The west coast of the USA really has it all when it comes to family vacations. From the beaches and theme parks of southern California to Oregon’s dramatic coasts, volcanoes and vineyards, and the uniquely biodiverse Olympic Peninsula in Washington state.
We’d argue the west coast of the USA is up there as one of the best family destinations in the world and a Globetrotter personal favorite! However, we’ll warn it covers a large area! From San Diego in the south to Seattle in the north, you are looking at about 1250 miles, over 2000 kilometres to cover even just sticking near the coast!
To see and experience everything that the west coast of the USA can offer on one vacation is a tall challenge unless you have months to spend. However, there are plenty of smaller road trips you can do within each state – California, Oregon and Washington – or how about travelling the coast one way by road then flying back, or even taking part of the trip by train?
With so many options it can be quite overwhelming when you are still at the planning stage, so before we dig into the details of our favorite places on the West Coast of the USA, we’re going to take you through:
How to travel the US West Coast – Modes of Transport
Driving the US West Coast
By far, the most popular method of tackling the west coast of the USA is to drive. You can choose by car, camper or RV. The routes are effectively the same (more below!) but your nightly accommodation may differ. You have complete freedom over where to make your stops, though naturally, it will take the longest amount of time to cover the west coast and you will have fuel and car rental costs to bear in mind, as well as traffic.
US West Coast Train
The dramatic Coast Starlight is the Amtrak service that runs from Seattle to Los Angeles and vice versa. It is one of the most scenic train journeys in the USA and a spectacular way to see some of the west coast highlights without a car. Taking around 35 hours in total, the obvious disadvantage is that you can’t get out and explore every highlight on foot and you’ll miss dipping your feet in the Pacific Ocean.
The train can be a quick and effective way to capture some of the country’s stunning natural beauty. There are 28 stops along the route where you could jump of and explore the big cities of the west coast for a day or two before taking on the next leg; you don’t need to cover the whole west coast journey in one hit! There are both seated and sleeper options that can be booked. You can have a look at the ticket classes, prices and routes using an online travel provider.
Flying the US West Coast
Flying is the quickest way to get between major cities along the US west coast, but also the most expensive and least environmentally friendly – and of course, you’ll miss everything beneath! We only recommend flying if you’ll be driving one way and need a quick return to your arrival point.
Tips for Road Tripping West Coast USA
By far the most popular option for families to see the west coast USA in detail is to road trip. However, even this method throws up many different transport options and routes you can take. There are three primary routes to consider up the west coast:
Route 1 – The most scenic coastal route through California – but also the longest and windiest! If you have motion sickness sufferers, strongly consider if you need to take this route the entire way or just pop on for sections you really want to see.
Route 101 – A faster route that still takes you fairly near to the coast through California, then hugs the coast from the Redwoods all the way through Oregon and around the Olympic Peninsula before finishing in Seattle. You will likely hop on and off this major route several times during your west coast trip.
Interstate 5 – The quickest route if you want to bypass all the twists and turns is straight down Interstate 5 which runs all the way from the Canadian border to San Diego. Perfectly understandable if there are windy sections and road closures to avoid or you want to go direct between major cities and miss the coast itself.
What vehicle to travel the west coast USA in
If you hire a car, you will have to also pay for lodgings in each town you stop at. This can range from inexpensive motor inns to expensive lodges, especially if you’re staying in our near National Parks.
A campervan or RV will give you much more flexibility in accommodation and should overall work out cheaper than the car/motel option even if the initial hire cost and fuel is more.
Which direction to head on the US West Coast
You can, of course, tackle the west coast of the USA in either direction, but our preference is always north to south. This way your passengers can get the best Pacific Ocean views, and you are on the right side of the road for all the highway turnouts and viewing points – and trust me, there are many!
More important tips for tackling the West Coast USA
Take the time to carefully plan your route and your timings. You will get so much more out of your west coast USA road trip if you plan around seasons and weather, even time of day. Undoubtedly any US school vacation times are going to be much, much busier but these do vary a little across the states.
Apps you will absolutely want for your trip along the West Coast USA:
Road Trippers – Super handy for plotting out your route, working out road side stops, gas stations and calculating distances, as well as providing in-car navigation.
Tides – A lot of your trip you are no doubt wanting to explore the incredible beaches but come at the wrong time of day and you’ll be headed for disappointment! Study the tide charts in advance to get your daily timings right.
National Park Service – Great for plotting out your journey around America’s incredibly National Parks, finding hikes, points of interest and things to do along the way.
Note that you will not always have internet everywhere you go! Make sure to keep local copies of any map app on your phone, or keep a good old backup paper map in your vehicle! You never know when there might be unexpected road closures (when you hit California, you can check your route in advance here).
14 Highlights of the US West Coast for Families
Now on to the juicy stuff! There are so many incredible stops you can make along the US west coast it was impossible to include them all, but here is the top 14 we think families won’t want to miss. We’ve kept it just to those that sit pretty much among the Pacific coast, however, there are many more spectacular stops you could add to this list if you head just a few hours further inland.
Any journey to the west running north to south you will almost certainly start in Seattle. From the iconic (but pricey) Space Needle to the century’s old Pike’s Place Market. An easy city to explore on foot and plenty for kids to do before you pick up your vehicle (or board your train) for the next west coast stop.
Olympic National Park, Washington
Before heading south, we strongly recommend you head west. You can cross the Puget Sound by ferry to Bainbridge Island then take an anti-clockwise loop around the Olympic Peninsula. One of the most unique and biodiverse places in the US, the Olympic National Park encapsulates old-growth rainforests, snow-capped mountains, alpine meadows and dramatic sea cliffs – you’ve never seen somewhere so green! Needless to say, it rains a lot in the Olympic Peninsula so pack coats no matter what time of year!
Maybe more nostalgic for the parents these days than the kids, but anyone who grew up in the 80s could tell you this quaint coastal city is home to the Goonies! Set on the Columbia River, Astoria itself is a charming little seaside town, watch the cargo ships on the busy waterway where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean and visit the Maritime Museum, as well as the famous shipwreck in Fort Stevens State Park.
Oregon Coast, Oregon
It was almost impossible for us to pick a favorite so we’ve summarised all of the Oregon coast in one highlight. Covering 600 kilometres/375 miles, some of the most popular and noteworthy stops include Cannon Beach – famous for Haystack Rocks, a dramatic sea stack best viewed at low tide, Sea Lion Caves, Thors Well and Devil’s Punchbowl. For overnight stops (or longer), look to stay at:
- Rockaway Beach
- Florence Beach
Note those beaches further north on the Oregon Coast are busier as your get Portland day-trippers too. Head further south if you are dreaming of that rugged and remote coastal escape on the west coast dotted by picturesque lighthouses and plenty of fresh air!
Rogue Valley, Oregon
You can continue along the 101 to complete the entire Oregon coast drive, or our recommendation once you hit Southern Oregon is to detour inland, briefly rejoining the Interstate 5 for a short while to explore the beautiful Rogue Valley. White Water rafting, zip-lining, caves and finish your day at one of the dozens of wineries that spot the region (wine lovers also won’t want to miss the Willamette Valley closer to Oregon, but this is a great alternative if you’re trying to stick close to the coast).
Redwoods National Park, California
Heading into California now you’ll come to the utterly unmissable Redwoods National Park, home to some of the tallest trees in the world. The utterly awe-inspiring forest can be seen alongside several other state forests and is a superb camping spot for families on the US west coast. Unfortunately, this section of the 101 can be susceptible to road closures so do plan your daily route before you set out.
From this point there are a few more decisions to make whether you continue to follow the 101, or hug the coast on the longer Highway 1 route.
Fort Bragg, California
Not the largest of towns but an unmissable stop on the US west coast that the kids will insist on is Glass Beach on the Mendocino coast. Millions of colorful stones scattered along the shore – nice to look at pretty to hold but please don’t take any with you so others can enjoy for years to come.
Point Reyes, California
A protected peninsular sitting northwest of San Francisco, don’t miss the historic lighthouse – but be prepared for a lot of steps! Utterly worth it for those spectacular coastal views though. Another highlight is the immensely picturesque cypress tree tunnel. Point Reyes National Seashore includes many hidden beaches and coves perfect for kids to explore, an idea coastal stop to relax by the beach in northern California.
Napa Valley, California
We’re going to take a small detour inland here for Santa Rosa, Sonoma and Napa. Far more than just wine tasting (though certainly, that’s an added bonus!), there are miles of hiking trails, kayaking to enjoy on the Napa River, explore the Petrified Forest in Calistoga and experience the famous Old Faithful geyser of California. Budget an extra day or two if you have any theme park fans to catch Six Flags Discovery Kingdom.
San Francisco, California
The iconic Golden Gate Bridge has got to be on every kid’s bucket list, right? San Francisco is one of the best cities for kids to explore; take a cable car up the steep city streets, see the sea lions at Pier 39 and enjoy lunch at Fisherman’s Wharf. The Maritime National Historic Park is highly recommended and older kids may even enjoy a tour of the notorious Alcatraz, or simply take a cruise on the bay.
Monterey is a stunningly picturesque part of the northern California coast that you absolutely can’t drive past! Famous for the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the abundance of wildlife that lives along the dramatic coast, there’s plenty more to Monterey. It’s a real all-in-one family vacation destination on the West Coast; in the right season you can enjoy whale watching off the coast, or on dry land try short hikes with the kids at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.
Nearby Carmel-by-the-Sea is the starting point of the dramatic section of the California coast known as Big Sur. Here you’ll find the rugged Santa Lucia Mountains abruptly jutting into the Pacific making for one of the most pictureseque drives in the world including the famous Bixby Creek Bridge.
Santa Monica, California
One of our favorite beach cities in southern California, from the iconic Santa Monica Pier and amusement park to unbeatable beach sports, cycling and exploring Tongva Park. The beautiful white sandy Santa Monica State Beach is one of the best for families in California and you’ll be spoilt with a huge variety of fun museums, restaurants and that distinct Southern California vibe!
How have we come this far talking about a kids trip to Cali and missed off Disneyland! Found in Anaheim, which is about 26 miles south east of Los Angeles, we’d consider it a separate side trip to the rest of LA, well worth staying on-site at one of the three incredible Disney hotels. There are two separate “lands” to explore so you need at least two days to explore Disneyland properly, even add on a trip to Legoland California, a further hour south towards San Diego.
San Diego, California
You’ve made it! San Diego enjoys a wonderful Mediterranean climate making it the perfect spot for families looking for a relaxing beach retreat. Not only does San Diego have some of the best families beaches in the country, but you can also visit the acclaimed San Diego Zoo & Safari Park, the USS Midway Museum and Balboa Park, to share just a few of this sprawling coastal city’s highlights.
That’s it for the coastal US West Coast route. Well, not quite! There are so many other small towns you can also stop at along the way, but if time is limited, these highlights could be completed comfortably in about 2 weeks, with limiting your driving to under 4 hours a day. We’d of course recommend you spend much longer!
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