This 5-day itinerary pairs the top sights in Washington’s wine country and Columbia River Gorge with the best wineries. This is a particularly good trip if you’re coming from Portland, Oregon, or Vancouver, Washington, which are situated nearby, right along the Columbia River. It’s a three-hour drive from Seattle to the itinerary’s starting point at the west end of the Gorge. If you’re coming from that direction, you might extend the trip a day and start off by making a visit to Mount St. Helens. Another viable strategy if you’re starting in the Seattle area, especially if you’re a wine lover, is to make Mount Rainier your first stop, and from there head to Yakima and pick up the Wine Country part of the itinerary.
Columbia River Gorge
Spend your morning on the Oregon side of the Columbia, where the scenic drive east takes you past the West Gorge waterfalls and you can tour the Depression-era Bonneville Dam and its adjacent fish hatchery. Cross over the river at Cascade Locks, work in lunch at Skamania Lodge or in the town of Stevenson, and then head 10 miles west and spend the afternoon on the switchback path up Beacon Rock, an 848-foot-tall monolith that, after a surprisingly easy climb, provides unbeatable views of the Gorge. Cross back over to the Oregon side to spend the evening in Hood River, a fun, hip little resort town. Have dinner at one of Hood River’s many brewpubs.
Traveling east from Hood River, over the course of 30 miles the Gorge makes a remarkable transformation from forestland to dry, barren bluffs. Back on the Washington side, about 45 minutes east of Hood River, is one of the state’s most remarkable cultural institutions, the Maryhill Museum of Art, which contains a substantial, eclectic art collection. It’s as impressive as it is incongruous.
Turn away from the river at this point, making the 1.5-hour drive on Route 97 to Yakima, your first stop in wine country. Along the way visit Goldendale Observatory, 13 miles past Maryhill. Its interpretive center has afternoon presentations, and the hilltop location provides good views of the surrounding region. In Yakima, the business hub for the surrounding farmland, your best lodging options are the plentiful chain hotels.
Washington Wine Country
East of the town of Yakima, the Yakima Valley is a hotbed for Washington’s thriving wine industry. The most satisfying winery-touring area is the Rattlesnake Hills, where country roads northeast of I-82 take you to eclectic, friendly wineries. Owen Roe arguably produces the finest wine here, and Two Mountain Winery has the most fun tasting room, but all of the producers in the region take an accessible, unpretentious approach to their craft. Also in the valley, it’s worth stopping in the little town of Toppenish, which is decorated with more than 80 historical murals.
At the east end of the valley is the Tri-Cities area, a community of a quarter million with numerous chain hotels that are your best lodging choice. The main business is dismantling the Hanford nuclear site, a remnant of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan at the conclusion of World War II. It’s an interesting, sobering place that you can visit on the Hanford B Reactor Tour.
You get a different kind of wine country experience an hour east of the Tri-Cities in Walla Walla. While the Tri-Cities and Yakima are home to a variety of other enterprises, in Walla Walla winemaking is the undisputed top priority. As a result there’s a more hospitality-driven culture here, with appealing places to stay and a charming little downtown where tasting rooms share the retail blocks with cute shops and many good restaurants. Your best approach is to stop by a winery or two west of town on your way in, have lunch in town, and then head back out to visit more wineries at the old airport or in the vineyard area to the south. If that’s too much wine for you, check out the historic Whitman Mission or Fort Walla Walla Museum instead. Wrap up the day with dinner back downtown at either Brasserie Four or Saffron.
If you’re headed back to Seattle, buckle in the next morning for the 4.5-hour drive, which will take you back through Yakima and over Snoqualmie Pass. If you’re driving a rental car, you can opt to drop it off at the airport and make one of the daily hour-long flights from Walla Walla to Seattle.