Explore the 8 best West Coast USA road trip itineraries

Where the highways stretch on for days at a time, passing through mountains, whole states and even time zones, the epic US road trip serves as a rite of passage for many Americans and international travellers alike. Setting our GPS on the West Coast for sun-drenched Napa wineries and Hollywood glam, Mr Hudson brings you eight of the best USA road trip itineraries stretching from northern Washington to southern Cali, along the magnificent coastal roads marked by the cities of SF, LA and San Diego.

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San Francisco | Photo: Picjumbocom

1. San Francisco to Seattle

Hitting the tarmac on Highway 1 northbound takes us on a popular road trip route from the gay mecca of San Francisco towards Seattle, on the blue border to Canada.

Along the way, you’ll pass California’s coastal highlights like Point Reyes National Seashore and Bodega Bay as well as plenty more prime photo opportunities. Around 320 kilometres (or one third) into your journey you’ll meet Redwood-made Mendocino, which vies with the nearby city of Fort Bragg to be your base for the night. While the former is known mostly for its rustic appearance and converted water towers now serving as cosy B&Bs, the latter has much in the way of natural attractions, including Glass Beach. The next day, find the hidden Shasta Lake to finish off your dalliance in Cali or continue straight along unlimited ocean roads and through lush wilderness merging inevitably with the Redwood Highway (101).

Entrust the road to eventually wind up back on the coast and enter the sweet state of Oregon. Take a break from the wheel with a day trip into Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park, home to the deepest lake in the US, made from a volcanic eruption 7,000 years earlier. Stay in Coos Bay or any of Oregon’s best seaside towns before continuing your journey along the never-ending 101, stopping at Cannon Beach and Astoria on your last leg before crossing the Astoria-Megler Bridge into Washington and finally through to Seattle. Gain more insights into the best of each city with our definitive Seattle and San Francisco travel guides.

Photo: Bertsz

2. San Francisco to Redwoods of Northern California

An alternative route for those who also want to start in San Francisco but want to cut their driving time can stay in California and follow along Highway 1 through the sleepy towns of Mendocino and Fort Bragg, eventually diverging into Humboldt Redwoods State Park. With less time driving and more time exploring, Mendocino opens up a world of kayaking and cliff walking within Mendocino Headlands State Park. Fort Bragg meanwhile brings you Noyo Headlands Park and a third town of Leggett adds the road trip novelty of its Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree. Our endpoint, however, is California’s famed Redwood National Park, of which Humboldt State Park is just a small part. Don’t be fooled though, the park is huge, with redwoods towering above on any of the hiking trails through Avenue of the Giants, Founders Grove and Rockefeller Forest.

Redwood National Park | Photo: Maria Jose Oyarzun

Photo: Nick Wehrli

3. Seattle to Astoria, Oregon 

Kicking it into reverse, this time we start in Seattle and travel down through the state of Washington towards Oregon’s port city of Astoria, all within a day. From Seattle city centre, take the Interstate 5 (or the more scenic State Route 509) past Tacoma and into Olympia, the state capital. Get a feel for urban Washington in an afternoon or continue west onto the Oregon Coast Highway (101) via State Route 8. Though Aberdeen and Raymond are nice resting places, a brief detour around the peninsula (along Route 105 to Markham) allows for a breath of fresh coastal air. Back on the 101, drive until you meet the impressive Astoria-Megler Bridge which crosses the Columbia River into Oregon. Get yourself over the bridge to finally arrive in Astoria, appreciating the heritage and picture-perfect riverside views in proximity to Cannon Beach, Tillamook, Depoe Bay and Newport, as well as a ton of classic road trip options continuing south along Route 101.

4. Olympic Peninsula Coast Road Trip

Seeing Seattle isn’t the only reason to visit Washington and those who refrain from rushing down south will find that one of the state’s top draws is a coastal drive out west along the Olympic Peninsula Coast (140 kilometres from Seattle, two-day trip). Escape the city to soak up the unique vibes of the Pacific Northwest and its underappreciated views, taking as many beach breaks as you like along the way. Mostly comprised within the Olympic National Park, coastal spots such as First Beach and Rialto Beach come edged by lowland forest and covered in geological formations, the latter with its ‘Hole in the Wall’ insta-spot and proximity to Kalaloch Lodge. Alternatively, if time and energy allow, hike a few miles to the secluded outcrops of Second, Third or Shi Shi Beach. While you’ll need a permit for Second Beach and an 8-mile round trip to Shi Shi, the reward comes in the guise of driftwood scenery, incredible wildlife and opportunities to camp on the beach.

For more Washington road trips, see our recent article covering great weekend trips from Seattle – from whale watching in the San Juan islands to more hiking in Olympic National Park.

Olympic Peninsula, Washington | Photo: Graham Meyer

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For evermore varieties of grape, continue your wine journey to the Sonoma staples of Geyserville, Healdsburg and Santa Rosa (via State Route 128) moving west towards the towns of Jenner and Bodega Bay for an entirely different coastal setting bordered by the Mayacamas and Sonoma Mountain Range

5. San Francisco to Napa and Sonoma

With the weather ever attractive and a rich cabernet never far from your lips, it’s understandable why Northern California is often cited as the best place to begin an American west coast road trip. This trip will take you through not one but two of the region’s wine countries; Napa and Sonoma, passing lush vineyards and myriad pretty towns which pride themselves on fine dining, live music and small-scale luxury lodgings. Start in San Francisco and drive directly to the city of Napa from where the various valley towns unfold north along Highway 29 (and the parallel Silverado Trail Head) in a series of endless opportunity and charming scenery. Try a mud bath in Calistoga or opt for provincial life in St Helena and Yountville, accenting your trip with a number of tasting sessions at any of the region’s best bistros and wineries.

For evermore varieties of grape, continue your wine journey to the Sonoma staples of Geyserville, Healdsburg and Santa Rosa (via State Route 128) moving west towards the towns of Jenner and Bodega Bay for an entirely different coastal setting bordered by the Mayacamas and Sonoma Mountain Range. Wherever you base yourself, expect a playful and laid-back world of wine centred on the namesake town of Sonoma with its remarkable restaurants and equally lovely main square, surrounded by 13,000 acres of parkland inclusive of Jack London State Park and the Kenwood area near the village of Glen Ellen.

Glen Ellen | Photo: Lasseter Winery

Photo: Roman Odintsov

6. San Francisco to Los Angeles

A real classic and a definite contender is the west coast trip USA from San Francisco to Los Angeles, showcasing the very best of California’s coastal attractions and its most popular cities. The most scenic route lies along Highway 1, starting at the Golden Gate Park and passing by San Fran’s adjoining beach towns before reaching the youthful city of Santa Cruz and continuing on the 27-kilometre forest drive around Monterey Peninsula. Journeying south still, you’ll eventually meet the audaciously engineered Bixby Creek Bridge on your path to enter the Big Sur; a region of rugged coastal cliffs and foaming surf flanked by pine-laden mountains cut through with one of the most-loved roads in America.

Veer inland around Morro Bay as Highway 1 merges with State Route 101, opting to stay the night at San Luis Obispo, Avila Beach or Pismo Beach, in easy reach of numerous wineries, including those of Edna Valley and Santa Ynez Valley further along. Santa Barbara is your first sign of city life and a stop here will prepare you for the growing metropolitan beach cities of Malibu, Santa Monica and the South Bay area. Los Angeles, our final stop, crowns them all, allowing for luxury beach stays, hillside retreats or downtown discovery with all manner of celebrity brunch spots and designer stores on your doorstep. Discover more from the land of angels and celebrities with our full Los Angeles travel guide.

Los Angeles | Photo: Jaclyn Moy

Venice, LA | Photo: Roberto Nickson

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After exhausting the glitzy wonders of the City of Angels, fill up the tank on the Chevy to cover the open road from LA to Death Valley and back again on the circular route through sparse desert lands

7. Los Angeles to Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks 

After exhausting the glitzy wonders of the City of Angels, fill up the tank on the Chevy to cover the open road from LA to Death Valley and back again on the circular route through sparse desert lands. A rather dustier alternative to the verdant hills of Yosemite and Kings Canyon, Death Valley is not your average national park. Crank up the AC and aim to drive the entire valley in a day, avoiding getting stuck in the park without accommodation. While there are a few lodgings based inside, your best option is to book one of the hotels and B&Bs which lie around an hour outside of the park. Of the valley’s top attractions, the Badwater Basin salt flats and Mesquite Flats sand dunes are among them, allowing for spectacular views most impressive at sunrise or sunset.

Before heading back to Hollywood, the region has one more attraction to share, by way of the Joshua Tree National Park, its border blessed with a range of accommodations, particularly the popular north entrance. Start your day appreciating the sunrise coming up over Cholla Cactus Garden, joining Joshua on a short hike from White Tank Campground area to Arch Rock. To see the trees in all their glory, take the road out west, stopping at any point along the way for a photo session or two. The journey back to Los Angeles is just two and half hours long but many opt for a fun-packed pool party in Palm Springs beforehand.

Joshua Tree National Park | Photo: Alessandro Rossi

8. Los Angeles to San Diego 

Last but by no means least in our west coast road trip rankings is the journey starting in the glam land of LA and winding down to the Mexican border for a little Latino flair. The drive to San Diego from LA takes just three hours but there is no shortage of pit stops to keep you amused along the way. Running the entire coast from Malibu to Torrance, the South Bay beach is the perfect place to grab a tasty taco breakfast before heading further south to Long Beach for its aquarium or Huntington Beach for its laid-back surfer culture. From there, continue south on Highway 1, passing various coastal gems such as Newport Beach, Laguna Beach and Dana Point, before crossing into San Diego County on the Interstate 5. Here the names hint at heightened Hispanic influence, with Encinitas, Del Mar and La Jolla all top spots for a rest.

End your west coast road trip on a high note by exploring the city of San Diego in its entirety, covering the Gaslamp Quarter, Balboa Park and Mission Bay before heading into the downtown area for lively night time offerings. Though the beaches around San Diego are never a bad shout, for more ideas on where to spend the day, see our full San Diego travel guide.

Mission Beach, San Diego | Photo: Matthew Hamilton

Too many options? 

Allow the trip design experts at Mr Hudson to guide you on your dream getaway! We’ll look at your individual travel needs, style and budget and do our magic to curate the trip of a lifetime. As well as providing you with a tailor-made daily itinerary we’ll also give you up-to-date insights on lesser-known attractions and things to do in your destination, with a range of lodging options and travel tips to make your trip go as smoothly as possible. Get in touch today on the Trip Design page.

Photo: Pixabay

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