As a California native, I say the following with obvious and admitted bias: the West Coast is the best coast. Urban oases like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle attract visitors from around the world for good reason. However, if anyone asks me for itinerary assistance, I push for balancing city sojourns with slow escapes to the West Coast’s most beautiful spots – none of which are smack dab in the middle of a city, in my opinion. Here are 15 of the best places to visit on the West Coast, arranged from south to north, that really show off the treasures of the region’s contiguous states: Washington, Oregon, and California.
Big Sur, California
The undulating 90-mile length of California’s Central Coast known as Big Sur is the stuff of travel lore. Much of the road is right at the edge of a cliff, so if you don’t have incomparable sea views, it’s likely only because you’ve been enveloped in fog. While I love a misty morning, sunny days here are spectacular. Enjoy iconic McWay Falls from above via Overlook Trail, explore Andrew Molera State Park, and trek along Pfeiffer Falls Trail. A stop at Big Sur Bakery is another itinerary must. Be sure to check that the road is open before you visit, as the road’s precarious placement means it’s regularly impacted by winter rains and mudslides.
This coastal village measures less than one square mile and is the ideal destination for easy strolls. You will walk past fairy-tale cottages (note that people actually live in them), charming cafes and galleries, and even the soft-sanded Carmel Beach. Then hop on the famous 17-mile Drive, keeping on the lookout for endemic Monterey cypress trees as you circle the Monterey Peninsula.
Muir Woods, California
Muir Woods National Monument is small at 558 acres, but its resident trees are not small at all. You will find towering ancient redwoods here, many nearly a millennium old and standing taller than 250 feet. Spend a couple of hours exploring below these mighty giants and reading placards to learn about the history of the land. The monument is less than 20 miles from San Francisco and is the most easily accessible redwood grove in the state. Parking reservations are always required, as spots are extremely limited.
Point Reyes, California
Point Reyes National Seashore is situated on a hammer-shaped peninsula about 60 miles north of San Francisco. Set aside a few hours for a misty out-and-back hike on Tomales Point Trail, where wildflowers and tule elk can be spotted, or try the short-but-stunning Chimney Rock Trail. Then grab oysters along Tomales Bay at an oyster shack of your choice.
Russian River Valley, California
The Russian River Valley is lush and green and even delicious, thanks to wineries, beloved cafes, and marketplaces. Walk the town of Guerneville, stopping for a meal at Big Bottom Market (Oprah’s favorite biscuits are made here), then trek around in Armstong Redwoods State Natural Reserve. Plan to float the Russian River (Steelhead Beach is a preferred starting point), and save time for wine tasting at nearby spots like Hartford Family Wines and Equality Vines.
There’s something particularly majestic about a teeny town on a bluff overlooking the sea, and Mendocino is just that. Grab coffee and pastries in this quaint and preserved historic town, then enjoy nature on as many trails as you can. Top paths are in Mendocino Headlands State Park for bird’s-eye ocean views, Hendy Woods State Park for redwood viewing, and Russian Gulch State Park for a beach walk.
Redwood National and State Parks, California
This collection of parks protects the ultra-special redwood tree – they only grow in coastal California and southern Oregon, and they’re jaw-dropping in size (nothing on the planet grows taller) and beauty. There are miles of trails here to trek, but you might want to start with Tall Trees Grove Loop or Trillium Falls Trail. To simply hang out with and marvel at redwoods, head to Lady Bird Johnson Grove.
Thor’s Well, Oregon
Thor’s Well is a sight to see. It looks like a hole in the ocean, where rushing waters sink to unseen depths; scientists say it’s likely the remnant of a collapsed sea cave. Visit at high tide to get the full effect of this “drainpipe of the Pacific.” The area is also good for gray whale spotting in December and January when they travel south for the winter.
Silver Falls State Park, Oregon
Who knew Oregon had so many waterfalls? If you’d like to enjoy these natural treasures, try the Trail of Ten Falls in Silver Falls State Park. The 7.2-mile loop trail brings hikers through dense forest and – you guessed it – past ten waterfalls, and it’s pretty moderate in elevation gain (800 feet). Do the whole trip if you’re able so you can appreciate both the stretches on the forest floor and up the canyon. Start early to avoid crowds.
Willamette Valley, Oregon
There are more than 700 wineries in Willamette Valley, Oregon’s expansive wine country. Build your own wine-tasting itinerary, and save time to go waterfall hiking (as mentioned above, you will find so many falls in this region). Then shop and dine in towns like Cottage Grove, Brownsville, Silverton, or McMinnville.
Cannon Beach, Oregon
This is Oregon’s most famous beach, and for good reason – the high basalt rocks just offshore pierce the landscape dramatically (puffins are pretty active here from April to July), and the cute coastal town of the same name sits just behind the sand. While small, it has everything you need, from breweries and ice cream shops to oceanside lodging options. Small nearby towns like Manzanita and Seaside charm visitors, too.
Multnomah Falls, Oregon
This dreamy, double-tiered waterfall is set in Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, which attracts more than two million people every year. Park near the base and enjoy the view from below (there’s a pretty footbridge at the falls’ midpoint), or hike to the top of the falls via a 2.6-mile out-and-back trail. Note that timed-use permits will be required beginning in May.
White Salmon, Washington
Also in Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, White Salmon, Washington is a perfect riverside town with all the ambiance and activity you could ask for. Expect supreme kite and windsurfing, mountain biking, hiking, and even a brand-new Wildflower Festival in May. You can also explore the area on a whitewater kayaking excursion.
Hurricane Ridge Trail, Olympic National Park, Washington
Olympic National Park is nearly one million acres in size, and Hurricane Ridge Trail is considered one of the best routes in it, as the path delivers stunning views of the Olympic Mountains. The trail and its surroundings are set to reopen Memorial Day weekend after a big rehabilitation effort. Note that the trailhead is in the northeast corner of the park about 100 miles from Seattle, and it closes during snowy winter months.
Friday Harbor, Washington
Washington’s San Juan Islands are breathtaking year round, and though the archipelago includes hundreds of islands, a ferry system allows for easy access to just a handful of them, including San Juan Island, Orcas Island, and Lopez Island. Friday Harbor is considered the hub of the region, and it’s a great place from which to explore. Visit for orca watching, hiking in preserves like Lime Kiln Point State Park, and even farm and winery tours.
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