By Spencer Spellman, on May 29, 2013

The Other PCH Road Trip

Anyone who knows anything about American road trips knows about the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH). The (mostly) two-lane road from Northern California, down through Central California and Big Sur, all the way to Southern California is something of the promised land of American road trips. While the journey brings to mind images of dramatic Pacific Coast landscapes, it’s not the only Pacific Coast road trip that does. If, instead of heading south down the California coastline from San Francisco, you head north, you’ll find landscapes that are just as beautiful. So it’s time to put on a road trip playlist and hit the road.


There are a couple different routes that travelers heading north up the coast can take from San Francisco. The prettier, but slower route, Highway 1, takes you up through the Point Reyes National Seashore, the Sonoma coastline (yes, Sonoma has beaches), and into Mendocino wine country, which is my favorite wine region in the Golden State. The second route, along Highway 101, is a bit of a tradeoff; it’s faster because it cuts inland, but, as a result, the drive is not nearly as pretty as the alternative. 

Everything changes in Oregon, where the two roads come together as one. Shortly after crossing over the border, travelers are met with views of the Pacific Coast that  continue on for miles. One of my favorites in Southern Oregon is Cape Sebastian, a series of bluffs that perches visitors 200-feet above the crashing waves. If you time it right (spring) and you’re lucky, you might even see gray whales.

Viewfinder Tip: Bring binoculars and keep your eyes peeled for whales.

From here, Highway 101 continues to hug the Oregon coastline, occasionally winding inland, but always steering travelers back to the breaking surf. An hour north of Cape Sebastian, travelers encounter a string of state parks, including Jessie M. Honeyman Memorial State Park, Devils Elbow State Park, and Stonefield Beach State Recreation Site. I like Jessie M. Honeyman Memorial State Park because it offers open space for activities such as hiking. Because the park has two freshwater lakes, it also is a great place for water sports. 

Continuing north, the drive heads through my favorite part of the Oregon coastline: A stretch that starts with Tillamook and includes Cannon Beach, Seaside, and Astoria. If Tillamook sounds familiar, that’s because you’ve probably had some of the cheese they make there. For a true Tillamook experience, break up your trip with a free, self-guided factory tour and a little cheese tasting. Did I mention the place has a fudge counter, and an ice cream counter, too? I hope you’re hungry. 

While Tillamook is located just inland, the highway meets back up with the coastline as you head north. About 40 miles up the road, you’ll come upon Oregon’s most famous beach, Cannon Beach. This is the beach with a giant geologic feature known as Haystack Rock. The rock has been featured in several TV shows and movies, my favorite of which being The Goonies. The town of Cannon Beach is just as charming as the beach. It’s also home to one of my favorite Irish restaurants in the world: the Irish Table. My advice is to get there early though, because it gets busy every night around 6. 

Seaside, another charming town, is a quick drive from Cannon Beach. This is the kind of town where every day of road tripping should end. The town is, in fact, at the seaside, hugging the sandy beaches of the Pacific Ocean. There are numerous hotels along the boardwalk that look out over the ocean,. Many of these hotels are within walking distance of local restaurants. 

From here, it’s onward north, where you either can continue up the coastline into Washington toward Olympic National Park or cut over at Astoria, driving along side the Columbia River for a half-hour until you hit I-5. Either way, be sure to stop in Astoria – yet another charming Pacific Northwest waterfront town that makes for a nice breakfast, lunch, or dinner stop. It’s a great place to cap an epic trip.