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Highway 101 – A Road Trip Down the U.S. West Coast

How long has an awesome US road trip, jam-packed with dream beaches, enchanting forests, and bustling cities, been on your bucket list? Highway 101 – also known as the Pacific Coast Highway – stretches from Seattle, Washington, right along the Oregon coast and all the way to San Francisco and beyond, hugging the Pacific coastline for 790 miles (2,478 km) right down to San Diego.

This epic road trip down Highway 101 is the ultimate U.S. tour, taking you through three states and some of the most magnificent landscapes in the U.S., including dense rainforests and beautiful beaches. To make the most of the stunning sea views, we recommend starting your road trip in Seattle – this way, you’ll always be on the side of the road that’s closest to the ocean. If taking the trip the other way is more convenient for you, don’t worry – you’ll still get to enjoy plenty of amazing landscapes!

Tips for the Perfect Highway 101 Road Trip

Whether this is your first road trip or just the next one in a long list, you should always take some time to prepare your journey. So, you’ve picked your dream vehicle – be it rental car, RV, or even a camper van – and plotted out your ideal itinerary? Now take a look at our top recommendations to make sure you won’t have any unpleasant surprises during your trip.

Preparing Your Trip

Any road trip through the U.S. involves some preparation beforehand. For example, some states require you to have an international driving permit. One of these states is Washington, where your trip starts, so don’t forget to bring both your regular and your international driving licence – one won’t be valid without the other.

Insurance is another thing that is best to get sorted before your trip. In the U.S., most car rental places don’t automatically include any insurance in their offers. Therefore, it might be a good idea to shop around and get some insurance of your own, just to be on the safe side. The U.S. is also famous for its expensive health care system, so we would recommend getting some travel insurance, in case you require medical care during your trip.

Another thing you should always be carrying with you is cash. U.S. toll stations usually only take small change, so make sure you always have enough small bills to get you through your road trip. If you plan on staying overnight at a National Park, don’t forget to book your spot well in advance, as they tend to sell out pretty quickly. 

During Your Trip

One of the big decisions you’ll have to make is when to take your trip. The two most important factors at play here are your destination’s climate and the kind of activities you want to do while you’re there. Don’t let hot summer days ruin your plans! We recommend exploring Highway 101 in fall. This way, you also get to see all three states at their prettiest. Always keep an eye on the weather forecast, though. Thanks to climate change, the West Coast is at an increased risk of wildfires, even in the fall.

Once you’re on the road, make sure you don’t speed and remember to stick to all other driving regulations – it’s best to read up on them before you start your trip. As you’re going to spend a lot of time on the road, remember to take regular breaks to avoid tiredness. You also want to always keep an eye on how much gas you have left, as there are some parts of Highway 101 without any gas stations for many miles.

Finally, of course, look out for yourself, others, and the environment. You’re probably aware of the fact that taking a road trip isn’t exactly the most environmentally friendly way of travelling. It could be worth brainstorming how you can make your trip as sustainable as possible. If you have the means, why not donate some money to an environmental organization? But of course, you can also protect ecosystems without spending any money. Volunteering at a charity event or helping to collect some litter are great ways to do your part for the environment.

Washington – Let the Highway 101 Adventure Begin

Seattle is the perfect place to start your road trip down Highway 101. The city is perhaps most famous for its Space Needle. If you’ve got enough time, we highly recommend spending a few days here before hitting the road. Afterwards, it’s only a short drive until you hit Highway 101.

Once you’re on the highway, just follow it southwards towards Olympia. Port Angeles is a great option for spending your first night. This coastal town is located north of the Olympic National Park, which is also well worth a stop. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to some truly spectacular landscapes. The abundance of trails is a must for explorers who want to experience the awe-inspiring mountains of Hurricane Ridge in the north of the park.

Hoh Rainforest

A few miles further south, you’ll encounter the large trees of the remarkable Hoh Rainforest, one of very few rainforests left in the temperate climate zone. A biosphere reserve and one of four rainforests in Olympic National Park, Hoh is a great hiking place for beginners. Its trails aren’t too long, but still lead you past some impressive views. One of our favourite hikes is the Hall of Mosses Trail. It takes into the heart of the dense forest with its thousands of green mosses and ferns. If you want to keep going, why not explore the Spruce Nature Trail afterwards? It’s only a little longer than the first hike. If you’ve still got time left, we also recommend exploring Sol Duc Falls. This waterfall is surrounded by the rich emerald colours of Hoh Rainforest, a perfect photo opportunity.

Rugged Coastlines

Olympic National Park has another spectacular type of landscape to offer – a dramatic coastline. The area is also home to some charming rock pools, which only fill up with water when the tide is high. If you’re in the mood for a walk along the sea, check out Ruby Beach! Covered in driftwood, it offers a refreshing contrast to the sandy beaches you usually see on vacation. 

Another wonderful beach is Rialto Beach in La Push, a town on the Quileute Indian Reservation. Recognize the town’s name? You might know it from the Twilight series. Bella’s hometown of Forks is also located nearby. It’s definitely worth a visit for fans of the saga. You don’t have to worry about being attacked by a vampire or werewolf, though – they haven’t been seen here in years!

Next Stop on Highway 101: Oregon

After a few days in the beautiful Olympic National Park, it’s time to head on to your next destination. But before you cross the border into Oregon, we have to mention one more staple of any road trip – the perfect playlist. Your ultimate U.S. road trip would be incomplete without it! For this trip, it should definitely include some Nirvana songs. Come As You Are and Smells Like Teen Spirit are some classics to start you off as you take a detour to Kurt Cobain’s hometown of Aberdeen!

With this last stop in Washington under your belt, you’ll finally cross state lines into Oregon. On this stretch of the trip, Highway 101 follows the coastline pretty closely. If you have some time to spare, we highly recommend exploring Oregon’s largest city, Portland, for a few days. If you’d rather avoid the large crowds, don’t worry – there are plenty of other quirky towns and wonderful beaches waiting for you. One of our favourite places in the area is Seaside!

Impressive Beaches

After spending a lot of time in the car, you’re probably eager to stretch your legs. Why not take the chance to explore one of Oregon’s most popular sand beaches, Cannon Beach? It’s located south of Seaside and is home to the famous 235-feet-tall Haystack Rock. The nearby Ecola State Park offers not only plenty of hiking trails, but also a wonderful view of the incredible rock and the surrounding coastline.

Don’t miss your chance to discover a true hidden gem while you’re in the area! The small town of Neskowin has one of the most captivating beaches of the entire West Coast. The low tide exposes 2,000-year-old tree trunks that are stuck in the sand. The beach used to be covered by a forest before it got flooded. Now, it has earned the nickname of Ghost Forest.

You’ve got to check out and admire the Proposal Rock while you’re here, too. The gigantic rock got its romantic name in the 1800s when a sea captain rowed his beloved out there to ask for her hand in marriage. It sits high above the water and is covered in flora – a truly stunning sight!

The Devil’s Punch Bowl

Another interesting place to stop at on your way down Highway 101 is Devil’s Punch Bowl near the town of Newport. Not only is this beach home to many rock pools, but there’s also a lovely picnic area available. The beach’s main attraction is, of course, Devil’s Punch Bowl. This cave is open at the top and on one side, meaning it’s also filled with water from the ocean.

Your experience of Devil’s Punch Bowl will depend on the tide. At high tide, we recommend following one of the small trails to the viewpoint above the cave. From up there, you can watch the imposing waves crash against the walls. Their thundering sound is where the cave got its name. If you’re visiting Devil’s Punch Bowl at low tide, on the other hand, you can climb into the cave. Be careful, though, and make sure you’re back outside before the tide changes – the water will be there quicker than you think!

Northern California

Welcome to California! One of the northernmost stops in this state is the cool town of Crescent City. It’s famous for its beautiful beaches, where you can spend your time surfing and kayaking. If you’re an animal lover, we highly recommend visiting the nearby Castle Rock Wildlife Refuge, a great place to see hundreds of water birds, seals, sea lions, and sometimes even sharks.

Where the Giants Live: Redwood National Park

Northern California is also home to Redwood National Park, which stretches along Highway 101 for around 60 miles. This UNESCO World Heritage Site comprises several state parks and is famous for its ancient giant sequoias, or giant redwoods as they’re also called. At more than 300 feet tall, these trees are some of the largest in the world. Redwood National Park is also home to giant ferns, beautiful hiking trails, and fascinating wildlife.

If you’re still not sure which state park to visit, we recommend exploring Humboldt State Park. It boasts the largest number of redwoods and includes Rockefeller Forest, among other sights, which served as a shooting location for the Star Wars movies. Another wonderful forest in Humboldt State Park is Founder’s Grove. Here, you can see the Dyerville Giant, which was once the park’s largest tree before it was felled in 1991.

If you’d rather go exploring without leaving your car, why not take a drive down the Avenue of the Giants? This 30-mile stretch of the historic Highway 101 runs parallel to the modern road. Prepare to be blown away (and feel completely dwarfed!) as you make your way through the thicket of giant trees.

Conclusion

Now that you’ve crossed one more national park off your bucket list, where are you headed next? Once you’re south of Redwood National Park, we would recommend leaving Highway 101 behind and following California Highway 1 instead. This way, you get to follow the Californian coastline for a little while longer until you hit the hills of San Francisco! From here, you can decide what’s next for you – maybe you want to take some time to explore the Bay Area? Or do you want to continue southwards and discover SoCal and Los Angeles? Whatever you decide, we’re sure you’ll have an unforgettable time! 

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