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Explore Washington’s Amazing Back Roads

Drive the “Blue Highways” off I-5

Discover small towns and natural wonders on the back roads off Interstate 5 from Puget Sound to the Columbia River. You never know what you will find.

William Least Heat-Moon, in his 1982 book Blue Highways, explained that old U.S. road maps depicted major routes in red and back roads in blue. Intrigued, he zigzagged his way across the country on those “blue highways,” discovering places such as Wallula, Washington, and Remote, Oregon, and Tensed, Idaho. “The open road,” he wrote, is “a place where a man can lose himself.”

We now have interstate freeways. The former red highways are today’s back roads, including parts of Old Highway 99 (U.S. Route 99) and its predecessor, the Old Pacific Highway. If you feel the pull of Least Heat-Moon’s karma and venture off Interstate 5, here’s some of what you’ll find on blue highways from Puget Sound to the Columbia River.

Red train in Toledo
Tenino Depot Museum. By Gregg Herrington

Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge

The 3,000-acre Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge is one of the state’s largest estuaries undisturbed by dredging and infilling. It provides habitat for migratory waterfowl, songbirds, raptors, reptiles, deer, river otters, coyotes and more.

Getting there: I-5 Exit 114, 9 miles north of Olympia at the Nisqually River

Old Highway 99

This stretch of blue highway starts in Tumwater, where Olympia’s Capitol Boulevard becomes Old Highway 99 (also accessible from Exit 101 and Tumwater Boulevard). Then, it’s 12 miles south past forests, fields, cattle pastures and Offut Lake to Tenino.


From the 1890s to the late 1930s, Tenino was a major producer of construction-grade sandstone blocks used in its downtown buildings and exported up and down the West Coast. Another huge factor in its history was the 1916 selection of Tenino for the Pacific Highway route. Highlights: Tenino City Park, with its swimming pool in a former sandstone quarry; Depot Museum; the 14-mile, paved Yelm-Rainier-Tenino Trail; antiques and gift stores; the friendly Sandstone Cafe and Aunt Kate’s Chocolates, where Kate Donoghue makes and sells sinfully delicious, high-end treats.

Getting there: I-5 Exit 88 at Grand Mound or Olympia’s Capital Boulevard to Old Highway 99 in Tumwater

Giant egg in Winlock
Giant egg in Winlock. By Gregg Herrington

An Enduring Mystery

The state’s 637-acre Mima Mounds Natural Area Preserve features hundreds of dirt mounds; most are 4 to 6 feet high and 20 to 30 feet long. Their origin is not certain. Indian burial grounds have been ruled out; gophers and Ice-Age glaciers are suspects. Interpretive signs and level trails are included.

Getting there: 5 miles west from I-5 Exit 95 on SW Maytown Road through Little Rock and right on Waddell Creek Road.

Eggs and Trains

Begun as a Northern Pacific Railroad construction camp in 1871, Winlock developed a logging and farming economy. It was a major egg and poultry center from the 1890s into the 1940s, with crates of chicks and eggs shipped out daily by train. A concrete egg statue the size of a small car stands a few feet from where trains whiz by today.

Highlights: Friendly volunteer staffers at the Winlock Museum and Egg Days in June, with a parade and free egg sandwiches.

Getting there: I-5 Exit 63, the Toledo-Winlock Road, or “blue highways” from north and south.

Riverboats, Highways and a Mission

From the 1860s to 1918, the area around Toledo was the northernmost point served by riverboats bringing settlers and supplies from Portland. The end of that era was hastened in 1913 when Toledo beat out Winlock for the route of the Pacific Highway. Toledo offers a route to the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument via state Highway 505.

Highlights: South Lewis County Park with its trout-stocked pond; Cheese Days in July; Donna’s Place restaurant and its civic-sparkplug owner Donna Wallace; St. Francis Xavier Mission, the first Catholic mission (established 1838) in what would become Washington state.

Getting there: 2.5 miles east of I-5 Exit 68 on U.S. Highway 12 to Mary’s Corner, then south 8 miles past the Jackson House (state) Heritage Site; Exit 63, the Toledo-Winlock Road; Exit 57 and 6 miles on the Jackson Highway.

Old brick bank building in Kalama
Kalama, Washington. From Ella Gray

Not Only the Volcano

Castle Rock is the main gateway to the Mount St. Helens volcano 52 miles east of I-5. But venture west where downtown is awash year-round in colorful hanging baskets, mixed containers and flower beds thanks to an army of “bloom team” volunteers. In addition, the town honors its logging history with signs and displays.

Highlights: The rock itself is a 190-foot-high outcropping hugging the east shore of the Cowlitz River. Now tree-shrouded, it’s best observed from Lion’s Pride Park south of downtown. Check out Vault Books & Brew at Front Avenue and Cowlitz Street, where Jennifer Engkraf operates a cozy coffee, books and gift shop in a lovingly restored 1912 bank building. For a close-by volcano fix, visit the excellent state visitors center at Silver Lake, 5 miles east of I-5.

Getting there: I-5 Exit 49 or Exit 48, the business loop.

Hiding in Plain Sight

When the Northern Pacific Railroad put its temporary western terminus here in 1870, Kalama in Southwest Washington was born. Today, the attention of motorists zipping through Kalama on I-5 is drawn west to the bustling Columbia River port, the rail yards and the imposing McMenamins hotel and restaurant. Out of sight a block east of the freeway is Kalama’s main street, known as the Old Pacific Highway.

Highlights: Four antiques stores; the upscale Ella Gray Home & Gifts in a 1913 bank building next door to the Kalama Spirits and Tobacco store with fishing and hunting supplies, roll-your-own cigarette papers and liquor. The 1909 St. Joseph’s Catholic Church sits just up the hill from the shops. Venture higher for sweeping views of the city and river.

Getting there: I-5 Exit 32 southbound, 30 northbound

Outside the yellow building the Old Liberty Theater
The Old Liberty Theater. By Gregg Herrington

Blue Highway and Cardrooms

Our southernmost stretch of the Old Pacific Highway runs 7 miles from the south side of the Lewis River’s North Fork in Woodland through deciduous forests and over gentle rolling hills to La Center. New housing developments are evidence of La Center’s growth from 2,800 people in 2010 to about 4,000 today. The Palace and Last Frontier card rooms still attract gamblers but slots, roulette and craps are not allowed. Up the hill across I-5 is the Cowlitz Tribe’s big, glitzy, ilani casino.

Getting there: Exit 21 in Woodland and Exit 16 at La Center.

Old-time charm and wildlife

New subdivisions, a shopping center and other businesses near I-5 are evidence of Ridgefield’s ranking as the state’s second-fastest growing city. But to longtime residents the heart and soul of Ridgefield are 3 miles west in old downtown.

Civic pride as birthplace in 1945 of the U-Haul rental-trailer business; the 1914-era Ridgefield Hardware & Gift Shop; the Old Liberty Theater, where the lobby doubles as a coffee shop; Sportsman’s Public House; Abrams Park and the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge.

– Written by Gregg Herrington, last updated in October 2022.
– Top photo of Kalama by Gregg Herrington

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