Travelling down the West Coast of the US

West Coast US
A look at some of the sights you might see on the West Coast.

You’ve finally decided to do it: see all of the great cities and beautiful landscapes along the West Coast of the US. You’ll travel by auto from rainy Seattle, Washington, the birthplace of grunge, to hot and sunny San Diego in southern California. You could take Interstate 5 all the way down; that’s the fastest route. However, the best way to see the west coast is to take Highway 101 and Highway 1 along the coast. Leave time for sightseeing, plan plenty of side trips, and avoid scheduling your holiday during the winter if you plan to camp or hike in Washington and Oregon.

The adventure starts as soon as you touch down at the Seattle–Tacoma International Airport.

Washington has the city of Seattle, forests and mountains. Start by spending time in the city. You’ll find delicious locally brewed beer and good food in the pubs. Be sure to catch a gig; Seattle is known for its live music scene, and for good reason. The Space Needle is fun, if touristy, and the Pike Place Market in the city centre may be the longest-operating farmer’s market in the US.

West Coast Portland Weird
Find out why “Keep Portland Weird” is a popular West Coast catchphrase.

The Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains are to the east, and they are absolutely stunning. The best way to experience Washington’s coast is to take Highway 101, which begins in Olympia, south of Seattle, toward the north. It may seem like backtracking, but it is well worth the small amount of extra time it takes. Highway 101 loops around the Olympic peninsula and through a series of stunning forest parks and small towns. Take it all the way to Oregon.

Like Washington, Oregon is mountainous and forested. And a highlight of any visit to the West Coast. It has a single large city, Portland, which is well worth the trip away from the coast. Portland is a centre for laid-back urbanists, and it has a sophisticated and relaxed culture. Be sure to visit the city centre, the old town and the Pearl District. After exploring Portland, go back to enjoying the Pacific Coast along Highway 101. If you love camping and hiking, then don’t miss Oregon’s enormous national forests. The 101 will take you straight through the Redwoods National Park, where you can see some of the most majestic trees in the world.

West Coast US
It’s good to be a seal in La Jolla, Calif..

Northern California has the state’s wine growing regions and the city of San Francisco. The Napa and Sonoma Valleys are just to the north of San Francisco, and the tours and tastings are unmissable for wine lovers. San Francisco is famous for its huge and lively Chinatown, for its food and for its fun, liberal, Bohemian culture. Yosemite National Park is to the west of San Francisco and is worth a visit, if you have time.

Transfer to Highway 1 south of San Francisco so that you won’t miss Big Sur and the rest of the magnificent California coastline on the way down to Los Angeles. In Los Angeles, explore Santa Monica and the Hollywood Hills by car. Go on a studio tour, shop the designer boutiques in Beverly Hills or explore the city’s many ethnic neighbourhoods.

Finally, drive the rest of the way down the West Coast to San Diego, on the Mexican border. Visit the famous San Diego Zoo. Enjoy the fantastic Mexican-style food, and don’t forget to spend some time on the beach.

It’s advisable to arrange services such as Avis car rental in the US prior to travelling. Having a car will give you the freedom to choose to stay in a city, in a scenic and out-of-the-way town or in the wilderness. You’ll be able to plan your routes according to the weather, and you’ll have an opportunity to get off the beaten track.

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Washington State Wonder – The Ape Cave Lava Tube

Ape Cave
A skylight in The Ape Cave opens to the surface.

I’m just miles away from one of the biggest volcanic eruptions in modern history.

Mount Saint Helens. 1981. A blast that re-shaped the landscape in Washington.

Thirty years later -- I’m crawling through a two-mile-long lava tube on its lower slopes. The Ape Cave, named for the Boy Scouts who explored it. Since then, hiking the Ape Cave has become one of the best reasons to visit Cougar, Washington. Some parts are epic in scope, with smooth, uniform walls – so perfectly formed and regular that it’s hard to believe that hardening lava and gravity were the only forces at work.

Ape Cave
A lava formation in The Ape Cave. No, it doesn't look phallic. Why do you ask?

Other times, Sarah and I are on our bellies slithering through tight passages – or gingerly stepping over tall piles of volcanic rubble.

Go the Right Way

We are traveling the wrong direction, by the way. Most people start at the main cave entrance near the parking lot. They head upslope, emerging through a huge skylight. We did the opposite, taking the trail through the forest, crossing a snowfield (yes, even in late May), descending into the skylight.

ape cave
It's not the dark I'm afraid of - it's the stuff in it that I can't see!

Heading down, we discovered, is actually harder. There are a few steep chutes that would actually be easier to climb then descend. My size is an asset here, allowing me to stretch to footholds that are harder for Sarah to reach.

But with our Petzl headlamps illuminating the cave, we move along – swiftly, even. We meet a few groups headed the opposite direction. One group raised our hackles a bit -- someone in the party was smoking – an annoying faux pas. A French family lamented how long they’d been underground, but trudged on.

Things to Wear and Bring

And further we went. The cave, by the way, was cool. I wore a heavy pair of hiking pants, a base layer, a First Ascent Serrano jacket and a Marmot rain jacket. Condensation was falling from the cave ceiling during the entire two-hour trip from top to bottom, so the rain jacket was perfect.

ape cave
This is where you should exit the cave - not enter like us!

The headlamps I mentioned – indispensable. But bring other light sources and batteries, too. You won’t need gloves, despite what some people might tell you. A bottle or two of water is a good idea. If you have a small tripod, bring it for some long-exposure photos.

Finishing Up

By the time we finished, the rain was falling heavier topside. We tried to drive around for a better (that is to say any) view of Mt. Saint Helens. But it was thoroughly socked in by fog. We wound up having an excellent pizza at the Kelso Theater Pub. If you’re looking something to munch on in Kelso, you can also catch a movie while satisfying your hunger. The Theater Pub also has a nice selection of local microbrews.

ape cave 5
This is the ladder that starts your journey.

The Ape Cave isn’t a hard journey – it’s not technical or as tight a fit as other caves I’ve visited. But it’s fun, and a really cool example of volcanism at work. It’s length can make it a touch monotonous, especially if you’re hungry. But I enjoyed it, and I would recommend to anyone who’s OK being separated from the sky for a few hours.

ape cave trail
Me near a field of volcanic rubble.
ape cave slug
A slug I nearly squished accidentally. Isn't it cool?!

ape cave trail
The forest near the Ape Cave are beautiful.