Can I drive from San Diego to Portland and have a good time?
March 23, 2006 12:24 PM   Subscribe

Driving from San Diego to Portland: how do I plan a pleasant 3-day trip up the west coast?

We're east coasters who haven't seen much of California; I have this idea that it might be fun to fly out to San Diego and visit friends there, then spend a few days driving up to Portland to see other friends in Oregon, then fly back from the northwest. I'd like to do this with a minimum of hassle and a maximum of enjoyment.

- Leave San Diego on Monday, get to Portland on Wednesday
- Drive at least part of the trip on US101, to see some of the vistas we easterners can only enjoy in car commercials.
- See a bit of wine country, though we're a bit more Sonoma than Napa
- Spend as little time as possible around LA and San Francisco, and avoid long traffic delays
- Locate nice/interesting (either the hotel or the town) places to stay for $200 a night or less

No particular need to hit Yosemite, the redwoods, or every tourist attraction on the California coast. Just a yen to enjoy ourselves, travel leisurely and see some cool stuff as we go along.

Specific questions:
- Best time of day/route to pass through LA and San Francisco to avoid traffic delays?
- Best parts of US101 to drive and enjoy?
- Can US101 get me there in 3 days? Are there convenient ways to speed up my trip without going too far out of my way?
- Cool places to stay within a comfortable drive (5-6 hours) north of San Diego? What about after that, 10-12 hours north of San Diego?

I am also open to the idea that I am a naive tourist with no clue about how this should be done; please feel free to disabuse me of my silly dreams and set me straight, just do it kindly.
posted by junkbox to Travel & Transportation around Portland, OR (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: - Leave San Diego on Monday, get to Portland on Wednesday

Unfortunately, you're not going to be able to see much in your timeframe, as it takes 15-18 hours to *just* drive from San Diego to Portland on the fastest route through California -- straight up Interstate 5 with no deviation. This is also the least scenic of the routes.

Any other north-south route (e.g. the 101, the 99, the 395) adds significantly to the drive time, so it may not fit into your 3-day window. Your plans to "see a bit of wine country" may just mean driving through San Francisco and back to the 5 via Napa.

You need to add more time to your agenda to really get anything done. And there is a lot to do, don't get me wrong.

If I had all the time in the world, it'd be 101 through Santa Barbara, the 1 through Big Sur, Monterey and Santa Cruz, to S.F., through Eureka and the redwoods back on the 1, and on up the coast to Astoria.
posted by frogan at 1:17 PM on March 23, 2006

Response by poster: it takes 15-18 hours to *just* drive from San Diego to Portland on the fastest route through California

That's what I was afraid of.
posted by junkbox at 1:29 PM on March 23, 2006

Are you sure you don't mean SR-1 and not US-101?
Large parts of US-101 are freeway in LA, and the parts that aren't are not really all that scenic.
When you say vistas, are you thinking dramatic coastal views, 'cause that's SR-1.

US-101 does have some coastal parts down in San Diego, but it's not really grand vistas for the most part.

US-101 is pretty on the drive up from LA to the Bay, though, so you might take that up, over the Golden Gate and then stay on SR-1 along the coast up to Leggett where it turns back into US-101.
Keep in mind that US-101 in the San Diego area is a commuter road, so it's crowded most of the day and on weekends unless you are really early morning or late at night.
It's usually not a crawl except directly at rush hour (6-9ish am and 3:30-6ish pm).
posted by madajb at 1:30 PM on March 23, 2006

I'm partial, but San Luis Obispo is a great little college town on the Central Coast about 5-6 hours north of San Diego off 101. There are reasonably priced hotels (assuming it isn't mid-June during graduation!) and a quaint, laid-back downtown (year-round farmer's market on Thursdays). Pismo Beach is also nearby with a little pier (check out Splash Cafe for awesome clam chowder, especially if you like cream and butter!). I can go on and on, so let me know if you need more info!
Have fun!
posted by Sloben at 1:44 PM on March 23, 2006

When you think of the car commercials, you might be thinking of Highway 1, particularly the Central Coast portion which snakes along the coast between San Luis Obispo and Monterrey. It's a wonderful drive--really, truly, you-should-do-this-once-in-your-life great, especially if your used to East coast drives--but it pretty much takes a whole day to do it because any amount of traffic slows the whole thing down to a crawl. Plus you'll want to stop at every turn to take pictures.

Three days is not much time to make the trip from SD to Portland, if you are looking for a really relaxing trip. frogan has outlined the ideal agenda, but I think that would take at least 5-6 days to do correctly and leisurely. There are a few previous threads about things to see on the coast; search the arcives for more.

Be prepared to be shocked at the traffic in LA and SF if you accidentally get cought up in rush hour.
posted by arco at 1:57 PM on March 23, 2006

It's only 1300 miles or so from San Diego to Portland, so you can see some stuff in 3 days, easily.
If your goal is ocean vistas, I'd suggest taking the I-5 up from San Diego to the 101 (swing past Hollywood on your way) over to Ventura.
From there, you can take the 101 or SR1 up to the Bay (they end up in the same place, but 1 stays on the coast, and 101 goes through Silicon Valley).
Go over the Golden Gate, and follow 1 when it splits from 101.
Take 1 all the way up the coast until it joins 101 again.
Follow that until it hits US 199, take that over to Grants Pass, and then I-5 up to Portland.
That's 3 days of decent driving, you'd have to get up and get on the road earlyish (depends on how much you dawdle along the way).
However, you see a lot of the highlights (The coast, the Golden Gate, Hollywood, some redwoods). There are cutoffs from the coast back to the 5 at fairly decent intervals, so if you run short of time, you can always hop on the Interstate and make up some time.
Or, if you gain some time, follow 101 up into Oregon and head over to the 5 later in the day.
posted by madajb at 2:04 PM on March 23, 2006

3 days isn't enough time. Fly from San Diego to Portland; it's cheap on Alaska or Southwest. Then rent a car in Portland and drive out to the coast with your friends.
posted by Nelson at 2:19 PM on March 23, 2006

Best time of day/route to pass through LA and San Francisco to avoid traffic delays?

You're going to get traffic no matter what, but avoid 6-10am and 3-8pm, for obvious reasons.

I've driven and rode my motorcycle up and down the coast, and all of it is incredible. That said, the section of Highway 1 between San Luis Obispo and Monterey is not to be missed.
posted by letitrain at 2:23 PM on March 23, 2006

I agree that 3 days is not nearly enough time.

If, however, you make the drive anyway, stop for an evening in Northern California - WAY northern, around Eureka and Arcata. Arcata in particular is charming, with any number of great restaurants and a nice hotel. You can stock up on provisions for the road at the Arcata Co-op (no web site, but any local will point you towards it). See a film at the oldest movies-only theater in the United States. You can do all this in an evening. Be sure to talk a walk through the Arcata Community Forest, located near the town center.
posted by hsoltz at 2:25 PM on March 23, 2006

If I had all the time in the world, it'd be 101 through Santa Barbara, the 1 through Big Sur, Monterey and Santa Cruz, to S.F., through Eureka and the redwoods back on the 1, and on up the coast to Astoria.
That sounds great, but add "stop saying 'the 1'" when you get to San Francisco.

posted by kirkaracha at 2:38 PM on March 23, 2006

One word - Treesort
posted by jbradley at 4:08 PM on March 23, 2006

To add to madajb: Avoid, avoid, avoid 101 in Silicon Valley. You'll get a fine view of a lot of office buildings, and horrible traffic if you're there on a weekday.

If you end up needing to move quickly up the Peninsula, take 280 North. Better view, better traffic.
posted by sellout at 4:22 PM on March 23, 2006

Make sure that you reserve at least half that time for the Oregon coast - perhaps some of the most breathtaking beach vistas in North America the world.
posted by Neiltupper at 4:30 PM on March 23, 2006

As a practical matter, given the time that you have:

Day 1) San Diego to Cambria 6.5 hours of drive time
Day 2) Cambria to Redding 7 hours of drive time
Day 3) Redding to Portland 7 hours of drive time.

If you're willing to spend more time on the road your second day, you can replace Redding with Arcata. This route will take you through Napa and Sonoma.

Alternatively, take the route as given but take a detour on your second day to go see Napa.

Google maps will give you a reasonable route between each of the cities listed above.

P.S. The "car commercial" coast is Hwy 1 between San Juis Obispo and Santa Cruz.
posted by tkolar at 5:59 PM on March 23, 2006

Once you're in Oregon and if you've decided to drive by some coast (ie. stayed on 101, not headed inland on 199 at Crescent City to get to 5 at Grants Pass, which isn't bad, either, for about an hour: redwoods, winding mountain passes) and assuming you're just rolling, not stopping, it's about 4 hours from the CA line to Eugene if you head east at Florence. The coast is pretty spectacular from Brookings to Coos Bay. If you want more after that, keep going to Newport, then head east from there to Corvallis. Between Florence and Newport is breathtaking (Yachats, Cape Perpetua; definitely drive up to the look-out point there), but it'll add about 2 hours to your time from Brookings to Portland to go that way. I've never been north on the coast beyond Lincoln City, so I don't know what you'd be missing. But once you're on I-5 north of Eugene, the fun's over. It's 2 hours from Eugene to Portland, at 75mph, and nothing to see but tail lights.
posted by dpcoffin at 6:02 PM on March 23, 2006

Here's a beautiful B&B if you come thru Brookings/Smith River:
Casa Rubio
posted by dpcoffin at 6:09 PM on March 23, 2006

sellout -
No doubt, but junkbox specifically mentioned the 101, so I figured I'd keep him on it.
posted by madajb at 8:36 PM on March 23, 2006

Have to chime in on the not enough time, you need about a week. SD to SF alone is about 9 hours of non-stop 80mph driving up the very non scenic I-5. Having said that the Bay Area isn't quite as bad as some people have implied and there are nice things to see there so I'd drive through it. (Today I drove from San Jose to Petaluma (in Marin) and while there were hold ups it only took from about 4:20 - 6:40pm, that's about 90 miles in the height of rushhour. That won't happen in LA or San Diego.)

Go over the Golden Gate, and follow 1 when it splits from 101.
Take 1 all the way up the coast until it joins 101 again.

That's a long day right there, just between SF and Arcata. North of Bodega Bay (Sonoma County) you probably average 35mph on long stretches of Hwy1. Cutting across from 101 to the coast anywhere will take 45 minutes (Fort Bragg to Ukiah) to many hours (Lost Coast area). Look closely at the map- a lot of those roads are dirt.

Napa is 40 minutes from Hwy 101, Sonoma is a much more convenient choice, lots of wineries within 5 miles of the freeway.

The redwoods are easy to see, they line 101 north of Sonoma. Yosemite is a good 4-6 hours from the coast though, in the Sierras.

If you can take 5 or 6 days I think this would be an awesome trip but 3 will be rushed and tiring.
posted by fshgrl at 9:53 PM on March 23, 2006

fshgirl -
It's true, it's 3 days of mostly driving and it doesn't really fit junkbox's criteria, but if you've only got 3 days, ya gotta do what ya gotta do. =)

9 hours from SD to SF at 80mph? No way.
Cruising at a sedate 75, I do it in a little over 7 hours. You need to be up and moving early morning though, once the truckers get up, your speed drops dramatically.

junkbox -
This is the key -
"Just a yen to enjoy ourselves, travel leisurely and see some cool stuff as we go along."
In the time you have, you aren't going to be able to travel leisurely, however, if you don't mind 10-12 hours of driving a day, you can easily do your trip.
Granted, you won't be able to stop and see all the sights, and Sonoma is probably right out, but so long as you get up and don't dawdle, you can get the highlight reel. heh
posted by madajb at 11:45 PM on March 23, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the good information -- this is exactly what I was looking for. I think a 3-day trip is out of the question, but I'll take all your suggestions back to the drawing board and see what I can come up with. Better than a travel agency, the collective wisdom of Metafilter.
posted by junkbox at 6:22 AM on March 24, 2006

I drove the entire coast from Seattle to San Diego in 3 days. I don't know if that helps, but it was the last leg of a 15,000 mile road trip that I took in 53 days. I do remember camping on the coast in Oregon, driving away at 6am, and arriving in Monterey, CA at 3am. But I sure did see a lot!
posted by billtron at 5:53 PM on March 24, 2006

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