From Seattle to San Diego: An Epic 3-Week Road Trip on US Route 101

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Ever since I was a teenager, road trips have held a special place in my heart. In some ways that’s kinda surprising, given my first exposure to this great travel tradition was half a dozen family members crammed into a Toyota van for our annual holiday pilgrimage.

Yup, for at least seven excruciating hours each way that bloody van rocked, swayed, and groaned its way through the New Zealand countryside every year. Up mountains and down valleys it went, interrupted only by the regular stops to let my sister leave the contents of her stomach on the side of the road. She wasn’t the greatest of travellers…

Despite that early introduction, for many years a mate and I had talked about doing The Great American Road Trip. We didn’t really know what that was, exactly, but we knew we wanted to do it. Somewhere along the line one of us picked up a copy of Road Trip USA, a guide to touring the US away from the Interstates, and it became a sort of talisman for the next few years.

We’d talked about doing the old Route 66 forever, but for reasons that escape me now we eventually decided that Route 101 would be a better choice.

It totally was.

Now the thing with a trip like this — at least as far as my mate and I were concerned — is that it was all about the clichés. When you’ve been watching road trip movies and US television as long as we had, well, there were a lot of classic moments that we had to recreate.

For that reason, we’d originally planned to buy a classic car from the 60’s (yes, my friend is a mechanic – he’d need to be) and enjoy a leisurely cruise south in between breakdowns.

After looking at the prices, discovering the insurance hassles, and knowing we’d need to sell it in just a day or two at the end, we realised it’d be about the same money, and a lot less grief, to just hire a new Mustang convertible instead.

Once we realised it came in red, the choice was made. A Mustang it just had to be.

Washington

In the spirit of all great road trips, our preparation was awesomely inadequate. We had guidebooks for half of the states we wanted to cover, and a couple of basic driving maps that didn’t even include Arizona.

We’d mapped out a few of the major highlights we wanted to see, and that was the extent of it. Perfect planning, in other words, for three weeks and 3500 miles of driving a rental car in a foreign country on the wrong side of the road.

We picked up the car at Seattle Airport. After a couple of laps around the parking lot trying not to run into other vehicles, and cuing up the first cliche of the trip (“Born in the USA” on the car stereo), it was time to hit the road north.

North, you say? No, we weren’t lost after the first turn — we’d just decided to take a tour of the Boeing Factory in Everett before we headed off. There’s only one word to describe this place: HUGE. Seriously huge. It’s the largest building in the world by volume, and it shows. I’m not a plane geek at all, but it was a seriously impressive tour.

Mount St Helens view

The following day we started the trip for real in a typical Seattle drizzle, quickly clearing traffic on the I-5 en-route to our first stop. Mount St Helens had been threatening to erupt for several days but the visitor centre was still open at that point, so we had to take the detour to check it out.

With all the mist and smoke in the area, plus scarred landscape from the massive eruption in 1980, it was an eerie countryside to drive through. Not eerie enough to prevent a local cop from emerging from the bushes to give us our first (and last) speeding ticket of the trip, however. Four miles an hour over the speed limit, with nobody else in sight. Hmm.

Oregon

We crossed state lines and joined Highway 101 for the first time, staying that night in a little town called Seaside. It was indeed beside the sea, which was far and away its most redeeming feature.

Find discounted hotels in Seaside.

The next day we continued south, and other than a stop in Tillamook to take a tour of the cheese factory (yeah, seriously…), we seemed to spend a lot of time looking at wood. As it were.

There are lots of trees in Oregon, apparently, and most of them seemed to be on the backs of the trucks in front of us. There was a brief comedy interlude, however, as we debated whether to stop at one of the tiny townships along the route. After all, it was pretty tempting to say that we’d spent the night in Beaver.

After a long day staring at logs and a short night being stared at by locals, we decided perhaps a change of scene was called for. In other words, we were both keen to find somewhere to go for a beer that didn’t resemble a scene from Deliverance.

Rather than stopping at Newport, then, with a hasty look at the map we turned inland and continued on to Eugene, a university town with a funny name.

Find discounted hotels in Eugene.

It was mid-week, and as we wandered from one empty pub to another that evening, we wondered if we’d taken a couple of hundred mile detour for no good reason. With the infamous call of ‘we’ll just try one more place and call it a night’, however, we finally discovered the bar where every student in the town was hanging out.

It was packed. The music was pumping. The beer was flowing. It was a fantastic place to end the evening. And … I totally can’t remember the name of it. Sorry about that.

We stayed on the I-5 the following day, with a leisurely top-down cruise through the mountains to Grants Pass, a surprisingly bustling little place. The weather was lovely, the views were equally as good, and it just generally seemed to be a really nice town to stop for the day. And so we did.

Find discounted hotels in Grants Pass

It was an early one that night, since there was a lot of driving to be done the next day, but I didn’t mind a bit.  We were heading for California, baby, and the first stop would be the Redwood Forests. Exciting!

California

Redwoods road

We entered the Golden State the following morning, and with it the road trip really felt like it had begun. Our time in Washington and Oregon had been enjoyable, but when you’re living the dream in a convertible Mustang, well, you really just have to be in California to do it.

With the top down, some rockin’ tunes disturbing the serenity, and some of the tallest trees on the planet crowding the roadside, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that we were having the time of our lives. This, my friends, is what a road trip is all about.

I couldn’t get enough of the redwoods. The namesake national park is just a stunningly beautiful place to spend a few hours walking the trails and marvelling at these giants of nature. Totally incredible.

We found time for yet another tragically clichéd moment a little further down the road, of course, with the (in)famous drive-through tree on the equally famous Avenue of Giants. It’s a cliché of epic proportions, but at least it made for some fun photos.

To be honest it was worth stopping for the exceptional array of crap in the gift shop alone. I somehow escaped with just a few postcards, but a couple of families we saw didn’t get off anywhere near as lightly. How I’ll survive without my replica plastic drive-through tree and matching key ring, I do not know.

Time was marching on, however, and we still had a long way to go. The driving for the rest of the day was fantastic, with lots of coastal scenery and even more big trees to gaze at instead of keeping an eye on the road.

By this stage we’d decided when picking a small town to stop for the night, decent accommodation superseded anything the guidebook writer may have hallucinated about entertainment or attractions, so Fort Bragg was our destination.

Find discounted hotels in Fort Bragg

True to form, the nightlife was terrible but the beds were comfortable. Mission accomplished, I guess. The following day we were headed for our first big city since leaving Seattle, and one of the places I was seriously looking forward to:  San Francisco.

We left Fort Bragg with the top up and the heater on. That famous Northern California coastal summer fog was making its presence well and truly felt. Within a few miles, though, the road dipped inland and the weather improved dramatically. The rest of the drive that day was classic road trip material, basking in the glorious sunshine as we drove through beautiful forests and attractive little towns.

San Francisco

Sadly the good weather didn’t last, and as we neared San Francisco, the fog rolled back in with a vengeance. From jackets to T-shirts and back again in the space of 150 miles. Fun. Never fear, however — bad weather was never going to be enough to stop us from cranking out the biggest cliché of the trip to date. No mean feat, I must say.

Hit play on the video below, sit back, and just imagine driving across the Golden Gate bridge with the top down and this song coming out of all six speakers. Oh yes, we really did.

There was some sort of dream being lived there alright. We’d actually already walked the length of the bridge and back by that stage and despite the fog obscuring the view of pretty much anything, it was still a worthwhile experience.

Find discounted hotels in San Francisco

After navigating the highs and lows of San Francisco’s streets, we tracked down our hostel, found a dubious carpark to leave the mighty Mustang, and started exploring. The YHA was very close to Union Square and its myriad attractions (including more homeless people than I’d seen in a very long time), so we explored downtown and enjoyed a few cleansing ales that night. And then a few more.

The following day was a full on tourist extravaganza — checking out China Town, riding the cable car from Market St to Fisherman’s Wharf (and cracking up at the running commentary from the conductor,) and the highlight of the day, taking the boat over to Alcatraz.

Al Capone cell, Alcatraz

Even with the sun out I found myself shivering regularly. Whether it was the cold wind howling around the crumbling prison, or the thought of anyone spending decades in those damp, spartan cells, I don’t know. The recorded commentary was surprisingly interesting, and having the freedom to explore much of the dilapidated jail and support buildings was great.

Visitor numbers are limited by the capacity of the boats to carry them. That often means you won’t get a spot if you just show up on the day to buy a ticket, but it also meant we never felt particularly crowded anywhere on the island.

If you’d prefer a guided tour of Alcatraz (and other San Francisco highlights), you’ve got dozens of different options.

After an all too brief couple of days in San Francisco, it was yet again time to depart early the next morning. As we headed out over the Bay Bridge, I had a chance to think about my short visit to the city. I definitely liked the place, but I’d expected to love it.

With a bit more time and much better weather, I probably would have. It did seem like the kind of place that grows on you the longer you stay. Guess I’ll just have to head back and find out some day.

Yosemite National Park

The highlights were flowing thick and fast by now — we were on our way to Yosemite National Park! Like most of this trip, we decided to go there on a whim, and a great whim it was. The slog through the San Francisco suburbs was congested and unremarkable, but as soon as we left the main highway, things got much better. As usual.

I love driving on winding mountain roads at the best of times but in a convertible and with views like that? If I could have bottled that feeling and sold it, I’d be a millionaire by now.

We’d picked our accommodation solely on the basis it was the only hostel in the area, which is why I was so blown away by the awesomeness of Yosemite Bug. I’m putting it out there, this is probably the best hostel I’ve ever stayed at.

Gorgeous surroundings (it’s right on the edge of the national park), delicious food and cold beer in the cafe, immaculate dorms and private rooms, a BBQ pit, wi-fi, spa treatments… it’s an absolute winner.  These guys could totally take advantage of their isolation, and provide a really crap experience knowing you don’t have any other budget options. Instead, they’ve put together something rather amazing.

Yosemite view

The park itself lived up to its billing, from tumbling waterfalls and grassy meadows to towering sequoia groves, and a massive granite slab named El Capitan.

It would have been good to have the time and equipment to spend a week trekking around Yosemite Valley, but even a day spent on some of the shorter hikes was well worth it. Coming from New Zealand it takes a lot to impress me in a national park, but Yosemite totally managed it.

Big Sur

Another early start, another long drive, and more stunning scenery the next day. Sensing a theme yet? I know I was. We stayed the night in Monteray, a thriving town making the most of its popularity by opening a million gift shops and overcharging for everything. Despite that, it’s still a nice place to wander around for an afternoon. Not that we had much choice, as our hostel didn’t open until 5pm.

Find discounted hotels in Monteray

As if we hadn’t had enough visual overload during the previous few days, our route the next morning took us through Big Sur. It’s known as one of the best drives in the United States, and it wasn’t hard to see why. Hugging the coastline for around 100 miles, the road climbs from sea level to 1000+ feet countless times as it winds through the Santa Lucia mountains.

We found ourselves pulling over every few minutes for yet another photo of the crashing seas and deserted beaches far below. Blessed as we were with blue skies and bright sunshine yet again, I could happily have driven that road for days.

By this stage, though, we were around half way through our trip, and the long driving days were starting to take their toll. Lucky, then, that my mate had a cousin living in Lompoc, with an RV parked out the front of the house!  We’d passed enough of the damn things in the last week or two, so it seemed only appropriate to put our feet up for a few days and stay in one.

We explored the surrounding area each day, and drank a lot of beer each night. One of the particular highlights was the top-down drive through Santa Barbara to the LA outskirts and back, with tragic 80’s rock blasting from ourspeakers as we passed some of the cast of CHiPS.  I’m pretty sure that’s who they were, anyway.

Eventually the beer drinking had to end, or at least change location, and we struck inland once more. A little later than planned, admittedly, after missing the turnoff just outside LA.

We were headed for the gleaming lights of Las Vegas – but before that, there was a whole lot of nothing. An enormous bunch of nothing, in fact. Wow, was driving through the desert dull or what? Put it this way, when a truck in front of us flicked up a rock and smashed a huge crack in our windscreen, we actually welcomed the diversion.

Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon

Vegas itself was just nuts. There’s no better way to describe it. I’m sure I wasn’t really the target market for Sin City, being a stinky backpacker on a budget with no real interest in gambling. Even so, wandering the strip, winning (occasionally) at the casinos, and just being immersed in the ridiculous neon excess of the place was an experience not to be missed.

Find discounted hotels in Las Vegas

I swear, though, I couldn’t get Queen’s We Will Rock You out of my head for months. The musical was playing in Vegas at the time and that damn song was blasted out of loudspeakers every few minutes. I still shudder at the memory.

We were blown away by the sheer scale of the Hoover Dam as we crossed into Arizona the next day. It’s one seriously impressive piece of engineering. There was no time to stop however, since we were bound for the biggest attraction of all on this trip. The Grand Canyon.

The funny thing about it is that for a hole in the ground that can be seen from outer space, it kinda, well, sneaks up on you. I know that sounds ridiculous, but the landscape is so flat, it really does. You’re driving down the road, watching the signs count down the miles until you end up in the car park, wondering how far you need to walk from there.

Jumping out of the car, you wander forward a few paces, and all of a sudden the ground falls away in front of you and you suddenly realise that one of the world’s most amazing natural wonders is right there. It’s hard to explain but trust me, when you go there yourself, you’ll see what I mean.

Grand Canyon

We hiked down a dusty trail from the South Rim to one of the rest stops and back, a trip of around two and a half hours in the heat. It would have been incredible to spend a night camping on the canyon floor, but those typically needed to be booked months in advance, well before we even knew we were doing this road trip at all. Oh well.

To make up for it we made a spur of the moment decision to catch the last helicopter ride of the day, with a discount thrown in for good measure

If the views from the trail were magnificent, flying above and deep into the canyon was a spectacle beyond words. It’s the only helicopter ride I’ve ever taken, and I can think of nowhere else I’d rather have done so. It wasn’t especially cheap even with the discount, but I figured the chances of getting back there any time soon were pretty slim. Money well spent indeed.

San Diego

After a night in nearby Williams (highlight: the world’s largest and most vile bread roll) we spent a long day on the road to San Diego as we neared the end of our journey. The YHA hostel there wasn’t the cleanest, but it was close to the beach and had a free BBQ one night. Good enough for us.

Other than a half day trip across the Mexican border to the very unpleasant tourist trap of Tijuana, we spent most of our last couple of days with sand between our toes and beer in our hands. There had been a huge amount of driving over the previous weeks, and as incredible as it had been, it was time for a well-earned rest.

Find discounted hotels in San Diego

Dropping the car off at LAX a few hours before our flight home, we reflected on the most amazing road trip we’d ever done. The odometer read 3443 miles from start to finish, through rain and sun, forests and mountains, sprawling cities and deserted back country roads.

It was an experience like no other, and made me appreciate the incredible diversity of even that relatively small part of a huge country. All in all, it was a mind-blowing three weeks.

Would I drive Highway 101 again? You’d better believe it. I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat.

Only in a red convertible Mustang, of course.

32 Responses to “From Seattle to San Diego: An Epic 3-Week Road Trip on US Route 101

  • What an amazing adventure. I’ve driven from Vancouver down to Seattle (which I loved) and all the way across California. However, I’d love to do all the bits in between. Thanks for the post:)

    • No problem, pleased you enjoyed it! I’m busy writing the second chapter as we speak. 😉

  • I used to live in San Fran and did some of this drive once…so beautiful up there! I really want to do a huge USA road trip.

    • It’s just stunning – I have to say that of all the driving we did during those few weeks, the stretch between Grants Pass and Fort Bragg was definitely one of my favourites…

  • That looks like an amazing trip! I grew up on Hwy 101 (that was my address!) so you likely drove right by my old home on your way to SF. I haven’t done the entire 101 since I was a kid, but it’s def on the list of adventures to venture out on soon.

    And love the convertible idea. Now that’s doing it right!

    • Heh, great address! The convertible was kind of a snap decision, and totally the right one … even if we were a bit tired, or the scenery wasn’t particularly great right where we were, or the weather wasn’t perfect, there was something about getting into a convertible that put a smile on our faces every single day!

  • Sounds fantastic! I’ve always wanted to do a road trip, but I’ll probably do a South African one long before I manage to make my way to the US.

    • Hey there’s nothing wrong with a South African road trip – I totally loved the smallish one that I did there a couple of years ago and would jump at the chance to do a much longer one! There’s a lot less chance of seeing an elephant on the 101, I have to say…

  • The 101 is stunning!! Especially south of San Francisco 🙂

  • I love road trips too. I’ve only ever done them for the weekend and oddly enough only to US destinations but sometimes the US can be foreign and exotic to a Canadian 🙂

  • Love a road trip too!

    I also did a drive down the California coast a few years back in a red convertible. I forgot a hat so by the end of the first day my face was fried! Ah well, in the end the amazing scenery was well worth a bit of peeley skin.

  • Jill - Jack and Jill Travel The World
    11 years ago

    So glad you enjoyed Yosemite. It’s our favorite place in the world 🙂 and we’re so lucky to live close enough to visit it in the weekend if we want to.

    Highway 101 is our neighborhood since we live in the Bay Area and have relatives living in LA and Santa Barbara. We’ve done this drive countless times. It is a very pretty drive. Glad to hear you enjoyed it.

  • I rarely drive the 101–or drive at all, as I hate it and prefer the plane/train in California–but you have inspired me! I need to rent a Mustang and do exactly this after Australia. While I’ve been to a few of the places you mentioned, I’m still shocked at what I’ve missed. Great photos!

  • Sounds absolutely awesome! Yosemite and the Grand Canyon are also on my must-see lists. And I’m starting to think the way you did it is definitely the way to do it – I know my husband will love the idea of a red convertible Mustang 🙂

    • And so he should! I reckon if you’re gonna do a trip like this, do it in style! Road tripping in a Taurus just doesn’t have the same ring to it…

      • You’re so right. I actually did do this drive in my ’98 Taurus after high school. Not nearly as cool haha

  • Ok so. I LOOOOOVE this post. For several reasons.

    A) because it involves the United States of America, a country I like.
    B) because it involves the 101, a highway I don’t particular enjoy on a regular basis, but the fact that you correctly identified it as THE 101 and since it runs through one of the places I call home, I like it.
    C) because it involves roadtrips. which I love.

    That being said. I have a few comments about your “journey.” I commend you for making this trek. Not many people really listen to us Americans when we say that America is best seen from behind the wheel. Great choice with the west coast drive, also, it’s one of my favorites – though, I’ve got some better routes for you and maybe I’ll take you on ’em one day.

    I’m watching commercials on TV right now and there’s some hot blonde singing country music on a straight to DVD release and I think you’d enjoy it. That is all.

    • Hmm, I don’t really know where to start with this.

      Perhaps I’ll just ask for a copy of the hot blonde country singer DVD for my birthday and be done with it.

      Overall though, I think you may have accidentally complimented me – so if so, awesome, thanks!

      If not, then pretend we never had this conversation.

  • Also, no one under the age of 40 knows what “chips” is. Grow younger or run a disclaimer with your blog “Only OLD people will understand cultural references in this post.”

    That aside. I’m so proud of you guys for going so far off the beaten track for the big hole in the ground. HOLY SHIT. Grand Canyon. It’s like. No matter how many post cards or pictures or google image searches you do to look at it, it’s like you walk up to that ledge and your jaw drops. It actually fecking drops. I remember maybe even gasping. I definitely remember standing there with my mom and my girlfriend just staring in awe. I have yet to see any natural structure anywhere in the world that floored me like that big gigantic hole.

    Such a big hole. So much stuff could fit in there.

    • I still love you Abbey. Even if this is the 300th time you’ve called me old this week.

      Yeah the canyon was ok, I guess…..

      You’re right about the hole, too. You could fit an awful lot in there, and wouldn’t even have to force it.

  • We are considering this drive (Big Sur south to L.A.) in the spring and can’t wait to see all that gorgeous coast line!

    Congrats on the drive!

    • Thanks! You should definitely do that trip – although I loved the whole thing, that part of it was particularly wonderful … right up until the LA outskirts, anyway! 😉

  • I’m thinking of doing a road trip this summer instead of Burning Man and though I now live in Seattle, I used to live on the Oregon Coast in Lincoln City and I feel the same way you do about Seaside.. I don’t know if you hit them, but Arch Cape is really pretty, just south of Cannon Beach, Manzanita is also super quaint and cute, and Pacific City has a great little pub, the Pelican, where I used to work before I moved up to Seattle 17 yrs ago.. Good beer if you’re ever back in the area and great views of the beach. Also good for whale watching. I haven’t been thru the redwoods since I was little on a trip w/ my parents and I’m thinking I might make that part of this upcoming summer trip. I love that stupid tree you can drive through. 😉 Thanks!

  • Hi David
    I did twice us 101 in 2 different seasons, spring & summer and liked the spring more. I believe that US101 from Olympia WA to San Diego CA is the most underrated road trip in the world ,to me is the best if you take it as whole .
    By the way ( in my opinion) you missed the best part of US 101 which is Organ Coast.

    Wish you all the best and be safe around the world.

    Sami

    • Cousin Vinny
      6 years ago

      I will cover that! Will do that part. SF to San Diego is fun. Never did from WA. That’s the plan. I did do the cross country SF to Fort Lauderdale, FL and then up to Washington DC.

  • Sophie Carr
    5 years ago

    I’m planning on a road-trip in Oregon and just had the idea of a convertible – hence coming across your blog. I think I’m gonna do it! I like the idea of getting into a convertible every day 🙂

  • Cindy Page
    2 years ago

    Awesome stuff. I love your sense of humor! I just did an awesome road trip to the mighty 5 Utah National Parks, plus Grand Canyon, Page AZ & Monument Valley. It was an amazing trip. I am 60 & a solo traveling female who loves exploring new places. I know you have already been to some of these mentions, but definitely check the rest out when you come back to Southwest USA. Going to Albuquerque’s Hot Air Balloon Festival this year, & will also include some cool road trip stops to White Sands NP, Carlsbad Caverns, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Mesa Verde NP & Bandelier NM. Love my USA National Parks & Monuments! As always, thanks for sharing!

  • Trapper Wyatt
    2 years ago

    We make that trip 3 or 4 times a year. We love it.

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