Thinking about driving from San Diego to Portland? I recently moved from San Diego to Portland. One of my biggest decisions was how I was going to get my kids and all my stuff from one city to the other. I made the choice to road trip it.
I put quite a bit of thought into the decision to pack up the van and make the drive. After this four-day adventure, I think I have some keen insight into this unique and exciting journey.
So what is it like driving from San Diego to Portland? The drive covers about 1000 to 1200 miles depending on the route you choose. You will see a wide variety of terrain on the trip.
There is an almost endless number of stops to make along the way. This is true if you need to just get gas and stretch your legs or you are looking for something a little more fun and interesting.
Interstate 5 is most likely the road you will be on to start and end the trip driving from San Diego to Portland. The route you take in between is most assuredly what will define the trip.
I choose to take Highway 101 as I left Los Angeles. I did this for two reasons:
- I think the scenery is much more interesting along this route compared to I5
- There were far more towns and places to stop on this route. An absolute must for me with two kids in the car with me.
One of the drawbacks of this trip driving from San Diego to Portland was the lockdowns of the Coronavirus pandemic. I would have much preferred to make this a longer trip with fun stops for all three of us along the way.
What I was left with was trying to get the trip done as quickly as possible while still having some options along the way. The amount of scenery that we saw on the trip was quite varied. This made for some good “staring out the window time” for the kids.
Planning on Driving from San Diego to Portland
I said earlier that your trip driving from San Diego to Portland was most likely going to start and end on Interstate 5. That is not exactly true. With the amount of ground you were covering and the number of highways and freeways along that route, there are an almost endless choice of routes you can take.
When I began planning my route driving from San Diego to Portland, I started only knowing that I did not want to take Interstate 5 beyond Los Angeles. My reason for that was that when I had done it in the past it was a quite long expanse between Los Angeles and the Bay Area with not much to do or see.
To stay on a more or less direct route, that meant I was either going to drive up the coast, or farther inland. If I wanted to go inland, I could take Highway 99. Having done business in Fresno, California for many years I was very familiar with that route. It did have quite a few stops along the way, but there was certainly not much to look at that was very appealing.
So by default, I narrowed it down to the coastline. I made the choice not to go up Highway 1. Even though this is beautiful scenery, it is often a single lane winding road high on a cliff overlooking the ocean. This would have been by far the slowest route and to be honest, that route freaks me out a little bit.
So what I was left with was taking Highway 101 from Interstate 5 in Los Angeles and then taking it all the way up to Interstate 5 again near Sacramento driving from San Diego to Portland.
The Southern California Portion
Having been born and raised in San Diego and having spent most of my life there, I was all too familiar with the route I was going to cover between San Diego and Los Angeles. I jumped on I5 in San Diego and took that to the 405 in Orange County. From there I took the 405 past LA airport and then jumped on the 101.
There is actually some pretty beautiful scenery on this route especially in northern San Diego County and in the area near Camp Pendleton.
I hate to even suggest that there’s some sort of positive to the pandemic we are living through now, but if there is one it would be that I’ve never seen so little traffic on this route. There were still cars to be sure, but I cannot remember the last time I drove from San Diego all the way through Los Angeles without ever once sitting in stop and go traffic.
Since there was not much for the kids to see along this route it was great that we got through it pretty quickly while driving from San Diego to Portland.
Jumping on Highway 101
This may have been one of my favorite parts of the drive. Once you start to leave the area around Los Angeles you soon parallel the east-west coastline as you approach Santa Barbara. This is simply spectacular scenery that is very hard to beat.
Once you make your way past Santa Barbara you eventually make the turn to the north and start moving into the foothills northwest of Santa Barbara. If you ever watched the movie Sideways the towns and scenery along this part are going to look very familiar to you.
First Stop For The Night
This is where I give a big shout out to Courtyard by Marriott. I spent four nights in hotels on this trip driving from San Diego to Portland, all at this chain.
I always loved their attention to detail. The hotels were always clean and things always seemed to go smoothly when I had stayed there in the past.
With the pandemic in full swing, they really took it up a notch. They had social distancing measures in place, all the staff were in masks, and the entire property seemed spotless.
I stayed at the Courtyard in San Luis Obispo. The only reason…this was as far as I and three kids felt like driving for one day.
We were soon in our rooms with the XBox hooked up to the TV eating a recently delivered pizza. Day one driving from San Diego to Portland in the books and a success.
What we would have done pre-pandemic
When I first began to plan this trip several months ago, night one would have been spent at Great Wolf Lodge in Southern California. I have written previously about why my kids LOVE this place.
That is not much ground covered from San Diego; however, this would have been the theme of the trip: make our way to Portland with no timetable and having fun adventures along the way.
Our next stop would have been the Shore Cliff Hotel on Pismo Beach. I have been there before and the hotel and the scenery are spectacular. So instead of just one day to get to San Luis Obispo, we may have spent three or four just having fun along the way.
The Second Leg
We were all up pretty early for day 2 driving from San Diego to Portland. This made me realize that if we covered the same distance on day 2 as day 1, we would be getting to the next stop around noon or 1.
Normally I would worry that our room would not be ready. Not the case in pandemic times.
This may have been the dullest portion of the trip. It was mainly fields and small towns the whole way with not a whole lot to see. One interesting thing as we got to Northern California were the huge, standalone windmills that occasionally cropped up.
My guess is that these were standalone power sources for larger businesses along the route. Not sure, but something pretty cool to look at.
We made our stop in Vacaville. Once again about 300 miles traveled driving from San Diego to Portland and a lot of take-out food and Xbox in a hotel room. Make no mistake, the dullest day of the trip.
What we would have done pre-pandemic
This is the point where the trip really would have changed. We would have taken the 101 to Salinas and then cut over to Monterey. I have stayed here many times in the past as well as on the peninsula that includes Pebble Beach.
The town offers great hotels on the water, great food and shops, and an amazing aquarium that the kids would love.
It is a sleepy and quiet part of the world that is very relaxing. In addition to this re-route, we most likely would have stayed along the coast as we headed north crossing the Golden Gate Bridge as we headed up the California coast towards Oregon.
Day 3 Begins
This may be the day where each potential route driving from San Diego to Portland has something to offer. I had never been on I5 North of the Bay Area. So the trip from here to about Salem, OR would be new for me. What a surprise this would be.
The trip to Redding was the same old thing of flat lands with little to see. Once we passed Redding we began the climb into the wooded mountains and lakes that separate California and Oregon.
The terrain was spectacular. As a Southern California guy, I am always blown away by these expansive wooded areas. The highlight were the many views of a snow-covered Mt. Shasta.
This is not like traveling through the Rockies. In fact, the highest point on the route was just over 4000 feet. That being said, there were plenty of places to put on chains so keep that in mind if you are trying this in the winter.
We spent the night in Medford, OR. A nice enough town it seemed but not a place I would have spent any time when driving from San Diego to Portland. The “fooothilly” scenery around the town was beautiful as was the spectacular 3000-foot descent out of the mountains into Medford.
What we would have done pre-pandemic
We would have been on the coast of California on a combination of Highway 1 or 101. In hindsight, I am disappointed I did not do this anyway just to see what I am sure was amazing scenery along the route.
Since I knew there was not much to stop and do, speed was my top priority. Interstate 5 was the fastest route but nevertheless, it would have been fun to be on the coast.
Several times in my life I have been to the Oregon coast as far south as Newport, OR on Highway 101. As beautiful as all that landscape is, my guess is that trip between Northern California and Newport would have been just as amazing.
There seemed to be an endless stream of towns, beaches, and outdoor activities that we could have partaken in. I could have happily spent a few days making the trip up the coast before cutting over to Salem, OR
On a little side note, make a stop for the tour at the Tillamook cheese factory. You will gain 5 pounds, but it will be worth it!!
The Final Push when Driving From San Diego to Portland
This leg driving from San Diego to Portland did not offer much in the way of scenic highlights. We stayed in the foothills climbing through a couple of low mountain passes before finally dropping down to sea level in Eugene, OR.
From there it was straight ahead guns-a-blazin on our final push to Portland. This leg flew by because it was the final one. If you were so inclined, there seemed to be plenty to do along this route either right on the route or a short detour away. One stop I would check out is Gilbert’s House Children’s Museum. Looks like an endless adventure for kids!
Fast Or Slow when Driving From San Diego to Portland
A move from San Diego to Portland in a car is a tale of two trips. If you are looking for speed you might be able to make the whole trip in one day. Get on I5 and keep going until you hit Portland.
If you want some fun and adventure, most of your trip should be on the coast on the 1 or 101. I think this is the way to go. If you want speed, pack all your stuff, ship it, and hop on a 2-hour flight from San Diego to Portland.
If travel was not so bizarre right now that is probably the route I might have chosen either way; however, with so much for kids to do along this route (in more normal times) if you do not need to get there in a hurry, drive the coast and find endless adventure!!