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Road Trip to California: Heading South from Seattle

This scenic approach to California takes you through two cultural hotspots and down the majestic Oregon Coast

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Combine the Pacific Northwest's cosmopolitan cities with Northern California's majestic redwood forests, and you have a West Coast/Best Coast road-trip to suit both concrete-and-steel devotees and tree-hugging nature lovers.

Start your adventure in Seattle, its seaport skyline highlighted by the 605-foot-tall Space Needle, a futuristic landmark built for the 1962 World Fair. Spend a few hours perusing Pike Place Market, one of the country's oldest continuously operating farmers' markets. Since 1907, shoppers have browsed this mazelike warren of stalls for slapping-fresh seafood, but today you'll also find tulips, éclairs, cheese, clam chowder, and even used books. Swing into the colorful Museum of Pop Culture, a Frank Gehry-designed edifice with exhibits that explore indie video games, science fiction, Jimi Hendrix, and the vagaries of fashion. Stop by Instagram-famous Chihuly Garden and Glass to see a fantasia of colorful blown glass sculptures created by Northwest artist Dale Chihuly, some displayed under a glass roof and others intermingled with living plants in an outdoor garden. At day's end, make your way to the observatory and open-air viewing deck at historic Smith Tower. Order a cocktail and survey the scene from 35 floors above Pioneer Square, one of Seattle's oldest neighborhoods.

Pike Place, Seattle

Seattle will tempt you to stay, but about three hours south lies equally inviting Portland, an eco-artsy city boasting the world's largest indie bookstore, Powell's City of Books, and a remarkable concentration of craft breweries (58 within the city limits). Eat your way through the city's fresh, innovative culinary scene—sample Argentine-inspired grilled meats at Ox, French favorites at Le Pigeon, or regional Northwestern fare at Paley’s Place. In between fabulous meals, admire outstanding Northwest and Native American art at the Portland Art Museum and 550 varieties of roses in bloom at the International Rose Test Garden. Save a few hours to tour the Pittock Mansion, a 23-room French-Renaissance-style home built in 1912 for a newspaper magnate.

From Portland, follow Highway 26 to Route 6 west, heading for Oregon's wild and untamed coast. Sample the cheddars on a self-guided tour of Tillamook Creamery, then head south on US 101, cruising through a string of seaside enclaves interspersed with crashing waves and sandy beaches. North of Lincoln City, hike to the top of Cascade Head Preserve for stunning summer wildflowers and eagle's-eye coastal views. Hop on a whale-watching cruise in Depoe Bay. See Oregon's tallest lighthouse at Yaquina Head. Get acquainted with sea lions, octopi, and jellyfish at Newport's Oregon Coast Aquarium. South of Yachats, the Heceta Head Lighthouse houses a cozy B&B, where you can sleep to the rhythm of rolling waves.

As Oregon's coastline meanders south, the topography changes from craggy headlands and rocky tidepools to an otherworldly landscape of shifting sand. Rent boards and learn how to carve turns on sand mountains at Florence's Sand Master Park. Just south of Dunes City, stop at the viewing platform at Oregon Dunes Overlook, then hike the Oregon Dunes Loop Trail. US 101 parallels the coast for another 160 miles, passing through the seaside getaways of Bandon and Gold Beach, before crossing California's northern border. Twenty miles into the Golden State, you'll reach Crescent City, home to the northernmost of California’s lighthouses, the 1856 Battery Point Lighthouse. At low tide, walk across the causeway and climb the narrow spiral staircase to the lamp room for a spectacular 360-degree view. Visit the Northcoast Marine Mammal Center, where injured elephant seals and sea lions are cared for (phone ahead to find out the pinnipeds’ feeding time). Stop in to Seaquake Brewing's lofty warehouse space for a blonde ale or chocolate porter, then check into an ocean-view suite at Scopa at the Sea.

The next day, enjoy an early-morning beach walk before heading out to explore Redwood National and State Parks, a 40-mile stretch of public lands celebrating coast redwood trees, the world's tallest living things. Begin by driving spectacular Howland Hill Road, a zig-zagging, 10-mile route that lets you savor the towering redwoods with a slow-motion drive. Giant trees hug the road so tightly you can reach out and touch them. 

Rolling south on US 101, pause near Klamath to walk the Yurok Loop to Hidden Beach, where driftwood piles up on windswept sand. Schedule at least a half-day in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, taking time to hike the Prairie Creek and Cathedral Tree loop and experience the awe of gargantuan redwoods and a dense rainforest of sorrel, lichens, and moss. Next, head over to Elk Prairie, a golden meadow that’s favored by 1,000-pound Roosevelt elk. The regal beasts are California’s largest land animals and North America's largest elk species. Spend the night at Elk Meadow Cabins and you'll likely see them in your backyard.

In the small town of Orick, turn off at Bald Hills Road to walk the easy one-mile Lady Bird Johnson Grove loop among 35-story-high redwood sentinels, or stop in to the Thomas H. Kuchel Visitor Center to nab a permit for the Tall Trees Grove. A 1.3-mile hike leads downhill to the mind-bogglingly immense trees, which grow on a floodplain alongside Redwood Creek. The tallest tree soars to 379 feet.

Keep pushing south on US 101. You'll want to spend at least 24 hours in picture-perfect Trinidad, a village nestled on headlands overlooking a teacup harbor. Take a kayak tour of Trinidad Bay to see seabirds, seals, and tidepool creatures galore, or hike to the top of Trinidad Head to scan for whales. Stock up on smoked, line-caught seafood at Katy’s Smokehouse and Fish Market. At Patrick’s Point State Park, search for sea-polished agates and moonstones at Agate Beach. Sleep at the oceanfront Lost Whale Inn, perched above a shoreline dotted with wave-sculpted sea stacks.

Your final destination is Eureka, a lumber-mill town filled with grand Victorians and gilded mansions, including the famed 1889 Pink Lady and ornate Carson Mansion, prime examples of Queen-Anne-style gingerbread. This history-rich community has a youthful, vibrant art scene. Take a one-mile walk to see the city's murals, or visit the Morris Graves Museum housed in a 1902 Carnegie Library. Float across the bay on the 1909 wooden cruiser Madaket, then tuck in for the night at one of the five Victorian buildings that make up Carter House Inns. In the morning, you'll face a "win-either-way" decision: Drive south five hours to San Francisco, or spend a few more days lingering along California's wildly beautiful north coast.

For more than 50 detailed road trip itineraries across the Golden State, please visit the California Road Trip Republic hub.

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