Planning a west coast road trip itinerary in the USA can feel like a daunting task. With so many epic locations and things to see you could spend a lifetime exploring all that the western half of the United States has to offer!
In order to truly experience the beauty and diversity of the west coast, you’ve got to organise your itinerary and see it by road.
Here’s how to plan the ultimate west coast road trip in the US.
When is the Best Time to Undertake my West Coast Road Trip?
The beauty of the west coast is that it generally receives mild weather year-round.
California has everything from sunshine to snowy mountains, while Oregon and Washington tend to have gloomier weather that gets cold during the winter.
Even though you could go on a west coast road trip year-round, the best times to hit the road are April through June or August to November.
The summer months are certainly sunnier and warmer, but any desert location will be absolutely unbearable during the hot summers.
Which Direction Should I Go on my West Coast Road Trip?
Your direction largely depends on what time of year you go.
Since the desert gets unbearably hot in the summer, you’ll want to head north to south if you’re traveling during the fall, and south to north if you plan on traveling during the spring and early summer.
How Long Should My Road Trip Itinerary Be?
The longer the better-always, since you’ll be able to see more. However, life on the road can get dirty, tedious and taxing. A month is a great amount of time, but in order to make your road trip budget-friendly, plan on camping for several nights at a time.
Shorter itineraries, such as two weeks, will be tough since you’ll likely want to spend a few days in each spot. In order to avoid road fatigue, try to pick just a few key attractions and save the rest for another trip.
What Should I Budget for a West Coast Road Trip?
Car rentals and hotels can destroy anyone’s travel budget in America. If you plan on staying in hotels every night and eating out each day, expect to pay between $150 to $250 a day for meals, gas, lodging, and attractions.
For the budget-friendly expect to camp (you can even find free camping in the USA along the way). Staying in hotels only when you need a break from your tent. If you bring or rent a camp stove, you can cook most of your own meals and splurge on occasion. This will keep your budget closer to $50 to $100 dollars a day. Factors that affect your budget include:
- The fuel efficiency of your vehicle. If you opt for a larger vehicle, you can sleep right in your car, but you’ll pay more in gas.
- The distance you drive each day. If you plan on driving from Mexico to Canada in a short amount of time, you’ll spend plenty on gas.
- Cooking your own meals vs going out.
- Camping vs utilizing hotels or Airbnb’s
- How many paid activities you participate in.
Where to Stay on Your West Coast Road Trip Adventure
For the budget-conscious and adventure driven, consider camping for the majority of your adventures.
The west coast of the US offers an endless array of natural beauty and the best way to see that is by sleeping in your vehicle or tent. Finding free camping in the USA isn’t too complicated, but be prepared (we’ll touch on what to pack in a second). Always respect nature and leave no trace. This includes picking up your trash (toilet paper included), staying on marked trails, and following wilderness guidelines.
For longer trips, consider renting a campervan. Campervan rentals have become increasingly popular in the US. You’ll have your bed on wheels and as long as you stopped in a place with overnight parking, you’ll have everything you need at your fingertips.
After several days of camping, you’ll probably want a roof over your head for a night. Consider staying at cheaper motels or a room at an Airbnb. This helps prevent road fatigue on both short and long journeys.
You can use apps like Booking.com to find great last-minute deals
Tips for the Ultimate American Road Trip Itinerary
There are several tips for road tripping to keep in mind while you wander the west coast.
- Have a rough plan. You might stop somewhere and fall in love, be sure to allow some flexibility in your schedule to shift things around
- Book popular campsites and permitted hikes in advance. In almost every National Park there is a permitting system for popular hiking trails and campgrounds. These fill up very fast. For example, hiking Half Dome in Yosemite requires an advanced booking or getting lucky with an early-morning lottery. Be sure to do your research, as every park is different.
- Stay off of private land. Americans can get picky and possessive with their land. Make sure you’re staying in designated public lands to avoid any unwanted encounters.
- Buy a National Park’s Pass. It’s much cheaper than paying the daily fees to visit the parks.
- Remember, the USA is a huge country. It takes quite a bit of time to get from point A to point B, remember to plan accordingly.
- Be friendly. Americans are really friendly, sometimes they ask questions that appear rather strange to foreigners. As odd as the question may be, always be polite.
- Rest up. You can use WalMart parking lots and truck stops as places to sleep in a pinch.
- Freshen up. Many truck stops offer showers you can use to get clean. Most of these are quite safe, especially if you visit during the daytime.
USA West Coast Road Trip Itinerary Stops
From the southern tip of the west coast all the way to the Canadian border there’s a wide variety of things to do and see along the west coast of the USA.
Here’s a look at a few must-see stops along your west coast road trip
Surf in San Diego
San Diego is a chilled-out southern California town known for its laid-back attitude and awesome beach scene. Catch a wave at La Jolla beach where you can rent surfboards and take surf lessons
Explore the Desert of Joshua Tree
Hiking in Joshua Tree National Park is one of the best ways to explore this unique desert environment. Make your way through giant boulders and watch rock climbers defy gravity. Watching a sunset in the desert is one of the most beautiful experiences.
Feel the Heat in Death Valley
Head to the hottest spot on the planet, Death Valley, to experience the driest and lowest land of extremes. Hikes here should be done early and with plenty of water. Even consider driving during the morning or evening hours to avoid overheating your vehicle.
Soak Up the Glam of LA
For an iconic California experience, head to the palm tree-lined streets of Los Angeles. Catch a concert at the Hollywood Bowl or the famous sunset strip or spend your time sunning yourself at one of LA’s famous beaches.
Gaze Upon Granite Monoliths of Yosemite
Yosemite National Park is a sight that needs to be seen to be believed. Hike to the top of the famous Half Dome or take a scenic drive to Yosemite Falls. Glacier Point is another must-see view that is guaranteed to take your breathe away.
Ride the Pacific Coast Highway (and Camp on the Beach!)
See the best of Northern California and Oregon via the Pacific Coast Highway. This iconic highway runs the entire length of the west coast, so hop on and off at your leisure to get your ocean views. Some of the best sections are in Santa Cruz, Monterey, Big Sure and San Simeon – all located in California. There are many areas to camp along these beautiful stretches of coastal driving.
Relax Near the Blue Waters of Lake Tahoe
Located just two and a half hours east of San Francisco, the jewel-toned waters of Lake Tahoe offer endless opportunities for outdoor recreation and fun in the Sierra Mountains. There are a variety of fun-filled activities in Lake Tahoe, including short hikes to hidden beaches, an annual Shakespeare festival, and scenic boat rides.
Hike Around Crater Lake
Crater Lake National Park was formed back when a volcano exploded and filled with water. It’s a sight to behold and a must-see on any west coast road trip itinerary. Drive around the scenic lake or opt to hike. Don’t forget to watch a sunset here.
Hug a Redwood
The Redwood National Forest in California is home to the biggest trees in the world! The tree trunks are so large, you can drive through them! No west coast road trip is complete without hugging one of these mega-giants.
Cruise the Cascades
Located in Oregon, the Cascade Mountains are home to many famous peaks including Mount St Helens. Plan on spending several days exploring these magnificent, volcanic peaks.
Drive the Beach
Unlike anywhere else in the US, there are certain areas along the Oregon Coast where you can Drive on the beach. Yup, put your tires in the sand and drive to your heart’s content along Cannon Beach. Be sure to check out the unique Haystack Rock.
Keep it Funky in Seattle
Seattle is a fun, urban hideout filled with tons of counter-culture and unbeatable coffee spots. Scope out the Public Market, visit the iconic Space Needle, and get funky in Fremont. Other areas of interest include Ballard and Belltown.
Deception Pass, located in coastal Washington near the Canadian Border is a great stop to gawk at an iconic sea bridge that is truly an engineering marvel. Take your time exploring the area and visiting the different sounds by a boat tour.
What to Pack for a West Coast Road Trip
When it comes to packing for a US road trip, remember that you’ll be exploring many different environments with variable weather. Be prepared with these west coast road trip essentials:
- Sleeping bag*
- Travel pillow
- A USB charger with extra battery pack (most cars have USB charges, but bring a car charger just in case)
- Cook stove (you can also rent this from an outdoor store)*
- Basic cooking utensils (you can also purchase these from a Goodwill Store or Target when you arrive)*
- Cooler (again, you can buy used or rent)*
- Purchase stove fuel once you arrive, since you cannot take it on a plane
- Good walking/hiking shoes
- Warm socks and regular socks
- Plenty of undergarments
- A warm jacket for the mountains
- A rain jacket
- Day pack for hiking/exploring
- Toiletries: Don’t forget to pack your prescriptions. It’s harder to get medication in America, but there are plenty of basic over-the-counter medicines available
- An international driver’s license
- Passport with copies
- Book, cards, and other forms of entertainment
- The ultimate road trip playlist for music
- Sun protection: Hat, sunscreen, sunglasses
- Apps like HipCamp (boutique camp spots), Airbnb, Yelp, and more!
*Only required if camping
Now You’re Sorted, It’s Time to Hit the West Coast on Your Road Trip!
If you’re into beaches, mountains, desert wonders, and cultural meccas, you’ll love the adventure of a west coast road trip.
Take your time and explore the unique sights of the western US by road.
Guest Post by Meg Atteberry. A full-time freelance writer for the outdoors, she grew up in the western US and now calls Colorado home. She wants to empower you to go on the adventure of a lifetime. As a rock climber, mountaineer, and geography nerd, she loves to explore the natural nooks and crannies of the word. You can learn more about Meg on her blog, Fox in the Forest. She’d rather be dirty than done up.
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