If you're looking for a fun family vacation this summer, consider taking a west coast road trip. It's quick and easy to get from one spectacular destination to the next with the right plan, you'll thoroughly enjoy the sites along the way! Plus, it will give the kids something amazing to look forward to.
Tips for the best West Coast road trip
Calculate how much time you think you need for your trip, and then add a few days if you can! This is one road trip you don’t want to rush through. There are so many things to do and see, and Highway 1 is all you expect it to be and more! Take your time and enjoy the spectacular views our beautiful West Coast has to offer.
Road Trip Budget
If you’re from the West Coast already, you know it can get expensive. If you’re from anywhere else, plan out your budget ahead of time as much as possible. Unexpected expenses are sure to pop up, so having an emergency fund on hand is important as well.
When calculating your budget, factor in gas, food, lodging, admission, and extras. Food and gas are much more expensive in California than throughout most of the country, so don’t underestimate how much you’ll spend.
I like to book extended stay hotels because they’re affordable, but also because they have a kitchenette. This means we can cook at least a few meals at the hotel instead of spending $40+ to eat out.
Packing a cooler is also a great way to save a few bucks. Cereal, fruit, or granola for breakfast, and sandwiches for dinner. We go out to eat for lunch because it’s at least ⅓ less than paying for dinner. Always save a few bucks for dessert, though. The West Coast has some crazy cool dessert spots!
Pro tip: If you plan on visiting National Parks, the America the Beautiful Pass is worth investing in.
The Pacific Coast Highway
The Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) is more than 600 miles long, and extends from Southern California up to the northern portion of the state. Driving north to south, the driver will have the best views. Driving south to north, the passengers will. The PCH is one of the most famous road trips in the U.S. for good reason, so either way you go is going to be spectacular.
Because the West Coast is more than just California, we are going to cover Washington and Oregon, too.
California Road Trip Highlights
You'll want to grab these California State coloring pages to keep you busy while on the road and to document your journey!
San Diego Area
San Diego is a famous tourist destination, from movie scenes to iconic landmarks, it doesn't disappoint. You could make a weeklong trip just to see the city itself, but the surrounding areas are also worth a gander.
If you’ve been to San Diego but haven’t made the short drive over to Coronado Island, now’s your chance! The lodging here can be even more expensive than in town, but it’s still worth a day trip.
One of my favorite places to visit is La Jolla, California. You can see the sea lions and seals year-round, and even during the busy season, La Jolla Cove isn’t unbearable. Take a tour of the Sea Cave, enjoy a kayaking adventure, pack a lunch, and have a picnic at The Cove.
Lodging here is a bit more expensive than in surrounding areas. If you’re going to stay for the night, it’s worth getting a hotel right on the beach. Go for a sunrise or sunset walk and get tons of Instagram-worthy photos.
Whether you want to catch the perfect wave (or fish!), or just chill on the beach, the vibe in Santa Barbara is super relaxed.
When visiting San Francisco, you have to decide if you want to experience it as a tourist – or as a local.
As a tourist, I recommend the usual, touristy spots like:
- The Golden Gate Bridge
- Ride a trolley: is it really a visit to the Rice-a-Roni city without a trolley ride?
- Fisherman’s Wharf: a tourist trap with decent food and great photo opportunities.
- Alcatraz: Worth a visit at least once.
- 16th Ave Tiled Steps: another photo opp, and a chance to get in some extra steps.
Local spots that come highly recommended include:
- Japanese Tea Garden: get away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
- Land’s End Labyrinth: not the easiest hike, but worth it!
- Coit Tower: 360-degree views of the Bay
- Sutro Baths: ruins by the seaside
About 50 miles to the north of San Francisco, you’ll find wine country and Napa Valley. Even if you aren’t a wine drinker, the drive offers some pretty awesome views.
140 miles east of San Francisco, you’ll find Yosemite National Park. Famous for its giant sequoia trees and stunning 2,425-foot waterfall, the park just celebrated 140 years. Yosemite is still 95 percent wilderness, making it a unique experience – nothing can compete! Oh, and don’t miss the photo opp at Tunnel View on your way out.
Washington State Road Trip Stops
The ultimate insta-worthy photo is at the Space Needle! Almost everyone has heard of this famous 605-foot tall landmark! Built in 1962 for the World’s Fair, it was designed to showcase humanity’s “Space Age aspirations”.
A 10mph wind gust can cause the Space Needle to sway up to an inch. Thankfully, Seattle isn’t usually too windy, and the Space Needle is able to withstand winds of up to 200mph. Feeling extra brave? You can actually bungee jump off the Space Needle! If you're looking to see the sites from the top check out Seattle CityPass which will give you admission to the top 5 attractions in Seattle.
Mount Rainier National Park
There is an abundance of activities to partake in at Mount Rainier National Park! A few things to consider are:
- Gondola Rides: ride up, then hike down to enjoy the wildflowers.
- Ex-Nihilo Sculpture Park: a collection of animals, motorcycle riders, and monsters, all from materials found by the artist.
- Crystal Mountain: enjoy interpretive walks and guided horseback rides in the summer, and skiing in the winter.
- Photo opportunities: Mount Rainier is packed with social-media-worthy photoshoots, like Christine Falls, Crystal Mountain, and Grove of the Patriarchs.
Mount St. Helens
Mount St. Helens was once referred to as the Mount Fuji of America. In 1980, it erupted and the upper 1,300 feet of the summit were removed due to a debris avalanche. There is now a horseshoe-shaped crater partially filled in by a lava dome and glacier. Watch the VolcanoCam before you visit!
The Visitor’s Center has a large step-in model of the volcano, as well as theatre programs and a functioning seismograph.
Love hiking? Mount St. Helen’s has hikes as short as one hour, and longer hikes that can span multiple days. Be sure to check the park’s status and road conditions before heading out.
Oregon Road Trip Must-See Stops
The Oregon Coast is just as beautiful as the California coast! A few stops to consider are:
- Seaside Aquarium: feed the seals!
- Crescent Beach Hike: 3.6-mile easy hike
- Haystack Rock: 235-foot monolith formed by lava
- Short Sands Beach: serene beach away from the crowds
- Tillamook Creamery: take a yummy tour!
The slogan is “keep Portland weird”, and Portland folks whole-heartedly stand behind it. Portland is a one-of-a-kind city that is fun to wander through aimlessly for a few hours. You’ll probably land at a vegan cafe or a single-origin coffee bar, both of which are sure to delight your whole family.
Located in the Columbia River Gorge, Multnomah Falls is picturesque all year long. To get to the top of the falls, you’ll need to take a moderate 2-mile hike.
Your West Coast road trip tips
There are a wealth of things to see and do on the West Coast. The best tip we have is to pick a few of your favorite spots to make an epic road trip itinerary. We hope some of our favorites assist in making your West Coast road trip quick and easy.