That PCH route from San Francisco to Los Angeles gets all the attention, but it’s not the only West Coast drive that should be on your map. A road trip through the Pacific Northwest and Northern California is equally epic, but with less traffic. You’ll see some of the West Coast’s fastest growing cities, majestic national parks, windswept beaches and sunsets that need no filter. Here’s the route:
Everything about this Pacific Northwest city is cool: the people, the climate, the craft beer. Sure, you should stop at the sights that everyone sees here: the Space Needle, Pike Place Market and the Original Starbucks.
But there’s a quirky undercurrent to this city that you shouldn’t overlook: the disgustingly eye-catching gum wall, the concrete troll lurking under a highway in Fremont, and the underground city that was heavily influenced by the Seattle’s toilet problems.
The 3-hour drive along I-5 from Seattle to Portland is fairly unremarkable. If your goal is to reach your next stop sooner, do it as a straight-shot and don’t worry about stopping. If you’d rather take the scenic route, swing west into the Olympic Peninsula. Here you can stretch your legs on the temperate rainforest trails in Olympic National Park. Don’t miss the three-pronged Sol Duc Falls, the glacier-carved Lake Crescent and the sweeping views from a drive on Hurricane Ridge.
Portland and Northern Orange Coast
In Portland, the name of the game is local. Homegrown shops and businesses thrive here, and from Powell’s City of Books to McMenamins‘ converted pubs and restaurants. Be sure to pop into the International Rose Test Garden — Portland’s known as Rose City and this is where you’ll find the latest types of blooms before they hit your florist.
From Portland, drive about two hours to the tip top of Oregon and the city of Astoria.
Set at the mouth of the mighty Columbia River, this city was the first permanent U.S. settlement on the Pacific coast. History aside, it’s probably just as famous as the filming location for “Goonies” and “Kindergarten Cop.” Climb the Astoria Column for views of the surrounding area, then spend the rest of the day meandering down the windswept Oregon Coastline.
Highway 101 hugs the shore, stopping at places like Ecola State Park, where you can hike coastal trails; Cannon Beach, whose picturesque ocean haystack rock will give your camera a workout; and Tillamook, the famous cheese factory that’ll make up for all the hiking you just did. About halfway down the coast, Eugene is a good spot to overnight.
Eugene and the Southern Oregon Coast
Ready for more of that pretty Oregon coast? Good! From Eugene you’re about halfway down the state, but some of the most dramatic parts are still to come.
Due west from Eugene you’ll find the Heceta Head Lighthouse. Do as everyone else does and stop for a picture; it’s one of the most visited lighthouses in the country. Also here is one of the world’s largest sea caves — ride the elevator here to peep at the sea lions that live inside.
Keep going south and you’ll cross the otherworldly Oregon Dunes, Prehistoric Gardens (yes, that’s a giant dinosaur on the side of the road) and Samuel Boardman State Scenic Corridor, a 12-mile stretch of highway that’s perfect for sunsets.
Redwood National Park
As soon as you hit the California border, look up. This is redwood country, and Redwood National Park runs for miles along the coast.
For an easy intro to the world’s tallest trees, grab a trail map and stroll through Lady Bird Johnson Grove, where you can see monstrous trees hollowed out by lightning strikes.
A lot of your redwood exploring can be done by car, through towering tree tunnels on Avenue of the Giants, and through a few drive-thru tree trunks themselves — believe it or not, your car will fit.
Northern California Coast
Take your time in the redwoods, but at some point you’ll have to come out of the woods. When you do, follow the Pacific Coast Highway as it twists and turns its way up and down the seaside cliffs.
If you get motion sickness you might want to prepare your stomach; these turns will rival an amusement park ride. The going is slow but scenic along the Northern California coast.
Stop for a photo op at Fort Bragg’s Instagram-famous Glass Beach; the former garbage dumping ground has been pounded by waves into a cove full of sea glass.
Down the coast a little ways is lovely Mendocino, where you can peruse little shops and galleries and dine on farm-fresh local fare and wine.
Sonoma Coast to San Francisco
Time for the home stretch!
The drive from Mendocino to San Francisco continues to snake its way south, making its way along the Sonoma Coast (detour inland to pop in on wine country).
Take a break in Bodega Bay, where you can suck down fresh crab and oysters from a waterfront shack or hike out to the head to look for whales and seabirds.
A little ways south is the majestic Point Reyes National Seashore. Lose yourself among the unspoiled beaches and forests here — it’s easy to forget you’re so close to one of the West Coast’s largest cities. You’ll soon be reminded when you hit San Francisco — there’s no better welcome than a drive across the Golden Gate Bridge into the heart of the city.
End: San Francisco
At this point on your trip you’ve seen a lot of beaches and sunsets, but make room for one more. Baker Beach, on the Pacific of San Francisco, is where you’ll get that postcard view of the Golden Gate, and is especially gorgeous in the soft light of sundown.