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Road Tripping By the Numbers: Best of the Pacific Northwest

I recently returned from my now annual summer road trip, this time taking in a big circle around the Pacific Northwest. In the past few years I’ve spent a lot of time in Montana (just can’t get enough of the phenomenal scenery in Glacier), along with many bits and pieces of AB, BC and even Idaho. One common theme: the mountains. Whether I’m hiking or mountain biking, with that kind of incredible scenery just a day’s drive away it would seem criminal not to take advantage at least once a year. This time around, however, I finally decided to extend things out to the coast. It would add a full extra day of driving to each end of the trip but, speaking of criminal, how, in all our travels, had I never set foot on Vancouver Island, one of Canada’s most amazing summer destinations? Unacceptable. Plus, this year’s trip was a bit earlier than in the past which made planning my Pacific Northwest road trip more difficult than usual, with mountain hiking (everything mountain-related, really) pretty dicey with still a fair amount of snow lying around. Although I was still planning to spend some time in Yoho National Park on the way home, one of my personal favourites and generally considered to be one of the best national parks in Canada.

So, after I carefully navigated a full day of drinking during the 5th annual Locke Family Pub Crawl™ in order to be up for a full day of driving the following day, I set off along the north route, spending nights in Jasper and Hope before meeting up with Laynni at the Victoria airport (apparently not everyone is so enamoured with long road trips).

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Check out: The Ultimate Vancouver Island Road Trip Itinerary

In short, I had great weather for roughly 10 days straight, all tent camping, did some great hikes, enjoyed city stops in Victoria and Seattle, caught up with an old Camino friend, ate a lot of burgers. Laynni joined in for the Victoria/Olympic/Seattle section before flying back home. Night 10 featured a pretty epic thunderstorm that reminded me of wild camping in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and it even occasionally managed to drown out the noise from the nearby train line in Golden, and I learned that our fairly old tent is no longer fully waterproof and, after much deliberation and hand-wringing and self-imposed guilt trips I eventually pulled the plug on the final few days I had planned. Which was unfortunate in the sense that I had, with some difficulty, managed to procure a very difficult to get 2-night camping reservation at Lake O’Hara, known as one of the most beautiful hiking destinations in the country. Very fortunate, however, in the sense that the exceedingly bleak forecast (which got steadily worse as the time drew near, contrary to my optimistic hopes), which was sitting at highs of 1C with wind and a fair bit of rain, “with occasional flurries”, when I finally gave up, turned out to somehow have even been optimistic itself. In the end, they got 10 cm or something stupid like that, which would have surely been more than my old 2-man Big Agnes could have handled. Not to mention what that must have done to the trails. Anyway, this is supposed to be the short version so, to recap, I got scared, bailed, and spent the night in a big, comfortable bed at the Breadner’s place in Calgary, before driving home a couple days earlier than planned.

So, obviously, you are all waiting for a wildly random set of ranked lists to shed further light on all our western adventures, so here you go.

Pacific Northwest Road Trip

Campsites – from best to worst

  1. Breadner’s House, Calgary, AB

Ok, the first one and I’m already cheating. This was obviously not camping, but a very nice house with a very nice, comfortable bed. Most importantly, after the previous night’s thunderstorm, was that it was completely dry. Of course, it would have been pretty weird if it wasn’t, but I hate to take things like that for granted.

  1. Colonial Creek, Diablo Lake, North Cascades National Park, Washington

An unserviced site with no showers but a spectacular location just metres from beautiful Diablo Lake. I spent both an evening and morning enjoying quiet views of the surrounding mountains perfectly reflected in the glassy surface of the lake. There were birds everywhere, fish jumping, and a couple girls staying in the site next to me who slept in their SUV, at least one of whom decided their late night pee was best undertaken directly outside the vehicle, leaving a large, noticeable stain leaking off the pavement down the path, and even left a used clump of toilet paper lying there as if to remove any doubt in the mind of passersby. Stay classy, Washington.

  1. Goldstream Campground, Victoria, BC

This was definitely the nicest overall campground, even though our actual site was all rock and lacked shade. But the location – just outside Victoria and deep in the old growth forest of Goldstream Provincial Park – was amazing. Hikes, waterfalls and even an old trestle bridge, all within easy walking distance.

  1. Coquihalla Campground, Hope, BC

Another great location next to the water, this time right on the river, isolated from other campsites and yet still within walking distance of the local dive bar showing the Raptor’s game.

  1. Wapiti Campground, Jasper, AB

Just what you’d expect from a Jasper campground – big trees, mountain scenery, basic facilities, and a large grizzly bear and her cub just wandering around the bathroom like they owned the place. This was in addition to being warned at check-in to watch out for the “angry elk” that had been frequenting the area. In the end, however, I just had to work a little harder to find someplace to pee in private, and actually ended up having far more trouble with the persistent squirrel who just wouldn’t take no for an answer the next morning.

  1. Pine Near RV Park, Winthrop, Washington

Had I caught onto the pun of the name a bit sooner I may have enjoyed it even more, but it was still a nice, quiet spot just off the main street of this campy, bizarre little town done up like a replica of an old west town to delight people driving scenic Highway 20, complete with wooden boardwalks, old-timey signs and an old schoolhouse made into a brewery (top notch burger, y’all). My tent site had lush grass to sleep on, a teepee filled with elderly motorcyclists on one side and two uncomfortable middle-aged fishermen sharing a tent on the other side in a potential Brokeback situation. They happily accepted my extra ice, however, and offered up only dueling snores through the night, so who knows?

  1. Golden Municipal Campground, Golden, BC

Nice overall, but a weird combination of things. A scenic location next to the river, but with the town walking path running between sites and the water, so lots of people passing by in full lycra peering down at me huddled over my sad little breakfast, next to my sad, wet little tent. Comfortable sites, but a public street running through much of the campground. Nice river views, but the really loud train running by just on the other side, and far more often than I’d imagined (roughly hourly all night). Good bathrooms, but overlooking an elementary school. Altogether kind of weird. But friendly, and my opinion is probably a bit skewed because it poured rain all night and despite my stance that few things are worse than a wet sleeping bag, I have yet to invest in a good waterproof tent.

  1. Elwha Dam RV Park, Port Angeles, Olympic Peninsula, Washington

More contradictions, with nice new bathrooms and a “clubhouse” equipped with kitchen, laundry, couches and a big TV, yet an prevailing feel of misery and vague loss of hope. We never verified this with any of the clearly long-term RV residents, but there was just a general dilapidation about the place, with it’s rotting barbeque area, limp volleyball net and sad collection of old balls never being used. Every time we came and went we had to sneak our vehicle past a big RV dominating the “tent site” next to us, and at one point I walked around the corner only to be startled by the sight of an old woman shaving her poodle’s groin on top of a picnic table. Unsettling, mainly.

  1. Seattle / Tacoma KOA, Seattle / Tacoma, Washington

First off, obviously I should know better. KOAs are KOAs, meaning well-equipped, organized and convenient, making them very objectively appealing when making an online booking. What the websites and glossy brochures never fully depict, however, are the gangs of roving children, the seemingly mandatory contingent of barking dogs, the pool heaving with toddlers, the armada of disgruntled workers patrolling the grounds on golf carts filled with nasty-looking gardening implements, the noisy groups enthralled by fires into the wee hours, or the valiant, but horribly abused, toilets.

And, as if all of that weren’t enough, our next-door neighbours for this ill-advised stay have most likely featured in many of your favourite deep south mishap videos. A large extended family of 5-7 adults (it changed often), several kids, an occasionally screaming baby, all staying in 2 tents, and a yappy little dog (which probably would have yapped a lot more had they let it out of its tiny travel cage even once in the 15 hours we were there). They all smoked constantly, received a taco delivery at about 11 pm (to the delight of the apparently starving kids), and used the word “hella” surprisingly often this deep into the 21st century. Fire-making was a continuous source of bafflement, as they relied almost entirely on the magic of lighter fluid, leading to rapidly alternating back and forth between roaring 5-foot high infernos and depressing little smoldering embers, leaving them standing around staring sadly.

On the bright side, the park was located directly across the street from a gigantic Amazon Fulfillment Center warehouse (which didn’t come in handy for us) and only about 10 minutes from the airport (which did, when we were able to scoot over and meet our friend returning from California).

Best Food

  1. Burger at Old School Brewery, Winthrop
  2. Caramel milkshake at Marblemount Diner, Marblemount
  3. Pepperoni pizza at the Strait Slice, Port Angeles.
  4. Spicy chicken tenders at Kingpin Lounge, Hope.
  5. Roast beef sandwich at the Hitchcock Café, Bainbridge.
  6. Popcorn on Bainbridge ferry to Seattle.

Dead last: cardboard box of baked chicken chunks and tater tots at The Dam Bar, Port Angeles.

Pacific Northwest Hikes (Chronological)

Othello Tunnels – Hope. Big crowds, even a kid on motorized trike, cool tunnels, then on the longer variant not a except for one lonely garter snake.

Trestle bridge – Goldstream Provincial Park. Big trees and an old bridge.

Sooke Coast Trail – Victoria. Beautiful coastal hike with views of the strait and Washington. We didn’t see a soul on the interior trail, then started passing a few people as we made our way back along the coast closer to the start, then suddenly hit a busy beach, culminating in the arrival of a couple dozen small kids with disproportionately large backpacks full of ??? – toys, towels… pets?

Klahhane Ridge – Olympic National Park. It is high up, part of spectacular Hurricane Ridge, one of the best hikes in Olympic National Park, with snow-covered mountains behind green hills and views all the way to the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Cape Flattery – Olympic National Park. This hike was short, easy and rainy with wild ocean views at the end.

La Push – Olympic Peninsula. We did the short hike in to Second Beach to see the desolate, driftwood-covered beach and dramatic “sea stacks” in the water. The area itself is famous for being riddled with partying werewolves in Twilight, even though everyone we saw looked relatively human, although maybe not such accomplished campers. We saw several huge backpacks heading down to enjoy one of the best things to do in Olympic National Park, some carrying sleeping bags under arms and giant tent poles that wouldn’t even fit in the backpack and, of course, a guy with a massive guitar.

Hoh Rainforest – Olympic National Park. Another short, easy hike perfect for families, this time in the famous, mossy rainforest. We were particularly bemused by the two young jocks who got all geared up at the visitor centre, procuring maps, filling their Camelbaks and, of course, ditching their shirts, all in anticipation of a 1.5 km wheelchair accessible hike.

Thunder Creek to Fourth of July Pass – North Cascades National Park. This stunning park is one of the absolute best places to visit in Washington, with dozens of amazing trails to choose from. Unfortunately, my options were somewhat limited because it was so early in the season (snow trouble and all). This particular hike involved a tough 800-metre climb on a nice trail through the trees, but it didn’t provide nearly the payoff views I was hoping for after all that effort. In hindsight, I should have seen that the camping family that I passed on their way down had tried to break it to me gently, warning that the pass itself was hidden in the trees, and only reluctantly agreeing – spurred into slight optimism by my hopeful smile, likely – that at least the views from the campsites were good. They were ok, at best. Good workout, I guess.

Emerald Lake to Yoho Pass – Yoho National Park. Every good road trip needs to include a few stops in the awesome national parks of the Canadian Rockies. Emerald is a stunning lake surrounded by ambling tourists trying to keep their Keds from getting muddy, although, as usual, as soon as I ventured off onto the uphill part the crowds disappeared. I did, however, run into a group of Irish hikers at a wildly rushing creek, all of us commiserating over what looked like an insurmountable obstacle to the rest of the trail. Eventually, though, I found what appeared to be a traversable spot. Sure, it would mean carefully balancing on some half-submerged rocks and logs, almost no handholds and at least two pretty significant jumps but, hey, what could possibly go wrong? Well, let’s just say that by the time I made it down from the pass a couple hours later my pants, glove and backpack were all pretty much dry, my shoes not so much, and the finger I bent straight back is still sore a week later.

Notable Occurrences

  1. Watching the Raptors at the Kingpin Lounge in Hope with a “diverse” cast of characters. Lots, (lots!) of swearing, great certainty that the Raptors would want to lose both games 5 and 6 to win at home in game 7, the owner’s wise words to a chastened and apologetic local – “you bounce a basketball, you bounce a volleyball, you don’t bounce a cue ball”. 9 out of 10 patrons were smokers, several were sure that Lowry will be leaving for the big bucks if they won (despite not being a free agent), there was loud disbelief over any missed shot, then a long and very difficult conversation regarding ACL vs Achilles. Some were pretty sure those are both very different parts of the ankle, while others were absolutely certain that ACL is just an abbreviation for the Achilles muscle.
  2. Those rental RVs from CanaDream and CanadaCruise are absolutely everywhere.
  3. Our scenic drive around Victoria produced a deer and her baby, then a wet otter crossing the road, then some really expensive houses, in that order.

  • My futile search for a banana near the campground in Victoria – the guy at the Shell laughed out loud, then the woman at the little grocery store nearby said they had a few behind the counter but she wasn’t sure if they were for sale or just for someone’s lunch, but they did have “this stuff”, showing me a small bowl with 2 onions, 6 lemons, 1 wrinkled tomato and something that appeared to be just a leaf.
  • Seeing a KOA worker vigorously washing his hands while muttering about “disgusting little f*#kers”.
  • Watched the Raptor’s championship-winning game at The Dam Bar (get it?) in Port Angeles, where it was Open Blues Night so I couldn’t have the sound on and was the only person in the whole bar paying attention. On the other hand, there were a couple women who danced from first song right through until I left a few hours later, and some dude in a tie-died shirt danced robotically alone for at least an hour. Finally, during a musical intermission a couple old guys came over to watch the last minutes of the game and explain in detail everything that is wrong with today’s game. From what I understood, it is mostly a lack of elbowing.
  • Pike Place Market in Seattle is more than just a market, and is actually one of the ultimate USA bucket list attractions. It was full of tourists (check), a million different kinds of food (check), a pretty famous “gum wall” and the large, smelly fish market that is famous for flinging fish across the room to fill orders (did not see anything being flung, but we have managed to make our peace with it).
  • Kerry Park was a real highlight, with awesome views of the city with Mount Rainier in the background, although it should really just be called Kerry Viewpoint. On the other hand, there was a small patch of unruly grass and a tired old swing set, so “park” it is, I guess.
  • Yup, that’s Rainier
  • We picked up our Camino friend Madeline and her regular friend Caitlin at the airport and spent a pleasant Father’s Day wandering parks near her place and eating Mexican food on Capitol Hill. It had been almost 7 years since we spent a month hiking together and living side by side. We somehow managed to resist the urge to take turns in a communal shower, just for old time’s sake.
  • Highway 20 through North Cascades National Park in northern Washington is… amazing.

  • Just outside the park is a goofy little town called Winthrop, completely redone to mimic an Old West town. In the spirit of the occasion, I tented next to a fake tipi, then ate at Old Schoolhouse Brewery, where I met a friendly bartender and a guy stuffing down as many calories as possible on the eve of starting out on the Pacific Crest Trail. That is a 4,000-kilometre hike where you are completely on your own in the wilderness and have to mail yourself provisions to points along the way so that you don’t, you know, starve to death. Exhaustion, exposure and bears, however, are still definitely in play. Not surprisingly, he didn’t seem excited so much as, well, depressed.

  • All my years of driving, both in Canada and abroad, were completely unable to prepare me for the intensely aggravating and painful drive through the Okanagan Valley from bottom to top. Foolishly looking forward to “the scenery”, I was instead treated to, best guess, between 75 and 100 red lights over the course of 2 horrible hours. Never. Again.
  • My Okanagan Valley view

    Gas Stations

    1. (tie) Too close to call. I just loved them all so much.

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