Planning a West Coast road trip itinerary can be overwhelming. You’re spoilt for choice when visiting this part of the United States. The natural beauty, poetic endless roads and stunning romantic sunsets are sure to make your heart beat faster (or even skip a beat once in a while!). A trip along the West Coast of the United States will constantly impress you – more often than not at moments you don’t expect.
This guide will help so you can simply look forward to exploring all of these breathtaking locations without the stress of planning a route. Our suggested West Coast USA itinerary begins in San Francisco, travels through several National Parks, winds through Las Vegas and ends in Los Angeles.
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When should you embark on a West Coast road trip?
This West Coast road trip is beautiful throughout the year. However, try to figure out in advance which parks you definitely want to visit. The weather can sometimes cause trouble, and not all parks are (completely) open all four seasons. From May to September good weather is more or less guaranteed – but winter, when the national parks are hidden under a beautiful blanket of snow, also has its advantages.
Top tips when undertaking a road trip:
- Don’t forget your universal adapter!
- Ensure there’s a high enough limit on your credit card(s). More often than not, hotels will ask for a deposit.
- You need a universal driver’s license in America.
- There are water fountains in the National Parks, so be sure to bring your reusable water bottle.
- Gas up wherever you can. Sometimes you won’t come across a gas station for hours!
- Invest in an Annual National Park Pass. Valid for 12 months from the month of purchase, this pass covers admission to all 59 U.S. National Parks. At just $40 USD for the whole year, the pass practically pays for itself.
How long should it take?
We did our West Coast USA tour in three weeks. We crossed three state lines, drove just under 3200 kilometers and walked on average 18,000 steps per day. Honestly, our schedule was firm but remained doable. We could easily have stayed a few weeks longer, though! Being blown off your socks every single day certainly helps to keep the trip enjoyable.
How to travel along the West Coast USA
Renting a car is unavoidable. Try to select the most comfy and trustworthy car your budget allows. You’ll often find yourself on the road for hours on end without coming across another living soul, let alone a train or bus station.
The ultimate West Coast road trip itinerary
Stop 1: Visit the diverse city of San Francisco
San Francisco should be the first stop on your West Coast road trip. The land of golden gates, cable cars, fantastic food and diverse population. This marvelous city earns a blogpost for itself – read everything about the City by the Bay here.
There’s something for everyone with intriguing islands, plenty of hiking trails, fascinating museums and famous landmarks. It’s impossible to explore all that San Francisco has to offer in one trip – plan a stay of 3 nights and I guarantee you won’t get bored for a second.
Stop 2: Hike the spectacular trails of Yosemite National Park
After experiencing San Francisco, you’ll be on the road for three hours to the second stop on your West Coast USA road trip: Yosemite National Park.
With all the adventurous activities the park has to offer, it’s no wonder it attracts roughly 5 million people a year. You’re definitely in for the experience of a lifetime at this famous National Park.
We stayed in Long Barn Lodge, located around 45 minutes from the park. It’s a budget-friendly hotel but you’re free to opt for one of the hotels or camping grounds in the park. Set aside at least two full days to discover the park.
Best Hikes in Yosemite National Park
Hiking is one of the best ways to experience the most spectacular park in the United States. You will need at least two whole days to discover just a tiny bit of all the beauty this park has to offer.
Half Dome: If you are an avid fit hiker, the famous Half Dome hike should be at the top of your Yosemite bucket list. Half Dome is one of Yosemite’s most iconic landmarks, and hiking this towering dome is a true accomplishment. This is a full day activity – a strenuous hike of 14 miles with a roughly 5,000-foot elevation gain. Because the hike takes most people between 10 and 12 hours, it’s crucial that you start your hike very early in the morning to avoid trekking back in the dark. As long as you’re prepared, this hike is sure to be one of your most treasured West Coast road trip memories.
Mist trail: This hike is the signature trail of Yosemite, and it’s the perfect walk to do with children. Not only will you spot beautiful waterfalls, you’re also treated to an astonishing view over the Nevada Fall, Liberty Cap and The Half Dome. Depending on how far you’re willing to go, the average hike takes between 2 and 5 hours, with a distance of between 4.8 and 11 kilometers. If you want to make it a round trip, you need to add on 2.4 kilometers
Yosemite Falls Trail: This is one of Yosemite’s oldest historic trails, built in 1873 to 1877. The Yosemite Falls Trail winds its way up to the top of the highest waterfall in North America. With a distance of 11.6 kilometer, the hike will take around 7 hours. When there’s been a heatwave, almost no water nor waterfall will be seen – so always double check at the information point so you aren’t disappointed when hiking this trail.
North Dome Hike: If you’re in a bit of a rush and you haven’t got the time or courage to attempt the Half Dome hike, the North Dome hike is the perfect alternative! The starting point of the route is an hour’s drive from the park entrance. The hike is 14.2 kilometer and takes about 4 hours. During this trail you get a mind-blowing close-up view of the Half Dome – make sure you walk to the very edge of the rocks at the end of the path. Try to start the trail early in the morning. You’ll end up walking under the naked sun for quite some while, so take enough water and sunscreen with you. The track itself is not that challenging, with the exception of some sturdy and steep parts in the middle.
Yosemite’s most beautiful viewpoints
Glacier Point is the most popular viewpoint in Yosemite National Park. From here, you can see incredible views of Yosemite Valley, Yosemite Falls, Half Dome and other impressive Yosemite landmarks. Though you can actually hike up to Glacier Point, it’s easily accessible by car as long as the Glacier Point Road is open. The road is open from late May to sometime in October or November, depending on the weather conditions.
Tunnel View is another popular viewpoint known for its spectacular views of El Capitan, Half Dome, and Bridalveil Fall. The scene is truly amazing; the views of Yosemite look like a dream. You’ll find this viewpoint at the east end of the Wawona Tunnel – make sure you bring your camera!
Yosemite is full of spectacular waterfalls – and Yosemite Falls and Bridalveil Fall are two of the best. There are many different places throughout the park where you can view Yosemite Falls, but if you’re looking for an up-close look you can follow a one-mile loop that will take you to the Lower Fall. The Upper Falls are accessible but only via a strenuous hike.
El Capitan is one of the most iconic landmarks in Yosemite National Park. As rock climbing is a popular activity in Yosemite, El Capitan Meadow is a great place for watching climbers.
When driving out of Yosemite National Park, tears rolled down my cheeks. I was overwhelmed by the great hikes in this beautiful park. Nature always triggers something in me, but I have to admit that this park left an unprecedented impression.
Stop 3: Walk among the world’s biggest trees in Sequoia National Park
A 4-hour drive will take you from Yosemite to the hotel we stayed near Sequoia: Sequoia Resort & RV park. The roads leading towards the park serve you the US at its finest on your West Coast road trip. Generally speaking, the roads in California are super well maintained and very clean. You won’t find any waste along the road – which is an unusual sight for me as a European!
The park has one large main road that takes you to all activities, most of which can be ticked off in one day. However there are also camping spots, enabling you to spend the night in the park if you wish.
General Sherman: The most famous attraction of the park is General Sherman, the world’s largest tree in volume. Its age is estimated between 2300 and 2700 years old. The Redwood trees can live for thousands of years, because they can withstand chemicals and survive forest fires due to their thick bark. Strangely enough, the Redwoods forests need natural fires to expand.
Moro Rock: Climb the stairway through the clouds to Moro Rock! This magnificent overlook offers unbelievable views of the beautiful canyon, river and trees below. This kilometer long walk gains about 300 meter of elevation. Moro Rock is 2000 meters above sea level! Don’t hike this trail during bad weather conditions, as the path can turn very slippery.
Keep an eye out – in this beautiful park, snakes and black bears might cross your path. For added excitement, make sure you take your car to Tunnel Log to drive through the trunk of a Sequoia tree.
Stop 4: Be king of the road in Death Valley
Next, you’ll be on the road to Death Valley for almost six hours (so buy some good snacks!). This famous valley is the hottest, driest and lowest area in America. The park cannot be skipped on any West Coast road trip itinerary. Most of the park’s activities can be checked out in one day, but you can always opt for a longer stay. Bear in mind that prices for lodging, gas stations and restaurants in the area are sky high, so it’s a good idea to get everything you need before entering the park.
Temperatures can rocket here. During our visit in September it was already above 35 degrees by 9:00am, so you will want to start your trip as early as possible. The park is open all year round, with it’s peak season from October until April.
Death Valley’s must-see viewpoints
Scotty’s Castle: This stop was closed during our visit, but it was nice to park next to the road and take a few shots. This place became world famous thanks to the brilliant movie Forrest Gump.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes: A walk through these sand dunes is a spectacular way to experience another diverse landscape in Death Valley. Watch out for pesky sand fleas!
Badwater: One of the main reasons to visit Death Valley is to see how low you can go. A stop at Badwater Basin will take you to the lowest point in North America – 85 metres below sea level. Badwater offers you splendid salt plains in the middle of the desert. It’s not recommended to visit after 10 am… so take a guess what time we got there. The big prohibition sign doesn’t lie – the plains get very very very very hot! Definitely wear protection and drink enough water before you start the hike to the salt plains.
Zabriskie Point: Are you on the lookout for an epic sunrise or sunset picture? Look no further, Zabriskie point is a beautiful vantage point over Death Valley.
Stop 5: Let’s find out what really happens in Vegas
While approaching the Nevada border during our USA West Coast road trip itinerary, our excitement level rose. Especially when, out of the barren desert, we see Las Vegas appear in the distance out of nowhere.
All the skyscraper hotels, limousines, advertising signs, naked women, the world famous strip… we’ve never been bombarded with so much instant chaos upon arriving somewhere new.
We stayed for four nights at the Hard Rock Hotel. We stayed in Sin City a little longer because we’d set aside a day for our Las Vegas wedding. Read everything about our wedding here! With two nights in Las Vegas, you’ll have more than enough time. We weren’t the biggest fan of this artificial Gambling Capital of the World, but you simply have to check it out for yourselves.
Things to do in Las Vegas
There are so many interesting things to do in Las Vegas. It’s the largest city in Nevada and unsurprisingly receives millions of visitors every year. With a wide variety of leisure options – like music, theater, circus, magic, gambling, betting, weddings, family fun, excursions and much more – it’s one of the largest entertainment centers in the world. As for the nightlife, you can enjoy it with the discreet complicity of those who are willing to offer you anything you want. I’m sure you know the saying – ‘what happens in Las Vegas, stays in Las Vegas’.
Gambling: Have a gamble, no matter how cliché it may sound. You can’t escape the gambling madness here. Every hotel is full of slot machines and poker tables that just scream for your attention… and your money!
Las Vegas Strip: The Las Vegas Strip is without a doubt one of the main places to visit in Vegas. On this avenue you’ll find the best-known hotels and casinos in the city, in addition to the famous Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign (one of the most photographed places in the city). As it is bloody hot in the city, it’s better to avoid the main strip during the day. It’s also much more impressive at night with all the lights on… Try to visit the old strip as well, as gambling here is much cheaper among the locals.
Visit Red Canyon: If you don’t know what to visit near Vegas, the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area is a beautiful place where you can appreciate the splendour of the desert. This beautiful natural space is made up of impressive peaks and reddish walls, and it’s much appreciated by hikers and climbers. This is also the location where we shot our wedding pictures!
Fly over the Grand Canyon: The best way to see the Grand Canyon is by flying over and through it by helicopter or airplane. That way, you can get the best views of the Canyon and the Colorado River from up above – an experience that you absolutely cannot miss out on during your West Coast road trip. The beauty and majesty of the place will leave you speechless.
Stop 6: Hike your way through Zion National Park
Zion National Park is a 2.5-hour drive from Las Vegas, and we stayed at La Quinta by Wyndham La Verkin – Gateway to Zion. Zion is a haven of trails with incredible, jaw-dropping views. This park simply must be on your West Coast road trip itinerary – get ready to be blown away. Try to stay here at least for two nights. Since Zion gets extremely crowded in the spring and summer, and the most popular trails are very busy in the middle of the day, we recommend hitting the trail as early as you can.
Most hiking points in the park can only be reached by the shuttle bus. There are several parking places in the park at the shuttle stop – but come early if you want to ensure your spot. During summer the shuttle runs from 6am to 10pm, and from 7am to 8pm in the winter.
Best hikes in Zion National Park
Angel’s Landing: Angel’s Landing is the most iconic trail in Zion National Park. The trail begins at shuttle stop #6 and will give you one of the most stunning viewpoints you will ever experience – but it’s not recommended for anybody with a fear of heights. Be aware: Angel’s Landing is one of the most dangerous hikes in the world. Nine people have lost their lives there since 2014. And let’s face it, the eight-kilometer-long hike is indeed not for the faint of heart. During the last part you literally hang on to steel chains while you walk along narrow and steep abysses. It’s recommended you start this hike as early as possible. This is one of the most popular trails in the park, and gets very crowded in the middle of the day.
The Narrows: The most famous hike in the park, for those who are not afraid to wet their feet and endure a little cold. There are two ways to hike it; the most popular – from the bottom up starting at the Riverside Walk at the Temple of Sinawava, or from the top down, from Chamberlain Ranch. Hiking from the top down is a long and grueling day hike, or an overnight backpacking trip. If you decide to hike from the bottom up, you can go as far as you wish then turn around and head back – there’s no commitment to a 14-kilometer long trek. Either way you decide to hike the Narrows, you’re in for a treat! You are hiking through the Virgin River (sometimes even wading through it).
Tip: Take a sweater or jacket with you – even in the summer. Waterproof shoes aren’t a requirement – we did the walk in our Nikes – but a walking stick would have been a welcome addition.
Observation Point: Observation Point is one of the more challenging and rewarding hikes in Zion National Park. The trailhead for Observation Point is located at shuttle stop #7. You’ll hike switchbacks through sandstone, providing you with incredible panoramic views of the canyon below throughout the entire hike. Once you reach the top, you’ll be standing across the canyon, looking down 200 meters on the infamous Angel’s Landing.
Stop 7: Relax at Palm Springs
From Zion, you’ll drive five hours to the seventh stop on your West Coast road trip: Palm Springs. We made a small detour to break up the long drive and paid a visit to Valley Of Fire, a beautiful park to drive through. We spent the night at Travelodge by Wyndham Palm Springs, A budget friendly but excellent motel with a swimming pool. The pool was a very welcome addition, as temperatures rose very high during our stay. Palm Springs is a modern town full of beautiful architectural pearls from the 50s and 60s. Definitely search for the home of Elvis Presley or Frank Sinatra while you’re there!
Palm Springs is the ideal stop to just relax. Our West Coast road trip itinerary was quite intense, and we always try to end our holidays with some time to truly relax.
Some of our favourite restaurants in Palm Springs
Stop 8: A Joshua Tree day trip
Situated only a 45 minute drive away from Palm Springs is Joshua Tree, a small but popular park that surprised us with its natural beauty. Joshua Tree is absolutely perfect for a day trip. We spent the night in an Airstream, which was truly an unforgettable experience under the starry sky among wild rabbits, guinea fowls and eagles.
Joshua Tree has an open minded hippy community with nice shops and genuinely friendly people. The park is (like the other parks) the most beautiful at sunrise and sunset – but is also very popular at night for night photography.
Best stops on your day trip to Joshua Tree
This national park takes its name from the unusual tree native to the land. The popular park attracts almost three million visitors a year!
One day in Joshua Tree gives you plenty of time to explore the main areas. You can visit the park all year round – keep in mind that the place will be more packed during summer and holidays. Check out the best stops for your day trip to Joshua Tree below – and remember to pack plenty of food and water, as there won’t be anywhere to stock up on supplies once you’re in the park.
Barker Dam Trail: An easy 1.8 kilometer walking loop with the most interesting rock formations.
Keys View: The second stop on your one day trip to Joshua Tree National Park is Keys View. At this overlook, you’ll be able to admire Coachella Valley and spot the San Andreas Fault. The elevation is over 1500 meters, so this is one of the first places to get snow each season.
Challo Cactus Garden: The best place to watch the sunset during your day trip in Joshua Tree National Park is the Cholla Cactus Garden. The cholla cactus fills this 10-acre garden near the park’s north entrance. There’s a parking lot located at the trailhead, so make a quick stop and walk along the trail through the garden.
Remember that you’re in the desert, so these hikes are not recommended during summer months. Temperatures drop significantly when the sun goes down in the desert. Be prepared.
Best food near Joshua Tree
- Frontier Café for coffee & healthy lunch
- Gourmet Café for salads & Sandwiches
- Pie for the people for pizza & salads – order online to avoid long waiting queues
- Natural Sisters Café for organic coffee, salads & sandwiches
Stop 9: Last stop – 2 days in Los Angeles
We didn’t really expect much from Los Angeles – but boy, how little did we know! Los Angeles is around 2.5 hours away by car from Joshua Tree. Try to avoid rush hours. With millions of inhabitants, nowhere in California is quite as busy as here.
We stayed in an Air BnB close to Venice Beach. Although two days in Los Angeles is not much, you’ll manage to tick off most of the highlights during this time.
Top things to do during 2 days in Los Angeles
Hollywood sign: Hiking up to the famous Hollywood sign is an absolute must during your 2 days in Los Angeles! The best way to start the hike is from the Griffith Observatory. The hike will take about three hours. Make sure you’re up just before sunset – the view is just like a movie scene.
Hollywood Boulevard: Another bucket list item to tick off during 2 days in Los Angeles is to take a stroll down the Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard. Although Beverly Hills and Hollywood are mainly faded glory, these places still have something magical about them. You’ll find yourself completely at ease here.
Melrose Avenue: For all you shopping lovers, Melrose Avenue is an absolute must! If you’re a shopaholic, The Grove is another stop you don’t want to miss. It’s an outdoor mall with a beautifully designed outdoor space with over a 100 stores.
Urban light – LACMA: This is a favorite spot of Instagram-lovers! The outdoor sculpture, created by artist Chris Burden, is made up of 202 restored cast-iron street lamps from the 1920’s and 1930’s. You can visit for free during the day, or at night when they’re all lit up.
Venice Beach: Venice Beach is a vibrant, colorful neighborhood in L.A. Famous for its quirky character, bohemian lifestyle, talented artists and skateboarders. Watch the gorgeous sunset over the Pacific Ocean to end your West Coast USA road trip itinerary in style…
Best food during your 2 days in Los Angeles
- Intelligentsia Coffee Venice for coffee
- Gratitude Kitchen & Bar for a healthy lunch
- The Butcher’s Daughter
- Café Gratitude
- Grand Central Market
- Scopa Italian Roots
During our road trip we unfortunately did not have time to visit Bryce Canyon, my friends from Along came an elephant wrote a nice blog about it. You can read it here.
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