Saturday, November 9th was my Aunt Pat’s 80th birthday. She lives in a large suburb of Boise, Idaho, and a family gathering was planned for the weekend to celebrate the milestone, including my cousins I hadn’t seen in several years flying in from Denver and Boston. (Another cousin conveniently already lives there.)
I wanted to attend, but the drive from Seattle to Boise and back is slightly over 1000 miles. The trip one way usually takes about 8.5 to 9.5 hours depending on traffic, weather, and number and length of stops you make. If you put the pedal to the metal, don’t run into any slow downs, and only take one or two quick potty breaks you can make it in about 7.5 to 8 hours.
Either way, I just don’t have it in me to do long drives like that in a single day anymore, especially with no one along to help keep me awake. (My sister and nephew flew down for only one night, and my mom and stepdad took their RV for a trip to Arizona afterwards.) Even at my best I never enjoyed that many hours on the road in one stretch.
I decided the only way I could do it with my various limitations was to make a road trip out of it. I hadn’t been in south central Washington or northeastern Oregon since family camping trips in the early 1970s, so it would be like driving through those areas for the first time.
To make things easiest on me I broke the Seattle to Boise part of the trip into three driving days. I wanted it to be a real road trip where I could drive at my own pace, stop whenever and wherever I felt like it, sightsee in the towns I stayed in, and didn’t feel any time pressures.
I planned my route, studied maps, chose where to spend nights, researched places I might want to see, made motel reservations, and hit the road on Wednesday, November 6th.
Day one only took me as far as Yakima in south central Washington. I decided that in true road trip fashion I would take the slower scenic route through the Yakima River Canyon between Ellensburg and Yakima, rather than the faster interstate freeway route.
It was worth it! It was a beautiful drive on a beautiful day. It was sunny and slightly chilly, but not cold. I stopped several times, once for a potty break at a scenic rest stop in the eastern Cascade foothills and a few times in the canyon to take photos. The drive took about four hours.
All of the photos on this page were taken while I was actually driving my car. (I call such photos “on the road” pics.) To be safe, I just point the camera through a car window and fire off a few shots in burst mode hoping for the best. I delete all the blurry ones and do any needed cropping and horizon straightening after the fact.
Because I waited for a Seattle traffic jam to dissipate before I left home, I left over an hour later than my planned 10 am departure time. (Freeway traffic through downtown is usually flowing well by 10. Just bad luck that day.) By the time I checked in and unloaded at the Motel 6 I really only wanted dinner and not to drive through Yakima to a park I was planning to visit. (I can’t eat meals before or during a drive so get pretty hungry by late afternoon.)
When I finished at the restaurant (Bob’s Burgers & Brew, which was good) it was almost full dark, so Yakima sightseeing was a bust. Curse you and your stealing of daylight, Standard Time! (insert raised fist)
Day two was my short day. I only traveled from Yakima to Pendleton in northern Oregon, which ended up being a bit less than a three hour drive because it turns out that’s an extremely boring trip, with absolutely nothing interesting to look at while driving and no points of interest to stop for near the freeway.
I pushed my speed due to utter boredom and being tired because the four “hilarious” people in the room next to mine at the Yakima motel kept me awake until 4 am with their loud talking and laughing. (insert fantasies of doing violence to very rude people) I only made one stop along the way, at a rest area for a pee break, a look at an Oregon Trail kiosk, and to stretch my legs.
The lack of scenery was made worse by the fact that south central Washington and north central Oregon were under an extended air stagnation advisory. That leads to pollution haze at the best of times, but add in a layer of wildfire smoke that made it all the way up from California and it was really ugly.
Thankfully I really liked the cute little motel I stayed at in Pendleton, the Rugged Country Lodge, which took the edge off the crummy drive. The carpet was ancient and the heating unit was horribly loud, but it was clean, the bed was super comfy, and it was decorated with country charm. It’s a fine example of the type of old, but still well-kept, independent motels I’ve always preferred and which are almost extinct now.
By arriving so early in the afternoon I had time to visit the Heritage Station Museum I spotted while driving through town on my way to the motel. I checked in, unloaded the car, called the museum for info, and got back to the museum 50 minutes before its 4 pm closing time. I’m not a big museum person usually, but this one was like a park and pretty neat.
After the museum closed dinner was going to be at Hamley Steakhouse. But when I arrived at 4:15 I discovered they don’t serve dinner until 5 pm. I was ravenous by then and couldn’t wait, so took a suggestion from the bartender and went to Cimmiyotti’s down the street. It turns out I dodged a bullet because I was told later Hamley’s is quite expensive.
When I walked in the door I realized Cimmiyotti’s was a fancier type of restaurant than I normally go to (table cloths and candle lights!), but by then I was too tired and hungry to look for something else. Thankfully my beef stroganoff ended up being within the reasonable range at $19. The service was very good, the wait staff politely ignoring that my brain that was no longer firing on all cylinders.
I had been looking forward to the day three drive where the freeway follows the route of the old Oregon Trail through the Blue Mountains. The section of Interstate 84 between Pendleton and Ontario (a designated Oregon scenic highway) is notorious for its steep grades, tight curves, high winds, bad snow and ice, and traffic accidents.
Luckily for this time of year, the weather forecast was very good for both the down and back legs of my trip so I wouldn’t be facing icy roads. I did see snow on the shaded banks of the Grande Ronde River, and there was one accident involving a semi between La Grande and Baker City that closed down one of the two southbound freeway lanes.
Day three didn’t get off to the best start because I had trouble finding the main freeway entrance after filling up with gas downtown, and ended up going too far in the wrong direction because of a misleading sign and then doing a bunch of backtracking to where I knew another entrance was at the other end of town. Additionally, the air stagnation and smoke meant that the viewpoint in the high hills just southeast of Pendleton didn’t provide much of a view, which was very disappointing.
But the drive up into the mountains from the flatland was rather exhilarating even with the ugly sky. The freeway gains over two thousand feet of elevation within a relatively short distance, and I got a bit of vertigo when rounding the tight curves with their steep drop offs.
After leaving the stagnant lowland air behind, the drive through the the Blue Mountains was lovely with sunshine, rolling hills, pine forests, rivers, and distant jagged peaks. The Blue Mountains were the final, and extremely difficult, major obstacle for those hardy people moving west on the Oregon Trail.
The highest elevation I reached on the trip was the Blue Mountains summit at a bit over 4,100 feet, though it wasn’t an obvious summit like the mountain passes in the Cascades. The whole area for a great many miles is high country with rolling hills spreading out forever on all sides.
In the wide valley north of Baker City I did get nice views of ranges of rocky peaks, with the south end of the Blue Mountains to the west and the Wallowa Mountains to the east.
There is so much history and there are so many interesting natural features all through the northeastern section of Oregon that I could easily spend two or three weeks just puttering around between the small towns and visiting all the sites of interest. When I win the Lotto and build my custom camper van I’ll do just that. Ha! (insert traveling in a camper van fantasies)
I only ended up making three points of interest stops, and two leisurely rest area stops between Pendleton and Boise.
I didn’t make any long stops for things like the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center that I would have liked to visit because it was located six miles off the freeway, I was getting tired after three nights of very little sleep, and I was already going to be arriving in Boise later than desirable because of the upcoming time zone change near the Idaho border.
The final stretch between Ontario, Oregon and Boise, Idaho was mind-numbingly boring. The lack of any interesting scenery was made worse by a construction slowdown for several miles where traffic was stop and go at times, at other times speeding up to a blistering pace of 25 mph. Ugh.
Even though I very much enjoyed the first two thirds of the day three drive, by the time I arrived at my hotel early Friday evening and got checked in and unloaded I was completely wrung out.
I’d spent about five hours on the road that day after I finally found the freeway, and with the change to the Mountain Time zone it was 6.5 hours later by the clock than when I’d left the Pendleton motel. (Time zone whiplash because we’d just set our clocks back an hour to Standard Time three days before I left Seattle!)
Lack of sleep, hours of driving, the last stretch with zero scenery, the construction slowdown, and the hellish rush hour traffic in the Boise suburb of Meridian, where I got off at the wrong exit and then took a wrong turn on the way to the hotel, did me in!
I had to beg off dinner at my aunt’s that night (which started only 15 minutes after I finished getting my bags into my room) so I could avoid having an embarrassing meltdown in front of relatives and just peacefully veg out in my room instead.
Thankfully, the My Place hotel that was to be my home for the next three nights was very nice with a small table and kitchenette, good bed with a soft comforter, good wifi, and best of all was relatively quiet, which can’t be said of the other motels I stayed at on this trip. They even had a little food and travel necessities shop in the lobby.
I was so burned out I couldn’t even face just going next door to eat at Denny’s so I ordered Pizza Hut delivery to my room and enjoyed unwinding in what for me were luxurious accommodations. (Anything nicer than an updated Motel 6 qualifies as fancy in my book!)
After a great one-on-one visit in my motel room with my Boston cousin and a yummy birthday dinner for 20+ people in a private room at Louie’s Italian restaurant on Saturday, and a low key family gathering at my aunt’s house all afternoon on Sunday, it was time to hit the road again Monday morning.
My return trip was only two driving days of approximately 4.5 hours each because I wasn’t going to be taking any slower scenic routes and I wouldn’t be making many stops.
On the way back I spent the night in Hermiston, Oregon because I wanted to visit a different town and it was at almost exactly the halfway point. I had essentially gained an hour of daylight that day with the time zone change back to Pacific Time, so had just enough time after checking into my motel to visit Hat Rock State Park.
The state park is day-use only and located about eight miles from town. It was great and one of the highlights of my trip, but the sun was already low in the sky when I got there so I had to rush to squeeze in as much of the very large park as I could before sunset.
Dinner was at Hale’s per the suggestion of the motel clerk. The food was fine, though I didn’t enjoy the meal very much. It was my fault for not being in tune with what I really wanted, not because the restaurant did anything wrong. I should have ordered something simple like a grilled sandwich or burger instead of steak, and it would have been a lot cheaper to boot! The steak was perfectly cooked and the homemade soup that came with it was very good.
Unfortunately, the Rodeway Inn motel was horrible. It was rundown, smelly, too hot or too cold, and extremely noisy.
I had to unplug the mini-fridge in my room it was so ridiculously loud, but I could still clearly hear the fridge next door every time it cycled on. The noise also included a jerk wandering around the property and loudly talking on his cell phone for an hour at 3 am, which the desk clerk didn’t do anything about even after I called to complain.
To make my motel stay slightly more bearable, the Seahawks beat the previously undefeated San Francisco 49ers in overtime on Monday Night Football that night. Go Hawks!
My final day of driving went smoothly except for a few times when I got sleepy and had to hum and make weird noises to keep myself alert. I made two brief viewpoint stops on the south and north sides of the hills between Yakima and Ellensburg on I-82, one quick rest area stop, and arrived back in Seattle just before the worst of rush hour traffic kicked in. Whew!
Even with the not-so-great parts it was a good road trip. All road trips have their ups and downs, and I’m very glad I muddled through my anxiety issues and actually did it. I got to see new things and make new memories. It was fantastic to celebrate my aunt’s 80th birthday in person and reconnect with my cousins. And it’s fun to say I traveled through three states on my little jaunt.
In the coming weeks I will be posting some detailed previews of some of the places I saw during The Great Boise Road Trip of 2019.