12 Top-Rated West Coast USA Road Trips
Author Brad Lane has driven up and down the West Coast of the USA on several occasions. His most recent trip took him from San Diego to Mount Baker, spanning 12 months between 2021 and 2022.
The West Coast of the United States offers some of the best road trips in the world. Dramatic natural attractions and culturally iconic cities line this entire side of the country. From Seattle and the Cascade Mountains of Washington down to the sunny weather and ocean vistas of San Diego in California, several standout destinations solidify why the West Coast is the best coast for travel.
Among many West Coast must-see roadside attractions, areas like the redwoods surrounding San Francisco, the ancient caldera known as Crater Lake, and the mighty Mount Rainier top the list of places to visit. Whether it's a 10-day, two-week, or months-long trip, plan to spend more time on the road than initially budgeted. Attractions like active volcanoes, sterling beaches, and alpine lakes encourage a few extra days added to an itinerary.
Fun things to do stem in every direction on the West Coast. And each season brings new opportunities for travelers to enjoy wide-ranging landscapes that are sure to satisfy some wanderlust. Plan your trip with our list of the best West Coast USA road trips.
1. Pacific Coast Highway: Where the Mountains Meet the Sea
The Pacific Coast Highway, also known as California State Route 1, is one of the country's most iconic road trip destinations. This modern marvel of engineering hugs over 600 miles of California coastline. It connects movie stars in Los Angeles to the postcard wonders of Big Sur, all before spanning the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and ending in the redwood forests of Mendocino County.
The highway's southern terminus is near the beaches of Dana Point in Orange County. An average trip length along the highway spans five to seven days. However, the recommended itinerary allows for a few weeks to explore the state parks, cities, and hundreds of places to visit along the way. Right at its beginning, popular attractions include extensive ocean vistas and whale-watching tours.
One of the most scenic stretches of the highway can be found near Big Sur and the Bixby Canyon Bridge, where multiple pull-offs and vantage points offer a classic California photo opportunity. This entire area is a rugged California paradise where the Santa Lucia Mountains meet the sea, and the highway navigates several canyon-hugging hairpin turns.
Thirty miles north on the coast from Big Sur, the city of Monterey and its adjacent bay provide historical intrigue and one of the best aquariums in the country. For intrepid explorers, Muir Woods, 10 miles north of Sausalito, features groves of incredible old-growth trees.
State Route 1 connects many major metropolitan areas along the coast for automobile touring and everyday commuting. Alongside San Francisco and L.A., the highway also connects other cultural hubs, including Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and San Luis Obispo.
2. Touring the Cascade Loop of Washington
For a full taste of the cities, sights, and mountain splendor of Washington, the roughly 400-mile Cascade Loop has it all. Starting from the culturally rich city of Seattle, travelers on the Cascade Loop can head in either direction for guaranteed fun things to do.
Heading north toward Anacortes, tourists on the Cascades Loop connect with the North Cascades Scenic Byway (WA 20) for a 120-mile stretch through some of the most dramatic landscapes in the state.
The North Cascade Scenic Byway is open seasonally between May and November and tours many of the best hiking trails and top campgrounds of North Cascades National Park. Among the many great views, the aquamarine water of Diablo Lake really stands out, with a viewing platform easily accessible from the highway.
Bookending the eastern end of the North Cascade Scenic Byway, the tourist-friendly Methow Valley welcomes visitors with scenic places to visit, including Mazama, Winthrop, and Twisp.
The southern portion of the Cascade Loop passes through more road trip destinations, including Wenatchee, Cashmere, and Leavenworth — a Bavarian-themed town on Highway 2 with high alpine peaks and cultural celebrations to match. Among the many fun things to do in Leavenworth is exploring the highly detailed German village at the city's core.
The route concludes back in Seattle via U.S. Route 2 after crossing Stevens Pass, 35 miles west of Leavenworth. This final stretch provides even more opportunities for hiking, skiing, and white water rafting along the way.
3. Exploring the Oregon Coast Highway 101
The stunning Oregon Coast stretches for over 360 miles from Astoria and the Columbia River down to Brookings and the California border. Historical shipwrecks, impressive sea stacks, and a constantly changing tide line the entire expanse. And what's unique to the coastal location, every single inch is open to the public, earning the nickname the "People's Coast."
Some of the top attractions of the Oregon Coast include Haystack Rock at Cannon Beach and the Yaquina Head Lighthouse in Newport. Towards the southern end of the state, the Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor features some of the most ruggedly beautiful views along the entire coast. Other special places of interest include Cape Perpetua, Yachats, and the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area — a popular place for off-highway vehicle riders and campers.
The drive has plenty of scenic vistas worth pulling over for, sometimes spaced every half-mile. In the more popular tourist destinations on the northern Oregon coast, closer to Portland and the Willamette Valley, reservations are recommended in the summer for campgrounds and resorts. For a more bite-sized road trip along the Oregon coast, the Three Capes Scenic Drive can be done over a weekend.
Accommodation: Top-Rated Beach Resorts on the Oregon Coast
Read More: Top-Rated Small Towns on the Oregon Coast
4. Cruise along the Columbia River Scenic Byway
Defining the boundary between Oregon and Washington, the Columbia River Gorge is home to many of the best waterfalls in Oregon and a long list of other scenic roadside attractions. The route follows the Columbia River before it plunges into the Pacific Ocean in the charming city of Astoria.
Most visitors start their Columbia River road trip from the city streets of Portland and head east. Alongside stunning waterfalls like the 620-foot Multnomah Falls and historical attractions, including the Vista House at Crown Point, a recommended city stop is Hood River. This happening city has a growing collection of restaurants, galleries, and windsurfing rental companies.
5. Circling the Olympic Peninsula Loop
No roads cut through the heart of the Olympic Peninsula of western Washington. Instead, the entire peninsula can be circumnavigated with over 300 highway miles and plenty to see along the way. Among the varied scenery are rainforests, glaciated mountains, and boulder-strewn beaches.
Seattle and Olympia make great starting points for the Olympic Peninsula Loop, and towns like Port Angeles, Forks, and Hoodsport make great basecamp destinations to explore the surrounding Olympic National Park. For extra add-on appeal, boarding a ferry in Port Angeles takes visitors to the always-seasonable Victoria, British Columbia.
It takes more planning, but the peninsula is navigable by public transportation or private shuttle if traveling without a car. It's especially manageable to get from Seattle to Olympic National Park with a few different bus and ferry options available.
6. California's Redwood Highway
Plan a trip along California's Redwood Highway to explore some of the state's most inspiring trees. Several state and national parks protect these incredibly tall trees on this 230-mile route spanning south from Crescent City through Eureka and ending in Leggett in Mendocino County.
Crescent City is an excellent place to start or finish a road trip on the Northern California Coast. Its tsunami history is always on display alongside a growing list of tourist attractions and ways to enjoy the ocean. Crescent City also gives instant access to the Jebediah Smith Redwoods State Park, part of the larger Redwoods National and State Parks.
Other collaborative units of Redwoods National and State Parks span south of Crescent City. This collection includes Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, and Redwood National Park. All units provide access to campgrounds, hiking trails, and, sometimes, seaside redwoods.
It's approximately a 90-mile drive from Crescent to Eureka, passing by each of these redwood offerings. From Eureka, or its scenic neighbor to the north, Trinidad, it's approximately 30 miles south on Highway 101 to reach Humboldt Redwoods State Park for even more tall-tree attractions. Hop off Highway 101 here and choose the Avenue of the Giants instead.
It's another 30 miles driving south from Humboldt Redwoods to complete the drive in Legget. But the redwoods don't stop there, nor does the coastal attraction. Mendocino county itself, including Fort Bragg and Mendocino, are charming spots with some big trees nearby.
Accomodation: Top-Rated Resorts in Northern California
Read More: Best State Parks in California
7. Travel the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway
The Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway spans from Crater Lake in Oregon to Mount Lassen of California, unearthing the geological past of the Cascade Mountains. The ancient caldera known as Crater Lake is a stand-alone destination as the deepest lake in the country and one of the best weekend getaways in Oregon. Within Crater Lake National Park, Mazama Village makes for a great camping destination the whole family will enjoy.
Heading south, the impressive slopes of Mount Shasta beckon with adventure, as do the impressive water features found at Burney Falls. The stunning Shasta-Trinity National Forest stands tall as one of the top places to explore in Mount Shasta and is easily accessible from the charming community of its same name.
On the southern end of this 500-mile scenic byway, the geothermal features of Lassen Volcanic National Park define the inviting landscape. During the summer season, expect to see long-distance hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail sharing the scenic stops alongside the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway.
8. Highway 395: South Lake Tahoe to Yosemite National Park
Shimmering alpine lakes, jutting mountain peaks, and lush forests filled with wildlife — the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California present one postcard image after another. Highway 395 is the main thoroughfare through the Sierra Nevadas, connecting many iconic national parks, gateway cities, and opportunities for adventure.
A great place to start and stay, South Lake Tahoe is an alpine-infused community surrounded by natural attractions, including the sparkling Emerald Bay State Park. In summer, you can enjoy hiking trails in the mountains or along the shores or simply relax on a beach. In winter, pack your skis and hit some of the ski resorts around Lake Tahoe.
A three-hour drive south connects Lake Tahoe with Mammoth Lakes, a year-round destination for hiking, mountain biking, and downhill winter sports. The small town of Lone Pine is also along the route, 100 miles south, serving as the gateway to Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States.
Heading west near Mammoth Lakes on Highway 120 (Tioga Pass) leads visitors to the enchanting Yosemite Valley. The highway leads straight to iconic areas of the national park including Half-Dome, Tuolumne Meadows, several impressive hikes, and a number of the area's best campgrounds.
Accommodation: Best Resorts in Lake Tahoe, CA
9. Travel the Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway in Central Oregon
The 66-mile Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway departs from the high-desert town of Bend. From its arid surroundings, the byway climbs into the Central Cascades and into a world of alpine splendor. With prominent views of postcard summits like Mt. Bachelor, Broken Top, and South Sister, the byway does well to define Oregon's mountain style.
The route is inaccessible in the winter between mid-November and May. Coming from Bend, the byway begins as Century Drive (Oregon Route 372), where it enters the Deschutes National Forest. Todd Lake is one of the first alpine lakes encountered, followed by many more.
At least a dozen beautiful lakes line the entire route. And much of the recreation centers around these icy-cold bodies of water. Beaches, marinas, and picnic areas line several of the shores, and all cater to activities like fishing and hiking. Lava Lake offers a particularly interesting stop, as does Little Lava Lake, which provides the source for the Deschutes River.
Accomodation: Best Resorts near Bend, Oregon
10. Southern California Splendor: Santa Barbara to San Diego
Southern California provides great weather to explore any time of the year, with sandy beaches, surf spots, and palm trees lining the sidewalks. The 200-mile stretch of Highway 101 and Interstate 5 that connects Santa Barbara and San Diego is a great way to experience this warm-weather region of the country.
Mission Santa Barbara is a great place to grab some architectural and cultural flavor of Santa Barbara. The area is filled with many top hiking trails, beach resorts, and fun things to do with the family.
Cities like Beverly Hills, Long Beach, and Irvine all comprise the major metropolitan areas south of Santa Barbara and surrounding Los Angeles, each providing unique cultures and places to visit.
Farther south, near the U.S./Mexico border, San Diego offers even more family-friendly things to do. With an average annual temperature of around 70 degrees Fahrenheit, one of the most popular attractions in San Diego is the 14,000-acre Balboa Park complex featuring multiple museums, botanical gardens, and the world-famous San Diego Zoo.
11. Exploring Washington's Volcanoes: Mount Rainier and Mount St. Helens
Mount Rainier is a massive active volcano sixty miles southeast of Seattle and home to one of the best national parks of Washington. The stunning national park surrounding this 14,411-foot peak invites all sorts of recreation with many top campgrounds and scenic hiking trails.
Just a few must-do hiking trails at Mount Rainier include the Skyline Trail and Spray Park. It's an extremely popular park throughout the summer and shoulder seasons and offers winter adventure with cross-country ski trails and scenic snowshoe opportunities.
More of Washington's volcanic activity can be experienced at Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, a two-hour drive south of Mount Rainier. Best known for its dramatic 1980 eruption, Mount St. Helens today is a living science demonstration of how habitats bounce back after an eruption.
The top-rated hiking trails at Mount St. Helens provide many unique opportunities to explore this altered environment, including underground expeditions at Ape Caves and permitted hikes to the massive crater left behind after the 1980 explosion.
Accomodation: Best Resorts in Washington State
- Read More: Top-Rated Campgrounds near Seattle
12. Experience the Willamette Valley of Oregon
Surrounding the Interstate 5 corridor and Willamette River in northern Oregon, the Willamette Valley is well known for its fertile soil and culturally rich places to visit. It's home to Oregon's largest cities, including Portland, Eugene, and the state capital of Salem.
Fun things to do line this entire region, from the western Cascade slopes to a wide range of agricultural attractions and tours. Summer in the Willamette Valley encourages car rides with the top down, and throughout the shoulder seasons, this scenic region features dazzling displays of spring flowers and fall foliage.
Read More: Top-Rated Attractions & Places to Visit in Oregon
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California Destinations: Many of the best places to visit in California can be found on road trips. Some of the national parks in California you may want to tack on to these trips are Redwoods National and State Parks and Joshua Tree National Park. For an extra special vacation, the top romantic getaways in California range from seaside resorts to the rolling hills of Sonoma County.
Oregon Exploring: Oregon is home to adventure, and whether it's top-rated waterfalls, hot springs, or hiking trails, it's fun to explore Oregon at any time of the year. For a mix of city culture and natural appeal, the top-rated attractions in Oregon include places to visit in Portland, along the coast, and at Crater Lake National Park.
Washington Wonders: Including stops in Seattle and adventures on the Olympic Peninsula, theattractions in Washington are only limited by the time you can spend exploring. For some real adventure in this rugged state, both the top-rated hiking trails and best campgrounds in Washington provide epic places to explore the day and spend the night.