From Washington to California, the west coast of the United States is chock full of road trip opportunities, including journeys that cross state and country borders, meander up and down the coastline, bypass mountains and lakes, and offer endless opportunities to stop the car and enjoy. Here are five of the best road trips on the west coast.
1. For Active Adventurers: Bend, Crater Lake, and Cannon Beach from Portland
Oregon is a paradise for those seeking outdoor adventures. With gorgeous mountains, rivers, lakes, and beaches aplenty, it offers loads of ways to get active in the great outdoors. This route loops through some of the best of them, though if time is a concern, it can be cut in half.
Start in Portland and head an hour east to the Columbia River Gorge where the rustic-chic Skamania Lodge offers easy access to waterfalls, hiking trails, wineries and breweries, and rafting in and around the gorge. From there it’s about three hours, passing through Mount Hood National Forest and skirting the base of the mountain, to Bend, where activities include whitewater rafting in the Deschutes river, hiking in Smith Rock State Park, and checking out the 22 craft breweries in laid-back Bend. Crater Lake, the deepest lake in the US, is another two hours south.
Looping back to the north is all about the coastal views, and Oregon’s don’t disappoint. Stop in the small town of Bandon, where unusual rock formations line the beach or continue on the five-hour drive up to Cannon Beach, where Haystack Rock, the largest sea stack on the west coast dominates the waters edge. Another 45 minutes up the road is Astoria, a sleepy seaside town where the house from The Goonies is found. Along the way, there’s bird-watching, horseback riding on the beach, and many opportunities for hiking.
2. For Wine Lovers: Yakima and Walla Walla from Seattle
There are nearly 900 wineries in Washington State and some of the best are located within a four-hour drive of Seattle. Of course, most travelers will take a bit longer — three to five days is ideal — to slowly sip their way across the state. Those short on time can drive one way and fly back; from Yakima or Walla Walla it’s about an hour to Seattle by plane.
The small city of Yakima is the gateway to the Yakima Valley, the state’s oldest appellation, which stretches 70 miles west to east. While Yakima city offers more options for services, it’s not quite as charming as smaller towns in the valley. Better yet, skip the towns altogether and pick a more rural accommodation, such as the Cherry Wood Bed, Breakfast and Barn, in Zillah, where guests sleep in 22-foot-tall luxury tepees and ride rescued horses through the surrounding vines and orchards to horse-friendly wineries. With more than 80 wineries, plus several distilleries and craft breweries, there’s plenty to do for several days; those who want to do more than drink can fish or raft down the Yakima River Canyon or learn about the inner workings of a woolen mill — and visit with the delightfully fuzzy alpacas — at Silbury Hill.
From the east end of the Yakima Valley, it’s another 90 minutes to Walla Walla, which is home to another 140 wineries, including several that have tasting rooms in the heart of the town. When it’s a time for booze break, there’s hiking, hot-air ballooning, theatre, and golf.
3. For Bucket-List Travelers: Carmel and Big Sur from San Francisco
California’s Highway 1, also known as the Pacific Coast Highway or PCH, is one of the most iconic road trips in the country, and perhaps the world. The PCH runs for 655 miles along the state’s coastline so it takes close to a week to traverse the entire route at a leisurely pace; those with less time can bite off a smaller chunk and still see quite a bit of gorgeous scenery that made the road famous. Some of the most scenic stretches are located between San Francisco and Big Sur; the drive takes about three hours but with a ton of pit stops along the way, we recommend three days or more for a slower pace.
The first stop along the way is Half Moon Bay, where Sam’s Chowder House offers buttery rolls piled high with lobster, surfers ride the waves, and the tony Ritz-Carlton sits on a seaside bluff with a stunning view of the ocean. Between there and the beach boardwalk of Santa Cruz, it’s worth making a stop at Año Nuevo State Park for a guided walk along the dunes to see the thousands of elephant seals who call the beach home.
About an hour south of Santa Cruz, the neighboring seaside towns of Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea offer a plethora or diversions. Monterey is home of the fun-for-all-ages Monterey Bay Aquarium and Cannery Row (named in honor of John Steinbeck, a former resident) while Carmel is a bit more upscale, dotted with high-end boutique and wine tasting rooms.
Shortly after it exits Carmel, the PCH reveals its most dramatic views as it loops along the edge of the ocean, crossing the famous Bixby Creek Bridge, and occasionally darting back through a grove of ancient redwood trees. Plenty of luxury hotels, like the Hyatt Carmel Highlands, Post Ranch Inn, and Ventana Inn and Spa, specialize in jaw-dropping views at jaw-dropping prices, and hiking trails, like the path to McWay Falls, which plunges into the sea in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, abound. Stop for a few days to take it all in, or continue south for an hour to finish up the trip at the magnificent Hearst Castle in San Simeon.
4. For Sunset Views: Pt. Reyes and Mendocino from San Francisco
The northern route up Highway 1 offers equally impressive views, dizzying curves, and several days worth of great stops along the way. Just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway 1 cuts west to the coast where it crosses through the pristine Point Reyes National Seashore. Drivers can get out to stretch their legs and climb down 308 steps to visit the Point Reyes Lighthouse or continue to Marshall to make a pit stop for fresh seafood at Hog Island Oyster Co. or the Marshall Store. Just a few minutes up the road, the seaside cottages at Nick’s Cove, which come complete with fireplaces and heated floors to ward off the evening fog’s chill, are a great place to stop for the night.
Nearby Bodega Bay will entertain for a short stop; there are a handful of shops along the road, but the most notable thing about the town is that it’s where the Hitchcock film The Birds was filmed. Another map-dot town, Jenner, is a popular spot for kayaking, with rentals available on site. Drive another 30 minutes and call it a night at Timber Cove, a recently renovated resort with oceanfront bocce courts and fire pits, and beautiful sunset views.
Finish the trip in Mendocino, a delightful town set at the ocean’s edge. From there, it’s an easy detour inland to the wineries of the Anderson Valley, a visit to the historic Mendocino Lighthouse, or a short drive north to Fort Bragg’s Glass Beach, where millions of colorful glass fragments, polished smooth by the waves, line the water.
5. For Passport-Holding Foodies: From San Diego to Ensenada
It’s just 40 minutes from San Diego across the border to Tijuana, and while the fourth-largest city in Mexico once had a reputation as a destination for partying college kids, those days are gone and today Tijuana attracts a different kind of tourist. The city is particularly known for its booming food scene; at places like acclaimed Misión 19 the focus is on fresh, local ingredients and the food is as good as any you’ll find at a Michelin-starred restaurant, at a fraction of the price.
From Tijuana, it’s another 90 minutes to Ensenada, a seaside town lined with beaches and surf spots, where the ceviche tostadas, oyster cocktails, fish stew, and fish tacos are as fresh as they come. The town offers easy access to the Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico’s wine country. More than 60 wineries can be found in a 35-square-mile area, and as any oenophile knows, where there’s wine, there’s always good food. Three area restaurants have appeared on the list of best restaurants in Latin America in recent years: Corazon de Tierra, Manzanilla, and Laja all of which embody the valley’s farm-to-table (and ocean-to-table) trend, with a focus on expertly created dishes made from locally sourced ingredients.