10 Unmissable Stops on America's West Coast
Starting in L.A. and cruising up the Pacific Coast Highway, stopping in San Fran, Yosemite and more!
Here are 10 unmissable stops on an American West Coast road trip!
1. Santa Monica
Santa Monica is a sunny, funny little hub west of Los Angeles and the perfect launching point to start your cruise up the Pacific Coast Highway. Sitting on the coast and home to a gorgeous stretch of beach, it's perfect for sunbathing or rollerblading/cycling with the locals. You can cycle under the palm trees to interesting Venice beach with eclectic shops, people pumping iron at Muscle Beach and a huge host of street performers. After whiling away a few hours in beach-front hangouts and grabbing ice cream from the pier, head into Santa Monica's downtown. Think pedestrianised streets lined with cute boutiques, great restaurants and a permanent holiday feel.
2. Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara is a charming city on the coast with mountains offering a handsome backdrop behind it. The Spanish influence is very apparent in the architecture of the town and it's beautiful to just wander the city, grabbing coffees and treats and soaking it all in. You can visit the gorgeous courthouse for free and TIP for you: climb to the top of the clock tower for amazing panoramic views over the city. The red roofs, lush green trees and mountains or sea (depending which way you're facing), make for some pretty stunning vistas!
3. McWay Falls
Stopping off in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park as you pass through Big Sur takes you to McWay Falls. A short walk from the highway brings you to the neat little waterfall spilling directly onto the beach below. There is no access to the beach but the 0.6 mile overview trail provides a fabulous lookout of the pretty turquoise blue cove, trim waterfall and sweeping views of the Pacific.
4. Big Sur
Some of the Pacific Coast Highway's most stunning scenery is found in Big Sur. Road tripping through here is an absolute treat and has to be one of the world's best drives. We couldn't miss a single chance to pull over and admire the dramatic coastal views. Even if we had only pulled in five minutes before, the road became more breathtaking with every turn. Stunning cliff edges, dramatic rock formations, photogenic bridges, alluring beaches and mountains towering behind you; take your time and really savour this part of the road trip.*
5. San Francisco
San Francisco might be one of my all-time favourite cities! From exploring fascinating Alcatraz to cycling over the world-famous Golden Gate Bridge. Or working the glutes climbing up some of San Fran's extremely steep streets to admiring panoramic views from Coit Tower. The city has a fun, friendly vibe and hours can be spent wandering. I liked starting at the Ferry Building Marketplace, grabbing a coffee and croissant and strolling along the piers down to Fisherman's Wharf. You can stop to see the sea lions, grab a chowder bread bowl and visit Musée Mécanique for antique arcade games and the chance to feel like Tom Hanks in Big. San Francisco has so much to offer and is one of the highlights of America's West Coast.
Leaving the Pacific Coast Highway and coming inland for Yosemite National Park is unmissable. The sheer natural beauty is astonishing. You feel like you've strapped on a pair of Photoshop goggles and suddenly every landscape looks too jaw-dropping to be true. We spent two days scratching the surface with small hikes and driving to some of the most beautiful spots. We started with the Tioga Pass (TIP this road is closed Nov-June due to snowfall) and stopping at Olmstead Point where a short hike provided incredible views of Half Dome and Tenaya Lake. We also tackled the Mist Trail to Vernal Falls, captured snaps of El Capitan, Tunnel View and some of the giant sequoias and finished up with a short hike to Glacier Point. Two days was enough time to see the highlights but I'd definitely recommend longer to leave the car behind.
Calistoga is a northern town in the Napa Valley which ticks the vineyard box but I personally came for the spa! The town is home to geothermal mineral hot springs and famed for volcanic ash mud baths. What's a volcanic ash mud bath, you say? Possibly the most relaxing experience of my life! It involves sinking your naked body into hot volcanic ash mud which is then packed around you, up to your chin. While you lie cocooned on a warm muddy cloud, your therapist places cool flannels on your forehead and brings you refreshing ice cold cucumber water. After a quick rinse, you transfer to a mineral whirlpool followed by a eucalyptus steam room before you're tightly wrapped in warm blankets and led to lie down in a relaxation room. Sound like heaven? The mud itself has incredible healing properties, drawing the toxins out of your body and deeply relaxing your muscles while the mineral water rejuvenates and relaxes. At the Calistoga Spa Hot Springs hotel, you can then spend the rest of the day resting on sun loungers and soaking in the 4 mineral pools. Bliss!
8. Crater Lake
Leaving California and heading into Oregon, the first stop has to be Crater Lake National Park. A caldera lake which was formed 7000 years ago by the collapse of volcano Mount Mazama. The lake is awe-inspiring not only for its size, but for the blueness of the water! I've never seen anything like it; the colour was so rich it looked like a painting. The intense blue is due to the depth (1,949 feet) and clarity. It is America's deepest lake and boasts some of the purest water in the world, fed only by rain and snow. We found plenty of info panels to educate you about the lake but mostly we were just mesmerised, or maybe hypnotised by the view.
Portland is a lovely city, small enough to tackle in a couple of days but enchanting enough to want to stay! I loved strolling the Saturday morning markets, exploring the huge food truck scene and indulging in lots of craft beers! Portland feels very liveable and kicking back for a few days like a local makes it hard to leave. We explored the boutiques and restaurants of leafy NW 23rd Ave, spent hours lost in Powell's five floor book store, stumbled upon the best breakfast at the Waffle Window on NE Alberta St, snaffled unique Voodoo Doughnuts and were only a 35 min drive out to the Columbia River Gorge. From here you can explore waterfalls like Multnomah Falls. I loved finding natural beauty just minutes from the vibrant city centre.
The home of Starbucks, Amazon and Microsoft, to name a few - there must be something in the water! Seattle has a great vibe with a bustling city-centre but the laid-back feel of being by the water. We took a trip up the Columbia Center to enjoy spectacular views over the city, including the famous Space Needle and snow-capped Mount Rainier looming in the distance. We also explored Pike Place; a fabulous public market with fresh local produce and crafts. And possibly my favourite spot: Kerry Park. A tiny space but offering huge views of the city; it's a glorious spot for a picnic overlooking Elliott Bay, the city skyline and Mount Rainier on a clear day.
An American West Coast road trip needs to be on your travel bucket list. The coast line is jaw-dropping, the national parks are bountiful, the cities are full of character - it's a road trip which keeps on giving! I loved every single stop on our trip and found it hard even narrowing it down to 10. These 10 stops are truly unmissable if you're travelling from Los Angeles to Seattle - or vice versa. Load the car, grab the camera and enjoy!
*At the time of writing, some of the Pacific Coast Highway is closed due to mud slide damage in 2017. Slated to reopen by summer 2018, check conditions before travelling.