Driving from Seattle to San Francisco
July 19, 2006 11:11 AM   Subscribe

What's a good 2-3 day route for driving from Seattle to San Francisco?

I'm going to be driving from Seattle to San Francisco with my mom and sister this weekend. My basic plan was to take the interstate from Seattle to Portland, turn right, and drive down the southern Oregon and northern California coasts.

Since it's one of those once-in-a-lifetime deals and we can take our time over a couple of days, I'm looking for suggestions of things to see along the way.
posted by kirkaracha to Travel & Transportation (18 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I don't have many suggestions (there have been a couple AskMe's on the same topic), but I'm just warning you that it can be difficult to get lodging on the Oregon/California coast at this time of the year. My boyfriend and I took a similar trip two summers ago (Bellingham->Tahoe), planning on camping on the Oregon coast at night. Eventually, after hours of looking for ANYWHERE legal to sleep, we had to drive back to I-5 to find a bed to rest in.

In other words, make reservations or plan on stopping early. However, that shouldn't be too hard as that's not a very long trip.
posted by muddgirl at 11:30 AM on July 19, 2006

I don't know from Seattle to Portland, but from Portland, get on 99W until you jog over to the coast highway on 18 (it splits around McMinnville). 99W out of portland is a lot more mellow than I5, although its slower. 18 has a stretch of the highway with old growth, IIRC. Nice area.

If you want to stop somewhere along I5, Silver Falls is outside of Salem & a hell of a nice place. Lots of good hiking.

Along the coast.. Seal Rock is a classic. Ona State Park is one of my favorite parks along the coast, hands down. South Beach (around Newport) is the classic 'long as hell' beach. In Newport, eat at Rogue Brewery - they're on the south side of the bay, right by the aquarium & Hatfield (Hatfield is the research station (free!) but has a decent aquarium section. The Oregon Coast Aquarium is nice but expensive). They have great food (at lunch I usually have fish that was brought in that morning), & if you're into that kind of thing, Rogue beer is some of the best you'll ever have (try the Chocolate Stout).

I've heard that the coast highway gets ridiculously slow around the California border. I'd take the chance to jog over to Shasta & check out that area, then merge back up with the freeway for the rest of the trip. You can always go back OUT of SF to see Point Reyes/Marin, but I've heard going in that way is not a pleasant experience.
posted by devilsbrigade at 11:44 AM on July 19, 2006

Stop in Arcata, CA, and go to the Finnish Country Sauna and Tubs. Address and map here. They have private, outdoor hot tubs that you can rent for $8 per person per 30 minutes (30 minutes is all you'll need probably). PRIVATE, including a private place to change. OUTDOOR, under the trees and blue sky (each tub is in its own mini-courtyard). Completely family-friendly, and non-icky. And they're the awesome, big, wooden-barrel hot tubs, not the cheesy 70's fiberglass kind. It was one of the best experiences of my life, so awesome that we went on the way down to SF and then again on the way back to Portland.
posted by unknowncommand at 12:05 PM on July 19, 2006

Take the 101 at often as possible. It is windy and beach-y and beautiful I believe you will be able to drive through/stop in part of the Redwood forest.

Stop at Ruby Beach on the Oregon Coast. You wil most liekly be hot and tired at that point.

I just remember greatly enjoying both of these things when I made that trip a cuople of times.
posted by piratebowling at 12:11 PM on July 19, 2006

Item: I don't know whether you've checked the weather forecasts, but this weekend is predicted to be fucking hot throughout Oregon and in the Central Valley.

Item: In light of this and the fact that it's the high season anyway, muddgirl is right that it's going to be difficult to expect to find lodging on the coast as a walk-in.

Item: You didn't say when you're leaving Seattle. I'm not sure whether you're from the area and already know this, but in case you don't, I-5 from Seattle all the way down to Tacoma can be, and often is, a parking lot during rush hour. In other words, I wouldn't plan on leaving late Friday afternoon.

Item: US 101 and CA 1 down to SF is one of the most beautiful drives anywhere in the country. But it's not a route you can drive through quickly, particularly once you get into northern California. Large sections consist of twisty routes along cliffs over the ocean. It's certainly possibly to drive that route in two days once you reach the coast, but I wouldn't recommend it; it would be exhausting and you'd miss a lot of the pleasure.

(If you can't clear an additional day, you can drive down I-5 to Grants Pass, then take 199 out to Crescent City. This means you'd miss the Oregon coast, but it will take quite a bit of time off the trip, and you'll still see the gorgeous California coast portion.)

(Another possibility is to continue on I-5 down to Eugene, about two hours south of Portland, then take 126 out to Florence and the coast.)

Supplementary item: If you're driving to SF itself you'll be fine, but be aware that the coast road is out just south of SF.

Put all that together, and I'd recommend the route you propose, just for general gorgeousness, but I'd suggest you try and work at least one additional day free to do it in, and that you start from Seattle sometime that's not between 2PM and 8PM on Friday.

And I'd also strongly suggest that you call and make reservations the morning of the day you plan to arrive, at the very latest. Better would be to plan now where you're going to stay, and reserve now - that way you get no surprises on the way.

Yachats, a little north of Florence, has a pretty beach and coastal tidepools. Bandon is kind of a classic "beach town". I remember Brookings as being kind of nice as well. Across the border into California, Crescent City is probably not someplace I'd stop - but Trinidad a little south of that is lovely. Arcata has many pleasant hippies.

Once you get past Eureka, you'll turn inland for about 90 miles - this part of the road goes through redwoods. At Leggett you'll either stay on 101 (quicker) or turn off to 1 and the coast (much more beautiful - the only reason to continue on 101 here is if you're short on time). The most gorgeous, and also the slowest, part of the road is through here.
posted by jaed at 12:31 PM on July 19, 2006

The Cape Perpetua in Oregon is amazing if you get a clear day. It's a CCC watchtower stuck way up on the Oregon coast. You can see for miles.
I'm also a fan of the huge sand dunes in the middle of the Oregon coast(just south of Florence), though a lot of people don't find them as fascinating as I do.
If you follow devilsbrigade's route, stop and see the Spruce Goose in McMinnville.
You could also stop in and see our fearless leader.

Avenue of the Giants in CA is a great place to stop and marvel as is Point Reyes farther down. I recommend sticking to the coast, rather than staying on 101 once you hit CA. Much more scenic.

Keep in mind that the coast road can be a nightmare in the summer season, and 2 days from Portland to San Francisco doesn't leave you a whole lot of time to stop and see things.
posted by madajb at 12:37 PM on July 19, 2006

To second the weather thing that jaed mentions, when it's supposed to be hotter in Oregon than it is in Arizona, a goodly number of the good citizens of the city of Portland head straight for the beach. So, if you're driving down that way this weekend, avoid Highway 26 like the plague, and expect there to be a whole lot of people at the beach when you get there.

Also, second the Friday afternoon thing - it's almost as bad here in Portland as it is in Seattle, so if you can avoid driving in Portland on a Friday afternoon you'll be better off.
posted by pdb at 12:41 PM on July 19, 2006

I dunno, PDB. We went from the Coast to Oceanside beach this past Sunday via 26 (and 6); the traffic wasn't bad at all, and neither were the crowds. I suppose it's hit-or-miss -- buyer beware.
posted by diastematic at 12:57 PM on July 19, 2006

Whoops..."We went from Portland to Oceanside beach this past Sunday..."
posted by diastematic at 12:58 PM on July 19, 2006

Has anyone mentioned the Churn? If you're going down 101 you really have to stop at the Devil's Churn. Depoe Bay is also beautiful, you can occasionally see whales there (without the whale hunters, even).

If you want to do the whole trip in OR/CA on the coast, head for the 30 once you hit PDX. The traffic is ~nothing~ like on the 26, although it does go past Trojan, and will take you to the coast in the general vicinity of Astoria. You can then make your way down past Seaside, Tolavana Park, Tillamook (and the cheese factory), Lincoln City, Florence (a personal favorite, including the Dunes), etc., until you hit the California border.

If you don't have any kind of claustrophobia issues, I recommend the Oregon Caves. (I discovered that I ~did~ by going in, but they are really incredible. My strongest memory is of graffiti from the late 1800s that someone scratched onto a stalagmite that has then had the water dripping and sort of filling it in since. Rather surreal.)

US 1 ~is~ impressive, especially around Big Sur, but try not to hit it around sundown. I did, and it's a complete bitch to drive on a highway that pretty much drops straight down several hundred feet from the side of the road to the water when the sun is glaring in your eyes. (Also, be careful on speed. As a child on a family trip we were passed by some moron in a sports car, who we came upon not quite a mile later, who'd gone off the side and landed on some outcropping.)

No one has mentioned the Winchester House, but if you like oddities, it's worth catching. There really is too much to mention. You might want to contact AAA if you're a member and see what they have to offer. A triptych or brochures might give you ideas that none of us has thought of. Have fun!!
posted by Meep! Eek! at 1:14 PM on July 19, 2006

Amen to what everyone has said about when to leave Seattle. In fact, I'd suggest leaving by no later than noon - that way you'll miss the rush hour in Portland as well. I remember leaving Kent at 2PM to go to Bend, and STILL getting stuck in Vancouver/Portland rush hour traffic (and this was over 10 years ago).
posted by dbmcd at 1:28 PM on July 19, 2006

Surprised no one else has pointed out that the fast route, on I5, takes about 14-17 hours depending on speed and traffic. For some, THAT's a 2-3 day drive. If we assume that you like driving long distance and aren't fazed by the endless miles, then I think you have enough time to detour off the I5 route, see some pretty, then get back to the freeway and finish getting where you're going. If that's the case, I suggest I5 to Grant's Pass, then cut over to the coast as suggested above, drive through Redwood NP, then take 299 back to I5 at Redding. This is a LONG LONG drive but can be done in 3 days.

I just don't believe that's it's possible, in the time period you've mentioned, to either do more of the coast highway than this or have more than a few minutes at any stops along the way.
posted by carterk at 2:00 PM on July 19, 2006

Just in case the other posters haven't emphasized it enough already, leave Seattle early, and don't leave on Friday if you can help it. The Tacoma-to-Olympia corridor is bad enough as it is--Ft. Lewis changes shifts at 4pm, which brings everything to a dead stop--but in the summer, it's even worse, since you've got beachgoers heading for the 101 interchange in Olympia. If you think you could take Thursday afternoon/evening and blast down I-5 to Portland, that'd get you past the worst of the traffic. It would also set you up nicely for visiting the Willamette Valley...and its wineries.

If you do decide to drive the coast, you'll want to avoid that first stretch once you cross into California, especially if you've got a manual transmission. The endless hairpin turns on endless hills are death on both the clutch and the driver's arms. (Trust me.) Also: between the sights, the roads, and the RVs who can't fathom the concept of turnouts, it'll probably take a lot longer than you think to get from one point to another.

For coastal Oregon, I recommend stopping at the sea lion caves and the Newport aquarium. And the Tillamook cheese factory! If you're so inclined, stop in Seaside just long enough to load up on a crapload of salt water taffy at the Seaside Candyman. If you wind up taking I-5 to Grants Pass as jaed suggests, you must stop at Heaven On Earth and buy one of their monster cinnamon rolls. The things are literally the size of a person's head.
posted by Vervain at 2:49 PM on July 19, 2006

"Once you get past Eureka, you'll turn inland for about 90 miles - this part of the road goes through redwoods. At Leggett you'll either stay on 101 (quicker) or turn off to 1 and the coast (much more beautiful - the only reason to continue on 101 here is if you're short on time). The most gorgeous, and also the slowest, part of the road is through here."

If you have motion sickness issues the 20 mile bit of Hwy 1 right after it splits off from US 101 can be a challenge. Lots of twistiness. It's worth seeing, but keep this in mind. I was probably literally green by the end of it, when we drove it a couple of weeks ago.

Absolutely do NOT skip the Avenue of the Giants. It's basically an alternate route to 101 that really goes through the redwoods (you'll see them a bit by staying on 101 but it's not the same at all). It is not to be missed. At the end of it you can hop back on 101 so it's not really much of a side trip either.
posted by litlnemo at 3:27 PM on July 19, 2006

One post above described getting to the coast by taking 99W from Portland to McMinnville, and then take Oregon 18. There are a couple of other major routes. You can take US 26 west to Seaside, or branch south from US 26 at Banks on Oregon 6 to get to Tillamook. The route through McMinnville hits the coast even further south than that, going to the "20 Miserable Miles" (i.e. Lincoln City), which is touristy and a waste of time.

You can also take I-5 down to Albany and go west through Corvallis to Newport on US20.

Since I like Tillamook, I recommend that route.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 4:06 PM on July 19, 2006

Feeling Cheesy? Hwy 26 is really not the end of the world during rush hour and Hwy 6 usually moves at a consistent clip, though this weekend's predicted heat wave may produce anomalous traffic conditions.

If you do go this way, instead of heading south on 101 at Tillamook, go straight through to the coastal road (look for Whiskey Creek Road) and drive south on that until it connects back with 101 in Pacific City. That's 30 miles of pretty scenery that won't cost you much in speed.
posted by jbradley at 4:41 PM on July 19, 2006

Response by poster: We're leaving Seattle on Saturday morning.

I'm not married to the coast (I've driven it, but it'd be nice for my sister and mom), so things like Crater Lake might work. I don't want to take the interstate.
posted by kirkaracha at 4:56 PM on July 19, 2006

I love 101/1. It added another eight hours to my trip, but I wouldn't miss it for anything.

If you time things correctly, stop for lunch in Arcata, CA.

Arcata has instituted a cap on the number of chain restaurants (I think it's a total of nine in the whole city) so you've got a hundred wonderful local places to choose from.
posted by Sallyfur at 8:11 PM on July 19, 2006

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