Covering 1,381 miles, the I-5 takes travelers through the bright lights of Los Angeles, the vast Oregon farms, and the beautiful natural scenery of Washington. The Great I-5 road trip starts in San Diego immediately upon crossing the Mexico border from Tijuana. After a full 24 hours of driving time – not including any LA or Seattle traffic along the way – you’ll cross the border into the Great White North at the Canadian border.
Like all great road trips, there are endless things to do along the way. The I-5 has been the main artery to countless of my family vacations and will be the route to several more as my kids get older. The West Coast is a truly magical place – quite literally – Disneyland is here. But it’s much more than just Pixar, it’s the I-5 allowing travellers to visit so many wonderful places that we’ll discuss along our trip. If you stick to the I-5 you will miss some of the best parts of California, so we will detour off the I-5 to Monterey and San Francisco.
So without further ado, buckle up, we are off to San Diego.
Pit Stop #1: San Diego, California
We’ve got kids with us on this road trip so the first stop didn’t take long – we’ve covered a whole 20 miles of our 1,400-mile journey but that’s alright because San Diego is an animal lovers paradise. Home to one of the best zoos in the world, the San Diego Zoo is a must-visit while we are here.
The zoo has 100 acres to explore and more than 14,000 animals to see including Polar Bears and 100-year-old Galapagos Tortoises. But more than just animals make a zoo world class and it’s the amenities that really set the San Diego Zoo apart.
Here we are going to hop on the double-decker bus tour which is a narrated 35-minute ride and is a lifesaver on a hot day. Then we are going to hop on one of the aerial trams which the zoo calls the Skyfari Aerial tram. The tram gives a bird’s eye view of the animals below as it traverses through the middle of the park.
We’ve seen enough animals now though and everybody’s used the bathrooms. We’ve got just an hour and a half to our next stop – Disneyland.
Pit Stop #2: Disneyland and California Adventure
Neighboring Los Angeles to the southeast is the City of Anaheim – most famous for the Anaheim Ducks. A Canadian can wish anyway. But no, Anaheim is home to the mecca of West Coast childhood dreams – Disneyland.
In 2001, Disney added California Adventure theme park quite literally in their parking lot, and thus began decades of family debates on which theme park to go to. To avoid ruining this road trip just 110 miles in, we are going to end our heated decision by just going to both.
Disneyland hosts the classics. Space Mountain, It’s a Small World, and Indiana Jones headline the must-ride attractions. A favorite of the kids, Autotopia allows kids to drive a car around a guided track – neck pillows are not a horrible idea here. And then of course it’s off to Cinderella’s castle and Toon Town to meet Mickey, Goofy, and the princesses.
We’ve made half the family happy so now we cross the courtyard and head into California Adventure. California Adventure houses the new age of Disney and there are two main reasons we had to come – Cars Land and the Spiderman Web Slingers ride. Spiderman Web Slingers is an interactive ride where the ride senses arm movements and you to take down Spiderbots. I won of course and with the whole family happy, we were back in the car.
Let’s jump back on the I-5 North and see where it takes us.
Pit Stop #3: The Cabrillo Highway
Heading out of Los Angeles we decide to take a detour off the I-5 for just a little while and head up the coastal Cabrillo Highway. We are adding a few hours to our trip this way but we add a bunch of interesting stops on our way to San Fransisco.
Just outside of the college town of San Luis Obispo are the rolling sand dunes of Pismo Beach. Our first stop up Highway 1. Here we all rent some ATVs and take to the dunes. A helpful tip from a local was to inflate the tires a little bit more than the rental place gives them to you, it makes a big difference in not getting stuck. The view of the ocean from the top of the dunes is a great backdrop for a family picture and just like that we are off again.
Next up, Monterey. Monterey has a great little wharf highlighted by the waterfront aquarium. But what Monterey is really famous for, and the purpose of our stop, is the golf. Monterey is home to not one but four premier golf courses including the famed Pebble Beach. We aren’t here to golf – green fees start at $300 for Poppy Hills or $625 for Pebble Beach – but the selfies along the Pebble Beach holes. The pictures were worth the stop alone and the lush greens and landscaping of the courses make it a beautiful place for a drive.
After heading out from Monterey we’ve got a 3-hour drive into San Fransisco. First up, a trip down the windy hill, Lombard Street. As we head down the most crooked street in the world I have to wonder – who lives on this hill and has to navigate this tourist destination each and every day? On our impromptu trip we forgot to book tickets for Alcatraz ahead of time, so don’t be like us. To go see the famous prison you must book your tickets well in advance of your trip, unless you want to pay abhorrent scalper fees, buy these before you arrive.
After stocking up on travel chocolate at Giradelli Square we are off to see the towering Golden Gate Bridge. There is an old saying about San Fransisco, “the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco,” and walking to the center of the Golden Gate Bridge will make you take that to heart. Even in the dead of summer, try your best for a clear day or you may be disappointed as the top of the bridge towers into the clouds. After some beautiful photos of the clouds, it’s off to the races again.
Next up, Eugene Oregon.
Pit Stop #4: Eugene, Oregon
Not everybody in the travel party is a football fan but the University of Oregon and Autzen Stadium is a worthy stop on the I-5 road trip. If you’ve never attended a college football game before, the entire experience is a sensory overload.
The parking lot outside the game turns into a giant tailgate party. There are buses painted Oregon Ducks colors, BBQs so large they are towed on a trailer, and the smell of burgers, brats, and beer everywhere.
The stadium feels intimate for a football stadium, despite holding 54,000 screaming fans. The whole stadium is just one bowl instead of being split into multiple bowls like most larger stadiums. 54,000 fans in Oregon Duck colors as the backdrop to an exciting football game is a fantastic sight for the eyes.
With football, you also get the noise. Every big play or when the Ducks are on defense the crowd goes crazy. Then unique to college sports, there is the band playing throughout the game. The whole experience in every sense is beautiful – even if you’re not a football fan.
After taking a bike taxi back to the car we are on the road again, this time Portland.
Pit Stop #5: Portland, Oregon
After football, off-roading, and Disneyland it’s time to slow the pace down a little, and where better to do that than Portland?
As we demonstrated at Disneyland, there is no consensus in this group so we will have to do something for everybody. First up, one of the best beers in the country at Breakside Brewing who won 3 medals at the 2022 Great American Beer Festival.
The kids can’t drink so the promises of doughnuts were made and it’s off to Pip’s next. Voodoo Doughnuts is also a famous Portland institution but I am an absolute sucker for mini doughnuts and Pip’s are the best around.
And lastly, you can’t leave Portland without a coffee. That pesky Seattle might be more well known for its coffee but Portland is no slouch either. For this task, we are off to Coava which features a wonderful industrial feel to their shops.
Cup of Joe in hand, we are on our way to Seattle.
Pit Stop #6: Seattle, Washington
Three hours later we arrived in southern Seattle at the Museum of Flight. After admission, you are immediately greeted with an enormous hangar of airplanes from all eras of history. You pass a model Wright Brothers plane before being stunned by dozens of planes, helicopters, and drones on the floor and suspended from every inch of the ceiling.
The feature piece of this area is a sleek Lockheed M-21 Blackbird – the fastest and highest-flying piloted jet in history. Walking around the area you see jets from around the world, a Vietnam-era Huey helicopter, and a NASA exhibit with thrusters and a capsule inside.
Then it’s across the street and into the aviation pavilion. This pavilion could be an amazing museum in its own right, aircraft over here includes an Air Force One, Concord, B-29 Superfortress, and a Chinook helicopter to take in.
After taking in some amazing planes it’s off for a ride on Seattle’s new waterfront Ferris wheel and another coffee. This coffee is special, in Pike’s Place market is the original Starbucks founded back in 1971 before appearing on every street corner in the USA.
With a cup of the original Starbucks in hand it’s time for the last leg of our journey, Vancouver here we come.
Pit Stop #7: Vancouver, B.C.
After filling up on cheap gas and grabbing some cheap drinks at the duty-free, it’s across the border and into the politest country on the planet, Canada.
The I-5 began as we crossed from Tijuana into San Diego and it ends as you cross into Canada at the Peace Arch Border Crossing. Vancouver doesn’t lie immediately on the other side of the border, instead, you’ll cross into Surrey, about an hour’s drive from downtown Vancouver.
We are headed down the Canadian continuation of the I-5, Highway 99, and making our stop at the final destination, Stanley Park.
Stanley Park is a 1,000-acre park attached by a thin strip of land to the downtown core of Vancouver. Surrounded on all sides by water and giving the best view of the Vancouver skyline, there isn’t a better place to end our 1,400-mile road trip.
The best way to see Stanley Park is by bike along the seawall. Around the perimeter of Stanley Park is a running, walking, and biking path called the seawall. The entire path is 5.5 miles long, but makes for an amazing day trip.
There are plenty of stops around the seawall to take breaks. So we can visit the totem polls and lighthouse and then hike up to the lookout point of the channel under the bridge. There are sandy beaches and a swimming pool too if it gets hot.
Let’s Do It Again
There is so much to see and do along the I-5 corridor. This is just a small sampling of what’s left to explore.
We didn’t choose to veer off for fishing at Lake Tahoe or skiing at Mt. Baker. Nor did we stop to take in any of the professional sports we passed in a half dozen different cities either. We didn’t eat at the revolving restaurants of Seattle or Vancouver, nor did we stop off and see the headquarters of Apple, Google, or Nike.
The I-5 has been a special part of my life. Growing up in the Vancouver suburbs it’s been the road to many of my great memories. One of the first trips I did with my girlfriend – now my wife – was a round trip visit to family in Santa Cruz where we visited most of the places on this list.
Now, 15 years later, we’ve started to take our own kids down this same interstate for all kinds of new adventures where – whether they realized it or not – the I-5 has taken them to see zoos, farms, aquariums, and beaches all over the Pacific Northwest.
I hope you’ve enjoyed our road trip together and it’s inspired you to get out and explore a great part of the USA. Enjoy your adventures.