Road Trip: Driving from San Francisco to Portland, the Scenic Mountain Way

Road Trips

Drive time: 16+ hours

There are few more stunning trips that I’ve been on than the route from the SF / Bay Area into Portland (and beyond to Seattle to but that’s for another post.) Of course I’m not talking about the direct drive, effective as highway 5 may be, booooring. This post is about the mountain route, a scenic 15+ hour trip from the California Coast through the Sierra Mountains and into the Cascades full of vista points, small towns, big eats, drinks, and with plenty of adventures on the way.

Intrigued? Good. Let’s get started.

We depart from SF to Lake Tahoe / Reno via Sacramento. 

While city traffic is never on your side, there are ways to make the trip out of the Bay Area quite nice. Kick things off by heading up from SF and taking the Golden Gate Bridge (adds ~30 minutes driving) for your first, and last, coastal views on this ride. Heck, kick it off with some exploring before you’ve even left the Bay by swinging in to the Marin Headlands for light house views and shoreline trails before hitting the mountains.

From there, you’ll follow the bay, passing wetlands and parks until you start the journey east passing through Vallejo and highway 80. In summer, the next few hours can be hot, dry driving but you’ll pass by plenty of lunch spots, gas stops, and UC Davis University before cutting over to highway 50 through Sacramento. 

Fairfield is home to the Jelly Belly Factory which is open for regular tours and gift shopping if you’re feeling touristy.

If you’re taking a long route, consider a night in Sacramento for the state  capital, downtown bars and old town sights.

First adventure: Gold Country, Placerville, CA

As you depart the city life now on highway 50, you’ll quickly skip back in time in California history. All around the road are amazing pioneer sights but the most accessible is probably Gold Bug Park. For just ~20 minutes of extra driving and just a few bucks (per person), you can walk right in to an old mine, explore how they crushed ore to find California Gold and also a nice spot to stretch out and have lunch in the town of Placerville.

Gold Bug Park

Have more time? Go further into Gold Country exploring the Marshall Gold Discovery State Park, Sutter’s Mill and many more sights.

Rafting the Middle Fork American River with OARS

Looking for more a proper thrill? Take a half day rafting trip down the American River South Fork or a more aggressive ride down the Middle Fork(spring – mid summer.)

Next Up: Hiking Ralston Peak

Continuing out of gold country, you’ll quickly start to trade dry, hot landscape for forest as you head into the Sierra Foothills. There are many incredible sights along the way and an endless number of stops you could make from simple view points to backpacking worthy hikes so grab a local map of the Tahoe Basin and chart a course.

Ralston Peak Summit View

One of my favorites trails along the road (like right along it) is Ralston Peak just a few minutes beyond the small town of Strawberry (the general store is a great place for some road-trip supplies, maps and even climbing gear.) Around 6 miles round trip but with over 2,800′ of elevation gain, this adventure will take you half a day but delivers an incredible view of the Desolation Wilderness and Lake Tahoe Area. 

Sunrise from Lake Tahoe

End the day with an overnighter at one of many US Forest Campsites or power through to South Lake Tahoe for fancier digs.

Welcome to South Lake!

Summer or winter alike, South Lake Tahoe is a fun place. There are jet-skies, kayaks and boats on the lake, ski slopes just blocks from downtown in winter, biking trails in summer, lifts to views, endless miles of shore views to explore, and casinos across the state line too. Whether you want to swing in for a moment to see it all or the day, South Lake may be touristy, but it’s damn fun.

Lake Tahoe Floating

Passing beyond the city, you’ll follow the Lake’s eastern shore and continue the views (there are many great beaches and coves on this side so look for small turnouts) before cutting back east to Carson City and then on over to 580 E and 395 N. Here you’ll find more casinos, historic sights like the Nevada State Railroad Museum and more.

Reno offers more casinos, more of that Nevada excitement if that’s high on your list as you won’t be in gambling country long.

Slots -- sadly not my win :/

For adventures, you can also find a  164′ rock climbing wall at The Whitney Peak Hotel in downtown Reno.

Last but not least, Mount Rose is just a short drive off route for yet another fun hiking option.

Either way, it’s up 395 and back into California to press on.

Into the mountains you go

The scenery by now has become amazing and with a few mile exceptions here and there, it’s not going to stop. In fact, the more turns you’re willing to make, the better it all gets. I’ve listed out just a few of the many tops and side-trips possible as you cross back into California and begin the trek through some of scenic highway land.

Take a long drive through the incredible Plumas National Forest stopping by the many lakes and lake towns in this remote part of the state. Adds ~2-3 hours driving time.

Head into Lassen National Park and summit Lassen Peak, the Southern Cascade Volcano and just a few hour hike. Adds ~2 hours of driving.

Lava Beds National Monument Caves

Explore Lava Beds National Monument with it’s impressive Lava Tubes & Caves and Native American Historical sights / tales. Adds ~1-2 hours driving time.

Start your Oregon adventure with a night in Klamath Falls

After what is hopefully a day of side trips, you’ll end up crossing the CA / OR border just below Klamath Falls (395 -> 139 -> 39 -> 97 but it’s all pretty obvious.) It’s a large enough town to fully restock on any necessary travel gear (or do some sales tax free shopping on a little upgrade for the drive to come) but stands right near so much open space that you can easily sneak right on by and barely notice if you want to stay out of urban sights.

Running Y Ranch in Winter

Campsites, rest stops, motels and hotels dot the area, whatever you prefer. One of my favorite stays however has to be the Running Y Ranch Resort just South East of town. It’s a full on resort but one which often books for a really reasonable price.  The on site restaurant on the spendy but nice side for a mid-adventure escape and it all keeps right in vacation mode. They don’t pay me to say this but what can I say, I like the place.

It’s time for Crater Lake

No trip through the Oregon Mountains is complete without a visit to Crater Lake National Park. Now to be fair, that visit is a radically different experience depending on the season of your trip…

Crater Lake in Spring

You see with all the snow the park gets, only a small strip of road is plowed out through much of the year. Thus in winter, spring, even into early summer, you’ll have to drive up and back the way you came adding hours to the day but whatever, it’s worth it. 

Crater Lake is an impressive sight and while it’s tempting to just accept the 30 or so minutes you’ll be driving around the lake on the way north as enough, I’d suggest doing the full loop for the full experience (adds ~2 hours driving.) Maybe even hike Mount Scott for a higher view to stretch your legs or head down for the on the water tours. In winter, expect very little access but one very cool view so stop by the visitor center for free ranger-guided snowshoe walks and enjoy!

Waterfalls on 138

Before you rejoin the main road (97), there are more sights to be found too including the Umpqua Hot Springs (adds ~2 hours driving) and surrounding waterfalls on the incredible highway 138. 

The magic of highway 97

Returning to the main road, you’ll find the forest has somehow become even more impressive as you make it towards central Oregon (with logging roads and trucks all over to prove it.)

There are again an endless number of stops to make from Mt. Thielsen hikes to Mount Bachelor Skiing. In winter, many of the marked stops close down while many snow adventures open up as you advance through the high desert (again, more on that below) but it’s all worth driving year round.

My suggested destination for the day is Bend, Oregon with it’s river side sights, charming little shops, and did I mention the beer? Swing in to 10 Barrel, Deschutes, Boneyard or one of many other local brew pubs and end the day in town — like please, be smart.

Beer in Bend

Speaking of ending days, there are a few great state campgrounds and cabin options around this part of Oregon. In particular, La Pine (south of Bend) and Tumalo (just north of it) have some wonderful digs summer and winter alike if you can snag a spot.

La Pine State Park Cabins

Ready to rock climb? Raft? Hike? Say hello to Central Oregon

Heading out of Bend, the miles are certainly ticking down but there is plenty left to see and do. Just about an hour past the city is your first option as you reach signs for Smith Rock State Park. This is a sight worth a day, a weekend, a week, or even just an hour so make the turn… but grab food before you do, there’s not much in the park, beyond sights (adds ~45 minutes of driving.) 

Monkey Face Rock, Smith

Rock climbers, you know what’s ahead but even if you left your rope and shoes at home, grab your hiking gear for a couple hour trek up and down Misery Ridge Trail (watch out, it’s icy in winter and rather hot in summer.)

Misery Ridge, Smith Rock (Winter)

If hiking is not your thing, or if you’ve already completed that, river adventures are not that far away and the Deschutes River is a fun half day run at a great cost. Many companies run this river but I’ve had fun times with Forward Paddle Rafting Co so I’ll suggest them first (adds ~1.5 hours of driving.)

Smith Rock is home to one of the best deal developed campgrounds. Just $8 / person / night for a spot at the Bivouac!

Rafting the Deschutes River

Looking for a little different view, a PCT hike, or more snow, to make it into Salem? There are several mountain passes across Oregon worth exploring from 138 in the south to 58, 126 and 20. 

Goodbye forest, hello Warm Springs (and then trees again.)

The final leg of your journey is one of the most dynamic as you fully transition from forest to desert and back yet again in the span of just a few hours. Take highway 26 towards Mount Hood and stare (if you’re not the one driving) at the massive cliffs of the Warm Springs Reservation which tower all around. Check the left side too as you’ll see more than a few Cascade Volcanoes peaking up.

In Warm Springs, you’ll find a few gas stations, a couple resorts, a casino and a local Museum for the reservation to check out. 

Pressing on through, you’ll soon return to forest land (and a lot of snow if it’s winter) as you climb up towards Mount Hood. The roads here are empty, devoid of cities or buildings, food is scarce as is gas but there are many lakes, campgrounds, sno parks and other places to explore or just pull off and stretch out at.

Mount Hood from Highway 26

Finally, as you approach the town of Government Camp is one of my favorite stops as you turn right to make the climb to the Timberline Lodge and Ski Area. It’s about a 30 minute drive up and well worth it whether to to ski (the slopes are open most of the year!), to hike or just look at the mountain from some 6,000′ up.

The hotel is well worth a stay, the buffet breakfast and lunch even more worth a visit (and pretty cheap too), and oh hey, you’re on the PCT yet again.

The drive into Portland: Short or scenic

Descending from the mountain may mean the ride is near over but it does not mean the views are. You have two routes to consider here: the shorter route along highway 26 will take you through a few smaller towns and right into Portland while the longer offers many more views and stops.

Winter in the Gorge

If you choose the longer way, back track to highway 35 and take it towards Hood River. In summer, you may want to stop off for the long ride to Lost Lake (adds ~2.5 hours driving) which has camping, a resort and an incredible mountain view on the water. Or stop by a winery, check out the view from Panorama Point, and head into Hood River proper for its food, breweries, scenic train, watersports and so much more.

Mount Hood from Lost Lake

From there, take highway 30 along the Columbia River and right through the famous Gorge with hiking trails and waterfall viewpoints all over (even after the fires it’s is incredible out there.)

The famous Multnomah Falls in Winter

You can stop by the Bridge of the Gods, grab Ice Cream at the Multnomah Falls Visitor Center or skip it all and get on to Portland. Beer awaits!

It had to happen.

Preparing for the road.

This ride is an incredible adventure you can do in a crazy long day, two moderate days or over the course of weeks. That said, planning is a really good idea for this trip.

Summer or winter, this route goes through some fairly remote areas. While you will never be more than a few hours from a fairly reasonable town, there are times the nearest gas is indeed several hours. In summer, this road gets hot and in winter, cold. Both deserve a little extra gear in the car!

In winter, the drive can be anything from easy to brutal with many different mountain range and high snow roads to go through. Chains should be an expected reality winter and spring alike while a snow ready vehicle will make your life much easier. Plenty of food, water, layers and supplies are essential to have along just in case you get stuck / stopped or find someone else who does.

Download your GPS directions, grab a map, plan it out. Have fun but be safe about it!

Road Facts:

  • Trip time: 16+ hours (2 days to 2+ weeks)
  • Cruise through mountain scenery from the sierras to PNW forests
  • Side trips include hiking, white water rafting, skiing, climbing
  • Ideal for: Adventurous travelers, camping style to fancy living.