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Seattle to San Francisco Road Trip! Adventures and Waterfalls

Seattle to San Francisco Road Trip! Adventures and Waterfalls

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As an East Coaster who had never visited the West Coast until recently, I just didn’t know what I was missing out on.

I’m from Florida. The West Coast, before visiting, was a place of gloomy dreary weather that was cold and rainy, or… California beaches. That’s it. There wasn’t much in between. Maybe wine and Portland’s “weirdness” too… but that’s about it.

It wasn’t ignorance, I just simply didn’t think about visiting places around the US much!

The cobbled streets of Europe were far more fascinating, wandering in the chaos that’s almost any mega city in Asia was way more enthralling, and having the chance of running into a kangaroo or man-eating spider in Australia was terrifying yet much more intriguing…

So the West Coast, in short, was always too “close” for me to be that interested. BUT…

After finally visiting Oregon a few years ago, my first time on the West Coast, I fell in love. It’s probably my favorite state! And after this Seattle to San Francisco road trip, this East Coaster is truly a West Coaster at heart.

The West Coast is my people, it’s my vibe, it’s me.

I want nothing more but to spend months on the west waterfall chasing, hiking, soaking up those west coast feels, and breathing in the fresh mountain air…

I fell hard and after this West Coast road trip, I only want to go back for more and more! (And I did!)

Seattle to San Fransico Road Trip


Since writing this post, I’ve road-tripped the west extensively. So I have updated the article with extra detours and info and have provided plenty of links to other posts to further help you plan your trip.

This road trip was done in a campervan and initially done with my friend Jess (so you know who “we” is!) We were totally free to do what we wanted without the restraint of hotel reservations, and we woke up in nature usually at a trailhead or at a lake! I can’t recommend doing this road trip by campervan enough.

Unfortunately, the company I rented from doesn’t exist anymore but I now use and recommended Outdoorsy—It’s THE place to rent campervans and RVs for epic USA road trips.

Here are a few more posts to check out after you’re done reading to help with your trip.

Related:
Road Trip Essentials Checklist
How to Plan a USA Road Trip and What Vehicle I Used
Mistakes to Avoid While on a USA Road Trip

West coast USA road trip route
A rough route of our awesome Seattle to San Francisco road trip.

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West Coast US Road Trip

Seattle to San Francisco Road Trip in 2 Weeks


Here’s the thing about this Seattle to San Francisco road trip… I didn’t really do it!

Wait, what? Hold on, I DID do it, I just didn’t do it exactly like this. My trip was actually nearly three weeks and I started in Vancouver, Canada.

Joffre lakes hiking
A photo of Canada to entice you…

If you’re interested in starting even more north, like all the way in Canada north, and I suggest you do… Check out my posts on Vancouver trips and Vancouver hikes.

Below you’ll find my favorite stops along my Seattle to San Francisco road trip. There were plenty more stops along the way not listed here and actually a few extra places that I wish I had time for.

Below is the best of the best and I hope you love everything as much as I did.

Just note that there are a few days unaccounted for because, well, life. There’s bound to be a delay or a moment where you want to chill somewhere for longer or a detour that took 3 hours instead of 3 minutes… So I padded this itinerary a bit for you already.

There’s also SO much along the way not on this list because as per usual, we always need more time. So is life.

A Few Notes About This Seattle to San Francisco Road Trip:

The below road trip DOESN’T go along the coast at all but I’ve offered some detours should you have time to include more stops.

I know that’s the most popular route and like, why would I not drive that route?! Well, I actually have a few valid reasons…

  • The coastal route is no doubt gorgeous but I was curious about the inland route. There’s plenty to do inland too! Why not road trip that bit?
  • The highways inland are likely going to be less busy. As in, everyone road trips the coast so I’d rather explore the areas not visited by everyone and their mom.
  • This road trip happened between September and October, which is my perfect shoulder season time! I rarely go anywhere during high season and it pays off. Also, the weather was PERFECT. Fall colors, hello!
  • On that same note, the West Coast doesn’t really exude “beach vibes” (unless you’re in SoCal) and staring at a cold ocean for two weeks didn’t sound like the best time to me, I’m from Florida, remember?
  • The weather on the other side of the mountains and away from the coast is often better. I’ve spent a lot of time in Oregon, Bend specifically, and people just a few hours closer to the coast are ingrossed in rainy weather while we’re basking in the sun… This side of the mountains has much better weather particularly at this time of the year.
  • Lastly, I was interested in some adventure! So I wanted to hike and chase waterfalls, and those are mostly inland.

So let’s begin! Shall we?

Click the image to view the clickable map for the Seattle to San Francisco road trip.

Seattle to San Francisco Road Trip Through Washington—2 Days

As this itinerary is not about exploring the cities, we drove on the outskirts of Seattle and headed straight to our main attraction: Waterfalls!

We got the party started as soon as we made it into the USA. There’s no time to be spent wandering concrete jungles, and really, who wants to drive a van through that and deal with parking anyway?

Not I! So here’s what we did with our few days driving through Washington…

Snoqualmie

Snoqualmie Falls was a great first stop. It’s extremely easy to get to and is only a few minutes strolling to the viewing platform. Should you want to take it further, there is a one-mile (there and back) pathway that goes down to the falls.

Snoqualmie Falls
Snoqualmie Falls

Getting down won’t be too hard but it’s quite steep going back up.

The waterfall is actually a Hydroelectric Plant and was the world’s first completely underground power plant. Yay for fun facts!

Franklin Falls was probably my favorite waterfall in Washington. The hike was pretty easy with the last few minutes being over some sharp and slippery rocks. And at the end of it, you get a perfect waterfall!

Franklin falls
Franklin Falls

Twin Falls was another relatively easy trail although the path got a bit muddled here and there the closer we got to the falls. And there will be clambering over branches and fallen trees too but it’s all worth it!

RELATED: 7 Awesome Waterfalls Near Seattle, Washington

Mount Rainier

Mount Rainier could enthrall you for days on end… But to be perfectly honest with you, we didn’t mean to drive through Mount Ranier!

It was overcast, Mount Rainier had been in hiding since we entered the state, and on the morning we arrived, it didn’t look any better.

Most West Coast road trips wouldn’t dare miss this on the itinerary, and I couldn’t believe we almost did!

Mt Rainier on a Seattle to San Francisco road trip
Mt Rainier

The fact that it was overcast and Mount Rainier was nowhere to be found didn’t matter. The park is still totally worth a visit, even if it’s just a quick drive through!

TIP: Make sure to have $30 in your budget for this trip! Mount Rainier costs $30 per vehicle regardless if you’re just driving through or want to check it out. If you want to use NPH 706 / Paradise Road, then you’ll have to fork over the money. Good news is, the pass lasts a week if you’re hanging out or driving back through in a few days.

Christine and Narada Falls

Check out Christine Falls viewpoint, and if you’re up for it, keep on trekking out to Comet Falls.

It’s another 4.3 miles out from Christine and isn’t too hard but will require some stamina and skill. Considering our dismal weather and the trail being so muddy, we didn’t make it out there.

Christine Waterfalls
Christine Waterfalls

Christine Waterfalls is right there along the road though and you can walk two seconds to the viewing platform. Narada Falls is just another wander down the road and again, a short walk down and then back up!

There’s a longer (2.4 miles) and tougher hike if you want to go all the way down to the falls if it’s not too muddy out.

Paradise

There’s a place here called Paradise and honestly…

That name is usually thrown around without a care. But I think we did actually find it to be a paradise! We were graced with some of the most incredible fall foliage to roam around, and we were definitely digging it!

When you do this Seattle to San Francisco road trip, I can’t encourage you enough to come in fall, fewer people, beautiful colors, cool breeze, what’s there not to like?

I’m not sure what this area is regularly used for as there was just a parking lot near the meadow but we were the only people here for about an hour as we enjoyed the colors of fall.

The drive around Mount Rainier is equally as beautiful as everything we saw in it.

Winding roads, trees bursting with color, waterfalls, streams, and dense valleys… I’m so happy we drove through on accident!

Before we headed out, we took one last stroll through the Grove of the Patriarchs that was maybe a 30-minute loop filled with giant trees and a mini suspension bridge over a stream.

RELATED: 21 Epic Waterfalls in Washington

More Hikes and Adventures Around Mount Rainier

Since this road trip I’ve explored Mount Rainier extensively and if you have extra time to visit—PLEASE DO!

There are so many hikes in Mount Rainier to conquer, that you’ll have trouble leaving and continuing your Seattle to San Francisco Road trip. Here are some of my favorites:

Washington Add Ons

RELATED: 17 Legendary American Road Trips

Seattle to San Francisco Road Trip Through Oregon—4 Days

I LOVE Oregon, and I actually have more to offer than what’s on this list. I’ve been in and out of Oregon for over seven years now, so 4 days is nothing but we will be making the most of it!

Oregon viewpoint on a road trip
Random stop on the road trip

Columbia River Gorge

This is where Oregon and Washington meet. The river naturally splits the states up and in between, is a wonderland of epic hikes with vistas over the gorge, waterfalls, and water sports to enjoy…

Dry Creek Falls

How high can your expectations be with a waterfall hike named Dry Creek Falls?

This place is a bit in the middle of nowhere, and you’ll feel like you’re parking in someone’s backyard.

Luckily, the waterfalls were not at all dry, and instead, we rocked up to a totally empty area with a gorgeous streaming waterfall.

Dry Creek Falls
Dry Creek Falls

It was so peaceful, we spent a good chunk of time hanging out and soon a few people on horses came galloping through. Otherwise, not another soul to be seen.

Rowena Crest

For a badass viewpoint, Rowena Crest Viewpoint is gorgeous.

Road trip views at Rowena Crest Viewpoint
Rowena Crest Viewpoint

First, there’s the cool horseshoe road view but you can also see straight down the Columbia River Gorge which is a mighty beautiful site to see.

You can simply drive down the Columbia River Gorge while enjoying the views outside your window but the must visit stop is…

Columbia river Oregon
Columbia River Oregon

Multnomah Falls

Make your way to the famous Multnomah Falls.

This is probably the most famous waterfall in Oregon, and most West Coast road trip itineraries will mention it. You’re right here, come take a look. If you’re low on time, there’s an easy viewing platform at the bottom.

Multnomah Falls Portland Oregon
Multnomah Falls

But if you have extra time, you should definitely scramble up. One thing to note, this place gets SUPER packed. Finding parking can be a feat and getting a good picture can be annoying, but it’s a quick stop over and still worth it.

To get away from the crowds, simply continue along the trail. You’ll be rewarded with tons more waterfalls without all the people.

Bridal Veil Falls

Bridal Veil Falls is a gorgeous little waterfall not too far from Multnomah and a great alternative if you’re not wanting to share your space too much.

Bridal Veil Falls
Bridal Veil Falls

It’s quite an easy hike in, and there’s a big boulder to climb up to get a better view of the falls. Just down the road is Vista House which offers you your last glance at the Columbia River Gorge.

There’s an abundance of adventures and epic things to do in the Columbia River Gorge. You could spend the entire two weeks just here!

Mount Hood Area

Make your way down towards Mount Hood and stop at Trillium Lake.

This is perhaps the prettiest lake I saw on my Seattle to San Francisco road trip! And it’s all because Mount Hood finally decided to show its face. Usually, he likes to hide behind the clouds and be all mysterious. But today, he was out to play—finally!

Woman at lake below Mt Hood
Trillium Lake and Mount Hood

There’s an easy trail around the lake, or you can bring a picnic, sit at the lake’s edge, and just enjoy the view.

Another great lake to see near Mount Hood is Lost Lake, with some great trails all around it and a beautiful campground.

RELATED: Your Adventurous Arizona Road Trip!

Santiam Pass on the Way to Bend

Speaking of mysterious mountains who want to hide behind clouds…

The next mountain we came across riding south was Mount Jefferson. We saw him ALL DAY. He was in plain sight around every bend.

However, when we made our way through the beautiful hike up to Triangular Peak, he had disappeared. This hike is incredible and even without Mount Jefferson in sight, I was pretty blown away.

From up here, you have some truly spectacular views of the dense green forests below, yet you’re ironically standing amongst a forest of burnt up trees.

Some fires came down hard here and the trees will eventually come back, but for now, it was a cemetery.

It was hauntingly beautiful, but to bring the mood back up… Keep on hiking.

As you continue past the forest of dead trees, you’ll come across Boca Cave.

A massive cave that perfectly frames Mount Jefferson… If he shows up.

Even without Mount Jefferson out to play, this was a perfect reward after our hike!

Have some extra time? Squeeze in a visit to Smith Rock State Park just outside of Bend. There’s rock climbing and hiking opportunities galore and the setting is stunning. Hiking Misery Ridge is a good call if you have a few hours and want to break a sweat. You can get a great view on the fly if you can’t hike around, simply park and enjoy the incredible views from the valley below alongside the river.

Tumalo Falls and Proxy Falls

Tumalo Falls is a really beautiful waterfall that’s very quick and easy to see. You can walk a few feet from the parking lot and you’ll be there! For some extra leg stretching, keep following along the trail to see more waterfalls along the way.

Tumalo Falls
Tumalo Falls

To chase more waterfalls, Proxy falls is one of the most beautiful in the area. It’s a gorgeous multi-tier horsetail waterfall along the McKenzie Highway. It’s a quick mile and half loop too so the efforts are minimal!

I absolutely LOVE Bend, Oregon and its surroundings. I actually spend a lot of time here. Want more info on what to do around Bend? Check out what Bend offers.

Diamond Lake and Crater Lake

You’re almost on the way to California… But first, two more gorgeous lakes, cool?

One is super famous, and the other isn’t but maybe should be!

Diamond Lake features the mighty Mount Thielsen, and while there isn’t much to do there, the views are worth a quick drive-by on the way to Crater Lake.

Sunset on Crater lake
Sunset on Crater lake

Crater Lake is one of the world’s deepest and purest lakes and it’s pretty damn impressive! I must say, I think it looked far more magical in winter when I was here last, but it’s pretty damn incredible any time of the year.

TIP: If you come on offseason and a bit later in the day, you may not get charged the entry fee as the booths aren’t always manned. We got here a bit before sunset. ($15-$25 in winter/summer per vehicle).

There’s a whole loop to drive around or you can drive just one side of the rim if you’re low on time. Do note if you come in winter the rim road may be closed, so just double-check what’s open.

If it is closed, you will likely still be able to visit but only to one viewpoint and not the whole loop.

The good new is the views are great all around the lake, so no worries.

Oregon Add Ons

RELATED: Your Southwest Road Trip Itinerary (1 Week – 2 Months)

Seattle to San Francisco Road Trip Through California—6 Days

In short, California is stunning yet overwhelming.

What a massive state with incredible diversity to dig into! Like, where does one start? It was difficult to narrow it down but here’s what I did with plenty of detours as further options…

RELATED: California Road Trip Itinerary: 19 Must-Visit Stops!

Lava Beds National Park

The first national park we stumbled upon and drove through was Lava Beds National Park.

It sounded weird and intriguing!

path in Lava Bed National Park Seattle to San Francisco road trip
Lava bed National Park

While I wouldn’t say to hang around for a whole day, a quick drive-through is perfect.

Take a hike around the Captain Jack trail, visit a few caves, spot some bats, and maybe even a rattlesnake too!

Feary Falls

After experiencing the vast and dry Lava Beds, Feary Falls was paradise.

Faery falls hike
Faery Falls

This was such a perfect find and I’m so happy we didn’t skip it! It’s not the easiest find and we almost gave up. But we took the chance on the trail with no sign and found it.

Feary Falls did feel a bit like a fairytale considering there was almost nobody else here. I bet in summer it would be amazing to take a dip in, but it was freezing when I was here.

McCloud and Burney Falls

McCloud’s Upper and Middle Falls are a nice and easy stop to stretch your legs, and you’ll get to see Mount Shasta in the distance.

Burney Falls put some of these other waterfalls to shame in terms of its size, power, and beauty; no wonder it’s so popular!

Luckily, I was here during shoulder season, as I do, so it was bad at all, but I’ve heard it gets pretty crowded. Burney Falls is probably the top waterfall on most West Coast road trips, particularly any road trip going through California.

Burney Falls
Burney Falls

And obviously, the pictures show you why. It’s simply stunning and mysterious with its mossy dribbles that seemingly come from nowhere.

RELATED: West Coast Waterfall Hikes

Lassen National Park

Lassen National Park was quite a surprise, I didn’t think I would be as entertained as I was! Manzanita Lake first welcomes you as you enter the park with Lassen Peak just beyond.

Manzanita Lake Seattle to San Francisco road trip
Manzanita Lake

Enjoy the view, rent kayaks, and have a picnic while you’re here.

Kings Creek Falls offered a wonderful hike through the forest where bears stroll around and swipe their meals from the creek. Unfortunately (fortunately?), we didn’t encounter any bears, although I’d be lying if I said we weren’t hoping!

The waterfall offers a viewing platform but we hiked down the boulder to get a better look at it.

Kings Creek Falls
Kings Creek Falls

Lassen Peak will be staring at you all day, beckoning you to challenge yourself and hike up to the top. Being that my friend Jess had hurt her ankle a few days prior, we had to skip it, but it looked like a wicked place to get up high! I’d go back to tackle it.

Laassen peak
Lassen Peak

Just as you ride outside of Lassen National Park, you’ll see some cool sulfur steam craters with a mighty stench and smoke emanating.

Sardine Lakes was another stellar sight.

The High Sierras are out in full force, glinting their reflections in both lakes. The hike to Upper Sardines Lake is worth it—don’t try to drive there without a 4×4!

Add-on: Have more time? Drive out a bit further and make it to Lake Tahoe. Take a dip at Kings Beach, check out Emerald View, do some water sports, drive around the lake and make a few stops along the way. It’s quite beautiful!

For $10, switch it up and rest those feet from hiking at Grover Hot Springs State Park. There’s a cool, or should I say hot, pool for soaking in the mineral water from the area. It also has a shower, which you might be in deserpate need of like I was!

We’re almost done with our Seattle to San Francisco road trip! We saw all the waterfalls, all the lakes, and all the crazy beautiful mountains we could see… Let’s switch it up.

Big Trees National Park

We mixed it up for the last couple of days and hiked through two gorgeous parks with some pretty famous trees.

Big Trees National Park is pretty much what it sounds like! It’s a park with tons of trees, some of which are the biggest in the world!

When I say big, I’m talking MASSIVE. It would take a small army to fully hug some of these trees, and walking among them was humbling. This is such an underrated park and is often overshadowed by a more famous spot…

Muir Woods National Monument

Muir Woods National Monument is home to some of the tallest living things on earth, the Redwood tree. At Muir Woods, you get lost in the lush and impenetrable forest before you.

Muir Woods on the Seattle to San Francisco road trip
Muir Woods

I highly suggest taking a wander out of the “main” trails and going up further, and making the larger loop. There are hardly any people the deeper you go in, and it’s much easier to get lost in the moment up here.

Tennessee Valley Trail

The Tennessee Valley Trail is worth a wander as well, as you haven’t seen the coast this whole trip! Take a quick hike in, dip your toes in the sand and listen to the water crashing on the rocks.

Just next door is Muir Beach overlook for an incredible coast view.

Golden Gate Bridge

Before you say goodbye to this Seattle to San Francisco road trip, make the iconic stop at the Golden Gate Bridge.

We found the H. Dana Bower Rest Area (Vista Point) to be a perfect spot because, for one, it was a bit out of the madness of the city but also, it’s a place with free overnight parking, so we slept in this parking lot and woke up to the bridge during sunrise. Pretty sick!

Golden Gate Bridge San Francisco
Golden Gate Bridge makes an epic end to the Seattle to San Francisco road trip

California Add Ons

How to Plan a Seattle to San Francisco Road Trip?

So you know where you want to go but aren’t sure how to plan much beyond that… I got you!

I’ll be brief here and send you off to read my in-depth guide but in short, I rented a van, which was the perfect vehicle to get me from A to B.

Check out Outdoorsy and see which campervans and RVs are available to rent for your trip!

I also have a method for planning road trip stops and what mistakes NOT to make.

Just want to rent a car? I usually find my car deals on Holiday Autos, but I always double-check on independent sites too like Hertz and Sixt.

DON’T FORGET! You NEED travel insurance—Especially when renting a car, you don’t want to get caught without. Any damage to the vehicle could cost you a fortune.

Your car rental could be covered by your credit card but keep in mind there’s always some crazy fine print, so read it! Credit cards rarely include RVs or campervans and are usually only for regular cars.

The vehicle rental company likely offers insurance but it doesn’t hurt to shop around to see if your travel insurance or credit card offers you the same coverage for less.

In addition to making sure your car is covered, you’ll need to make sure YOU are covered too. Safety Wing and World Nomads are often what I use, depending on where I am in the world.

***BOTH of these also have options to add rental car coverage! Grab a quick quote now and see how much it is to cover you and your rental vehicle…

Quick quote: Safety Wing | World Nomad

My Seattle to San Francisco road trip did not disappoint. I was thoroughly happy with taking the inland route as a great alternative, I hope you are too!

When going from Seattle to San Fransico, I hope you add some or all of these spots to your list of places to go.

Which of these spots are you most looking forward to seeing?



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Best West Coast USA Road Trip

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gordon

Friday 14th of February 2020

Nina,

what waterfall as the most grandiose and then the most private? Taking my wife (from FL) out there this summer in mid-july for a decade celebration !

Cheers- G

Nina Ragusa

Friday 14th of February 2020

If you can find the path to the bottom of Tulamo Falls you'll probably have it to yourself! Burney is STUNNING but not at all private. Have fun!

Ian

Sunday 25th of August 2019

Hi, I came across your website searching for an itinerary. The descriptions and pictures are fantastic.

I have a question in relation to the timing of doing this trip. Is it still feasible to do this in November or will there be a high chance some of the roads etc will be closed due to weather ? We don't mind the cold, as we are living in the Blue Mountains in Australia.

We won't use a campervan though, so our trip will need to be more structured.

Appreciate any help you can give.

Nina Ragusa

Sunday 25th of August 2019

Hi Ian, Thanks! Predicting the weather isn't something I can do :) Road closures happen randomly, perhaps look up closures along your route that seem to happen every year/have a high chance of being closed. Beyond that, it's all a game of chance.

Rhonda Weaver

Thursday 7th of February 2019

I loved this article, Nina. I grew up in Oregon and currently live in Seattle and you brought back so many great memories for me! Mutlnomah Falls was one of the first road trips for hiking we took with our kids when they were growing up. My sister and I spent some summers at Crater Lake-it is still one of my favorite places and I would love to go back. Mt. Hood is my favorite winter place. Snoqualmie Falls was the first place we went when we moved to Washington. My took me there for Mothers Day! You are right about Oregon and the names of places. There is a Boring Oregon and a town named Drain. Washington has a beautiful spot called Cape Disappointment. Anyway, I wanted to thank you for writing this. It makes me all nostalgic and there is a lot to Oregon and Washington people don't know about. I have only ever been to San Diego so I would be up for visiting the Muir Woods National Monument or the Tennessee Valley Trail.

Nina Ragusa

Thursday 7th of February 2019

Thanks Rhonda!!! So happy to hear this :) It's SUCH a good area in the USA, I'm sure we could explore it for weeks on end!

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