Underrated places to visit on the West Coast for outdoor lovers

If you want the best natural beauty, the tastiest & most diverse food, and friendly / open minded people, you have to visit the West Coast.

Trust me, I lived half my life on the East and the other half on the West, and I can definitively say: #westcoastbestcoast. 

What are some of the best West Coast travel destinations? We’ve all heard about Los Angeles, Seattle, and Portland. We’ve all seen the gorgeous pictures of Yosemite National Park, Crater Lake, and Mt. Rainier. These places are all amazing, and you shouldn’t miss out if you have the chance. 

But what if you want to visit somewhere with less crowds? What if you want to visit a place that isn’t always in your face? What if you’ve already seen those places and are looking for more unique West Coast vacation ideas? 

There are so many “off the beaten path” places to visit on the West Coast. I asked fellow travelers, writers, and photographers- most being locals here too, to share their favorite underrated place in California, Washington, or Oregon. I added a few of my favorite less visited spots as well. We focused on outdoorsy places and small towns, so if you don’t like nature, hiking, or road trips, you won’t like this list.

Underrated places to visit in California

North Lake Tahoe

By Meg from Fox in the Forest

Take this local’s advice, skip the South Shore of Lake Tahoe. The north shore of Lake Tahoe offers the same stunning views with a fraction of the crowds. Sure, feel free to visit South Lake, but if you want quiet trails and hidden beaches, ditch the high-rise buildings of South Lake and come to the north side.

You can hike up Mount Rose, one of the tallest peaks in the region, access the Tahoe Rim Trail for amazing views, or make your way to Secret Beach (right off of the highway that runs around the Lake).

The North Shore of Lake Tahoe offers a more local view of the area. Think small cabins and cozy retreats instead of high-rise casinos. Less people means that it’s easier to snag a spot on the beach and soak up the brilliant mountain sun. For a truly local experience, snag a burrito at T’s. This cash-only mesquite burrito joint is a local favorite and the perfect post-hike snack.

Death Valley National Park

By Allison from She Dreams of Alpine

Located on the border of California and Nevada, Death Valley is one of the largest, most unique, and most diverse National Parks in the United States. You could spend weeks exploring Death Valley and still not see everything it has to offer. Spend time exploring its rolling sand dunes, or adventure off to its remote dry lake beds, or if you’re up for it, hike to the top of Death Valley’s tallest peak, Telescope Peak, for epic views of Death Valley and the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

You could choose to spend your time driving throughout the park and visiting the many different stops along Death Valleys established roads including Badwater Basin, the lowest elevation point in all of the United States. You could go more off the beaten path with a four-wheel drive jeep rental and visit an area called The Racetrack, where rocks “mysteriously” move across a dry lakebed and leave a track as their evidence. But however you decide to spend your time in Death Valley, it is a must-visit West Coast attraction. Skip the crowds of Yosemite and Sequoia, and visit Death Valley for a beautiful desert surprise.

Joshua Tree National Park

By Abi from Happy go Abi

Joshua Tree National Park contains a vast and varying landscape—simultaneously strange and beautiful. Yet despite the fact that this is such a unique and unusual place, many people forget about it when compared with the more famous national parks across California.

When visiting Joshua Tree National Park, you will of course want to get up close with the park’s namesake. Joshua trees grow gorgeous and tall in the north part of the park, so be sure to take a hike through these unfamiliar trees that look unlike any other tree on earth.

But there’s more to Joshua Tree than just trees. During your visit, you should also explore the cholla cactus garden where teddy bear chollas grow all around (watch for cactus spines!).  This park is also an amazing place to go hiking or bouldering in places like Hidden Valley where there are several very recognizable rock formations.

If you are looking to explore the variation that California’s desert landscape has to offer, there’s no better place than Joshua Tree National Park.  You will be surprised at how beautiful the desert truly is and you will want to return time and time again!

Channel Islands National Park

By Michelle from The Wandering Queen

One of the most underrated U.S. National Parks in California is Channel Islands National Park. The park consists of 5 islands and is located 160 miles off the coast of southern California. The only way to get to Channel Islands National Park is by boat or ferry which takes about an hour to get to the island.  Channel Islands National Park does not have any lodging, except camping, so being on time to your ferry is crucial. 

If you are the adventurous type, I highly recommend packing up your tent and backpack and staying the night at one of the campgrounds. You can make a campground reservation online at the National Park Website. I suggest making reservations months in advance because the campsites get booked quickly and early, even more so in the summer. 

Being able to spend the night at this national park is incredible. Having sunset views with no crowds and miles away from civilization is surreal. This truly is a great way to escape the hustle and bustle of California to relax with family and friends.

Sonora, California

By Katherine from Bright Lights of America

A road trip through California is a bucket list experience that you don’t want to miss, and there are plenty of great, little-known towns to stop in along the way. One of my favourites is Sonora, out in Sierra Nevada Foothills and steeped in gold mining history. Sonora has the charm of a small town, complete with a beautiful main street, coupled with enough interesting sights to keep you busy for a weekend. From award winning apple cider from apples grown at the distillery, to a gold mining ghost town with a working blacksmith, stores filled with antiques and pre-loved items just begging for a new home, theaters, fairs and wide open spaces to explore.

There are plenty of hiking opportunities around the town, and Yosemite National Park isn’t far away if you’re keen on camping. Sonora is perfect for a couples’ getaway or a weekend away with the family. Just a 10 minute drive from Sonora is Railtown State Historic Park, which is a throwback to the old Sierra Railway and gives train rides. During Christmastime you can even get a ticket to the North Pole on the Polar Express. Still not convinced? Read more about Sonora, California and what it has to offer.

Lost Coast, California

By Yana from Beard and Curly

Route 1 in California runs the full length of the state at just over 659 miles long. It straddles the coastline for nearly the entire way, except for one small section in Northern California. During the construction of the highway, this stretch of the coast was avoided because it was too costly to build a road through the mountainous region. This area is now called The Lost Coast.

The only way to access this area is to hike in. The three to four-day hike is roughly 25 miles through rugged terrain and one of California’s most unspoiled coastal areas. It is a one-way hike, so from the parking area on the south end of the trail, a shuttle van will drop you off at the north end to begin the hike. This trail is very remote, so unless you go on a holiday weekend, expect picture-perfect beaches and immaculate campsites nearly to yourself. This is one of the best places in California for a weekend hike with friends (and dogs!) and get away from it all.

The only way to access this area is to hike in. The three to four-day hike is roughly 25 miles through rugged terrain and one of California’s most unspoiled coastal areas. It is a one-way hike, so from the parking area on the south end of the trail, a shuttle van will drop you off at the north end to begin the hike. This trail is very remote, so unless you go on a holiday weekend, expect picture-perfect beaches and immaculate campsites nearly to yourself. This is one of the best places in California for a weekend hike with friends (and dogs!) and get away from it all.

Mendocino, California

By Courtney from Solo Traveler Diaries

Mendocino is the perfect escape from everyday life, where you can just relax and enjoy the town’s beautiful nature. It’s a cute sleepy town nestled on the northern California coast. 

Apart from its small town feel, its defining feature is the stunning views. The city features dramatic bright green cliff sides that resemble something like the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland. It truly is a hidden gem and generally off the radar for most tourists.

Make sure to visit Fort Bragg’s Glass Sand Beach, which used to be a beach where trash was dumped in the 60’s. Time has since turned this trash into treasure, where the beach is filled with glass-like pebbles.

Last, one of the most beautiful wineries in the area is located directly on the coast, with a lookout of the Pacific Ocean, called Pacific Star Winery. It’s located just 3 hours driving from San Francisco, making it the perfect getaway for the weekend. It is also located on the 1 freeway, so it’s an excellent stop for people doing the famous 1 road trip along the California coast.

Underrated places to visit in Oregon

Port Orford, Oregon

By Danie from The Color Gold

On the beach at Port Orford 10” by B.D.’s world is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Have you ever wanted to visit an idyllic beachside town to relax and recuperate on vacation? Look no further than the heavenly town of Port Orford in Oregon’s southern coast.

The city claims to be the oldest town on Oregon’s Coast, and thus has a rich heritage based in the great natural resources in the area. Like much of the Pacific Northwest, Port Orford is wildly picturesque. The city is situated directly on the beach, so go ahead take an afternoon to build some sand castles and take a lazy day to relax under the Oregon sun. There are several diners, cafes, and bakeries so don’t worry about running out of food options! My tip is to hit up TJ’s Café and Diner after your long beach day.

My absolute favorite thing to do in the area is to visit Cape Blanco State Park, and the lighthouse (the oldest in all of Oregon)! Pack a picnic lunch and wander around the light house and eight miles of trails that surround the park. You’ll get plenty of views of the rocky ocean coast. The Park is about ten miles north of Port Orford and is easily accessible off the Oregon Coast Highway.

Painted Hills, Oregon

By Amanda from Dangerous Business

When it comes to Oregon, not many travelers venture to the eastern half of the state. This is because the main attractions – like the coast and the mountains and the wine regions – are all in the other half. But here’s one great reason to visit eastern Oregon: the Painted Hills.

Officially one of three units that make up the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, the Painted Hills are located near the small town of Mitchell, Oregon.

The Painted Hills are a series of hills that really do look like they’ve been painted in ribbons of oranges and yellows. The layers reflect the area’s geological history over millions of years. But unlike similar spots that have become famous in other parts of the world, Oregon’s Painted Hills are still relatively unknown and very rarely crowded.

In order to see the colors at their most vibrant, visit the Painted Hills in the late afternoon, in the hours leading up to sunset. There’s a scenic drive to take through the park, as well as a handful of short trails to hike around the hills. My favorites were the Painted Hills Overlook Trail and the Painted Cove Trail.

Seaside, Oregon

By Lori from Fitz5 on the go

Bleak” by Rhiannon Boyle is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Seaside is a wonderful coastal town in Oregon. This lovely city is full of classic beach town charm and a great boardwalk. There are several nostalgic cottage and motel rentals that have that family friendly vibe of days gone by. We absolutely loved our short stay here and really enjoyed slowing down and spending quality family time together.

The beach is big and great for a stroll.  Our kids enjoyed walking the beach and finding sand dollars and clams. We also loved having a beachside campfire and making s’mores at night.  One of the best features of Seaside is its fabulous boardwalk. Take your time, enjoy the seabreezes and meet locals and travelers alike. If you’re wanting more excitement, take the boardwalk in to town and visit the aquarium, carousel and some wonderful local shops. There are also opportunities for kayaking and other boating.

Want to get out of town and find some different views? Drive a few miles down the road to Cannon Beach and get some photos of one of the most photogenic beaches in the world.  This stretch of Oregon Coastline is a can’t miss section of less touristy and more relaxed beach towns that make a great addition to any family vacation.

Underrated places to visit in Washington

La Push, Washington

La Push – Washington National Park” by Udo S is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

La Push is one of the most stunning places in Washington. Close to the most northern areas in the state, it’s a coastal village part of the Quileute (a local Native American tribe) Reservation. They allow visitors- just make sure you respect their land and people by following their etiquette guidelines. We went for a friend’s birthday because of Twilight, but most Twilight people just stay in Forks because there aren’t as many Twilight activities in La Push.

Even if you’re not #teamjacob, La Push offers hands down the most peaceful, most beautiful beaches in the Pacific Northwest. If you’re looking for a quiet escape without a lot of people and with dramatic, dark coastline, La Push is for you.

There are also a couple of hikes in the area, whale watching opportunities in the spring, and fishing opportunities with the native people. La Push is about 4 hours including a ferry ride from Seattle. If you have time, it would make a great multi day road trip from Seattle with stops in towns like Port Angeles or a great starting point for a West Coast road trip.

The San Juan Islands

Kayaking in the San Juan Islands

If you’re a nature and animal lover, the San Juan Islands are for you. Though known to many locals, not many people who visit Washington are able to make it here since it’s further away from Seattle- but really, it’s one of Washington’s best vacation spots!

What should you do on the islands? There’s a ton of natural beauty to explore- from coasts to forests to prairies, whether you’re a hiker, biker, or kayaker. There are so many animals that live on or around the island- eagles, whales, seals, porpoises, even purple starfish. Tours are offered throughout the islands to take you around to see them, but you’ll probably see a few animals on your own as well!

While there are many islands to choose from, for first timers, I’d recommend the most populous island: San Juan Island. In addition to all the awesome stuff above, it also has more shops, restaurants, and a brewery and winery to explore. Here’s a great weekend getaway guide to help plan you San Juan Island trip.

The Hoh Rainforest

Hoh Rainforest” by rickzis licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Walking through the Hoh Rain Forest feels like walking through fairy tale. A lush, green fairy tale where you’re always surrounded by looming, mossy trees and breathing in the freshest air. Part of the Olympic National Forest, this area is a well preserved temperate rainforest – meaning it’s cool, not hot like the Amazon rainforest, and it gets over 12 feet of rain a year.

There are a couple of short nature walks you can do to explore the forest, but my favorite thing is camping in the summer to have some slow-paced time with friends. Like La Push and the San Juans, it’s also a less than 4 hour drive from Seattle and can include a ferry, so you’ll probably want to spend at least a few days there or add it as part of a road trip.

For more information before your trip, check out the National Park’s website.

What do you think of this list? What would you add? Where would you go? Let me know in the comments!

Angelica

Traveler. Foodie. Student debt haver. I love finding the best things to do and eat when traveling, and sharing them with everyone else who likes experiencing local culture or exploring the outdoors too! You can read more about me in my about page.

11 Comments

  1. January 1, 2019 / 8:11 pm

    While America is beautiful from sea to shining sea, the west coast has amazingly rugged open spaces. What a great collection of ways to spend time outdoors!

    • Angelica
      Author
      January 2, 2019 / 9:16 pm

      Agreed- there are just so many beautiful places to explore!

  2. January 2, 2019 / 9:17 am

    These look beautiful! I’m hoping to take a trip to the west coast soon. Underrated places are my favorite places to visit. Often times they are better than touristy places!

    • Angelica
      Author
      January 2, 2019 / 9:29 pm

      I hope you’re able to make it! I love visiting underrated places as well 🙂

  3. January 2, 2019 / 11:17 am

    What a great post! I’ve pinned this to refer to later. I haven’t been to many of these destinations—yet!

    • Angelica
      Author
      January 2, 2019 / 9:29 pm

      Thank you for the pin! 😀

  4. January 6, 2019 / 6:31 pm

    These sound like really awesome places! I especially love the Lost Coast in CA! We went there a couple times, but never got too far north. I thought Solvang was a pretty cool town too…not exactly one of the top destinations either in the state. I will definitely pin this for future reference. Thanks!

    • Angelica
      Author
      January 7, 2019 / 8:54 pm

      I’ve always wanted to go to Solvang! Thanks for the suggestion and the pin 🙂

  5. January 10, 2019 / 11:23 am

    It’s true. There are so many beautiful & underrated places on the West Coast. We visited CA recently and got to experience some!

  6. January 10, 2019 / 1:01 pm

    This is a part of the world I’ve never really considered exploring, I’ve always opted for Asia or South America. I think I might have to reconsider 🙂 loving the idea of the road trips, next summer looks like i could be heading over the pond to the USA 😉 Thanks for sharing this awesome post.

  7. January 16, 2019 / 10:42 pm

    We have a road trip around California planned in the near future. Thank you for this amazing list! Glad to know there are so many national parks and so much for a nature traveller like me.

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