US Roadtrips

Seattle to San Diego: driving the Pacific Coast

Pacific Coast Road Trip - Day 2: Seattle WA to Port Angeles WA

Driving along the West Coast

I’ve been to the West Coast multiple times before but it was only single trips to major cities, flying from London or Chicago. Visiting smaller places was in my bucket list of things to do and, in summer 2023, I decided to check that box driving all the way from Seattle to San Diego in a 20 days journey along the Pacific coast, crossing Washington State, Oregon and California.

You can either click here to get to the daily posts with all sort on additional info about my trip – where I stayed, what I ate, what I saw – or here if you want to read all the daily postcards in one go.

Or just keep scrolling.

The Pacific Coast Highway is arguably one of the most famous drives in the world, a bucket list experience that takes you through 3 different States: Washington to California via Oregon. In a Seattle to San Diego drive you’ll pass small charming hamlets and stop in some of the largest metropolis on the planet. You’ll hike in forest with some of the tallest trees in the world and walk through beautiful wineries, you’ll see the raging ocean from high cliffs and you’ll sunbath on white sandy beaches.

Planning a West Coast Roadtrip

Once again I’ve decided to plan the trip around my birthday. Being a significant one, I wanted to celebrate it in a spectacular way: with a mind-blowing wine tasting experience in Napa. Departure and arrivals were all planned around that day.

I started doing my researches around May, planning on an excel file all the ideal stops, trying to calculate how long would have taken me to go from point A to point B etc. Also since the company I work for has offices in multiple locations along the pacific coast, I thought to spend a couple of days in each of these places, to extend the duration of my trip and maybe catch up with some colleagues. The decision complicated the planning quite a bit cause I had to be sure to be in either these office location on a school day. Also while speaking to a friend living in Seattle, she recommended to drive first north, all around the Olympic Peninsula loop, before heading South towards Oregon.

I didn’t buy any map or special apps this time and I’ve relied entirely on Google Map which, aside from a couple of misunderstanding, has been more than reliable in my Seattle to San Diego drive.



Pacific Coast Road Trip - Day 13: Monterey, CA to King City CA

How Long is a road trip from San Diego to Seattle?

Going on a straight line mostly on the Pacific Coast Highway (meaning the US 101 in Washington, Oregon, and parts of California and the Highway 1 in California) going from Seattle to San Diego means driving for about 1,500 miles. My itinerary was much longer, 2,414 miles to be exact, due to a number of diversions along the route.

How many days does it takes to drive from Seattle to San Diego?

I read articles from people claiming you can drive from Seattle to San Diego it in as little as 5 days. And it is true. You can actually drive all the way in 48 hours if you want. But is it worth? It took me 20 days including a few multi-days stop in a few places. Driving every day would have taken me about a week less or so probably. But that would have been a waste cause driving down the West Coast you bump into magnificent cities and some of the most incredible natural places on Earth that are worth visiting properly.

My twenty days itinerary on a West Coast road trip

I Flew to Seattle on June 18, picked up my car at SEATAC and drove to Seattle, Freemont where I spent the night out with some friends. From there this was the itinerary of my Seattle to San Diego road trip (A description, map and general information are in each daily post):




Where do you stay when driving the from Seattle to San Diego?

As usual I stayed mostly in motels, partly to safe costs, partly cause in certain location there were no alternatives, partly cause motels are pretty cool and iconic. A couple of exceptions were in the largest cities where I stayed in hotels downtown. Accommodation I used in my Seattle to San Diego road trip are mentioned in each daily post.

How many miles do you need to drive every day and for how many hours

As I said before, including the detour to Napa, I drove 2,414 miles in total. The longest leg was Fortuna to Napa (250 miles) the shortest Napa to San Francisco (50 miles). Considering stops for pictures, gas, food you might expect to stay on the road for anything between 3 and 8h a day.

How much does it cost to drive from Seattle to San Diego?

As I said this was a special birthday hence I didn’t want to be too cheap in my choices. Including everything for this road trip from Seattle to San Diego I spent about $4,700 excluding the (very expensive but 100% worth) wine tasting in Napa, food, drinks and gas. Anyhow, here is how:

  • $11.20 (yes that’s eleven dollars and twenty cents!) for the flight from Chicago to Seattle and from San Diego back to Chicago thank to my Sky Miles Delta points
  • $1,868 to rent the car in Chicago and return it in Los Angeles – including full insurance
  • $154 to rent the convertible in Los Angeles and return it in San Diego – including full insurance
  • $2,696 in lodging. The cheapest accommodation was in Crescent City ($81.40/night) the most expensive in Los Angeles ($205/night)


Pacific Coast Road Trip - Day 5: Florence, OR to Crescent City, CA

What type of car is best to drive from Los Angeles to San Diego?

For a Seattle to San Diego drive I recommend a midsize car for a number of reasons:

First of all the weather. Aside from Southern California it is very likely that you might get some days of not-so-good weather. Driving along the coast I had cloudy, misty weather pretty much every day till LA. Whenever I was moving inland magically the sky was opening up and the sun was shining but most of the time you’ll be on the coast where the weather can be unpredictable.

Second: a Seattle to San Diego road trip is a long, long drive. You want to be as comfortable as possible to avoid back and neck-pain especially if you decide to drive like I did on some unpaved roads. The more stable the car the better it is

Last but not least: the cost. Unless you want to drive all the way back to Seattle (or to San Diego depending where you pick up the car) you’ll need a one-way-rental for your road trip from Seattle to San Diego. And that’s expensive for any car. With a convertible the rental price will go up the roof.

But I get it: driving roof down, with the wind in your hair, pretending to be a movie super-star is a dreamy feeling. I had it too. What I did was to compromise: I rented a midsize (a Chevvy Malibu) in Seattle and I drove it all the way to Los Angeles. In Los Angeles I switched to a convertible for the very last leg of my trip to satisfy my ego.

Pro tip: renting the car at the airport – and returning it at the airport – might be much cheaper (plus you have much more options) than renting it downtown.

Can you drive from Seattle to San Diego with an electric car?

I didn’t but yes, a Seattle to San Diego road trip can be done on an electric car. You just need a little bit of additional planning to find an EV charger, but along the route you’ll find tons of opportunities to do so. Tesla Superchargers and fast-charging networks such as Electrify America and ChargePoint are available and common especially in California.


Postcards from the Pacific Coast

Day 1: Sea-Tac to Seattle.

Sea-Tac Airport to Seattle is not exactly a road-trip. More a 17 miles easy morning commute but it was the first 17 miles I drove since last year trip to Key West, hence I count it in.

The inclement weather seems a familiar constant in the first couple of days of these US road-trips. A tornado in 2021. Thunderstorms in 2022. Light rain today. Progress, I say.

Seattle: pine trees, lushly vegetation, majestic clouds, oysters for lunch, a dinner with one of my favorite out of state Chicagoan, the discovery of Fremont, one (two) for the road in an incredible dive bar, lots of coffee to keep me functioning after today’s brutally early morning flight. The reassuring, unmistakable shape of the Space Needle.

And, while sipping (yet another) coffee at KEXP, I keep asking myself how in the early 90s a relatively small city situated in the northwesternmost corner of this country, happened to be the undisputed birthplace of that incredible music scene I grew up with. Go figure.

Note to self: never book a flight departing before 8am. Ever fucking again.


Seattle to San Diego Road Trip: the Fremont troll in Seattle
Seattle to San Diego Road Trip: The Fremont troll in Seattle

Day 2: Seattle to Port Angeles.

Started the day pretty early, a bit hungover, to get to the ferry terminal, leaving behind a cloudy, lightly raining Seattle.

The wind on the boat, a strong black coffee a crucially necessary, cheesy bacon and egg muffin took good care of me. The tricks you learn in London, huh?

The ferry to Bainbridge Island was a pleasant, almost fun, 40 minute ride through a mostly sunny and calm Elliot Bay: shiny waters, blue sky and lushly vegetation: it’s the Emerald City for a reason after all.

After a quick stop in the pretty postcard-like charming village of Poulsbo, today’s leg headed north, towards the neither pretty nor charming city of Port Angeles, completing the first half of the Olympic peninsula loop.

As much as the city seemed gloomy and unappealing, the oysters were fresh, the smoked salmon chowder exceptional, the crab stuffed halibut excellent and the Washington’s wine pairing on point. Sold.

Can’t go much farther north than this. From tomorrow onwards it will be a long drive south.


Seattle to San Diego Road Trip: Poulsbo marina
Seattle to San Diego Road Trip: Poulsbo marina

Day 3: Port Angeles, WA to Astoria, OR

Another early morning meant driving the first part of today’s 336 miles in misty, foggy weather with white clouds still sleeping in the valleys and majestic conifers guarding both sides of the road.

A few miles after Forks, I took a break from the 101 highway loop, heading towards the Hoh rainforest for a longer than expected easy hike among trees covered with clumps of hanging moss, stuck there silently hugging each other for thousands of year. Kinda romantic.

Back to the coast right after leaving the rocks and driftwood of Ruby beach, it was heavy rain for about an hour followed by a sunny and smooth solitary ride, highway hopping between the 101, 109 and 105. Whatever closer to the ocean.

Ending the day entering Oregon while ticking off another place from my bucket list of roads I wanted to drive in this country: the iconic 4 miles long Astoria-Megler Bridge. Beers now.

——

– “That’s what I said. You always contradict me. I was right. I knew it. It was about the history of Astoria, and, these are the rejects.”

– “Kind of like us, Mike, the Goonies”


Seattle to San Diego Road Trip: the Hoh Rain Forest
Seattle to San Diego Road Trip: the Hoh Rain Forest

Day 4: Astoria to Florence

I took it easy in the morning, hanging around a buzzing and sunny Astoria to check a couple of Goonies locations out before leaving town to spend a little time chilling on Cannon Beach (“Hey you guuuys!”).

In total it was a smooth 207 miles drive – in and out, up and down, the Oregon coast, taking any possible chance to leave the Highway 101 and drive at my own pace – ended with a crab cake and a glass of Willamette Valley Pinot by the water in Florence.

I am starting seeing a pattern here: trees – ugly coastal cities – trees – breathtaking viewpoints – trees – white, wild, long beaches – more trees – pretty coastal cities. Shuffle and repeat.

Randomly add fresh seafood, west coast IPAs and outstanding PNW wine and you get the picture.

Tomorrow it will be California already.


Seattle to San Diego Road Trip: Cannon Beach
Seattle to San Diego Road Trip: Cannon Beach

Day 5: Florence to Crescent City

Today’s ride gave me little opportunities to leave the, mostly sunny, highway 101. When that happened, a thick and stubborn fog covering the coast made reaching most of the viewpoints a pointless exercise.

The one stop for lunch, to rest my already painful neck and take the PNW oysters final score to an honest 24 units, was definitely more meaningful.

229 pretty uneventful straight-as-it-gets miles, but the last 16: entering cloudy northern California meant my first encounter with the redwoods and a 45 or so minutes spectacular drive on an unpaved narrow road, zigzagging between incredible trees to reach the Stout Grove trail. The 2-mile-long, Converse-friendly hike spent with my open-mouthed face constantly looking up might have further compromised my neck stability, but boy: it was totally worth the pain.

Nothing 6 more oysters and a West Coast beer flight or two can’t fix.


Seattle to San Diego Road Trip: Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park
Seattle to San Diego Road Trip: Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park

Day 6: Crescent City to Fortuna.

It was drizzling when I took off in the morning: a mystic and cool experience under the redwoods umbrella at first, a scary and uncomfortable drive on the uncovered bald edge of the Northern California hills, engulfed in brumous, hazy fog right after.

The two-hour hike at Prairie Creek helped me relax and confirmed my now forever-changed benchmark of what a tall tree is. Or what tall means, in general.

Size matters but my favorites were those Freddy Krueger’s finger-like trees, coming out of planet Earth covered in moss, giving the universe an unapologetic finger. Damn poetic.

Pursuing my goal of driving as little on the highways as possible, I took an inland diversion on a 36-mile partly unpaved scenic county road: another super fun and satisfying drive, rewarded with beautiful sunny weather on the eastern side of the national park.

The last stretch, back to the coast and to the clouds, was longer than expected, thanks to a couple of avoidable misunderstandings with the mighty GPS.

Note to self:

– Hugging a tree is a romantic thing to do.

– Hugging a tree with a white hoodie is a stupid thing to do.


Seattle to San Diego Road Trip: Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park
Seattle to San Diego Road Trip: Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

Day 7, 8 and 9: Fortuna to Napa.

I started the day with a final farewell to the redwoods, driving along the Avenue of Giants, a 32-mile-long empty road: roof open, jazz on, and trees on both sides giving me their own version of a guard of honor. I didn’t get streamers and confetti at the end, but that’s ok.

California State Route 1 towards wine country was nerve-wracking, foggy and curvy at first. It became relaxing, sunny and smooth the further south I went: the more yellow the vegetation, the bluer the sky, the smaller the pines.

Once on the Sonoma Coast, I took a slight detour back north to get to the top of the Silverado Trail and from there all the way down south through Napa Valley’s wineries. Another bucket list drive crossed off my list.

3 nights in Napa final score: 1 rosé, 4 white, 24 different red wines shared among 4 wine tasting experiences – one of which was a 10am, 90-minute mind-blowing masterclass in a beautiful winery in the heart of the valley -, 12 more oysters and all the cheese.

—————

Now then:

Today marks my 50th birthday on planet Earth. Feat:

Playing “bocce” with the old folks as a kid, studying at the art institute, struggling to get through uni. The nights in the bookshop and the dj sets at Bloom with all its magical creatures. Becoming Takeshi. Buying an apartment I never lived in. That roller-coaster of coincidences that made me leave and everything that has happened since: my sis that doesn’t know it but she started it all, the encounters, all the travels, my niece who is now a teenager, the regular Skype calls with my parents. Heaps of live music, a pandemic, one fucking Brexit, a green card. Countless deadly, wonderful hangovers. A job I still love, 3 companies I am grateful for, 3 cities I adore. Beautiful people who left my everyday life, beautiful people who keep appearing in my everyday life. A few tears, way more laughter, tons of bloody emotions.

Life huh?

Raising another glass of cab: and happy fucking birthday to me, kids.


Seattle to San Diego Road Trip: Napa Valley
Seattle to San Diego Road Trip: Celebrating my birthday in Napa Valley

Day 10 and 11: Napa to San Francisco

The northern Cali cloudy morning weather tried hard to upgrade into a sunny day before unavoidably giving up right after Richardson Bay when the San Francisco-friendly usual misty-morning-tick-as-fuck-fog took over.

One of the shortest leg of this road trip. 50 quick miles to get to the “The City” plus an additional 30 miles spent driving around San Francisco, ‘cause navigating through its fascinating neighborhoods is like being a supporting act in a 70s movie. Since parking on these steep streets ain’t an easy job if I don’t get an Oscar nomination this year, well, the system is rigged.

Call it serendipity. I took a wrong turn while walking back from the office. And Harlan Records happened: a cocktails bar that looks like a records store that looks like a jazz music venue, that looks like a cocktail bar. And it is all of those things. But better.

I had 2 old fashioned, before texting my doctor in Chicago: “there is no 2 without 3” he said (quote).

The dude abides. I had 4 just to be on the safe side…

Also:

Lombard Street: done.

Golden Gate Bridge: done.


Seattle to San Diego Road Trip: San Francisco
Seattle to San Diego Road Trip: San Francisco

Day 12: San Francisco to Monterey

Another relatively short leg, 139 miles of uneventful and almost anonymous driving, mostly along the coast on the Cabrillo Highway portion of the California State Route 1, or on smaller and less crowded streets sandwiched between the highway and the Pacific Ocean.

After spending most of the morning drive complaining about the first real traffic I encountered in this road trip and about the once again disappointing weather, things got a bit better: the clouds stuck around a bit longer, almost teasing me – sunny and blue sky a few miles inland on my left, cloudy and gray over my head and over the ocean coast – but the traffic magically evaporated right after San Francisco’s city borders, allowing for another easy drive south.

In Santa Cruz, they took turns: the traffic came back but the clouds were sucked away, replaced by a glorious blue sky and, finally, a mini heat wave, warming up my old bones and my car.

The further south I got, the more cities with Spanish-sounding names, the more comfortable the temperature, and the larger the number of surfers.

Entering Monterey, traffic and gray sky reached an agreement to come back in full mode to my utter disappointment.

Note: tacos y Negra Modelo till San Diego.


Seattle to San Diego Road Trip: Monterey
Seattle to San Diego Road Trip: Monterey

Day 13: Monterey, CA to King City

Preamble: Last winter, part of Highway 1 collapsed in a few points due to particularly nasty weather hitting this region. As of today, coming from Monterey, the furthest south you can get is to the hamlet of Lucia.

I started the morning procrastinating on leaving town, hoping for the fog and clouds to finally leave me alone. But after an hour or so of wandering along the pointlessly scenic 17-Mile Drive between a gray Monterey and an even grayer Carmel-by-the-Sea, I gave up, taking my chances and moving towards the Big Sur.

A 130-mile (65*2) psychedelic round trip, driving up and down the rugged and steep stretch of this crazy part of the Californian coastline, a nightmare for every seasoned weatherman. One turn: spring. Another one: November. Another one: spring again. Randomly repeat ad nauseam. I guess that’s what time traveling must feel like.

On the way back, right before entering Carmel-by-the-Sea, I took the planned inland alternative route to move south again: an additional 60 miles through Carmel Valley and its unexpectedly stunning ever-changing landscape. Starting green and lush, it progressively got more and more yellowish and barren, with temperatures hitting 43°C (110°F) making me wonder where my reassuring unappreciated and misjudged clouds had gone.

Total Tacos score update: 9


Seattle to San Diego Road Trip: Carmel Valley
Seattle to San Diego Road Trip: Carmel Valley

Day 14: King City, CA to San Luis Obispo

I tried to enter the Cabrillo Highway as far north as possible to avoid a long drive back and forth, but it turned out that most of the roads cutting through the Big Sur mountains were closed. Hence, the first possible intersection with Highway 1 was a whopping 50 miles south of the northern point of closure, a mere 3 miles or less from Lucia, where I had to stop yesterday.

Same landscapes, same breathtaking views, but little or no clouds this time. Less drama, less tragedy, no pathos. It felt wrong.

San Luis Obispo. A pastel-colored mid-sized city right on the border between northern and southern Cali. Sitting outside a taco place (+3) in the historic district: families strolling around, teenagers cycling and laughing out loud, everything is clean, everyone is smiling. Welcome to Hill Valley, A Nice Place To Live.

Nice but not for me. Boy, I am a big city person..

National Geographic moment:

what I said once about sea lions applies to elephant seals too.

– They eat all the fish

– They sunbathe all year round

– They have a nonsensical shape but who cares they are all the same

– They burp all day

– They stink AF

Fucking marvelous animals.


Seattle to San Diego Road Trip: Big Sur
Seattle to San Diego Road Trip: Big Sur

Day 15: San Luis Obispo to Carpinteria

A short and quick-ish 135 miles driven mostly on the CA 1 South, with a couple of unnecessary diversions to get a break from the frenetic fast pacing highway and drive at my own – slow – speed in this first full day drive in Southern Cali, a region that boosts 300+ days of sunshine every year. Not this morning. Not this evening.

The sunny afternoon though, in Santa Barbara, was pleasantly spent strolling between downtown and West Beach partly betraying my commitment to the holy tacos (+2) for a luscious lobster roll. Fair, I say.

First swim in the Pacific Ocean: aborted. Way too damn cold for my Mediterranean bones expectations.


Seattle to San Diego Road Trip: Santa Barbara
Seattle to San Diego Road Trip: Santa Barbara

Day 16-17-18: Carpinteria to Los Angeles

After a compulsory early detour inland to avoid the usual morning coastal mist, I drove most of the 100 miles right along the Pacific Ocean. As I questioned my luck about the once again gray sky and the questionable local radio music choices, I found comfort in hearing the GPS say “to Los Angeles” as if it knew it was a cool city to name.

Once in LA, I returned the car because, like last year, a grand finale deserves something better than a midsize. But not having a car in the City of Angels is not an easy task. To add a layer of complexity, for the very first time I was not staying in Venice Beach but on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, closer to the office. Iconic? For sure. Walkability score? -10.

The 4th of July was well spent in Venice, where after a refreshing long-awaited swim, I raised a pint to say happy birthday America. And happy birthday Mom.

One sleep to go.

Bucket list items:

– Drive a Chevy Malibu through Malibu: done.

– Be swept away by a 6 feet tall wave and land face down on the beach in front of a Baywatch-like lifeguard, pretending you did it on purpose: done.


Seattle to San Diego Road Trip: Venice Beach
Seattle to San Diego Road Trip: Venice Beach

Day 19-20: Los Angeles to San Diego

I left the car rental center early, challenging Los Angeles’ infamous morning commute, to get to the furthest western point of another bucket list item: Mulholland Drive. A dreamy and hypnotic road stretching like a snake on the hills above LA. The morning mist might have been responsible for the disappointing lack of views, but it made the drive hazy and magical. David Lynch would have approved.

Right at the end of the road, the sun came out, this time to stay, making the earlier switch to a convertible finally worthwhile.

A couple of hours later, after a strenuous but victorious fight against the vicious traffic, I reached the Pacific Coast. From there, it was a pleasant, much nicer drive until, approaching San Diego, the same enemy succeeded in delaying my glorious entry into the final destination by a few minutes.

2,414 miles, 48 oysters and 21 tacos since I left Seattle. Roof up. Curtains down. Applause.

And, for the very first time, I miss Chicago.


Seattle to San Diego Road trip
Seattle to San Diego Road Trip: for the last leg I switched to a Mustang convertible. Sometimes I have great ideas…


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