Border to Border: Essential road trip stops along I-5
The places to see off I-5 exits between California and Washington
Interstate 5 is the main highway of America’s West Coast, running parallel to the Pacific Ocean and U.S. Route 99, from Mexico to Canada. The major states I-5 goes through include California, Oregon and Washington. It runs through some pretty cool cities too: Seattle, Portland, Sacramento, Los Angeles, and San Diego. It also happens to be the only continuous Interstate highway to touch the borders of both Canada and Mexico. These are a few of the best stops along I-5!
Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico
Since I-5 is the only border-to-border highway that actually touches both Mexico and Canada, if you’re feeling really adventurous, you can start in Tijuana, Mexico.
I-5 then takes you into San Diego. You could literally spend days exploring San Diego since there are so many things to do here, but the one must-see attraction in the city is Balboa Park. San Diego’s natural history museum, air and space museum, zoo, science center, and art museums can be found set among the gardens here…and that’s just naming a few attractions you an check out. It’s worth at least visiting their legendary zoo or the Automotive Museum!
And if you need a hotel in San Diego, look into the Manchester Grand Hyatt, the Hotel del Coronado, or The US Grant.
South Carlsbad State Beach
Surfing, fishing, camping and beach access for day-use visitors make South Carlsbad State Beach a great place to spend some time. If you can, stay to watch the sun set over the water: there’s nothing quite like it.
Mission San Juan Capistrano
Next pay a visit to Mission San Juan Capistrano. The history of Spanish missionaries coming to California is important, and also sobering; there are 2,000 inhabitants of this 18th-century mission buried in unmarked graves, mostly Native Americans. The ruins of the old stone building are also quite fascinating to see.
Since you’re driving right by along I-5, why not stop at Disneyland in Anaheim? A trip here won’t be cheap, but it is the “Happiest Place on Earth.” Plan out the things you really, really want to see, do and eat and familiarize yourself with the park beforehand to make the most of a day here!
Skeletons in the Closet (Coroner’s Gift Shop)
Skeletons in the Closet is one of the quirkiest and most morbid attractions in LA! What started out as a joke among staffers making fun of the morbid souvenirs sold at places dedicated to the part of LA’s history when murder rates were at an all-time high spun off into a full-fledged shop selling toe-tag keychains, skull-shaped business card holders and other dark takes on kitsch. Just let the guys at the front desk know that you’re there to do some shopping!
If you plan on spending the night here, there are loads of nice hotels in LA. Farmers Daughter Hotel, the W Los Angeles and the Georgian Hotel are among the many places to stay!
Six Flags Magic Mountain
If Disney isn’t really your scene, then you might be more into Six Flags Magic Mountain, also right off I-5! Here, it’s all about the intense roller coasters. In fact, it has the most coasters of any theme park in the country. In addition, there are also thrill rides for those of all ages, and some water rides too.
Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve
There’s tons of natural beauty along I-5. Between late winter and early spring, Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve explodes with brightly-hued flowers, mostly poppies. Seven miles of trail make for awesome wildflower viewing, or for a good place to stretch your legs after long hours in the car.
Last Place James Dean Stopped
If you’re into James Dean, history, pop culture, or offbeat roadside attractions, the Last Place James Dean Stopped in Lost Hills fits the bill quite nicely. James Dean died at the young age of 24 in a car crash while driving in his famed “Little Bastard” Porsche Spyder not far from this gas station. There’s a 50’s themed diner and general store, all bedecked with the legendarily handsome actor’s likeness.
New Idria Ghost Town
New Idria Ghost Town, built around a former mercury mine, was only abandoned in the 1970’s so there are still nearly 100 buildings left, although they’ve been vandalized quite a bit. It’s not as rustic as some ghost towns, but it’s a cool place to stop and take some gritty pictures.
O’Neill Forebay Wildlife Area
Another nice place to stretch your legs is the O’Neill Forebay Wildlife Area in Gustline, CA. It’s perfect for camping, or if you pick up some food, for a nice afternoon picnic. If you have time, you can also enjoy the swimming and boating here and at the other nearby reservoirs!
Folsom Prison Museum
Whether you’re a Johnny Cash fan or not (the singer famously played a show for the prisoners here in Folsom), you’re sure to find the Folsom Prison Museum interesting. You can see inside an old cell, and look at handmade weapons crafted by the inmates at one of California’s most notorious lockups.
National Yo-Yo Museum
If you keep driving up I-5, you’ll reach Chico, home of the National Yo-Yo Museum! Located in a super-cool indie toy store, the Yo-Yo Museum boasts the world’s largest yo-yo, 80 years of yo-yo artifacts, and hosts the National Yo-Yo Championship each year. It’s a super cute way to kill an hour!
Shasta State Historic Park
The town of Shasta, which was active during the mid-19th century, is mostly abandoned today. However, the old buildings have been preserved at Shasta State Historic Park. Step back in time at the jail, the store, the church, the museum, the post office, and the school.
Lake Shasta Caverns
The stunning Lake Shasta Caverns, which must be reached via a boat, are one of the coolest attractions in the area. As you traverse the system of caverns, you’ll learn about their fascinating history and see all kinds of wild rock formations. It’s a bit of a trek, with about 600 stairs total, but it’s well worth the effort.
The Oregon Vortex/House of Mystery
Once you reach Gold Hill, OR pull over at the Oregon Vortex/House of Mystery, a 1930s-era attraction and roadside classic not far off I-5. Whether or not you believe in the scientific analysis of the “vortex” that causes the laws of physics to seem irrelevant (as I suspected in high school science class), it’s still a fun stop. Plus, they have a cute curio shop with offbeat oddities.
Umpqua National Forest
Next, bask in some breathtaking natural beauty at Umpqua National Forest. This massive woodland preserve is packed with shaded trails, fields of wildflowers, misty waterfalls, and cozy cabins. Even taking a quick detour to drive through this beautiful forest is a must!
Brass Ring Carousel Project
It’s free to tour Brass Ring Carousel Project, a carousel studio and museum, and it’ll amuse and entertain the young and the young-at-heart. It’s totally whimsical, and their dedication to preserving gorgeous old carousels is really neat to see.
International Rose Test Garden
After that, if you keep driving up I-5, you’ll hit the city of Portland. The International Rose Test Garden is free, and you can’t deny that the best way to meet The City of Roses is in their rose garden! You can see all kinds of varieties of the flower here, and take in some awesome views of Portland.
Powell’s City of Books
Need some more reading material for when you’re not in the driver’s seat? Powell’s City of Books is a legendary independent bookstore. It’s utterly massive, so if you’re looking for something in particular, grab a map; otherwise, it’s just as fun to aimlessly get lost among the rows of books and stumble across something you never knew you needed.
And stay the night at one of Portland’s hip hotels: Hotel Modera, The Nines and the Hotel Vintage Plaza are awesome spots.
Mount St Helens Visitor Center
Whether or not you were alive when the Mount St. Helens volcano erupted in 1980 or not, it’s still a formidable sight to see. The Mount St. Helens Visitor Center offers amazing views of the mountain, excellent exhibits, and a trail. If you’re feeling daring, you can buy a permit to climb to the top and stare into the crater. It’s ideal for beginner mountaineers, but make sure you check up on the status of the volcano before you attempt to conquer it.
Millersylvania State Park
Ahh…back to nature, since the beauty along I-5 in the Pacific Northwest is legendary. The secluded forests and lake (complete with swimming beach!) at Millersylvania State Park are completely relaxing. It also has awesome camping if you find yourself so enchanted by the surroundings that you can’t pull yourself away.
Lakewold Gardens Estate
After you cruise through Olympia, you’ll hit the city of Tacoma. Learn firsthand about Tacoma’s prominent past with a tour of Lakewold Gardens Estate. Developed by a shipping magnate as a country retreat in the early 20th century, the gardens were designed by the Olmsteads, the country’s most prominent landscaping firm (Frederick Law Olmstead designed Central Park!) Soak in the beauty of the well-manicured property as you stroll along.
Museum of Glass
Glass isn’t just for cups, windows, and spectacles! The Museum of Glass is dedicated to the artistry of glassblowing. Cross the Bridge of Glass, lined with pieces by famed glass artist Dale Chihuly, and check out the museum. See some mindblowing sculptures, watch live demonstrations, and check out the gift shop.
In search of a hotel in Tacoma? The Hotel Murano and the Courtyard in Downtown Tacoma are super nice.
The Museum of Flight
If glass isn’t your thing, then maybe jets are. You could spend a whole day in the massive Museum of Flight air and space museum, but don’t miss out on the Concorde, Air Force One, the very first Boeing 747, and a space shuttle replica, among other things. Even if you don’t know a ton about planes, there’s something here to entertain you!
Market Theater Gum Wall
And since I-5 passes through Seattle, you should stop at Pike’s Place Market. If you want something grungy to see in this punk rock city, head to the Market Theater Gum Wall. In November of 2015, it was scrubbed clean of chewed up wads of gum for the first time in 20 years. Over 2,300 pounds of gooey gunk was removed from the brick wall at Pike Place Market’s Market Theater. Naturally, the moment cleaning was complete, people began to add gum back to the walls. Help bring this weird local monument back to its former glory by contributing a piece!
You can see the classic Space Needle from all across the city, but the view from the top is out of this world. Built in only 400 days for the 1962 World’s Fair, it remains one of the most iconic spots in Seattle!
Some cool hotels in Seattle include the Ace Hotel, the Palladian Hotel, and the Alexis Hotel.
As you leave Seattle and drive up I-5, you’ll find plenty of natural coastal beauty. Howarth Park in Everett is a total hidden gem. Get your toes in the sand and wade in the water at this quiet little beach.
Deception Pass State Park
Then take in awesome views of Puget Sound from Deception Pass State Park’s bridge, check out their well-established trails, or just relax on the beach. Bonus: you can camp here as well!
Whatcom Falls Park
Or cross the mossy stone bridge at Whatcom Falls Park and check out the waterfalls, which make this park the perfect place for a shorter hike. You can also see the fish hatcheries where salmon are raised.
Birch Bay State Park
As you continue to head north, you’ll hit Birch Bay State Park, which has verdant old-growth cedar trees and tidepools filled with delicate and beautiful marine life, both of which are ripe for the exploring. It also features a campsite.
Your final destination is Vancouver, BC in Canada. The glass elevator ride up to Vancouver Lookout provides the perfect prelude to the 360-degree panoramic views of Vancouver. Go at sunset or at night to see the city lit up in all of its splendor!
The Rosewood Hotel Georgia, the Metropolitan Hotel, and the Loden Vancouver are some really sweet hotels in Vancouver if you’re looking to celebrate your arrival in Canada.
Capilano Suspension Bridge & Cliffwalk
The Capilano Suspension Bridge and Cliffwalk is another classic Vancouver tourist stop, and once you experience the adrenaline rush of crossing it, you’ll see why. The park also has a cliffwalk, ropes course, and more, so you can make a full day of taking in the temperate rainforest beauty of British Columbia.
The best time to road trip down I-5: In the summer there’s a significant amount of fog along the northern part of the route. The best weather is generally from September through early October, as well as late April and May. Also keep in mind that the summers are high tourist season, and road conditions in winter can be slightly precarious, especially up north.
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