There's a reason countless songs, books and movies have paid homage to the classic USA West Coast road trip... It's an iconic adventure of a lifetime. From deserts to mountains to miles-long beaches (it even has places where mountain and ocean meet!) the USA West Coast is a gem waiting to be explored. Here are 20 of our favourite spots.
By Grace Koelma.
All images our own unless otherwise credited.
The USA West Coast Road Trip of a Lifetime
Are you ready for an unforgettable trip down the USA West Coast? For as long as I can remember I felt a inexplicable pull to America's western coastline. My intrigue came mostly from Beach Boys song hooks, snippets from movies and the thrill of letting exotic words like Yosemite, Mojave and Joshua Tree roll off my tongue.
In 2018 we arrived in Vancouver, Canada and renovated a 1991 RV, and then set off on a 12-week trip to explore America's far western states. And it truly was the #vanlife trip of a lifetime.
This guide contains what we consider to be the absolute visual highlights of this part of the United States. We're photographers, so we're always on the lookout for the best vantage points and diverse scenic landscapes. This USA West Coast road trip had it all. Snow-capped mountains, canyons, waterfalls (going into the ocean!), giant Redwood forests, cliffs dropping into the ocean, deserts, long beaches and wildlife (deer, seals, otters, whales, birds).
Choosing your USA West-Coast route
There are tons of ways to do the west coast line, and you can drive south to north (starting San Diego and finishing in Seattle) or north to south (Seattle to San Diego).
We'd recommend driving north to south, since you'll be driving on the right-hand side of the road and many of the coastal routes are much prettier when you're driving south (because your vehicle lane is closer to the ocean).
You may be tempted to hug the coast the whole way down, but there are some incredible natural wonders to see just a few hundred miles inland, so we'd recommend doing a similar itinerary to what we did - we loved the mix of coastal cliffs versus inland forests, deserts and canyons.
Below is a map of our journey (the major points) and if you click the image you can view/save it in Google Maps.
Map of our USA West Coast route
Our top 20 stops for your USA West Coast road trip
1. Mount Rainer National Park
Mt. Rainier National Park is a Washington state gem, and its iconic snow capped peak is a fixture of the Seattle skyline. We visited in Autumn (so no wildflowers) and only had a day here, but would recommend 3 days to fully experience the beauty of this park.
- The national park is a glorious landscape of sub-alpine meadows, wildflowers (in season), lakes, waterfalls and wildlife viewing opportunities.
- Our top recommendations (photography and general hiking) are Tipsoo Lake (and Little Tipsoo Lake), Paradise meadow and Skyline trail, Sunrise area and Christine Falls.
2. Olympic National Park (and Seattle)
Seattle is a trendy, cosmopolitan city on the USA West Coast with some fantastic family options. While we didn't spend long here on our road trip south (we were chasing the Californian warmth), it's definitely worth a stop.
- Highlights for families include the Museum of Pop Culture, Pacific Science Centre, Pike Place Market and boarding one of the Washington State ferries for a trip through Puget Sound.
- Olympic National Park is a breathtaking coastal park near Seattle, and while we couldn't fit it in on our trip, it's been highly recommended by many others since, which is why we're including it here. We'll just have to go back.
3. Cannon Beach
Cannon Beach on the Oregon coast may just be one of my favourite sunrise locations in the world. It's not hard to see why.
- Cannon Beach is well-known in the area for its monolithic titan, Haystack Rock, formed from volcanic lava millions of years ago. It's striking from all angles, but possibly prettiest at sunrise and sunset, when the light hits its peak.
- At low tide you can walk up to Haystack Rock and explore the tide pools, and the anemones and sea stars hiding within.
- During the day there are stunning views of the beach from Ecola State Park.
4. Hug Point
Hug Point State Recreation Site is just south of Cannon Beach, and is a unique beach with a fascinating history. At low tide, you can walk around the northern cliffs and explore the little cove beyond - including a waterfall, caves in the sandstone cliffs and tide pools.
- We took the opportunity for a cheeky embrace photo, but that's not where Hug Point got its name. Before the highway was built, stagecoaches used to travel along the wide, sandy beaches. They would always hug the point, even at low tide, which is where the name originated.
- Exercise caution, and read tide charts and the weather conditions carefully. People can become stranded when the tide comes in quickly.
5. Otter Crest area
If you're on the hunt for wildlife during your USA West Coast Roadtrip, make sure you stop in the Otter Crest area.
- In season, you can view whales migrating north up the Oregon coast. They typically begin their journey in late March, but can often be sighted well into late summer. We even spied a few spouts in September.
- Some of the best whale viewpoints near Otter Crest are Otter Crest Scenic State Viewpoint, Rocky Creek State Scenic Viewpoint and Devil's Punchbowl.
- The beaches surrounding this area are favourite haunts for seals, so keep an eye out, but don't interfere with or touch the animals as they are protected.
6. Seal Rock State Recreation Site
The coast of Oregon is dotted with incredible rock formations, and they give each beach their own personality. Seal Rock State Recreation Site has some interesting formations, but the beaches north and south are worth a look as well.
- Watching the sunset over the ocean is a must on the USA West Coast, and as you drive south you'll be spoilt for choice.
- Many beaches also have picnic areas with BBQs, so bring a picnic and enjoy your evening as you watch the sun go down.
7. Redwood Coast
The towering redwood and sequoia forests of California are a must-see on your USA West Coast road trip, and you will have many options to choose from. These trees are peaceful giants on earth, and truly have to be seen to be believed. Many grow over 300 ft tall, are between 8 and 20 ft in diameter and some are almost 2000 years old.
There are multiple forests dotted along what's called the 'Redwood Coast', stretching from the Oregon/Californian border down to Shelter Cove. As the map below shows, some of the forests hug the coastline and others are a little further inland, but are definitely worth leaving the coast for.
Because you likely don't have time to check them all out, redwood forests we recommend are:
- Stout Grove in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park.
- The Avenue of the Giants in Humboldt Redwoods State Park
- Shrine Drive Thru tree (you can drive your car through)
- Muir Woods National Monument
- Hendy Woods State Park
- Big Basin Redwoods State Park (close to San Francisco)
8. Stout Grove
We chose to explore Stout Grove in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, just south of the Oregon/California border. Stout Grove isn't the largest forest or boasting the tallest trees, but it is possibly the most picturesque grove, particularly when the late afternoon light hits.
Because the Grove is off the beaten path, it's often much quieter than the forests closer to Highway 1, which is why we ventured out there. We timed our visit for late afternoon to catch the rays filtering through the leaves, and it was a photographer's dream.
9. Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe is a few hour's drive inland south of the Redwood Coast, but is a place that is definitely worth a stop on your USA West Coast road trip. There is so much to explore in this crystal clear lake, we'd recommend 4-7 days at least.
- Lake Tahoe straddles the border between California and Nevada, so it's a unique place with two distinct cultures. As well as the border divide, Tahoe is also divided into the South Lake Tahoe and North Lake Tahoe regions. The high-rolling town of Reno is close by as well.
- In terms of nature, Lake Tahoe has it all... pine forests leading down to crystal clear water, hiking trails, water sports, incredible view points, and stunning sunrise and sunset views. The best months to visit to enjoy the water are summer and early autumn, but we visited in mid-Autumn and it was still beautiful (but too chilly to swim).
- In the north of the lake, Sand Harbour, Secret Cove and Chimney Beach are popular and very scenic spots, perfect for photography. They will tend to get crowded in the warmer months, so if you want a truly deserted paradise, we recommend hiring a boat, kayak or paddle board and exploring the beaches that are only accessible by water.
- In the south of the lake, Emerald Bay State Park has some gorgeous walking trails (Rubicon and the trail up to Eagle Lake), and the road up to Inspiration Point viewing area is one of the most exhilarating ridge roads we've driven on.
10. Yosemite National Park
It's fitting that Yosemite comes in geographically at number 10 on our USA West Coast list, because it's a 10/10.
Just 2.5 hours drive south of Lake Tahoe is one of our favourite spots on earth... Yosemite National Park.
Yosemite is known for its sky-scraping, jaw-dropping cliffs and striking landscapes, and it really does feel like another planet when you're there. It's one of the most popular parks in the USA, and it's not hard to see why.
We visited in October, which was perfect because the nights weren't yet too cold, but there were far less tourists than summer. If you're visiting in spring or summer, you may also be able to see wildflowers and wildlife in the meadows in and around the park. We'd recommend devoting at least 4 days to exploring Yosemite, but longer if you're an avid hiker or climber.
11. San Francisco
A road trip down the USA West Coast wouldn't be complete without a stop in at one of the most iconic cities in the world... San Francisco and its famed Golden Gate Bridge.
There is so much to see in this city, and you could spend anywhere from 3 days to 3 weeks and still not see it all. If you're travelling in a van (like we did) San Francisco can be a tricky place to find campgrounds. There are a few dotted throughout the north and south of the city, but they are quite expensive ($100+ a night for just a basic unpowered site). Rules on city streets are strict, and you can't park overnight, so we'd recommend looking for where other vanlifers are staying, and follow suit. If you see signs, obey though - you will be fined.
The top highlights we'd recommend seeing in San Francisco are:
- Wandering the Sunset District, stopping for an authentic Vietnamese or Mexican lunch and heading to Ocean Beach to join hundreds of other locals and tourists for sunset.
- Riding or walking over the Golden Gate Bridge is a must while you're in town. We'd recommend early morning or late afternoon if you're visiting in the hotter months.
- Take a San Francisco cable car. As touristy as this is, we were pleasantly surprised by how fun the conductors were, and impressed with the way they worked the century-old manual operating system.
- For views of the Golden Gate Bridge, go to Presidio, Horshoe Bay or Baker Beach at sunrise and catch that iconic fog. The fog is called Karl, and even has its own Instagram account @karlthefog.
- Head to Fisherman's Wharf and Pier 39 to see the sea lions.
- In terms of iconic photo moments, make sure you check out Twin Peaks Viewpoint, Dolores Park, The Painted Ladies in Alamo Park (for all those Full House fans!) and the hilly hairpin turns of Lombard Street.
12. Highway 1
Once you leave San Francisco, you'll begin one of the most famous drives on the USA West Coast - the coastal highway to Los Angeles, called Highway 1 (or sometimes State Route 1).
Highway 1 is the longest state route in California at 659 miles long (1,055 km), and runs from Leggett in Mendocino Country to Dana Point in Orange County.
13. Garrapata State Park
Drive south from Carmel-by-the-Sea on Highway 1 and you'll reach Garrapata State park in less than 30 minutes. This is a place with stunning rock formations, colorful cliffs and little rocky paths just waiting to be explored. Pull over in one of the many pull outs, and take a walk to admire the view. We visited in autumn, and the colours were spectacular.
14. Bixby Creek Bridge
Just a few miles south of Garrapata State Park, on the outskirts of Big Sur, is the famed Bixby Creek Bridge. There are several smaller bridges close by, but you'll know you've reached Bixby when you see all the cars parked beside the road. The map point is here.
It's a popular photography spot, and you'll likely see groups of bikers or cyclists here as well, cracking open a cold drink and taking jovial group photos. Due to the high volume of traffic and tourists parking on road shoulders and crossing the road, take car when driving through here.
There are two sides to Bixby - the main viewpoint is on the ocean side of the road, and is where most people stop. But there is also a trail going up a small hill on the mountain side (northbound side of the road) which has excellent views as well, and is less frequented.
15. Big Sur
You can drive the Big Sur stretch of Highway 1 in one day, but we'd recommend taking 2-3 days in this part if possible, to truly soak in the beauty. Planning in advance where you'll spend your nights is key, as cell reception becomes spotty when you enter the Big Sur State Park, and accommodation can be few and far in between, as are campgrounds.
16. Julia Pfeiffer State Park - McWay Falls
McWay Falls was one of our USA West Coast road trip highlights. It's like something from a dream... where else can you find a waterfall spilling from a cliff face into foaming aqua ocean?
While McWay falls is beautiful throughout the day, we'd 100% recommend visiting at sunset for views like this. You'll likely find other photographers with tripods set up on the shoulder, and the cliff is rocky and uneven, so walk with care. We held onto our son's hand tightly the whole time, but we wouldn't recommend the cliff spot if you have multiple children, as you need to keep them close.
Many cars park on the side of the road, but there is a carpark on the eastern side of the road, with a short trail that takes you through a tunnel under the road to a lower viewing platform. We took photos from both that viewing platform and this cliffside spot on the roadside.
17. Morro Bay
As you leave Big Sur, make sure you stop in at the Elephant Seals Viewing point (map point here) to see the hundreds of seals lying on the beach. It's free to walk to the viewing platform, but be prepared... they're a pretty noisy bunch!
Then head to Morro Bay, a sleepy but beautiful coastal town. It's famed for its single monolith, Morro Rock which (according to our 3-year-old) looks like "a bald head rising out of the water." He's not wrong.
Morro Bay area is a great place to spend the night after driving Big Sur, and there are a number of great RV campgrounds to choose from. We chose the state-run Morro Strand Campground, and were rewarded with excellent views right outside our door.
18. Orange County beaches
The beaches north and south of Los Angeles are plentiful, clean and gorgeous.
Here are our top recommendations:
- Take a stroll along the Santa Barbara and Santa Monica boardwalks.
- Venice Beach is perhaps the most famous LA beach, known for its street food, volley ball nets and long cycle paths packed with roller skaters and motorized scooters. It is crowded, and a difficult area to find parking for bigger vehicles.
- We love the quieter beaches south of the city: Newport beach, Corona del Mar, Crystal Cove and Laguna beach are all stunning options.
- Be aware that at most Los Angeles beaches you'll need to pay for parking.
19. San Diego
The laid back surfer-vibe culture of San Diego is the perfect stop on a USA West Coast road trip. The Beach Boy's 'good vibrations' are strong here.
After weeks of non-stop road tripping and taking in the plethora of incredible natural sites on California's coast, stopping for a week or longer in San Diego is a treat. The pace of life is slower here, and it's a fantastic place to soak up the sun, go for lazy morning rides around the beautiful lake and slurp a smoothie bowl.
Our top must-sees in San Diego are:
- Take a morning walk along Mission Beach boardwalk, famed for its smoothie bars and taco joints.
- Hire a bike and go for a cycle around Mission Bay. It takes 2-3 hours to do a lap, but there are lots of playgrounds and gorgeous foreshore parks to picnic at along the way.
- Head to Balboa Park for the day (San Diego's version of Central Park spanning a huge 1,200 acres), to enjoy the many gardens, hiking trails and an impressive 16 museums.
- Drive to La Jolla and Torrey Pines to watch the hang gliders.
- Discover the California Missions and the intriguing Spanish heritage. There are over 21 missions in the area, including the notable Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala.
20. Joshua Tree National Park
About 3 hours drive inland from San Diego, Joshua Tree National Park is the perfect place to end your USA West Coast itinerary.
Joshua Tree is a National Park spanning 800,000 acres in the desert. It's the perfect escape from civilisation into a place where boulders balance in piles as if they were marbles dropped by giants.
Our tips for exploring the park:
- Go during the peak tourist months (October - May), as the summers are boiling, reaching over 100°F (38°C) during the day.
- Remember that deserts, while hot in the day, get quite cold at night. While winter days are mild, night temperatures can be well below freezing in winter, so be prepared.
- Accommodation in the park is limited to campgrounds with tent sites and sites for RVs and trailers. There are 8 campgrounds in the park, and during peak season it's a good idea to make a reservation. Check the Park Website for more information.
- There are a number of boutique hotels and motels on the outskirts of the park, in Twentynine Palms, Yucca Valley and, of course, the famous Palm Springs.
- There is no cell service in the park, but you won't need need it with the million stars above you. If you do need to make an emergency call, you can get 1-2 bars of service by climbing the rocks.
- Take care when climbing and follow park guidelines. Some rocks have huge crevices and slippery surfaces. Wear appropriate footwear at all times.
Is the West Coast is calling you? Happy travels, and drop us a comment if you found this guide helpful, or have any questions!
The best place to contact us is on Instagram (where we hang out regularly). @darelist.family.
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Grace is a writer, designer, digital nomad, mum (otherwise known as toddler chaser), slow traveller, wild things appreciator, culture immerser, coffee opportunist... She frequently uses big words (some of which are definitely made up), likes long walks and even longer books, and her focus on wellness in 2017 means she is learning to obey her FitBit. Except when she's glued to her computer!