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Pacific Coast Highway in January: Are we crazy?

I'm a Southerner - not used to snow or extreme cold. My daughter wants us to fly to Seattle and drive down the coast to San Diego, taking in the amazing sights and visiting all that the area has to offer along the way. I'm really excited about the trip and had visions of us enjoying the Redwoods, national parks, and such; however, I just checked the monthly average for the area on Weatherchannel.com. Yikes! Now I know why the hotel rates are so cheap in January. Instead of visions of frolicking through the Redwoods, I'm envisioning slick roads and our sliding off the highway and over a cliff to icy deaths. Can anyone who has done this drive in January, reassure me it's a good idea? Any advice to make it work? Thanks!

Posted by
9884 posts

Can anyone who has done this drive in January, reassure me it's a good
idea?

It's not a good idea, assuming you have other choices re date.
That's why the hotel rates in January are cheap--few tourists do sight-seeing on this route during January.

The weather is not the only problem, the short days, with sunsets not too long after 5pm, will drastically shorten your driving and sight-seeing time, compared to almost 9pm sunset in the summer.

You mentioned extreme cold and ice: that's not going to be the problem, it's short daylight, rain, and if not rain then heavy overcast.

As an alternative, if you want to stick to January, you could do most of the California coast, but Oregon and Washington coast drive in January are likely to be weather as you've already reviewed.

The California part could be ok if you start in San Diego and go up the California coast until you get to rain, which might be about the time you get to Redwoods Nat'l Park.

I'm an Oregonian and haven't driven the Oregon or Washington coast drive in January-- the reason is in the average weather for this route in January, which you've already reviewed. Believe it.

This is more likely to be the wonderful vacation you envision, if you go July to end of September, or until Labor Day if you have school age kids.

Posted by
5188 posts

How much time to you have for this trip? Maybe you should consider narrowing down JUST to the California portion, which in itself is quite long. Weather in January in CA is nicer than states up north. My advice is to give yourself a lot of time for a trip like this because it could take multiple weeks, depending on the number of stops/ detours made.

Posted by
4150 posts

The Pacific Northwest coast is a rain forest. This should tell you something useful.

What's not widely known outside the region is that we have two seasons: a wet season and a dry season. The joke is that the wet season runs from Jan 1 to Dec 31, but that's not really true. I'll leave local knowledge on California to the Californians, but for Washington and Oregon (and I'd guess the following is largely true for the northern 1/4 of the California coast, too), the two seasons break down like this:

Wet season typically begins sometime in October and runs through around June.
Dry season begins around July 5 and runs through end of September. The July 5th date has always been a useful way to tell who just moved here, and who has been around a while. The newcomers can be seen huddled under blue FEMA tarps in campgrounds over the 4th of July break, in the rain. Come the morning of July 5, the sky splits open and is clear, blue, and 100% rain-free until the Big Gray Drip starts again in October.

The above has been the norm forever. In recent years, with climate change, the patterns have remained the same expect the wet season has shrunk a little at both ends, but overall it's still two very distinct seasons.

There's virtually zero snow and ice along the coast itself, year 'round. If you stick literally right on the coast (which US 101 mostly hugs), there's almost no chance of snow or ice, even in January. But there's almost a 100% chance of unfrozen precipitation in some form. There might be breaks between the precip, maybe even days-long breaks (not impossible but rare, in January), but in January, you should expect some mix of hard rain, driving rain, light rain, constant rain, occasional rain, intermittent rain, on-and-off rain, drizzle, mist, fog, and 100% humidity pretty much every day in January.

There certainly is snow and ice if you try to get inland, since there's a mountain range (the "Coast Range") between the coast itself and everything else inland, so exercise extreme care if you venture away from the coast highway.

Personally, in my experience, January can sometimes have a handful of non-rainy days ("nice for January" weather) while November typically has the absolute worst weather, with strong, powerful, soaking storms rolling through day after day after day. But for a visitor, these distinctions might not be noticed. If you come in January, you're just going to get a lot of rain, period.

But it's not all bad. All that moisture is why it's so green, with trees and moss growing on everything and everyone. This also helps keep some of the riffraff away and weed out at least a few of the fair-weather newcomers who show up expecting some version of LA with trees.

You can still enjoy the scenery (although sometimes you'll only be able to see a few feet) but you sure as hell better be prepared for wet wet wet, because that's what you're gonna get get get.

There's a reason why we say, in GoreTex We Trust.

Posted by
2525 posts

It’s all in your perspective. Best weather and massive crowds are a match. I grew up near that coast and have enjoyed off season trips, and yes, even in winter. I would happily and will do so again.

Posted by
686 posts

It's wet and rainy along the coast, but seldom snow or ice covered, so I don't really think that should be a problem. The only really hairy part of the drive is the area through Big Sur from Monterey to Cambria, and that's because the road is only two lanes. There are guardrails, and the roads are really no more dangerous than the backroads of Alabama in winter--probably less so because there is more ice in Alabama and Georgia during the bad months. It just seems scarier because of the exposure and the heights.

Oregon is pretty tame, as is Northern California through San Francisco and San Jose. After Cambria, it is just a road.

Make sure you stop at the Bandon Fish Market in Bandon, Oregon for some fish and chips if the weather is nice, and at La Super Rica Taqueria in Santa Barbara, California for some great Mexican food. If you are lucky, you might get some decent whale watching in along the drive.

The real threat of an icy death is probably overrated, but it would probably be pretty quick.

Posted by
1683 posts

That time of year I'd start the coastal drive in Monterey. Big Sur is the highlight, check for closures ahead of time. The short days that time of year are the biggest drawback.

Posted by
1039 posts

As a PNW native I have to agree with previous posters. The best travel weather is when our "summer" begins. That usually happens July 5. I can't speak to traveling the coast in January. Our favorite time for a road trip on the coast is late July to September. Can't beat the beauty of the Oregon & California coast during this time.

Posted by
1769 posts

It’s a long drive with a lot to see. But, it is the rainy season and you could really be socked in. As the driver you will see less than the others and some of the drive could be challenging in a deluge. If you are willing to chance the weather start researching what you really want to see and shorten your drive. Think Portland to San Francisco or San Francisco to San Diego, or a variety of segments such as those.

Posted by
807 posts

What David said. Not a good idea to drive Ore/Wash coast in January. Come in September — it’s glorious!

Posted by
8411 posts

Oregon coast resident here. If you don’t mind wet weather and perhaps a magnificent storm, you will enjoy low rates in lodging and uncrowded roads. Ice and snow unlikely.

Summer is lovely but Hwy 101 is crowded with those seeking cool, clear days, including massive numbers of people in slow moving RVs.

I like April, May and June before the vacationers arrive. Our little town of 8000+ swells to 40000+ on the summer weekends. Personally, if I see a chain of 4 or 5 mostly sunny days forecast in Jan, Feb, or March, we like to take an impromptu trip north or south on 101 but we have the advantage of being able to be impetuous,

Posted by
5397 posts

Well, I drive most of that drive every December/January. I drive from my home in OR down to my daughter's in SoCal for Christmas and back again in early January. I've only had slick roads once and that was between Grant's Pass OR and Mt Shasta CA. Temps are usually in the 40's that time of year and yes, there will be rain, but very little snow. It's not like I've ever needed tire chains or anything and I don't have a 4-Wheel drive vehicle and have never had any real problems. If the roads are slick, slow down a little and drive carefully. I don't know much about the stretch from Seattle to Astoria in winter. Actually winter is one of my favorite times for the OR coast and the best time of year to see whales. Also, as you mentioned, the hotel rates are down and the crowds are way down - including the traffic on 101, which gets horrendous in summer.

My attitude may come from my winter experiences as I've only lived in MN, CO, and OR - never in the South - so I'm used to snow, rain, and slow driving at times.

Posted by
4657 posts

CA Native here who has driven Hwy 1 /101 numerous times over the years.

Forget the PNW in January.

Stay in CA for the whole west coast drive.

If she really wants to do this Fly to San Diego and then head North. Loads to see and explore along the way from SD to the Oregon border.

Beaches, sand dunes, cliffs, coves, redwoods, CA Missions, seals, whales, Aquariums, piers, palm trees, cafes, Boardwalks, State parks, Hearst Castle, etc...Great cities and towns...San Diego, Seal Beach, Santa Monica, Santa Barbara, Cambria, Morro Bay, Cayucous, Pacific Grove, Carmel, Aptos, Santa Cruz, Half Moon Bay, Bolinas, Bodgea Bay, Gulala, Mendocino, Fort Bragg, Crescent City....

It's a big state, diverse geographically.....weather can come into play as no one can tell Mother Nature to behave but starting in Southern CA and heading North is wiser....

Posted by
6391 posts

I’d happily do this trip in January. I like rain and it will still be beautiful. And far fewer people on the road. For the California portion, last January (and many more) we had spring/summer weather.

Posted by
4665 posts

I'm envisioning slick roads and our sliding off the highway and over a cliff to icy deaths

Going along US 101 and california 1/101 I would not expect to encounter icy roads, except for a an unusual storm.

It is unlikely along Wash., Ore and Northern Calif you will find temps above mid 40s and rain, grey overcast and windy conditions will be the norm. You will be happy to reach San Diego.

If you do the trip be sure you go SOUTHBOUND, from Seattle

Posted by
921 posts

We did our Honeymoon in December driving south from Seattle on I-5 until we got to southern Oregon then cut through the forest to 101 unless there is snow then go thru central Oregon to coast, continue to San Francisco then take the Camino Real to visit the Missions. You can go towards Monterey, Visit Carmel, stopping by a few vintners on the way to LA. Visit Disneyland for old times sake. Continue along coast to San Diego. Visit Zoo. Go back up I-5. Go back over Gate, visit Napa Valley, follow Hiway 1, realize that it is going to take forever an cut over to 101 or I-5 to continue N. maybe go Portland and Mt Hood. where you will probably see some snow. Weather should be fair except by ocean. You need 2 weeks at least to do this drive roundtrip. I checked road conditions on Oregon Coast, just driving would be a full 8 hr day. North California on hwy 101 to San Francisco 8hrs. Monterey to LA on 101 another 8 hrs. LA to San Diego is 3hrs. Time to stop by Disneyland. As you can see this is a lot of drive time. Take I-5 straight down or back.

Posted by
601 posts

David, your post is so funny and SO ACCURATE!

OP: take everyone’s advice. Rain is cold, unending, view obstructing, downright miserable. Some people love the gloom and damp. My brother (rip) lived in Tillamook Co.

We escaped the PNW to live in AZ 30+ years ago. Three months of hot is way better than ten months of rain.

Posted by
382 posts

Allow me to add my $0.02 worth. I have lived up and down the west coast from San Diego to Everett, WA. I'm making my home just south of Tacoma these days, but I've driven 101, 1, and 5 for over 30 years in all weather. I5 is for if you're in a hurry and need to get somewhere. The coast roads are for the drive. The weather will be cool and wet in January. But snow is rare unless you get over 2000 feet in elevation. Basically if you go down the coast you'll see rain. Rain like you probably have never seen before. Unless you're planning on camping outside that's not too bad, because you know you can get warm and dry. But one thing about it, you and the locals will be the only traffic. When tourist season hits the coast it's wall to wall RV's, and traffic sucks. Prices go up, and everything gets crowded.

Me? I'd go. Take a couple weeks and do it slow. Take a hike in the rain. Realize there are people (like me) who go out to the coast at that time of year just to sit on the beach and watch the storm. (Or better yet, in a condo just off the beach with a view.) Hiking the forest in the rain in nice too.

If you start in Seattle you have two options; go out and around the Olympic Peninsula or not. If you do decide to go the long way you should drive down to Olympia and then up to Port Angeles, from there to Forks, and then down the coast to Aberdeen/Grey's Harbor. You can easy make that loop in a day, but I usually stay over in Forks or out on the coast at La Push. You should be able to get a beach condo for $40-$50/night.

From Aberdeen you go along the coast to Long Beach. Most of that side of the coast was logged in the 60-70's and still has some going on. (They work in the rain.) There's a really good museum for Lewis and Clark in Long Beach. Then you have the bridge to Astoria. If there's weather that can be a ride. The bridge does move! That's one of the most dangerous river's in the world at that point. But Astoria is nice, an old fishing village. Just south is Tillamook, which is famous for cheese and ice cream. They have one of the best collections of old airplanes you can ever see in an old blimp hanger just outside town.

From Tillamook you come a little inland, but you can see signs to take you out to some of the lighthouses of you want. From Lincoln City to Newport is real pretty. And if the sun comes out you can probably see some seals or otters on the rocks. That stretch is famous for crab and lobster so make sure you eat local.

I love the drive from Newport to Coos Bay. You pass the best sand dunes north of Pismo Beach in that stretch. Coos Bay is a nice town to spend some time in too. But from there down to Klamath (in CA) is the most rural stretch of road you'll hit. It's the sticks, and services are few even in summer. Plan accordingly.

Just outside of Crescent City is Jed. Smith State Park. It's one of my favorite places to just be alone in the woods. Fabulous trees! South of there is Eureka, the big city for that part of the coast. And from there you probably want to stay on 101 and visit Humboldt for the redwoods. (You can go out along the coast there, but I wouldn't recommend it. The roads are pretty minimal.)

More to follow...

Posted by
382 posts

At Leggett you can pick up Hwy 1 and head down the famous Mendicino Coast to Ft Bragg, and Point Arena. This is the drive everyone talks about, and yeah, it's best in a little roadster with the sun out, but it's pretty good anytime. If you want a treat stay at Sea Ranch, but be prepared to pay, as this is very popular.

Now you have to make another choice of routes; stay on 1 south of Bodega, or cut over the hills to Petaluma and then to Napa Valley. Myself, I'd do the detour to Napa, because a little wine country will be nice after all the seaside. Napa in January is great, because during the week the tourists are minimal (they never completely stop). If you go that way let me know and I'll give you a locals list of stuff to do. (I lived there 5 years too.)

From Napa you can cut over to SF (which you'd hit if you come south from Bodega). Do the tourist thing there, and make sure you are back on the coast at Santa Cruz. Then you have Monterrey, Carmel, Big Sur, San Simeon, and Morro Bay, and then down into Santa Barbara and the start of the L.A./ San Diego metroplex. It's only a days drive, but you can easy spend a week on that stretch alone.

Go. Get out, get a little wet, pray for nice weather, hit the antique shops and hotels when the prices are best, and see one of the most incredible stretches of road in the USA.

Posted by
6391 posts

Great detailed info from KGC. I would keep going south on 1 from Bodega Bay though. I don’t think Napa is anything special to look at, the drive over through Petaluma is nice, but the drive south from Bodega Bay through Marin County and onto the GG Bridge is spectacular. I wouldn't miss it.

Posted by
382 posts

One last thing...Check Groupon for hotels. Great deals on the coast this time of year.

Posted by
30020 posts

I've made that drive a number of times over the years, but never in January. I'll defer to the advice of more experienced group here in terms of whether you should make the trip or not.

If you do decide to go, a few thoughts......

Be sure to pack some rain gear. You won't be able to see the sights sitting inside a car, so you will have to get out at times to wander through the Redwoods or whatever.

As you plan on starting in Seattle, if you like Museums you can visit....

  • The Museum of Flight near SEA. They have some great exhibits including one of the previous versions of Air Force 1.
  • If you've never seen the inside of one of the previous diesel powered Submarines, make a stop at OMSI in Portland, and take a tour of *USS Blueback * - https://omsi.edu/submarine
  • When you leave Portland, travel to McMinnville and visit the Evergreen Air & Space Museum. They have some great exhibits there, including The Spruce Goose.
  • If you'd like to see another Submarine, check out the USS Pampanito at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco - https://maritime.org/uss-pampanito/ .
  • And of course, take an Alcatraz tour also, if you're interested.
  • There are lots of sights to see in L.A. and San Diego, but which ones to see will depend on your interests.
Posted by
172 posts

DH and I just spent 4 nights on Cannon Beach, OR when the wind drove the waves over Tillamook Light. It was wild and crazy and wonderful. Take the drive knowing that daylight will be short, the rain inevitable and the scenery spectacular. While living on the east coast 30 years ago I drove from Burbank to Seattle mostly along 101 in January. And last year I drove from Santa Barbara (escaping from the Thomas Fire) to Tacoma partially on the PCH and partially on I5 In December. It’s definitely doable and absolutely beautiful.

Posted by
2026 posts

About the Central California coast in January, weather can be anywhere between sunny, clear and beautiful at one extreme, and pouring rain, very low visibility, slippery and even flooding at the other extreme. Right now Highway 1 is open all the way, but during the winter can wash out for short periods or many months. Between Carmel and Cambria, the road is in places very curvy and sometimes hilly, and you definitely will not want to be driving in the dark. Of course you would miss the scenery in the dark anyway. There are various restaurants and inns in the upper sections of Big Sur, then not much until Cambria, which is an active town with many restaurants and inns of various types. In that more isolated middle section, there is a motel and restaurant at Ragged Point.

One more place to visit in Seattle is the Chihuly Glass Center, a magnificent exhibition of the glass works of Dale Chihuly, both smaller and very, very large works. Really special, I wouldn’t miss it!

Posted by
1712 posts

You would be fine with the California sections. You are not going to find extreme cold along the California coast. You could fly into SFO and start on the Mendocino coast. You might be rained on a fair amount, or you might not. We are having very nice weather in the Bay Area now, sunny but a little chilly at night (~40 Fahrenheit--yeah that's chilly for here). There are certainly some windy (as in, windy road, not necssecarily high winds) sections between Big Sur and Cambria on the CA coast as I recall, but nothing that cannot be navigated with a normal level of caution. Many of the redwood parks are along 101. Richardson Grove, Prairie Creek, Jedediah Smith north from S.F along 101. In the Bay Area and southward, Muir Woods, Big Basin, Henry Cowell, Samuel Taylor. Pinnacles National Park off of 101 is also a real gem (no redwoods there though). If driving all the way south, I might even consider a detour to Joshua Tree NP which is amazing. My wife and I visited last December and the weather was quite temperate. My advice is not to fixate on driving the coast.

Posted by
334 posts

I agree to go North to south for better views along the California coast. I know nothing about the Oregon coast.

Do not forget to check for road closures as HWY 1 is often closed due to mudslides when it rains.
I would not suggest making this a round trip. Two weeks simply isn’t enough time.

Posted by
6391 posts

Samuel P Taylor State Park is very close to Hwy 1 (between 101 and 1) and Muir Woods is basically on Hwy 1.
There’s also a Redwood Grove in SF, in the Botanical Gardens in Golden Gate Park.

Posted by
12268 posts

My biggest issue would be planning where to spend the long evenings.

How long do you have for the trip? The Oregon coast is great and if you only have a short time (week or so) you could meander the OR coast and the NorCal redwood forest, then zip down to San Francisco on 101 and end there. If you have time for a longer trip, one of my favorite winter places on the Cal coast is Ano Nuevo's sand dunes teeming with elephant seals - register in advance for a tour and walk among them. Another cool place is Natural Bridges State Park in Santa Cruz, where the monarch butterflies winter. Magical if you're there on a sunny day. There is plenty to see and do around Monterrey, but then not much for many miles. You can't predict the weather. The drive through Big Sur is supposed to be super-scenic. I did it in mid-October and all the scenery was shrouded by the marine layer.

Posted by
2923 posts

Have you looked at a map or used Google Maps to check the distance? It's 1261 miles from San Diego to Seattle and that's using Interstate 5. Using 1 or 101 it will be a longer distance and a slower drive.

I've driven the whole way, but in pieces. I don't remember if I've done it in January, but I have done it in November. Pay attention to what everyone has said about the rain in all its many varieties, all of which are cold.

The wind can be strong and the days will be short. I can't stress enough the need to check the weather and road conditions every day before you get in the car. You may have to adjust your route for any number of reasons.

These weather conditions are significant for how you dress, too. REI and Eddie Bauer, along with some other outdoor clothing providers, will be more than happy to help you out with that. EB has a big sale going on right now. In fact, I ordered a couple of things today for when I'm in the Seattle area in late spring and early fall.

I lived in the Tacoma area for about 20 years and it wasn't as bad as being farther north, but I did not enjoy going to work in the dark and coming home in the dark. I didn't enjoy driving in the fog, but my least favorite was driving in freezing fog. That may not occur right along the Pacific Coast, but it sure did along I-5.

With short days, you will not make much progress each day, especially if you stop to see anything along the way. And there are lots of things to see. So you may need to do some serious prioritizing if you don't have enough time to do them all.

If you start in Seattle, you will be on the west side of the roads heading south. When you are driving in the daylight, the view, if you get any clear days, will be fabulous, but the road along the Pacific is mostly neither straight nor flat. I have, but no longer would, drive it after dark.

I'm not trying to scare you, but you do need to be aware of the differences between January in the PNW and wherever you live.

Having said that here are some signs that you may not see at home. Tsunami. Lahar. Apple Maggot.

Posted by
5397 posts

I checked the weather forecast for next week and from Astoria OR to San Francisco the weather is partly cloudy with lows around 40 and highs around 50 - not a big difference like in CO where the lows can be in the 20's and the highs around 60+. The nice thing about the coast is that it does not have that large spread of temps so you can plan the same wardrobe for all day and into the evening. January weather on the coast can sometimes be better than the warmer months and definitely better than inland.

Caveats: 1. Drive during daylight hours and settle in for the night early, preferably in a hotel/motel/inn with rooms on the beach, or with ocean views, and a fireplace would be great. Also good if it has it's own restaurant or is located near a selection of places to eat. 2.Check road conditions the night before and in the morning before you start out so you can plan how far you want to drive that day. 3. It would be nice if you have enough time to build in an extra day for if you get stranded somewhere due to road wash-out (doesn't happen often but you should be prepared) or heavy storm - I don't see anything predicted right now in the 30 day forecast for January, but one never knows about the weather.

Personally I think it's a great idea.

Posted by
382 posts

Apparently this isn't clear to most folks, so I'll put some time into it.

Driving I5 and driving the coast roads are completely different!

I can, and have, driven from Seattle to Pasadena, CA straight thru. It's right around 1250 miles down I5. Takes around 28 hours with gas breaks, etc. The only major traffic is Portland and Sacramento (at rush hour). It is marginally scenic. (Don't get me wrong, the stretch from Shasta to Eugene is a favorite of mine but not worthy of two weeks vacation.)

There is no way you can drive the coast like that. It takes most of a day of hard driving to get from one end of Oregon to the other. The coast road is mostly two lanes (one in each direction) and goes thru dozens of small communities with associated traffic and stops. Likewise, the California coast; it's a good days drive from Santa Cruz to Santa Barbara, and having driven it dozens of times I still stop to just sit and look at something on the way. South of SB you hit traffic, and unless you detour to the Freeway (I5 again) you're going to be in stop and go all the way to Mexico.

A couple years ago I took a week to drive from Coos Bay to Forks and could have used more time. You just can't see it all.

I5 is for going somewhere. The coast roads are for traveling.

Posted by
1425 posts

Another native Oregonian chiming in - much of the advice I would give has been offered already. The only things I would reiterate about the Washington/Oregon coast are that daylight hours are short (minimizing your views) and you won't have "extreme cold" but you will have damp cold - for many out-of-towners, this is less comfortable than 0 degrees.

I love the PNW coast in winter. You can catch a day (or two or three) of beautiful weather, but when it gets dreary you find a coffee shop, book store, or restaurant with a big window and watch it blow. The locals will embrace you...and no crowds (and trust me, summertime is awful). In Gortex We Trust (love that!), suit up and walk on the beach or in the woods. Magical.

Posted by
2189 posts

There really isn't much point in going over to the pacific coast until you hit Oregon if you are looking for ocean scenery. Highway 101 in Washington only hugs the coast for the shortest of times.

January has short days, but very few tourists! The few tourists should overcome at least some of the drawbacks of the short days and poor weather.

Posted by
2003 posts

I think the answer to your question determines whether you are a tourist or a traveler. A tourist would wait for the perfect weather. A traveler would travel off-season and enjoy the views, the ambiance and the regular life of the places you are traveling through. Or if you are a photographer, the rainy season is more apt to provide unique photographs. IMO, YMMV

Posted by
635 posts

Here's another Oregonian chiming in. I've read the above quickly so I don't know if I missed this. But this is whale watching season. It's going on right now. 20,000 gray whales will travel south along the coast to Baja Mexico. Oregon State Parks have many whale watching points along the coast, some staffed by volunteers. Its great fun to see them. Have a great trip.

Posted by
4150 posts

But this is whale watching season. It's going on right now. 20,000 gray whales will travel south along the coast to Baja Mexico.

Ummm, no, not really.

The whales (California Gray whales) pass along the coast southbound to Baja in the fall (generally Oct-Nov, maybe December), and pass along the coast northbound the Alaska in the spring (generally March-April). Right now (certainly in January), they should be far to the south, in Baja or very near. You won't really see many off the coast of Oregon or Washington right now.

In fact, I'm headed to Baja in a few weeks to go see them close up - so they better not still be lollygagging up in the Northwest!

There might be a stray straggler or two running late (and there are a few resident whales who actually stay and don't do the full migration) but the majority will be down in Baja (giving birth in the lagoons) soon, so I would not suggest anyone head to the Oregon coast in January in hopes of sighting whales (especially when you consider the typical visibility...).

Posted by
5397 posts

You will be able to see whales in January, at least around the Depoe Bay - Newport area. They may not be migrating whales but there is a resident pod of whales that spends the whole year in that neighborhood. Depoe Bay is the most likely place to see them but I have also seen them throughout the winter from Yaquina Head near Newport. Not sure when in January the OP is traveling but this is from the Oregon State Parks website:

In the Winter we watch nearly 20,000 gray whales from mid-December through mid-January as they travel south to the warm lagoons of Baja Mexico.

Posted by
9884 posts

Whales, ok in December but they're traveling in January, and the whales may have moved farther south by then (ok, there are some that hangout off Oregon all year, I hear 'ya).
I think the OP is looking for judgment call type advice, where they just don't have any personal experience with the cost in January.
Sometimes there's an understandable urge to be "positive" and tell them what we think they want to hear, as in yeah, go for it.
But, and although I haven't read all the threads and might be missing something--but unless they're absolutely locked into January b/c of airfare already purchased--maybe we should be giving them help in making a judgment call: if you have a choice, PNW coast drive, big effort on their part, in January, or later in the year?

Posted by
5397 posts

would we do it in January or July?

I'd do it in either but would maybe enjoy the peace and lack of crowds more in January than in July. But then, as I probably said before, the cold doesn't bother me as much as it probably would a Southerner.

It would be helpful if the OP mentioned when in January they were thinking about and how much time they would have to do this drive>

Posted by
5 posts

Thanks for the advice. In answer to the question about whether we're locked in and when we would go: We have not yet booked; I wanted to get your opinions first, since I have so little knowledge of the area. We would fly into Seattle around January 17 and have ten nights to drive/explore from Seattle to San Diego. We could do it in the summer, but many of your responses indicate a preference for the winter, when the crowds are down. I think we're going to go for it!

Posted by
12268 posts

Is it imperative that you begin in Seattle and end in San Diego? I just plotted a route on google maps, Seattle to Astoria on I-5, then along the coast to San Diego, over 1500 miles and google's estimate (add a lot) of 32 hours. 10 nights means 9 days. Do you want to spend any time in Seattle or San Diego? Do you want to stop and see stuff or just drive and look at the views - bearing in mind that the driver will not see much since s/he'll have to concentrate on the road - like others have said, it's not highway!!!

Posted by
5397 posts

I know 10 nights/9 days is not ideal for really exploring the area - I know people who have spent 2 full weeks just seeing the Oregon Coast and some spend a whole week in Seattle - but for a Pacific Coast road trip it's doable. I think 1-1/2 days in Seattle is enough to see a few things and get a feel for the place. Then 7 days for the drive down the coast stopping to see what looks interesting. I would recommend only 4-5 hours of driving per day, more if the weather and road conditions allow. Of course you won't see all there is to see and probably not see any area in depth but that's not always necessary to enjoy a road trip. I have spent 3 days driving from midway down the OR coast to the LA area and stopped and saw lots of things along the way without rushing too much, and that was in winter with short daylight hours. You just need to set your expectations low enough so you won't be disappointed by your lack of time at certain places. And do lots of research about where you might want to stop and what you really want to see.

Take as much time as you can, go with the flow weatherwise and enjoy your road trip.

Posted by
382 posts

10 days the last half of January should be good. It will rain, but by the time you get into California the odds are good that you'll have sunshine. It's 50:50 for rain north of the CA boarder, 66:34 south of it.

I'd recommend flying out of John Wayne Intl over San Diego, or even better stopping a little short and flying out of Burbank. Both of those are better airports than SD or LAX. And unless there's something you just have to do in the L.A. / San Diego area (and there's lots to do) you can easy spend the time on the trip down.

Posted by
172 posts

OP, I like your spirit! If stunning scenery is the goal, I would concentrate my time between Cannon Beach, OR and Big Sur, CA. KGC’s suggestion to fly out of Burbank is a good one. It would take you several hours just to get from LA to San Diego on the freeway. But Burbank may be more expensive and have limited flight options. Besides John Wayne airport there’s also Long Beach to consider. Have a great trip!

Posted by
3588 posts

Thanks to all who have posted, this has been great help in planning our own late January trip from Olympia to the Anza-Borrego desert east of San Diego. We're planning to leave Jan 19 or 20, have reservations in Morro Bay the following weekend, and in the desert the following week. So we're giving ourselves about a week. We'll be on 101 most of the time, maybe over to 1 on the coast if conditions are right. Maybe we'll run into each other (not literally I hope)!

I've done this, or parts of it, before. I wouldn't worry about ice on the coast, unless there's some very unusual weather. It's going to be rainy for sure, but not all the time and not torrentially. I grew up in the east and remember the summer thunderstorms that dumped their load for half an hour when you wouldn't want to be anywhere outside. Our rain isn't like that, it's relatively gentle, maybe steady or maybe intermittent. It will be windier on the coast than here inland though. The advice about taking your time and sticking to daylight hours is good.

101 is a two-lane highway but a very well designed one with frequent turnoffs, good signs and signals, plenty of coastal towns with accommodations most of the way, and spectacular scenery. I'd agree with the advice to stay inland until Oregon, our southern Washington coast is pretty dreary and the scenic northern part is hard to reach, not worth the detour on a trip like this. Bring wool and Goretex, have a great time!

Posted by
382 posts

Dick- Be advised that 101 south of SF is inland; running from San Jose to Paso Robles. There's not much to see on that route unless you like Garlic and flat farm lands. Outside of Paso it turns into wine country (thanks to irrigation) but it's a boring drive.

Posted by
3588 posts

Yes thanks, KGC, I've done it both ways, 101 and 1. We'll decide in Monterey which way to go based on weather and conditions. The Big Sur route is about 20 miles shorter and perhaps an hour longer, not counting stops. On 101 there's not much reason for stops.

Posted by
209 posts

I’ve lived in the PNW all my life. Growing up and to this day we have made around 40 successful trips down 101 in the months of December and January. Will it be wet- absolutely! Will it be icy and snowy- highly doubt it. It will be beautiful.

Posted by
8411 posts

The whales (California Gray whales) pass along the coast southbound to Baja in the fall (generally Oct-Nov, maybe December), and pass along the coast northbound the Alaska in the spring (generally March-April). Right now (certainly in January), they should be far to the south, in Baja or very near. You won't really see many off the coast of Oregon or Washington right now.

I am a Whale Watching volunteer. We saw 15 off Cape Foulweather yesterday in a 3 hour period. The consensus is that they are late as the ice did not come in as early as usual in Alaska. So we expect to see the southbound migration continue for a couple of weeks, at least! And there is at least one whale -- a juvenile that is not ready to breed -- that has been wintering off Depoe Bay.

Posted by
3588 posts

Laurel -- Please ask the whales to stick around till January 20 when we'll be driving from Newport to Brookings. ;-)

Posted by
5 posts

Thanks for all of the tips. We've decided to fly into Seattle and drive down to Big Sur. We're flying out of San Francisco. We only have 10 days, so they'll be packed. We're in the process of eliminating. : ( Does anyone have any recommendations for a car rental? I checked one out, but it was crazily expensive.

Posted by
278 posts

We typically book car rentals for the US through Costco or USAA. I put in some random dates (late January pickup drop off in early February) and came up with rates under $400. You can also try kayak.com to check rates or booking.com, although booking.com was more expensive than Costco or USAA. We've also had good results with Enterprise in the past.

Posted by
5397 posts

Check Enterprise. I put in dummy dates in Jan, pick up at SEA and drop off at SFO for 10 days the rate was between $315-370 depending on car type.

What do you consider crazy expensive? It's always going to cost a bit more to pick up and drop off at different locations.

Posted by
4665 posts

but it was crazily expensive.

What is that in $$$?

Did a search on costco for 10 days. Ford Edge ( or similar) for $304 TOTAL ( Budget)

Lowest price was a Dodge Grand Caravan ( or similar) for $228 (Alamo)

I do not classify either as 'crazily expensive'.

Keep shopping and good luck!

Posted by
9884 posts

About 60 miles of US 101 in Washington goes along the coast. Am I missing something here?

Posted by
3588 posts

The only stretch of 101 along the ocean is out by Kalaloch, I'd guess it's about 20 miles long. Very scenic but a long way out of the OP's way on this trip. The best Washington coastal scenery is out at the end of roads, like Neah Bay and LaPush. The very best you have to hike to.

Posted by
4150 posts

There are very short bits of 101 that run right along the coast (short - like, measured in yards/meters) on the east side of the Kitsap Peninsula, and equally fleeting stretches along the north side of the Olympic Peninsula, a few more tiny stretches along the Pacific coast going south, but 99% of the road swerves inland at least far enough to remove direct views of the water. Now, the loop all the way around the Olympic Peninsula is a pretty and worthwhile drive (in the summer), and it gets you to spur roads and trailheads and other points where you can access coastline that's absolutely as spectacular as any in the world, but it's not like the continuous looooong breathtaking sections of 101 down nearly the entire length of Oregon where you get stunning views hour after hour with zero effort, right from your car seat. In Washington you need to work a bit to get to the views.

For the OP, whose trip is very, very short (too short IMHO to comfortably do what he is proposing, to be honest), the Washington coast would be a waste of time (time which they don't have). As a Washingtonian (who lived in Oregon for many years), I would actually advocate the OP fly to Portland instead, and start there. If you fly to Seattle, you can spend some time in the city (not a great time to be here - we have a major highway they're about to close for a few weeks and it will cause apocalyptic gridlock for an extended period) then you get on I-5 and drive to Oregon, not a particularly scenic stretch. That's a wasted day IMHO, others may disagree.

Honestly, I don't think this (doing the drive in the rainy season) is wise for those not used to the charms of all that moisture, but it sounds like they're set on the plan, so I'll shut up. But if they do go through with it, it would be smarter and a more efficent use of your time, IMHO, to fly to Portland, rent the car there, get on Highway 26 and head to the coast, when you hit 101 turn left and just keep going until you start seeing cacti and sombreros. I'll step back and leave further advice to others here.

OP, good luck, enjoy your trip, and bring Goretex and sensible shoes.

Posted by
382 posts

I'd fly into SeaTac and drive the route Olympia/Aberdeen/Long Beach/Astoria to get on 101. Seriously the Lewis and Clark Museum at Cape Disappointment is worth stopping for. Especially if it's not raining. Likewise I think driving over the bridge to Astoria is something everyone should experience, but I like bridges.

10 days to San Fran. is very doable. I've already recommended the Sea Ranch, and that would be a nice place to stop. If the weather is good a picnic at Ft Ross is always nice too. Plan on some wine tasting south of Leggett. (Check with your airline, most will ship wine as uncharged baggage. The wineries will pack it if you ask.)

There are several good lighthouses you may want to stop at. Pt Arena in CA and Yaquina Head light in OR are among the best. Plan a walk at Pt Reyes too!

The Sea Lion Caves are a tourist trap. If you want to see them for free go to Yaquina Head and look at the rocks at the base of the cliff. If the tide is out you can walk out a long way and there's all kinds of tide pools.

Last, while Pot is legal in WA, taking it across State lines is a bad idea.

Posted by
432 posts

As for car rental ... if you are a Costco Member - check Costco Travel out for rental car pricing. But expect higher rates since the rental is one way.

Posted by
4665 posts

Instead of visions of frolicking through the Redwoods, I'm envisioning slick roads and our sliding off the highway and over a cliff to icy deaths.

Hopefully they had the former and not the latter

Posted by
5 posts

Thanks for asking. We did do the trip, and it was great. What amazing scenery! Not only that, the weather happened to be worse in S.C. (where I live) than anywhere along our route for the nine days we were travelling down the coast. We did get stuck one night going down Hwy. 1 in the dark. That wasn't fun. But we survived! I do wholeheartedly agree with those who said nine days wasn't enough for Seattle to San Diego. We only made it to San Francisco, and even that was tough to accomplish. All in all - a great experience. As someone noted we should do, we went as travelers, not as vacationers. Does make a difference.

Posted by
9884 posts

Glad the advice you received here was helpful and that you had a good trip.

Posted by
9884 posts

@OP: What was your favorite part of the route?

Posted by
6391 posts

matt, i hope you get to do the SF to SD hwy 1 trip at some point, it’s my favorite part.

Posted by
5397 posts

I'm really glad you went ahead with the trip. We've had an extremely nice weather January on the Oregon coast this year so I hope you got to experience some 'warm' winter weather.

Yes, please let us know what your favorite part of the trip was.

Posted by
5 posts

If I had to choose one place, I'd say Crescent City, Ca. We stayed in a villa on the beach. It was so beautiful and secluded, and a wonderful resting place after our massive day of driving from Portland. It is hard to pick, though. The beach at Port Angeles is also amazingly beautiful. And one view along Hwy. 1 took my breath away, but I don't know where we were. I look forward to returning to do this trip again, probably in early September (as someone suggested) and much more slowly (as many of you suggested)!

Posted by
4665 posts

I'd say Crescent City, Ca. We stayed in a villa on the beach. It was so beautiful and secluded,

A drive of ~400 miles to 'a villa on the beach' is not such a bad thing, especially considering the time of year.