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?

Lora Shinn writes about family travel, Pacific NW travel, grown-up travel...and travel in general. Her travel-related articles and essays have appeared in Family Fun, Parenting, AFAR, National Geographic Traveler, AAA magazines and Redbook, among others.


  • Crystal aka Travelers Barista

    I’ll tell you that the Tacoma area traffic farther south is typically due to Fort Lewis soliders :o) I used to make that drive for work and got tired of the rush hour. Usually Olympia doesn’t get too backed up unless it’s an accident, in which case there are not much of any other options to go South, so therefore your stuck on I-5 :o)

    Great PIT STOP recommendations, I will have to check these out if we ever head south. Sadly we live so close to Portland (couple hours) but never go that way unless were driving through to California, which hasn’t happened since PRE-kids.

  • Amy @ Pit Stops for Kids

    Another great stop (although it’s an overnight) is Great Wolf Lodge (outside of Centralia) if you’re ready for kid-craziness! We had a nice time reviewing it a year ago. Kids LOVED it. Adults loved that kids loved it. 😉

  • Amy @ The Q Family

    Love this! We have been trying to adjust our lifestyle to eat more healthy and sustainable food. Definitely will put on my list when we plan our Seattle trip.

    Will you do the drive from Seattle to Vancouver pit stops? 🙂

  • Lora

    Good point, Amy @ Pit Stops. I’m interviewing a Great Wolf Expert today and I’ll add a link back when it’s done.

    Amy @ Q, yes, I will do a Seattle-to-Vancouver pit stop in the near future. Although the drive isn’t as bad, in my opinion. The traffic situation isn’t the hot mess that Seattle-to-Portland can become.

    Crystal, you should go to Portland! It’s awesome. Tax-free shopping, great food, really quirky and fun things to do.

  • jean

    Love this post. Always looking for great stop-offs as there is always painful traffic on this route I usually avoid at all costs!

  • jean

    OK, I am just not a huge fan of GWL. Unfortunately it is the only of its kind of waterpark in the area. Yes, the waterpark is great, but the rooms are spendy (yes, you get the waterpark passes.) They say suites, but they are really just large rooms with no complete walls to actually separate space. If you are travelling with children that require an earlier bedtime than adults, as an adult, you are still stuck in a dark room having to be quiet after the kids are sleeping. All suites are not equal in the world of travel. Also, all of the extra activites are pretty spendy: Magiquest, spa, cub club, etc. It reminds me of movie theatres where you are gouged for the ticket price, then on top of it are way over-charged for popcorn and soda.

    Don’t mean to rant, because we did go there and have a good time once, but the money and accommodations were just too much for us to think it is worth doing again. Wish we could just get a day-pass to use the waterpark though.