As any American boy will tell you, the road trip is something to cherish. Whether it is across the country with your parents when I was 12, or even now as I approach 60. The road trip, to me, will always be special. It’s iconic. It is adventurous. It can be grueling. As a youngster, it meant freedom and being on my own. With my old beat up Dodge Dart Swinger, I would head out onto the highway. Radio cranked. Windows down. And I felt like the world was an incredible place.
The west coast has amazing landscapes and roadways. A discovery at every corner. Weird and wonderful people doing weird and wonderful things. But what is the best west coast road trip? Everyone has a different opinion on that.
Spanning the Washington border in the north and stretching all the way down to California in the south, the West Coast of the U.S is full of amazing sights and things to experience. The region is very large and the state of California alone encompasses a huge amount of the landmass meaning that several different biomes and geographic features exist within one state. Pacific Northwest indigenous peoples, Alaskan Natives, and Indigenous Californian population inhabited the various regions for ages and after they came the Spanish, French, British, and American explorers who began colonizing the coast. People have seemingly always wanted to explore and discover and with the advent of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 people on either side of the country can now get to the other.
In the modern age, cars are the more obvious option for a road trip and while the coast has been thoroughly charted and discovered the sheer beauty of the West Coast is still a memorable sight to behold. From the forest in the north to the desert in the south, the West Coast is full of gorgeous things to see. Pack your bags, hop in your car, and hit the road with these iconic West Coast U.S road trips.
Pacific Coast Highway
Not only is it one of the most iconic road trip routes on the West Coast but it is also one of the most recognizable in the country. Known as the “PCH” by locals, the highway stretches over 600 miles of the coastal highway going to Orange County at its southernmost end to Mendocino County in the north. The trails, bridges, and roadwork were pathed out in the 1930s as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal program and was even for the time considered an amazing feat of engineering.
The average length going from end to end spans around 7 days but you’ll likely need a bit longer than that if you plan on hitting up some of the hotspots around the highway. On the southern end of the highway, you’ll probably want to explore the beaches of Southern California before heading out further north into Ventura County driving past Manhattan beach. Hit up all the beaches before spending some time in Los Angeles.
Further north towards the central coast, make sure to grab your camera because the mountains on one side and the coast on the other make for an incredible view. Pass over the historic Bixby Creek Bridge before heading further north into Monterrey and then San Francisco. Drive through the Golden Gate Park before heading into the city and spending some time there, finally the trail ends in Mendocino where you can check out the Victorian architecture of the town or head into the woods and marvel at the massive Redwood trees.
Oregon Coast Highway 101
Starting from the shoreline in Washington State and stretching out the forest in California, Oregon Coast Highway 101 is shorter than the Pacific Coast Highway but is packed with interesting places to stop. The highway starts in Astoria and goes from the Columbia River to Brookings on the edge of the California border. Scenic rugged views of the coast and the mountains will make the drive a memorable one where you’ll want to constantly pull over and snap a few pictures. If you’re looking to hit the beach a bit Cannon Beach in Oregon should be your first stop and check out the Yaquina Head Lighthouse in Newport. For film nerds, Haystack Rock nearby is also the spot where the last scene of The Goonies was filmed, which has been affectionately nicknamed “Goonies Rock”.
If you’re looking for somewhere fun to pull over, the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area is a popular place for off-roading and also camping. But if you’re looking for something more upscale, stop by in nearby Cape Perpetua and hit up Brandon Dunes Golf resort. Hit the links here or even just stay for a day or two and unwind.
Cascade Loop of Washington
For a taste of everything Washington has to offer, check out exploring the Cascade Loop of Washington. Starting with mountain views, city living, beautiful natural vistas, and then lopping back to where you started, this trail allows people to see everything the state has to offer. Stretching for over 400 miles, this path allows plenty of room for customizing your journey as you pretty much start in either direction.
Starting in Seattle offers you the chance to see the city and explore the most urban setting of the trip. Spend some time in the city before heading out northwards towards Anacortes which connects the Cascades to a 120-mile stretch through some of the most picturesque landscapes in the state. Wind through rugged mountain roads and admire the massive trees looming overhead or even stop by Diablo Lake and relish in the views of the deeply aquamarine waters. There’s even a viewing platform available right off the highway. If you prefer to get a little more acquainted with nature, the North Cascade Scenic Byway is a very popular hiking and campground area.
Continuing through the southern loop, the highway goes through small Washington towns such as Cashmere and Leavenworth which is one of the more unique towns in the area with a distinct Bavarian theme complete with Bavarian-esque sights like alpine peaks, cultural celebrations, and even architecture. Finally, the route ends back at Seattle but not after passing through the picturesque Stevens Pass.
Mount Rainier and Mount St. Helens
For the geography admirer and people interested in volcanoes, the Mount Rainier and Mount St. Helens path covers two of the biggest ones in the country. Located about 60 miles south of Seattle, Mount Rainier is a massive and active volcano that is also part of one of the most popular national parks in Washington. Drive south towards the park and enjoy a night or two camping in the park or explore the myriad of hiking trails around the volcano and through the forest. The massive 14,000-foot peak of Mount Rainier is pretty much visible in all directions. The Skyline Trail and Spray Park path are two of the more popular treks and they’re also open in the winter months to snowshoeing and cross country.
Driving south from Mount Rainier, you’ll head to Mount St. Helens which is about a 2-hour drive from Mount Rainier. The volcano is a national monument and is host to plenty of great hiking trails. After its eruption in 1980, the volcano left a noticeable mark on the surrounding area making it practically a living science project demonstrating how nature evolves and changes after destruction.
Yosemite to Death Valley
While western California has the Pacific coast to cruise along, you’d be amiss if you didn’t consider the California interior for your next road trip. Blessed with tons of wildlife, diverse landscapes, and even America’s tallest waterfall, the Yosemite to Death Valley trip is a great one for nature lovers and desert explorers. Starting in Yosemite National Park check out the 3,000 foot tall El Capitan followed by heading a bit south towards Kings Canyon and then the iconic Sequoia National Park. Stroll through or camp amongst the absolutely massive and centuries-old Sequoia trees. Grab yourself a picture with the largest tree on earth, the 275-foot tall General Sherman sequoia tree.
Keep heading south through Fresno and past Bakersfield before taking a turn east into the desert and towards the California-Nevada border. Finish your journey with a stay in Death Valley and camp under the desert stars at night or explore the sand dunes in the day. And if you’re in the mood for a little more adventure afterward, well you’ll only be a 2-hour drive to Las Vegas.
I have to admit, I love Death Valley. I have been there probably 25 to 30 times. Kati does not like it and has only been there once. I have spoken to other couples and it seems that this is common. So maybe Death Valley is a male thing…who knows.
South Lake Tahoe to Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park is one of the country’s biggest parks and one of the biggest tourist destinations in the area. While Yosemite to Death Valley covers California’s interior, South Lake Tahoe to Yosemite National Park takes you through the gorgeous Sierra Nevada Mountains and past a plethora of natural attractions and beautiful landscapes. Highway 395 is the main road through the Sierra Nevada which will connect drivers with tons of things to see and discover along the route.
Starting at the southern end of Lake Tahoe, the immediate area is an alpine wonderland with snow-capped mountains, rugged peaks, towering pine trees, and shimmering lakes. Emerald Bay State Park is a perfect spot to start your adventure and offers hiking trails along the mountainside or along the shores of the lake. If you’re here during the winter months, don’t forget your ski or snowboard gear because Lake Tahoe is home to some pretty stellar mountains and ski resorts. Highway 395 also connects to Mammoth Lakes which is open year-round and offers hiking, mountain biking, and downhill skiing, while the nearby town of Lone Pine is the gateway to Mount Whitney, one of the tallest mountains in the country.
Napa to Sonoma
Napa Valley and Sonoma are two of California’s biggest and best wine-producing regions. If you’re looking to tour California wine country, now you don’t have to choose between them. The best part about this road trip is that it is easily done within a nice long weekend since Napa and Sonoma are only about 14 miles from each other. Start your trip in Napa and indulge in some of the best wines the U.S has to offer. Spend a weekend in a cozy bed and breakfast while you taste and tour the wineries. When you’re done there head west towards Sonoma and enjoy the views along the highway of the hills and the trees before stopping in Sonoma.
Full of mom-and-pop establishments, some amazing food, and artisanal wineries, Sonoma is the ideal place to spend a weekend indulging in the simple things that make life great. Good food, good wine, and good weather. If you want to take your trip even further, looping to San Francisco from Sonoma is a great and easy option.
Los Angeles to Palm Springs
Whether you’re a local to the Los Angeles area or are just looking to hit the road around the city, the Los Angeles to Palm Springs route is a fun way to see the L.A area and the desert landscape outside the city. While Los Angeles is not necessarily within a desert itself, it is close to one with landmark locations nearby like Joshua Tree.
From L.A head east towards the California interior and stop by plenty of little towns and attractions. You’ll head past San Bernardino but also through little towns like Twentynine Palms that offer little roadside retreats filled with art, food, and sunshine. Once you’ve reached Palm Springs you’ll find your little oasis in the desert. The houses and architecture here are known for their mid-century aesthetics that stick out and will make you feel like you’re in the 1960s. With beautiful neighborhood design also comes great food and just because you’re in the desert, doesn’t mean there aren’t some amazing dining options nearby. Before you decide to head back, why not spend a day or two lounging by the pool and working on your tan in the sun at a hotel or an Airbnb.
Our Final Word
There are so many wonderful road-trip possibilities on the west coast of America. Experience the grandeur of mountain ranges and volcanoes, to the Pacific Ocean or follow in the footsteps of the gold miners. It is all there to be enjoyed. So pack up your car and throw in your cooler. Grab the dog and head out. Just remember to roll down the windows and crank up the radio. Road tripping just cannot be beat. See you on the road.