Driving from Seattle to San Francisco

Make your road trip down the West Coast an epic one by following this route from Seattle to San Francisco.

Hopper Editors - Oct. 26, 2017

This classic west-coast road trip knots together Interstate 5 and Route 101 as it follows the curving Pacific coastline from Seattle to San Francisco. En route, travellers can stop off on the slopes of active volcanos, delve into misty Redwood forests, and indulge their senses in rolling wine regions. It’s a mighty distance – about 1000 solid miles – but break it up with these ten diverse destinations, and an arduous drive can be turned into a journey of discovery. Just try not to get behind the wheel after too many Portland beers or Willamette pinot noirs.

Walk through a landscape scorched by lava at Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument

Start your journey as all road trips should begin – with a good chunk of driving, the windows down and the stereo turned up. Just over three hours at this pace will take you from the heart of Seattle to an entirely different landscape: the scorched plains surrounding Mount Saint Helens. In 1980, this volcano convulsed with a massive eruption that proved to be the deadliest in US history. Fifty-seven people were killed, 185 miles of highway destroyed, and the mountain’s pointed peak blown asunder, leaving a broad horseshoe-shaped crater. The event itself is explored in the Mount Saint Helen’s Visitor Center, while clear views of the volcano’s lava dome, crater and pumice plain can be had from the Johnston Ridge Observatory. It’s also worth taking half an hour to stretch your legs on one of the walking trails, observing both the devastation wreaked by the eruption, and the gradual regeneration of the land and its wildlife in the years since.

Pass your first night in beer-brewing Portland

After an afternoon contemplating the nature’s terrible power on Mount Saint Helens, jump back in your car and drive for 90 minutes to Portland, Oregon’s biggest city. This is an ideal place to spend your first night on the road, not least because of its renowned food and drink culture. The city is famous for its independent breweries – it’s often referred to as the microbrewery capital of the world – which turn out superb IPAs and other top-notch craft beers. And it’s also an excellent foodie city; you can eat fantastically from the front seat of your car, by picking up a takeaway from one of the town’s famous food carts, such as the marvellous Mexican La Jarochita on 5th Avenue. And once you’ve bedded down for the night, start the next day with brunch, a key part of Portland’s idiosyncratic cultural life. There are heaps of restaurants catering to the mid-morning crowd, serving such unique eats as grilled cheese burgers, kimchi and jalapeño waffles.

Take a walk in the wild side at the Columbia River Gorge

After you’ve polished off brunch, step out of the restaurant and admire the vast craggy peak of Mount Hood, dominating the eastern skyline about 50 miles away. Then get back in your car and drive in that direction, stopping in the shadow of the volcano by the Columbia River Gorge, a wild stretch of jagged riverside scenery. About 30 minutes of driving will take you to Crown Point, a spectacular viewpoint over the Columbia River. Next to the viewpoint you’ll find Vista House, an information center where you can pick up maps for a 13-mile scenic drive following a twisting old carriage road. There are several points along the route where you can pull over and walk short trails to dramatic waterfalls – be sure to walk up to the magnificent Multnomah Falls.

Wash back a little pinot noir in the Willamette Valley AVA

After a few hours admiring the dramatic scenery around the Columbia River, start up the engine and drive an hour south to the Willamette Valley. This is a pretty, rolling landscape of green hills rising above broad meadows and wide vineyards, sheltered from Pacific storms to the west by the Coast Range and from the desert heat to the south by the Cascades. Through the past few years, the valley has evolved into one of the world’s leading regions for pinot noir, hosting a cool climate, rainy winters and long daylight hours that together provide perfect growing conditions for the varietal. A world-class example of this is the Seven Springs Vineyard, drawing on the Pacific breeze and volcanic soil to create beautiful, velvety pinot noir.

Ride beside the rushing Rouge River in Grants Pass

Photo by Northwest Rafting Company/Flickr.

Depending on the depth of your passion for wine, you can choose to stay overnight at one of the many hotels in the Willamette area, allowing you to sample a few more varietals while the sun sinks over the crags of the Coast Range. Alternatively you can drive on through into the evening, eating up another 200 miles to reach the town of Grants Pass in southern Oregon. Located in the Rogue Valley, it sits on the T-junction where Highway 5 turns east while Route 199 runs west to the Pacific coastline. If you fancy getting out of the car and onto the water for a spot of adrenaline-pumping adventure, the Rogue River offers some of the best white water rafting in the United States. If you’re just stretching your legs, do it on one of the walking trails running alongside the river.

Catch a little Shakespeare in theatrical Ashland

Photo by Curtis Cronn/Flickr.

If you’re travelling between February and November, then it’s unquestionably worth taking a 40-mile detour to drop into Ashland. During those months, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, one of the oldest regional theaters in the country, stages a continuous roster of plays that draws drama lovers from across the west of the United States. Through the course of a season, actors perform at least three Shakespeare plays, alongside a handful of modern classics and contemporary pieces. As well as the theater, Ashland hosts Southern Oregon University, which has close ties to the town’s famous theater and so attracts a large proportion of the region’s more bohemian students. This invests the town with a creative and spontaneous atmosphere which, when combined with its pretty B&Bs and tasty restaurants catering to the pre-theater crowd, makes it a great place to stay overnight, or even for a whole weekend.

Roam the many tiny trails of Redwood and Redwood State Park

After a break from the steering wheel in Ashland, it’s time to get back on the road, doubling back on yourself for a short distance before bending southwest on Route 199 and crossing the border into California. Three hours of driving will bring you to another dramatically different scene, as the road winds through Redwood National and State Parks. Here, the world’s biggest tree borders the shoreline of the world’s biggest ocean, so park up your car somewhere along the road and look out at the sparkling Pacific glinting through the trunks of giant Redwoods. Nature lovers can stop for the night here, hiking out into the park’s forests and prairies and camping either in the wild or among the comforts of a developed campground. Or there are plenty of shorter walking trails for those who only desire a brief taste of the park’s gorgeous grandeur.

Rest for a day or two in prettily peaceful Eureka

From now on, roaring along Route 101, you’re driving California’s spectacular Pacific coastline. It’s worth slowing down to enjoy the marvellous scenery, and Eureka is a great small town in which to stop for a night or two. At its heart is a pretty and atmospherically faded Victorian Old Town, a dreamy, indolent kind of place where the streets are lined with lacy architecture, frilly cafes and, in Eureka Books, one of the best antiquarian bookstores on the west coast. And with this as your base, you’re free to make excursions out into the glorious natural world that surrounds Eureka: take a stroll on the walking trails around Humboldt Bay, paddle a kayak or charter a boat out onto the water, then get back in your car and head south along the meandering Redwood Highway that runs through mist-swathed forests parallel to Route 101.

Wander through the quiet coastal streets of Fort Bragg

Thirty years ago, despite its picturesque position on California’s Mendocino Coast, you wouldn’t have found many visitors in Fort Bragg. It was a dirty old mill town, its potential beauty subjugated to gritty industry, and its most famous tourist attraction was the glass beach – an old rubbish dump with shards of glass embedded in the sand and carved into unusual shapes by the wash of the sea. But in the years since it has slowly transformed itself into a lovely place to visit, all the more delightful for the fact that barely anyone’s heard of it. The giant old lumber mill that once obscured views out to sea has been ripped down, and an old redwood rail bridge previously used to transport timber to the mill has been reopened as a cycle and pedestrian bridge connecting the town to the rugged coastline. Elsewhere, a walking trail has been constructed from Fort Bragg to nearby MacKerricher State Park, passing through undeveloped dunes, beaches and headlands. All in all, Fort Bragg is a tranquil yet wild place to drink in the spectacles of the Mendocino Coast.

Sample the world-class wines of California's Sonoma County

From the seafront serenity of Fort Bragg, continue along the Mendocino Coast on Route 1 before turning inland and driving through green valleys and Redwood forests until you reach the small town of Sonoma. Sonoma is a quintessential Steinbeckian Californian town, planted among the meadows and vineyards of the Sonoma Valley. It has a fascinating history stretching back to the early 19th century, coming into existence as one of the northernmost missions established by Spanish colonial settlers. These days, though, it is best known for one thing – wine. And considering Sonoma is the last stop on this epic road trip down the once-remote western flank of the United States, staying there provides a perfect chance to celebrate with a few glasses drawn from one of the world’s finest wine regions. Follow a trail weaving together several wineries, or just drop into one of the fabled vineyards, such as Monte Rosso, which was first planted back in 1880. Then gather yourself together the following morning to drive the final 40 miles into San Francisco.

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