Family Road Trip San Francisco to Portland (I-5 Itinerary and Tips)

Image of Interstate 5 North in Portland, Oregon with cars moving in all directions and buildings in the background to illustrate a family road trip from San Francisco to Portland.

The drive from San Francisco to Portland, Oregon is both beautiful and diverse. You’ll encounter cities, tiny towns, mountains, and picturesque valleys. A family road trip from San Francisco to Portland is particularly nice because there are a lot of great places to stop. 

In this post, I’ll focus mostly on the shortest route–taking the I-5 freeway–with some short diversions. There are plenty of beautiful and fun sights and places along the way, even without going too far off the main highway. 

With proper planning, you can make sure to choose stops the whole family will enjoy. I won’t provide a detailed itinerary because I think one of the joys of road trips is the flexibility and opportunity to adapt plans as you go. Based on my experience, I’ll just offer some itinerary suggestions and tips to help you plan the perfect trip for your individual family.

San Francisco to Portland, Oregon – Driving Time

If you take the quickest route, the distance between San Francisco and Portland is about 635 miles. This takes about 10 hours of actual driving time, not accounting for any stops. To get from San Francisco to the Oregon border, it takes a little over 5 hours without traffic. The drive is nicely divided almost exactly in half between California and Oregon. 

Longer, scenic routes such as the Pacific Coast Highway take significantly longer. If a particularly long, but visually impressive drive is something your family enjoys, this would definitely be a great option. When traveling with kids–especially younger ones–I prefer to stick primarily to the quickest route though, taking small detours to see sights along the way. 

For this reason, I’ll be sticking to activities and sights to see within a relatively short distance of Interstate 5.

Can You Make the Drive in One Day?

While it’s absolutely possible to drive from San Francisco to Portland in one day, I wouldn’t recommend it. Especially when traveling as a family, you’ll likely want (and need) to make frequent stops along the way. 

With multiple stops, trying to drive the entire distance in one day would mean traveling from early morning to late evening. This can be exhausting for everyone involved. We actually did this trip in one day when my son was a toddler, and it was grueling. 

If at all possible, I would recommend taking at least two days and staying one night in a hotel along the way. If you have the time and would like to maximize the sights and places you get a chance to visit, you can extend the drive to a three or even four day road trip.

Tips for Driving From San Francisco to Portland in One Day

As I mentioned, my family actually did this trip in one day when my son was a toddler. In our case, there were circumstances that made us choose this rushed itinerary. If you also feel compelled to make the trip as quickly as possible, rest assured it is doable.

I would advise trying to leave as early as possible in the morning. If you’re traveling on a weekday, this will help you miss the rush hour traffic. It will also allow you to arrive at a decent hour. After a long day in the car, it’s nice to sit down and have dinner at a restaurant, so I aim to arrive early enough that most places are still open. 

With kids in tow, you’ll also want to make sure to stop for bathroom breaks fairly frequently. Ideally, you’ll also stop and let the kids get in some exercise, at least once or twice. Not only is this healthier, but it also makes it easier for little ones to tolerate the hours cooped up in the car. On a hurried road trip, you don’t need to seek out special sights; even basic parks or playgrounds can do the trick nicely.

Sights to See on a Two or Three Day Road Trip from San Francisco to Portland

Now we’ll move on to advice for those families who have the time to spend two or three days driving from San Francisco to Portland. This is much more ideal and will allow you to see plenty of sights along the way.

You probably won’t want to stop at all of these places, but there may be a few that seem particularly appealing to your individual family. 

Shasta, California: A Tiny Ghost Town Minutes From Redding, CA

Brick wall and merchant doors in the ghost town of Shasta, California.

Don’t confuse this one with Mount Shasta, CA which is an entirely different city. Shasta is a ghost town just off Interstate 5. It houses the Shasta State Historic Park which is basically a preservation of the Gold Rush-era town of Shasta. 

Once a bustling town, Shasta is now just a ghost of its former self. You can walk along the streets and see the empty 1800’s buildings, shops, and sidewalks. There are plaques explaining what is known about each place. You can also walk through the cemetery and have lunch at some picnic tables that have been placed in a nice shady area for visitors. 

This can be a great history lesson for kids and an opportunity for all of us to stop and think about how things change over time. It’s fairly deserted, so there’s plenty of opportunity for kids to walk and get in some exercise before returning to the car. 

Dunsmuir, California

A huge waterfall with water pouring down and tall trees all around in Dunsmuir, California.

About four hours drive north of San Francisco, and right along the I-5 freeway, Dunsmuir is a great place to stop for a few hours, or even to stay the night. 

As of 2022, Dunsmuir has a population of less than 2000 people. It’s a small village, an old railroad town with beautiful waterfalls and mountain ranges, as well as a picturesque historic downtown. 

The Dunsmuir Chamber of Commerce website has a great section explaining the town’s history. It can be fun to read over this information so that you can explain the history to the kids before stopping there. It often adds to our appreciation of places when we understand the history behind them.

If you like fishing, this town provides an excellent opportunity to get out your fishing gear, relax, and enjoy the pleasures of fishing in clean water while taking in the idyllic setting. 

Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

This is a fantastic place to visit, just off I-5 near the city of Willows, California. It’s an amazing place for bird watching, as there are many different migrating birds, depending on the season. In the winter, millions of birds migrate here from the cold, Arctic regions of Canada, Alaska, and Russia. You can also try to spot many of the other animals that the refuge houses such as deer, beavers, and muskrats. 

A huge flock of snow geese in the water and flying in the background at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge in the winter.

The Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge is a great spot for the family to get plenty of exercise as well. There are many miles of walking and hiking trails. 

If the weather is rainy, or you prefer to stay in the car, there’s also a 6-mile auto tour route you can drive along. 

Going to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge provides a wonderful opportunity to see animals out in the wild, as opposed to enclosed at a zoo. My kids love trying to point out different kinds of birds and attempting to spot some of the less abundant animals. 

You can check for updates and current hours of the various activities here

Ashland, Oregon

When driving up I-5 on the way to Portland, people often wonder about Ashland vs Medford for an initial stop in Oregon. I would definitely suggest you opt for Ashland. 

Medford is a bigger city and often has cheaper hotel rooms, but Ashland in general has more to offer for visitors. The distance between the two is only about 20 minutes, so you could always book a hotel in Medford but spend the majority of your time sightseeing in Ashland, in order to save a bit of money. 

Ashland is probably most famous as the home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival which runs annually from February through November. There are quite a few other sights and activities to do there as well, though.

There are plenty of campgrounds and hiking trails, if you’d like to spend some time in nature and get a bit of exercise. 

I would recommend a visit to Lithia Park in Ashland. It’s huge and has something for everyone. There’s a very nice playground for the kids, duck ponds, a Japanese garden, and a nice walking path with beautiful surrounding views. 

Image of Lithia Park in the evening in Ashland, Oregon in the fall with a creek and a walking path bridge in the background and fall colors in the leaves.

If you visit Lithia Park in the fall, you’ll be able to see the lovely fall leaves. If you go in the winter, be sure to check out the ice skating rink. Throughout the year, you can also sometimes spot deer and other wildlife.

If you have the time, the ScienceWorks Hands-on Museum in Ashland is also a great place for families to visit. There are a large assortment of exhibits and activities that kids of all ages will enjoy and benefit from.

Eugene, Oregon

Once you hit Eugene, you only have a little over an hour and a half before you’re in Portland. It’s still worth it to stop and spend some time in Eugene before reaching your destination.

Image of the Eugene, Oregon skyline in the evening as the sun is going down. You can see a lot of buildings and lights and trees.

Home to the University of Oregon, Eugene has several museums you may want to check out. 

I personally love visiting gardens when road tripping as a family. It offers a chance to enjoy the beauty while also getting in some exercise, especially for the kids. The Owen Rose Garden in Eugene is a great place to spend some time. It’s open year-round and free to visit. 

In addition to the abundance of roses, the garden has nice paths for walking and biking. There are also picnic tables. You might want to consider picking up something simple from a nearby grocery store and bringing it along so that you can have lunch in the garden.

Final Destination: Portland, Oregon

Image of Broadway Bridge and Downtown Portland, Oregon with the bridge and the water in the front and the city with the buildings in the background.

This brings us to the final stop on our San Francisco to Portland road trip. Since your destination is Portland, you probably already have some things planned here. Portland is a large and diverse city, so there’s something to cater to most everyone’s tastes whether it be time in nature, museums, restaurants, or zoos.

If there’s anything particular you recommend seeing or doing in Portland, please leave me a comment and let me know. 

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