The Pacific Northwest is known for its abundance of evergreen trees, moss-covered rainforests, and sky-high mountains. Starting at the Oregon border and winding up through Washington state, it’s a stunning region made for adventurers.
While you can fly between Portland and Seattle, the best way to traverse the region is by taking a road trip. The 101 offers a scenic route along the Pacific Ocean that is sure to take your breath away. Throughout the entire drive, you’ll find yourself sandwiched between the ocean and the mountains, with diving cliffs below and towering trees above.
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While there are some terrific coastal communities in the Pacific Northwest, particularly once you reach the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, there are plenty of sites to see inland as well. I’ll walk (or in this case, drive) you through the ideal Pacific Northwest road trip.
Before I begin, you’ll want to make sure you have your raincoat handy. Even if the “balmy” month of July, things are pretty wet around here.
Starting Destination: Redwood National Park
I recommend starting your trip from the southernmost point because the sights become more dramatic as you drive north. In order to get the truth awe-inspiring experience, this is the way to go. Housing some of the tallest trees on Earth, Redwood National Park is a surreal experience.
Take it in, because this will likely be one of the driest stops on your trip. There are no significant cities or towns bordering this national treasure, so camping is the way to go if you’re planning to stay overnight. You’ll probably see temperatures in the 60s and 70s, as well as a million stars at night (that is, if you can find a crack in the trees).
Between hidden streams, metamorphic trees, and the occasional moose (or even herds of moose… it happens, seriously), you won’t be able to tell you’re still in California. The entrance to Redwood State Park is but minutes from the ocean, so you can easily experience the coast and the mountains all the same day. Then again, isn’t that the epitome of life in California?
If you can tear yourself away from the hypnotizing qualities of these ancient giants, you’ll be ready to make your way toward the Oregon border.
The Oregon Coastline
Once you pass Crescent City, you’re ready to kiss California goodbye. Perhaps rightfully, as it’s California, and who doesn’t love it there? There will be a break in the road after Crescent City, from which you can catch the 199 to Grants Pass or the 101 to continue up the coast.
Grants Pass is a sunny and charming little town that I certainly recommend seeing if you have a day to kill. It’s uncharacteristically warm (for Oregon, that is) and the road in offers you an aerial glimpse of its quaintness, complete with a hot air balloon or two flying overhead. With the Rogue River passing right through town, there are plenty of outdoor activities.
If you decide to forego Grants Pass for the goal at hand, continue up the 101 and prepare to be absolutely charmed by the countless coastal towns that make up Oregon’s shoreline. Cabin-like homes on cliffs overlooking the ocean, scenic viewpoints every few miles, and locals that are so nice, you’ll want to stay forever.
Halfway up the Oregon coast, you’ll pass a small town called Florence, which acts as the gateway for Heceta Beach. This little beach houses the Heceta Head Lighthouse, a dramatic landmark towering over the Pacific Ocean.
Even though it’s now a bed and breakfast, I still recommend stopping in to peruse the gift shop and getting some photos off the 200-foot bluff on which it resides. Nearby, there are also Sea Lion Caves, which are open to visitors. You can catch an elevator down to the cave and observe a whole herd of sea lions resting on rocks, feeding on fish, and making you jealous with their leisurely lifestyle.
For more about the Oregon Coast listen to Oregon Coast Road Trip – Amateur Traveler Episode 693.
If you’re thinking, like the cheese? You’re absolutely right. Located right on the 101 is the town of Tillamook, home to the Tillamook Creamery. Before you decide this sounds like a boring suggestion, I’ll say this: It’s like a cheese amusement park. Seriously. Cheese samplings, ice cream, photo ops, a dining hall (yes, there is mac and cheese), and a farm exhibit.
This place will be packed to the brim, but make no mistake, it’s an absolute hoot. The food is delicious, the cheese samples are free, and there is even a factory viewing deck where you can watch some of the cheeses being made.
It’s also a great opportunity to stack up on road trip snacks before you continue on your merry way.
You’ve spent some time enjoying the beach and mountains, now it’s time to reacquaint yourself with urbanization. Portland is not the city that will remind you of bustling metropolitan life, however. Somehow, even in this big city, you can’t help but be aware of your proximity to nature. It feels more like a big town than a small city. Especially as you catch a glimpse of Mt. Hood in the background.
Brick buildings, beautiful gardens, and bicycles everywhere. You’ll desire to live here long after you’ve left. Rent a bike to ride along the Willamette River, stop into the original Voodoo Doughnut for one of their quirky (but absolutely delicious) donuts, and spend time perusing the city’s various independently owned bookstores (considered urban legends in most other metropolitans at this point). Don’t forget to check out the Portland food carts scene.
If you’re a beer enthusiast, you’re up for trying some of the best brews of your life. The Deschutes Brewery is one of the most popular locations in town, but there are tons of other family-friendly breweries you can explore, as well.
Columbia River Gorge
It’s best to visit here in the summer, but it’s beautiful year-round of course (see Things to do in Portland in Winter if you are traveling in the colder months). I recommend the summer because it allows you to partake in the many water activities available here. There’s fishing, kayaking, paddleboarding. And, on the weekends, the water is completely dotted with windsurfers.
There’s just enough breeze to pick up some speed, but it’s still warm enough to strip down to your bathers and catch some sun.
The Gorge is also home to Multnomah Falls, which you’ve probably seen on numerous scenic calendars and desktop backgrounds. The split-level waterfall stands at 611 feet tall. About a third of the way up, there’s a bridge that offers you a glorious look at the bottom half of the waterfall. You’ll feel the spritz and mist off the waterfall on your face and you’ll be reminded just how good it feels to be alive. Multnomah Falls is one of at least 10 waterfalls in the Portland area.
For more about Portland listen to Travel to Portland, Oregon – Episode 230.
Once you’re ready to bid Oregon goodbye, the Gorge serves as your gateway into Washington. From there, you’ll want to catch a number of highways back to the coast and make your way up to the Olympic Peninsula.
Now, I could do a whole article on the Olympic Peninsula alone. Its beauty is matched by very few sights I’ve seen in my life. This is partially thanks to the endless rain it gets, so if you’re camping, bring a tarp or extra layer to place on the bottom of the tent.
I definitely recommend trekking into the Olympic National Forest, where you just might be blinded by the amount of green. The trees are covered in moss, the rocks are covered in moss – this place gets a lot of rain. My favorite part, however, is the hot springs. Located on the northern part of the peninsula is the Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort, where you can rent a cabin for the night.
If you’d rather not, no worries. They offer a day pass for visitors who just want to enjoy the hot springs. If you’re lucky enough to catch some rain while you’re soaking in these geothermally heated tubs, you’ll be more refreshed than ever before.
From Olympic National Park, you can make your way to one of the many beautiful towns along the northern coast, such as Port Angeles, Sequim (where you’ll hopefully be lucky enough to catch the Lavender Festival), and Port Townsend. Somehow, the endless clouds don’t bother you in these lovely little communities. If you look across the water, you’ll be able to see Canada, and can even catch the ferry to Victoria for a day trip or visit the San Juan Islands.
You’ve arrived at your last destination. Unlike Portland, Seattle looks and feels like a bustling metropolitan city. You will find plenty to do even if the weather is uncooperative (see What To Do In Seattle Even when It Rains). One of your first stops will have to be Pike Place Market. The distinct smell of fish may turn you away at first, but the market’s buzzing atmosphere becomes addictive after a while.
The Athenian Inn, located on the lower level, boasts a counter seat with Tom Hanks’ name on it, denoting his famous scene with Rob Reiner in Sleepless in Seattle right at that very spot. Once you’ve seen all the nooks and shops the city has to offer, visiting the original Starbucks location across the way seems like one of the least interesting things to do.
Seattle is a major hub for fine dining, housing some of the world’s best restaurants. Top off a date night downtown with a trip up the Space Needle. Trite? Sure. But fascinating? Absolutely. The Emerald City is the exciting zenith your trip deserves. Nothing about it disappoints. Its rich culture, coupled with its backdrop of Mt. Rainier and climactic rainfall, embodies the beauty and diversity that is the Pacific Northwest.
For more about Seattle listen to Travel to Seattle, Washington – Amateur Traveler Episode 502.
2 Responses to “West Coast USA Road Trip – From Northern California to Washington”
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Tags: article, california, national park, oregon, portland, redwood national park, road trip, seattle, washington
February 27th, 2022 at 1:43 pm
This is the exact trip I would love to plan for my husband and I!! If you have any additional details to share (places to stay, places to eat, how many days to plan for, etc) that would be wonderful!!!
March 21st, 2022 at 1:09 pm
Hi, this sounds amazing. How Mann dass die you Plan? We are considering going from San Francisco all the way to Vancouver… Any other Details you can Share would be super helpful.
Thank you so much,