Saying that the Pacific Coast Highway is one of the most scenic drives in the world wouldn’t be an overstatement. If you like traveling slow and exploring the US region by region, taking a long road trip along the West Coast can be an adventure of a lifetime. Hundreds of travelers from around the world come to this part of the US every year to experience one of the world’s most epic road trips and there’s a good reason for that. From the dense forests of Washington to the sunny beaches of California, this part of the states is filled with wonderful surprises and hidden gems. In this post, I’ll cover some of the highlights of the journey and use all of my knowledge to help you prepare for a Pacific Coast road trip.
Traditionally, a Pacific Coast road trip is associated with the Highway 1 that covers most of California’s coast but in recent years, a lot of people expanded this trip to Washington and Oregon in attempts to make their vacation more interesting. One of the best ways to experience the Pacific Coast is to go from city to city along the coast, whether you’re traveling by road or whether you travel through the water. By going from city to city, you can experience a bunch of the different highlights on a budget while keeping the kids interested in an ever-changing landscape. You can even pick out specific towns in advance if there’s something there that the kids want to see. And if that doesn’t work, you can always bring some fun free car games for kids.
Where to start from?
Honestly, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. If you’re from abroad, it’s probably a good idea to start in Seattle and finish the trip in LA because you can get a cheaper flight back from Los Angeles. It also depends on whether you prefer forests or beaches and whether you want to live the things you like the most for the end of the trip.
Additionally, since in the US, people drive on the right side of the road, if you’re driving from north to south, you’ll have a view of the ocean all the time. Another good reason to go from north to south is that you can combine your road trip with a vacation in Mexico. But whichever option you choose, I’m sure you won’t regret it.
What’s the best time to take the trip?
Probably between June and September. This time of the year gets barely any rain, it’s warm and sunny all the time, but also there will be a lot more people taking this road trip. If you want to drive on less crowded roads, you can also organize this road trip during the winter, but don’t forget that the weather can be unpredictable during this time of the year.
The perfect Pacific Coast road trip itinerary
In this article, we’ll cover some of the main highlights of taking a Pacific Coast road trip but the final choice of where you want to start and end is yours. Usually, most people start in Seattle and end in San Francisco, LA, or the coast of San Diego. Naturally, I suggest you take your time when traveling but time is luxury for most of us. However, even if you’re in a rush, you can easily do this road trip in 5-10 days.
If you’re taking a 5-day trip, it would look something like this:
- Portland – Crescent
- Crescent – San Francisco
- San Francisco – Santa Barbara
- Santa Barbara – San Diego
If you have some more time, 10 days should be more than enough. This way, you can also take your time exploring some of the big cities along the way. The 10-day itinerary would look something like this:
- Port Angeles- Long Beach
- Long Beach – New Port
- Newport – Crescent
- Crescent – Fort Bragg
- Fort Bragg – San Francisco
- San Francisco – Big Sur
- Big Sur – Santa Barbara
- Santa Barbara – Los Angeles
- Los Angeles – San Diego
Choosing a Car for your Pacific Coast road trip
Before embarking on this epic road trip, you have to make sure you choose the right car. My recommendation is to choose a car with a low center of gravity but not a convertible. You might be tempted to choose this option but the drive won’t be nearly as enjoyable as it seems in the movies!
Next, there are a lot of options that allow you to take a car at your starting location and drop it at your final destination. This is oftentimes more expensive than renting a car both ways, but you can still get some great deals on Auto Europe. My favorite thing about their offers is that you can compare the prices of different rental car companies for different types of vehicles before booking and always be sure you’re getting the best deal.
Now that we have that covered, it’s time to get to the actual itinerary!
Pacific Coast road trip stops in Washington
Washington remains under most tourists’ radars even though it’s a state with so many beautiful places. For some reason, in most movies, this state is presented as gloomy and cloudy, but the Washington part of the Pacific Coast Highway is just as magnificent as the rest of the journey. Here are some of the best stops you can take in Washington.
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This is, in my opinion, the best starting point for your Pacific Coast road trip. Seattle is a big cosmopolitan city where you can get some great rental car deals and stock up on all necessary road trip essentials. If you have more time and you’re not in a rush, I suggest you give Seattle a few days. The city truly has a lot to offer. If you want to stick around and do some sightseeing, seriously consider getting the Seattle City Pass to save big on the major tourist attractions.
Port Angeles is the perfect place for your first overnight stop. There are a lot of cool things to see around before you continue to your next stop. You can explore Olympic National Park (a mix of Maine’s rocky coast, the rainforests of the Pacific Northwest, and the snowy peaks of the Rocky Mountains), see the majestic Crescent Lake, and hike to the top of Mount Storm King and see some of the Northwest’s iconic natural beauty. If you’re planning to spend a night here, use my Booking code to get up to 15% off on all properties in town.
La Push Beaches
La Push are some of the most mesmerizing beaches in the northwest. The beaches were featured in blockbuster movies such as Twilight. There are three beaches in the area that you can visit. First Beach, which is the most accessible one, a popular choice for families and people who don’t like walking. Second Beach requires a short trek to get to while Third Beach is the most remote and least frequented beach but it’s perfect if you’re looking for a nice lonely walk by the coast.
Are you planning a honeymoon around the West Coast? Then you may also want to check out this list of cheap honeymoon destinations in the US.
A quaint little town on the Washington Coast, Ocean Shores is the perfect place to relax and get some of the most amazing views of the Atlantic or do some bird watching at the Ocean City State Park.
No, we didn’t move from Ocean Shores to Scotland. Aberdeen is a small town in the state of Washington that’s famous for being the home town of the legendary Nirvana frontman, Kurt Cobain. The house in which he grew up is open to visitors and is one of the main tourist attractions in town.
Cape Disappointment State Park
Don’t let the name fool you; there’s nothing disappointing about Cape Disappointment State Park. Comfortably situated in the far southwest of Washington, this park hides hundreds of miles of unexplored trails, peaceful beaches, and some of the most beautiful sunsets in the region. If you have enough time, definitely try to spend at least a few hours here. And if you’re lucky, you might even get the chance to spot an orca offshore!
Long Beach is the perfect place to stay overnight and relax after a long drive. It’s a set of little, charming communities on the Long Beach Peninsula famous for its beach and boardwalk and a perfect place to have a lazy day before leaving Washington and entering the state of Oregon. For some great accommodation deal, check out my Booking discount link.
Pacific Coast road trip stops in Oregon
Even though not as forgotten as the coast of Washington, the Oregon Coast is still underrated compared to California but there are a lot of amazing places to see around. In this section, I’ll share some of the best stops you can take along the Oregon Coast.
Astoria is a great first stop for people looking to discover the finest of Oregon. The city is a part of the extensive Lewis and Clark National Historic Park and happens to be the oldest American city west of the Rockies. Astoria is also home to several iconic sights, including the Astoria Column, the Old Fort, the legendary Astoria-Megler Bridge, and if you didn’t know it, Astoria is also where the Goonies was filmed and there are several monuments dedicated to the popular movie. I
Cannon Beach & Seaside
Cannon Beach is one of the nicest beaches in Oregon and one of the most famous sea stacks on the Pacific Coast. The 235-feet-tall Haystack Rock is one of the most photogenic spots on the West Coast. While you’re around, you can also check out Seaside; a sleepy picturesque coastal town with beautiful sweeping beaches.
Even though technically, Portland isn’t on the coast, it’s definitely worth taking a short detour. The city is roughly 80 miles away from Cannon Beach and 90 miles away from Cape Kiwanda. Portland is a big city filled with a lot of interesting things to do and activities for all groups. If you want to get some great deals on popular tours in Portland, use this link for Get Your Guide’s best deals. And if you like the city that much that you decide to stay a night or two, use this special offer to save up to 15% on all booking rentals in town.
Cape Kiwanda is a state park that’s home to some of the most popular beaches on the Oregon Coast and one of the most beautiful viewpoints on the Pacific Coast. It’s a perfect place for hosting a bonfire, catching an amazing sunset, and it’s one of the best surfing destinations on the West Coast.
God’s Thumb Hike
If you’re one of those people that just can’t spend a long time without being physically active, you’ll love God’s Thumb Hike. The hike gets its name because of the physical resemblance to a thumb. The trail is picturesque and the walk itself isn’t very strenuous, giving you a perfect opportunity to stretch your legs after a long drive.
Devil’s Punchbowl is a place where you can feel the power of the ocean as it swirls and slams into this naturally-carved bowl. The scientific explanation is that the bowl was created when two caves crashed into each other, creating one of Oregon’s most interesting natural phenomena.
The next bigger city on the list that’s perfect for an overnight stay is Newport. Newport is a city on Oregon’s central coast with numerous interesting things to do, restaurants, and a myriad of hotels to choose from. If you’re planning to spend a night in Newport, use my special Booking discount code to get 15% off on all properties in town.
Cape Perpetua Scenic Area & Thor’s Well
Personally, this was my favorite part of the entire Pacific Coast road trip because of two reasons. Firstly, because I got to see the Oregon Coast meeting the winding highway below. It’s one of the most spectacular photo opportunities of the entire journey and also a low-key great camping spot. And if anything gets better than this, it’s Thor’s Well. Thor’s Well is a massive sinkhole that looks like the ocean is pouring into an endless abyss but in fact, it’s a rock tube that sucks and spills water out as the waves come and go. If you want to see Thor’s Well at the peak of its performance, visit during high tide but don’t get too close.
Pacific Coast road trip stops in California
For many, the California coast is the best part of the journey. As soon as you cross the state border, driving along California’s Highway 1 feels like driving in a postcard. Get ready for sunshine, long sunny days, and azure blue waters on the horizon. The stops in this part of the journey are the main reason for most people to choose a Pacific Coast road trip.
Located on a beautiful crescent-shaped bay, Crescent City is the most common first stop along California’s Highway 1. The coast near the city is filled with picturesque, giant rock formations, common for this part of California. If you’re planning to spend the night in Crescent, save up to 15% on your accommodation by using this link.
Humboldt Redwoods State Park
After you cross Crescent City, the highway enfolds away from the coast at times, which gives you chances to see some of California’s most amazing natural beauties, like Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Driving through the park also means that you’ll get to see the Avenue of Giants that features California’s oldest living trees; a perfect chance to slow down and enjoy the view.
As you drive from Humboldt Redwood State Park to San Francisco, to get to Point Reyes, you might have to take a short detour, but it’s absolutely worth it. The Port Reyes drive features a couple of hours of scenic winding coastal roads that will surely leave you in awe. If I would plan the trip again, I would spend some more time enjoying Point Reyes’ spectacular landscapes.
Tip: make sure to plan your trip on a day in which the Point Reyes lighthouse is open. Once you get there, climb the stairs and enjoy the view of the endless ocean beneath the clouds. You’ll thank me later. If you want to break up the journey and enjoy this part of California, it might be a good idea to take a break in Sacramento. After all, Sacramento still is the capital of California.
Before reaching San Francisco, I suggest you make a stop at Bolinas Ridge. The area is dotted with golden, rolling hills hanging from the edge of Mount Tamalpais State Park. Needless to say, the views amazing, making Ridgecrest Boulevard one of the most scenic parts of the entire journey.
For a lot of people, this is one of the main stops on the journey and it’s not hard to understand why. San Francisco is a bustling metropolis filled with iconic sights, such as the Golden Gate Bridge and Park, Alcatraz Island, Pier 39, Lombard Street, etc. If you only spend a night or a few hours in San Francisco, I’m sure the city will leave you longing for more. If you have the luxury of time, here are some interesting tours in San Francisco. Alternatively, if you prefer exploring on your own, save up to 50% on the San Francisco City Pass by using this link. And if you’re planning to spend a night, two or a weekend in San Francisco, use my special Booking discount code to save on accommodation.
Santa Cruz & Shark Fin Cove
The drive from San Francisco to Santa Cruz features some spectacular sights. One example is Shark Fin Cove; a beautiful coast dotted with giant rock formations that resemble a shark’s top fin. The beach is a bit difficult to find and requires a quick detour but I absolutely recommend visiting. Even better, if you’re there on a weekday, you’ll probably have the amazing views of Shark Fin Cove for yourself.
Another spectacular sight is Half Moon Bay, a string of scenic beaches along the bay on the slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains. A few beaches and scenic viewpoints later, you’ll get to Santa Cruz, a city in which the 1960s are still alive. If you’re looking for some old-school Americana vibes, definitely make a stop in Santa Cruz and walk its famous Boardwalk.
Roughly one hour away from Santa Cruz lies Monterey; a beautiful coastal town filled with a lot of interesting things to do. It’s my suggestion to stay in Monterey for an overnight (mainly because it’s cheaper than Santa Cruz). If you’re a fan of sailing, fishing, and marine life, you’ll surely love Monterey. You can explore the Monterey Aquarium, explore the Point Lobos Nature Reserve, visit the Old Fisherman’s Wharf, and of course, don’t miss the chance to take a drive along the scenic 17 Mile Drive.
You’ve probably seen a part of the Big Sur in the movies or on postcards. This rugged stretch of California’s Central Coast is famous for its winding turns, seaside cliffs, and views of the often-misty coastline. Along the way, you’ll also see the legendary Bixby Bridge; one of the world’s tallest single-span concrete bridges and one of the most photogenic places on the West Coast.
Some other notable sights along the Big Sur feature Pfeifer Beach, Point Sur Historic Park, the McWay Falls, and Ragged Point. In fact, there are so many beautiful sights along the way that staying focused while driving can be a difficult task.
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San Simeon & Cambria
San Simeon is a small coastal town that’s becoming more and more popular in recent years. Even though the town is relatively small, it boasts some interesting sights, such as Hearst Castle, the Piedras Blancas seal rookery, and numerous awe-inspiring viewpoints that make San Simeon the perfect stop on your Pacific Coast road trip.
Only 10 miles away, you’ll find another interesting stop in the seaside village of Cambria. The adjacent hills are famous for the extensive stretches of Monterey pines that give the area a special vibe. Cambria is also home to a few beaches that are home to various sea life (seals and sea otters) and tide pools filled with sea crabs, anemones, starfish, etc.
No Pacific Coast road trip wouldn’t be complete without a stop to Santa Barbara. It’s a city with rich Spanish Colonial heritage filled with Mediterranean-style white stucco buildings, making it one of the most picturesque cities along the coast.
Finally, the last stop of the Pacific Coast road trip for most people is The city of Angels. For many, this is the last stop of their Pacific Coast road trip but a lot of people also add Orange County and/or San Diego to their list. Whether you just want to see the city’s most iconic sights or discover some hidden gems, L.A. has something in store for everyone.
Another increasingly popular alternative, especially for families are cruises along the West Coast. There’s simply so much choice out there on the market for them to choose from. A number of operators specialize in providing cruises for families. You can hop on a Los Angeles cruise and have a look around some of the many things to see and do in the City of Angels. And if this isn’t adventurous enough or you just want to keep the adventure going, don’t stop here; check out this guide to road-tripping the South-West.
Did you ever consider taking a Pacific Coast road trip? If so, what seems like the most fun part of the journey? Do you have any other suggestions for stops on this epic journey you think we didn’t mention? Let us know in the comments.
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