From the Golden Gate to the Emerald City

Find adventure on the road less traveled to Seattle from San Francisco.

There have been a few songs written about San Francisco and once you visit, you can understand why. The City by the Bay (that would be San Francisco Bay, by the way) offers a diversity of cultures in food and art on display daily. The northern California city also features plenty of famous landmarks such as the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, cable cars and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Then you have Seattle, which has spawned a varied collection of musical artists and is responsible for an entire genre, grunge. Another locale on the water, the Washington city is the birthplace of guitar legend Jimi Hendrix as well as Amazon.com and Starbucks Coffee. It also possesses famous landmarks like Pike Place Market, the Space Needle and Harborview Medical Center, where the exterior shots of longtime drama “Grey’s Anatomy” are shot.

And how would you link these two major metropolises? By driving from one to the other through some of the most scenic highways the states of California, Oregon and Washington have to offer. Your AAA Ohio travel expert can provide you with an 11-day experience that does just that and includes airfare to San Francisco and from Seattle.

Your journey begins with a flight to San Francisco and then a full day to explore the city. You could ride a cable car and visit city landmarks such as the Lombard Street, the world’s most crooked street; Ghirardelli Square, the birthplace of the Ghirardelli Chocolate Co.; and Nob Hill, where you can find the best views of the city.

And then the driving begins. Your first stops will be along the Sonoma County and Marin County stops along the California Cheese Trail, which promotes family farmers and artisan cheesemakers. The stops offer tours on how cheese is made as well as tastings and cheese-related events. And what goes good with cheese? How about some wine? Grab one of those loaves of sourdough bread you bought in San Francisco (you purchased more than one, right?) and grab a nice bottle of vino and stop for a picnic in Cloverdale Wine Country. If you don’t want to drink wine right now, you also could pair the bread and cheese with some fresh olive oil, which also is made in the region.

Continue north and head to the coast to check out the Point Cabrillo Lighthouse, just south of Fort Bragg, your stopping point for the day. The lighthouse, part of a state historical park, has been operational for nearly 110 years, as it was first illuminated on June 10, 1909.

Spend the next morning checking out Fort Bragg before heading north along the coast for a bit before heading inland. It seems as if you are getting smaller as the trees are getting larger because you are among the California redwoods, among the largest and tallest trees in the world. You will want to leave the main highway (U.S. Route 101) and drive along state Route 254 through the Avenue of the Giants. This 31-mile stretch takes you through more than 50,000 acres of redwoods. There are plenty of places to stop along the way to enjoy the scenery or just the sounds of nature.

Back along the coast, your path will take you to Eureka, the largest coastal city between San Francisco and Portland, Oregon. The city’s name also is California’s motto, the Greek word for “I found it,” referring to the discovery of gold in the state in 1848. From here, it is suggested that you don’t follow the main highway to Arcata, your evening’s destination, but instead take state Route 255 around Humboldt Bay into the city.

With the longest day of driving ahead, you might want to start the day with a walk along the shores of Humboldt Bay, the second-largest enclosed bay in California and home to a plethora of birds at the Arcata Marsh & Wildlife Sanctuary. The next two days of driving are along the coast as you head into Oregon on the first day and land in Coos Bay, Oregon. Make sure to visit the Brandon Cheese Factory for some ice cream (yes, it’s made from the same stuff as cheese) and cross another beacon off your list at the Cape Arago Lighthouse.

From Coos Bay you will travel through the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, the largest area of coastal sand in North America with dunes reaching 500 feet. The recreation area offers plenty to do, from off-roading, fishing, horseback riding and hiking. After that, continue up the coast, which features more lighthouses, to Lincoln City, Oregon, your overnight stop.

Sadly, your journey heads inland from here as you make your way toward Portland, Oregon, so make sure you get one last dip in the Pacific Ocean (or your first, if you haven’t already). On the way to Portland, since you had California cheese, it’s time for Oregon cheese, and Tillamook, Oregon, is where you need to stop. You can see how it is made while tasting some incredible cheddar as well as its newest product, ice cream. Next stop is Portland, where you can park the car for a while since it is rated as one of the top walkable cities. It is a great city for foodies, as there are plenty of artisanal bakers, microbrewers, coffeemakers and cooks throughout the city.

You have a full day to spend some time exploring Portland, or you can recover from your food coma. If you have seen everything in town, you could head east and check out the Columbia River Gorge, first explored by Lewis and Clark on their expedition, and Multnomah Falls, which, at 620 feet, is the tallest waterfall in Oregon.

The final leg of the journey takes you past Mount St. Helens and Mount Rainer, part of the Pacific Ring of Fire – volcanoes ringing the Pacific Ocean. Mount St. Helens famously last erupted in 1980 and stands at 8,364 feet, while Mount Rainer is larger at 14,411 feet and has not erupted since 1894.

Speaking of heights, since your next two evenings will be spent in Seattle, you might want to score reservations for dining at the restaurant at the top of the 520-foot Space Needle, or at least on the waterfront of Puget Sound.

An incredible view of the Space Needle from within the Chihuly Glass and Garden Museum.
An incredible view of the Space Needle from within the Chihuly Glass and Garden Museum.

Your final full day in Seattle can be spent exploring the landmarks mentioned above or the Chihuly Garden and Glass Museum, showcasing the work of glass artist Dale Chihuly.

But my pick would be the Museum of Pop Culture, founded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen with a building designed by award-winning architect Frank O. Gehry.

Once you decide to call your AAA Ohio travel expert and book this experience, I have some final thoughts for you. Besides batteries and extra memory for your camera, car chargers for your phone and plenty of snacks for the trip, I would suggest an awesome playlist for your drive. Because between San Francisco and Seattle, there is a broad spectrum of artists from which to choose.

John T. Garcia is managing editor of AAA Magazine and a former college disc jockey.