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Top Highway Alternatives

Check Out These Less-Traveled Roads in Washington and Idaho

Despite what we may think about our interstate highways when we get stuck in rush hour traffic or try to cross the passes during avalanche season, they really do help us travel efficiently over long distances. But, as anyone who’s ever driven between Southern and Northern California along Interstate 5 can attest, the fastest way isn’t necessarily the prettiest way.

As much as we can enjoy great scenery from our own major highways here in the Northwest, there are many shunpikes, byways and other less-traveled roads that provide even better views—at more relaxed paces and with more compelling stops along the way. John King, former AAA auto travel counselor and road-trip guru, shares five of the best reasons to venture beyond the interstate in your next road trip.

Because of COVID-19, please take recommended health precautions if you explore outside.

Samish flats
Birds at Samish Flats near Samish Bay. Photo by Martha T./Flicker.

Chuckanut Drive to Fir Island Road—Bellingham to Conway, 38 miles

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more scenic roadway than Chuckanut Drive, which provides a slow-paced alternative to I-5 from the west side of the superhighway. From its northern end, the road, aka State Route 11, leads from the red-bricked buildings of Bellingham’s Fairhaven district and past Chuckanut Bay to the cliffs above Samish Bay. Take advantage of one of the pullouts along the narrow byway to admire dramatic views that stretch out to the San Juan Islands. It is worth a stop at the retail shop and picnic area for Taylor Shellfish Farms, which sells oysters and other seafood snacks.

Listen to an audio story about Samish, Courtesy of HearHere

SR 11 connects to I-5 just north of Burlington, but you can extend the back-road journey by linking up with Farm to Market Road, La Conner Whitney Road and Fir Island Road (consult a map for connecting roads). The latter meets I-5 near Conway. In April, the route provides a portal through La Conner for viewing bulbs during the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival. In winter, you can admire the snow geese that migrate all the way from Russia’s Wrangel Island to winter along Skagit Bay.

North Fork Nooksack River Bridge
North Fork Nooksack River Bridge on Route 9. Photo by J Mabel.

Washington State Route 9—Woodinville to Sumas, 98 miles

Even though it essentially runs parallel to Interstate 5 less than 10 miles to the east for most of its length, this country highway seems a world away. The extra time (about a half-hour, plus stops) it adds to your drive time will seem to fly by on this cruise past cornfields, berry patches and at least one emu farm. “It’s a year-round road,” says King. “Any time you have extra time is a good time to travel this two-lane byway.”

Family-friendly meal stops along the way include Acme’s Blue Mountain Grill and Collector’s Choice Restaurant in Snohomish. Make time to peruse the antiques stores that fill that latter community’s historic downtown district: The finds range from high-quality furniture from more than a century ago to vintage gems from 1960s and ’70s pop culture. Woodinville’s restaurants (Barking Frog, anyone?) and wineries (for your passengers) beckon from the southern end of the route.

Listen to an audio story about Snohomish, Courtesy of HearHere
Burke Idaho
View of Burke, Idaho. Photo by Drown Soda.

Idaho State Route 4—Wallace to Burke, 7 miles

Downtown Wallace was spared from the wrecking ball in the 1970s, when a successful campaign to designate the entire town a National Historic District forced the feds to reroute I-90 around its downtown core. This has enabled the mining-era boomtown to preserve some of the finest examples of late-19th/early-20th century architecture still standing in the Inland Northwest.

Day-trippers and overnight visitors to Wallace can get an extra peek at Idaho’s mining heritage by making this short side trip up State Route 4 from the edge of Wallace through Burke Canyon. The drive through Gem, Frisco and Mace provides looks at the ruins of the mines, mills and machinery that drove the canyon’s once-booming economy. More derelict mine structures cling to the steep hillsides that frame Burke. A sign in the center of town commemorates the Tiger Hotel, which, due to Burke’s narrow configuration, straddled a creek, with a road and railroad tracks built through its ground floor (the hotel was torn down in 1944). 

Trivia: Actress Lana Turner (1921–1995) is said to have been born in Burke, though it was listed as Wallace on her birth certificate.

Yakima River Canyon
Yakima Canyon Road. Photo by Miles Ray/Getty Images

Canyon Road—Ellensburg to Selah, 33 miles

While most motorists passing through the Yakima Valley have been happy to take the “high road,” aka Interstate 82, Canyon Road follows a riverside route that has been used for far longer. Native Americans are said to have followed the Yakima River’s winding course from their villages to their Kittitas Valley hunting grounds, and Northern Pacific Railroad built its transcontinental line through the canyon in the 1880s. Once a stretch of U.S. 97, Canyon Road, now labeled SR 821, quietly follows the river’s sinuous course through a series of ridges. King recommends visiting in spring to see arrowleaf balsamroot and other wildflowers in bloom across the hillsides.

Aside from its designation as a Blue Ribbon trout stream for exceptional fishing, this section of the river is also popular for its family-friendly rafting conditions, with campgrounds, hiking trails (watch out for rattlesnakes in summer) and four developed access sites along the way. This scenic alternative to I-82 adds about 15 minutes to the drive time between Yakima and Ellensburg, not counting the inevitable stops you’ll want to make along the way.

Listen to an audio story about Ellensburg, Courtesy of HearHere

Weird Science: Geologists call the Yakima River an antecedent stream because it maintained its winding course over millennia as the Earth’s crust slowly buckled, creating such formations as Manastash and Umtanum ridges.

North Head Lighthouse
North Head Lighthouse at Cape Disappointment Park. Photo by Noemi C./Getty Images.

Willapa Loop—Chehalis to Long Beach, 219 miles (round trip)

Its location near the mouth of the Columbia River, best viewed from Cape Disappointment State Park, and its 28-mile-long ocean beach give the Long Beach Peninsula stunning natural qualities. Add to that a laid-back seaside vibe, inspiring locavore restaurants and recreational opportunities ranging from sport fishing and clam digging to kite flying and beachcombing, and you have plenty of reasons to visit.

Since there is more than one way to get to the peninsula, King recommends exploring two scenic routes that form the Willapa Loop. The northerly route links Chehalis to Long Beach via State Route 6 and U.S. Hwy. 101 (along Willapa Bay), which meet in Raymond.

Listen to an audio story about Chehalis, Courtesy of HearHere

The southerly route links the peninsula to Kelso via State Route 4 and State Route 401, which connect near Naselle. Choose one route for your westbound journey and the other heading east, using a 38-mile stretch of I-5 to complete the loop. King describes the areas that you pass as “a well-watered region of rolling green hills, steady-flowing rivers, century-old farms and lumber towns.”

The Northwest Carriage Museum in Raymond is one of the more notable attractions along the northern route. The space counts a Shelburne Landau used in Gone with the Wind among its collection of vehicles and artifacts. Attractions along the southerly route include the collection of military structures—some dating back to 1896—in Fort Columbia Historical State Park and the picturesque dairy lands of the Grays River Valley.

–Written by Rob Bhat. Top Image of Chuckanut Drive courtesy of Visit Bellingham.

This story originally appeared in the AAA Washington member magazine, Journey, in 2013. It was updated in March 2021.

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