Having been on plenty of road trips on the USA’s east and west coasts, I decided to plan a road trip with my husband, to visit my best friend in San Francisco. As this was his first USA road trip, I wanted it to be epic!
If you’ve already done the classic San Francisco, Las Vegas and LA routes like me, it’s time to think about Canada - which is why we crafted a West Coast USA road trip from Vancouver to San Francisco.
It’s around 1000km from Vancouver to San Francisco (equivalent to the length of the UK), so here are some pointers on how to plan and how to pick the best stops along the way.
First, decide when to visit and how long you want to travel for (or how long you can get off work!)
The best time to visit the west coast of North America is May to October. We visited during July and had gorgeous weather, warm and sunny every day, at the beginning of the UK school holidays before it gets too busy or hot! The route through Washington and Oregon states is less busy than California and not so crowded.
2-3 weeks is enough time, without rushing. We did the trip in 10 days, which was a rush but we had commitments with our friends in San Francisco and limitations on 2 weeks’ annual leave.
The nature of a road trip would suggest by road and therefore you have a couple of options. By car - with motels or camping; or by campervan. We chose car hire and motels.
I will admit now the trip wasn't all by road; I quickly discovered that you can’t rent a car in Vancouver and drop it off in San Francisco as cross-country rentals aren’t possible. So we decided to travel over the border from Vancouver to Seattle where car hire would be easy and reasonably priced.
There are several ways to reach Seattle; by train, bus or ferry and we decided ferry would be the most fun. Regular passenger ferries depart from Victoria and Vancouver Island to Seattle, giving us time to see Vancouver Island too.
With 1000km to cover and plenty of cities, coast line, national parks and state forests in between where do you start? We picked our cities first and worked out how long we wanted to stay:
Then we worked out how many nights/days we’d be left with to visit Washington’s coastline, Oregon and get to California, visiting some of the National Parks and forests along the way. Here are some of the stand-out places we made it to on our trip:
My first impression of Canada and it was great! Modern, sophisticated and full of so much nature; mountains and water, just amazing! The best way to see it is by bike. We hired bikes from Coal Harbour (the gateway to Stanley Park) and the cycle paths make it easy to ride around Stanley Park. The whole city has excellent and very safe cycle paths so once we’d explored the park we followed the path out and ended up on the beach, swimming in the sea and taking in the views.
Another highlight was the Top of Vancouver Revolving Restaurant. From 553 feet, you get an amazing view of Vancouver and the surrounds and the food is delicious. I recommend making a reservation for around sunset – it’s truly is a special experience;
We took the ferry across to Victoria; a quaint harbour city with lots of history and a vibrant China Town. From here you can go whale watching and there are year round sightings of lots Orca, Gray, Killer and Minke whales.
Home of the first Starbucks, the Space Needle and the Boeing factory, there is plenty to keep you busy in Seattle. There are lots of cool bars and restaurants, plus the famous Pike Street Market. Not just for plane geeks, the Boeing Factory is about an hour north out of the city in Everett. It’s actually the world’s largest building, which is pretty impressive, and you’ll get a peek into how an aircraft is put together.
This was our first glimpse of the Washington coastline on leaving Seattle. The beach is at the start of the Long Beach Peninsula; a 28 mile stretch of sandy beach. You can easily while away a couple of days exploring the peninsula.
If you’ve seen the movie, ‘The Goonies’, you’ll have seen Cannon Beach. Remember the iconic Haystack Rock formation that sits off shore? The memories will flood back! It’s a stunning beach stretching as far as the eye could see and definitely worth a stop.
An awe-inspiring blue lake surrounded by sheer cliffs; Crater Lake wasn't on my radar until I saw some photos. It was formed by the collapse of the Mount Mazama volcano around 150 years ago and if you drive the 33 mile rim, you’ll see it from a variety of aspects – plenty of photo opportunities.
The Howard Hill Road scenic drive is the best way to see this park. Driving the single lane dirt track you’ll be surrounded by the forest surrounded by the giant redwoods. You can park up and stroll along one of the short walking trails but be warned - if you visit in summer, bring mosquito repellant.
Next we headed for Highway 1 which you can join from a town called Leggett, home to some of the largest trees in the world. The first section of the winding, steep road is incredible; taking you through deep redwood forests out towards the coast. We hadn't seen the coast for days so the reward for completing this hairpin track was watching the sun setting over the water.
This town is a great place to stop for lunch or overnight. Bodega Bay is a pretty harbour village with some quirky cafes, bars and restaurants and scenic viewpoints as well as lovely boutique accommodation, if you want to treat yourself. If you’ve seen Hitchcock's movie, ‘The Birds’, you might recognise a few places as most of the outdoor scenes were shot here in the 60's. We stopped for some delicious fish and chips here at ‘The Birds Cafe’.
Driving into San Francisco over the Golden Gate Bridge is incredible. Turning the corner to see the bridge meant we’d completed our journey, with a few days to explore San Francisco itself.
There are so many places your road trip could take you and if we had had longer we would have seen more. I hope these highlights help with your planning. There are also some other tips I wanted to share to help you get the most from the trip.
If you’re interested in planning a USA road trip or Canada road trip, Travel Nation can help; especially for the route Vancouver to San Francisco. We can book direct or multi-stop flights to the USA and car or campervan hire or organise a completely tailor-made USA holiday. To start planning your trip, contact us on +44 1273320580 or email for a quote