Road Trip From Seattle, WA to Portland, OR

Last summer I organized a week-long vacation to the Pacific Northwest for just myself and my 6-year-old. I had some great things lined up for Seattle and Portland, but I wasn't quite sure what would be the best way to get from one to the other. Train? Commuter bus? Drive? Go straight through, or stop along the way?

I ended up renting a car so that we could check out a few things along the way. We had breakfast in Seattle, packed our stuff, rented the car, and got on the road around 9 am.

Our first stop was Nisqually Wildlife Refuge, about one hour south of Seattle. The refuge is an estuary, where the freshwater of the Nisqually River meets the saltwater at the southern tip of the Puget Sound. Overdevelopment and water management systems like dams and levees have significantly impacted the wildlife of the Puget Sound (for example, see the salmon decline), but in 2009 the Nisqually estuary became protected land and the refuge reconnected 762 acres of flood land with the tides of the Puget Sound.

We arrived at the refuge at 10 am and walking around took us about an hour. It was so pretty. The greens...oh my goodness, the greens! How are greens so green around here? (Ah-hem, California is a nice shade of drought brown, so you'll have to allow me to drool over green.)

After our walk, we got back in the car for 20 minutes to get to the restaurant Tugboat Annie's in Olympia. I picked it because the reviews were good enough and it was right on a bay. The view was beautiful, my fish and chips was amazing, but unfortunately there was a horrible fishy smell coming from the bay. I'm not sure if that was bad luck with the tides or just a constant factor? I'm assuming just bad luck.

After lunch, we had our longest stretch of driving to do, 2.5 hours to the Ape Cave. The Ape Cave is a lava tube—a long, narrow, tube-shaped cave carved out by lava as it traveled in channels under a hardened crust. Basically, it's the sewage system of a volcano, in this case of Mount St Helens. But, lava tube, doesn't that just sound cool?

The Ape Cave was the selling point for my daughter about this whole road trip day. She wanted to go there so bad, determined she would find treasures and bats—basically her two favorite things in the world.

Of the 2.5 hours, 1.5 was spent going south toward Portland, but just as you're about to arrive near Portland, you take a turn and drive one hour east to no man's land, WA. There is truly no one and nothing out there for a very long time—including no cell signal, FYI.

And it is...Absolutely. Freaking. Gorgeous.

There's parking near the entrance to the Ape Cave, which is a set of stairs down in a giant hole in the ground.

The Ape Cave is divided into the upper and lower cave. The upper cave is for experts so don't go there. The lower cave, however, is a kid-friendly hike just under a mile long INSIDE THE EARTH. Seriously, I can't get over that.

And don't worry, the entrance to the upper cave is hard to reach so there's not much chance you'd take the wrong hike by accident. Even if you did, you'd notice pretty quickly!

Our trip coincided with a week-long heat wave for the Pacific Northwest, so outside it was over 100 degrees F. In just a couple of minutes walking down the cave, the temperatures dropped down tens of degrees. By the time we reached the end, it was around 40 degrees! So, bring a sweater. Or two. Or three.

As you can see, it gets real dark in there real quick. So bring a flashlight and a backup flashlight for each person. I bought these little Etekcity LED camping lanters in preparation for our spelunking adventure and received many compliments about how bright they were from other hikers we walked by.

Last warning, the floor of the cave is pretty even as far as I would expect cave hiking to be, but there are still many obstacles and denivelation so you'll want to tread carefully. My excited daughter was excited and jumped off a rock excitedly...and missed her footing. Long story short, lava rock skins knees pretty well. The whole thing was pissing blood. Thankfully I had alcohol hand sanitizer to clean the wound (not the ouch-free way of cleaning wounds, let me tell you that), feminine products to wipe all the blood away (no joke—thank god it was dark), and clean pants to put her into in lieu of a Band-Aids. I call that a win, but I'd suggest that carrying a small emergency kit.

Warnings aside, it was probably the highlight of our entire trip to Seattle and Portland. It felt like such an adventurous thing to do for both of us, without really running huge risks. On the August day we went, there were enough other hikers that we'd cross some every 15 minutes or so—just the right amount that I felt I could ask for help in case of an emergency, but not so many that we'd lose that thrill of being alone in the dark. There were also park rangers stationed by the parking lot and right outside the cave entrance.

After the Ape Cave, we finally drove the final hour and a half of our trip and arrived in Portland ready for more adventures. Ha! Just kidding. Ready for pizza and a long night of sleep!