×

11 Top-Rated West Coast USA Road Trips

Written by Brad Lane
Updated Jul 26, 2021

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 for places to visit. Whether it's a 10-day, two-week, or months-long trip, plan to spend more time on the road than you might expect. 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.

Note: Some businesses may be temporarily closed due to recent global health and safety issues.

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 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.

Bixby Canyon Bridge on the Pacific Coast Byway, Big Sur
Bixby Canyon Bridge on the Pacific Coast Byway, Big Sur

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.

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 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.

Accommodation:

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 toward 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.

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 stand 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.

Fall colors along the southern portion of the Cascade Loop
Fall colors along the southern portion of the Cascade Loop

The southern portion of the Cascade Loop passes through more road trip destinations including Wenatchee, Cashmere, and Leavenworth – one of the best small towns in Washington. Leavenworth is a Bavarian-themed town with high alpine peaks and cultural celebrations to match, and a certain charm that converts tourists into residents each year.

The route concludes back in Seattle via U.S. Route 2 after crossing Stevens Pass. This final stretch provides even more opportunities for 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. Exploring the Oregon Coast Highway 101

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

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.

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

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 Campgrounds on the Oregon Coast

4. 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. 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.

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

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. 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.

Read More:

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. 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.

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, several impressive hikes, 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 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.

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. 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. 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.

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

9. Southern California Splendor: Santa Barbara to San Diego

Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara

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.

Accommodation:

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.

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.

11. Travel the Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway in Central Oregon

Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway
Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway

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.

More Related Articles on PlanetWare.com

imageCalifornia 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.

imageOregon 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.

imageWashington 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.

Discover destinations, find outdoor adventures, follow the journeys of our travel writers around the world, and be inspired.

More on California