Advice for PNW itinerary?

Old Dec 3rd, 2018, 09:05 AM
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Advice for PNW itinerary?

Hi all!

We are planning a trip to the Pacific Northwest in September - likely for 8 nights. Interested in Seattle, San Juan Islands, Vancouver and possibly Victoria to see Buchart Gardens or a day trip to Whistler.

Haven't booked flights yet but would love recommendations for the best layout for the trip and the number of nights for each place, and the best way to go between each spot.

Thanks so much for your help!

meg_irvin is offline  
Old Dec 3rd, 2018, 10:00 AM
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Looks like your first post on Fodor's; welcome!

Some considerations, or things you might want to clarify...

1. When in September? During the first half of the month, and especially around Labor Day, hotel prices in both Seattle and Vancouver are very high - bordering on astronomical - due to pressures from Alaska cruise passengers. After the middle of the month, hotel prices fall, sometimes dramatically, as that's after the end of cruise season. On the other hand, later in September can mean a higher chance of wet weather, but I don't know if that would be a major concern.

2. Any interest in national parks or other scenic areas? There are three national parks within driving range of Seattle - Mt. Rainier, Olympic NP and North Cascades NP, but each has its hard and easy aspects for visitors. Mt. Rainier can be done as a (long) day trip from Seattle, Olympic needs at least two, and preferably three days in order to see the main sights, and North Cascades NP has no visitor facilities within the park itself; hotels and other services are located on the periphery.

3. There are alternatives to the San Juan Islands which might offer comparable activities but with easier logistics. Google BC Sunshine Coast, Canadian Gulf Islands, Whidbey Island and Vashon Island. What activities did you have in mind for the San Juans?

4. Google Queen Elizabeth II Park, Bloedel Conservatory, and Van Dusen Gardens in Vancouver as possible (free and/or cheap) alternatives to Butchart Gardens on Vancouver Island. Also google the Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island, accessed by ferry from downtown Seattle.

Logistics: A rental car will be the best way to get around. If you want to stay in downtown Seattle, hotel parking can be very pricey, but with a car you can stay outside the downtown area and have free or cheap parking and also access to public transportation. The hotel costs will likely be cheaper too, but of course time becomes the tradeoff.

You'll need to be aware of ferry routes, timing and prices. Here are the relevant websites, and note summer schedules won't be published for several months yet.

Washington State Ferries -
BC Ferries -
Black Ball (Coho) ferry (Victoria - Port Angeles) -

Offhand I'd say 8 days is about the minimum I'd plan if you want to see the places you've listed. In drive times, Vancouver and Seattle are roughly 4 hours apart counting nominal time at the border (don't forget passports.) Getting to Victoria from either Vancouver or Seattle takes half a day at least, the same goes for getting to and from the San Juan Islands from Seattle. Whistler is 2 hours (could be a bit less) from downtown Vancouver. If your travel includes Labor Day weekend, add significant time to any route involving a ferry, as wait times can be very lengthy.

I know this is a lot to digest, but hopefully it's a start. Again, welcome to Fodor's!
Gardyloo is offline  
Old Dec 3rd, 2018, 11:16 AM
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Good info from Gardyloo. The only thing I disagree about is taking a rental car into Canada. Take either the Amtrak bus or the early Amtrak train from Seattle to Vancouver. It cuts the border crossing wait and you won't have to worry about parking. There are good public transportation options in Vancouver as well as Uber/Lyft.
The Black Ball ferry does take walk on passengers if you didn't want to take a car onboard.
In Vancouver, I recommend Stanley Park in the west end of the city.
tomfuller is offline  
Old Dec 3rd, 2018, 11:52 AM
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Thanks so much for the warm welcome and the advice!

We are somewhat flexible on timing - I'd be looking at the 13 - 21 and it sounds like later in the month would be better based on what you shared above. We haven't booked flights yet so we can fly in and out of Seattle or do a multi-city flight.

We aren't set on seeing everything and probably want to do a max of three places within eight nights - we don't like one-night stopovers much and that way we could do three nights in two places and two nights in another.

We were originally thinking of focusing on Seattle, San Juan Islands and Vancouver, but in my quick research, it seems like that might logistically be somewhat difficult - it looks like the Clipper is an easy way to get from Seattle to SJI and the Amtrak is an easy way to get between Seattle and Vancouver, but I need to figure out the logistics around the third stop - or look at other options.

Whistler could be a good trip out of Vancouver if it worked out well, but not a need to have. We definitely enjoy scenic views, kayaking, good food, wine and enjoying time to relax and enjoy the area we're in.

meg_irvin is offline  
Old Dec 3rd, 2018, 12:06 PM
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That's the most common "mistake" when people are new to the PNW. They don't realize how big it is here, and time it takes moving place to place especially when ferries are involved.

Seattle + San Juans (there are 4 different islands) + Victoria + Vancouver + Whistler = isn't really practical with only 8 night's time. Choosing just three of them, as you mentioned later, would work better.
suze is offline  
Old Dec 3rd, 2018, 03:41 PM
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I agree, cut down your list to about 3. I would opt for a car to cross the border instead of Amtrak. I very much like having our own vehicle then we go to Victoria and Vancouver, and no sense in renting twice etc.
mms is offline  
Old Dec 4th, 2018, 07:28 AM
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Originally Posted by meg_irvin View Post
We were originally thinking of focusing on Seattle, San Juan Islands and Vancouver, but in my quick research, it seems like that might logistically be somewhat difficult - it looks like the Clipper is an easy way to get from Seattle to SJI and the Amtrak is an easy way to get between Seattle and Vancouver, but I need to figure out the logistics around the third stop - or look at other options.

Whistler could be a good trip out of Vancouver if it worked out well, but not a need to have. We definitely enjoy scenic views, kayaking, good food, wine and enjoying time to relax and enjoy the area we're in.
Managing the logistics is indeed a big consideration. Getting to the San Juans and to Victoria is time consuming, and taking the Clipper to Friday Harbor from Seattle plunks you in a town with very limited means with which to see the other features of San Juan Island. Amtrak is a fine way of getting between Seattle and Vancouver, but there are only two trains daily, in the very early morning and in the evening. Trying to coordinate the train timing with plane arrivals and departures can also mean additional hotel nights and more expense. If you had all the time in the world, or were doing something like leaving on a cruise from Vancouver, then it would make more sense, but my guess is that you'll find a car useful not just for getting between the cities, but when you're in them. Both Vancouver and Seattle are cities of fabulous neighborhoods (or neighbourhoods if you will) as well as nearby attractions hard to access by public transport.

Here are a couple of alternative suggestions for you to consider. The first starts and ends in Seattle, the second involves a loop drive from Vancouver followed by the train to Seattle. Note a one-way car rental (Seattle to Vancouver or v.v.) is going to be very expensive due to one-way surcharges or drop fees (or just a much higher daily rate) but traveling in the second half of September MIGHT not be as bad as earlier, so worth checking.

1. Sunshine Coast and Whidbey Island. Map -

Drive from Seatac airport to and through Vancouver and up to Horseshoe Bay, where you take a ferry across Howe Sound to Langdale on the BC Sunshine Coast.

Sunshine Coast ferry

The Sunshine Coast (so named because it's mainly in a "rain shadow" cast by Vancouver Island and the Olympic mountains, hence drier than other areas) is not well known outside Canada, but it's a very scenic and diverse area with many of the same attractions and appeal of the San Juans and the BC Gulf islands - very laid back, lots of farmers markets and galleries, hidden coves and beaches, good restaurants and food... in short, exactly the kind of place to relax and enjoy the environment. It's also cheaper than the islands.

Spend two nights on the Sunshine Coast, then return for two more in Vancouver.

Then leave Vancouver and drive around two hours (maybe a tad less depending on border conditions) to Anacortes on Fidalgo Island. Park your car at the Anacortes ferry terminal and ride as foot passengers on the Washington ferry to Friday Harbor. Have a meal and walk around Friday Harbor, then take a later ferry back to Anacortes. Spend the night in Anacortes or in the pretty waterfront village of La Conner, just on the mainland a little east of Anacortes. Note this is a one-night stand, the only one.

The next day, drive across Deception Pass onto Whidbey Island, and spend an hour or two in Deception Pass State Park. This is the narrow channel between Fidalgo Island (Anacortes) and Whidbey, with terrific scenery both from the bridge and beach levels. If you're there during a tide change, the current through the gap can be downright scary.

Then drive down Whidbey Island, stopping at the picturesque waterfront towns of Coupeville and Langley, and maybe at Fort Casey State Park with its pretty lighthouse and cool coastal defense gun batteries looking out toward the Olympics. Finally, cross back to Mukilteo on the mainland and make your way to Seattle. Take WA 526 (the "Boeing Freeway") from Mukliteo back to I-5; in doing so you'll pass the Boeing Everett plant, home of the big jets and the biggest building in the world.

Spend the rest of your time in the Seattle area, including day trips to various destinations nearby - maybe some wineries in Woodinville, Bainbridge or Vashon Islands, even a day trip to Mt. Rainier if you're interested.

Time allocation: Sunshine coast, 2 nights, Vancouver 2 nights, Anacortes/La Conner 1 night, Seattle 3 nights.

2. Vancouver - islands loop, train to Seattle. Map (first portion) - This allows a stay either on one of the BC Gulf islands or on San Juan Island.

Fly into Vancouver instead of Seattle and spend two nights in the city. Then get a car and take the BC ferry to one of the BC Gulf islands; on the map I've shown Salt Spring as it has the most visitor facilities and offers quite a lot of variety in terms of scenery.

Alternatively, just take the ferry to Swartz Bay on Vancouver Island and head to Victoria, then drive to Sidney BC (around half an hour from Victoria) and take the Washington State ferry (one sailing a day typically) to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. If you've stayed a night or two on Salt Spring, you can do a drive-around on San Juan, then take a later ferry back to the mainland, or spend the night in Friday Harbor and take a morning ferry to Anacortes.

Visit Deception Pass as before, but then head north along the coast, using scenic "Chuckanut Drive," (WA Hwy 11) into the historic Fairhaven district of Bellingham. Finally return to Vancouver, possibly with a stop in Steveston, Vancouver's fishing port, the town used in various TV shows including "Once Upon a Time."

Then take the evening train to Seattle and spend the rest of your time in our fair city. If you want to rent a car to see some out-of-town sights, fine, but you can also just hang out, use Ubers or public transportation.

Time allocation: Vancouver two nights, Victoria one night, islands (either Salt Spring or San Juan) two nights, Seattle three nights.

- - -

Just a couple of imaginary options to help channel your research. There are numerous other alternatives. Quick question: Have you seen the Columbia River Gorge? I know that's a complete curve ball, but I have to ask, given your criteria.
Gardyloo is offline  
Old Dec 4th, 2018, 11:20 AM
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I'll second Gardyloo's recommendation for Sunshine Coast. You'll get a nice ferry experience with several short hops from Horseshoe Bay to Lund and back, and the scenery is classic B.C. coastal. I need to plan a return trip there..
sludick is offline  
Old Dec 5th, 2018, 03:27 PM
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Gardyloo's second option gives you more well known places and it gives you better options for kayaking. Heck, my kids have not seen some of this area at all, so I'm thinking I will steal that itinerary for us

Other thoughts: The ride over on the ferry to Swartz Bay is a pretty ride. Just as a thought, you would still be in season to go on a whale watching trip for orcas.

I do like the idea of flying into one city and out the other in Gardyloo's plan. Yes, the one-way dropoff for car rentals can be an expensive surcharge. The train is a great way to get around that. However... Should the train not work out for you timewise, there is a way to minimize that dropoff cost.

Basically the key point to remember is that a dropoff surcharge gets added onto every day of that particular rental agreement. So if you wanted to rent in Vancouver area for 3 days, you rent there. You drop off that car and get a second one to drive to Seattle.Then you drop that car the night you arrive in Seattle--and potentially get a different one if you need it for Seattle. We have done this elsewhere in the US for other trips. I believe with Budget, we had signed up and gotten some sort of club membership so that checking in and out at the car rental agency went very quickly.
5alive is offline  
Old Feb 7th, 2019, 06:55 AM
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v2 Idea - thanks for your help!

Hi there -

Back to trip planning with a new idea, and I would love your advice. Breakdown is 2 nights Portland / 4 nights SJI / 2 nights Seattle. Hope is that this would allow us to see the highlights of some new cities while still getting a good dose of nature and relaxation. Still targeting late September.

Day 1- Fly into Portland, stay overnight in Portland
Day 2 - Portland, Columbia River Gorge, stay overnight in Portland
Day 3 - Drive to Seattle via rental car, take clipper from Seattle to SJI, stay overnight in SJI
Day 4 - Stay overnight in SJI
Day 5 - Stay overnight in SJI
Day 6 - Stay overnight in SJI
Day 7 - Return to Seattle, stay overnight in Seattle
Day 8 - Explore Seattle, stay overnight in Seattle
Day 9 - Depart for home

What are your thoughts on this itinerary? If we were to stay in SJI for 4 nights, do you think that would allow time for a day trip one of the days - maybe to see Victoria / Buchart Gardens? Or not worth throwing in that added layer?

Or we could take out the Portland component and do 4 nights in Seattle and 4 nights in SJI with a day trip to Victoria / Buchart Gardens from Seattle.

Thanks in advance for thoughts and feedback!

meg_irvin is offline  
Old Feb 7th, 2019, 07:25 AM
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What is it that you want to see in Portland? Since you are landing at PDX, just rent a car there and go east on I-84 and stay in Hood River. You don't have to drive in the city of Portland at all if you don't want to.
The east end of the TriMet light rail red line is right outside baggage claim at PDX.. To avoid a drop fee on the rental car, take the Portland rental car back to Portland and take one of the several Cascade line Amtrak trains to Seattle King St. station and rent another car in Seattle. The Talgo trains that run between Portland and Seattle are very nice compared to many of the Amtrak trains I ride on.
If you stay at least one night in Hood River you can see the wind surfers on the Columbia River, the waterfalls along the old Columbia River Highway (old US 30) and lots of views of Mt. Hood.
Multnomah Falls are Oregon's highest waterfalls. If you don't want to drive the old highway to see the others, You can stop in the parking lot in the median of I-84 (left exit).
tomfuller is offline  
Old Feb 7th, 2019, 07:53 AM
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Sure, I like this new plan including Portland. That works, especially if you can arrange flights into Portland and out of Seattle. And no I wouldn't try to squeeze in Canada if you are looking for a relaxing time in nature. Portland, the Gorge, Seattle, SJI is plenty for only an 8 night stay in this area.

Of do the skip Portland add Canada plan. Either one works. Have you looked into plane tickets yet? That might help you make a decision by which works better Portland/Seattle or Seattle/Vancouver for flights.
suze is offline  
Old Feb 7th, 2019, 09:13 AM
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I think it's fine, but a couple of suggestions.

1. Add a day to the Portland/Columbia Gorge area and spend it visiting the Hood River Valley/Mt. Hood area. In September you'll still have warm weather, but the valley's many orchards and vineyards will be in full harvest mode. Drive the "fruit loop" - - and maybe drive out to the Maryhill Museum and nearby replica of Stonehenge - Maryhill Museum of Art - for Rodin in the sagebrush. It's a marvelous area.

2. Take the train from Portland to Seattle - it's cheap and relatively scenic (around 4 hours) and will save you a small fortune in car rental costs by not having a one-way surcharge or drop fee.

3. Get a second car in Seattle and use it to travel to San Juan Island. You'll need a car on the island (or you can visit other islands like Lopez or Orcas) and it might well end up cheaper given surface logistics within Seattle, the Clipper, and ground transportation on the island(s.) Stop in the pretty waterfront town of La Conner on the way to the Anacortes ferry terminal, and travel back to Seattle via Deception Pass at the top of Whidbey Island, a marvelous and scenic place, then Coupeville and/or Langley, both charming waterfront villages on Whidbey. Take the ferry across to Mukilteo and return to the city via WA 526, which will take you past the Boeing Everett plant, home of the big jets and the biggest building in the world.. Map -

This would mean losing a day on the islands, but to me the exchange is well worth it. As for the Victoria/Butchart excursion, it's certainly doable but wouldn't be my first choice. In September things are going to be pretty well finished in much of the (expensive) gardens, and the logistics can be complicated due to infrequent ferry schedules. I'd probably use that day either in the San Juans, or add it to the end of the trip with a day trip from Seattle - maybe up to Mt. Rainier, or to Bainbridge or Vashon Islands, etc.
Gardyloo is offline  
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