PNW Road Trip: Driving to Portland

Located on the Willamette River, the city offers a wealth of nature—Forest Park has miles of trails, while cinder cone volcanoes lie within the city limits.

Downtown is crowded with food carts, independent boutiques, and live music venues, and the small blocks make the streets highly walkable. Driving alternatives—from streetcars to bicycles to air tram—can be found everywhere.

Although downtown is a condensed area of shopping and dining, other Portland neighborhoods are equally welcoming. Out on Alberta, Hawthorne, or Division Avenues, you’ll find more of the independent eateries and stores that give the city its reputation for great finds. Locals are friendly and, more often than not, are transplants themselves—visitors who came to Portland, loved the way of life here, and never left.

The city doesn’t want for nicknames: The Rose City, Stumptown, Portlandia (the city where “hipsters go to retire”). Sure, everyone teases the city for its earnest, hipster weirdness—but to tease Portland is to love it.

Portland, Oregon and Mount Hood.
Portland, Oregon and Mount Hood. Photo © Piotr Zajda /123rf.

Driving to Portland from Seattle (173 miles, 3.25 hours)

From Seattle, I-5 travels southbound directly to Portland, but that doesn’t mean it’s a quick trip. The 174-mile journey on I-5 can be driven in just under three hours when there isn’t traffic, but that occurrence is rare. Usually you can expect a crowded freeway, especially during weekday rush hours (7:30am-9am and 3:30pm-6:30pm). Other sticky sections include I-5 through Tacoma (34 miles south) and near Joint Base Lewis-McChord (15 miles south of Tacoma), where thousands of military personnel commute to work. Past Olympia (about 20 miles farther south), traffic tends to thin, as do roadside services, though you’re never more than a few exits from a gas station.

From Centralia, I-5 passes the Cowlitz River and the towns of Kelso and Longview before sliding up to the Columbia River, which marks the border between Washington and Oregon. Once the freeway crosses the Columbia River, the city of Portland emerges immediately on the Oregon side, and downtown is another eight miles south on I-5. To reach downtown Portland, take exit 300 B and follow signs for Morrison Street. You’ll cross the Morrison Bridge, ending up on Washington Street, a one-way street that heads west through downtown.

Stopping in Centralia

Just before the town of Centralia, about 79 miles south of Seattle, the Great Wolf Lodge Grand Mound (20500 Old Hwy. 99, SW, Centralia, 800/640-9653, $339-479) emerges on the right side of the freeway. The hotel and water park, part of a national chain, is a favorite destination for families. The enclosed water park, available only to hotel guests, has a four-story interactive tree house and a six-story funnel slide, among other water features, plus interactive games and play structures outside the pool. All rooms are suites. There’s not much in the area around the hotel, but the water games are the real attraction.

Driving to Portland from the Oregon Coast (80-136 miles 1.5-2.5 hours)

Three state routes link the Oregon coast inland to I-5. From Astoria (97 miles, 2 hours), take Highway 30 east along the Columbia River. You can stay on Highway 30 within Oregon when the road bends south and heads to Portland, though you’ll be passing through rural country and small towns. A faster route is to leave Highway 30 at Longview, Washington. About 47 miles east of Astoria, take State Route 433 north across the Lewis and Clark Bridge into Washington. Then follow State Route 432 east to I-5 south. From this bend, I-5 runs 45 miles south to Portland.

From Cannon Beach (80 miles, 1.5 hours), take Highway 26 (a.k.a. the Sunset Highway) southeast to Portland. The route can get twisty close to the shoreline. Closer to Portland the suburban sprawl can make for slow going.

From Newport (136 miles, 2.5 hours), take Highway 20 east about 63 miles to the towns of Corvallis and Albany, where it meets up with I-5. From Albany, follow I-5 north for 70 miles to Portland.

Map of the greater Portland, Oregon region
Greater Portland

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