The I-5 Drive: Stops from Portland to Seattle

Three hours is just too long to sit in the car. The infamous slog between Seattle and Portland invariably adds a few more hours due to bizarre traffic snafus. (What is the energy vortex causes the mysterious slowdowns in Tacoma, Olympia and Chehalis, anyhow?) Put it all together, and you’ve got a real tantrum starter for parents and kids alike. Unless you give up for a little bit, pull over and chill out. Here are a few of our favorite kid-friendly stops along the Seattle-to-Portland I-5 route.

the salmon creek burgerville in vancouver is a fine place to stop along i-5 with kids

The Salmon Creek Burgerville.

Exit 7: Burgerville. This Salmon Creek Burgerville (on the edge of Portland) is a fast-food diner that thinks it’s a restaurant – thank goodness. There’s outdoor seating, an indoor play area with crayons and a few toys and small kid-size picnic tables. Eat your local blackberry shake, Walla Walla onion rings or juicy natural-beef burger; on some weekends, you’ll also encounter no-cost kids’ events. Free wifi, too. Exit 76: Recreation Park and Penny Playground. If a three-year old designed a fort, it might look a bit like this park’s peaked playground: a delightful maze of levels, hiding spots and peek-a-boo corners. Even the stairs surprise here – they shake beneath your feet while leading you up to tunnels and turrets. A large grassy area encourages running, if you packed a boomerang, kite or frisbee. Cool off with the on-site spray park and pool in summer.

penny park in centralia a good stop for kids off of i-5

At the Penny Park in Centralia

Exit 81: Olympic Club Hotel & Theatre. This historic building in the McMenamins chain offers lovely outdoor dining next to a train track, so kids can watch rail cars hustle through downtown Centralia. A cozy pub-style interior restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner; the movie theater and last-minute hotel may bail you out if there’s sudden snowfall or a four-hour traffic delay on the freeway. Exit 82: Burgerville. Yes, another Burgerville. But the Centralia location is the first that southbound travelers encounter and the last that northbound roadtrippers can dine at. Pick up a healthy kids’ meal (served with apples instead of fries, if you like) right at the halfway stopping point between Portland and Puget Sound.

Exit 88: Great Wolf Lodge. If you decide you’d like to make a stopover between Portland and Seattle, this is a popular destination. Read more about what to do in Grand Mound at 18 Tips for Visiting Great Wolf Lodge. 

Do you have a favorite kid-friendly restaurant, activity or playground along I-5?

Daytrip: Olympia with kids

Think State capitols aren’t kid-friendly? Towns plagued by boring subcommittee meetings, too-fancy restaurants and dull plazas, right?

Olympia, Washington, may take you by surprise.

Lavender at the Olympia Farmers Market

When to go: Saturday, so you can check out the Olympia Farmers Market, the people-smorgasbord that is Olympia. You’ll see patchouli students from the nearby Evergreen State College, farmers in overalls, embroidered-denim grandmas, toddlers riding on dad’s shoulders. The market’s a nice mix of locally made items:  soaps, herbs, baked goods and of course, tie-dye shirts.

Where to eat: At the market, order honkin’ huge sandwiches from Heyday! Cafe and listen to live music on the market stage. As an alternative, go to Meconi’s Italian Subs for the best subs this side of the Mississippi.

Getting buried with (plastic) rocks at the Hands On Children's Museum

Little kids will love: The Hands On Children’s Museum, where the museum’s town allows kids to grow apples on a farm, deliver them with a truck, sell them the store, turn them into apple fritters in the bakery – and then visit the dentist for a tooth cleaning afterward. At the other end of the museum’s U-shaped layout, a kids can don lifejackets and pretend to drive a ceiling-height container ship (with a working crane!). The $7.95 per-person entry fee pays off with at least two hours of fun; one of the best children’s museum’s I’ve visited in the Northwest.

George's nose is shiny because so many people rub it for good luck.

Big kids will love: Discussing how government works in the hushed marble halls of Olympia’s Legislative Building, which sports the fourth-tallest, self-supported masonry dome in the world. Tours are offered between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. on weekends, but it’s probably best for you to drop cool history facts on your way through the building’s three floors. Look for the giant brass bust of George Washington — and don’t forget your camera.

Where to shop: Wind Up Here keeps little hands busy with dolls, wooden toys and other playthings. Perfect for a sticker book or two to keep the kids busy in the car.

Trying a mocha-dusted hazelnut.

What to take home: Don’t leave town without picking up treats from the Olympia Farmers Market — dinosaur cookies from San Francisco Street Bakery’s stall or a blend of nuts from Jawa Gourmet Nut Roastery. Recommended: lavender walnuts with orange and mocha hazelnuts.

Find more hotels, attractions and restaurants at Visit Olympia.