16 Must-See Destinations For Your Ultimate West Coast Road Trip

Embarking on a West Coast road trip promises a journey saturated with awe-inspiring landscapes, cultural treasures, and boundless adventure. From sunny San Diego to spirited Seattle, the expansive stretch of the Pacific coastline offers a myriad of must-see destinations that cater to every traveler's wanderlust. Whether you're drawn to the vibrant urban energy of Los Angeles or seek solace in the serene redwood forests of Northern California, this road trip is a celebration of diversity, encapsulating the essence of the American West in a mosaic of natural wonders and cultural gems. 

We recently made the trek following this exact route, and are sharing them now so you too can make the most of your journey. While we recommend driving on the coast (Highway 1 or 101) for most of the trip, taking a few detours inland is necessary to make sure you hit the best spots and get the full West Coast experience.

San Diego - La Jolla & Encinitas

Kick off your journey in San Diego's coastal gem, La Jolla, known as the "Jewel of San Diego," which captivates visitors with its rugged cliffs, pristine beaches, and upscale ambiance. Visit La Jolla Cove, rated one of the most underrated beaches in California, where you can witness seals basking on the rocks amid crystal-clear waters. The bustling village of La Jolla, particularly the upscale yet charming Prospect Street, offers a blend of boutiques, art galleries, and delectable dining options.

Head north to Encinitas, a funky coastal town known for its laid-back atmosphere, surf culture, and vibrant arts scene. Its pristine beaches, including Swami's Reef and Moonlight State Beach, attract surf enthusiasts and families. The historic downtown area exudes a bohemian charm with its eclectic boutiques, cozy cafes, and thriving local art galleries. Effortlessly capturing the spirit of California's beach culture, Encinitas blends old and new, with its classic surf shacks and trendy organic eateries.

Orange County - Laguna Beach

Coastal Orange County is a road trip gem, boasting pristine coastal beauty, world-class surf breaks, and charming seaside communities. Driving on the Pacific Coast Highway will lead you through many charming and beautiful coastal towns such as San Clemente, Dana Point, and Laguna Beach, but if you have limited time, we recommend making the stop in Laguna, a coastal haven nestled between Los Angeles and San Diego. The boho-chic town is renowned for its thriving arts scene, featuring numerous galleries and public art installations that line the streets of its quaint village. Visitors can explore the Laguna Art Museum, which reflects the town's creative heritage, as well as the seasonal Sawdust Art Festival, showcasing local artists' works with food, drinks, music, and connection.

The beaches of Laguna are nothing short of enchanting, with crescent-shaped coves, sea caves, and tide pools awaiting exploration. Main Beach, with its iconic lifeguard tower and palm-lined boardwalk, exudes a classic Californian charm. Meanwhile, Crystal Cove State Park offers a more rugged coastal experience, with hiking trails leading to breathtaking cliffside vistas.

Los Angeles - Santa Monica & Malibu

Zuma Beach ranks among the cleanest beaches in the entire state. Los Angeles is an essential pitstop on any road trip, captivating visitors with its star-studded allure, stunning coastal vistas, and eclectic blend of beachfront culture. We recommend spending a night or two here as there is a diverse range of experiences and attractions to explore. From the sun-drenched shores of Malibu to the iconic Santa Monica Pier, the city showcases a unique mix of glamour, entertainment, and seaside charm, making it an unmissable and diverse highlight on your West Coast adventure.

Visit Santa Monica at night, for the sandy shoreline is adorned by its lively beach scene and iconic pier, complete with a Ferris wheel and amusement park. The bustling Third Street Promenade invites visitors to explore various shops, restaurants, and street performers. Malibu provides one of the best day trips from LA; visit for a glance at its opulent beachfront estates and the legendary Pacific Coast Highway, providing a scenic drive with breathtaking ocean vistas and rugged cliffs. The famous Zuma Beach offers a pristine stretch of beach that often ranks as one of California's cleanest, while Surfrider Beach attracts surf enthusiasts and foodies alike.

San Luis Obispo

Nestled along California's central coast, San Luis Obispo (SLO), anchored by the historic Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, features a lively atmosphere with boutiques, cafes, and a weekly farmers' market. The vibrant community and Spanish-inspired architecture add a unique charm, while the nearby Bishop Peak and Madonna Mountain provide hiking opportunities with panoramic vistas. Check out underrated Morro Bay for jaw-dropping views and to enjoy dozens of maritime activities.

Drive north from San Luis Obispo to the Elephant Seal Viewing Area in Piedras Blancas. Here, visitors can witness thousands of elephant seals lounging along the coastline, offering a rare and mesmerizing glimpse into the lives of these incredible marine mammals. On a nearby cliff, the opulent Hearst Castle awaits atop the picturesque hills of San Simeon. This iconic mansion, built by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, showcases grand architecture, art collections, and stunning gardens.

Big Sur

Big Sur, a stretch of rugged and breathtaking coastline along California's Highway 1, is an absolute must-stop on the ultimate West Coast road trip. Known for its dramatic cliffs, majestic redwoods, and panoramic ocean views, Big Sur offers an unparalleled natural beauty that captivates travelers. Sand Dollar Beach, with its expansive sandy shores and turquoise waters, is a prime example of the area's coastal magnificence. Make sure to check for any road closures before heading up.

Prepare to be mesmerized by the iconic landmarks such as Bixby Creek Bridge and McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, where a waterfall cascades onto a pristine beach, creating a scene straight out of a postcard. For those seeking a closer connection to nature, camping in Big Sur is a fantastic option. Several campgrounds, such as Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park campground, offer the chance to sleep under towering redwoods and awaken to the sounds of nature.

Carmel-by-the-Sea & Monterey

Carmel-by-the-Sea, a charming and artistic enclave along California's Highway 1, is an irresistible stop on any road trip, enticing travelers with its storybook cottages, cypress-lined beaches, and a quaint downtown filled with art galleries and gourmet delights. The town's oceanfront setting and picturesque streets are devoid of street addresses and traffic signals, creating a tranquil ambiance, while Carmel Beach, with its pristine white sands and cypress trees, provides a fairytale-like retreat for beachgoers. 

Just a short drive away, Monterey complements Carmel's charm with its own set of attractions. The iconic Cannery Row, once the center of the sardine-packing industry, has transformed into a bustling waterfront district with shops, restaurants, and the renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium, which provides a fascinating exploration of marine life, including playful sea otters and mesmerizing jellyfish. Visit the boardwalk where you can try a bowl of the famous clam chowder from Old Fisherman's Grotto. Take the scenic route along 17-Mile Drive, where you'll be treated to spectacular coastal vistas, lush golf courses, and the iconic Lone Cypress tree.

Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz, nestled between redwood forests and the Pacific Ocean, is a vibrant and eclectic stop that adds a unique flavor to the ultimate West Coast road trip, offering a bohemian surf culture, an iconic boardwalk with amusement rides, and an energetic atmosphere that captures the essence of California's coastal spirit. Take a hike through one of the enchanting trails of Henry Cowell State Park to witness the beauty of the massive redwood trees, and maybe even catch a glimpse of the adorable banana slugs, the mascot of Santa Cruz.

The laid-back downtown area boasts a mix of boutique shops, art galleries, and local eateries, providing a perfect setting for leisurely sunset strolls. For surf enthusiasts, Steamer Lane is a world-renowned surf spot that draws skilled surfers and spectators alike. Before continuing on your road trip, catch the Monarch butterflies at Lighthouse Field State Beach.

San Francisco

As you approach the Bay Area, make sure to spend time exploring the iconic city of San Francisco, with its iconic landmarks, diverse neighborhoods, and rich cultural history. Head to the iconic Fisherman's Wharf, where visitors can savor clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl, explore the bustling Pier 39, or embark on a scenic bay cruise. A short ferry ride transports travelers to Alcatraz Island, a former federal prison with a storied past, offering visitors a haunting experience to explore the prison cells, learn about its infamous inmates, and enjoy stunning views of the city skyline and Golden Gate Bridge.

Heading to the Haight & Ashbury district, road-trippers can immerse themselves in the counterculture movement of the 1960s. Famous for its role in the Summer of Love, Haight-Ashbury showcases colorful Victorian houses, vintage shops, and a bohemian atmosphere. The neighborhood's unique history and vibrant street life make it a fascinating destination for those seeking a taste of San Francisco's cultural diversity. And don't forget to ride the historic cable cars for a quintessential San Francisco experience.

Mendocino & Fort Bragg

Known for its charming Victorian architecture and coastal cliffs, Mendocino is a quaint town that invites you to slow down and savor the coastal beauty. Walk along the coast of Mendocino Headlands State Park, explore the serenity of the California coast, and enjoy fresh seafood at one of the local restaurants. Strolling through Mendocino's historic district reveals charming boutiques, galleries, and cozy bed and breakfasts. Hike the Russian Gulch Waterfall Loop trail for a scenic experience basking in the forest's beauty.

Fifteen minutes north is Fort Bragg, a coastal gem with unique attractions, including Glass Beach, known for its seaglass-covered shores. The enchanting Skunk Train is a historic, narrow-gauge railroad that takes passengers on a scenic journey through towering redwood forests along the Noyo River Canyon. The historic train ride leads to the legendary Glenn Bair bar, which offers a magical atmosphere with a diverse selection of craft beers, as well as firepits, heaters, group games, and live music. The bar can only be reached by the Skunk, so make sure to book in advance because tickets are limited and sell out quickly.


Crossing into Oregon, Florence is a quaint town nestled along the picturesque Oregon Coast and is a captivating destination that enriches the experience of the ultimate West Coast road trip with two extraordinary attractions. First, the Sea Lion Cave beckons adventure seekers with an exhilarating 208-foot underground elevator descent to America's largest sea cave, offering an up-close encounter with a cacophony of sea lions, for a chance to see these fascinating marine animals in their natural habitat. 

Next, a short drive north leads to the Heceta Head Lighthouse, which stands tall as one of the most haunted lighthouses in the U.S., weaving tales of the ghostly presence of a 19th-century keeper's wife. These captivating sites promise an unforgettable blend of natural wonders and intriguing lore along the Oregon coast. The Lighthouse's Scenic Viewpoint offers hiking trails that wind through lush coastal forests, providing an opportunity to explore the region's diverse ecosystems.


Portland is a slight drive inland from the coast, but makes for a must-stop on your West Coast road trip, enticing with its eclectic neighborhoods, renowned food scene, and outdoor havens like Forest Park. Food lovers will revel in Portland's renowned food cart scene, farmers' markets, and diverse culinary options. The city's commitment to craft brewing is seen in its multitude of breweries and beer festivals, making it a paradise for beer aficionados. Additionally, the quirky and eclectic character of Portland is best explored by visiting the famous Voodoo Doughnut or taking a stroll through the Lan Su Chinese Garden.

Portland is a vibrant and eclectic city known for its unique blend of outdoor adventure, cultural richness, and culinary excellence. The city's neighborhoods, such as the Pearl District, the Alberta Arts District, and Hawthorne, are brimming with boutiques, galleries, and coffee shops, offering a glimpse into Portland's vibrant arts and crafts scene. Powell's City of Books, one of the largest independent bookstores in the world, is a literary haven that beckons book enthusiasts.

Cannon Beach

Heading back towards the coast, make a stop at Cannon Beach, Oregon. Wander along the sandy shores, explore tide pools, and take in the breathtaking views of the rugged coastline. This charming seaside town offers a perfect blend of natural beauty and coastal charm and has plenty of quaint cafes and restaurants to keep you satiated. 

Cannon Beach adds an extra touch of coastal magic to the ultimate West Coast road trip, making it a destination well worth exploring. Renowned for its iconic Haystack Rock, a towering sea stack that rises dramatically from the shoreline, Cannon Beach boasts breathtaking scenery and pristine sandy shores. 

Cannon Beach's charming downtown exudes a laid-back coastal vibe with art galleries, boutiques, and local eateries. Ecola State Park, located just north of Cannon Beach, provides hiking trails with panoramic views of the coastline, offering an opportunity for outdoor enthusiasts to immerse themselves in the natural beauty of the area.

Cape Disappointment

Perched at the confluence of the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean, Cape Disappointment State Park offers stunning panoramic views, dramatic cliffs, and historic lighthouses. Despite its name, Cape Disappointment in Washington is a fascinating road trip stop, perfect as the first taste of Washington state. The North Head Lighthouse, shrouded in maritime lore, stands as a testament to the challenges faced by sailors navigating the treacherous waters of the Columbia River Bar. Visitors can explore the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, which provides insights into the famous Lewis and Clark expedition and the area's rich cultural and natural history.

The park also offers outdoor enthusiasts a variety of recreational opportunities, including hiking trails that wind through old-growth forests and along the coastal bluffs. The beaches below the cliffs provide a serene setting with dramatic rugged shorelines, perfect for self-reflection and enjoying the crashing waves. Cape Disappointment is a captivating spot on the southernmost tip of Washington that beautifully combines the power of nature with historical intrigue.


Forks, Washington, nestled on the Olympic Peninsula, is a must-see stop on the ultimate West Coast road trip, captivating visitors with its mystical allure and natural beauty. The Hoh Rainforest, a short drive from Forks, is a primeval wonder with moss-draped trees, pristine rivers, and an otherworldly ambiance that transports visitors into a magical realm. The nearby Sol Duc Valley beckons with its hot springs, waterfalls, and hiking trails, providing an opportunity to explore the diverse ecosystems of the region. Explore nearby Ruby Beach and Rialto Beach to experience the region's wild coastal beauty.

In addition to its natural wonders, Forks gained international fame as the setting for the beloved "Twilight" series by Stephenie Meyer. Fans of the vampire romance saga flock to Forks to visit iconic locations from the books and movies, such as the Forks High School and the famous Bella's Truck. The town has embraced its connection to Twilight with themed tours, shops, and events. Check out the Hall of Mosses trail to see the mossy magic of an actual Twilight filming location.

Olympic National Park & Mount Rainier National Park

Olympic National Park and Mount Rainier National Park, both in Washington, offer distinct yet captivating landscapes. At Olympic, visitors can explore the aforementioned Hoh Rainforest, hike through the majestic old-growth trees of the Quinault Rainforest, and enjoy panoramic views from the iconic Hurricane Ridge. In contrast, Mount Rainier National Park, dominated by an active volcano, features alpine meadows, wildflowers, lakes, and glaciers. Both parks offer stunning landscapes and wildlife viewing opportunities, including elk, deer, and bird species encounters.

Assuming you can only pick one, choosing between Olympic National Park and Mount Rainier National Park depends on personal preferences and the specific experiences you seek. If you're drawn to diverse ecosystems, rugged coastal views, and enchanting rainforests, Olympic National Park may be the ideal choice. On the other hand, if you're captivated by the grandeur of glaciers cascading down the mountain slopes, alpine landscapes, and the allure of an active stratovolcano, Mount Rainier National Park may be the preferred destination. 


Seattle, Washington, is the perfect stop to conclude your ultimate West Coast road trip; the city offers a vibrant urban experience amid the stunning backdrop of the Pacific Northwest. Known for its iconic Space Needle, Seattle's skyline is a testament to its modern and innovative spirit. Wander through the bustling Pike Place Market, with its lively atmosphere and diverse array of shops and eateries. Visitors can explore the historic Pioneer Square, discover local art at the Seattle Art Museum, or take a scenic ferry ride to Bainbridge Island for panoramic views of the cityscape and Puget Sound.

The city is surrounded by water, mountains, and evergreen forests, offering a myriad of outdoor activities and scenic escapes. The nearby Mount Rainier and Olympic National Park are easily accessible for those seeking one last adventure. The Space Needle's observation deck, with its 360-degree views, serves as a symbolic vantage point to reflect on the journey, and before leaving Seattle, visit the Chihuly Garden and Glass exhibit for a unique artistic experience. 

Our methodology

In crafting our article on the ultimate West Coast road trip destinations, we meticulously developed a comprehensive methodology to ensure a well-rounded and insightful guide for our readers. Our journey began with firsthand experience as we embarked on the exact road trip route to provide authentic insights into each destination. 

In addition to our on-the-road adventures, we delved into the vast realm of travel literature, combing through numerous travel blogs, review sites, and official National Park websites to identify hidden gems and highlight natural wonders. This combination of personal experience and comprehensive research ensures our guide is both authentic and reliable for those seeking the ultimate West Coast road trip adventure.