1,500 miles of wild coastline lies between the windswept sands of Washington State and the golden beaches of Southern California. It would take 30 hours to drive the full distance between the Canadian and Mexican borders, but with so many beautiful spots along the way, there’s no reason ever to speed through the area so quickly.
Think world-class cities, rugged beaches, ancient forests and quirky coastal towns and you’re on your way to being caught up in the spell that the USA’s West Coast casts over its residents. Why not plan a 2 or 3-week west coast America road trip from Canada to Mexico taking in the best of what this beautiful part of the US has to offer – and don’t neglect these beautiful stops.
Seattle is the natural starting place for any west coast America fly drive – home to household names like Starbucks, Microsoft and also Boeing, Seattle is the beating heart of the Pacific Northwest. Take a turn round Pike Place Market where the daily catch is sold at dawn, visit the first-ever branch of Starbucks (opposite the market), then climb the Space Needle for killer views over the majestic Mount Rainer that dominates the skyline.
Take a cruise around the harbour and swat up on some local facts (including how the view from Frasier Crane’s Seattle apartment could never exist!). Then catch a Seahawks game before finishing your day at an indie music night while sampling craft beers from the various breweries dotted around the city.
The wild beauty of La Push might be a highlight in other states, but Washington basks in so much natural splendour that it’s just one amongst an array of gorgeous beaches. La Push has some of the more secluded beaches in the area, especially Third Beach, accessible via a short hike from the road. It’s also quietly famous for its role in the Twilight films, but its location in the Quileute Indian Reservation keeps its celebrity status to a minimum, meaning you can still visit this far-flung corner of the Pacific Northwest in relative peace.
Famed for its appearance in the cult film ‘The Goonies’, Cannon Beach is just one example of the beautiful beaches that make up the coastline of Oregon. The town is filled with tiny art galleries and is a great place to stop for the night on your way down south. The rocky shore reveals scores of tidal pools full of scuttling crabs as well as the chance to walk out to Haystack Rock where orange starfish cling to outcrops and anemones dance in the clear water. Helen drove from Vancouver to San Francisco via Oregon and has plenty of road trip advice!
Hipsters, foodies and eco-activists all gravitate towards Portland, the city where independent coffee shops sit alongside vegan restaurants, and craft breweries serve up beers that are enjoyed all over the country. (For a quick city intro, catch up on a few episodes of the TV show ‘Portlandia’ written by and starring popular SNL comedian Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein for some gentle satire of the city’s hipster scene!)
Portland is a city to wander through – have a quick drink at a light-strung rooftop bar or spend a few hours combing the shelves of a second-hand bookshop before grabbing a bite at Voodoo Doughnut. Life goes slowly here so don’t rush it and spend a couple of days exploring the liberal heart of Oregon.
Redwoods are at the spiritual centre of California; these ancient trees dominate Northern California, where pretty groves of trees tower over the neighbouring forests. In Redwood National Park, the trees are so wide you can famously drive through the massive trunk of the Chandelier Tree before hiking through the cool glades that make up this gorgeous coastal park. It’s hard not to be humbled by these giants – the tallest trees are well over 100 metres high while their felled brothers that decay on the forest floor may predate the Roman Empire.
The steep hills and sweeping views of San Francisco and the bay area are not to be missed on your drive through California. There is so much to do here; you’ll find yourself torn between staying another day to take in more of the buzzing city or continuing further south.
Eat a sandwich from Ike’s in Dolores Park overlooking the city before catching the tram from Union Square down to Fisherman’s Wharf, where gaudy shops and restaurants overlook the prison rock of Alcatraz, way out in the Harbour. The Golden Gate Bridge dominates the skyline of San Francisco so make sure you make the journey across. Whether you walk, cycle or drive, and enjoy the soft colours that the sunset throws onto the sky behind its scarlet structure.
Continuing your west coast America drive, Big Sur is the wild coastline south of Carmel. It’s a desolate stretch of rugged beaches and hidden coves, often cloaked by thick fog that engulfs the shore on summer mornings.
Many artists and writers have attempted to explain the allure of this magical place, but it’s hard to tell to those who haven’t been. Let’s just say that the empty beaches full of crashing surf and the winding roads that cling to the edge of America are enough to tempt you there, while the lure of this misty coastline will be sure to pull you back again and again. See George’s blog about her road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway for more ideas!
Carmel and Monterey might sit alongside each other in their snug corner of the Pacific Coast, but they couldn’t be more different. Carmel is a pretty seaside village full of small boutiques and expensive art galleries while Monterey is a tourist town built on the working class fishing industry and large cannery that dominates the wharf.
It’s worth a visit to both! Shopping and beautiful architecture await in Carmel while the world-class Aquarium is a highlight of Monterey, as well as the whale watching tours that take place just offshore. Just north is the tiny town of Moss Landing, where you can sea kayak amongst the adorable sea otters that relax in the waters of Elkhorn Slough while sea lions and pelicans fight for prime space on the riverbanks.
Santa Monica is the beach haven of Los Angeles, where surfers and street performers mingle on the long promenade and Hollywood executives meet for lunches served by the wannabe actors that flock here.
Ride the Ferris wheel at the Santa Monica Pier for spectacular views along the coast to Malibu before cycling along to Venice Beach, people-watching as you go. You can while away many days here just chilling in the hipster atmosphere of LA’s most famous beach – don’t forget to visit the strong men of Muscle Beach and the boutiques of Third Street Promenade – see George’s tips in her blog Why you need to visit Santa Monica.
Nearing the end of your west coast of America road trip, it’s time to hit the beach in San Diego, ready to relax in this Spanish influenced city.
The city itself is bustling – craft breweries are a big trend here, and the San Diego Zoo is a big attraction but what everyone loves about this gorgeous place is the surf. Take to the water and finish your trip down the coast in style with surfing, sailing, diving and whale watching all on offer along the beautiful beaches of San Diego – as Adam discovered in his blog Putting the ‘sand’ in San Diego! Hang gliding is a great way to get a unique view of this corner of the USA as you soar over the pristine coastline with epic views of the coastal city below.
Or, for another option, why not start in San Diego then drive north and after San Francisco – steer into the outstanding National Parks? That’s what Chris chose for his family and their campervan.
Planning a road trip is one of the most exciting trips! We can help you find the right flights, whether you want open jaw flights (into one city and out of another), rounds trip, or a bigger USA multi-stop ticket. We can put together any itinerary you can imagine, so if there are several cities you want to see, ask us how to weave them all together, and we'll recommend flights or drives to suit you. If you need a rental car, we can help you choose one, and we can also recommend campervans in the USA.
We can recommend accommodation to suit your budget, whether you want something quirky, a city loft or a ranch! Have a look at our USA tailor-made holidays (flight inclusive) and USA trip ideas (flight exclusive) for some ideas of what we can put together. For a multi-centre holiday idea, see our New York City break & west coast road trip (inc flights) which covers the southern part of this itinerary, or for a different spin, see our West coast USA road trip with San Francisco & Las Vegas. We can tailor-make your entire holiday to suit you, so these are just ideas to start.
To start planning your trip, contact one of our USA experts on +44 1273320580 or request a quote by email.