The Seattle to San Diego Road Trip: A Detailed Drive Guide

Ready for a Seattle to San Diego road trip? Driving down the Pacific Coast is one of the most scenic and fun road trips in the country!

The Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) is the primary route that folks take on the West Coast, because it offers stunning ocean views. But there are a couple of inland routes worth considering as well, since they pass by places like Crater Lake National Park in Oregon and Mount Shasta in California.

Let’s take a look at four common routes for a Seattle to San Diego drive, with suggestions on where to stay and what to see along the way.

Of course, this guide works if you’re going in reverse, from Los Angeles or San Diego to Seattle, or from anywhere in southern California up to the Pacific Northwest.

san diego to seattle drive west coast usa road trip

Seattle to San Diego Road Trip: Route Options

1 Most Scenic Ocean Drive: Pacific Coast Highway
2 Most Direct Seattle to San Diego Road Trip: I-5
3 Cool National Parks Road Trip Through Crater Lake
4 The Long Way Around Through Idaho and Nevada

If you want an even more detailed guide to west coast road trips, I recommend this Moon Pacific Coast travel guide, which gives you more details and side trip ideas than you could ever want:

#1: West Coast USA Road Trip Option: Routes 1 & 101, aka Pacific Coast Highway

pacific coast highway route 1 and 101

Distance: 1585 miles
Drive time: 32 hours
Days needed: 5-10
Highlights: Redwood National Park, San Francisco, Los Angeles, hundreds of miles of Pacific Ocean coastline

Overview:

The Pacific Coast Highway is one of the most scenic drives in America. The PCH is technically just Route 1 in California, but that road turns into Route 101 in Oregon and Washington, creating a journey that follows the entire Pacific Coast, providing plenty of clean, fresh air and ocean scenery.

pacific coast highway

To choose this route for your Seattle to San Diego drive, leave Seattle and head west to the ocean. If you like, you can drive the entire Olympic Peninsula loop to see Olympic National Park – this is part of my list of the best Washington state road trips.

If not, just head toward the town of Aberdeen (after a slight detour to Ocean Shores), hop on Highway 101, and drive south!

Note that the driving time for this route is far longer than some of the other routes. That’s because most of the coastal route is a two-lane road with a lower speed limit. Expect lots of traffic in some of these small towns, especially during the summer.

Where to Stop:

With 4-6 hours of driving each day, you can conveniently spend your nights in Astoria, Port Orford, Eureka, San Francisco, San Luis Obispo/Santa Maria/Santa Barbara, and Santa Monica/Venice Beach.

It takes 32 hours to complete the 1585 miles of this route, which is an average speed of less than 50 miles per hour. This route is best for folks who have a full week to make the journey.

redwoods tree

Driving through the Redwoods is a highlight of this west coast road trip!

 

On this route, Redwood National Park and San Francisco are two of the big attractions. Redwood NP has lots of elk, massive trees, and a hidden former spy station. SF has Alcatraz, the Cable Car Museum, Coit Tower, and the California Academy of Sciences. And don’t forget about historic Berkeley, just across the Bay.

For the rest of the drive, you basically have your pick of coastal towns throughout all three states. Astoria, Oregon overlooks the mighty Columbia River and is home to Lewis & Clark National Historical Park.

Newport, home to the Oregon Coast Aquarium, also marks the end of U.S. Route 20, which begins in Boston, making it the longest coast-to-coast road in America!

Other coastal cities worth making at least a brief stop for include Port Orford and Brookings in Oregon; and California towns Crescent City (where I found an awesome farmer’s market), Leggett (where you can drive through a hollowed-out tree), Eureka (which has a cool Old Town), Monterey, Malibu, and Venice Beach, the quirkiest part of the LA area.

The beauty of traveling on Route 101 and the Pacific Coast Highway is that you’ll be driving right through these towns, so you can simply pull over whenever something interests you!

la jolla seals

The seals of La Jolla, near the end of the Seattle to San Diego drive.

 

Also don’t miss the famous seals at Children’s Pool Beach in La Jolla, a community in the northern end of San Diego.

Note: As of 2021, parts of Route 1 in California between Monterey and San Luis Obispo are inaccessible due to landslides, so you will have to switch to Route 101 for that leg. The signage and your navigation app should guide you appropriately through this area.

Towns and points of interest on road trip #1:

Washington:
Olympic National Park
Ocean Shores
Willapa National Wildlife Refuge
Fort Columbia Historical State Park
Oregon:
Astoria
Lewis & Clark National Historical Park
Newport
Port Orford
Brookings
California:
Redwood National Park (and State Park)
Eureka
Leggett (drive-thru tree)
Point Reyes National Seashore
Golden Gate National Recreation Area
San Francisco (Berkeley)
Santa Cruz
Monterey
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
Santa Barbara
Malibu
Los Angeles (Santa Monica, Venice Beach)
La Jolla

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Where to Stay:

Gold Beach, OR: Pacific Reef Hotel. This hotel has a private beach, an indoor hot tub, and a nightly light show.

Eureka: Hydrangea Inn. The city of Eureka is the king of chain hotels – Motel 6, Days Inn, Quality Inn, they’re all here. For a nicer experience, try the homey Hydrangea Inn, in a converted historic house built in 1930.

San Francisco: Marina Motel. Leave the car behind by staying at this hotel, located right next to Golden Gate Park. It’s a 45-minute walk to the Golden Gate Bridge itself, and a 40-minute walk in the other direction to Fisherman’s Wharf.

Los Angeles: Bayside Hotel. This Santa Monica property is one of the more affordable hotels near the beach, right in the heart of the vibrant Santa Monica community.

#2: Fastest Road Trip Option: Take I-5 All the Way

seattle west coast usa road trip

Distance: 1255 miles
Drive time: 19.5 hours
Days needed: 3-7
Highlights: Portland, Ashland, Mount Shasta, Sacramento, Los Angeles

Overview:

Believe it or not, you can drive from Seattle to San Diego in less than 20 hours if traffic cooperates! So if you’re really in a hurry and you’re traveling with a friend, you could take turns driving and get there in one day.

But if you’re reading this, I’ll assume you want to take your time and enjoy the journey. The I-5 drive is the most direct path between San Diego and Seattle, but it’s entirely on the freeway, which means it has the least number of must-see attractions on the way.

voodoo doughnut - weird things to do in portland

Portland (home of Voodoo Doughnut) is the first major stop on the I-5 road trip route.

 

Two highlights on this “express” version of the west coast road trip are the cities of Portland, Oregon and Sacramento, California. The Cali portion of this drive has some fun small towns and mid-size cities as well, and you’ll get awesome views of the 14,000-foot snow-covered volcano Mount Shasta.

Where to Stop:

Give yourself the better part of a day in Portland. In addition to quality museums and restaurants, Portland has a ton of quirky and weird things to do. There’s the extinct volcano turned city park, Mount Tabor; Mill Ends Park, the smallest park in the world; the giant Adidas shoes; and the trendy Hawthorne neighborhood.

In Oregon, the cities of Eugene, Ashland and Medford are good pit stops. Eugene has the University of Oregon, while Ashland and Medford offer outdoor recreation in abundance.

Mount Shasta is one of the tallest mountains in California, and you’ll see it right from the freeway. But you can get even closer by going into the town of Mt. Shasta itself. Here’s a list of other places near Mt. Shasta worth visiting, including Lake Siskiyou and the quirky town of Weed.

This road trip route passes through California’s capital city of Sacramento. Jump off the freeway here to see the state capitol building, plus the offbeat California Automobile Museum (classic cars!), the Old Sacramento neighborhood, and several outdoor hiking trails and waterparks.

Sacramento is a good place to spend the night because it has some trendy restaurants and bars, and it has historic theaters where you can catch an evening concert or show.

sacramento capitol

From Sacramento, it’s only about 7 to 8 hours to reach San Diego. But of course, you have the option of spending time in Los Angeles on the way. LA offers the chance to see attractions like the famous Griffith Observatory, the Grammy Museum, and Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. Plus, explore cool neighborhoods, see striking street art, hike in the Hollywood Hills, and go celebrity hunting.

Anaheim might also be worth a stop, especially for families who want to visit Disneyland and the city’s other kid-themed attractions.

Towns and points of interest on road trip #2:

Washington:
Tacoma
Olympia
Oregon:
Portland
Eugene
Ashland
Medford
California:
Weed
Mt. Shasta
Redding
Sacramento
Bakersfield
Los Angeles
Anaheim

Where to Stay:

Portland: Inn at Northrup Station. This hotel is located sorta near downtown, but far enough away that you’re away from the hustle and bustle. It’s less than a mile from the famed Portland Japanese Garden.

Mount Shasta: Shasta Inn. Of the handful of hotels in Mount Shasta, the Shasta Inn is the best combination of affordability and comfort.

Sacramento: Amber House Inn. Elegant, Victorian-style rooms in historic buildings in the Midtown part of the city.

Los Angeles: Bayside Hotel. This Santa Monica property is one of the more affordable hotels near the beach, right in the heart of the vibrant Santa Monica community.

#3: Road Trip Option #3: Inland via Crater Lake and Lassen Volcanic National Parks

seattle san diego national parks route

Distance: 1349 miles
Drive time: 23 hours
Days needed: 5-10
Highlights: Portland, Bend, Crater Lake National Park, Lassen Volcanic National Park, Sacramento

Overview:

Here’s a Seattle to San Diego road trip for folks who want get off the beaten path and see some less-obvious places, like the last Blockbuster Video in the world in Bend, Oregon – plus a handful of national parks!

This route mostly stays east of I-5, so you’re avoiding loud highway traffic for much of the drive. You’ll need at least 5 days to do this drive right, since Crater Lake and Lassen Volcanic National Parks require a full day each to explore.

why is crater lake so blue

Awesome view of Crater Lake National Park in Oregon!

 

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Both Crater Lake and Lassen Volcanic have limited access during the winter and spring due to snow cover, so this road trip is best for the summer months, from roughly May to September.

Where to Stop:

Take I-5 to Portland, and spend time there at all the Portland hotspots previously mentioned. Next, head to the city of Bend. Pop in to the last remaining Blockbuster Video, enjoy the feeling of nostalgia, and buy some souvenirs to commemorate the visit!

last blockbuster store bend oregon

Next, drive through Mt. Hood National Forest and you’ll get close up views of the impressive peak. Then, check out one of the most underrated national parks in America, Crater Lake. This park is built around a dormant volcano that now houses a massive lake.

Give yourself at least one full day to circle Rim Drive, which has numerous pullouts where you can stop and take in the remarkable views. You can hike to the top of the nearby mountain peaks, and you can also hike down to the water and go swimming!

swimming crater lake

Next, move into northern California through Modoc National Forest, and check out Lassen Volcanic NP, another of the more overlooked national parks. Drive the winding, 30-mile park highway to see the bubbling mud pots, mountain peaks, and volcanoes of the park.

Then head through Chico and Yuba City down to the state capital of Sacramento. As noted in road trip #2, Sacramento is an ideal place to stop since it offers everything from museums and breweries to history to outdoor adventures.

South of Sacramento, staying east of I-5 gives you a chance to visit some medium-sized cities that tourists often skip, such as Modesto, Fresno, and Bakersfield.

As you pass through these towns, you’ll be tantalizingly close to three more national parks: Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia. All can be reached with only a 1-2 hour detour from this route. If you have plenty of extra time on your journey to San Diego, consider swinging by some of these parks as well!

Finally, south of Bakersfield, this route reconnects with I-5 and passes through Los Angeles and Anaheim en route to your destination in San Diego.

Towns and points of interest on road trip #3:

Washington:
Tacoma
Olympia
Oregon:
Portland
Mt. Hood National Forest
Bend
Crater Lake National Park
California:
Modoc National Forest
Lassen Volcanic National Park
Sacramento
Modesto
Fresno
Bakersfield
Los Angeles
Anaheim

Where to Stay:

Near Crater Lake National Park: Dawson House Lodge. There aren’t a ton of lodging options near Crater Lake, but I like Dawson House. I’ve stayed here in the past and it offers rustic accommodations with restaurants and convenience stores in walking distance.

Near Lassen Volcanic National Park: Village at Childs Meadow. Just 15 minutes from the park, this hotel has nice rooms and an upscale bar and restaurant.

Sacramento: Amber House Inn. Elegant, Victorian-style rooms in historic buildings in the Midtown part of the city.

Los Angeles: Bayside Hotel. This Santa Monica property is one of the more affordable hotels near the beach, right in the heart of the vibrant Santa Monica community.

#4: The Idaho-Nevada Route Through Las Vegas, Death Valley, and Joshua Tree!

seattle to san diego road trip map nevada

Distance: 1786 miles
Drive time: 28 hours
Days needed: 7-14
Highlights: Boise, Great Basin National Park, Las Vegas, Red Rock Canyon, Death Valley National Park, Joshua Tree National Park, Palm Springs

Overview:

This alternate road trip route through Idaho and Nevada is actually my favorite of the four. It takes a lot longer, but on this trip, you can hit up three sweet national parks (Great Basin, Death Valley, Joshua Tree), plus the cities of Boise, Las Vegas, and Palm Springs.

You should really allow a minimum of one week for this drive, and maybe even two. Spend at least one full day in each of the national parks and big cities.

Camping in Death Valley looks like this!

Where to Stop:

If desired, you can start with a day or two at Mt. Rainier just outside Seattle. Then cross through the desert of eastern Oregon before landing in Boise, Idaho. Boise is an underrated city with some good restaurants and bars to get you through the night.

Then, head down to Great Basin National Park. Great Basin is actually one of the least-visited national parks, which means you can avoid the crowds here. Great Basin offers fascinating natural formations such as Lehman Caves and Wheeler Peak, which holds the last remaining glacier in Nevada.

From there, it’s on to Vegas, baby! Try your luck at the slot machines, and then check out some of the quirkiest museums in the city, such as the Neon Museum, the Mob Museum, the Pinball Hall of Fame, the Burlesque Museum, and the National Atomic Testing Museum.

Outside Vegas, don’t skip Red Rock Canyon, one of the coolest day trips in the Las Vegas area! You can climb around on the giant rocks and see 800-year-old petroglyphs.

red rock canyon nevada

Red Rock Canyon is the best day trip in the Las Vegas area.

Next, head towards Death Valley NP. On the way, stop at Rhyolite, a former mining town that is now a legitimate ghost town. Death Valley has several highlights, including Badwater Basin and Telescope Peak. Take plenty of water and keep your hikes short!

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A Summer Road Trip Through Canadian Prairies and National Parks!

After one day at DV, move on to Joshua Tree National Park, a very underrated park with some nice hikes (such as Wonderland Ranch), good viewpoints, and basic rock climbing that you can do in one day.

joshua tree hike

Joshua Tree is a fun stop on this extended Seattle to San Diego road trip.

 

Palm Springs is an awesome oasis in the desert, with celebrity culture, nightlife, LGBT culture, great restaurants, and a sweet aerial tramway that goes to the top of Mount San Jacinto.

palm springs welcome sign

Towns and points of interest on road trip #4:

Washington:
Mt. Rainier National Park
Yakima
Oregon:
Pendleton
La Grande
Idaho:
Boise
Twin Falls
Nevada:
Great Basin National Park
Las Vegas
Rhyolite (ghost town)
California:
Death Valley National Park
Joshua Tree National Park
Palm Springs
San Diego

Where to Stay:

Boise: Modern Hotel. The name is basic, but the experience is great. Stylish accents, a great location, and free breakfast make this a good hotel choice.

Near Great Basin: Stargazer Inn. Super-close to the park you’ll find Stargazer Inn, which provides clean and basic accommodations at a reasonable price.

Las Vegas: MGM Grand. Vegas has a surprising number of affordable hotels. Stay at MGM Grand, right in the heart of the Strip, so you can walk to the slots or the theater.

Palm Springs: The Saguaro. Palm Springs is a good homebase for exploring Joshua Tree. With its bright pastel colors, the Saguaro is one of the most iconic hotels in the city.

Frequently Asked Questions

What if I’m driving north from San Diego to Seattle instead?

Everything is the same, except in reverse! The itinerary could have one possible change, though: If you’re driving north, you can continue into Vancouver, Canada. The drive from Seattle to Vancouver is roughly 3 hours, including the wait at the border. Bring your passport! In Vancouver, you can explore sights like Stanley Park.

Note: At the time this article was published, the Canadian border was still closed. But it is expected to open sometime in summer 2021.

What time of year is best for this west coast USA road trip?

Obviously, the summer months are best when you’re driving along the Pacific Coast. But this road trip is still doable in the spring, fall, or even winter. Seattle, Portland, and the areas along the coast don’t get much snow. They only get maybe one or two snowstorms per winter.

So the odds are that even if you schedule this trip in January, you’ll be fine. Of course, the weather will be colder, and you won’t be able to enjoy as many outdoor activities. But this is a trip that can be done any time of year.

best washington state road trips

Driving near Mt. Rainier outside Seattle.

 

Are there rest stops and bathrooms along the way?

Yes, especially on I-5. You’ll find plenty of rest stops with road maps, tourist information, and public bathrooms. This site has a nice listing of rest stops by state. For the road trip routes that don’t use I-5, you may have to rely more on gas stations and fast food places for your bathroom breaks.

How much will gas cost for a Seattle to San Diego drive?

Unfortunately, California, Washington, and Oregon all rank among the top five states for most expensive gas costs in the country. The gas cost will vary depending on your car and how many detours you take. I recommend using Gas Buddy’s Trip Calculator, which allows you to estimate your costs and suggests the cheapest gas locations along your route.

For the most direct route between San Diego and Seattle, interstate I-5, with a car with average fuel efficiency, the site estimates around $350 total, based on gas costs as of 2021-2022. The longer routes will require a bit more in fuel spending.

What’s the speed limit on these highways?

The maximum speed limit on I-5 is 70 mph, and it’s lower than that in many places. The Seattle to San Diego road trip is not like some other cross-country driving routes, where you can do 80 or 90 mph. On this trip, take your time and enjoy the journey!

Are there tolls on these highways?

As of this writing, I-5 has no tolls, although there has been a lot of talk, especially in Oregon, of adding tolls to part of the route. If you leave I-5 and use some back roads, you could run into tolls in the Seattle area. In California, SR 73 and 133 have toll portions that connect with I-5. If you take the Pacific coastline route, you may encounter a $10 toll on 17-Mile Drive in Pebble Beach.

What can I do in Seattle before leaving town?

Seattle has so many cool activities! Check out the historic Pioneer Square neighborhood. Visit Pike Place Market and the infamous Gum Wall. Visit the vibrant Capitol Hill neighborhood, home of the Jimi Hendrix statue.

I always recommend the Space Needle and/or the boat tour, which offer awesome views of Mount Rainier. And you can take a day trip up to gorgeous Whidbey Island or move on to another Washington state road trip.

What can I do after arriving in San Diego?

san diego road trip

The San Diego skyline, with Cabrillo Monument in the foreground.

 

San Diego, California is truly one of my favorite American cities! It has several cool neighborhoods. For history, there’s the Maritime Museum and the Cabrillo Monument. For wildlife, visit the renowned San Diego Zoo. Take a selfie with the Kissing Sailor statue. And make sure to spend some time at Ocean Beach and Sunset Cliffs.

Do you have any other suggestions for making the road trip drive between San Diego and Seattle?

About Quirky Travel Guy

Scott Shetler is a Seattle-based freelance writer & fan of indie rock, road trips, ice cream, squirrels on power lines, runaway shopping carts, and six-way intersections. Some posts on this site contain affiliate links, which may earn me a commission (at no extra cost to you) if you make a purchase.

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