
Mount Shasta is the second-highest volcanic peak in the southern Cascades. Standing at 14,179', it is the fifth-highest peak in California and still considered potentially active. Beside the main summit, the satellite cone - Shastina, is equally stunning. Annually, more than 15,000 climbers attempt to summit Mount Shasta. But only a third of those attempts are successful.
Drive time - 2 hours
Nights - 0 (day hike stop en route)
Since driving from Lassen to Crater Lake takes less than four hours, we decided to include a stop at Bunny Flats and spend a few hours hiking around the base of Mount Shasta.
Hiking trails - there are several shorter trails that take less than two hours to complete. We hiked Bunny Flat to Horse Camp. But at the refuge, we ran into so much snow (in July!) that we had to turn back.
Stop 3 – Crater Lake National Park, Oregon
Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the United States, measuring 1,949 feet in depth. Formed more than 7700 years ago by the volcanic collapse of Mount Mazama, this natural wonder has its water replaced every 250 years simply by rainfall, snowmelt and evaporation. Of all the stops on this trip, Crater Lake left me with the deepest impression. The morning silence, the evening light, the stillness of the water and its overwhelming size, all came together and left both of us speechless and humbled on more than one occasion.
Drive time - 2 hours from Mount Shasta, or 4 hours total from Lassen
Nights - 2
We opted to spend our arrival night in Klamath Falls.
TIP - Entrance lines at Crater Lake can be LONG. And they begin to form early, especially on weekends. I highly suggest getting an early start. It's only a 45 minute drive from Klamath Falls to Crater Lake and you probably won't have to wait in line if you arrive before 9am.
Crater Lake Lodge in the park or hotels in Klamath Falls
NOTE - Crater Lake is fabulous for sunset and night sky photography. Spend some time driving around the lake to 'recon' your favorite spots ahead of time.
Suggested hiking trails or lookouts
Garfield Peak, Watchman Overlook, Cleetwood Cove, Wizard Island (in season)
TIP - If you are self-contained and have a leave-no-trace strategy, parking along the rim to cook dinner, breakfast or have coffee from your camper van is a real treat. You won’t find a better view. But be smart. And keep it clean.
Stop 4 – Mount Hood (area), Oregon
Mount Hood is the highest point in Oregon and standing at 11,249', is the fourth highest in the Cascade range. It is host to Timberline Lodge, a National Historic Landmark and boasts six ski areas on its flanks.
Drive time - 3.5 - 4 hours
Nights - 1
Campground - Clear Lake campground or wild camping on any National Forest Road
TIP - we decided to stop here on route to Olympic National Park because we wanted to maximize our last morning at Crater Lake with one more sunrise shoot and some casual coffee time. We left mid-morning, got in a short and scenic hike along the way at Mirror Lake and broke up the overall drive time.
Stop 5 – Olympic National Park
With three diverse ecosystems and covering over one million acres of Washington state, this massive National Park has earned World Heritage Status. We had a difficult time choosing where to spend our time. And in the end, we hiked some fantastic trails through moss-laden forests and high alpine meadows. But left knowing we only saw a small fraction of the park.
Drive time - 6 hours
Nights - 3
Olympic National Park is huge and offers three diverse environments to explore: coastline, rain forest and mountains. There are several campgrounds to choose from, but first you need to select what type of environment you want to explore and how much time you have. Driving from the coast area of the park up to Hurricane ridge, as example, could take you 2.5 hours, one way. Since we live near the coast in California, we opted to explore less frequently seen territory: rain forest and mountain ridge line. Many campgrounds at Olympic National Park are first come, first serve (FCFS) and cannot be reserved ahead of time. So do some research and some advanced planning or a have flexible mindset.
Camping options (not comprehensive)
TIP - Even if you don’t stay overnight, the Sol Duc Hotspring Resort is an inexpensive treat and great place to get a hot shower if you have been hiking in the humid rain forest around Sol Duc Falls
TIP - if you are a hiker or a trail runner, and are comfortable hitching a ride, route between Obstruction Point and Deer Park campground is 7.4 miles of well-maintained trail and absolutely breathtaking.
Stop 6 - Rainier National Park
My husband had made the 14,410' summit of Mount Rainier more than a decade prior to this road trip. Yet, he had yet to experience the rest of this iconic National Park. The tallest peak in the Cascade Range and in the state of Washington, Rainier is also still active, and considered one of the most dangerous volcanos in the world. However, this is one stop we wish we had planned for more time. Mount Rainier National Park has so many beautiful hiking and photography options, we simply underestimated the amount of time needed to really explore all that it had to offer.
Drive time - 5-6 hours
Nights - 3
Suggested hikes - If you are so inclined, the Wonderland Trail circumnavigates the infamous peak over 90 continuous miles. Backpackers put in for 7-10 day permits starting 8-12 months in advance. But you can easily day hike sections of the loop as well. We enjoyed the Frozen Lake Loop to the Burroughs (out of Sunrise), Naches Peak Loop and hiking to Indian Henry's Hunting Cabin.
NOTE - there are no showers, as well as no electrical, water, or grey water hookups in any of the campgrounds in Rainier National Park.
Lodge options - Paradise Inn - We ate dinner here one night and noticed a guest score a walk-in room without an advanced booking. However, I believe this is a rare occurrence, so plan in advance if you want to guarantee an overnight stay at this historic beauty.
TIP #1 - Forest Service Road 52, south of the National Park, has many pullouts for Wild Camping from May to September. You can also access the park from this road and avoid the long lines at the more popular entrances
TIP #2 – If you plan on overnight backpacking, the Sunrise Visitor Center has a few overnight parking spots available on FCFS basis. **But you are not allowed to sleep overnight in your vehicle, this is patrolled.
Tip #3 – On the East side of the Park, only ½ mile past Tipsoo Lake and Naches Peak trail on 410, you cross out of National Park territory and into National Forest land. There is a large parking area and trailhead on the left, with pit toilet, which many hikers use. We slept here overnight in our camper van without incident, and then drove back into the park the next morning for sunrise photography.
Stop 7 – Bend / Sunriver, Oregon
Drive time - 6-6.5 hours
Nights - 1
We decided to break up the drive home by stopping in one of our favorites areas of Oregon. And we were so glad we did! Also, since there is were no shower facilities in Rainier National Park, we opted to splurge and get a room at the Sunriver Resort for the night. What a treat. With beautiful bike paths, natural landscaping and its own grocery and restaurant center, this gorgeous community just south of Bend, was a perfect place to stretch our legs, get a hot shower and enjoy a great meal out.
We split the remainder of the trip home to Central Coast California, into two 6-hour drive days.This allowed for leisurely mornings and no-pressure stops in between.This no-agenda travel time was great for listening to podcasts, doing some blogging and taking a first pass at sorting through the hundreds of photos we took on the trip. We choose Redding, California as a functional, halfway point to grab some sleep and internet time. You could also easily stop by Lassen National Park again, if there was anything you missed during your first experience.
Click here for hotel options near Redding, CA
I hope this itinerary was helpful and you find some inspiration for your next road trip. Feel free to contact me with any questions you may have and..
Feel free to check out some of our other road trip itineraries!