This article was first published on PCH1 Road Trip: Pacific Coast Highway & Travel Guide and is republished here with permission.
Looking for travel inspiration for the best West Coast USA road trips? Explore these stunning road trip ideas in California, Oregon, and Washington for your next holiday. You may also like our post on Best Places to visit on the West Coast of the USA. Also read our post on USA Travel Bucket List.
West Coast, Best Coast! Do you agree?
The USA West Coast is our favorite region to go on a long road trip. It has everything from the gorgeous shores and beaches of the Pacific to vibrant cities of San Francisco and Seattle. It has national parks, volcanoes, and giant trees. It has tons of wildlife and really cool cuisine.
The best way to explore the West Coast is no doubt on a super long trip from San Diego to San Francisco. You will be traveling along the iconic Pacific Coast Highway and see beautiful natural spots. The total distance is over 1200 miles and you will be driving straight for about 20 hrs. With so many gorgeous stops along the way, you need at least two weeks for the West Coast drive.
But of course, not everyone has the luxury of time – and that’s why in this post, we round up some of the best short road trips along the West Coast. These trips are perfect to discover popular West Coast attractions when you have limited time on hand. Some of these routes also end up in the American Southwest, so you are guaranteed pretty much the best time of your lives!
Best road trips along the West Coast
So when we mean the West Coast, just which states are we talking about? Well primarily, the 3 states of California, Oregon, and Washington. But if you consider the entire country, then even Alaska and sometimes, Hawaii is also considered to be the West Coast.
And for putting together this interesting list, we have also considered trips that begin on the West Coast but go further inland – so don’t be surprised to find Yellowstone and the Sin City of Vegas on this list. With that, let’s find out the most popular road trips along the West Coast of the USA.
Oregon Coast Road Trip
A road trip down the Oregon Coast is one of the most memorable drives in the country. Start this beautiful West Coast road trip in Portland and explore the vibrant city before heading down the coast to Astoria. See the Goonies filming locations and the Peter Iredale Shipwreck before heading south to Cannon Beach.
Cannon Beach and the nearby Ecola State Park is where you can get the iconic photograph of the Oregon Coast with the fog-covered sea stacks. Your next destination should be the famous Tillamook Creamery for its ice cream and cheeses. Next drive around the coastal road to Cape Kiwanda and the Devil’s Punchbowl area.
For the last leg of your Oregon coast road trip, go south along the Samuel H Boardman Scenic Byway. Along the way, you will see beautiful overlooks, rugged coastline, coastal bluffs, hiking trails, and the majestic redwood trees. To plan a road trip along Oregon’s iconic landmarks, read our post on Oregon Coast road trip itinerary.
Pacific Coast Highway through Big Sur
The road trip along Pacific Coast Highway in Big Sur is not only the best West Coast road trip in the country but also among top road trips in the world. Start this epic journey at the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Few people realize that Highway 1 actually passes over this iconic bridge. Enjoy everything that San Francisco has to offer before heading down to Monterey.
In Monterey, see the aquarium and drive the scenic 17 Mile Drive. Next head towards the beautiful region of Big Sur. This area is 90 miles long and it is miles over miles of natural coastline. Along the road, you can see beautiful ocean views, migrating whales, lighthouses, and colorful wildflowers in spring.
In Big Sur, you will find several attractions including the Bixby Creek Bridge, the pretty McWay Falls, Pfeiffer Beach, and the elephant seals at San Simeon. You can hike at Point Lobos and tour the Point Sur lighthouse. You will also see groves of California’s popular redwood trees along the route.
San Francisco to Yosemite
If you are looking for a short road trip along the West Coast that still lets you explore two of the biggest attractions in the country, then consider a road trip from San Francisco to the Yosemite Valley. Take a day or two to explore San Francisco’s attractions including the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf, Alcatraz Island, and Lombard Street.
Then the road will take you through the Tri-Valley area. This area has the closest wineries near San Francisco. Along with wine tasting, you can explore small towns such as Livermore and Danville. Then head to the historic mining town of Sonora in California’s Gold Country. Here you can go antiquing, explore Old West buildings, and understand the area’s mining history.
At the end of the road lies majestic Yosemite National Park. Base yourself in the Yosemite Valley and take the roads to famous vistas in the park. The best known is Tunnel View from where visitors can see the iconic image of Yosemite Valley with El Capitan and Half Dome rising in the background. On your way back, explore Tuolumne meadows and the Mariposa Grove of redwood trees.
Also Read: Ultimate California Road Trip Itinerary
Olympic Peninsula Highway 101
When it comes to the state of Washington, the road trip along Highway 101 or Pacific Coast Highway around the Olympic Peninsula is the most memorable one. This is a loop road along which you can see snow-capped mountains, glaciers, rainforests, and wildlife. This road trip is just 330 miles long, but you can easily spend a week on this road exploring the outdoor attractions and hiking the beautiful trails.
Start this West Coast road trip from Seattle. Explore the city’s attractions such as the Space Needle, Pike Place Market, and Museum of pop culture before hitting the open roads towards the Olympic peninsula. Take the Bainbridge Ferry to enjoy beautiful water views. Then stop at Port Townsend to eat fresh seafood and admire the Victorian architecture of this charming port city.
Take a whale-watching cruise and visit a lavender farm in Sequim before entering the Olympic National Park. In the park, you can go kayaking or paddleboarding at Lake Crescent, hike the beautiful Sol Duc Falls, and explore the rainforest at Neah Bay. Take in the views at the beautiful Pacific Coast beaches and admire the sea stacks. Go beachcombing for driftwood, shells, and other treasures or hike on the coastal bluffs. No matter what you do, you will be having a great time on this epic Pacific Northwest road trip.
Historic Columbia River Highway
Historic Columbia River Highway is another great short Pacific Northwest road trip. The scenic byway is just an hour west of Portland and can be easily seen as a day trip. The byway connects Portland with the Mount Hood National Forest. Along the road, you will see beautiful waterfalls, river vistas, historic buildings, and other attractions. This highway has the distinction of being the first major paved road in the region and is also the first scenic byway in the country.
Start your road trip in the city of Portland. Savor the doughnuts at Blue Star or Voodoo and visit the beautiful Portland Japanese Garden. Experience the trendy vibe of neighborhoods like Downtown Portland, Pearl District, and Forest Park before taking the highway east up the Columbia River Gorge. The road is especially breathtaking in fall and is popular with foliage road trippers. At the start of the trip, admire the river vistas from the Portland Women’s Forum State Scenic Viewpoint. Next visit the Vista House Visitor Center at Crown Point.
There are many waterfalls along the byway including the Latourell Falls and Bridal Veil Falls but none are as spectacular as the famous Multnomah Falls. This beautiful waterfall is a two-stage fall and the charming Benson Bridge is built over the creek between the two stages. Visitors can hike up to Multnomah Falls for iconic views and visit the Multnomah Falls Lodge to understand the history of the area.
Northern California Coastal road trip
A coastal road trip along Northern California is one of the most underrated road trips along the West Coast. This road trip begins in the beautiful city of San Francisco and takes visitors past attractions like Point Reyes, Mendocino Coastal bluffs, and the redwood trees. While in San Francisco, see the city’s iconic attractions including the Golden Gate Bridge, Mission District, and Ghirardelli Square.
Then head north to Point Reyes National Seashore. Point Reyes is the windiest point in the country. At Point Reyes, you can whale watch, go hiking, and tour the Point Reyes Lighthouse. Next stop in Tomales Bay which is famous for its oyster farms. Stop at Hog Island Oyster Company and eat the freshly shucked oysters. Follow Route 1 up the coast to Mendocino. This charming coastal town has whitewashed houses, scenic bluffs, and three state parks that are full of hiking trails and outdoor activities. Then see the glass beach at Fort Bragg before joining Highway 101 at Leggett.
The journey up north is an exciting adventure into old-growth redwood forests. Drive through the Chandelier redwood tree at Leggett. Hike through groves of redwood trees and gaze up at the high treetops. In Humboldt County, drive along the Avenue of the Giants. This 31-mile portion of Highway 101 has giant redwood trees on both sides and is the ultimate road trip experience. At Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, hike through the Fern Canyon which was a filming locale for Jurassic Park. Throughout the road trip, you will experience stunning ocean views and beautiful beaches making this one of our favorite West Coast road trips.
Also read: 12 Best road trips in California
Los Angeles to San Diego
For a short road trip in Southern California, drive the Pacific Coast Highway from Los Angeles to San Diego. Along the way, you will find dozens of beautiful southern California beaches and charming coastal communities. Begin your journey at Santa Monica. Take a stroll along the Pier and ride the roller coaster at Pacific Park. Next, visit Venice Beach and see the skateboarders at the skatepark.
Then drive along the road until you reach Long Beach. This is the perfect place to spend anything from an hour up to a weekend. You can simply lounge on the beach or go for a whale-watching cruise or take the ferry over to Catalina Island. As the day draws to a close, stop in Huntington Beach for stellar nightlife. You will find nightclubs, dive bars, distilleries, and breweries here. Have a drink or two and call it a day in Huntington Beach.
The next morning, start anew and head for Orange County. Stop at Newport Beach for shopping, Crystal Cove State Park for hiking, Laguna Beach for stunning beaches, and Dana Point for the Farmers Market. If you have kids, add a day for Legoland in Carlsbad. Enjoy the beachy vibe of La Jolla before making your way to San Diego. Use the rest of your time to explore the city’s attractions including Balboa Park, the Embarcadero, Old Town, and Gaslamp Quarter.
Napa Valley road trip
If you are visiting the Bay area and West Coast, then you must go on a memorable Napa Valley road trip. Napa Valley Wine Country has many attractions whether you drink wine or not. If looking for a short road trip, head out to Napa. If you have more time then combine Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley to explore the highlights of northern California’s wine region. This road trip has everything – stellar views, perfect climate, gourmet food, exotic castles, wine tasting rooms, and hot air balloon rides!
Start by following the Silverado Trail into Napa. Explore the towns of Yountville, St Helena, Calistoga, Rutherford, Oakville, and Napa. Tour the area’s most famous wineries including Beringer Vineyards and Castello di Amorosa. Other activities include venturing down into wine caves, eating at the farm to table restaurants, and shopping in local stores. If you need to return, then take Highway 29 and explore some more wineries along the way.
If you have more time, take Highway 101 to Sonoma Valley. Along the road, you will see rolling hills and terraced wineries. The view is just beautiful, so make sure you bring along your camera. Hit up a local market and buy cheese and wines as souvenirs. This road trip is most fun during fall: the wines turn color, the harvest season means grape stomping events and more happening tours at the wineries.
Seattle to North Cascades National Park
The North Cascades Highway road trip from Seattle is one of the ultimate road trips in Washington. A trip along the Cascade Loop promises breathtaking mountain views, lots of fresh air, wildlife encounters, and dense evergreen forests. You will be following State Route 20 for a major part of your trip. At the end of the road lies the reward, the unspoiled beauty of North Cascades National Park.
Start your trip in Seattle and explore the city’s best attractions. Then make way for the Cascades Loop. Visit the historic town of Snohomish and go antiquing. Next, drive along the Stevens Pass Greenway and see beautiful mountain towns. On the foothills of the Cascade ranges, you will find the Bavarian town of Leavenworth. In autumn, you can see fall colors and experience Oktoberfest!
In North Cascades National Park, you will find glaciers, mountain lakes, waterfalls, and towering peaks. The turquoise colored Ross and Diablo Lakes are very photogenic. The park is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts. Visitors can camp, hike, bike, and kayak inside the park.
Joshua Tree road trip
Joshua Tree is one of the most underrated national parks in the country. It is very beautiful. The large, twisting branches of the Joshua trees are in stark contrast with the surrounding low desert bush environment. The bare boulders provide a breathtaking backdrop for this unique terrain. Joshua Tree also lies several miles from most big cities and the only way to visit it is on a road trip through the southern California desert.
Visitors can begin a Joshua Tree road trip from either Los Angeles or San Diego. If starting from Los Angeles, some of the popular attractions along the way are Cabazon dinosaurs, the resort town of Palm Springs, Indian Wells, and Coachella Valley. We recommend stopping in Palm Springs for a day or two and exploring its attractions including the Aerial tramway, design stores, and date shakes. There are many things to do in Joshua Tree, read about them here.
If coming from San Diego, you can see the gorgeous Borrego Springs sculptures, visit Anza Borrego Desert State Park, see the Salton Sea, the abandoned community of Bombay Beach, and the unique Salvation Mountain. You can also do a Joshua tree road trip starting from Los Angeles and returning to San Diego or vice versa.
Portland to Yellowstone
For a fun multi-day trip in the Western USA, the road trip from Portland to Yellowstone National Park is a great option. This road trip is not for the faint-hearted. The travel time from Portland to Yellowstone is 18 hours nonstop – roughly a thousand miles. You will travel through 5 states and spend a lot of time on the road. But the rewards are plenty too. You will travel via the Columbia River Gorge and through Western Idaho to Boise.
You can also easily add Grand Teton National Park to the road trip. It is near Yellowstone and you won’t have to spend any extra time on the road. Grand Teton has many beautiful hikes but the most popular is Cascade Canyon hike. To reach the trailhead, you need to take a boat shuttle across Jenny Lake. Other things to do in Grand Teton including panoramic views, wildlife sightings, and scenic drives.
Yellowstone National Park is one of the most popular national parks in the country. It has the honor of being the first national park in the world. Visitors enjoy watching the Old Faithful Geyser erupt and shoot water into the sky. You can also see other geothermal features including bubbling mud pools and colorful hot springs. Wildlife sightings including grizzly bears, bison, and moose. This also makes a great summer RV road trip for families.
Los Angeles Vegas Grand Canyon road trip
Technically, Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon are in the American Southwest but it is so popular that many visitors often see it along with popular West Coast attractions like San Francisco and Los Angeles. It is especially convenient to start this road trip in Los Angeles. The distance from Hollywood to Sin City is just a little over 4 hours.
In Los Angeles check out the popular attractions such as Walk of Fame on Hollywood Blvd, Griffith Observatory, and the Broad museum. Then head out to Sin City and visit the attractions on the Las Vegas strip. Go to the casinos and gamble. If that’s not your thing, check out the free activities like Fountains of Bellagio, the flamingos at Flamingo, and the Big Apple skyline at New York New York. Experience Vegas nightlife and see one of the famous shows.
After exploring Las Vegas, go on the 4-hour drive to Grand Canyon South Rim. Drive the scenic drive and see the majestic Grand Canyon from several viewpoints along the rim. Hike down into the Grand Canyon to see how it looks from below. Drive all the way to the Desert View Watchtower and spot the north rim in front of you. Last but not the least, check out the Visitor Center and understand the history of the world’s most famous canyon. Watch a video and pick up some interesting souvenirs from your road trip.
California SR 395 road trip
For a unique West Coast road trip, plan a drive along California’s SR 395. This road runs east of the Sierra Nevada parallel to the state border. The road has many unique attractions and is not as popular as most other road trip routes. What that means is that you get to enjoy stunning natural landscapes and unique attractions all by yourself.
Start your road trip in Death Valley National Park. This is the biggest national park in the country and famous for its salt flats. Visit Badwater Basin, one of the lowest and hottest places on the earth. Then see the panorama from Dante’s View before taking SR 395 up north towards Lone Pine. On the way, stop at Alabama Hills, a unique rock formation, that is also a popular filming locale. See the Museum of Western Film History in Lone Pine.
Other attractions as you head north to Lake Tahoe include Manzanar National Historic Site, Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, Mono Lake, and Mammoth Lakes. Once you reach Lake Tahoe, you can enjoy a variety of summer activities like kayaking, hiking, biking, and camping. This road trip is even more fun in the fall when the Aspen trees in the Sierra Nevada turn color.
Seattle to Glacier National Park, Montana
Montana’s Glacier National Park is about 12 hrs away from Seattle. You can easily go on a family car camping road trip from Seattle to the park. This road trip is perfect if you have anywhere from 4 days to a week on the road.
You can fly into Seattle and take a day or two to see the highlights of the city. Then drive across Washington and western Idaho to Montana. Sandpoint in Idaho is a perfect midway stop for the first night. This lakeside city is tranquil and has plenty to do. Other small communities along the road from Sandpoint to Glacier National Park include Bonners Ferry, Pioneer Junction, and Kalispell.
Once you reach Glacier National Park, drive the scenic Going to the Sun road. There are many things to do in the western and eastern sections of the park. Some of the most popular points of interest include Many Glacier Area, Lake St. Mary, Avalanche Lake, etc. Going to the Sun road usually opens in mid to late June and closes in the third week of September, so plan this road trip accordingly.
Bend to Crater Lake
For another short road trip in Oregon, consider the drive from Bend to Crater Lake. Bend is an amazing city for foodies. It has many restaurants, eateries, and cafes serving a variety of cuisines. The city also has many breweries, in fact, there is an ale trail where you can go to sample craft beer. Hike to Pilot Butte to get a beautiful view of the area. Bend also has a great art scene – you will find plenty of murals and museums in Downtown.
Then begin your 2 hours long road trip to Crater Lake National Park. Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the USA and is a stunning blue color during the summer. It was formed when the volcano caldera collapsed and created the lake. The boat tour is a fantastic way to experience Crater Lake and is fun for all ages. Drive the scenic rim drive and stay at Crater Lake Lodge for the night. Then use the next day to hike and explore nearby attractions before returning to Bend.
Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway, Oregon and California
For a unique road trip about volcanoes, calderas, lava tubes, and bubbling mud pools, a road trip down the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway. This road is just a little over 500 miles and passes through southeast Oregon and northeast California. It passes parallel to the Cascades ranges for the most part.
Start your trip at Crater Lake and admire this volcanic caldera lake by going on a rim drive. Then drive south via Klamath Falls to California. Along the way, stop at Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge to see beautiful wildlife. Your first stop in California should be the Lava Beds National Monument. This natural area lies on the eastern flank of the Medicine Lake Volcano in the Cascades. Rent spelunking gear at the Visitor Center and explore the many lava tubes. This is a fun activity for the kids.
Next, visit Mount Shasta which is the second tallest volcano in the country. Spend a day on the water at Lake Shasta. See the McArthur Burney Falls before heading to Lassen Volcanic National Park. In the park, you can see a variety of geothermal phenomena including geysers, dormant volcanoes, mud pots, hot springs, caldera lakes, and lava tubes. Be sure to walk along the boardwalk in Lassen to stay safe.
Lake Tahoe Loop Road
Another stunning road trip further inland from the coast! Lake Tahoe is one of the best places to visit in California year-round. A road trip along Lake Tahoe Loop Road allows visitors to enjoy everything that Lake Tahoe has to offer in a short time. The drive is just 68 miles long but expect to spend anywhere from half a day to 3 days on this route. The route passes through California and Nevada.
On the trip, you will follow the shoreline at times but also see the lake from far above in certain sections. The road has many pull outs to enjoy the panoramic vistas. Along the road, you will see several small mountain towns including South Lake Tahoe, Tahoe City, King’s Beach, etc. One of the major attractions is Emerald Bay State Park. You can also gamble at the casinos in the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe.
This drive is beautiful year-round. In the summer, you can hike, bike, enjoy watersports, and experience stunning mountain scenery. In the winter, you can go snowshoeing, skiing, and have fun playing in the snow. In the spring, you can see waterfalls from melted snow and wildflowers while in the fall, you can see the leaves turn color.
Special mentions for Best West Coast road trips
While the road trips above were in the Mainland USA, for the three trips below you will either need to cross the border or fly across the Pacific. But the trips as definitely well worth the effort!
Seattle to Alaska on the Alcan
The Alcan Highway or the Alaska Highway is a World War II-era route that connects mainland US to Alaska via Canada. Head from Seattle to Dawson’s Creek in British Columbia where the highway begins. Take a picture at Milepost 0. Then drive through British Columbia and Yukon Territory to Alaska.
In British Columbia, you will find small towns and interesting museums worth exploring. But the highlight of the trip is the drive-through Yukon territory. You will drive along the Continental Divide and have beautiful views and scenic vistas. Kluane National Park and Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is another breathtaking attraction along the road.
Then cross the Canadian border into Alaska at Milepost 1221. In Alaska, enjoy the stunning beauty of the tundras and the wildlife including bears, moose, caribou, eagles, migrating cranes, songbirds, and more. See the snow-capped mountain ranges and explore the trails. Stop at Delta Junction in Alaska, which is the official end of the road. From here you can drive onwards to Fairbanks for a memorable Alaska road trip.
Road to Hana
The Road to Hana on Hawaii’s Maui Island is considered to be one of the best road trips in the world. This stretch of the road is 65 miles long and has some of the best sights in Hawaii. It follows the coast so you are treated to views of the white waves crashing on the lava coast. You can easily drive it as a day trip but it also has enough things to do to plan a multi-day trip along this route. Start your trip in Paia and end in Hana or continue on the road beyond Hana as far as time permits. There are no gas stations between Paia and Hana so fill up the car before you start.
The road is very curvy and narrow and fun to drive. The first major attraction is the Waikamoi Ridge Trail. Hike the trail to see beautiful views and enjoy the surroundings. Next stop at the Ke’anae Arboretum to see multi-colored rainbow eucalyptus trees. The colorful bark of the tree is one of the most interesting things on this road trip. Then stop at the famous Three Bears or Upper Waikani Falls. There are 3 waterfalls and they are extremely photogenic.
Next comes the major attraction of Wai’anapanapa State Park. This state park has the famous black sand beach. The lava tunnel here is also a must-visit attraction. Spend at least a couple of hours at the park before heading to Hana. At the end of the road is Hana, a charming coastal town that is perfect to sit back and relax. You can also go past Hana to Seven Sacred Pools if you have the time.
San Diego to Ensenada
For a great road trip south of the border, consider the trip from San Diego to Ensenada. The total drive time is about 2 hours and the distance is roughly 85 miles. At the end of the road is Ensenada, one of the popular destinations in Baja California. You can do it as a day trip – but consider the time spent at the border while coming back to the US – or have a great weekend getaway. For a perfect Baja California itinerary, consider a trip along Tijuana Rosarito, and Ensenada.
First stop in Tijuana, just half an hour drive from San Diego. This is a vibrant, urban city and has everything from stunning beaches to great craft beer. Next head to the tiny little beach town of Rosarito. It has delicious Mexican cuisine, fresh seafood, and a wonderful small-town vibe. You can go ATV driving on the beach and enjoy Rosarito’s nightlife.
Last, reach the port city of Ensenada. This is the perfect place to relax and sip on some margaritas while lounging on the beach. Ensenada’s street food is amazing and so is the local shopping. You can wine tasting in Guadalupe Valley, Mexico’s wine region. Last but not the least, visit La Bufadora – the marine geyser along the coast. At high tide, the geyser shoots up water into the sea caves and is a wonderful natural attraction.
We hope you liked our post on the Best road trips along the West Coast. How many of these trips have you been on? Which are you planning for this summer? Let us know in the comments.