America’s West Coast: A Road Trip Itinerary

road trip along america's west coast

Road trips form the backbone of the American vacation.

Time spent in the car with your family, driving along the open highway, while stopping to see the most astonishing places the country has to offer. Road trips are also known for mistaken routes, time spent bickering with travel companions (it’s unavoidable), and rushing to use road stop bathrooms when an emergency strikes. (Don’t balk, it’s happened to all of us.) From Highway 66 to New England to the American West, road trips are always a good choice. Their popularity may waver annually based on gas prices, but road trips never go out of style. While I’ve taken several road trips in my thirty years in this country, there’s one particular route that stands out to me: the Pacific Coast Highway.

Leon and I had been dating for a year-and-a-half back in 2013 when we decided to go on our first big trip together. Three weeks spent driving along America’s west coast. It sounded so perfect and exciting, I practically jumped out of my skin as I finished up my graduate school finals. We spent weeks planning and formulating ideas for our trip. Our final decision was to drive from Monterey to Seattle over the course of 19 days.

Days 1-2: Monterey, California

Although we stayed in Salinas for the cheaper accommodation, we spent a day exploring downtown Monterey. I remembered reading John Steinbeck’s novels in high school and college, captivated by his retellings of California’s sweeping landscapes. Leon and I walked along Cannery Row, visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and ate clam chowder on Fisherman’s Wharf.

FYI: If you purchase a San Francisco CityPASS, I would opt to include Monterey Bay Aquarium in the package.

While we didn’t include it on our itinerary, Monterey is a short drive to Carmel-by-the-Sea, home to some of California’s most lavish homes and stunning views.

jellyfish in monterey bay aquarium
Jellyfish glide about their tanks in the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Day 3: Big Views in Big Sur

Let me start off by saying that we wish we had devoted more time to exploring Big Sur.

Actually, allow me to rephrase that: I wish that we had spent more time exploring Big Sur. Leon already wrote about his misgivings while driving along Route 1. No one ever said road trips were for the fainthearted.

We drove from midmorning to late afternoon, making a round trip from Monterey to McWay Falls and back. As Leon mentioned, the drive south is a bit scarier than the route going north. The road is typically 25-35 mph, and often includes lookouts where you can pull onto the side of the road. The southern route means that the car is adjacent to the edge of the road. There are multiple places where guardrails are lacking; since the road through Big Sur is technically along a cliff’s edge, it may feel like you’re teetering on the edge of a precipice.

Word of caution: If you have a fear of heights and need to take a break, pull over onto the side of the road. They’re clearly marked and you’ll see plenty of cars doing the same. Rather than driving extra slow, it’s better to allow other cars to pass than letting traffic pile up behind you.

Despite Leon’s fear of heights, we couldn’t help but revel in Big Sur’s breathtaking views and landscape. We stopped off to see Bixby Bridge twice during our round trip route, giving us two different perspectives. For a real treat, visit Andrew Molera State Park and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.

bixby bridge along northern route
The iconic Bixby Bridge as seen from our drive up the northern route.

 

peaking at california's coast
Peaking through the trees of a private driveway at California’s coast. Yes, we trespassed a little.

 

mcway falls in big sur
Captivated by the view of McWay Falls in Big Sur, California.

Days 4-7: I Left My Heart in San Francisco

I’m going to have to write an entire post about my favorite places to visit in San Francisco. There’s just too much to see and do, and I can’t fit all of its exciting wonders into a few short paragraphs. Let’s just say San Francisco has tugged at my heartstrings and left me wanting more.

We spent three days in San Francisco. To maximize our costs, we stayed in a budget hotel just outside the city…seven miles to be exact.  Since then, I’ve come to appreciate the value of AirBnB, which offers both great prices and accessibility to many famous sites. To give you an idea of prices: I’ve been able to rent out entire apartments in city centers for the same price as the hotel I paid for outside of San Francisco.

Remember: San Francisco is one of the most expensive cities in the world, so budgets are of utmost importance to maximize your time and funds.

We spent time exploring San Francisco’s most famed spots. Since it was August, we had some of these places to ourselves. It’s true what they say: the summer I spent in San Francisco was the coldest winter I ever spent. Oh if I could only list all of the places. I guess you’ll just have to stick around for my next post.

golden gate on baker beach
Walking along Baker Beach just before a storm left us with the space all to ourselves.

 

palace of fine arts beautiful architecture
The Palace of Fine Arts lit up at night made my top 10 lists of most beautiful architecture in the world.

Days 8-9: Wine Country in Sonoma

I loved San Francisco. I loved Big Sur. But I’m completely enamored with Sonoma. The vineyards, the wine, and the decadent cuisine made me wish I had planned a bit more time in California’s wine country. We stayed at a charming Bed & Breakfast and spent our days eating fresh salads and sourdough bread for lunch before hopping between wine tastings.  I recommend visiting vineyards close to your accommodation if possible, or joining a tour, to avoid driving under the influence.

We had lunch at this great restaurant called The Girl and the Fig. Some of the best food I can remember on this trip was at this restaurant. After our meal and sharing a bottle of wine, Leon looked into my eyes and leaned over to me.

I inhaled sharply, thinking “This is it. He’s going to ask me to marry him.” Then, he opened his mouth: “I think I need to poop…”

Un-freaking-believable…but hilarious at the same time. No matter, it all worked out and now I’m stuck with him. And hey, everybody poops.

Sadly, we only had 1 full day to spend in this beautiful part of California. We visited Benziger Family Winery, but there are plenty of vineyards to visit in Sonoma. We didn’t include Napa Valley in our West Coast road trip. I can’t offer much insight into the differences because I haven’t personally experienced Napa Valley. However, I recommend researching what each place offers and whether they will fit into your trip.

grapes in sonoma
Grapes hanging from the vine in Sonoma Valley.

 

vineyards at benziger
Vineyards at Benziger Family Winery.

Day 10 Part I: A VERY Looong Drive Through the Land of the Giants

Let’s face it: road trips include a lot of driving. It’s better to break up the days so that you don’t spent all day in the car. However, a long stretch is usually unavoidable. And so, Leon and I spent 11 hours in the car driving from Sonoma to Bandon Beach, Oregon.

We didn’t spend the entire time in the car, and there were definitely places we could’ve stopped at for the night. However, we were on a schedule and preferred to spend more time in places like Portland and Seattle.  

During those 11 hours on the road, we drove through and stopped in the Land of the Giants. If you ever want to appreciate your presence in this world, stand next to a redwood tree. There are countless hiking trails and places to stay around this part of California. We stopped just around Eureka, California for lunch before crossing the border to Oregon.

hanging inside a redwood
Just hanging inside a Redwood.

 

huge redwoods
This picture doesn’t do the Redwoods justice. They’re HUGE!

Day 10 Part II: Through the Fog Emerged Bandon Beach

The Oregon Coast is breathtaking. Summer generally includes a lot of fog and overcast skies, so expect the sun to make a rare appearance. However, I recommend pulling over at rest stops to gaze at the mountainous regions. One of the most dramatic places we visited during our west coast road trip was Bandon Beach.

Bandon Beach crossed my radar when I saw a picture of Wizard’s Hat, a monolith sitting on the coast. I was blown away by the sunsets set against the unique coastline.  Compared to the more popular places along coastal Oregon, like Thor’s Well or Cannon Beach, Bandon Beach usually gets overlooked. On this dreary day, we pulled into the parking lot to find the beach empty. Clouds kept rolling in with threatening thunderstorms. It’s no secret that I love to photograph places with overcast skies, so you can imagine how thrilled I was to have this place to myself.

We spent an hour skipping through the waves and weaving around the rock formations. As we walked back to the car, I turned back to appreciate the view once more. Rain had started coming down, and we were in a hurry to check into our hotel after a long day’s drive. Suddenly, the sun made a brief appearance through the gloomy skies, shining down on the Oregon coastline.  A little rain never hurt anybody, especially when faced with a glorious view.

road trip along the oregon coastline
Just like in Big Sur, I recommend stopping along the lookout points dotted along the Oregon coastline. The beauty of the Pacific Northwest is mesmerizing.

 

bandon beach
Wizard’s Hat, a giant monolith, sits on Bandon Beach as the sun sets behind the Pacific Ocean.

Day 11a: Multnomah Falls

Since we had to reach Portland by the afternoon, we had to turn off the coastal highway and drive through the state. However, we made time for one more natural treat: Multnomah Falls. Think of this place as the Disneyland of the Pacific Northwest. Situated in the Columbia River Gorge, Multnomah Falls is a 45-minute drive outside of Portland. It’s definitely worth checking out, but I’d recommend visiting early to avoid the crowds.

There are a few hikes that lead to different vantage points of the falls. A small café sits at the bottom where you can warm your hands with hot chocolate. And, of course, remember to enjoy the magnificent view.

multnomah falls
Multnomah Falls is definitely worth checking out, and is only 45 minutes outside of Portland.

Days 11b-13: Exploring the City of Roses (Portland, Oregon)

A few family friends generously put us up for the few days we visited Portland, and were more than happy to show off their awesome city. The people were wonderful. Cars would stop half a block away to let us cross the street. (In Miami, cars and pedestrians seem to compete against each other.) Portland had this spunky yet warm personality. Leon and I were so impressed with all the city had to offer.

Portland isn’t very large, so it’s easy to see in a couple of days.  Some of the places I would recommend visiting are: the International Rose Garden, where you can see Mt. Hood in the distance; the Japanese Garden; Powell’s City of Books, the world’s largest independent bookstore; and the Portland Mercado, which includes some of the best food trucks in the city.

craft beer in portland
You must visit the pubs and taste the craft beer of Portland.

 

small japanese maple tree
This Japanese Maple Tree populated the internet a few years ago. Our friend took us directly to it, knowing I would want to photograph it. The most shocking thing about it was how small it was! I had to crouch onto my knees to get this shot.

Days 14-18: Wrapping Up in Seattle

Seattle is officially one of my favorite places in the world. Don’t overlook this seriously underrated city, which is known for its musical history, delicious food scene, and natural surroundings.

We started off at Pike Place Market, also home to the first Starbucks location. Visit the seafood stand where vendors will throw fish at each other and scare onlookers with a fake squid hanging off the ice. Taste the different food and be sure to stock up on some of the olive oils being sold. Musicians dot the sidewalk, serenading visitors with indie music. Finally, make sure you walk through Post Alley, which includes walls and walls of chewed gum. It’s cooler than I just made it sound.

Museums dedicated to pop culture, parks overlooking the city skyline (Kerry Park is the best!), and a visit to Capitol Hill must be included on your Seattle itinerary. You can even visit the gravesites of Bruce Lee and Brandon Lee in Lake View Cemetery.  The Chihuly museum is mandatory for art lovers, especially if you want to see glass sculptures set against the Space Needle. Fremont and Gasworks Park are some of the more underrated places, but totally worth checking out. I recommend re-watching 10 Things I Hate About You to get some Seattle inspiration before your trip.

If you have time to spare, Mt. Rainier is a 2-3 hour drive away, and Tacoma only 45 minutes away. Finally, the Hoh Rainforest is a mere 1.5-hour ride away. These places all require a full day of exploration, which we couldn’t devote at the time of our trip. I guess we’ll just have to return one day.

kerry park seattle
The Seattle skyline is best seen from Kerry Park. If you luck out, you’ll be able to see Mt. Rainier in the distance. (Unfortunately, the skies were too overcast on the day we visited.)

 

chihuly sculptures
The Chihuly museum is worth checking out, especially since the garden sculptures are set against the Space Needle.

 

post alley gum wall
Post Alley is strange, but so cool. Just walls and walls of gum. The city has tried to clean it off, but residents keep it the way it is.

 

pike place market at night
Pike Place is great to visit at any time of day. Visit at night when there are no crowds and the market is lit up just for you.

 

fremont troll under a bridge
The Fremont Troll is weird. Like, really weird. I didn’t expect a troll to be sitting under a bridge. But it was really fun to climb.

Day 19: Flight Home

Our west coast road trip was epic in every sense of the word. At the time, we really felt like we got to know this part of the United States. Looking back, we realized that we only scratched the surface. We can’t always get what we want, right? My recommendation is to create a trip that best suits you. This post is just one of many that includes places you can visit on the West Coast.

Last Minute Road Trip Recommendations:

If you want to truly devote time to each place, I recommend splitting the trip into different regions: California vs. Pacific Northwest (Oregon & Washington).

We used Fox Rent-a-Car because they offered great rates, but also allowed us to pick up in California and drop off in Seattle without the penalty drop-off fee.

Even if you have a car in San Francisco, look into pricing for an Uber to get from place to place. Parking is limited and the hourly price is more than the normal rate at most lots and parking meters. We didn’t have this option when we visited in 2013, but we now use Uber every chance we get.

Stack up on groceries to avoid spending too much money at rest stops.

One great app to use is Gas Buddy, which helps you find the cheapest places to fill up your car’s tank.

Finally, make sure you travel with someone you get along with. It’s a looong drive, and you’ll be spending a lot of time together. Remember to have a sense of humor and enjoy the experience.

road trip buddies

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