This is the story of an epic, 4,200 km (2,600 miles) road trip from Vancouver in British Columbia, Canada to San Francisco in California, USA. My road trip along the west coast of the USA took 14 days to complete, stopping off in Seattle, Portland, Olympia, Roseburg and various other places, all listed below.
I also did a small detour to the Whistler Olympic Ski Resort for one day. If you decide to embark on the same journey, give yourself at least one month to properly take in the sights and sounds. Given that I could only take two weeks off I had to squeeze as much in as I could.
Vancouver to San Francisco: The Itinerary
I was in Vancouver on a business trip attending the World Sulphur Symposium but I booked two weeks off as holiday afterwards. My friend came with me and we rented a Jeep Grand Cherokee from Hertz. The west coast of the US is probably one of the most amazing places, relatively sparsely populated with vast expenses of untouched lands and forests. This is where you will find the Hall of Mosses, the Columbia River crossing at Astoria, Aberdeen with its famous burgers, the pristine beaches of Oregon and of course the huge pine forests of California.
So if you are here for a business trip there really is no excuse why you shouldn’t book a few days off to enjoy the scenery. Just like I did, you can turn your business visit into a bleisure holiday and going on a nice road trip from Vancouver to San Francisco.
This road trip takes in the largest cities on the west coast: Vancouver, Seattle, Portland and San Francisco as well as three state capitols: Olympia, Salem and Sacramento. The drive from Vancouver to San Francisco took me two weeks return, but it is easy to spend far longer than that as there are so many places to see along the way.
Choice Hotels was running a promotion during my visit. Anyone staying one night each in two separate hotels would get a third night free. So basically pay two get a third night free, but the first two nights had to be two separate stays. Marriott Hotels sometimes runs the same promotion and it is great value for money especially on a road trip.
Naturally, me and my friend would only stay at Choice Hotels. They have various different brands from super low cost to higher price places. Those that cost less tend to be out of town but they have free parking, which comes in handy on a road trip. Sometimes if you get lucky you might even find a cheaper Choice Hotel with parking bang in the city centre like we did in San Francisco.
Staying at the Marriott Residence Inn in Vancouver
Vancouver is at the foot of many mountains and it also has a huge sea front. Whether you enjoy walking, cycling, skiing or diving you will enjoy your stay here. The city itself is not huge if you deduct the sprawling suburbs. The reason for my visit was to attend the World Sulphur Symposium at the Four Seasons Hotel. I am not going to bore anyone with the details, suffice it to say the hotel had bad reviews so I booked into the Marriott Residence Inn.
The Residence Inn offers apartments/suites at a lower cost than a regular Marriott but the service and the views are just as good. There was a kitchenette in the room, with two sofas, two armchairs and a big double bed and a huge TV and a balcony. The views were absolutely stunning day and night – if you stay in Vancouver go no further!
The Whistler Olympic Ski Resort in British Columbia
The Whistler Blackcombe Ski Resort is where the Canadian Winter Olympics took place a few years ago. The entire resort is almost brand new and has some super dangerous pistes. There is also the high chair connecting the two mountains, flying skiers over the valley. It was just breath-taking to cross over to have lunch, I’ve never seen anything like that in my entire life. I thought it was quite expensive, with the gear and ski rental plus the pass and lunch it came to just under CAD$300 for the day! Anyway, I thought what the hell I will probably never go back there again so why not?
The images above speak for themselves, I loved every minute. I last skied back in high school more than 14 years ago, so I went on the baby piste first then only the green ones afterwards. It took me nearly 2.5 hours to finish the longest piste from top to the bottom of the hill! And there are more than a dozen or them. Of course there are the lanes for the complete experts, the guys I went with did 95 kilometers per hour going down! There was also a guy skiing in a wheelchair which was something I never saw before. He was attached to another guy and they were doing it together – amazing!
Driving to Seattle in Washington State
I spent a further three days in Vancouver after the ski day trip then I picked up the car in Vancouver Downtown. I crossed the US border on Highway 15. Stupidly I didn’t finish my apple and banana so I had to declare them and they didn’t have the stickers so I was in line to be inspected for more than an hour! Remember to either eat or dispose of your fruits and vegetables before crossing the border, or at least have the sticker on! From the border I joined I-5 and didn’t stop until Seattle. My friend went to Portland and Seattle before me on the greyhound bus so I picked him up downtown and we went for a brisk walk.
Seattle is pretty similar to Vancouver in terms of architecture and road layout: a big square with streets running parallel from the sea. It was April when we visited so it was still quite chilly but the sun was shining while we were there. The hotel was at the airport as there was nothing cheap in town. We stayed at the Quality Inn Sea-Tac Airport by the runway and the motorway, in a typical whore house style motel. Two nights there was plenty!
The Hall of Mosses in the Olympic National Park
This was quite a big detour and in retrospect I shouldn’t have gone but on the map it looked much smaller! In the end the trip took an entire day and a full tank of fuel! The Hall of Mosses is totally stunning, looks just like from a science fiction or the Star Wars where Luke meets Yoda. The mosses just hand off the branches and cover the tree trunks completely and are also ankle deep on the ground. On the way to the second Quality Inn in Olympia we stopped to eat in Aberdeen. The shop served the biggest burger I had ever eaten and they wanted to give a side order too which I declined! The trip is more than 300 miles round the hills so by the time we got to Olympia, the capital of Washington, it got dark.
Astoria and The George Flawel House
From Olympia the road to San Francisco is the I-5 if you are the boring type. If not, you should take Highway 101 with its stunning vistas and pine forests. The 101 enters Astoria in one of the most spectacular fashion: through a huge bridge that rises out of the water. The Columbia River meets the sea here and this is where most ships used to sail past on their way to Portland. No wonder then that the biggest house used to belong to a captain. His name was George Flawel and his house still stands as it was back 100 years ago. The tour takes about one hour and the guide gives some amazing insight into life back then.
Smuggler Cove and the Falcon’s Nest
A little over an hour away from Astoria is Smuggler Cove. It is a secluded area where people go for day hikes and for a little beach holiday. Even on an April day it was pretty full but no surprise in that: the sand was so soft and the waves were calm so small kids could play safely there. This area is a nature reserve and the hillsides are covered in ancient pines, not as big as the redwood but still far bigger than anything in Europe. There is a big parking area just off 101 and several paths lead to the sea from here. It is totally worth the afternoon hike, whether in rain or sunshine.
Salem and the State Capitol
The 101 being one of the most scenic roads in the world it was also quite busy with other travellers. I was getting fed up of the traffic so decided to head to Salem and join the I-5. I figured that it would be better to speed along a little instead of missing some of the other sites down the road. Also, the further south we went the warmer it got which was what we wanted after a cold UK winter. The only place we stopped on I-5 was a restaurant at an intersection where there was a huge truck stop. I cannot remember the name of the restaurant now but they served the best chilli bean burger sandwich! I never had that before and probably never will as it was a family run restaurant and it was their speciality.
The Roseburg Rodeway Inn
The Roseburg Rodeway Inn is a typical motel that you would see in the movies: park up in front of the door with a huge swimming pool at the center. It had a laundry room so we washed our clothes then I crashed into the bed. Almost all Choice Hotels offer two double beds so it is amazing value for money! We checked into every hotel around 9-10 PM every night, totally exhausted. Choice Hotels also have cable TV and it was here that I fell in love with Forensic Files. They were playing several episodes every night and there being nothing else to do at these intersections I tucked in and watched TV. After about half an hour I duly fell asleep, having driven about 10 hours each day.
The next morning I made a big mistake, I booked a room for the same night in Rohnert, California. I was optimistic and thought it would be an easy drive. Instead, it is a nearly 9 hour, 461 miles drive non-stop. What I did not account for is that we would be stopping in all sorts of places because the scenery was so beautiful. The drive from Grants Pass to Crescent City is absolutely stunning and worth a day in itself with a few stopovers for walks.
By the time we got to Crescent City I started to feel tired but we had to go on. Another big shock was the price of fuel in California. In Oregon it was almost a dollar cheaper and I didn’t refuel before crossing the state border! I was literally kicking myself because the Jeep had a 20-gallon tank, so I could have saved nearly $20 on one fill up. Remember to check fuel prices before you cross borders.
The Redwood State National Park
The Redwood State National Park is where you will find the biggest pine trees in the world. Some of them are 100 meters tall and are several meters in circumference. Again, you could spend several days hiking around the park, unfortunately due to my stupidity we only had three hours. I normally only book hotels the very last minute, so probably an hour before check-in. For some reason I thought it would be a good idea to book the hotel in Rohnert in the morning. At any rate, the three hours was very nice in the park and because we got there in the afternoon it was already deserted. By the time we got back to the car the sun already started to disappear off the horizon.
If you have to choose between the Redwoods or the Olympic National Park, definitely choose the Redwoods. If only I had known this I would have spent an extra day here which I spent driving around the peninsula near Aberdeen. Arriving so late meant I missed seeing the large trees along the road and the best bit when we drive right through the Humbolt State Park. One more reason to return to California!
By the time we got to Rohnert I was basically falling asleep behind the wheel – quite scary and I was literally nodding off. After check in around 10PM I just crashed out.
Two Nights in San Francisco
Rohnert is in the middle of nowhere. It is a proper extra-urban town with nothing else but a shopping mall and rows of houses. It was another very nice hotel with a swimming pool and free parking. We left quite early and after a short trip to the shopping center for some food we headed into San Francisco. The Rodeway Inn in San Francisco offers free parking and it was by far the cheapest option at $110 a night.
It was my second visit to San Francisco and I always wanted to drive through Golden Gate bridge and up and down the hills in town. My dream came through as soon as we arrived because the motel was at the other end of town. I parked up and never touched the car again in case someone takes my parking spot. They only had 10 spaces for about 60 rooms. I will go into more detail about SF in another post.
Sacramento and Yreka
Sacramento is the state capital of California. It has an amazing old town and a railroad museum where we spent an entire day. The drive out the SF was terrible with the commuters clogging up the road both directions. By the time we arrived in Sacramento it was time for lunch. The old town is exactly as it used to be 150 years ago with traditional stores and an old railway station. The railroad museum is next door with the largest steam engine in the world. The museum is so big that it took four hours to go around, including an hour long tour. Well worth it.
There was also some drama during the day. My friend lost his valet and by the time we realised this it was too late to turn back. He finally managed to track it down and had it posted back to London but from here on I was paying for everything!
Yreka was another Rodeway Inn at an intersection, but that’s just what I wanted. We spent the day looking at places and walking around in National Parks so staying at a roadside motel was just ideal.
The Crater Lake National Park
From Yreka to Portland I took Highway 97 which is perhaps the most amazing country roads east of 101. It drives past some amazing mountains and plains and across some more huge pine forests. The road until Klamath Falls is straight as a bat then Highway 140 and 532 start to wind up towards Crater Lake National Park.
Highway 532 or Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway then turns into Highway 62 before you reach this former volcano-turned lake. Down in SF it was nearly 30 degrees C the day before but here there was 6-meters deep snow! I couldn’t believe my eyes! We went for a nice walk around in the snow, had a terrible burger in the only open restaurant then headed up towards Bend and Detroit Dam.
Detroit Dam is a massive dam built in the 1930s and serves the surrounding area with electricity. My legs were literally shaking when I walked on top of it – number one I had vertigo and the entire structure was vibrating from all the water gushing through.
Driving to Portland in Oregon
We stayed at the Rodeway Inn Convention Center in Portland. It was just across from the downtown area and was free thanks to the promotion. In the morning we walked over to Portland and spent the day walking around. There are various markets in town selling all sorts of food, so we decided to eat at one of them. They are all similarly priced at $6-10, depending on what you eat.
By this time I was so tired of driving and keen on making our way back to Vancouver so as not to miss the flight. The last night we checked into the Rodeway Inn in Auburn, just outside Seattle. It was raining all day and we felt exhausted so instead of going anywhere we repacked our bags and after dinner just crashed out on the beds.
Back to Vancouver Airport
The drive from Auburn to Vancouver took about three hours. The flight was at 9PM so instead of leaving it last minute we arrived in town nice and early. Thankfully I rented from a downtown location so it was easy to drop off and spend the rest of the day in town. We left the luggage in the Residence Inn and went for a tour of the old town and the seafront once more then headed out to the airport.
This is the first part of a series, sort of a round-up of what there is to do while on the road trip. Check the Related Articles section underneath this post or the North America section for the other articles.