In October 2019, I embarked on the road trip of a lifetime down the West Coast highways from the tip of Oregon to Southern California. I had made the drive from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara, and even San Simeon, many times in my 12 years as a California resident, but I had never driven the coast. Now, as a Washington resident and with a need to get down to SoCal, I decided to finally make the infamous drive. Because I live in Washington now, I opted not to start from the Washington coast (including near Olympic National Park) because I anticipate exploring that area a lot in my time here.
Although it’s been nearly six months since this road trip, I was determined to post my notes and some pictures from the trip, which I had diligently taken every day. My notes and photos don’t do justice for what an amazing drive it was, packed with history, cute coastal towns beautiful scenery and nature. I did it over the course of the week, which wasn’t nearly enough time, and managed to pack a lot in. If you have a couple weeks (or more) to spare, I highly recommend making the drive.
Olympia, WA: Quick detour off the highway to get my morning coffee at Olympia Coffee Roasting Co., one of the top coffees in Washington state according to Food & Wine magazine. The space is really cool, the coffee was good and they had a great selection of pastries. From there, I headed into rural, northwestern Oregon, which was just as lush as Washington and starting to turn orange and red at the start of fall.
Astoria, OR: This is an adorable little fishing town at the top of the Oregon coast. I thought it’d be a good place to kick off the trip, but mostly I wanted to see the sites where Goonies was filmed: Mikey’s and Data’s houses (you can only view them from down the block), the jail the Fratellis break out of (it’s now a film museum) and the museum Mikey’s dad works at. There might be others, but those are the only ones I drove by. I took a quick stroll through town and debated lunch. There are a couple cool breweries I’d like to check out at some point, but after a few pics of the Hwy 101 bridge and the Columbia river, I decided to make a sandwich from my cooler and get back on the road.
Ecola State Park, Cannon Beach, OR: This is also the site of filming from the Goonies: the scene with Mikey’s brother on the tricycle, and the infamous scene where the boys look across the coast and see Haystack Rock and the Fratelli’s restaurant that aligns with One-Eyed Willie’s coin. It’s also a really nice state park with a lush forest, picturesque beach and beautiful drive in. I walked the short trails, took some pics and then waited under a tree while I wild hail storm blew through.
Haystack Rock, Cannon Beach, OR: This little beach town has less charm than Astoria and seems much more “resorty.” It’s known for its picturesque beaches with shallow tide, but it’s mostly known for Haystack Rock. It sits just off the shore, so at low tide you can walk out to it. The sun came out after the hail storm, so I walked down to the beach and the rock to snap some pics.
Neahkahnie Mountain, Oswald West State Park, Nahem, OR: This peak juts off the shore just south of Haystack Rock. My friend told me about the four-mile hike that summits this peak and gains access to amazing coastal views from above. I set off at 3:30, which was later than hoped, but at a steady pace, and made it to the top and back before dark. It drizzled slightly on the way down, but thankfully was clear at the top. The views were as stunning as my friend described, even with a bit of storm clouds and at dusk lighting.
Tillamook Creamery, Tillamook, OR: It rained basically the entire 27 miles from the hike to Tillamook. My first overnight spot was just 15 mins further, but I decided I didn’t want to set up camp in the rain, and Tillamook mac ‘n’ cheese and ice cream for dinner sounded amazing. So I made a U-turn a mile down the road and went back to the Tillamook Creamery for dinner. I didn’t do the self guided tour until the next morning, when I had more time. I also had a cheesy breakfast sammy there, with some ice cream for the road. It was neat to “tour” the facilities (as much as you can on a guided tour through windows), see how the cheese is made and learn about the history. I got some souvenir cheese to bring to my hosts in SoCal.
Cape Lokout State Park, Tillamook, OR: I reserved a spot at this beach campground, but unfortunately it was rainy and cold the entire short time I was there. After mac ‘n’ cheese dinner (which was actually disappointing), I drove to camp, set up camp and got ready for bed. I didn’t feel like messing with a fire. I did take a quick walk to the beach, which was super creepy because you can’t see a thing, even with a headlamp, and the waves are just so loud, even at low tide. When I got back to camp, raccoons had pulled open my cooler and ate my leftover mac ‘n’ cheese. I found it hilarious both because I didn’t like it and because I thought my cooler would be fine since there are no bears at the beach. I didn’t even think about raccoons! I set my alarm for 7:30 to get on the road, but it was raining when I awoke, so I stayed in my tent until it stopped after 30 mins. I took another walk down to the beach before I left. It was pretty, but I imagine it’s much nicer in the summer when the sun is out.
Cape Perpetua State Park, Yachats, OR: This was an impromptu stop. I had been eyeing great photo-ops the entire way down the coast and had stopped at a couple.
Cape Perpetua was another I saw from the highway. Additionally, I saw something called “Thor’s Well” on Google maps, so had tentative plans to stop here anyway. I parked at the top end of the short coastal trail, which meandered south for views of Devil’s Churn, Thor’s Well and Spouting Horn. All three were really cool ways that the ocean interacted with nearby rock. Spouting Horn was by far the best. Every time a wave came in, the rock would spout a blast of mist out the top like a whale’s blowhole. I’m really glad I stopped here! It looks like there’s a campground and hiking trails nearby, so I’d totally come back.
Harris Beach State Park, Brookings, OR: I hoped to make it to Redwoods National Park for my second night, but all my stops made it about 7 pm by the time I pulled into this park’s campground, which is just north of the California border. The campground was huge and I found an awesome spot in the back with lots of room and privacy. I made a fire that night and used my new camping stove to make a southwestern stir fry I had brought from the freezer. It rained during the night, but I didn’t have to set up or break down camp in the rain. Before I headed out, I walked the bluffs trail and down to the beach. It was a beautiful, sunny day!
Redwoods National Park, Orick, CA: I’m a bit confused by this national park because some state parks are attached to or reside within it. In any case, my first stop in the park was Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park to get a permit for a drive/ hike I read about in Lonely Planet. They only issue 50 permits a day for this six-mile dirt road that leads to the Tall Trees trailhead. It’s in this massive grove of redwoods where some of the tallest and oldest trees in the world are living. In fact, I passed a couple hikers who had bushwhacked to what they say is the tallest tree in the world. Forums online shared the coordinates and directions, and supposedly they found it. I just followed the trail, as well as some of the Emerald Ridge trail, and both were beautiful!
The other two spots Lonely Planet called out were the Redwood Creek Overlook and Lady Bird Johnson Grove. I stopped at both on my way out; the latter was a 1.5-mile loop off the main road dedicated to Lady Bird Johnson. (Turns out President Nixon dedicated the grove to her in 1969 for work as First Lady actively promoting the protection and creation of natural habitats.) By that point it was more of what I had already seen, but it still was all beautiful and amazing to think these massive trees exist. Instead of staying the night there, which was the original plan, I decided to continue further south to help shave off some time from the next day’s drive. I found a state park on the map that showed campgrounds that should be open, so I headed south.
Humboldt Redwoods State Park, Myers Flat, CA: I arrived to Hidden Springs Campground in the state park at about 7:30 pm to find it closed for the season. Argh! The website was wrong. It was pitch black and there was hardly anything around as far as services. I drove back to the highway exit and saw signs for a private RV park/campground that allowed tent campers, Giant Redwoods RV Camp. It was pretty empty because it was late in the season, but I took the last tent registration off the office door. I set up camp and decided to have one last fire before I moved on to hotels for two nights. It ended up being a great spot! The next day, I decided to drive back up the highway so I could come back south on the official Avenue of the Giants, which was also the old highway. It was soooo cool being on this small two-lane road with towering redwoods on either side. I stopped at Founder’s Grove to walk the 0.5-mile trail with self-guided walking tour.
It was similar to the groves I hiked in the day prior in Redwoods National Park, but with a foggy morning setting. Both the drive and the pit-stop were totally worth the hour they added to my day’s drive. From there I stopped in Garberville for coffee from Getti Up, a coffee kiosk recommended by a friend.
Then I continued to where the 101 intersected Highway 1. This is the other infamous cost highway that only goes through California. The 43 miles from the intersection to my next stop was a super narrow, winding road that hugged the coast – just like it looks in the movies!
Glass Beach, Fort Bragg, CA: I stopped quickly here to check out this beach I’ve heard and seen pictures of. Turns out, instead of sand, most of the beach is made up of small particles of glass of all colors. The beach and surrounding small bluffs are beautiful, but its history is not. Glass Beach was created from decades of dumping garbage into an area of coastline near the northern part of the town. Starting in 1906, residents designated three “dump sites” on the beach for discarding all kinds of trash. They closed them in 1967, and since then various groups have tried to clean up the remaining garbage. Most of the glass from the dumps had been broken down by the waves over time, hence, Glass Beach.
San Francisco, CA: From Glass Beach I had to boogie down the coast to San Francisco by dinner time to meet my dear friend who used to live in the city but now commutes there for work. Although I would have loved to stay in SF longer, a city I love and almost moved to, I ended up trimming my stay there to only one night to allow for more time along the coast drive. So, the visit was short and sweet: lovely evening of dinner and drinks with my friend, and then a stroll on Ocean Beach with coffee from California’s top coffee spot at Andytown Coffee Roasters (again, according to Food & Wine magazine) with a different friend.
Ritz Carlton, Half Moon Bay: Because I like to pretend I’m classy and fancy sometimes, I made a stop at the Ritz Carlton at Half Moon Bay. I just happened to see it on Google maps while planning out my trip. The hotel looks magnificent, sitting atop a bluff above the bay. I valeted my filthy, overflowing car, walked around the building and property and then sat with a pricey glass of wine in an Adirondack chair in the back garden overlooking the ocean. It was so beautiful and peaceful. I decided to hit the road after that, but then immediately regretted my entire decision to stop in when I learned parking was more expensive than the expensive wine. The 50-minute stop to play fancy and take some Instagram pics cost me nearly $40!! Yikes!
Santa Cruz, CA: My next stop was in Santa Cruz, a cute surf town I’d heard good things about and always wanted to visit. I had a room booked at Rio Vista Suites, a cute Victorian-home-turned-hotel. I checked in and went for a run along part of the boardwalk and up the Santa Cruz Riverwalk. Just before it got dark, I crossed over the river and headed back through downtown. I biked to dinner at West End Tap & Kitchen over in a neat area on the western edge of town, and then ended my night with a beer at Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing. The next day I went for another run, this time up the boardwalk and along the infamous West Cliff Dr. It ends at Natural Bridges State Park, where I ran the trails and checked out the active monarch migration on Monarch Trail. There were literally thousands of monarchs flying overhead in this secluded valley in the park. I guess they make the trip before winter every year from colder climates in the north to enjoy Santa Cruz’s moderate coastal weather. From there, I ran back to the hotel, showered and packed up. I had lunch at this neat indoor-outdoor market and window shopped in the surrounding coastal district downtown. Unfortunately I ran out of time to go walk down the Santa Cruz Wharf. I needed to get on the road if I wanted to stop in Monterey and still make it to Big Sur before dark.
Monterey, CA: Monterey is historically a big fishing town, so it actually has a bigger wharf than Santa Cruz. As such, I walked around Monterey’s wharf, feeling less bad about missing Santa Cruz’s, especially after seeing there wasn’t really anything worthwhile. I imagine the restaurant views on the water are nice, but tourist spots rarely have amazing food. I wasn’t hungry anyway, but did stop at the coffee shop on the wharf for an affogato. From there I walked back inland to the downtown area. Not much to see on a weekday afternoon, but one of my friends in SF recommended Alvarado Street Brewery. I got a delicious hazy IPA and sat out on the busy outdoor patio in the beautiful weather. After that: back on the road.
Big Sur, CA: This was another confusing state park (or what I thought was a state park); after a couple days trying to navigate, I think it’s actually a region filled with state and private parks that are all connected by proximity but not by management. In any case, I got into the park’s main campground at the northern end, Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground, just as the ranger kiosk was closing. Fortunately they were able to point me to an empty camp spot; though, it was a crummy one by the dumpsters and bathrooms. I set up camp and then went for a dusk walk up a road and trail nearby. Then, dinner, reading and bed; I opted against a fire.
The next day, I packed up camp and asked the ranger for some recommendations on strenuous hikes in the park along my route. He proceeded to recommend one back north and then tell me the others I wanted to do were closed due to the mudslide (of May 2017 I’m assuming). I headed up to Andrew Molera State Park as he suggested, but immediately regretted doing so. The spot didn’t accept my park pass, and I’d later find out that the various destinations in Big Sur are not actually connected; you’re required to buy separate day passes at nearly all of them. I also found myself limited in trails that matched my hopes: nice views or scenery, get my heart pumping, >4 miles, loop preferred. The area was very much like desert hiking in California, something I had forgotten about after being in mountainous Colorado and green jungly Washington. It was ugly, brown, dry and there was no view. I found a trail offshoot in an attempt to make a loop and ended up bushwhacking my way along an overgrown trail. My legs were torn up after and I was pissed. From there, I continued my way down Highway 1, hoping my other spots would be better. I saw Partington Cove and Grimes Point Scenic Overlook, but got turned away at Pfeiffer Beach because I didn’t want to pay another park fee for what would be a 10-minute visit. I walked half the trail to McWay Falls, a lackluster falls onto the beach that you can only partially see because the trail is still damaged from mudslides. At that same pull-off, there was a longer loop hike I was interested in, but it was closed, too. On AllTrails, I read that some people had crossed under the rope and said the trail was manageable. By this point I was beyond frustrated, so I also went under the rope and did the hike. It looped around a valley, with great forest scenery as well as views of the ocean, climbs up the valley walls, and just the right length. It felt more like PNW hiking, with lush forest and big trees. At several spots, big trees had fallen across the path or the dirt trail was washed out down the slope. I was able to manage these spots fine, but I then understood why the trail was closed. I just can’t believe its taken so long to repair these trails!
From here I raced down to any campground in the southern part of the region that might have availability, hoping to stop there for the night but still have access to a couple sights back north while making progress further south. It was a Friday night with great SoCal fall weather, so I wasn’t surprised to find everything full. Fortunately the camp host at Plasket Creek Campground allowed me to set up in the group, walk-in camping area that is usually reserved for Highway 1 bikers and hikers. I set up camp and then walked down to Sand Dollar Beach to relax and tan in the early afternoon sun. It was great to be back on SoCal beaches again! It’s what I miss most from leaving Santa Monica.
After a beer and some rays, I headed back to camp and drove back up the coast to Limekiln State Park. There were a few short hikes right off the road in this park I wanted to check out, so I hustled through each before it got too dark. One was an area with several massive lime kilns where they would heat limestone or shells to make lime. It was neat to see some history mixed in with beautiful nature. The other hikes were Limekiln Falls and Hare Canyon.
That night I befriended a few young girls in the group camp and made a campfire for all of us with the last of my wood. After dinner, we all roasted marshmallows.
Ragged Point, Big Sur, CA: The next morning, I packed up camp and headed out of Big Sur. At the south end, I stopped at Ragged Point Inn & Resort for coffee and a gorgeous view down the cliffs. Many years ago I drove up the coast with a friend and we briefly stopped here in the afternoon, so I wanted to stop here again. It’s really a beautiful spot hanging off the side of the cliff.
Elephant Seal Vista Point, San Simeon, CA: My last stop on the coastal drive before heading inland to Orange County for the suburban leg of my trip to visit friends in their new homes and with their new families was at a strip of beach filled with barking seals (and protected by Friends of the Elephant Seals). I had also stopped at this tourist sight on the drive north many years ago. It’s just fun to watch these massive creatures flop around the sand, lounge in the sun and make what sounded like farting noises. There were hundreds! After a quick look, I headed east through Paso Robles (somewhere I definitely want to visit in the future) and officially ended my coastal road trip.