This is about our fascinating drive down the West Coast. We had just come down from a two-month road trip during which we’d driven through Alberta, Canada, taken the Alaska Highway to Alaska and the Arctic Circle, and then come down through the Yukon and British Columbia. We were making our way to a Thanksgiving reunion with my family in Mazatlan, Mexico, then a road trip through five Mexican states.
There were many highlights of this great adventure, but I cannot forget the hidden gems of towns we discovered as we drove from Washington to Oregon to California. These small towns may not be as well known but were surprisingly loads of fun.
1. Blaine, Washington
Blaine (population under 6,000), is on the U.S.’s northern boundary on the Canadian border. It is home to the two main West Coast ports of entry between the US and Canada: the Peace Arch Crossing — the primary passenger vehicle port of entry — and the Pacific Highway Border Crossing, about a mile east — the primary point of entry for heavy truck traffic. After we had admired the Peace Arch, we drove to the Beachwood RV Resort, which has many cabins for rent and plenty of amenities — pools, hot tubs, sauna, billiards, table tennis, foosball, video arcade, tennis, golf driving range, a playground, and a general store.
Behind the store, we found a 10-minute walk through the beautiful Birch Bay State Park that led to Birch Bay, a popular spot for crabbing and clamming. We were there in fall, and the autumnal colors were spectacular. At the bay, we discovered big and artsy birch driftwoods that adorned the beach. We found out that close by is a whole touristy community of vacation homes. So there were lots of recreational opportunities with kayak, bike, and golf rentals and a large mini-golf course.
Just 30 minutes from the campground is the city of Bellingham. Although the city is smaller than the neighboring metropolitan areas of Seattle or Vancouver, there are many attractions that are popular among residents and visitors alike. Cliffside views of the San Juan Islands and the glaciers of Mt. Baker can be seen from the city. But it was the campus of Western Washington University, with its Outdoor Sculpture Collection created by 36 contemporary artists, that gave us one great afternoon.
2. Seaside, Oregon
From Blaine, we proceeded to Seaside (population under 7,000). It is right in the area that was the last stop of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. We own a timeshare at Club Wyndham’s WorldMark Seaside, one of the state’s best waterfront locations, so we treated ourselves to a week’s vacation from our cozy RV. We were lucky that the American Kitefliers Association’s Annual Kite Festival was going on during our stay. The beach and sky were littered with giant colorful kites dancing to the hum of the ocean and the songs of the winds. The festival included surprising indoor contests held at the Seaside Convention Center.
We thoroughly enjoyed a lovely stroll on the Seaside Promenade, taking photos with Lewis and Clark at the famous Seaside Turnaround, playing around the expansive beach, shopping at the Carousel Mall and the Seaside Outlet Mall, and dinner at a boardwalk restaurant with great beach views.
A few quick day trips completed our stay. The first was to Astoria, just 30 minutes away. The 4.1-mile-long Astoria-Megler Bridge, the longest continuous truss bridge in North America, dramatically spans the Columbia River. It photographs as a “bridge to nowhere” from the southern approach.
Fort Stevens between Astoria and Seaside was built near the end of the American Civil War. It has a favorite photo stop, the Iredale Wreck, on its beachhead. And just 15 minutes away is the famous Cannon Beach known for 235-foot-high Haystack Rock, often accessible at low tide, especially in summer. Part of the Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge, it is another photo stop, especially for the two eye-catching tall rocks called The Needles beside Haystack.
Read more on why you should make time for Astoria, Oregon, here.
3. Red Bluff, California
Red Bluff (population under 15,000), was really just a waypoint. We parked at a campground here for only one night. The reason for our stop was to visit a hidden gem: the not-so-well-known Lassen Volcanic National Park. The dominant feature of the park is Lassen Peak. At a little under 11,000 feet high, it is the largest plug dome volcano in the world and the southernmost in the Cascade Range. The national park is one of the few areas in the world where all four types of volcano — plug dome, shield, cinder cone, and strato — can be found in one place.
The area is still active with boiling mud pots, stinking fumaroles, and churning hot springs. At the end of the main park road, we were treated to a spectacle that I had never seen before. Right by the roadside were fumes of smoke rising from the ground. All around were hills of different hues of red, orange, and brown. It foreshadowed the trip we would later take to Yellowstone National Park.
4. San Simeon, California
Next was a short detour to the town of San Simeon (population under 500), to see two bucket-list attractions.
First, we visited the Hearst Castle, an opulent exhibit of the decadent lifestyle of the rich and famous during the time when William Randolph Hearst was making waves in the publishing industry. It is a National Historic Landmark (and a California Historical Landmark). With money and the estate — including the hill at San Simeon — of his father, he developed his media empire and built the castle. He called it “a museum of the best things that I can secure.” Among the things he bought were over 30 ceilings, doorcases, fireplaces, mantels, and paneling, and even entire monasteries and a medieval tithe barn, all from Western Europe. He also had high-quality collections, including the largest collection of Greek vases in the world. Hollywood parties were held in the castle, with its famous Roman pool, theater, grand rooms, and guest house. When Hearst died in 1951, the Hearst family gave the castle to the state of California.
Second, we drove to the Elephant Seals Vista Point just eight minutes away. The beach is home to thousands of the huge animals. It is the largest elephant seal rookery on the West Coast, located just south of the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse.
Elephant seals are large oceangoing seals. They were hunted to the brink of extinction by the end of the 19th century, but numbers have since recovered, and the northern species have chosen the Pacific Coast of the U.S., Canada, and Mexico for mating. Elephant seals take their name from the large proboscis of the adult males, which resemble elephants’ trunks and produce extraordinarily loud roaring sounds. The bulls reach a length of 16 feet and a weight of 6,000 pounds.
5. Dana Point, California
From San Simeon, we went toward San Diego, where we again treated ourselves to a short vacation at another timeshare, Diamond Resort International’s Riviera Shores, on the Pacific Coast Highway. We were to meet my husband, Bill’s fraternity brother — who had relocated to the area — at Dana Point Harbor.
Dana Point (population 34,000), has one of the few harbors along the Orange County coast with ready access via State Route 1. The city was named after the headland of Dana Point, which was named after Richard Henry Dana, Jr., author of Two Years before the Mast, which described the area and neighboring San Juan Capistrano as “the only romantic spot on the coast.” The harbor contains a replica of his ship, the Pilgrim. It is now used as a classroom by the Ocean Institute, which is located on the harbor.
The whole area is designated a California Historical Landmark. Dana Point Harbor has miles of walkways, more than 30 specialty shops, a wine tasting room, and 20 waterfront restaurants and taverns around a 2,500-boat and yacht marina.
Of course, we visited nearby Mission Capistrano, founded in 1776 by the Franciscan Order. It includes the oldest building in California still in use, Serra’s Chapel, built in 1782. But the Mission is perhaps best known for the annual Return of the Swallows, a celebration of the swallows’ migration that’s observed every March 19 and has become a favorite subject of renowned artists. Mission Capistrano has been immortalized in books and films more than any other mission because of this event.
We loved this road trip down the West Coast and all we got to see before hurrying to Mexico and our long-awaited family reunion.