California (and Oregon) roadtrip help, please!
December 17, 2015 1:33 AM   Subscribe

Am very excitedly planning a few weeks in California/Oregon early next year. Aware it will be cold(ish). Would love some suggestions on how to maximise seeing natural beauty, although I'll be travelling by train...

I have 16 days, based in SF, and have friends in LA, Portland and Seattle I'm keen to see. I know Portland pretty well and am a huge fan, and have previously road tripped from there to the Bay Area through Ashland, northern California, etc (and loved it). I've also spent a few days down in LA and thought that was great, too.

I know 16 days is way too ambitious to cover it all, especially since last time I did it in three weeks. I could always fly a couple of places, but I *do* want to see some beautiful scenery too, if possible. I can't figure out what's the best use of my time.

Is it unwise of me to travel the same route I've travelled before, rather than doing something different & weird like going to Death Valley or snowy Lake Tahoe or *insert exciting & wonderful place name here*? I love that part of the world so much and feel overwhelmed by options! I do love a good city, but would certainly consider missing out on them if I could replace them with spectacular sights. I can also hire a car, though I've never driven in the US before (am UK-based) and would be a bit scared, so I'd rather stick to the train. Also: winter roads. Eek.

I've also been told Mt Shasta is worth a visit (didn't get there last time, though I have been to Crater Lake) – am wondering if it would be a one or two-day stop? Oh, and I'm happy to go straight through Napa without stopping.

Thank you so much for all thoughts!
posted by considerthelilies to Travel & Transportation around Weed, CA (20 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Oh, and three more relevant things:
1. I've been to the wonderful redwoods before; not hugely concerned about going again.
2. Not in the least bit interested in breweries or vinyards.
3. Keen on sea views.

posted by considerthelilies at 1:36 AM on December 17, 2015

1. Rent a car. Your options by train are too limited if you want to go to remote places. I'm EU-based and do fine driving in the UK so you can do this ;-) Along the coast you'll be fine re: winter roads. Inland, major roads will be plowed or closed in case of snow. Drive up along the coast for days, great views, nature, wildlife, scattered interesting towns.
2. Somewhat off the beaten path suggestion: Mt. Lassen NP has some interesting volcanic structures which make for a spectacular sight in the snow (was there in a Feb long ago). Good snowshoeing.
posted by gijsvs at 1:45 AM on December 17, 2015

I too would definitely consider driving. I've driven in every region of the U.S. except the NE coastal states, and California drivers seemed to me to be the most sane, top to bottom--meaning, I doubt I was just lucky; it's a long state! Get yourself a Garmin or other GPS (if you don't already have one) and you've got nothing to worry about.

Perhaps you've been there already, but when I made a similar trip some years back, probably the biggest surprise w/r/t natural beauty was a section of Humboldt County just north of Garberville on Route 101. The terrain there (and not just the redwoods) was awe-inspiring and almost reminiscent of something from a Lord of the Rings movie. I can only imagine what it looks like in winter!

(Related recommendation: Garberville. We stopped for snacks and gas in Garberville, and noticed immediately that every single person we met was unmistakeably ... well, different ... only later to learn why. Delightfully weird experience.)
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 3:17 AM on December 17, 2015

Just on the US driving thing - I'm from the UK and recently did some driving in the US and it was totally fine. Even easier than driving on the continent in my opinion. Make sure you watch some YouTube videos on how to drive an automatic before you go and you'll be fine.
posted by neilb449 at 4:25 AM on December 17, 2015

Going by train is actually a really good option for scenery. You're basically talking about the Coast Starlight. (I think you'd want to do that for the Bay Area to LA. The other (I think faster) option goes through the Central Valley and involves a bus from Bakersfield to LA.) Taking the train basically means you don't have the option of stopping off anywhere (because the long distance Amtrak trains run only once a day--the routes within California run more frequently); you're taking the scenic route from point A to point B.

If you drive from San Francisco to LA, you could stop off in Yosemite. I might do something like SF -> LA (by car, via Yosemite or something else in between) -> Portland (train--this'll take like 36 hours) -> Seattle (train--three or four) -> SF (fly).

For the record, I like trains. Long-distance Amtrak is a distinctly different experience to taking the train in the UK. (Short-haul Amtrak isn't all that different. I mean, different country, different train system, but pretty similar, except you can't really change trains.) If you like talking to strangers, it can be very social. It might otherwise get lonely on your own--I've only done it with a friend and I don't make chitchat with strangers.
posted by hoyland at 4:27 AM on December 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have only taken the Pacific Surfliner from San Diego to L.A., which is a beautiful trip at least part of the way. From L.A. to San Francisco, I'm not sure how close the train hugs the coastline. Nonetheless, for my money, being very familiar with both Oregon and Cali, nothing but nothing beats the coastal drive from, say, Santa Barbara to just south of San Francisco. It is some of the most amazing scenery in the world. I'm not sure about how auto insurance works for international travelers,
but I'd say work this piece out and then grow a pair: rent a car. Twiddle around a few blocks, and then go for it. Just stay out of tight situations.

Having lived in Ashland for 10 years, and now back in L.A., I just have to say that unless you get really lucky and land on that two-three week window when the sun shines in the winter, the weather in Oregon will suck and not be very conducive to touring. We always avoided travel there during the winter. You're much more likely to have milder weather in Cali, though a record-breaking El Nino is expected starting in January.
posted by zagyzebra at 4:57 AM on December 17, 2015

I spent a very quick week in California a few years ago traveling only by train and bus. I flew into San Diego, then took the Coast Starlight up to Salinas (I think), a bus to Monterey, and then a bus back to Salinas, then to Dan Francisco. The train went through LA and Santa Barbara, all along the coastline, and I saw dolphins! If you can get a month-long multiple use pass, you can get off at whatever city strikes your fancy. Greyhound was fine - although my seatmate had hallucinations on one route, on the other route I say next to a really nice Mexican chef who said he'd name a really interesting salad after me when he opens his restaurant in Mexico City. I loved my trip and chatted with a lot of people while I was in transit, instead of driving in my own solitary car.
posted by ChuraChura at 5:24 AM on December 17, 2015

Be warned that driving in (especially rural, central or eastern) Oregon/Washington in January/February can be pretty dicey, especially across mountain passes. If you rent a car, try to get four wheel drive and carry chains.
posted by Lutoslawski at 6:58 AM on December 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Get a car, go to Death Valley. The place is truly mind-shattering.

You say you know it'll be cold but I missed when your schedule is. If it's march or April, you may even see wildflowers in DV!
posted by notsnot at 7:00 AM on December 17, 2015

I would throw a huge old vote for 'drive.' If you must take mass transit, I would really suggest just hopping on a bolt-bus between Seattle and Portland instead of using the train. That stretch of Amtrak service is rather unremarkable. The bolt bus is also markedly faster, and much cheaper.

I'm guessing you're going to kind of stick to west of I5? Northern California and Southern Oregon coasts are particularly awesome, and super beautiful. I would just take the 101 all the way up to Portland. Its fucking amazing pretty much the whole way, and there's plenty of little pockets to stop.

But, if you were pressed for time at all, and needed to cut over to I5, OR126 between Florence and Eugene is one of my favorite highways in the state. A large chunk of the drive hugs an amaaaazing river view, and if its foggy you're basically in heaven.
posted by furnace.heart at 7:27 AM on December 17, 2015

16 days is a good bit of time, but not a ton. If you're thinking about the train, I think the San Luis Obispo to Santa Barbara or Oxnard is the prime coastal view, but getting to that stretch of track would be a bit of a logistical trick, unless you have friends who want to meet you at either end. One way, it's about 3.5 to 4 hours.

Coastal California, at least San Francisco and south, won't be an issue with winter weather, unless it gets really rainy. If you're up for a gorgeous drive, California State Route 1 (or just Highway 1) is slower, but fantastic. SF to LA can be around 6 hours if you stick to the inland route of Interstate 5, but that's only good for speed and not so much scenery. If you do drive along Hwy 1, there a lot of great places to stop for a moment or for a while. If you like hiking, there are a ton of trails, short to long. Check for trail reports first, because some have been washed out over the years, but I know they were being repaired.

For destinations, there's Hearst Castle that is fabulous and definitely worth a stop. You'll also be traveling at a good time to stop and see elephant seals, four miles south of Hearst Castle. If you want to take a kooky detour, you can drive by Nitt Witt Ridge in Cambria, or call the owner and make an appointment to get a tour. Keep going south, and you can stop in San Luis Obispo at the Madonna Inn, or stay the night if you want to experience one of their wacky themed rooms. If you fancy even more local oddities, there's Bubblegum Alley, also in SLO.

Santa Barbara is a pretty place, home to The Queen of the Missions, and a stone's throw (or less than 5 miles) from Lotusland, which is a more expensive tour, but beautiful.

If you head out to Death Valley (~5 hours from LA), there are plenty of points of interest along the way. Or you can take a shorter drive from LA (~3 hours) and go to Joshua Tree National Park. That can be more of a day trip from LA, versus the trek to Death Valley. Another 3 hour excursion from LA is the Salton Sea, which is a weird, sad place.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:11 AM on December 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Can you specify your dates? Just wanted to mention that since this is an El Nino year (supposedly one of the strongest ever), there's a chance of very heavy rains and associated problems like flooding and mudslides in California. Having driven between SF and LA in similar weather, it can be pretty stressful. If the weather's clear, of course, driving down on a combination of Highway 1 and 101 is pretty amazing. Big Sur is really worth it if you haven't been before. Maybe you could convince a friend to join you and do the driving. (Again, only if the weather isn't crazy).
posted by three_red_balloons at 8:11 AM on December 17, 2015

Good point - Highway 1 washed out a few years back, and it took them a good while to rebuild the area. Also: if you're afraid of heights, Highway 1 can be nerve-wracking on a first drive. It's safe, but there are some places where the road is the only horizontal piece of land for a ways.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:33 AM on December 17, 2015

I think Portland/ Seattle Amtrak is really nice, actually. Lots of lovely views of Puget Sound! Just make sure you choose a train that originates in the city you're departing from: the Coast Starlight is routinely, massively delayed.
posted by yarntheory at 8:55 AM on December 17, 2015

Drive highway 101 up along the Oregon Coast - you won't get a train anywhere near there. And make sure you come down the Columbia River Gorge, at least between Portland and Hood River, if possible, go as far as The Dalles or Arlington to see the total climate change scenic spectrum. (Pretty cool it itself.)
posted by stormyteal at 9:33 AM on December 17, 2015

One additional data point regarding train travel from Seattle to Portland - trains *DO* get cancelled in the winter because of landslides. We've had tons of rain, and more storms lining up, so that's a distinct possibility. I love the train from Tacoma to Portland - it cuts out a really ugly hour of train travel, and there are cars dedicated to folks getting on in Tacoma.
If you are coming by train up from Portland, get to the train station super early - for some reason there is always a really long line for seats (and it's first come first served). To avoid that, I always book business-class (reserved seating) for that trip (which is 'return' for me).
Also also - the Oregon coast can be spectacular during stormy times, so don't rule out driving because of weather. Canon Beach is a big favorite for winter storm-watching.
posted by dbmcd at 9:39 AM on December 17, 2015

Response by poster: Wow, so many amazing ideas, thank you! I'm heading to google (google maps) and may return with questions – as for dates, it's February. Snowtastic, I'd guess, perhaps especially in parts of Oregon?

Am taking note of the fact that so many people recommend driving. I may have to steel my nerves and think seriously about doing so.
posted by considerthelilies at 9:59 AM on December 17, 2015

I'd expect snow in Northern CA and Oregon in Feb, at least east of I5 or east of the Cascades. It's usually not much of an issue on the major roads; it's just the smaller, mountain highways.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:10 AM on December 17, 2015

I'd expect snow in Northern CA and Oregon in Feb, at least east of I5 or east of the Cascades. It's usually not much of an issue on the major roads; it's just the smaller, mountain highways.

Interstates close, too, particularly through the passes. I-84 was closed in sections for much of today, for example, and that is just something you have to build into your plans during the winter season in this part of the world.

The train is fun but a lot of the places you and other people have mentioned are either not possible with public transit, or only if you are ok with long delays and multimodal trips. To see the places mentioned, you are going to have to drive.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:46 PM on December 17, 2015

At the risk of being a killjoy, I'm going to add some caveats you should consider before committing to driving.

If you are nervous about driving, the coastal highways (at least north of San Francisco, which is the route I'm familiar with) may not be a great first choice; they are winding 2-lane roads for much of it, and often have a fairly sheer drop-off to one side. I-5 may have wintery road conditions and I'm fairly sure you'll find it difficult to find a rental company that is okay with you driving anywhere you'd need to put chains on your car to drive, and 4WD is not a panacea if you are not experienced with winter driving. I probably wouldn't bother with any of the smaller highways that go through mountain passes; even if they are "open," they will likely not be as well maintained when it comes to plowing and are definitely far more isolated if you manage to get yourself stuck anywhere.

Since this is an El Nino year, road conditions and weather are likely to be less predictable than normal, even for the California side of things. I'm not saying you should completely forgo driving, but I'd have some backup plans and look at conditions carefully before committing to a drive. Southern California is more likely to have better weather than Northern California or Oregon, but any time there is a lot of rain anywhere in California, mudslides are a significant likelihood, and once you get out of the cities, finding alternate routes can delay you by several hours due to the sparseness of available roads.
posted by Aleyn at 3:53 PM on December 18, 2015

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