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10 Coastal Cities That Are Worth Stopping For Along The Way

by Staff

Summary

  • Explore the West Coast on a road trip, following major tourist destinations along the coast or focusing on a specific state’s coastline.
  • Visit coastal cities like Seattle, Astoria, Gold Beach, Humboldt, Fort Bragg, Carmel-by-the-Sea, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and San Diego.
  • Enjoy a variety of activities including ferry rides, hiking, biking, beach exploration, wildlife watching, and visiting museums and landmarks.


The West Coast is full of some of the most popular travel destinations in the US. Big cities and even bigger landmarks make it hard to narrow down exactly where to vacation. One of the best ways to explore as much of the West Coast as possible is with a good old-fashioned road trip, but even planning that is easier said than done.

There are a number of ways to plan a West Coast road trip route, including a two-week West Coast road trip that follows major tourist destinations or a state-specific road trip that winds through just one of the three destinations.

Among the most popular options when it comes to a road trip along the West Coast is to follow the shoreline itself. While the Pacific Coast Highway is one of the most famous coastal road trips hugging the coastline, connecting the drive with a handful of the most popular West Coast cities offers a fresh perspective on this region’s states without compromising any time at the beach.

From spots in Washington to Southern California, here are ten coastal cities to stop in on a West Coast road trip itinerary.

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10 Seattle, Washington

Enjoy ferry rides across Puget Sound and rocky coastlines for hiking and biking

Seattle Downtown and Mt. Rainier, Washington
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Seattle Downtown and Mt. Rainier, Washington

With frigid, rocky shores all along its coastline, the number of coastal city stops in Washington is somewhat limited. However, the major city of Seattle is perfectly positioned along Puget Sound, an inlet of the Pacific Ocean.

This not only makes it a perfect first coastal city stop on a West Coast road trip, but a unique ocean-side experience as well.

Travelers can easily spend their days exploring Seattle itself, which has many downtown experiences and unusual shops to enjoy. Along the coast itself, travelers can get a break from the car and take one of many ferry rides to the nearby islands across the inlet.

While not a coastal city, Olympic National Park is just two hours from downtown Seattle and is one of the best US national parks with beaches, offering even more chances to experience the West Coast shoreline.

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9 Astoria, Oregon

The meeting point of the Columbia River and Pacific Ocean for rafting, hiking, and beach exploration

Yachts, ships and fishing boats berthed at West Mooring Basin Marina, Astoria, Oregon
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Yachts, ships and fishing boats berthed at West Mooring Basin Marina, Astoria, Oregon

Astoria is the epitome of a hidden gem destination. While major West Coast cities like Portland get most of the fanfare, the port town of Astoria is where native Oregonians go for some fun on the coast. Visitors love enjoying the rich history of this coastal city, and the views throughout town are second to none.

Astoria is unique because it represents where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean, creating opportunities for both scenic river walks and relaxing oceanfront dinners.

With seasonal film festivals and unique attractions like the Astoria Column, Astoria, Oregon is a must-see coastal city on a West Coast road trip.

8 Gold Beach, Oregon

Discover less-crowded beaches with unusual gray sand and rocky formations

US Highway 101 and ocean sea stacks near the town of Gold Beach on the Oregon coast
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US Highway 101 and ocean sea stacks near the town of Gold Beach on the Oregon coast

For a coastal retreat farther from the popular tourist destinations on the West Coast, Gold Beach will feel like a paradise. Located along Oregon’s southern shore, Gold Beach has both smooth sandy beaches and rocky structures, making it perfect for either a relaxing day of sunbathing or a challenging coastal hike.

In addition to the beachside activities, Gold Beach is also home to unique attractions that make it worth visiting, including the oversized Gold Beach Books, one of the largest bookstores in Oregon.

As a coastal city, this West Coast road trip stop also has a number of unique sights right along the ocean, including Otter Point State Recreation Center and the Shipwreck Of Mary D Hume.

7 Humboldt, California

Drive the Avenue of Giants and enjoy the redwoods and the coastline all at once

Redwood National Park, California, USA
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Scenic coastline in Redwood National Park, California, USA

The gateway to Redwood National and State Parks, Humboldt is part college town, part coastal forest retreat. Near the border of California and Oregon, Humboldt and the nearby national parks are home to some of the oldest trees in the world, with redwoods that are believed to be several thousand years old.

In addition to the Redwood National and State Parks, several other state parks in Humboldt offer hiking trails through redwood groves and along the rocky coastline, including Sue-meg State Park and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.

Considering a road trip down the West Coast involves plenty of time in the car, a scenic and outdoor-oriented stop like Humboldt is likely to be the perfect escape.

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6 Fort Bragg, California

Explore a classic foggy coastline and the colorful Glass Beach in MacKerricher State Park

Glass Beach in Fort Bragg, Sonoma Coast in California
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Glass Beach in Fort Bragg, Sonoma Coast in California

Fort Bragg is arguably one of the most underrated coastal cities in California, and a perfect coastal city stop on a West Coast road trip. Despite being named after an army officer, Captain Braxton Bragg, modern-day Fort Bragg is all about natural beauty.

Those on a West Coast road trip with limited time will at least want to stop at Fort Bragg’s Glass Beach, which is part of MacKerricher State Park.

In addition to the colorful, ocean-worn glass that covers the beach, visitors are also likely to see a variety of wildlife, including numerous seabirds and harbor seals, which are protected by the state park.

5 San Francisco, California

Attractions on the Pier, museums in the city, and ferry rides on the ocean all in one place

Aerial view of Golden Gate Bridge, one of the best places to visit with the kids in USA
Photo by Carl Solder on Unsplash

Aerial view of Golden Gate Bridge, one of the best places to visit with the kids in USA

San Francisco is a popular inclusion for a number of US adventures. Considered one of the best stops on a cross-country road trip, this bustling international hub is also one of the many great stops on a West Coast coastal road trip route.

San Francisco is a popular stop on the West Coast thanks to its wide variety of things to enjoy, including unique downtown areas, off-shore excursions, and nearby hiking trails.

In fact, California’s top-rated landmark for 2024 is Pier 39, and it’s right in San Francisco and offers a perfect snapshot of what makes San Francisco so popular, with local food, attractions for all ages, and a variety of on-the-water tours.

4 Carmel-by-the-Sea, California

Visit colorful sandy beaches and numerous protected areas along the city’s coastline

An aerial view of Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, USA
Photo by Venti Views on Unsplash

An aerial view of Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, USA

Carmel-by-the-Sea is one of the most photographed stretches of California and the Pacific Coast Highway, so it’s no surprise it’s also one of the best coastal cities to visit on a West Coast road trip itinerary. Right by major attractions like Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, Carmel-by-the-Sea has a huge variety of things to do in and around the city limits.

Famous for its white sand beaches (and one purple sand beach as well!), Carmel-by-the-Sea is a true coastal retreat. Away from the shores, the small West Coast town also has a variety of unique museums and locally-owned boutiques for road trip travelers to explore.

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3 Santa Barbara, California

Warmer beach weather and classic California missions and historic structures

Beach and pier view of Santa Barbara, California
Unsplash 

Beach and pier view of Santa Barbara, California 

Santa Barbara is a one-of-a-kind cultural blend that perfectly highlights the different historical influences on California, all while being perfectly nestled along the West Coast.

For those on a West Coast road trip, a stop in the coastal city of Santa Barbara is a chance to experience traditional Spanish missions, bustling piers full of fresh seafood, and classic white sand beaches.

Affordable attractions in the city itself, such as the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum (which costs $10 a person), mean that even those who need a break from the ocean will find plenty to do in Santa Barbara.

2 Los Angeles, California

The ultimate big California city experience with lots of quiet day trips and beach activities

The Hollywood sign overlooking Los Angeles, California, USA
Shutterstock / Sean Pavone

The Hollywood sign overlooking Los Angeles, California, USA

Los Angeles is the biggest city in Southern California, and given that it is right on the coast, it is the perfect city stop on a West Coast road trip. If the budget has run a little thin as the road trip has gone on, there are a number of free things to do in Los Angeles, including several art galleries and museums throughout the city.

For those ready for more time on the water, Los Angeles and the surrounding area have numerous beautiful beaches with nearly limitless potential. Whether hoping to surf, swim, or hike, the variety of beaches in LA open to the public means this big city is among the perfect West Coast coastal cities to visit on a road trip.

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1 San Diego, California

Amusement parks, free activities, and some of the warmest beaches on the West Coast

Downtown San Diego skyline in California, USA at sunset
Shutterstock

Downtown San Diego skyline in California, USA at sunset

While many road trip travelers end their West Coast road trip in Los Angeles due to time constraints or convenience, those hoping to truly explore every corner of this coastal side of the states would do well to make the final drive down to San Diego.

The last major city along the coast before the US-Mexican border, San Diego embodies the California beach city aesthetic. Warm southern California sun and soft, sandy beaches are the norm and the perfect way to end an ultimate West Coast road trip itinerary along the coast.

In addition to the beautiful beaches, San Diego is also home to tons of free activities and beautiful San Diego hiking trails for some truly budget-friendly time outside.

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