The ultimate West Coast road trip
The US West Coast is the road tripper’s treasure trove, brimming with everything from natural phenomena to busy city streets. Plan to give yourself at least three weeks to complete this route and leave lots of extra time to get pulled of course by the countless wonders of the West. Prep your palate for clam chowder in sourdough bowls and craft coffee; pack your bathing suit and umbrella, and bring your camera for surreal coastlines and sweeping mountain vistas. This is the ultimate West Coast road trip.
With Spanish inspired baroque architecture, stunning beaches, and surfable waves, San Diego is the ideal starting point for a road trip that splits its attention between natural and metropolitan wonders.
Enjoy the spectacle of Balboa Park and its 16 museums, ornate gardens, and the iconic architecture of the California Building.
Seek out one of San Diego’s many Mexican restaurants for the most authentic Mexican cuisine you can find north of the border, or pull up a seat at a seafood restaurant – if you can’t settle on one or the other, a fish taco will satisfy all your cravings.
No West Coast road trip would be complete without a cruise down Sunset Boulevard. Start in Hollywood (with a pit stop for the Hollywood Walk of Fame) and take this 22-mile-road through the famous neighborhoods of Beverley Hills and Bel Air before arriving in Malibu. On your way back, stop by the Santa Monica Pier for a sunset ride on the Ferris wheel and a bucket of shrimp at Bubba Gump.
Watch a film at the ornate Dolby Theatre, home to the Oscars, or catch a baseball game at Dodger Stadium to enjoy America’s favorite pastime.
Insider tip: Burger buffs should not miss the original In-N-Out location at 13766 Francisquito Ave, which was the first drive-thru hamburger stand in California when it opened in 1948.
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
While Sequoia and Kings Canyon are two separate National Parks, it’s more or less a two-for-one deal since they border each other. Lace up your hiking boots and strike out on one of the many trails that lead through the shaded cover of the giant sequoia groves.
Be sure to visit Giant Forest, where you’ll find “General Sherman,” the largest living thing on the planet by volume, and 8000 of his fellow giant sequoia trees.
The drive through these parks will grant you stunning vistas of untamed wilderness in deep mountain valleys, and take you over meadows where black bears are often spotted among the alpine wildflowers. Take the winding roads slowly and enjoy the views along the way.
Insider tip: Purchase an America the Beautiful Annual Pass for $80. It will get you in to all 58 US National Parks for the next year and will more than pay for itself on this road trip alone.
Yosemite National Park
As the fifth most visited US National Park in 2017, Yosemite provides the ultimate California outdoor experience.
Carved by glacial ice flows 250,000 years ago, Half Dome’s soaring granite peak towers over the valley floor and will challenge even seasoned hikers (permit required). Less strenuous hikes include the Lower Yosemite Fall Trail, where you can cool off in the mist of the roaring 2,425-foot waterfall, and Yosemite Valley Loop Trail, a mostly flat 7.2 or 11.5-mile loop that offers views of some of the park’s most recognizable geologic features.
Two glaciers, Lyell and Maclure, remain near the peaks of Yosemite’s highest mountains. These can be seen in the distance across the valley from the Glacier Point overlook.
This crystal clear, high elevation, lake straddles the border between California and Nevada and offers visitors a variety of outdoor activities.
Soak in the sun on the sandy shores of the lake and rent Stand Up Paddleboards (SUPs) to get out on the lake. Hike the Rubicon Trail along the south west rim of the lake for the best view of Emerald Bay, called “the fairest picture the whole world affords” by American writer Mark Twain.
Once the sun has set, head to South Lake Tahoe just over the state border to enjoy a complimentary cocktail and try your hand against the house at one of the cityscape-dominating casinos.
Visit Sutter’s Fort in Midtown to get a taste of life leading up to the 1848 discovery of gold nearby and spend some time in Old Sacramento to walk the wooden sidewalks and take in the historic buildings.
Today you’re more likely to find the locals jogging or riding bikes along the Sacramento and American Rivers than dredging them for gold, but the rivers are still the pulse of Sacramento. Join a river raft tour and go with the flow.
The Capital building is open to the public six days a week. The surrounding park features trees from around the world and it, along with the International World Peace Rose Garden, is worth a stroll.
The self-proclaimed Farm to Fork Capital of the world, Sacramento is a great place to sink your teeth into gourmet dishes with locally grown ingredients. For a taste of Sacramento’s buzzing craft beer scene, book a “bike bus” tour to peddle your way through popular bars and pubs.
Insider tip: Thanks to the annual Wide Open Walls Mural Festival, Sacramento is quickly transforming into an outdoor art gallery.
With over 400 wineries in Napa alone, you’ll have no trouble finding a glass to suit your taste and live up to the reputation Napa has earned as the heart of California wine country. Tour the vineyards and settle in for some gorgeous sunsets over the hills.
Most people make a beeline for the Golden Gate Bridge when they arrive in San Francisco. You’ll drive across it as you leave the city on this route, so instead of walking the bridge, find a different angle: a hidden rope swing at the edge of Kirby Cove. This swing is periodically cut down, but always finds its way back up.
One of the most Instagramable spots in the city is the mosaic steps at 16th Avenue. At the top you’ll be rewarded with nearly 360-degree views.
Go beyond Alcatraz Island’s infamous prison and take a guided tour of the restored gardens to see them as they were when tended by the inmates.
For a break from the sometimes foggy Bay Area weather, spend the afternoon at the Exploratorium, complete with interactive science exhibits and an aquarium, or the De Young Museum, which displays fine art and a rotation of exhibits such as King Tut’s mummy.
Insider tip: Don’t underestimate the traffic in San Francisco – or any big city in the US. Avoid being on the road from 7:00 to 9:00 AM and 4:00 to 6:00 PM.
Many visitors will find their way to Point Reyes or Bodega Bay, both of which are more than worthy of a visit if you’re willing to share your shore. Dillon Beach, on the other hand, is rarely crowded, leaving you plenty of space to stroll barefoot and collect sand dollars on this idyllic golden beach.
Mendocino and Fort Bragg
In Mendocino, spend some time at Big River Beach, which gives you a great view of the charming white Mendocino Presbyterian Church on the bluffs above.
Continue on to Fort Bragg where you’ll find Glass Beach. Once a garbage dump, Mother Nature did her work well and tumbled broken glass with every tide until the beach was thick with the sea glass that now glitters among the pebbles. Before leaving town, catch a ride on the historic Skunk Train that snakes through lush coastal forests.
Insider tip: Refuel for the short drive from Mendocino to Fort Bragg with white chocolate raspberry bark at Papa Bear’s Chocolate Haus – go early before they sell out!
Oregon Caves National Monument
Today an extensive system of caves spans much of Oregon, a relic of the volcanic activity and erosion of the distant past. Guided tours are offered throughout the day from late March to early November. To experience the so-called Marble Halls of Oregon like the first explorers, reserve your spot on the last tour of the day, when visitors are equipped with candle lanterns to light their path.
Insider tip: This is the first of many cave tours throughout the state. If you discover a passion for spelunking, there are many detours you can make along this route to indulge in your newfound hobby.
Crater Lake National Park
As the deepest lake in the country, it only makes sense to explore by boat. As you sail over the stunning indigo blue waters, look for Wizard Island, the cinder cone that stands above the surface of the lake and hints at the lake’s origins. The area that is now Crater Lake was once a volcano that experienced a massive eruption around 7700 years ago, leaving an enormous caldera that then filled with water to create today’s lake.
Disembark at Wizard Island for a picnic or to tackle the strenuous switchback hike to the summit and peer into the 100-foot crater.
Insider tip: Due to the high elevation there is limited access to the park in the winter months. Check the National Park Services’ website for up-to-date information.
Find your inner peace at The Grotto and botanical gardens. Shop your way through the vintage shops and boutiques along Hawthorne Street. Take a pie making class at Pacific Pie. Living up to its hipster reputation, Portland does not lack for unique ways to fill your time in the city – each even hipper than the last.
Already known for its coffee, donuts have also become a serious business in Portland. Turn breakfast into a donut tasting contest and sample a gourmet brioche donut (Blue Star Donuts) and an equally gourmet vegan donut (Doe Donuts).
Olympic National Park
This final outdoor destination offers both beaches and forests – though you’ll find they are nothing like those you saw in California. A trip to the beach means climbing over piles of driftwood, zipping up your coat, and forests thick with hanging moss like something from a Grimm Brothers’ fairytale.
In particular, seek out Ruby Beach, so named for the red sand that sometime collects on the beach, and Hoh Rainforest, whose annual 140-170 inches of rain sustain a lush ecosystem and abundance of ferns and mosses.
Seattle is a true coup de grâce for this ultimate West Coast road trip and there is no shortage of memorable and delicious experiences to be had.
Considered by many the coffee capital of America, you can’t visit Seattle without savoring a carefully crafted cup of joe. Visit Pike Place Market for breakfast (or lunch) and the spectacle of fishmongers playing catch with their wares.
Once you’re properly caffeinated and fed, head to Seattle’s most popular icon: the Space Needle. Buy a combo ticket and visit the Chihuly Garden and Glass museum at the base of the Space Needle to lose yourself in jungles of vibrant glass sculptures and towering yet delicate works of art.
The Freemont Troll and Gas Works Park are both great (free) opportunities to get out of the car and stretch your legs on a sunny Seattle day.
Insider tip: It’s “Pike Place Market,” not “Pikes Place Market.” That slip up is a dead giveaway that you’re visiting for the first time.