Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Interstate 5 is the main highway of America’s West Coast, running parallel to the Pacific Ocean and U.S. Route 99, all the way from Mexico to Canada. The states that the 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 just to name a few. It also happens to be the only continuous Interstate highway to touch the borders of both Canada and Mexico. These are just a few of the best stops along I-5!
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. It’s a short drive from San Diego, and you can either drive across the border or walk the distance. There’s some great shopping and cultural options to experience in this border town as well.
1549 El Prado | San Diego, CA | balboapark.org
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 can check out. It’s worth at least visiting their legendary zoo or the Automotive Museum!
“I can't believe this huge and beautiful park is at the center of San Diego! It's massive with a lot to do... and it's super accessible since it's right in the middle of the city.” - Yelp Review
7201 Carlsbad Blvd | Carlsbad, CA | parks.ca.gov
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 sunset over the water: there’s nothing quite like it.
“The ocean views are stunning and they have these beautiful wood stairs that go down to the beach. The best time to swim is in the afternoon when the tide is out… Also lots of surfers here too. Love it.” - Yelp Review
26801 Ortega Hwy | San Juan, CA | missionsjc.com
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 buildings are also quite fascinating to see, especially the Spanish Colonial Baroque-style church.
“It has been lovingly restored and the interior main garden area is beautiful. I loved the central pond, the exhibits, the chapel, bells and the ruins of the great church which was gorgeous.” - Yelp Review
26101 Magic Mountain Pkwy | Valencia, CA | sixflags.com/magicmountain
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.
“The EXTREME Park. More roller coasters than any park in the country. Look up fun in the dictionary and you will find a picture of this place.” - Yelp Review
15101 Lancaster Rd | Lancaster, CA | parks.ca.gov
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.
“Pictures and videos cannot capture the experience of walking thru a sea of poppies. It's surreal and if you happen to be in the area when they're in bloom - You're welcome! ” - Yelp Review
Intersection 33 & 46 | Blackwell’s Corner, CA
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.
“Awesome place for anyone who followed the life and death of James Dean... Very moving and highly recommended. The monument is close by but not the actual crash site. I have the crash site coordinates here: N 35° 44.053' W 120° 17.147'” - Yelp Review
New Idria Rd | New Idria, CA
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.
“If you’re looking for a little riskier side trip, the New Idria Ghost Town should be on your itinerary… Once a town built around a quicksilver mine, today the town is abandoned and the water and ground is considered toxic. A trip to the town will get you some pretty neat photos, but the BLM has been known to close the road, so we can’t always guarantee you’ll make it to the town.” - Roadtrippers Review
30892 Trabuco Canyon Rd | Trabuco, CA | ocparks.com/parks/oneill
Another nice place to stretch your legs is the O’Neill Regional Park in Trabuco, 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!
“What an amazing hidden gem of wilderness just a short drive away from the town of Rancho Santa Margarita!” - Yelp Review
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.
“For a prison museum, I'd have to say that my experience was epic, from greeting the prison guards to seeing all the original watch towers, toilets, chains... The history is unimaginable!” - Yelp Review
320 Broad St | Chico, CA | birdinhand.com
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 and fun way to kill an hour!
“This place is great to waste time in and great for gifts. Has such random/cool stuff and they don't glare when you are playing with all the cool toys either.” - Yelp Review
15312 Hwy 299 | Southwest Shasta, CA | parks.ca.gov
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.
“Really cool place! And also interesting information about California's gold rush. ” - Yelp Review
20359 Shasta Caverns Rd | Lakeshead, CA |lakeshastacaverns.com
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.
“Such a wonderful experience! Our guide was knowledgeable and provided time for us to take photos so I didn't felt rush. Highly recommend.” - Yelp Review
4303 Sardine Crk L Frk Rd | Gold Hill, OR | oregonvortex.com
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.
“There are so few simple roadside attractions left in today's fast-paced modern world, so it's refreshing to come across a folksy place like the House of Mystery where you get to hear about the old wives' tales surrounding the place.” - Yelp Review
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!
“We loved it! It was quiet, clean and we had a lot of space. I would recommend this place to anyone.” - Yelp Review
503 1st W | Albany, OR
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.
“This a carousel project to create a merry-go-round. They have reclaimed the old rigging from a Dentzel carousel and are refinishing it. But the real COOL part is they are hand carving ALL the animals. There is no way to describe the detail. Impeccable. ” - Yelp Review
400 SW Kingston Ave | Portland, OR | portlandoregon.gov/parks
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.
“If you're lucky enough to visit Portland when the roses are in bloom, going to the International Rose Test Garden is a must! It's free admission and is just a beautiful place to wander.” - Yelp Review
1005 W Burnside St | Portland, OR | powells.com
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.
“If you're a bookworm (or you just like exploring unique places), you should definitely plan on spending a big chunk of time here.” - Yelp Review
3029 Spirit Lake Hwy | Castle Rock, WA
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 dormant volcano, excellent exhibits, and even 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.
12245 Tilley Rd S | Olympia, WA
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.
“I love the trees and seclusion. Great camping close to town with swimming areas for the kids, a dock to fish, nature trails, a snack shack, and boat rentals.” - Yelp Review
12317 Gravelly Lake Dr SW | Lakewood, WA | lakewoldgardens.org
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.
“Gorgeous!!! Perfect place to explore.” - Yelp Review
1801 Dock St | Tacoma, WA | museumofglass.org
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 mind-blowing sculptures, watch live demonstrations, and be sure to 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 Glass is a treasure for the city of Tacoma. The demonstrations in the working hot shop are educational and fun.” - Yelp Review
9404 E Marginal Way S | Seattle, WA | museumofflight.org
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!
“This place is rich with historical artifacts. From the time the Wright brothers patented their first invention to the times of war. ” - Yelp Review
1428 Post Aly | Seattle, WA
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!
“Yes, it's absolutely disgusting.....and YES, it's a repulsive germ-filled alley covered in the remnants of saliva and bacteria. But it is also pretty darn cool to see in person!!! ” - Yelp Review
400 Broad St | Seattle, WA | spaceneedle.com
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!
“Is it touristy? You bet! Is it worth it? 100%” - Yelp Review
1127 Olympic Blvd | Everett, WA
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.
“This is one of the best parks in the area! It is like a private little beach that not a ton of people know about.” - Yelp Review
41020 State Rte 20 | Oak Harbor, WA | deceptionpassfoundation.org
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!
“It was so spectacularly beautiful. The scenery is just so amazing. I especially liked west beach. You get this breathtaking view of the waters from a higher ground.” - Yelp Review
1401 Electric Ave | Bellingham, WA | cob.org/whatcom-falls-park
Cross the mossy stone bridge at Whatcom Falls Park built by the Washington Parks Association 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.
“Beautiful falls and park. Dogs welcome. Easy walk on the trail and plenty of parking.” - Yelp Review
5105 Helwig Rd | Blaine, WA | parks.state.wa.us/Birch-Bay
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.
“This place is gorgeous! The families are well kept and the spots are good size.” - Yelp Review
555 W Hastings St | Vancouver, BC | vancouverlookout.com
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!
“We always love to get above the city as much as we can. This is the perfect way to see the area.” - Yelp Review
Capilano Suspension Bridge & Cliffwalk
3735 Capilano Road | North Vancouver, BC | capbridge.com
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.
“Gorgeous!! Beautiful!! Totally worth seeing =)” - Yelp Review
When planning your I-5 road trip, just be aware that 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. No matter when you go, the I-5 definitely has some amazing sites to see and experience along the way!