The USA West Coast: Ultimate Family Vacation

Dramtic Coast Line Highway 1 West Coast USA California

The West Coast of the USA really has it all when it comes to family vacations. From the beaches and theme parks of southern California to Oregon’s dramatic coast, volcanoes and vineyards, and the uniquely biodiverse Olympic Peninsula in Washington state.

We’d argue the West Coast of the USA is one of the best family vacation destinations in the world and a Globetrotter’s personal favorite! However, we’ll warn it covers a large area! From San Diego in the south to Seattle in the north, you are looking at about 1,250 miles, over 2,000 kilometers to cover even just sticking near the coast!

To see and experience everything that the West Coast of the USA can offer on one vacation is a tall challenge unless you have months to spend. However, there are plenty of shorter road trips you can make within each state – California, Oregon, and Washington – or how about traveling the coast one way by road and then flying back, or even taking part in the trip by train?

With so many options, it can be quite overwhelming when you are still at the planning stage, so before we dig into the details of our favorite West Coast vacation ideas for families, we’re going to take you through:

Collage of images towns on the west coast of the UA with text overlay 14 West coast USA family vacation destinations

How to Travel the US West Coast – Modes of Transport

Driving the US West Coast

By far, the most popular method of tackling the west coast of the USA is to drive. You can choose by car, camper or RV. The routes are effectively the same (more below!), but your nightly accommodation may differ.

You have complete freedom over where to make your stops, though naturally, it will take the longest amount of time to cover the west coast, and you will have fuel and car rental costs to bear in mind, as well as traffic.

US West Coast Train

The dramatic Coast Starlight is the Amtrak service that runs from Seattle to Los Angeles and vice versa. It is one of the most scenic train journeys in the USA and a spectacular way to see some of the West Coast highlights without a car. Taking around 35 hours in total, the obvious disadvantage is that you can’t get out and explore every highlight on foot and you’ll miss dipping your feet in the Pacific Ocean.

Coast Starlight Amtrak train covering the west coast of the USA

The train can be a quick and effective way to capture some of the country’s stunning natural beauty. There are 28 stops along the route where you could jump off and explore the big cities of the West Coast for a day or two before taking on the next leg; you don’t need to cover the whole West Coast journey in one hit! There are both seated and sleeper options that can be booked. You can have a look at the ticket classes, prices and routes using an online travel provider.

Flying the US West Coast

Flying is the quickest way to get between major cities along the US West Coast, but also the most expensive and least environmentally friendly – and of course, you’ll miss everything beneath! We only recommend flying if you’ll be driving one way and need a quick return to your arrival point.

Tips for Road Tripping West Coast USA

By far, the most popular option for families to see the West Coast, USA, in detail is to take a road trip. However, even this method throws up many different transport options and routes you can take. There are three primary routes to consider up the west coast:

Route 1 – The most scenic coastal route through the Golden State – but also the longest and windiest! If you have motion sickness sufferers, strongly consider if you need to take this route the entire way or just pop on for sections you really want to see.

Route 101 – A faster route that still takes you fairly near to the coast through California, then hugs the coast from the Redwoods in Northern California all the way through Oregon and around the Olympic Peninsula before finishing in Seattle. You will likely hop on and off this major route several times during your west coast trip.

Interstate 5 – The quickest route if you want to bypass all the twists and turns is straight down Interstate 5 which runs all the way from the Canadian border to San Diego.  It is perfectly understandable if there are windy sections and road closures to avoid or if you want to go directly between major cities and miss the coast itself. 

What vehicle to travel the West Coast USA in

If you hire a car, you will have to also pay for lodgings in each town you stop at.  This can range from inexpensive motor inns to expensive lodges, especially if you’re staying in our nearby National Parks.

A campervan or RV will give you much more flexibility in accommodation and should overall work out cheaper than the car/motel option, even if the initial hire cost and fuel are higher.

  • Don’t own an RV? Why not rent one just for your West Coast vacation with Outdoorsy?

Which direction to head on the US West Coast

You can, of course, tackle the west coast of the USA in either direction, but our preference is always north to south. This way, your passengers can get the best Pacific Ocean views, and you will be on the right side of the road for all the highway turnouts and viewing points – and trust me, there are many!

More important tips for tackling the West Coast USA

Take the time to plan your route and your timings carefully. You will get so much more out of your West Coast USA road trip if you plan around North America seasons and weather, even time of day.  Undoubtedly, any US school vacation times are going to be much busier, but these do vary a little across the states.

Apps you will absolutely want for your trip along the West Coast USA:

  • Road Trippers – Super handy for plotting out your route, working out roadside stops, gas stations and calculating distances, as well as providing in-car navigation.
  • Tides – A lot of your trip you will no doubt want to explore the incredible beaches, but come at the wrong time of day, and you’ll be headed for disappointment! Study the tide charts in advance to get your daily timings right.
  • National Park Service – Great for plotting out your journey around America’s incredible National Parks, finding hikes, points of interest and things to do along the way.

Note that you will not always have internet everywhere you go! Make sure to keep local copies of any map app on your phone, or keep a good old backup paper map in your vehicle! You never know when there might be unexpected road closures (when you hit California, you can check your route in advance here).

14 Highlights of the US West Coast for Families

Now on to the juicy stuff! There are so many incredible stops you can make along the US West Coast, and it was impossible to include them all, but here are the top 14 we think families won’t want to miss.

We’ve kept it just to those US destinations and attractions that sit pretty much among the Pacific coast; however, there are many more spectacular stops you could add to this list if you head just a few hours further inland (we’ll summarise these stops at the end).

Seattle, Washington

Any journey to the west running north to south will almost certainly start in Seattle. From the iconic (but pricey) Space Needle to the century-old Pike’s Place Market. It is a great place to explore on foot, and there is plenty for kids to do before you pick up your vehicle (or board your train) for the next West Coast stop.

Seattle -US West Coast Vacation

Olympic National Park, Washington

Before heading south, we strongly recommend you head a little further west. You can cross Puget Sound by ferry to Bainbridge Island, then take an anti-clockwise loop around the Olympic Peninsula.

One of the most unique and biodiverse places in the US, the Olympic National Park encapsulates old-growth rainforests, snow-capped mountains, mesmerizing waterfalls, alpine meadows, stunning beaches, and dramatic sea cliffs – you’ve never seen somewhere so green! Needless to say, it rains a lot in the Olympic Peninsula, so pack coats no matter what time of year!

Astoria, Oregon

Maybe more nostalgic for the parents these days than the kids, but anyone who grew up in the 80s could tell you this quaint coastal city is home to the Goonies! Set on the Columbia River, Astoria itself is a charming little seaside town and the perfect place to break up your journey from Washington into Oregon.

Astroia Oregon - West Coast Road Trip

Watch the cargo ships on the busy waterway where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean and visit the Maritime Museum, as well as the famous shipwreck in Fort Stevens State Park.

Oregon Coast, Oregon

It was almost impossible for us to pick a favorite so we’ve summarized all of the Oregon Coast in one highlight. Covering nearly 600 kilometers/363 miles, some of the most popular and noteworthy stops include Cannon Beach – famous for Haystack Rocks, a dramatic sea stack best viewed at low tide, Sea Lion Caves, Thor’s Well, and Devil’s Punchbowl.

For overnight stops (or longer), look to stay at:

  • Seaside
  • Newport
  • Lincoln City
  • Florence Beach
  • Bandon

Note, those beaches further north on the Oregon Coast are busier as you get Portland day-trippers, too. Head further south if you are dreaming of that rugged and remote coastal escape on the West Coast dotted by picturesque lighthouses and plenty of fresh air! 

It’s a good idea to pick yourselves up an Oregon State Parks Pass for your travels along the Oregon Coast.

Rogue Valley, Oregon

You can continue along the 101 to complete the entire Oregon coast drive, or our recommendation once you hit southern Oregon is to detour inland, briefly rejoining Interstate 5 for a short while to explore the beautiful Rogue Valley.

The whole family can enjoy white water rafting, zip-lining, and cave exploration, then finish your day at one of the dozens of wineries that spot the region (wine lovers also won’t want to miss a stop in at Willamette Valley closer to Portland, but this is a great alternative if you’re trying to stick close to the coast).

Redwoods National Park, California

Heading into California now, you’ll come to the utterly unmissable Redwoods National Park, home to some of the tallest trees in the world. The utterly awe-inspiring forest can be seen alongside several other state forests and is a superb camping spot for families on the US West Coast.

Redwoods National park - Northern California

Unfortunately, this section of the 101 can be susceptible to road closures, so plan your daily route before you set out.

From this point, there are a few more decisions to make, such as whether you continue to follow the 101 or hug the coast on the longer Highway 1 route. We’ve included some stops you can make taking both routes.

Fort Bragg, California

Not the largest of towns but a popular stop on the US west coast that the kids will insist on is Glass Beach on the Mendocino coast. Millions of colorful stones are scattered along the shore – nice to look at and pretty to hold, but please don’t take any with you so others can enjoy them for years to come.

Plan a US West Coast Vacation (14) Fort Bragg Glass Beach
Remaining glass fragments that can be found on the beach at Fort Bragg

Already the beach here looks quite baron compared to the photos that made the beach so popular. We’d only plan a stop at Fort Bragg if you already intended to take the scenic drive along this section of Highway 1 and the Mendocino Coast. It is otherwise a long and twisty detour off the 101 and could end in disappointment when you realize just how few colorful rocks are left.

Point Reyes, California

A protected peninsular sitting northwest of San Francisco, don’t miss the historic lighthouse – but be prepared for a lot of steps! It’s utterly worth it for those spectacular coastal views, though. Another highlight is the immensely picturesque cypress tree tunnel.

Cypress Tree Tunnel - Point Reyes

Point Reyes National Seashore includes many hidden beaches and coves that are perfect for kids to explore and enjoy outdoor activities from kayaking and water sports to rock pooling. It is the ideal place to stop for a few days of relaxation by the beach in Northern California.

Napa Valley, California

We’re going to take a small detour inland here for Santa Rosa, Sonoma, and Napa. Far more than just wine tasting (though certainly, that’s an added bonus!), there are miles of hiking trails, kayaking to enjoy on the Napa River, exploring the Petrified Forest in Calistoga and experiencing the famous Old Faithful geyser of California.

Budget an extra day or two if you have any theme park fans to catch Six Flags Discovery Kingdom.

San Francisco, California

Crossing the iconic Californian landmark the Golden Gate Bridge has got to be on every kid’s bucket list, right? San Francisco is one of the best cities for kids to explore; take a cable car up the steep city streets, see the sea lions at Pier 39 and enjoy lunch at Fisherman’s Wharf.

San Francisco - US West Coast

The Maritime National Historical Park is highly recommended. Older kids may even enjoy a visit to the notorious Alcatraz island on a day trip, or simply take a cruise on the bay and enjoy the stunning views (fog permitting!)

Monterey, California

Monterey is a stunningly picturesque part of the central California coast that you absolutely can’t drive past! Famous for the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the abundance of wildlife that lives along the dramatic coast, there’s plenty more to Monterey.

It’s a real all-in-one family vacation destination on the West Coast; in the right season, you can enjoy whale watching off the coast or on dry land, try tide pooling, and make an unmissable pit stop at Dennis the Menace Playground (aka El Elstero Park Complex). We love that there are so many great hotels in Monterey right on the beach.

Nearby Carmel-by-the-Sea is the starting point of the dramatic section of the California coast known as Big Sur. Here you’ll find the rugged Santa Lucia Mountains abruptly jutting into the Pacific, making for one of the most picturesque drives in the world, including the famous Bixby Creek Bridge. The attractions of Big Sur are truly an unmissable part of a West Coast family road trip.

Santa Monica, California

Now, one thing is for sure: there are dozens of beautiful beaches in southern California!

One of our favorite beach cities in southern California, from the iconic Santa Monica Pier and amusement park to unbeatable beach sports, cycling, and exploring Tongva Park is Santa Monica.

Santa Monica US West Coast Vacations

The beautiful white sandy Santa Monica State Beach is one of the best beaches for families in California and you’ll be spoilt with a huge variety of fun museums, restaurants, and that distinct Southern California vibe!

Disneyland Resort, California

How have we come this far talking about a kid’s trip to Cali and missed off Disneyland? Found in Anaheim, which is about 26 miles southeast of Los Angeles, we’d consider it a separate side trip to the rest of LA. it’s well worth staying on-site at one of the three incredible Disney hotels, especially if you’re traveling with young children.

There are two separate “lands” to explore, so you need at least two days to explore Disneyland California properly; even add on a trip to Legoland, California, a further hour south towards San Diego.

Want to combine a Disneyland vacation with the sandy beaches of southern California? These are the best beaches to stay at on California’s southern coast close to Disneyland.

San Diego, California

You’ve made it! San Diego enjoys a wonderful Mediterranean climate, which makes it the perfect spot for families looking for a relaxing beach retreat on the west coast.

Beaches in San Diego - US West Coast

Not only does San Diego have some of the best family beaches in the country, such as La Jolla Shores, but you can also visit the acclaimed San Diego Zoo & San Diego Zoo Safari Park, the USS Midway Museum, and Balboa Park, to share just a few of this sprawling coastal city’s highlights.

That’s it for the coastal US West Coast route. Well, not quite! There are so many other small towns you can also stop at along the way, but if time is limited, these highlights could be completed comfortably in about 2 weeks, limiting your driving to under 4 hours a day. We’d, of course, recommend you spend much longer!

If You Have Longer – Taking the Inland Route

Now, our focus has very much been on following the Pacific Ocean coast, which ignores a vast number of attractions that can be found inland in the western states of the USA.

If you want to take a more inland route back through California and Oregon, make sure to include on your itinerary:

  • Palm Springs & Joshua Tree National Park, CA – Sunny days and desert adventures await in Palm Springs, with nearby Joshua Tree offering unique rock formations and stargazing opportunities.
  • Death Valley, CA – Explore the hottest, driest, and lowest national park in the U.S., boasting stunning landscapes and extreme conditions.
  • Yosemite Valley and the Sierra Nevada Mountains, CA – Discover towering waterfalls, granite cliffs, such as the iconic Half Dome, and pristine wilderness in one of America’s most iconic national parks.
  • Lake Tahoe, CA/NV – Enjoy outdoor recreation year-round amidst the breathtaking beauty of the crystal-clear waters of Lake Tahoe. Winter sports abound in the colder months thanks to the high altitude of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
  • Lassen Volcanic National Park, CA – Witness volcanic landscapes, bubbling mud pots, and hydrothermal features in this lesser-known gem of a national park.
  • Crater Lake, OR – Marvel at the deep blue waters of the country’s deepest lake, nestled in the remains of an ancient volcano.
  • Bend, OR – Experience outdoor adventure and craft beer culture in this vibrant mountain town, surrounded by rivers, forests, and scenic trails – see our complete family guide to Bend.
  • Mount Rainier National Park, WA: Encounter towering glaciers, lush forests, and diverse wildlife in the shadow of the iconic Mount Rainier, an outdoor playground for hiking, climbing, and scenic drives.

Bonus Tip! If you’re taking the inland route, you’ll be spending a lot of time in the great outdoors; we highly recommend investing in the America the Beautiful National Park pass to save on entry fees.

Helpful? Bookmark this page ready to plan your USA West Coast Trip

USA West Coast Family Vacations-collage of towns and beaches along the US West Coast
Pin for Later: West Coast vacation ideas

Further USA Vacation Inspiration

If you’re looking for more ideas for planning out a trip to the USA, then you may also be interested in these popular family travel posts on our website:

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