Choosing Your West Coast Itinerary
There is so much to see on the West coast of North America. Planning your exact West Coast itinerary will depend on the answers to the following questions:
- How long will your trip be?
- Where do you want to start the trip?
- How are you getting to the West Coast?
- How do you want to travel between stops?
- Are you doing a one-way or a round trip?
- What time of year is it?
One year, we travelled down the West Coast for 4 weeks in June. Our journey started in Vancouver, BC and headed south. We flew into Vancouver, spent a few days in the city and then headed into the U.S. For the first few stops we travelled by train and then we picked up a one-way car rental and dropped the car in southern California before we flew home to Toronto. Our research found that it was cheapest at the time to do a one way multi-state rental from Portland. And the Amtrak service was great between Vancouver, Seattle and Portland.
Once we drove all the way from Toronto to Vancouver. And then did road trips down the West Coast in the fall. But we were gone for six months that year. Our West Coast trip was a very big loop that started and ended in Vancouver. We plotted a path that veered inland to give us a chance to visit several of the northwest U.S. National Parks (Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and Yosemite).
Another year, our Alaska cruise started and ended in Seattle. This gave us a chance to spend more time in Seattle. The Alaska cruise took us up the northern west coast of British Columbia, through the glacier fields and into a few Alaska harbours. We have a whole series of blog posts on Alaska if that is part of your West Coast itinerary.
We have discovered some great destinations on the West Coast every time we visited. The following provides a little bit about some of our favourite spots from the north to the south as you plan your West Coast Itinerary …
You Can Start In Vancouver
We got very enamoured of Vancouver in British Columbia the year we spent almost 6 months visiting the city. There is so much to do in the city itself, whether it is enjoying the awesome scenery, taking a tour, biking the many paths in this very bikeable city or enjoying the wide range of food.
From Vancouver you can head north to get out of the city and enjoy the water, parks and mountains.
You can also drive inland to the Fraser Valley for wineries, eagles, forts and more food.
If you are in Vancouver at the right time of year, you can even go whale watching!
Visit Vancouver for a few days and you will definitely want to go back. It is a great place to start your West Coast Itinerary.
Vancouver is a very big cruise ship port for ships heading north to Alaska. Maybe your West Coast itinerary one year is very far north from Vancouver!
Or Start In Seattle
Seattle is only a few hours from Vancouver. Whether you travel by by car, train or plane, Seattle is a natural first stop on the U.S. portion of your West Coast itinerary. When we went from Vancouver by train, we actually cleared customs and immigration right on the train. I have heard that they are considering putting a U.S. Customs and Immigration presence at the Vancouver train station so that this clearance done even before you get on the train. Check in advance so you can plan for clearance time.
No visit to Seattle is complete without a few hours spent wandering around Pike Place. You can sample your way though the market and enjoy the entertainment at the fresh fish booths as they toss the fish to the delight of the crowds.
If you are a coffee fan, you wouldn’t want to miss a coffee stop at the very first Starbucks store! But if Starbucks is not your choice, Seattle has a host of great coffee shops on every block.
There is much to see and do as you walk around the Seattle waterfront – from the Aquarium to the Ferris Wheel to the Space Needle. Of course, coming from Toronto the Space Needle isn’t nearly as impressive as our own CN Tower. But worth a trip up the Space Needle to get a birds-eye view of Seattle.
Every West Coast itinerary should include a few days to enjoy all that Seattle has to offer.
Portland and the Oregon Coast
On our trip through Oregon, we only scheduled 2 days. This gave us just a brief glimpse of the city of Portland. We debated spending our time in the city or taking the opportunity to head a little ways up the Columbia River Gorge. Nature won out on this trip.
When we headed up the Columbia River Gorge we took the old route. There were many stops at the series of waterfalls along the way, with the big one at Multnamah Falls.
There were walking and hiking paths that took us to various overlook points or closer to the falls. We only made it as far as Bonneville Dam before we turned around on this trip. If you want to explore the Columbia River Gorge, there are also river cruises that will take you much further inland.
We planned to travel right along the water and skip the Interstates on our West Coast itinerary. The scenic route from Portland to the Pacific Coast took us through wine country. We stopped for a great country lunch with wine. Make time to do a winery tour.
When we reached the ocean, we found it it rugged, with rock shores and crashing waves. At times of the year (and times of the day), there are whales to be seen. The water is too cold and rough for all but the most hearty to enter. We saw nobody in the water until well into California. This coastline was a great start to our West Coast itinerary along the water.
Drive The Northern California Coast
The Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) is one of the most well travelled road trip routes in the U.S. It starts at the California-Oregon border and runs all the way to San Diego for over 1,000 km. In some places it runs as Hwy 101 but in places you can drive right along the shoreline on Hwy 1. This was a great twisty road with lots of ups and downs. It was a lot of fun and should be part of any West Coast itinerary!
Entering California from Oregon, we continued south on Hwy 101 until Crescent City and the Redwood and National State Parks Info Centre. Here you can get an introduction to the miles and miles of redwood forest along the northern California coast. Highway 101 at this point is called the “Redwood Highway” for the forests you drive through. And the many detour routes you can take to see even more redwood trees. We got an early view of the giant redwoods we saw as we travelled along our West Coast itinerary.
The planned detour through the Avenue of the Giants let us see yet more big redwood trees. The road ran somewhat parallel to Hwy 101. But we rejected each opportunity to get back onto the highway until the end. We were sure that around each bend we would see just a little bigger tree.
Hwy 101 gradually headed inland over the day. Looking at the map we picked a small county road to get us over to the coast hugging PCH (Hwy 1). This was a wild roller coaster ride through the forest and up and down mountains. The posted speed limit was 55 in most places, but it was really “55 if you dare”. The switchbacks had slower speed postings. But even those suggested speeds were too high. We figure we averaged 30 mph through this route.
Emerging unscathed around Fort Bragg, we travelled for a short while on the coast before it was time again to head inland to get to Napa. Our West Coast itinerary left the coast behind for awhile.
Stop In Napa Valley
Napa can be done as a day trip from San Francisco. But if you want to enjoy the wine, you really want to find a nice hotel or B&B and spend some time in the Napa Valley. If you visit California, you need to have wine on your West Coast itinerary!
As we left the Pacific Coast and headed inland, it was clear that we had entered wine country. Terraced grape arbours lined the road and went up into the hills as far as you could see. We saw these rolling hills of grapes again when we visited the Douro Valley in Portugal. As we drove through first the Sonoma Valley and then into the Napa Valley, we were glad we had picked the smaller county road than a more direct highway route.
We parked the car for the weekend and looked at wine tour options. There were a large variety of great local restaurants that would let us further sample the local wines. We considered doing the Wine Train as a way to sample wineries. But our B&B host suggested we try Platypus Tours to see some of the smaller wineries.
With 4 wineries already under our belt from the wine tour, our final stop was at Artesia Winery on our way out of town. This winery had been recommended for the great views. It was up on a hill and quite remote from town.
Enjoy San Francisco
It was a quick drive from Napa to San Francisco. Careful programming of the GPS let us enter over the Golden Gate Bridge. There is no tollbooth on the bridge so beware if you are using a rental car. You want to go online and pay the toll before the car rental company adds their inflated handling fee to the toll!
We travelled in June and read about “June Gloom”. As we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge we saw our first real glimpse of fog covering much of the bridge. While we were there, we never did see the Golden Gate Bridge without fog clinging to some part of it. The GPS faithfully got us off the bridge, on the right one-way streets and to our hotel in the wharf district.
A Hop-On-Hop-Off bus (“HoHo”) two-day pass let us explore San Francisco. It provided us with a good overview of the major attractions including a night tour. This was supplemented with a day pass for the cable cars, so we could try both cable car lines. We hung out the trolley like silly tourists as we went up and down the hills of San Fran.
The main pier at Fisherman’s Wharf offered variety of fresh seafood that kept us going back. We tried takeout stalls to fancy restaurants and everything in between. The pier provided a good view of Alcatraz in distance. And the Golden Gate Bridge as it moved in and out of fog.
You can’t miss a trip down to Pier 39 to see the floating docks just covered with lazing sea lions. They rolled over each other to get better spots and nudged others over or off the dock. They could often be seen “talking” to each other, nose-to-nose, looking like lovers until the cacophony started. It was good entertainment to watch.
As certified chocoholics, we are always on the lookout for good, dark chocolate. No true chocoholic can miss a trip to Ghirardelli’s in San Fran. Even if everyone did tell us to buy the chocolate in the CVS drugstore at much lower prices. It was still fun to look at the variety of chocolate for sale, even it is no longer made at the San Fran location. San Francisco can be a long stop on a West Coast itinerary.
A Stay In Carmel Or Monterey
Leaving San Francisco on the PCH again, we were rewarded with yet more awesome vistas of California surf. We stayed in Carmel for a week as the next stop on our West Coast itinerary. It was our base to explore from.
The detour in Monterey let up pick up the starting point for the 17 Mile Drive. No trip to Carmel and Monterey could be complete without this drive. We had to pay for the pleasure of the drive through this seaside community. But it was worth the money when we saw the views, the famous golf course and the huge homes.
Monterey is an easy day trip from Carmel and there you will find lots to see and do. The Monterey Aquarium has an extensive display of permanent exhibits. We went specifically to see the Jelly Experience.
We wandered along Cannery Row and Fisherman’s Wharf for great waterfront views, fresh seafood and yet more playful sea lions lounging on the docks. There was even a free trolley that took us from place to place.
One of the top things on our “to do” list was to go whale watching from Monterey. Leaving from Moss Harbour, we saw whales almost immediately. Over the 4 hours, we saw dozens of whales, often 2 or 3 at a time. We have chased the elusive view of breeching whales on whale watching trips in Vancouver and again when we went whale watching in the Azores in Portugal.
We did a day trip down the PCH to Big Sur and beyond to the Hearst Castle. It was another slow twisty-turny road hugging the cliff walls over the ocean with spectacular views down to sea level.
Make sure to watch for the vista point for the elephant seals. There was a long walkway above 3 or more coves of beaches covered with lounging seals. We saw the elephant seals as they wiggled up on the beach, flipped sand on themselves to cool down and talked to the crowd.
Staying Outside of Los Angeles
We decided not to stay in Los Angeles (“LA”) itself but instead tried several places outside on our West Coast itinerary. The first stop was in Santa Barbara. We really liked this little town north of LA with it’s lively harbour and flat bikeable streets!
Make sure to spend some time enjoying the harbour and if you are a seafood fan, don’t miss trying the Cioppino (seafood stew).
The second stop outside of LA was within walking distance to the fun and excitement on the Santa Monica Pier. We spent many hours strolling and slowly enjoying the sun, the surf and the local colour. It was a cheesy, fun iconic thing to do. But the people watching was great.
Santa Monica was an easy bike ride to visit Venice Beach and the entertainment at Muscle Beach. Tacky tourist stuff was ffound in every second store. Several of the street people found innovative things to sell (belly rubs for the dog, pictures with fake bar bells, etc.).
From Santa Monica we ventured into Hollywood. We were intent on seeing two iconic things (the Hollywood sign and Hollywood Bowl). We navigated a meandering path. It was fun to pass all the familiar streets (Vine & Vine, Sunset Boulevard, Melrose Avenue, La Brea, Mulholland Drive, Ventura Boulevard).
Our next stop at Newport Beach kept us on the beach for a few days. From here we took the little ferry to Balboa Island and enjoyed the small community on the island.
Following the PCH south allowed us a day to crawl along the beaches south of LA including my favourite, Laguna Beach. The beaches were filled with the locals enjoying picnics and the beach.
Our final stop outside of LA was a quiet few days on Catalina Island. You can catch the ferry from a few spots along the coast. Catalina Island was as beautiful as anticipated, both in the main Avalon port and the more isolated Two Harbours port. A night tour provided a very close up view of the infamous flying fish!
As befitting a major tourist destination, that is also a cruise ship port, there were a wide number of land and sea tours available. The land tours took you various spots within the interior of this very desert-like island. The water tours (glass bottom boats, submarine rides and snorkeling) took you around to Lovers Cove. The cove had a kelp forest close to shore, apparently full of fish. We easily walked to the cove from the main harbour and snorkelled from shore. Rental gear was available in many spots in town.
A weekend on Catalina Island is a great treat to put on your West Coast itinerary.
Finishing Up In San Diego
The last southern stop in California on our West Coast itinerary was San Diego. We stayed for a week in San Diego at a seaside resort. This let us mix our time between relaxing at the resort and wandering out for day trips.
One day we took a short drive north to visit the beaches of La Jolla. We got yet one more opportunity to see Sea Lions on the beach. Another day we wandered around the downtown area of San Diego and spent hours enjoying the waterfront floating museum.
We finished up our visit to San Diego by heading to Coronado Island. From the island, we caught great panoramic views of San Diego while speeding over the bridge or by pulling into the parks or beaches on the island. A stop at the iconic Hotel del Coronado let us watch the weddings on the beach. We grabbed a spot by the water and just people watched.
So Much To See And Do On A West Coast Itinerary
There is so much to see and do on a West Coast itinerary. You could race down the coast in several days. But if you find a base for a few days, you will discover so much more before you move to the next spot. There are lots of options to move from spot to spot, whether it is a slow seaside drive, a scenic train trip or a quicker hop by plane.
Have you done a West Coast itinerary? What stops did you make? Did you travel on the PCH?
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