Road Trip down the West Coast of the US?
January 7, 2020 5:54 AM   Subscribe

After our Canadian adventure later this month (thank you MeFi for helping to plan it!), my intrepid group of Australian travellers are going on a road trip from Vancouver to San Francisco over 9 days. What would be a reasonable itinerary for such a trip?

During this trip, I'm hoping to see some amazing landscapes that we don't get where I'm from, like the giant redwoods and Yosemite National Park. I hope to come back to see the cities in detail another time in the future. I'm prepared for a lot of driving and staying in motels along the way.

At the moment the itinerary looks like Seattle -> Olympia/Portland -> Oregon/Redwoods -> Yosemite (1/2 nights?) -> San Francisco (1/2 nights?). Does this seem reasonable/do-able?

Are there any gotta-see's along the way? And how is winter likely to impact such a road trip?

Thanks for any advice!
posted by roshy to Travel & Transportation around United States (14 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Mount St. Helen's.
posted by tman99 at 6:04 AM on January 7, 2020 [1 favorite]

You might consider detouring to the coast at least part of the way - e.g. cut across at Longview to Astoria, spend some time driving down at least to Cannon Beach and see Haystack Rock, maybe go out to Ecola if it’s clear and see Tillamook Rock lighthouse, and then go up Highway 26 to get back to Portland. You could make a small detour to Jewell Meadows to see an elk herd if there aren’t any in town as you drive south, or stop at Camp 18 for logging history. St. Helens is gorgeous, but the visitor’s center is closed this time of year - maybe Rainier or Hood as alternates? Big snowy volcanoes. We’ve had some atmospheric rivers this year, tons of rain. Depending on temps, there might be snow on the coast range this weekend, and the Cascade range has plenty by now. Other than the capitol, not sure what Olympia would offer, and it’s very close to Seattle. Consider Mono Lake and/or Bodie in California, or some gold rush towns in the Sierra. Mostly try to get out of the cities a bit. Sorry for no links but on mobile - everything should be easily Googled, but memail if you need specifics.
posted by OneSmartMonkey at 7:08 AM on January 7, 2020 [2 favorites]

One warning - do not speed in Oregon. I know lots of people who have gotten expensive speeding tickets in Oregon.

You may want to look into Hearst Castle.

Also, near San Francisco there is the Jelly Belly Factory, if they like factory tours or have kids that is a must-do.
posted by bq at 7:11 AM on January 7, 2020 [1 favorite]

Getting over to Mono Lake or Bodie and back to SF wouldn't be a great idea in winter. A visit to Yosemite may be limited to just the valley and maybe Badger Pass ski area.
posted by LionIndex at 7:13 AM on January 7, 2020

You may want to look into Hearst Castle.

Or you may not, since it's four hours south of San Francisco.
posted by madcaptenor at 7:15 AM on January 7, 2020 [1 favorite]

In February, any of this can be wet and some of it can be cold and snowy. I'll bet you'll have the appropriate clothing after your time in Canada. On and near the coast, wet weather may slow you, but you'll get through. It's a whole lot of driving. Days will be short, and you will thank yourself if you get started at or before dawn each day, because the sun will still be going away before 6pm.

There are a lot of ways to experience the redwoods in Northern California. If weather is miserable, the Avenue of the Giants is a great choice: You can stay in and near your car and still be gobsmacked. The state and national parks closer to the coast are richer for hiking and camping, but are not necessarily more fun for road tripping.

Visiting Yosemite in winter is challenging. Most roads are closed all season, and the rest close during stormy weather, which can happen any time. Here is some background, but you'll need more information than that, and I would get lodging reservations as soon as possible -- choices are few in the winter. If you conserve daylight and are equipped to walk in where roads are closed, it will be amazing. Sequoia National Park is relatively nearby and often not as logistically challenging in the winter -- you may want to develop it as a Plan B if Yosemite is closed down.
posted by mississippi at 7:18 AM on January 7, 2020 [1 favorite]

Klamath Ca. is the most beautiful place I’ve stayed on that route. The Klamath Inn has great food and is a short stroll from the mouth of the Klamath river. It’s a sacred place (I am not particularly spiritual, my first visit there was a rare and profound moment in which I contemplated the sacred.) Stay there a couple of nights maybe.

It’s also very close to Fern Canyon, the northern Ca redwood parks, and other must stops. So when you need a break from being awestruck you can go be merely amazed somewhere close by.

Trinidad, a little further down the coast, has a decent restaurant overlooking the deep and narrow harbor, which is still a fishing port.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 7:22 AM on January 7, 2020

Also re: redwoods: Muir Woods is across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. It feels like a park, not wilderness, but the trees are magnificent. If you get rained out or timed out of the redwood experience way up north, this is a better than adequate consolation prize.
posted by mississippi at 7:32 AM on January 7, 2020

Visiting Yosemite in winter is challenging. Most roads are closed all season, and the rest close during stormy weather, which can happen any time.

Note also that on any of the roads leading into Yosemite in the winter, there can be tire chain requirements in place, and some rental companies don't allow you to mount chains on their cars. There may be public transit options to get you into the park if this occurs, but I would definitely think about a plan B if you're planning this trip any time between now and April.
posted by Johnny Assay at 8:12 AM on January 7, 2020 [1 favorite]

If you haven't been before, remember that gas stations in more populated parts of Oregon have mandatory full service, i.e. it is illegal/impossible to pump your own gas.

(Specifically, those are counties with a population greater than 40K, which includes Portland, the county that Crater Lake is in, and all counties that I-5 passes through, among the places you're likely to visit.)
posted by andrewesque at 8:21 AM on January 7, 2020

Excellent trip! Nine days will work, but it is a good old distance and will be a lot of driving. Landscapes, not cities is smart, and I recommend being very picky with what to see along the road or you will miss Yosemite. Skip Seattle and go to Samish Bay by way of the tiny town of La Conner. Instead of Longview to Astoria, I would recommend a different path to the coast. If you head down I-5 from Washington to Oregon,skip Olympia and go to skip Portland and go to Vista House to see the Columbia River Gorge between Washington and Oregon. Then hit wine country. The Dundee Hills are wonderful and they make beautiful wine, if that's your thing.

I would choose Mount Hood over Helens in the winter, even though the latter is so so gorgeous. That gets you to the ocean further south. The major freeway (I-5) is much faster than the coastal highway, and time will be important to conserve. Take the freeway to Grants Pass, the Rogue River is something to see. It also sets you up for Klamath, CA if you are taking Lawn Beaver's tip! Just check for winter storms, they can wash out roads close to the coast. Have a great time!
posted by kaelynski at 10:15 AM on January 7, 2020

If anyone's at all interested in aviation or aerospace things, taking a short detour from Portland to see the Evergreen Aviation museum is definitely something you should do.

They've got too massive hangars full of planes and space stuff - the centerpiece of one is the Spruce Goose, the largest wooden aircraft ever built and the other has a Titan II rocket displayed just vertically up in the middle. It is a pretty awesome place to poke around if that sort of stuff interests you.
posted by Zalzidrax at 12:07 PM on January 7, 2020

I love Seattle, but it can be a nightmare to drive into/through during the workday. Still, you can get a good taste of the place without making a commitment by getting into town, getting to the waterfront, and taking a state ferry across to Bainbridge Island or Bremerton. The trip isn't long, but the ferries are fun and you'll get out of town in style, and get a great view of the skyline (if it's not shrouded by fog and rain). This will get you on the Olympic Peninsula. You can either take the long drive around, or head south, pick up Route 101, and rejoin I-5 at Olympia. There are a couple of ferry routes across Puget Sound north of Seattle as well.

When it comes to the Pacific Northwest Coast, I think think Oregon is better than Washington. The highway runs right along the coast for all practical purposes from the Astoria (west of Portland) to the California border, and there are a half dozen towns along there with lovely harbors, lighthouses, seastacks offshore, and views. Along the coast you're not likely to encounter snow, but it is likely to be gray and stormy

Cities are cities. In my opinion, unless you have specific touristy things you want to see, one doesn't really get to see a city unless one does it slowly, and you don't have time for that.

As you might be expect, we're big on aviation in the Seattle area. In Everett, north of Seattle, you can tour the Boeing Everett plant, where Boeing's biggest planes are made. The Museum of Flight, at Boeing Field south of Seattle, is a wonder to explore and is certainly the west coast's prime aviation museum. Of course, Seattle has a major zoo at Woodland Park, the University of Washington campus and arboretum, the Space Needle, and Pike Place Market, plus two floating bridges and a world-class art museum.

Tacoma, the largest city between Seattle and Portland, is nice but doesn't have all that much in the way of tourist attractions (the LeMay Automotive Museum is a treat if you like cars, then there's the Glass Museum, the State Historical Society and Tacoma Art museums, the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium).

Mt. Rainier and St. Helens are difficult this time of year, and well off I-5; you'd expect to spend most of a day just getting to and from either one of them (a day each, that is, not both in a day), and travel is difficult this time of year. As mentioned by others, Mt. Hood, east of Portland, is easier to get to and gorgeous in its own way, but beware of mountain travel restrictions.
posted by lhauser at 7:43 PM on January 7, 2020

The Oregon Dunes are phenomenal.
One of the most fun days of my life was renting a 4-wheeler to go riding on them. It could be cold and wet next month though. Still, a gorgeous place.
posted by SLC Mom at 11:52 PM on January 8, 2020

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