The Worst Drives in Washington State
I spend a lot of time thinking about the best drives in Washington—and they are legion. It's hard to top Highway 20, recently reopened for the spring, in a jaw dropping cruise through the North Cascades. But I'm also partial to a trip through rolling Palouse or the low-key putter across Lopez Island.
But for every world-class road trip, there is a stretch of misery—a section of road that inspires dread in any Pacific Northwest traveler. (And no, we're not talking about painful in-town gridlock.) Here, by my account, are our state's crummiest drives.
Highway 2 through Sultan
The backups are legendary. The mostly two-lane highway that travels east-west through Snohomish County fills with commuters on weekdays, and daytrippers on weekends—heading to Stevens Pass Ski Area, Leavenworth, and beyond—inching through the town of Sultan's few traffic lights. The traffic is so bad (as many as 24,000 cars a day) that various solutions including extra lanes and roundabouts have been proposed. Until then, we suggest a stop at Sultan Bakery to let your blood pressure drop with one of its signature pastries.
I-5 through Fife
It's hard to pick the most problematic stretch of I-5 (we haven't forgotten about you, Marysville), but the so-called Fife Curve is always reliably slow. Somewhere between the whimsy of Wild Waves and the glory of the Tacoma Dome, freeway traffic tends to grind to a halt—even with the new HOV lanes that opened in 2022. Required passage for most points south, the section dependably synonymous with heartache.
I-90 over Snoqualmie Pass
Most of the time, this expanse of freeway is pretty impressive; almost as scenic as other mountain passes, each direction of the freeway splitting to opposite sites of the valley right before the roadway reaches Snoqualmie Pass itself. But when it snows, the sheer volume of traffic means it's one of the first places to clog with fender benders caused by following too close and slamming on the brakes on ice (hint: bad idea). What do you call it when a snowstorm lands on Apple Cup weekend, with thousands of University of Washington or Washington State University fans crossing the state for an epic football game? The Evergreen State's version of a perfect storm.
Hood Canal Bridge
If you know, you know. The floating bridge at the top of Hood Canal, linking the Kitsap to the Olympic Peninsula near Port Townsend, can cause massive waits, especially during the summer. One reason? Law requires the span to open for boats or high winds, and the span is too wide (bigger than the Tacoma Narrows!) for a suspension bridge. This summer almost looked like it would be an even bigger nightmare for Olympic vacationers, with the bridge marked for full weekend closures throughout the season. But the backlash led to a more spread out closure schedule.
State Route 161 through South Hill
A personal pet peeve: The quickest route from the Seattle area to Mount Rainier National Park's year-round entrance goes through the Puyallup suburb of South Hill. While the community has plenty of lovely residential neighborhoods, State Route 161 is the arterial with all the useful stuff for modern life: a Target, a Safeway, a Fred Meyer, another Target. The parade of fast-food chains and traffic lights can feel like a gauntlet to be conquered before reaching the rural foothills that lead to Rainier. Once there, the driving is dreamy—you just have to earn it.