Downtown Avalon, California. Image credit Darryl Brooks via Shutterstock

7 Must-Visit Small Towns on the Pacific Coast

The Pacific Coast of the United States has some of the best views in the entire world. From the tree-lined cliffs that surround the bays and sounds of Washington to the rocky, salty shores of Oregon and the white sandy beaches of California, there is a lot of diversity in the landscapes on the country’s western edge. Spanning the length of this shoreline are many small towns that offer the full range of beauty the Pacific Coast exhibits.

Anacortes, Washington

Gorgeous Anacortes in Washington.
Overlooking Anacortes, Washington.

Anacortes is on Fidalgo Island in the northern part of Washington. Bridges connecting to the mainland mean that there is no ferry ride required to visit the town, though Anacortes has ferry access to the many islands in close proximity, such as the gorgeous San Juan Islands. Washington Park, on the western point of Fidalgo, is 220 acres of immaculately preserved natural beauty within the town, which allows for hiking, and picnicking, and even has shore access.

The Ship Harbor Interpretive Preserve Trail provides a different sort of oceanside experience, giving visitors the opportunity to explore the wetlands and beaches in Anacortes with plenty of interpretive signs and stops for education about the area. The historic downtown, along with the WT Preston and Maritime Center and a historic walking tour, allow for even more opportunities to take in the unique cultural legacy of the Pacific Northwest.

Port Townsend, Washington

The historical city of Port Townsend, Washington.
The historical city of Port Townsend, Washington.

South of Anacortes, just up the Puget Sound from Seattle, is Port Townsend. Defined by both its position on the Pacific Coast and the rich history that it exists within, the town has much to do and explore for every traveler. The Fort Warden Historical State Park is a great starting place, allowing visitors to see the natural beauty of the foliage and the coastline. The Point Wilson Lighthouse and the Chinese Gardens are two great destinations to anchor your trip to the park. Also within the park is part of the čičməhán Trail, a series of 18 sites in Port Townsend that outline the unique Indigenous history of the land the town sits upon.

Depoe Bay, Oregon

People walking on a sidewalk in front of shops in downtown Depoe Bay Oregon
Downtown Depoe Bay, Oregon. Image credit Bob Pool via Shutterstock

With craggy cliffs, sea walls, and cool salty spray, the town of Depoe Bay is the emblem of a Pacific harbor town. It is also, thanks to a resident pod of gray whales, known as the Whale Watching Capital of Oregon Coast. Between the months of March and December, visitors to the town can reasonably expect to witness the majesty that comes from seeing whales in their natural habitat. The Whale Watching Center is the best spot to catch these whales from land and one of the many charter boats from the sea.

Boiler Bay State Scenic Viewpoint, just north of town, is another great place to observe not just whales but also birds and other sea life, as well as the natural beauty of the area. The Spouting Horn, located just off the coast, is a small geyser created by an underwater cave that spits water into the air in a spray that resembles a whale’s blow horn.

Florence, Oregon

Siuslaw River Bridge and the river in historic old town Florence, Oregon.
Siuslaw River Bridge in historic old town Florence, Oregon.

Down the west coast from Depoe Bay is Florence, a town full of adventure and recreation. The North and South Jetty Beaches, which sit on opposite sides of the Siuslaw River and make up the town’s border, are great spots to sit and enjoy the sandy shores of the Pacific Ocean. This sand continues inland into great dunes that surround the town, making for endless opportunities for exploration and excitement.

Sand Master Sandboarding offers a once-in-a-lifetime chance to glide down the dunes in style. Spots like the Historic Old Town and the Heceta Head Lighthouse are quieter destinations to enjoy, and ensure that Florence is a locale that has something for everybody.

Ferndale, California

Victorian storefronts in Ferndale, California.
Victorian storefronts in Ferndale, California.

In northern California is Ferndale, a town that deserves to be on every traveler’s must-see list. With its proximity to both the redwoods and the ocean, it is the perfect stop for those seeking to enjoy the state’s natural beauty. Russ Park forest and bird sanctuary, as well as the nearby Centerville beach, are great spots. What truly sets it apart is its unique and still-living history.

Ferndale was on the cutting edge of the nation’s burgeoning dairy industry, which earned it the nickname of Cream City. The prosperity this brought led to the construction of a selection of unique, magnificently ornate Victorian buildings known today as the Butterfat Palaces. These palaces are a sight to behold and will transport visitors back to the 19th century. 

Half Moon Bay, California

California, Half Moon Bay, Pacific coast.
Half Moon Bay, California.

Half Moon Bay is an idyllic little beach town 45 minutes south of San Francisco. Suffused with the surf culture that the region is famous for, the town also has access to spots that get some of the best waves in the world. While beaches like Maverick get waves only tackleable by the most skilled surfers, there is something for every level of beach bum in Half Moon Bay, even if that is just lounging on the white sand soaking up the sun. Coastside hiking and biking are available on the many trails that surround the town, as are cultural experiences such as the Coastside History Museum housed in the old jailhouse.

Avalon, California

Colorful vacation homes in Avalon, California.
Vacation homes in Avalon, California.

The only town on Santa Catalina Island off the coast of southern California, it is no wonder why Avalon is a popular tourist destination. Replete with hotels, restaurants, and even a casino, the town is a little slice of tropical bliss accessible by high-speed ferry. The beaches are straight out of a postcard, and other outdoor opportunities, such as the Catalina Island Golf Course, the Hermit Gulch Lookout trails, and the Catalina Zipline Eco Tour, are great ways to see the island. Just outside of town is the Catalina Botanic Gardens, which features a number of exotic desert plants and other foliage. Within the garden is the Wrigley Memorial, a stunning landmark of stone and tile that is not just a sight in itself but offers a chance to soak in the vistas of the island and town.

Seeing the length of the Pacific Coast of the US is something that should be on every traveler's bucket list. The diversity of culture and environment along the shores is vast, and while the popular metropolises like Seattle, Portland, and Los Angeles are top attractions, you shouldn't discount the smaller towns in the region. These towns offer a perfect backbone for a long trip, weekend getaway, or vacation.

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