From the bustling city of Seattle, through the stunning forests and coastline of Oregon, all the way through the diverse state of California—the west coast of the USA is one of the most stunning road trips in the world. It is a trip that offers so much: ferry rides in the Seattle harbour, hikes through the redwood forests in Oregon, wine-tasting in Napa Valley, the windy roads of San Francisco, beach lounging on Cannon Beach, the bright lights of Las Vegas, and amazing coastal drives for hours.
The Pacific Coast Highway, a picturesque drive from San Fran all the way down to San Diego, is definitely the route you want to take throughout California. It takes longer than more direct routes inland, but the extra time is truly worth every second.
There are a ton of hot spots that are worth visiting along the coast, as well as a few places further inland that are great if you have some extra time to kill. Along with these amazing places, there are some not so amazing spots that I have listed for you to reconsider before visiting.
I honestly found it quite hard to find any bad place to list, since these states are truly epic and there is not much that you should cut out. However, I have listed a few places that are more on the touristy, overcrowded, and overrated side. My opinion may differ from others, so take it with a grain of salt! Regardless, I guarantee your trip on the US West Coast will be nothing short of spectacular, no matter what route you take.
20 Seattle, Washington
Welcome to the city where Starbucks was born (and the backdrop of Grey's Anatomy, *screams internally*). Seattle isn’t on the top of everyone’s bucket list compared to cities like New York City and Chicago, but I promise that it isn’t a spot to be overlooked. I think the less-touristy aspect of the city is what makes it so special.
It’s got an epic art scene, some legendary clam chowder, and beautiful ferry rides along the bay. Visit the Pike Place Market for some local and fresh produce, the fine glass art exhibit at the Seattle Center (go at night to see the colours pop!), and stop by the waterfront Olympic Sculpture Park.
19 Death Valley, California
Hope you can handle the heat, because Death Valley is one of the hottest places on earth with scorching desert landscape as far as the eye can see. Directly on the border of Nevada and California, this iconic landscape will truly test you and push you to your limits (it is called Death Valley, after all). Just kidding... but seriously, water will be your best friend here (you can actually be refused entry if you don’t have enough)!
All jokes aside, it’s a pretty magnificent place to visit, with some pretty epic star gazing at night if you are keen to stick around. Make sure to explore Zabriskie Point and Badwater Basin before you leave.
18 Napa Valley, California
Who doesn’t love a generous glass of California Pinot? Napa Valley is home to some of the best wineries and vineyards in the country with some pretty spectacular views to complement a day of wine tasting. I guarantee you will be spoiled for choice by the amount of options you have in terms of wineries, from big scale guys to some smaller, quaint options.
Some spots to consider include Pride Mountain Vineyards, Castello di Amorosa, and the St. Clair Brown Winery and Brewery. Be sure to have a designated driver throughout your time here, as it’s almost impossible to resist a few tastings.
17 Lake Tahoe, California
If you have ever heard of someone raving about their West Coast trip, chances are they have mentioned Lake Tahoe. It almost always looks different depending on the time of year you visit, but nonetheless equally spectacular every time. In the summer, there is a beach you can lounge on where you can take a plunge in the water if you are brave enough (it can get bitterly cold).
There are also a ton of walking trails in the area and slopes to ski in the winter months. No matter what time of year you visit, I guarantee you will love Lake Tahoe and appreciate the charming, chilled-out vibe of the area.
16 Yosemite National Park, California
Yosemite really deserves its own article—I could write for days about the gorgeous hikes, stunning waterfalls, vast wildlife, and the overall magical atmosphere that this national park provides. This park has also probably made it on to your Macbook desktop background once or twice. It’s the place of dreams for outdoor enthusiasts, rock-climbers, and avid hikers alike; you will leave this place so amazed and humbled at these amazing rock structures.
El Capitan and Half Dome are two of the most famous summits to hike if you are up for a challenge. Glacier Point, Mariposa Grove, and Yosemite Valley are also spots you cannot miss before leaving. It’s the perfect spot to pitch a tent for a night in order to fit in all of the amazing spots this park has to offer, but I guarantee you will want to stay longer!
15 Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Everyone knows all about the spectacular Grand Canyon, probably up there as the most famous canyon in the world. The Canyon itself is over 200 miles long and 1 mile deep… and that doesn’t even cover the rest of the national park! There is so much to discover beyond the classic tourist view of the canyon, with quite a few hiking trails such as Horseshoe Bend taking you to the mesmerizing Havasu Falls.
While this spot is quite a drive from the coast, it is definitely worth visiting to experience these epic views for yourself. Stay for sunset or get out of bed for sunrise to witness the red and orange colours of the rocks light up like fire.
14 Redwood National Park
Welcome to the spiritual haven of Northern California, with ancient redwood trees as far as the eye can see. These trees are something special to witness, as you almost feel like an ant in comparison because of the sheer height and width of them (the tallest ones are over 100 metres high… that’s almost five times the size of The Statue of Liberty).
You can even drive through the famous trunk of the Chandelier Tree before exploring the park by foot. There are also a ton of nature walks, tide pool walks, and kayaking opportunities. This place is truly iconic and is a must-see on the west coast.
13 Portland, Oregon
Portland is a haven for hipsters and foodies, with an amazing craft beer scene and graffiti filled streets with quirky cafes. Because it has such a booming craft beer scene, you can find breweries all throughout the city. If you are a vegan, the city is full of amazing vegan restaurants (hence the hippie vibes).
You could wander through the streets all day and not get bored, as there is always something hiding around every corner. If you are a soccer fan, grab tickets to a Portland Timbers game, which provides an amazing atmosphere that sells out almost every night.
12 Big Sur, California
No west coast road trip is truly complete with driving Big Sur, world-renowned as one of the most spectacular coastal drives in the world. It’s an almost untouched stretch of empty beaches, hidden coves, and out of this world views. The winding roads of the coast will have you stopping every few minutes to take in the views with that fresh ocean breeze making you feel like a new human.
This place is almost SO magical that those who have visited cannot explain it for themselves, you simply have to go to see for yourself. With 90-miles of driving from beginning to end, you will likely be coasting along here for at least a couple of days.
11 San Francisco, California
San Francisco is one of the most unique and vibrant cities in the world, with something new happening every day. The city provides such a buzzing atmosphere with a million and one things to do. The locals are extremely friendly and down to earth—they are truly what make the city so special.
Take a stroll down to Fisherman’s Wharf to spot some seals, ride the cable car like a true tourist, and visit the famous Full House street straight from your favourite childhood sitcom. Haight Street and Lombard Street are both buzzing areas with amazing restaurants, shopping, and quirky cafes. And of course, you have to take a trip to the famous Golden Gate Bridge before you head out of town.
10 Las Vegas, Nevada
Get ready for the glitz and glam of Viva Las Vegas! Even if you’re not into the ‘Vegas scene’, it’s still a place that you should definitely check out for at least 24 hours. This city is like no other, with interesting characters roaming the streets at all hours of the day, world-renowned performances every night, legendary hotel pool parties, and of course, plenty of casinos. It’s truly an experience in itself to just set foot in this city, with fluorescent signs and buildings that light up the city and create an amazingly buzzing atmosphere.
9 Salvation Mountain, California
Many people have never heard of Salvation Mountain, however it’s a unique location that is definitely worth a visit. Located on the southern tip of California, the mountain is a pretty epic artistic exhibition that showcases colourful landscapes and sculptures made up of salvaged materials.
Originally started by a local artist, it has been added to by volunteers and visitors throughout the years, adding their own messages that promote love, religion, happiness, and acceptance. It’s truly a beautiful space that is intended to create a spiritual and reflective experience for each visitor, in the hopes that everyone takes away an important message when they leave.
8 Monterey Bay, California
South of San Francisco, Monterey Bay is a pleasant stop along the Pacific Coast Highway, a small fisherman wharf town with amazing scenery. You can take the scenic ’17 Mile Drive, take a visit to the world-class aquarium, go whale watching, or kayak through the coves along crystal clear water.
Just north of this town lies Moss Landing, where you can kayak with the most adorable sea lions. While this is a lesser known stop along the coast, it’s a nice, lowkey spot to hang out for a day or two outside of the business of the city.
7 Cannon Beach, Oregon
This beach is not only famous for being The Goonies filming location, it’s also a place that I’m sure you would recognize if you were shown a picture of the famous Haystack (which you can walk to when the tide is down).
Cannon Beach is one of the many beautiful beaches situated on the coastline of Oregon, with a rocky shore full of crabs and orange starfish visible through the clear water. The sandy shore seems to go on forever, with trails in Ecola State Park offering amazing views of the ocean and lighthouse. The city itself is quaint with small boutique shops and galleries.
6 San Diego, California
While this spot is only a couple hours from Los Angeles, it couldn’t be more different. It has a super laidback vibe with awesome beaches, a bustling nightlife, and an awesome historic harbour front district to explore. In terms of cuisine, there isn’t much that you won’t find in San Diego, however the Mex food is absolutely top-notch (Casa Guadalajara is a must). At the end of a busy day, the absolute best place to watch the sunset is without a doubt La Jolla Cove.
Pacific Beach, 20 minutes outside of the city, is a more youthful area with a ton of bars and sandy beaches stretching for miles. Be sure to check of Bare Back Bar for 50 cent mimosas on the weekends… need I say more?
5 Waste of time: Los Angeles, California
While there are mixed reviews about this city, many feel that Los Angeles is more of a miss than a hit. While there is a lot of different things to do, it is generally felt to be dirty, overcrowded, and surrounded by tacky street performers and tourist traps. While there are no doubt some spots worth visiting, this isn't the case for the most popular areas that you would generally be in such as The Hollywood Walk of Fame.
The traffic in LA is also insanely bad, and you will pay an arm and a leg in most restaurants for a meal. If you are really keen to stop by, take a visit to the Hollywood sign and then move on to bigger and better things along the coast. I wouldn’t be prioritising a ton of time in this city.
4 Waste of time: San Jose, California
San Jose becomes a tourist stop because of its close proximity of San Francisco, leading people to spend a day exploring the area. However, this city should be nothing more than a pit stop to fill up on gas. It has a few museums and a zoo, but you can find these places in almost any city that I guarantee will be a lot more interesting than San Jose. Rather than splitting up your time between here and San Francisco, spend more time in San Fran. After all, It’s a lot more desirable to spend longer periods of time in places rather than rushing from place to place.
3 Waste of time: Venice Beach, California
While the Venice Boardwalk might look cool in the movies, it's generally overcrowded with tourists and full of tacky souvenirs. You will definitely come across some interesting locals along this strip, with this being a top ‘hippie hangout’ in the area.
The beach is jam-packed full of people, so if you are looking for a relaxing beach experience, this isn’t the place to go. You will be lounging directly beside your neighbour, with zero privacy. The ocean also isn’t the turquoise, crystal clear water you would expect it to be. While you can stop by for a stroll, I wouldn’t put this at the top of your list.
2 Waste of time: Malibu, California
Malibu is known for being Hollywood’s summer getaway of lavish oceanfront mansions owned by the rich and famous. A ton of celebrities choose to reside here instead of living in the bustling city of LA because of its laidback surf vibes and ocean views. However, if you aren’t into celebrity sightings and overpriced accommodation, then I suggest you give this one a miss.
The ocean is also not super swim-safe as the waves can be pretty crazy, due to the fact that it’s a popular surf spot. While it’s still a good idea to stop by upon passing through, I wouldn’t block out a lot of time here.
1 Waste of time: Santa Barbara, California
Santa Barbara is a Mediterranean-inspired city with Spanish colonial heritage, home to an abundance of beaches and a dramatic mountain backdrop. While it’s a cool place to check out, the city itself has the same general ‘to-do’ lists of any other spot: museums, a historic pier, shopping, a zoo, and a few nice beaches. While I don’t want to say this is a complete miss, there are definitely nicer beaches and more exciting areas along the coast worth your time.
It’s also home to one of the biggest party schools in the country, University of California, so if noisy college students aren’t your thing, then I would pass on this one.