The Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip
While many travelers begin in Los Angeles and head north, driving the Pacific Coast Highway from north to south keeps you in the lane closest to the ocean. In Washington, Oregon, and at the northern end of California, the Pacific Coast route follows US Highway 101. Near the small town of Leggett (home to the famed Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree) US-101 transitions into scenic Highway 1, the most popular portion of this route and the classic Coastal California road trip.
For some reason, when people elsewhere in the country refer to the Pacific Coast, particularly California, it’s apparent that they think it’s a land of kooks, an overbuilt suburban desert supporting only shopping malls, freeways, and body-obsessed airheads. All this may be true in small pockets, but the amazing thing about the Pacific Coast—from the dense green forests of western Washington to the gorgeous beaches of Southern California—is that it is still mostly wild, open, and astoundingly beautiful country, where you can drive for miles and miles and have the scenery all to yourself.
Planning a West Coast Road Trip
Road Trip USA’s Pacific Coast route begins at the northwest tip of the United States at Port Townsend near Olympic National Park, and remains within sight of the ocean almost all the way south to the Mexican border. This 1,650-mile (2,655 km), mostly two-lane route takes in everything from temperate rainforest to near-desert. Most of the Pacific Coast is in the public domain, accessible, and protected from development within national, state, and local parks, which provide habitat for such rare creatures as mountain lions, condors, and gray whales.
Heading south, after the rough-and-tumble logging and fishing communities of Washington State, you cross the mouth of the Columbia River and follow the comparatively peaceful and quiet Oregon coastline, where recreation has by and large replaced industry, and where dozens of quaint and not-so-quaint communities line the ever-changing shoreline. At the midway point, you pass through the great redwood forests of Northern California, where the tallest and most majestic living things on earth line the Avenue of the Giants, home also to some of the best (meaning gloriously kitsch) remnants of the golden age of car-borne tourism: drive-through trees, drive-on trees, houses carved out of trees, and much more. The phenomenally beautiful coast-line of Northern California is rivaled only by the incredible coast of Big Sur farther south, beyond which stretches the beachfronts of Southern California. The land of palm trees, beach boys, and surfer girls of popular lore really does exist, though only in the southernmost quarter of the state.
Along with the overwhelming scale of its natural beauty, the West Coast is remarkable for the abundance of well-preserved historic sites—most of which haven’t been torn down, built on, or even built around—that stand as vivid evocations of life on what was once the most distant frontier of a new nation. While rarely as old as places on the East Coast, or as impressive as those in Europe, these diverse sites include the Spanish colonial missions of California, Russian and English fur-trading outposts, and the place where Lewis and Clark first sighted the Pacific after their long slog across the continent.
Last but certainly not least are the energizing cities—Seattle and Portland in the north, San Francisco in the middle, and Los Angeles and San Diego to the south—that serve as gateways to (or civilized respites from) the landscapes between them. Add to these the dozens of small and not-so-small towns along the coast, with alternating blue-collar ports and up-scale vacation retreats, and you have a great range of food, drink, and accommodations options. Local cafés, seafood grills, and bijou restaurants abound, as do places to stay—from youth hostels in old lighthouses to roadside motels (including the world’s first, which still stands in lovely San Luis Obispo, California) to homespun B&Bs in old farmhouses.
10 Best Pacific Coast Highway Stops
For more insight into each stop along a West Coast road trip, our content is arranged by state, with California’s coastline broken into its northern, central, and southern sections. Here are ten major sights along the Pacific Coast Highway where travelers aiming to follow only a section of the full cross-country route may wish to use to plan their drive:
- Olympic National Park, Washington – Combines the features of Maine’s rocky coast, the snowy peaks of the Rocky Mountains, and the unique rainforests of the Pacific Northwest
- Astoria & Fort Clatsop, Oregon – Part of the extensive Lewis and Clark National Historic Park, Fort Clatsop is just outside the oldest American city west of the Rockies
- “Dune Country,” Oregon – Hop out of the car and into a dune buggy to travel through some of the tallest sand dunes in the world
- Redwood National Park, California – Stretch your legs with a walk through Lady Bird Johnson Grove
- Mendocino, California – One of the prettiest towns on the California coast, and extra fun for fans of the TV show Murder, She Wrote
- San Francisco, California – Easily one of the most enjoyable cities in the US and a great place to start, end, or spend a weekend along the Pacific Coast Highway
- Monterey, California – Home to the excellent Monterey Bay Aquarium and the internationally famous Monterey Jazz Festival
- San Simeon, California (Hearst Castle) – One of the truly unique attractions to see on a classic Highway 1 road trip
- San Luis Obispo, California – A lively college town with a beautiful 18th-century Spanish mission to tour, and the Madonna Inn, one of the quirkiest places to spend a night
- Los Angeles, California – Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard, and an intersection with another storied road trip: Route 66
- San Diego, California – Beautiful beaches, grand buildings, and home to the San Diego Zoo, one of the largest and most popular zoos in the world