West Coast 101: A Family Road Trip from San Francisco to Seattle

A young family's first road trip features redwood forests, windswept beaches, ice cream breaks and lessons learned along Highway 101

It was 10am on a summer Friday when we pulled out of Lafayette, a leafy suburb of San Francisco. Half an hour behind schedule – not bad! After all, my husband Dilip and I had to load three suitcases, three carry-ons, a stroller folded across the backseat floor, a tote full of snacks, and car seats for Sonia, five and a half, and Mira, one and a half.

We’d flown in from Hong Kong the week before to visit Dilip’s family, while my relatives were waiting for us in Seattle. In between, we had decided to take the route less travelled, winding our way 1,678 kilometres up Highway 101 through northern California and coastal Oregon on our first road trip as a foursome.

Pennyroyal Farm. Credit: Kate Appleton

Hong Kong living is admittedly not the best preparation; it’s rare to drive for more than 45 minutes. But perhaps because of that, we were excited by the idea of open-road adventures and regaled the girls with what lay ahead: The world’s tallest trees! Beaches with majestic sea stacks! Sea lions! Drive-thru!

On that first morning of our West Coast road trip, with the sun shining and our SUV breezing along the high-occupancy-vehicle lane, we couldn’t help but feel optimistic.

The small town of Boonville. Credit: Kate Appleton

Two-and-a-half hours north, past Napa and Sonoma, the landscape began to look less Mediterranean. Redwood trees were a sure sign of the Anderson Valley, known for its old-growth forests, apple orchards and pinot noirs. It’s also rife with a lavender-coloured wildflower that inspired the name of Pennyroyal Farm – our first destination (barring a quick pitstop for ice cream at Paysanne in the one-street-long town of Boonville).

We had the farm tour to ourselves: Mira oohed at the goats, lambs and their guardian llama; Sonia scampered along the vines, eagerly pointing out low-hanging grapes; and we sampled the blue-ribbon-winning cheeses paired with wines and picked up a bottle for family in Seattle.

Back on Highway 101, we passed signs for deer and moose and increasingly dense forest to reach Benbow Historic Inn. The interiors look a little past their 1920s glory days, but the terrace is lovely for dinner with live music. It’s one of the few hotels in the thick of the redwoods and was fully booked; we ended up in a cabin with a loft at the adjacent campground.

Credits: Gunther Meyer/Alamy; Kate Appleton

Coffee from Getti Up, a drive-thru booth in Garberville, got us suitably alert to appreciate the Avenue of the Giants, an awe-inspiring drive through the 110-metre-high tree canopy of Humboldt Redwoods State Park. At the visitors’ centre, we traced the rings of a 1,000-year-old stump – an ambassador from another time, as John Steinbeck put it.

Somehow we missed the turnoffs for the Rockefeller Loop Trail and Founders’ Grove, a popular photo-op. It was too late to double back, and I felt the first pangs of traveller’s remorse. We pulled over at the next opportunity, in Redcrest, where the girls climbed through one giant hollowed-out tree and hugged another.

We needed comfort food, and while oysters and IPAs at Humboldt Bay Provisions were tempting, we stayed on theme at Samoa Cookhouse. It opened in 1890 to feed lumberjacks and still serves all-you-can-eat meals with one main and ample sides.

Samuel H Boardman State Scenic Corridor. Credit: Casey Horner/Unsplash

A breeze sped us out of the Victorian-era town of Eureka, and we experienced our first expansive views of the Pacific Ocean before turning inland through more redwoods. There were only so many times a day we could unbuckle the car seats, so we held out for the Samuel H Boardman State Scenic Corridor, across the Oregon border. The sun was starting to set as we stretched our legs at the Natural Bridges and Arch Rock viewpoints – gaping at those majestic sea stacks, pounding surf and cliffs with fir trees and flowers. Almost equally amazing, it was peak season and practically deserted.

The Oregon coast continued to surprise as we continued north on our West Coast road trip. In wind-swept Bandon, we happily walked in circles through a sand maze adorned with shells, driftwood and feathers, which is redrawn every few weeks by local artist Denny Dyke. Sunset Bay State Park was a calm counterpoint – a sheltered cove where the girls waded in the bracing water.

Credit: Kate Appleton

One Art Deco bridge after another led us to Heceta Head, a 60-metre bluff crowned by a still-working lighthouse. We parked beachside at 5.30pm – the lighthouse closed at 5pm – but consoled ourselves that it may not have been realistic for our crew anyway, since the only access was a steep 800-metre hike. (Adult-only guests of the lighthouse’s B&B use a private road. File that away under ‘next time’.)

After soaking up the scene of families tide-pooling and walking dogs in the golden late-afternoon light, we followed Highway 101 as it rose above the coast and cut through the quaint small towns of Yachats and Newport. Over a seafood dinner at the Hallmark Resort Newport, our waitress Tami, born a few miles away, talked up the area’s sleepy appeal. When she met her second husband, he was living in Portland: ‘too crowded – and the traffic, too crazy.’

The Newport waterfront and its bounty. Credit: Kate Appleton

We were admittedly Portland-bound, but lingered to let Newport work its charms. At the Oregon Coast Aquarium, we marvelled at giant moon jellyfish, flat fish that swim on their sides and sea lions doing tricks at feeding time. Lunch brought us to Local Ocean Seafoods for spicy noodles with shrimp, halibut with grilled peaches and views of fishing boats and the arched Yaquina Bay Bridge.

Back in the car, the landscape shifted to pastures of grazing cows. It was ice cream o’clock, and we were at just the right place: Tillamook Creamery, a farmer-owned Pacific Northwest icon that opened a gleaming visitors’ centre in 2018, just shy of its 110th anniversary. The dairy goodness includes free cheese samples, bacon mac ’n’ cheese, gooey grilled sandwiches and scoops of chocolate cherry and huckleberry ice cream.

Cannon Beach, our intended next stop, required a detour north, but it was nearly 5pm so we filed that away under ‘next time’, too, and headed east towards Portland. Approaching the city, we met with the trip’s first traffic jam – ‘Tami was right,’ said Dilip.

Credits: Sophia Silvester/Unsplash; Zach Savinar/Unsplash

Our spirits lifted at Portland’s Heathman Hotel, where we’d booked the glamping package. The girls were delighted by the tent outfitted with a kid-size mattress, toy lantern and Goodnight Oregon, a bedtime book. Downstairs at Headwaters, we feasted on Columbia River king salmon and seared scallops with pork belly. Sonia befriended the hostess, who conjured up a colouring book and crayons. Mira was drawn to the library – a dazzling space with double-ceiling-height shelves, art and armchairs – and promptly began pulling books onto the floor with a grin.

Before comedy series Portlandia skewered it as a hipster haven ‘where young people go to retire’ and ‘the dream of the ’90s is alive’, Portland was nicknamed the City of Roses. We took that as our cue and spent the morning at the International Rose Test Garden. A few artists had easels set up among the 650 blooming varieties.

Our West Coast road trip had been fuelled largely by coffee and ice cream, and two artisanal refills got us through the final stretch: Case Study in downtown Portland and Sofie’s Scoops in Olympia, the state capital of Washington.

We reached Seattle about 95 kilometres later, miraculously on schedule. It felt good to unpack our stuff at the Kimpton Alexis Hotel, knowing we could spend the next week walking around downtown (eating your body weight in ice cream and sitting for hours does take its toll). But being in one place came also with the bittersweet realisation that our amazing adventure had come to an end: five days, three states and two children full of memories.

This trip was completed in partnership with Hertz

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