Solo Pacific Coast Road Trip
February 9, 2022 1:25 PM   Subscribe

This month, I would like to take a solo scenic drive from LA to Portland. Previous Asks are full of great sightseeing and hotel info, so I am here to ask about February/March weather, driving conditions, and personal safety.

The trip:
I'm visiting friends in Portland later this month. They can be flexible with visit dates. I don't have to be back in LA until March 10th. I'd like to take a leisurely drive up the California coast.

Right now my plan is to take the 101 up to San Luis Obispo and then switch over to Highway 1. Then it's Highway 1 possibly as far as Arcata, spending 1-2 nights here and there to sightsee and break up the driving. From Arcata, spend the night in Redding or Shasta Lake and then take I-5 to Portland. The return trip would just be I-5 back to LA over 2-3 days.

Main sights:
The mission at San Luis Obispo, Big Sur, Monterey, Avenue of the Giants, Redwood National Park.

Info & Constraints:
I am an AFAB Asian person with very short hair who wears some men's clothing. I think of my presentation as not super gender conforming, but most people probably read me as a not-particularly-femme cis woman. I am traveling alone.

Obviously I do not want to be a plague vector, either to my friends or to people I encounter on the trip. I'm vaccinated and boosted. The friends I'm visiting are too, but their child is still too young get the vaccine. (We've talked risk management and have access to rapid tests.) I'm traveling with N95s and only plan to unmask in the car or motel room.

No camping. Motels are OK. I don't need fancy accommodations, but I do need something safe and clean with a private bathroom.

Outside the I-5 stretches I'd prefer not to drive more than 6 hours a day. Twisty coastal driving will be daylight hours only.

Will there be a lot of fog and/or rain this time of year?

I carry chains but have never used them. How likely am I to encounter conditions that would require them in mid- to late February/early March?
If I wind up in conditions that require chains, how do I get them on? Do I have to find a garage? What's reasonable pricing for getting them on/off?

Will masking be a problem? That is, I don't expect others to mask, but will my being masked elicit hostility?

Are there places where it's less safe for a woman of color to stop (rest stops or overnights)? I've been looking at Wikipedia's census summaries of a random selection of small coastal towns between SF and Arcata, and they all seem to skew very small and very white.

Are there stretches where road conditions and/or traveling alone would make it more advisable to take the 101 instead?

Travel stuff
How hard is it to find a hotel without a reservation? I'd plan to book something in SLO or Monterey but want to leave room for spontaneity.

Should I just do the coastal road trip separately and do Portland by air?
posted by Fish, fish, are you doing your duty? to Travel & Transportation (13 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
As a native Oregonian, I've done all sorts of permutations of this drive many times in my 52+ years of life. You're overthinking this. It's all easy.

Yes, there will probably be fog and/or rain, although the weather forecast looks generally nice and the weather has been great lately. (I'm in Corvallis.) You may or may not need chains if you come up I-5 into Oregon (although I doubt it), else you won't need them at all. It's generally non-difficult to find hotel rooms. You might have to try two or three places, but that's highly unlikely. There's a mask mandate in Oregon, so generally people are masked. (That said, folks in rural areas may not give a fuck. But from my experience, they don't hassle people who comply with masking.)

Honestly, the highway stretches aren't that twisty. If I were you (or if I were me), I'd take the coastal highway all the way to Lincoln City or Tillamook or Astoria, then cut over to Portland. It's a much prettier drive than I-5 and doesn't take that much longer.
posted by jdroth at 1:49 PM on February 9, 2022 [7 favorites]

I did this exact same drive, and it's very easy and straightforward. Not even that twisty either, except for some redwood stretches.

And I'm queer presenting too....I've never felt uncomfortable.

You're overthinking this a little :) Have fun! It's an amazing drive and a great memory.
posted by pando11 at 1:59 PM on February 9, 2022

Best answer: I did the same trip plus in January / February 2018 - the coastal route all the way from LA to Portland. The only place I got off Route 1 was around Big Sur where it was closed. You should check carefully about that; parts of Route 1 wash out regularly there and you may not be able to get through. I ended up having to backtrack south a little from San Simeon to go inland and get on 101 for a couple of hours. San Simeon was worth it.

I camped, so I can't speak to motels, but as a woman traveling alone I felt very safe and did not have a single directly unpleasant encounter (there were a few peripheral other people in the campground are crazy type things but nothing that directly affected me.) Granted I am white and middle aged and plump and present pretty much as wacky artsy auntie so despite the tattoos and green hair I'm invisible, but still, everyone I encountered was super chill.

The weather was usually absolutely wonderful. There were lots of sunny days and only a few really rainy ones. Even the Oregon coast was mostly pretty dry. I can't imagine that you would need chains at all unless there's a freak weather event, and in that case, or in any case if you have the time, I would strongly urge you to stay on 1/101 all the way up the coast because there's just less snow than on I-5. It's also a stunningly beautiful drive.

When I went in 2018 everything was deserted and I can't imagine you'd have trouble getting a motel room - if the motel is open. Quite a few, particularly in the two big stretches of redwoods, seemed to be closed. Those are the emptiest parts of the trip, so you might want to check carefully there. Otherwise, you can just take your time and amble up 1 /101 until you see something worth stopping for. It is such a wonderful trip!

Don't miss:

The elephant seal sanctuary in San Simeon. Hearst Castle is also there and expensive but a total hoot to visit. Basically there is nothing else much in San Simeon but oh the elephant seals. There's also a nearby beach full of shiny pebbles.

Monterey. I went on a whale watching trip - alone - and had an absolute blast. The aquarium is just wonderful as well.

I loved Patrick's Point State Park near Trinidad - just amazing hiking trails, deserted beaches, completely beautiful.

I didn't spend any time in Arcata so can't speak to that but just over the state line in Oregon, Brookings is small and very nice. Gold Beach is great too. And if you stay on the coastal route all the way up, then you will go by the Newport Aquarium, the Sea Lion Caves, and even Prehistoric Gardens, which is my favorite underrated ancient tourist attraction.

I live in rural coastal Oregon and as of right now we are observing the indoor mask mandate fairly well. You might get some stinkeye from the unmasked but that will be the extent of it and I stinkeye them right back. The mask mandates are ending by the end of March (sigh) and I don't know if that will empower the crazy rednecks - I hope not - but they are very much in the minority.
posted by mygothlaundry at 2:31 PM on February 9, 2022

Best answer: I'm a queer white-presenting woman, but grew up in Humboldt County and have bounced around coastal California a lot. You're right that it's a pretty white area, but it's an area with lots of tourism, especially from diverse areas like the Bay Area, so I'll chime in with the rest that it should be pretty safe. Humboldt County in particular is quite left-leaning for a rural county (the local community was recently successful in petitioning the state to rename Patrick's Point SP to Sue-Meg SP, for instance, and the city of Eureka has given back an island in the Humboldt Bay that was taken from the local tribe generations ago).

Weather - right now the long-ish term forecast for basically all of California is dry and mostly sunny (bummer for the snow pack :( ). You'll still get plenty of cold wind on the coast, so bring layers, and it'll get wetter and foggier as you get into north Humboldt County/Del Norte County and then into Oregon. Be ready for small pockets of fog as you drive - it can be quite clear in some sections and then you can dip into a coastal valley that can be thick. It's not *that* bad, though - I think the Tule Fog that shows up in the Central Valley is much more sketchy to drive through. If precipiation comes back into the forecast, you could get snow on mountain passes, particularly the Trinity Alps (if you jog over from Humboldt County to Redding... altho I wouldn't recommend that), the road through Grants Pass (from the CA-OR coastal border to I-5), or the I-5 south of Ashland into California. I would be surprised if you need to pull out chains, tho. However, I'd recommend watching a couple of youtube videos about how to put on chains for your car just in case - it's not too hard & it's always a good skill to have!

I would be *very* surprised if anyone hassled you for wearing a mask - I was up through this whole area as recently as this past summer/fall, and, while masking use varied, everyone was chill with me and my family wearing masks.

Again, I wouldn't worry about safety too much. I wouldn't, like, drive down a deserted country road in the middle of nowhere at 3 am, but if you stick to the main roads, no worries. This area all depends on tourism, and the locals know it. Note that after Fort Bragg, Highway 1 ends until you get to the CA-OR border or thereabouts (the "lost coast" - because it was too rugged to keep the coastal highway going).

As long as you aren't traveling on a holiday weekend, the larger towns (e.g. 10k+ ) should have rooms available in one of the motels. Some nice towns to stay in SLO or Morro Bay, Monterey or Santa Cruz, SF if you're doing some SF stuff, Bodoga Bay (book ahead here, maybe), the town of Mendacino (book ahead here, maybe), Ferndale (book ahead here) or Arcata (no need to book ahead), and then continuing north along the Oregon coast and heading over to Portland at the last minute. If you can't make it from Mendacino/Fort Bragg to Ferndale/Arcata (like if you're doing a lot of redwood hikes), it's all tiny towns in areas of bad reception, so check on motels (but they all thrive on tourism, so there should be *something*). (I'm a bit of a planner, sorry, you'll probably be fine if you book nothing ahead!)

DO go north of Arcata - some of the best redwoods are in Prarie Creek SP and Jedediah Smith SP. The Oregon coast is also so pretty... I spend a few days camping at Sunset Bay SP near Coos Bay, and highly recommend it, along with the two SPs directly to the south (Shore Acres in *particular* & Cape Argo).
posted by Jaclyn at 2:55 PM on February 9, 2022 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Putting in my perpetual plug for a stay in Klamath Ca., at the Requa Inn. A truly special place.

Buy some smoked salmon jerky on your way out of town for excellent car snacks.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 3:14 PM on February 9, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've been on this route dozens of times and it's honestly my favorite, there's just so much natural beauty to see. I will always choose it over the 5 if I'm not in a hurry to get somewhere. I agree that taking the coast up to Florence or Tillamook is much more scenic, and I'd add that most of the rural towns in Oregon south of Eugene along the 5 have a lot of right wing billboards and trump signs and I never felt comfortable even when I briefly lived there.

I have rode the coast on a motorcycle in January from Portland down to San Jose, it was cold, rainy, foggy, but no snow or ice. Be aware the road surface may be narrow or ill-maintained and watch for hazards (fallen rocks in the road, gravel, construction). There may be jerk drivers who want to pass you unsafely to zoom by and hug the curves. If your days run long, watch for deer in the evenings and at night - one of my scariest interactions was when one surprised me by jumping down onto the highway from one of the cliffs above right in front of my bike. (Why were there even deer there??) Generally I agree with the others, it's a fun twisty road and unless you drive recklessly you will be fine.

Cops in California really don't like people parked and sleeping along the highways as it's a popular route for unhoused folks (I always got window knocked, even when I went out of my way to park someplace like a nature preserve parking lot), but I never had trouble at rest stops or in Oregon. If you plan on sleeping in rest stops it can help to have something to block the windows like a sun shade so you don't feel like folks are watching you sleep. I can't speak to the masking aspect as I haven't been this way since the pandemic started. The towns are small and white but most of the coast relies heavily on tourist income so I didn't get the same hostile vibe as rural towns inland, but your mileage may vary. I'm a white woman traveling solo most of the time.

Oregon state parks have a number of cabins and yurts on offer, these might not meet your private bathroom requirements, but it's a way to stay closer to nature for a morning hike or beach stroll without needing to pack a lot of camping gear. They are unheated and you'll want a pillow and blanket at least though, the one I stayed in did not come with bedding.

- Pfeiffer beach (Big Sur coast) is the only place I've ever seen purple sand
- Fort Bragg glass beach, it's mostly been picked over by scavengers so the pebbles are small but it can be lovely when the light hits it just right, worth a pit stop especially if you're into photography.
- Eureka is pretty artsy and I'd highly recommend you stop for lunch or a coffee. There's a lot of fantastic murals.
- Avenue of the giants is breathtaking, and I'm glad it's on your list!
- Silver Falls State Park south of Portland has some gorgeous waterfalls.

Have fun!
posted by Feyala at 3:21 PM on February 9, 2022

Many of the small motels have closed permanently in the past year or so. My friend, who has cycled the coast a half dozen times, most recently in 2021, said that the change has been quite dramatic. There are fewer motels, and the ones that remain, have surged in price, like $150 for the lowest tier motel you can think of.

On the other hand, there are many state campgrounds along the way that would be lovely as long as you're prepared with some basics, and can reconsider the camping. Maybe bring a tent just in case it's preferable to the alternatives.
posted by dum spiro spero at 5:02 PM on February 9, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Seconding Pfeiffer Big Sur. There's a waterfall that plunges right down to the beach that's really exceptional.

The Monterey area tends to have a bit more fog than Santa Cruz; February if often a dry month for Northern California, but climate change has made the rains heavier due to warmer air.

Mushroom Dome in Aptos Here's a quirky little Air BB in Aptos, just south of Santa Cruz you may find appealing.

Dream Inn Vintage motel on the beach in Santa Cruz.

Cowgirl Creamery might make a nice stop north of San Francisco.

I would recommend looking at the NOAA website or Highway 1 website to get a reading on the weather conditions before you set out for the day so you can work around the fog and other inclement road conditions. Have a great trip!
posted by effluvia at 5:36 PM on February 9, 2022

I've never been but the last season of Top Chef made the Tillamook Creamery look like a great place to visit.

The Willamette Valley wineries are fantastic and much more laid back then some of the things you'd see in Napa...although that is close enough that you could visit that with your Portland friends.
posted by mmascolino at 7:19 PM on February 9, 2022 [1 favorite]

The only advice I have is to gas up during the daytime in Oregon. Self-serve gas at night is finally a thing in a very limited way in Oregon, but if you run low on gas on the Oregon coast at night, you might as well camp in your car because gassing up after dark may be a challenge-- play it safe and gas up while the sun's up.
posted by Sunburnt at 11:53 PM on February 9, 2022

Best answer: Oregonian here. To avoid the Santiam Pass (often treacherous in the winter) south of Ashland, I would either take the Redwood Highway to Grants Pass and then drive I5 North or I would drive up the Oregon Coast for a while. Redwood Highway has redwoods and a funky town or two to stop in. The OR Coast is all public beaches, though there are day fees for some. My favorite part is the South coast with Bandon as a highlight.
posted by DixieBaby at 7:50 AM on February 10, 2022

Best answer: The drive from LA up to Northern California is one of the most touristed stretches of road in the entire world. People make trips from Europe just to do this drive, though they often make it a loop through Muir Woods and Yosemite. And they are obsessed with the Santa Monica Pier, for reasons that are entirely mystifying to me. Obsessed. If you have the time you might consider coming back south on 1, because it's easier to pull off for vista points and the like when you don't have to make a right turn. But in general the driving is very easy, pavement condition is excellent, etc. If you want to do a bit of planning you can avoid the more extremely priced areas for overnight stops. Santa Barbara is extortionate, for example. With the caveat that some places aren't open, I think if you plan to do your stops in more populated areas midweek you would have no trouble finding a place. Cell service is flaky, but not that flaky. Worst case you probably have to stop and ask to use the WiFi if a place is booked. I would only take 5 if you're trying to get to Portland in 3 days or fewer. Not that 5 is ugly, it's just monotonous. And obviously I would plan my departure around LA's monumental traffic, but I'm sure you were doing that anyway.

Once you get north of the Bay Area, it is true that you want to be a bit more careful. It is possible for even the motels to be like $250 a night. And I'm a "default" cis white straight dude and I feel a little uncomfortable up in Ft. Bragg, a town that is so attached to its name they don't seem to care that it's a Confederate general with no connection whatsoever to the area. Do practice putting on your chains in a parking lot, maybe a couple times. The cheaper chains tend to be a royal pain, you don't want to be figuring it out while dealing with snow and traffic roaring by. I got slightly more expensive ones that are split in the middle so they get hooked once at the bottom of the wheel and twice at the top, no moving the car, just slide the connectors and adjust the tension. Maybe worth it for the peace of mind. And again I'm sure you know this, but they go on the drive wheels, front if you have AWD.
posted by wnissen at 10:33 AM on February 10, 2022

Response by poster: Thank you all for your thoughtful answers and recommendations. Between the Arctic blast and budget issues (hotels/motels were way more expensive than expected and I don't have any camping equipment) I'll have to save Humboldt County and the Oregon Coast for another time :-(
posted by Fish, fish, are you doing your duty? at 1:39 PM on February 24, 2022 [1 favorite]

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