10 Top-Rated West Coast USA Road Trips

Written by Brad Lane
Mar 3, 2019

The roadways on the West Coast of the United States connect some of the most dramatic natural attractions and culturally iconic cities in the country. From Seattle and the Cascade peaks of Washington down to the sunny weather and ocean vistas of San Diego in California, West Coast places to visit are primed for unforgettable road trips and getaways. Whether it's a 10-day, two-week, or months-long vacation, attractions like active volcanoes, sandy beaches, and bustling city streets encourage a few extra days added to the itinerary.

Among many West Coast must-see road trip destinations, areas like the redwoods surrounding San Francisco, the ancient caldera known as Crater Lake, and the mighty Mount Rainier top the list for places to visit. Fun things to do stem in every direction on the West Coast, and every season brings new opportunities for tourists and travelers to enjoy the wide-ranging landscapes and satisfy their wanderlust. Plan your trip with our list of the best West Coast USA road trips.

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1. Pacific Coast Highway: Where the Mountains Meet the Sea

Pacific Coast Highway
Pacific Coast Highway

Also known as California State Route 1, the Pacific Coast Highway is one of the most iconic road trip destinations in the country. Hugging over 600 miles of California coastline, this modern marvel of engineering 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. A popular starting point, the highway's southern terminus is near the beaches of Dana Point, where popular attractions include extensive ocean vistas and whale-watching tours.

An average trip length along the highway spans five to seven days, though the recommended itinerary allows for a few weeks exploring the state parks, cities, and hundreds of places to visit along the way. Built for automobile touring and everyday commuting, State Route 1 connects many major metropolitan areas along the coast. Alongside San Francisco and L.A., the highway also takes tourists and visitors to other cultural hubs, including Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and San Luis Obispo.

One of the most scenic stretches of the highway can be found near Big Sur and the Bixby Bridge, where multiple pull-offs and vantage points offer a classic California photo opportunity. Thirty miles north on the coast from Big Sur, the city of Monterey and its adjacent bay provide historical context, as well as 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.

2. Touring the Cascade Loop of Washington

Diablo Lake overlook on Cascades Loop
Diablo Lake overlook on Cascades Loop | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

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 towards Anacortes, tourists on the Cascades Loop connect with the North Cascades Scenic Byway for a 120-mile stretch through some of the most dramatic landscapes in the state.

Open seasonally between May and November, the North Cascade Scenic Byway tours many of the best hiking trails and top-rated campgrounds of North Cascades National Park. Among the many great views found along this route, the aquamarine water of Diablo Lake really stands out and is 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 with high alpine peaks and cultural celebrations to match. One of the best small towns in Washington, Leavenworth has a certain charm that converts tourists into residents each year. Utilizing U.S. Route 2 to make it back to Seattle, other adventurous stops on the Cascade Loop include Stevens Pass with hiking, skiing, and white water rafting along the way.

Official site: https://www.cascadeloop.com/

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Seattle: Best Areas and Hotels

3. Cruise along the Columbia River Scenic Byway

Bridal Veil Falls along the Columbia River Scenic Byway
Bridal Veil Falls along the Columbia River Scenic Byway | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

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. Extending from the Pacific Ocean near the charming city of Astoria, most tourists start their Columbia River road trip from the eccentric 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, with its growing collection of restaurants, galleries, and windsurfing rental companies.

Accommodation: Top-Rated Places to Stay in Portland, Oregon

4. Exploring the Oregon Coast Highway 101 Editor's Pick

Oregon Coast Highway 101
Oregon Coast Highway 101 | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Stretching for over 360 miles from Astoria and the Columbia River down to Brookings and the California border, the Oregon coast is lined with historical shipwrecks, impressive sea stacks, and a changing tide that constantly reveals fun things to do. 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.

The drive has plenty of scenic vistas worth pulling over for, and other special places of interest include Cape Perpetua and the Oregon Dunes, a popular place for off-highway vehicle riders and campers. 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.

5. Circling the Olympic Peninsula Loop

Hikers in the Hoh Rain Forest at Olympic National Park
Hikers in the Hoh Rain Forest at Olympic National Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

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. Seattle and Olympia both make great starting points for the Olympic Peninsula Loop, and towns like Port Angeles, Forks, and Hoodsport make for 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.

6. Highway 395: South Lake Tahoe to Yosemite National Park

El Capitan viewpoint at Yosemite National Park
El Capitan viewpoint at Yosemite National Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

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 Nevada, 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.

Heading south from Lake Tahoe, Highway 395 connects 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 and serves as the gateway to Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States. For those looking to explore Yosemite Valley, heading west on Highway 120 (Tioga Pass) from Highway 395 leads to iconic areas of the national park including Half-Dome, Tuolumne Meadows, and a number of the area's best campgrounds.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Lake Tahoe: Best Areas & Hotels

7. Exploring Washington's Volcanoes: Mount Rainier and Mount St. Helens

Mount Rainier
Mount Rainier | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Sixty miles southeast of Seattle, Mount Rainier is a massive active volcano and home to one of the best national parks of Washington. The stunning national park that surrounds this 14,411-foot peak invites all sorts of recreation with many top-rated campgrounds and scenic hiking trails including the Skyline Trail and Spray Park. Popular throughout the summer and shoulder seasons, Rainier also offers winter adventure with cross-country ski trails and scenic snowshoe opportunities.

A two-hour drive south of Mount Rainier, more of Washington's volcanic activity can be experienced at Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. Best known for its dramatic 1980 eruption, Mount St. Helens today is a living science demonstration of how habitats bounce back after an eruption event. 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.

8. Travel the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway

Mount Lassen above Lake Helen
Mount Lassen above Lake Helen

Unearthing the geological past of the Cascade Mountains, the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway spans from Crater Lake in Oregon to Mount Lassen of California. An ancient caldera, Crater Lake is a standalone destination as the deepest lake in the country and one of the best weekend getaways in Oregon. Mazama Village, within Crater Lake National Park, 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. 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 along the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway.

Official site: http://www.volcaniclegacybyway.org/

9. Southern California Splendor: Santa Barbara to San Diego

Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara

With sandy beaches, surf spots, and palm trees lining the sidewalks, Southern California provides great weather to explore any time of the year. 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, and the area is filled with many top-rated 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 area south of Santa Barbara and surrounding Los Angeles, each providing their own 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 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.

10. Experience the Willamette Valley of Oregon

State Capitol in Salem
State Capitol in Salem | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

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, and 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.

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