Landscapes and legends draw adventurers to the West, where a good day includes locavore dining, vineyard wine-sipping, Native American history and outdoor adventure. Western cities have distinct personalities. In California there's the Hollywood flash of Los Angeles and silicon-meets-bohemian in San Francisco. Further north in Seattle, cutting-edge joins homegrown, often over a cup of joe. Opportunities for day trips abound to get to know the West Coast a little better.
Editor's note: Please check the latest travel restrictions before planning any trip and always follow government advice.
Best day trips from Seattle
Seat of farm-to-table dining, dairy farms, lush orchards and small-town Americana, this mountain-framed valley is as lovely a drive as it is a destination. Head to Duvall for boutique shopping and wine tasting, or to North Bend for Twin Peaks nostalgia. Don’t miss gaping at the 82m Snoqualmie Falls from Salish Lodge in Snoqualmie town. 30min by car.
Bavaria too far? Thank goodness for Leavenworth, where you can eat German sausages, quaff frosty beers and see enough men in lederhosen to save that fare to Europe. The mountain scenery feels like The Sound of Music and you’ll actually hear Bavarian music piped through the streets. Take off on myriad outdoor activities in the surrounding area. Christmas here is magical. 2hr 20min by car.
The intensely turquoise Diablo Lake sits in a bowl ringed by mesmerizing and often snow-topped peaks. There are heaps of trailheads to view-filled hikes, or plop in a canoe for paddling or fishing for rainbow trout. Don’t miss the Diablo Dam Overlook for one of the best views in the Cascade Mountains. 2hr 30min by car.
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Best day trips from Portland
With pick-your-own fruit farms in summer, corn mazes and hay rides come autumn, and beaches, trails and waterways to explore year-round, Sauvie Island is an easy trip to pastoral bliss. Plus, it’s as fun for kids as it is for adults. As the largest island in Columbia River, any land not dedicated to farming is a protected wildlife area. Expect to see ospreys, herons, bald eagles and maybe even a beaver. 40min by car.
The Oregon Coast holds some of the most beautifully grand but lesser-known beaches in the contiguous USA. Cannon Beach is the ideal, easy-to-reach introduction to the region, with miles of white sand, waterfalls tumbling to the beach and the hulking, 235ft Haystack Rock which makes for a picture-perfect silhouette. In town, you’ll find art galleries, chic boutiques and incredible dining (hint: try the chowder). 1hr 30min by car.
Johnston Ridge Observatory, Mt St Helens
Gaze into the awesome crater of Mt St Helens from the state-of-the-art Johnston Ridge Observatory. Whether this is your destination or you’re preparing for a longer hike through the National Volcanic Monument, you’ll learn the science behind the 1500 atomic bomb-force eruption in 1980. Then take the 1-mile Eruption Trail walking loop for even more views, with explanations, of the volcanic destruction. Closed winter; 2hr 30min by car.
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Best day trips from San Francisco
Just across the Golden Gate Bridge, Sausalito’s picturesque town center has a charming strip of art galleries, ice cream parlors, cafes and boutiques, most set inside pretty pastel-painted Victorian buildings. Just beyond the town is a fascinating artistic houseboat community. Fort Baker, once a military garrison, is another worthwhile stop for a visit to the kid-friendly Bay Area Discovery Museum. 30min by car or ferry.
Forget San Francisco’s skyscrapers, head north to marvel at Mother Nature’s towering giants, a grove of trees that soar over 250ft. Muir Woods, named after the naturalist John Muir and established as a national monument in 1908, is a stunning slice of nature where you can walk between the massive redwoods and commune with an old-growth forest. Advance parking and shuttle reservations are required. 30min by car
Half Moon Bay
As one of three self-described "Pumpkin Capitals" in America, Half Moon Bay is a great place to visit in October. The rest of the year, visitors stop here to horseback ride or cycle along the coast, or (in winter) to check out the famed surf spot Mavericks. At Pillar Point Harbor you can see crabs being sold straight from the fishing boats. 30min by car.
It was in Sonoma in 1846 that American rebels revolted against the Mexican government, an incident known as the Bear Flag Revolt. Wander around the historic town square, the largest plaza in California, home to excellent restaurants, shops and the Mission San Francisco Solano. Head north on Hwy 12 to visit wineries and Jack London Historic State Park. 1hr by car.
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Best day trips from Los Angeles
Secluded coves, romantic cliffs, azure waves and waterfront parks imbue the city of Laguna with a Riviera-like feel. But nature isn’t the only draw. Laguna has a strong tradition in the arts, starting with the plein air impressionists who lived and worked here in the early 1900s. Today it’s the home of renowned arts festivals, galleries, a well-known museum and exquisitely preserved arts-and-crafts cottages and bungalows. 1hr by car.
History meets art in this Spanish-style beachfront city that has it all: a mission, art museums and famous painters, and a thriving university in nearby Isla Vista. Perfect weather, beautiful buildings, excellent bars and restaurants, and activities for all tastes and budgets make Santa Barbara a must-see place for visitors to Southern California. Check out the Spanish Mission church first (the museum and tours are currently closed), then just see where the day takes you. 1hr 30min by car.
Here’s the secret to a peaceful Catalina getaway: after the ferry docks in charming Avalon, head out to explore. Go on foot or with a tour, by bike, kayak or golf cart – there’s a 20-year waiting list to own a car on the island. You’ll have a chance of spotting Catalina’s most famous Hollywood residents: bison. A 1924 film crew left a herd after shooting a western, and 150 now call Catalina home. 40min by car to ferry terminals in San Pedro & Long Beach, then 1hr ferry.
Star Trek, Iron Man, Django Unchained, Gladiator, almost every single western ever – when Hollywood goes looking for a desolate, otherworldly landscape, they scout Alabama Hills, just west of Lone Pine. Its desert-like scrub and striking geological formations have been the backdrop for over 400 movie shoots. Just off Movie Flat Rd in the Alabama Hills Recreation Area is the Mobius Arch Loop Trail, where the eponymous arch folds scenically over Mt Whitney. 3hr by car.
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