I can’t tell you how long I’ve wanted to do a road trip of the entire West Coast of the USA – the famous Pacific Coast Highway. It’s been on my travel bucket list for a long time. Last summer I was finally able to tick it off.
My guess is that most people start from the south end of the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), but as I was coming from British Columbia, Canada at the time, my epic West Coast road trip began in Vancouver.
Day one saw us head straight from the US-Canada border to Baker Lake in Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest and North Cascades National Park. Mt Baker has always been on my radar as a place I would love to go snowboarding, but that was unlikely to happen given that it was late-May. Despite the lack of snow, the Baker Lake area was a pretty amazing spot for the first night of our road trip.
We pretty much had the place to ourselves so had the pick of the best campsites right on Baker Lake, but to be fair they were all pretty spectacular. We set up camp, built a fire, cracked a beer, and seriously considered staying there for the whole three weeks! In the morning we explored the lake area for a bit then followed the mountain road up to some natural hot springs. Despite coming out of the water almost black, it was well worth the sketchy drive and short walk. The hot springs at Baker Lake aren’t signposted at all, but ask one of the locals and they’ll happily point you in the right direction.
After washing the blackness off in the very fresh lake, we loaded back up and headed to Seattle. This was my third visit Washington State’s capital city, and I never get sick of it. We spent stayed with a friend who has an apartment with an amazing view over the city. We sat on the huge balcony and watched the sun set over the beautiful city skyline with a couple beers then headed out to a few of the local spots to enjoy the famous Seattle nightlife. I highly recommend Big Mario’s Pizza and Pike Brewing Company.
We spent the next morning exploring the city and checking out a few must-see spots that I had missed on previous visits, but as much as I would have loved to stay and explore Seattle, we were itching to get back on the road. Our plan was to spend as much of our road trip as possible exploring the West Coast’s beautiful outdoors, and although I love exploring cities, it was the Pacific Coast Highway that was the attraction, so we were soon loading up El Tundy and back on the road.
We caught the ferry from Seattle to Bainbridge Island, which gave us some fantastic views of the city and Mt Rainier. The drive from Bainbridge Island around the north side of Olympic National Park wouldn’t have taken as long as it did had we not stopped so regularly to get out of El Tundy to gawk at the stunning views or take photos of all the little waterfalls on the side of the road. My extremely patient travel buddy Ryan didn’t complain once about the constant stops, after all, what’s a road trip if you don’t stop to enjoy the scenery? It didn’t help that we had a rule that we had to stop if we drove past a brewery!
When we got around to the west side of Olympic National Park, we heading inland up the Hoh River to the Hoh Rainforest. The rainforest is like nothing I’ve ever seen. The Hall of Mosses are the crown jewel of the rainforest and I can see why. Huge, ancient trees grow unimpeded and the mosses cover absolutely everything! I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much green in my life. We spent a couple hours wandering the hiking trails that snake through the trees and along the Hoh River.
The day was getting on so we got back on the road and headed to our campsite. After setting up camp we jumped back in the car and drove back up the coast a bit to Ruby Beach for sunset. The beach is covered in a massive amount of driftwood and featured some pretty epic sea stacks, which make for great photos.
From Washington’s Olympic National Park we drove along the coast, stopping along the way to see the beaches, lakes, and more waterfalls until we crossed the border into Oregon. I’ve wanted to visit the rugged Oregon Coast for some time, so I was excited to finally be there. Our first stop was the famous Cannon Beach with its massive sea stacks. After our usual routine of finding a campground and setting up, we headed into the little township to feed and water ourselves (highly recommend Public Coast Brewing Company). With the day once again coming to an end far too soon, I grabbed my camera gear and made the short walk from our campground down to watch the Oregon Coast put on a spectacular display of colour over the sea stacks at the north end of the beach.
The next day saw us continue south along Highway 101 past beach after beach, with plenty of stops along the way, including a detour from the US-101 highway to do the Three Capes Scenic Drive, and a compulsory stop at the Pelican Brewery in Pacific City. We pulled up for the night at a campground in Reedsport to see the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. Unfortunately, the Oregon Coast was living up to its rugged reputation, and the wind made it virtually impossible to explore the dunes. We filled our shoes and my tripod with sand and decided to call it a night because tomorrow would be a BIG day.
Every landscape and travel photographer on earth will tell you they have a photography bucket-list. Yosemite National Park has been at or near the top of my bucket-list for as long as I can remember.
We didn’t arrive until late because we spent about 14 hours driving from Oregon Dunes to Yosemite in one go. We hadn’t planned it that way, but due to having limited time we decided we would rather have an extra day in Yosemite, so we had one big, long 1000km drive day. Yosemite isn’t actually on the Pacific Coast Highway, it’s on the eastern side of California, bordering Nevada, but no American West Coast road trip would be complete without visiting Yosemite. Seeing as we arrived so late, we stayed at a campground just outside Yosemite Valley, and we set up camp and crashed in record time.
There’s no way I was wasting time sleeping in having finally arrived at Yosemite. We rose early, packed up, and made the short drive into Yosemite Valley, the crown-jewel of Yosemite National Park. I’m sure glad we did, because as the sun was coming up over the mountains into the valley as we drove in, and there was no wind, so all the water in the valley was like glass.
I thank it’s fair to say without exaggeration that Yosemite is the most breathtaking place I have ever seen. Like everybody else with internet access, I’ve seen many photos of the most popular national park on earth, but not one of those photos do justice to the sheer size and grandeur of the place. I spent a significant volume of my time there just staring up at the monstrous granite cliffs. It really seems like you’re in a movie or on another planet.
We spent three days in Yosemite. Driving, hiking, taking photos, sitting, staring, taking more photos, lying in the sun, watching the stars, and of course, taking more photos. Luckily I had enough juice and storage for my camera, as thankfully there is very little there in the way of electricity.
The crowds were a little overwhelming, but if you get to the popular locations early or late you miss a lot of the bulk tourists who stop for 60 seconds for a selfie then pile back into their expensive cars and drive to the next selfie-location. We visited Tunnel View a number of times, each time sitting and staring for long periods while hundreds, if not thousands of people came and went. Sitting up there watching and photographing the stars until the early hours of the morning with only a handful of other photographers was a real highlight.
On our last morning in Yosemite, we needed to make a decision about where to go next. The plan had been to head to the Grand Canyon via Las Vegas, but as we were on a pretty tight schedule we made the painful decision to skip Grand Canyon and head to Joshua Tree National Park. Although we were both pretty bummed to miss it, it took the pressure off and freed up a couple extra days to enjoy the remaining part of the trip without rushing. I guess Grand Canyon will have to wait until next time 🙂
Each time leaving a location was a mix of disappointment with not having more time there and excitement about what was coming next. This was never felt as strong as it did leaving Yosemite to drive to Joshua Tree. Ryan had a friend who lived in the Joshua Tree area, and more importantly, there were BEDS waiting for us! I love camping, but if there’s one thing I can count on, it’s that it gives me a new appreciation for a bed and a hot shower.
By this stage we had come a long way south, and it was very evident driving into the heat of the deserts of California. Luckily El Tundy had some decent air conditioning because the drive would not have been fun without it. It was another long day of driving, but we arrived to an enthusiastic welcome, and as promised, a hot shower and real beds.
We spent a couple of days in Joshua Tree experiencing some incredible hospitality, riding quads, playing pool, and, you guessed it, taking photos. We even found a brewery! We went to Joshua Tree National Park one night to watch the sunset and do some stargazing. I had some fun playing with some astrophotography and light-painting. Star photography is one of my favourite things to do, but it’s not that often that the light pollution is low enough to really make the most of it. Joshua Tree National Park was perfect.
Next was a place I was super excited about for a couple reasons. I had heard so many great things about San Diego, so I always wanted to visit. The other reason was that San Diego would be the southern-most point of our West Coast Road Trip, so it was also the half-way point. That’s right, we now had to drive all the way back to Canada!
We only had time for one night in San Diego unfortunately, but we were getting pretty used to making the most of having less time than we would have liked. We checked into a hostel for the night and went out to explore the city. It was a Saturday and there was a baseball game on at Petco Park, so there were a lot of people out in the city, giving it a pretty fun atmosphere. We decided to take ourselves on a self-guided tour of San Diego’s breweries, and I can confirm that the city’s reputation for awesome breweries is well deserved.
We were a little slower leaving San Diego in the morning than usual, so we took our time driving up the stunning Southern California coast. We stopped along the way for amazing SoCal food, and to visit some of the famous spots like Huntington Beach, before heading to Los Angeles. Having visited a couple times before, I would have quite happily skipped LA, but we had been invited to stay with friends in Santa Monica, and how can you say no to that?
The weather wasn’t great for going to the beach, so we paid the famous Santa Monica Boulevard a visit, but didn’t stay long. We went to a Mexican-Korean fusion restaurant for dinner, which sounded kinda strange to me, but turned out to be A-MAZING! We then went back to watch one of the few things I have time for on TV – Planet Earth 2.
We got out of LA as quickly as possible the next morning and continued up the coast towards San Luis Obispo. I visited SLO a few years ago and LOVED it, so I was keen to get back there. San Luis Obispo is a little inland, so we decided to stay at a campground in Pismo Beach for the night instead.
Our plan had been to drive up Big Sur, another place I had wanted to visit for a long time, but our plans were thwarted by a huge landslide that had closed the road at the south end of Big Sur. I was gutted. To get there would have required driving all the way around and coming in from the north. I wanted to go there so bad that we almost did, but eventually we decided to carry on towards San Francisco.
We had a night in a beautiful little campground in Monterrey Bay before going to explore Santa Cruz for the day. We walked through the crazy amusement park on the beach, along the boardwalk, out onto the pier, watched some surfers for a bit, then went and found a brewery serving very average beer and below-average food. As with virtually all our stops, I wish we had more time there. Santa Cruz is rad.
After a night in a sweet campground in the woods along the 101 just outside Pescadero, we rolled into San Francisco. There are few cities in the world that I would be more excited to visit than San Francisco! We needed to be there on this particular day because we had tickets to Beer Camp! Beer Camp is the largest craft beer festival in America, and in case you hadn’t noticed, I like beer. It was everything we had hoped for. There were brewers from all over the US pouring tasters, and it was all free! We drank some beer, we ate some amazing food truck munchies, we drank some more beer, we made some friends, and we drank more beer with our new friends!
We did see some of San Francisco too, but as I said, the cities were less of a priority, and I know I’ll be back to do San Francisco properly someday. We also needed to get back on the road as we were meeting a couple others in Portland for my birthday. It was quite a way from San Francisco to Portland, so we opted to take the main highway rather than the PCH. It was still a solid ten-hour drive, so we broke it up with a night in a campground in southern Oregon. It was the only unpleasant experience we had staying in a campground, which was due to the neighbours getting pretty hammered and yelling abuse at each other all night. It’s the only place on the whole road trip that I didn’t want to stay longer.
Oregon Round 2
The next day we rolled into Portland, where we met up with my girlfriend and another couple friends. We had booked an Airbnb for a couple nights, and once again, we were looking forward to real beds and hot showers after camping and staying in hostels. Portland was exactly what I expected it to be. Weird. I loved it!
We spent our time there exploring the city with the help of my local friend who served as tour-guide and chauffeur. We found amazing food, quirky shops and cafes, and you guessed it – breweries! As I was celebrating my birthday in Portland we went out for dinner our second night to a Vietnamese restaurant called Luc Lac, which was so cheap and SO GOOD!
Washington Round 2
Once again we had to be back on the road far too soon, but we knew we were going to love our next stop. We decided to go back and try to make the last night of our road trip as awesome as our first by revisiting Baker Lake in North Cascades National Park. We had two more people with us, and we wanted to show them this amazing spot. Unfortunately, it wasn’t nearly as awesome due to the rain that arrived and stuck around all night and the next day (the only rain we had the whole trip – I still blame our new recruits). We somehow managed to build a fire to cook and stay warm, but it was a pretty cold miserable night.
If there’s one thing you can always enjoy in the rain, it’s a hot soak, so in the morning we headed back up the now-wet, sketchy back road to the natural hot springs and got warm and black again in the steaming water. After turning into prunes, we finally dragged ourselves out of the water, drove back to the campground, washed off in the less-than-pleasant lake, packed up, and headed home.
The Best Road Trip Ever?
Road trips are such a great way to travel. You can see so much more and have a lot more freedom to see and do what you want on your own schedule. I have done a few great road trips, but the only one that rivals this epic West Coast USA adventure was the Canadian Rockies. I’m currently planning a massive road trip around Australia, so stay tuned for more travel photos and stories from down under!
Have you travelled the American West Coast? What were your highlights? Any tips for others who are planning to visit? Leave them in the comments!