9 Scenic Drives to See Fall’s Fabulous Colors

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All that glitters is gold! And red and orange and copper! The fall colors have made it to the Pacific Northwest, as the local trees drop their leaves, but not before giving us a final treat. Nature’s annual show isn’t just reserved for New England after all. Here are nine dazzling deciduous drives not too far from Seattle that will mesmerize the family, along with delightful detours for your little ones.

Bainbridge Island and Bloedel Reserve

Distance: 15 miles from Seattle, with a fun ferry ride.

Best foliage spotting: Bloedel Reserve

Bainbridge Island’s Bloedel Reserve is a natural kaleidoscope that seems to shimmer and shift before your eyes. No two visits are the same as the ever-changing landscape follows the seasons. Your family can explore the collection of 12 gardens, over 150 acres, for hours and discover diverse environments such as their award-winning Japanese Garden and their lush, green moss garden. Fall is a magical time at the Reserve. The larch trees change color and provide a perfect photographic backdrop. Another autumnal surprise is the sweet scent that drifts off the Katsura trees in the Japanese garden. The fragrance comes from the leaves themselves as they turn colors and float to the ground. Take a moment with your Littles to enjoy this sensory experience. Timed entry tickets must be purchased in advance. Food, pets and beverages (other than water) are not allowed in the garden so be sure to feed the troops before you go.

Don’t-miss detours: After running wild at the Reserve, hunker down with Bruciato’s delicious pizza. Currently offering to-go only, bring your pizza to Hawley Cove Park or grab provisions at Town & Country Market. The holidays come early at Calico Toy Shoppe! Treat your family to some games and toys, or stock up on future gifts at this indie store. The Bainbridge Island Museum of Art (BIMA) is a treasure. Open daily from 10 a.m.-5 p.m., entry is free and the collection superb. It’s the perfect (small!) size to keep tinies entertained and teach them about the important world of art.

Extend the fun: Stay at Eagle Harbor Inn, a boutique hotel right in town, or book an Airbnb with water views to try out island life for yourself.

Online: Visit Bainbridge Island

Gig Harbor

Distance: 44 miles from Seattle.

Best foliage spotting: Sehmel Homestead Park, Harbor Family Park & Rocky Creek Conservation Area

Gig Harbor is a quintessential sailing town, like driving into an Impressionist painting of a New England cove. An ideal quick escape, the town charms with its small shops and kid-friendly activities, and its parks dazzle with deciduous delights. Take a lunch to the park and enjoy the autumn splendor al fresco. Hit up the Harbor General Store for sandwiches, old-fashioned ice cream at throwback prices, and adult bevvies. Or grab lunch to-go from Susanne’s Café–a true local favorite known for its French flair and mouthwatering sandwiches. Another fantastic option is dining in at Devoted Kiss Café (reservations needed), the patio overlooking the harbor is the perfect backdrop for thumbing through your just-snapped leaf photos and adding that #nofilter tag.

Don’t-miss detours: Rent kayaks from Lee's SUP and paddle to the lighthouse at the mouth of the harbor. The beach makes for a fantastic second picnic spot, and if your kiddos are lucky a friendly seal will swim by. The Harbor History Museum is another kid-fave and it's right downtown. Open Thursday through Saturdays, from 11 a.m.-4 p.m., it where you can learn about the story of Galloping Gertie and more.

Extend the fun: Stay at Best Western Wesley Inn & Suites for an overnight; a great option for families. A generous breakfast buffet starts the day, and the pool is tons of splashy fun for tiny tykes. Plan to chat with the owner Sue Braaten, a true local with insider tips—she just might tempt you to stay away for a few days longer.

Online: Visit Gig Harbor

Winthrop and the North Cascades Highway

Editor's note: Sun Mountain Lodge is currently closed through Oct. 15, 2021.

Distance: 186 miles from Seattle. Plan for frequent foliage detours.

Best foliage spotting: Cutthroat Lake, Diablo Lake, Washington Pass, Methow River & Patterson Lake

The North Cascades Highway is a stunning drive any time it’s open, but every autumn it ups its foliage game to new levels. The east side of the Cascades provides the native habitat for the elusive larch tree, the deciduous conifer that turns electric gold for a few short weeks every year. For aficionados, Cutthroat Pass and its namesake lake are the holy grail of Larch Madness. The hike to Cutthroat Lake from the highway is surprisingly doable, even for smaller children, at less than four flat miles round trip. Active families who pack a picnic basket and plan ahead will be rewarded with memories to last a lifetime.

Make a long weekend and utilize Winthrop as base camp for making short forays to the foliage. Winthrop is every child’s Western movie fantasy come to life. Designed from necessity, the town was dwindling in size and importance when the highway was completed in 1972. Building on their rugged mining past, the town decided to go full steam ahead on the rodeo theme to entice tourists to saddle up and “ride” on in. Today the wooden sidewalks and saloon-style store fronts welcome young pardners and families after the windy, tree-laden highway drive.

Don’t-miss detours: You won’t want to rush through the vistas, so bring provisions. East20 Pizza makes out-of-this-world yummy pies. Bring one along for lunch and don’t hesitate to grab another for dinner. Sun Mountain Lodge has wonderful box lunches with burgers, sandwiches, and veggie options. Methow Valley Cider House serves BBQ and burgers to go, and their refreshing cider should be sipped to properly enjoy the fall views.

Get your sugar rush at Sheri’s Sweet Shoppe. This old-fashioned candy shop is almost impossible to avoid, your nose will lead you there with its sweet temptations and sugary aroma. The Old Schoolhouse Brewery is family friendly, with a relaxing location by the river. Don’t forget your giddy-up! Horseback riding is a quintessential Winthrop experience. Sun Mountain Lodge has arena and trail rides available through mid-October, with some of the best views in the valley.

Extend the fun: Sun Mountain Lodge sits perched high above the valley, with stunning views and sunsets. The rooms are decorated with just the right touch of dude ranch, and the main lobby opens to even more tree gawking possibilities. With over 40 miles of trails on property, hikers and mountain bikers of all skills will find thrills. The restaurant serves delicious fixin’s for all tastes. We recommend the Patterson Lake cabins with full kitchens for families. The trees surrounding the lake will glimmer and turn colors outside the windows. This is a special place to unwind and connect with your inner Walden Pond.

Online: Winthrop Washington

via David Hill Winery

Tualatin Valley, Oregon

Distance: 185 miles from Seattle to Beaverton.

Best foliage spotting: Cooper Mountain Nature Park & Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge.

Oregon’s Tualatin Valley is a rural paradise with vineyards, farms, rolling hills, and charming towns. The cornucopia of dense forest, farm-to-table-dining and locally produced wine and beer make it an easy weekend escape from the big city.

Don’t-miss detours: Nothing says fall like pumpkin pie, so get the true taste of the season started with a visit to Hoffman Farms Store. Kids will love the corn maze, pumpkin patch and a scenic ride around the farm on the Scholls Valley Railroad. The on-site bakery produces delectable pies with fruit fresh-picked from the farm, including vegan and gluten-free options, you won't want to miss.

Zip on over to lovely Hagg Lake for a visit to Tree to Tree Aerial Adventure Park. The aerial obstacle course is perfect for older and adventurous kids who think of fall foliage as something to climb through rather than stare at. The six different courses will test even the most agile kids. Grab bikes and head out on the scenic and (mostly) flat 21-mile Banks-Vernonia State Trail for an epic rainbow leaf drop. It’s an easy-peasy out-and-back so families can decide when to turn around. Try not to miss the Buxton Trestle at mile seven, a 600-foot-long former railroad bridge.

Hungry (and thirsty) leaf stalkers will enjoy lunch at family-friendly Ridgewalker Brewing. The burgers and sandwiches are every bit as good as the beer, and there’s a Junior Brunch menu for small fries so they can learn at an early age about the most important meal of the week. The Tualatin Valley lies smack-dab in Oregon wine country, so wine down your day with a tasting at a local vineyard. David Hill Vineyards & Winery is socially distanced and kid-friendly in a gorgeous setting, so be sure to reserve some adult time while the kids play on the grass.

Extend the fun: Set up home base at McMenamin’s Grand Lodge Hotel in Forest Grove, then go leaf hunting! The hotel continues the brothers’ streak of taking over magnificent buildings and turning them into hotels—in this case an immense, century-old Masonic lodge. On-site food options abound, including outdoor Pat’s Corner and indoor/outdoor Ironwork Grill. The lawn games next to Pat’s make for fun dinner-time diversion as well as some healthy competition. Ruby’s Spa is open for visitors with Covid-19 restrictions in place, as is the grotto-inspired soaking pool. Don’t forget to point out the portraits of famous rock musicians around the property. Your kids will gain instant cool status.

Online: Oregon’s Tualatin Valley

via Enjoy Port Townsend

Port Townsend

Distance: 60 miles from Seattle, including a ferry to either Kingston or Bainbridge Island.

Best foliage spotting: Fort Worden Historical State Park

Port Townsend is an escape to another era with its preserved Victorian architecture and slow, sailboat-gazing lifestyle. It’s an enclave for artists, hipsters and hippies—a welcome mash-up of groovy and quirky. The town is fun to peruse and explore, but for fall leaves head straight to Fort Worden Historical State Park. Once a U.S. Army base, it became a beautiful getaway with camping, cafés and curving beaches after it was donated to the state. Park near Taps at the Guardhouse, a lively spot with firepits, food and cocktails, surrounded by gilded trees. The former barracks have served as backdrop to a few famous films. Grab a blanket and walk (or drive) to the beaches. Cable House Canteen across from the beach has snacks, wine and beer, so your family can post up to spend a few hours strolling the seashore, exploring marine life.

Don’t-miss detours: The Cicmehan Trail features 16 sites organized into three loops to educate visitors on the S’Killikum people who lived in the area for hundreds of years. Walk to a few easy monuments or bike around to see more. Elevated Ice Cream Company tempts right on the Water Street (chances are the little ones, and older ones, won’t let you walk on by). Howell’s Sandwich Shop is tucked away behind Lively Olive Tasting Bar, with a wonderful ocean view for sundowners and sandwiches. Finistere has become a major culinary destination, so shed your hiking gear for smart shoes and prepare your taste buds for excellence. The outdoor setting is just as charming as the indoors.

Extend the fun: Stay at the Tides Inn & Suites overlooking the water. With convenient suites for families, and fireplaces made for cozy bedtime stories, it’s an excellent autumn escape. Another good option is The Palace Hotel, with a perfect location in the center of town.

Online: Enjoy Port Townsend

via Olympic National Park Trips

The Olympic Peninsula: Sequim to Lake Crescent

Distance: 70 miles from Seattle, including a ferry to Kingston or Bainbridge Island.

Best foliage spotting: The Olympic Peninsula is one big fall foliage tapestry. It’s hard to go wrong when the entire drive along the Elwha River between Highway 101 and the Olympic Park entrance is renowned for fall color explosions. From Hurricane Ridge, with its magnificent mile-high, 360-degree views, visitors can spy Mount Baker, Victoria BC, the San Juan Islands and what seems like millions of trees. Once on top, hiking trails and picnic spots are yours for the taking. There is a café with food but we recommend bringing tasty treats for more options and to enjoy the day at your leisure—the drive takes about 40 minutes to get to the top.

Lake Crescent looks like an alpine postcard, fed by glacial water famous for its clarity and cerulean glow. Grab a kayak or canoe and tuck in the whole family for a lake view of the golden and copper color show. Lake Crescent Lodge has an elegance reminiscent of the golden age of travel. Relax on the sun porch or inside by the fireplace and play card games after your outing. If you forget the games, pop into the gift shop and purchase Scrabble: National Parks Edition.

Don’t-miss detours: Grab the bikes for a lazy afternoon on the Olympic Discovery Trail. Once completed, the route will span 140 miles of non-motorized transit, from Port Townsend to La Push. In Sequim, bike to Railroad Bridge Park. The historic bridge was rebuilt in 2015, which means it’s safe and sturdy. Then roll through Sequim’s legendary lavender farms and check out the 5.5-mile Dungeness Spit, home of the tasty namesake crab.

Olympic Game Farm is an interesting diversion for small fry who need a break from botany. A retirement home for film and domesticated wild animals, visitors can drive through and get astonishingly close. Feeding the animals is not only allowed, it’s encouraged, so get up close and personal with Tibetan yaks, Kodiak bears, and the famous blacktail buck deer featured in the movie Captain Fantastic.

Locals love the drive into Sol Duc for prime maple tree gawking along the roadway. Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort has simple but comfortable rooms. Stay the night and enjoy the natural hot springs pumped into convenient pools available only to hotel guests. Kids love the shallow, temperate pool and the larger cold pool for splashing. The sundries shop has excellent wine, cider and beer to-go and the café serves up yummy nosh. If you’re lucky some funky tunes will accompany your relaxing soak. One of the lifeguards is also an excellent DJ, ask for the “Superfly” mix.

Extend the fun: Stay at Holiday Inn Express in Sequim. It is perfectly located for enjoying the region, well-suited for families, and has some of the most comfortable beds around.

Online: Olympic Peninsula

via Olympic National Park Trips

Lake Quinault & Hoh Rainforest

Distance: 147 miles from Seattle to Lake Quinalt. The rainforest is another 71 miles away.

Best foliage spotting: Surrounding Lake Quinault & inside Hoh National Rain Forest.

Lake Quinault is a majestic, glacially carved lake where families flock yearly for summer fun, but locals know the best time to visit is in October. The air is crisp, the fire's blazing and the trees around the lake reflect crimson and gold in the glassy water. Miles of hiking trails serpent and crystal waterfalls cascade just feet from the winding main road.

The Hoh Rain Forest is part of the Olympic National Park and requires a park pass to enter. The drive to the entrance is magical, conjuring images of woodland creatures and fairy tales. A variety of hikes inside the park suit even the tiniest hiking shoe (a three-year-old could crush the Mini Trail, which is 0.2 miles long and flat). The friendly rangers will assist with choosing the right trail for your group. Be sure to ask which trails have the most maples and alders for prime fall foliage photos. Bring food and water or stock up at the Hard Rain Café—there are no provisions inside the park for hangry hikers.

Don’t-miss detours: The Quinault Valley is also known as the Valley of the Rainforest Giants, with six world champion trees to admire. Some, such as the world’s largest Sitka Spruce (191 feet tall!) or Western Red Cedar, are easily accessible on foot from the main road. The 31-mile Quinault Rain Forest Loop Drive makes for a lovely day, to stop and leaf peep along the way.

Ruby Beach will not provide as many rust-colored snapshots, but the magnificent Pacific Ocean never disappoints. The wild surf and jagged rocks are well worth the drive. Sit on a driftwood bench and watch the rock cairns struggle to withstand the tides, then build your own family rock stack. Numbered beaches along the way (Beaches 1–5) offer picture-perfect picnicking. Bring a bottle of wine and enjoy the rare (for Seattle) sight of the sun setting over the Pacific.

Extend the fun: Lake Quinault Lodge is a true gem. We recommend staying here and taking a mini-vacation to welcome autumn’s arrival. The lodge is part of the Historic National Park Lodges and was built in only 53 days, with crews working around the clock. The windows are still mainly original glass and the Totem Pole Rain Gauge was made by a master carver, positioned perfectly to watch over the property. Lake Quinault Lodge’s stunning front lawn houses a plethora of Adirondack chairs, welcoming guests to sit back, sip a drink and enjoy the lake and forest views.

Online: Hoh Rainforest

Thurston Bountiful Byway

Distance: 60 miles from Seattle.

Best foliage spotting:  Anywhere along the byway.

The Thurston Bountiful Byway is a U-shaped drive that extends from Olympia to the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, looping around on small roads and state highways 12, 507 and 510. All along the drive, gold, red and copper leaves line the roadway, as well as a plethora of activities and charming stops. Craft beer, wine and spirits abound. Farms and farmer’s markets provide apple cider and other goodies to sustain your group.

Don’t-miss detours: Bundle up and enjoy fall activities, like getting lost in the Rutledge Corn Maze, wandering the Monarch Sculpture Park, or renting a private fire pit at Schilter Family Farm in their dedicated outdoor spaces. Biking along the Byway and trails is a relaxing way to take in the fall colors. Most trails are flat, such as the Chehalis Western trail that runs 22 scenic miles south of Olympia. Grab a free bike from the Tenino Yellow Bicycle Project or bring your own.

Don Juan’s Mexican Kitchen serves up tasty wet burritos along with homemade chips and a variety of salsa for everyone’s spice preference. Bottoms up at Top Rung Brewery in Lacey, a family-friendly taproom opened by two local firefighters with a love for home brewing. The Nisqually Wildlife Refuge hosts wintering songbirds and Peregrine falcons, making for a lovely way to stretch little legs after a long scenic drive.

Extend the fun: Stay at the Hampton Inn & Suites for an easy, family friendly accommodation or try the Swantown Inn and Spa for unique, cozy rooms and spa services.

Online: Thurston Bountiful Byway


Distance: You’re already here.

Best foliage spotting: Washington Park Arboretum, Kubota Garden, Ravenna Park, Woodland Park & Discovery Park  

Seattle is known for its surprisingly diverse and welcoming parks. The fall season brings more surprises with our city parks’ foliage grand finale! The Arboretum’s Seattle Japanese Garden has a stunning collection of Japanese maples which produce a dramatic palette of reds and oranges to delight the entire family. Reserve tickets online ahead of time to enjoy fall colors here. In Rainier Beach, Kubota Garden possesses 140 different varieties of maple—filling each fall with fireworks of foliage. Ravenna Park and Woodland Park contain several highly prized larch trees, with the glowing golden needles beloved of leaf peepers everywhere. Discovery Park—Seattle’s largest—contains 11 miles of scenic tree-topped trails with ocean views. A well-kept secret is Gasworks Park parking lot. The surrounding trees burst into flame each fall. After taking a few IG pics walk into the park for the famous skyline and Space Needle view. Finding your fall favorite really is just a walk in the park!

—Natalie Compagno


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