Heading out on our first camper van life road trip adventure.

PART 5: From the heat of the Columbia River gorge to the cool of the Washington coast

It was a rainy start to our 4th of July travel day.

After a brief stop at a Flying J Truck Stop along Interstate-90 to wait out a passing thunderstorm, we continued west enjoying clear skies, bright sunshine on the surrounding hills and dry pavement.

This section of eastern Washington consists of rolling hills and farmland.

What we encountered next on our drive seemed so out of place that we had to stop, get out, and see for ourselves. Within a few miles, the terrain changed from green, irrigated farmland to arid, volcanic rock formations and the massive Columbia River Gorge.

Take a look and bring your camera

There is a large parking area and scenic overlook right off the interstate’s westbound lanes. Eastbound motorists can use the Wild Horse Scenic Viewpoint on the opposite side.

The westbound overlook features paved walking trails that lead right to the edge of the Columbia River gorge. There are some interesting storyboards explaining the geological features and history of the area, including one that points out an early road at the water’s edge that once served as an access point for a river ferry.

This area reminded us of the western side of the Big Island of Hawaii, which is also very dry and volcanic.

Here over the ages, the Columbia River cut a deep path through the lava rock. Dry grasses seem to struggle to grow between the lava rock fissures. Interesting bright yellow moss clings to and paints the lava rock boulders with color.

The views are spectacular and best captured using the panorama setting on your phone or camera.

More places to visit along the river

Back on I-90 the highway drops to water level and crosses the Columbia River over to the Wanapum Recreational Area and the small town of Vantage. Here you can park and explore the Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park.

It’s a steep grade back up out of the river gorge that can test your motorhome’s engine and cooling systems during summertime heat. The Ryegrass Safety Rest Area is located at the summit and is a welcome site if you need to let your rig have a moment to recover from the long uphill pull.

What’s that mountain?

As we headed down from the summit towards Ellensburg, the majestic Mount Rainier came into clear view. The 14,410-foot tall, still active, volcano (last erupted in 1894) was snowcapped, even in July.

Also snowcapped, the Cascades Mountain range was in full view as we slowly wound our way up towards 3,000-foot-high Snoqualmie Pass. Pine trees became increasingly abundant as we drove deeper into the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

Beautiful Keechelus Lake borders I-90 in this mountainous region of Washington southeast of Seattle. The Snoqualmie Pass area and nearby Alpine Lakes Wilderness offers plenty of opportunity for hiking in the summer and skiing in the winter.

Break at the summit

It was about lunchtime when we crested the Snoqualmie Pass, so we took advantage of the rest stop at the summit.

This is a very traffic heavy stretch of highway, and the rest stop was bustling. The fact the Interstate rest stop is surrounded with tall pines and picnic areas made it a lot easier to ignore all the commotion.

Continuing on I-90 from here leads you right into Seattle where Interstate 90 terminates. We decided to bypass the metro area and take Highway 18 to Tacoma and Olympia.

When we lived on the coast of Washington in the early 2000s, we would make occasional trips to these Puget Sound cities to shop at bigger national retail stores. We both commented that the area had gotten a lot busier in the years since we left.

Westbound Highway 8, known as the Olympic Highway, put us on the direct route to Aberdeen, Hoquiam, and the Pacific at Ocean Shores. The road cuts through a combination of tree farms and pastureland.

Winding and twisting through the Capital State Forest and the Wynoochee River watershed, we passed many decaying homes and properties, the result of the Pacific Northwest timber industry crash and economic downturn in the 1980s.

Aberdeen, Washington – Home of Kurt Cobain

Grunge Rock fans will know that Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain was originally from Aberdeen. The former lumber town has paid tribute the late rockstar by using the title of a Nirvana hit song – “Come As You Are” – as Aberdeen’s slogan. It’s displayed on a sign next to Highway 8 as you enter the city limits.

On Young Street, where it spans the Wishkah River, Nirvana fans will discover the “Kurt Cobain Under the Bridge Memorial” featuring graffiti paintings and murals on the concrete bridge pilings.

In recent years, Cobain’s childhood home was officially approved for inclusion on the state “Heritage Register” of culturally important buildings. The City of Aberdeen has developed Kurt Cobain Park as another music fan attraction and tribute.

Land of bridges

If you love bridges, industrial waterways and active coastal ports, the Aberdeen/Hoquiam area will interest you. There are still a couple operational railroad swing bridges and a highway lift bridge or two that span the Wishkah, Hoquiam, and Chehalis rivers.

The Port of Grays Harbor has developed into an international coastal shipping hub serving not only the timber industry, but a variety of modern industries and businesses.

Getting closer to the beach

At this point we knew we were getting closer to our main objective – the ocean! Highway 109 to Ocean Shores and the coast gets very curvy as it follows the hilly terrain and cuts through dense forested areas.

Lots of memories flooded back as we passed through these towns and the forests. This is the route we used to drive every day to and from work.

It takes at least 30 minutes to drive the two-lane road from the Aberdeen area to the coast of Washington. At the Oyehut-Hogan’s Corner intersection of Highway 109 is the small town of Ocean City. Here you can choose to turn south on State Route 115 into the city of Ocean Shores, or head north and continue up the coast like we did.

The large Quinault Beach Resort and Casino and KM Resorts Ocean Breeze RV Resort are located close by.

Going coastal

It’s only 12 miles from Oyehut-Hogan’s Corner to Pacific Beach, but the drive will take at least 25 minutes to navigate.

Don’t expect to see endless vistas of the ocean while driving through this area. There are a few breaks in the trees and abundant vegetation to catch a quick peek of the water, but it’s best to keep your eyes on the narrow two-lane road as sharp turns and on-coming traffic.

Life’s a beach

We planned a two-night stay at Pacific Beach State Park in the town of Pacific Beach – population about 210 full-time residents. The 17-acre park and campground offer 2,300 feet of ocean shoreline access and the sounds of waves and seabirds.

The sun was shining as we arrived and checked in at the park office. We easily found our spot.

The park has 18 standard campsites, and 41 partial-hookup sites. All RV parking sites are on pavement with a maximum length of 60 feet. These back-in sites just have electricity hookups.

The park also has a dump station, two restrooms, six showers (all ADA), and two camping yurts to stay in.

Oh, did we happen to mention “Killer Beach Logs?” (Cue the Jaws movie theme!)

Reservations can be made for Pacific Beach State Park, and other Washington state facilities by going online at: https://washington.goingtocamp.com/ or calling (888) CAMPOUT.

A noisy holiday

Back during our time living on the Washington coast, we enjoyed the Independence Day holiday.

We would go out in our yard with a couple lawn chairs and watch the fireworks explode over the ocean. Why wouldn’t that be a great thing to do during our return to the coast this summer?

The campground was filled with RVs owners who had decorated their campsites for the 4th of July.

We saw flags, kites, whirligigs, yard art and bunting galore! What a great 4th of July holiday this is going to be, we said to ourselves.

We would sit in our camp chairs with a glass of wine and watch the sunset then the fireworks later that evening over the water right here at the Washington coast.

That would make the long, long drive from Minnesota all worthwhile.

Right above our van!

Our experience with the fireworks this Fourth was a bit different than what we had pictured in our minds. This is a tribal region and fireworks are readily plentiful and powerful.

People staying in vacation rental homes and condominiums directly behind the campground were relentless in the lighting off and launching fireworks.

The rocket’s red glare was mostly in the direction of the ocean, but certainly flew directly over our van and other RVs! The next morning our van and the ground all around our campsite was littered with paper and cardboard fireworks rocket shrapnel!

We were very thankful Willow and Tia are not bothered by loud noises, like fireworks. Our late adopted golden retriever, Emmy, was a former breeder mom, and deathly afraid of any noise. Poor thing would have been traumatized by all this.

Sleep through anything if you’re tired

Kim said she was able to sleep through most of the noise from the holiday celebrant’s fireworks. Needless to say, the 4th of July celebration explosions went on continuously into the wee morning hours of July 5th.

The day after dawned with salty ocean mist mixed with residual fireworks smoke. Morning sunshine burnt away the fog, and we enjoyed some blue skies with our breakfast burritos. The clouds moved back in, and the day became typically gray and drizzly.

We enjoy long walks on the beach

We took advantage of a second day at the coast to walk the long, sandy stretch of beach.

Sand dollar find

We watched the waves, dodged the surf, and looked for shells and sand dollars.

Razor clam shell

If you’ve never been to the Pacific Northwest, typical summer beachwear consists of jackets, flannel, sweatshirts and knit beanies, not shorts, tank tops or bikinis!

That is the main reason we headed to the west coast. The cooler weather and salt air was a needed reprieve from the humid heat of the Midwest summer.

Daytime temperatures on the beach were in the low to mid-60s (degrees Fahrenheit) and the breezy 50-degree nights are perfect for open window sleeping!

A new camp neighbor arrived in the spot next to ours while we were away enjoying the beach.

Tom and Carol had just begun their exploration of the Washington coast and the Olympic Peninsula in their stout 4-wheel drive GMC van.

The couple ventured up from Oregon’s Hood River area and were made a one-night stop at the Pacific Beach State Park before heading into the Olympic National Park. We enjoyed checking out each other’s vans and swapping stories of our DIY builds. It was fun to get a little backstory into the lives of a fellow #vanlife couple.

By late afternoon, a steady rain was falling, and we spent most of the time inside our campervan.

JK pulled a cabinet away from the wall to access some of the van’s electrical components. He tried to find out why several of our wall plug outlets inside the van were not working. No luck. (The cause of the outage would not be discovered until we returned back home more than a week later.)

Otherwise, we spent the time sipping coffee, loving on the girls, and setting off the van’s smoke detector alarm while trying to toast strawberry Pop Tarts on an “old school” camp toaster!

Good times!

Next Time: Join us as we revisit the same exact spot on a Washington beach where we got married during a cold November rainstorm some 17 years ago.

We will also find our old beach house, and visit the town where Chef JK helped open one of the first French-style bistros on the Washington coast. We then head south to explore and camp along the Northern Oregon coast!

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