It’s not all that far from Portland to San Francisco, about 1000 km, and it can take a couple of hours to a few weeks, it’s all dependent on how quickly you need to get there, your preferred mode of transport and, of course, costs.
If you have the time, we strongly recommend a road trip, so that you can truly experience some of the beauties of Oregon and North California. You have quite a few travel options, whatever your time constraints, which we have described below.
We also have suggested a few trips by road, as well as some attractions for you to visit en route. You may also want to browse through our trip options from Portland to Sacramento, where we have mentioned some alternative places worth visiting (there are just too many to put in one article)…
Flying from Portland to San Francisco – the quickest way to travel
There are a number of flights and carriers to choose from, flying from Portland International Airport (PDX) to three airports in and around San Francisco. You can fly to San Francisco International (SFO – approx 20 flights), Oakland (OAK – approx 12 flights) or even San Jose (SJC – approx 18 flights).
It does not make a major difference which airport you fly to, as they are all connected via the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), but the time to get from the airport to San Francisco is longer from San Jose (by the way SJC is rated as the best-run airport in the US).
The flight times vary from 1h 45m (direct) to over 4 hours with a stopover, and start from 6 a.m. to up to 10 p.m. Most of the SouthWest flights are direct, but some of the carriers fly north to Seattle first and then to San Francisco; this includes Delta, United and Alaskan for certain flights, so ensure you pick a direct flight.
It is also possible to fly direct from Eugene; you do not have to return to Portland if you are based there. Most of the flights have OAK as the destination, but there are also 3 daily flights to SFO. The main carrier is Southwest.
This is probably the cheapest option as well: try for an advance booking or a discounted fare, which will cost you in the region of $50, but budget for an average of $100 per ticket, although prices may go as high as $240.
Take the train from Portland to San Francisco – The Starlight
A great alternative to flying, although it takes around 18 hours is Amtrak’s legendary Coast Starlight, a double-decker luxury train that takes a route that undulates between mountains and forests and the Pacific shores.
This is not the cheapest alternative, but you get to experience the hospitality and grace of rail travel, with the option of travelling overnight in luxury or a daylight feast for the eyes.
There are plenty of alternatives in accommodation, ranging from comfortable sleeper chairs to private rooms. Food is available from the dining room or the cafe, and is complimentary with room bookings, and WiFi is supported.
You can go and watch the scenery from the Sightseer Lounge, on what is regarded as one of the world’s most iconic train routes, or watch from your coach seat or private room. This is a good option for families, with a 4-sleeper room option available.
Most of the rooms have their own shower and toilet facilities; there is a roomette option which has shared ablutions but is good value for money.
Various Pricing Opportunities for the train
Ticket prices range from $75 upwards, but there are many discounts and special offers. We do recommend reserving your seats/rooms in advance, however, this is a very popular route. If you are travelling around the US and love train travel, why not invest in a US Rail Pass? This gives you access to most Amtrak routes as a coach passenger, including the Coast Starlight.
It is currently available for only $299 for 30 days travel, but even the full price is $499. There is also a California Rail Pass, which is limited to travel in California, but does include the Coast Starlight route within the state, and allows you to disembark at various stations, spend some time there and re-embark for your next destination.
Traveling from Portland to San Francisco by bus
When Paul Simon sings this phrase, we all imagine a Greyhound Bus waiting at the station. American road travel and Greyhound are inextricably linked, and one of your essential US travel experiences, even if it is for just one trip.
The route from Portland to San Francisco is 18 hours and requires a change in Sacramento.
It is overnight, so you do not get the sightseeing available on a rail or road trip, and costs around $100. You could also consider traveling to Sacramento by rail and then taking the Greyhound for the remainder of the trip.
Driving from Portland to San Francisco
If you have the time and the budget for it, and are not intimidated by driving left-hand drive (it soon becomes easier), a road trip in a hired car or RV gives you the most flexibility and the best holiday memories.
There are several route options to consider, and, while, apart from taking Route 5, they are definitely not the shortest route, there is so much to see on Oregon and California that you would need at least a month to really cover all the possibilities.
We gave a hint of some of the experiences in our article on traveling from Portland to Sacramento, but here are some other routes to consider.
Great stop-offs on the road trip – Columbia River Gorge
It may seem counterintuitive to head east out of Portland when you are traveling south, but the Columbia River Gorge awaits you. This is one of the United State’s most scenic areas, 120 kilometers of historic towns, lookout spots, waterfalls, and other sights.
The Historic Columbia River Highway was built as an important transport throughway early in the beginning of the 20th century and was designed to showcase the beauty of the land it traversed.
While parts have been replaced and remodeled, it still reminds us of the visionary spirit of Sam Hill, who opened up the North-West by lobbying for roads like this, and was designed for the most part by engineer and architect Samuel Lancaster.
There are so many awe-inspiring stops along this road, that it will take at least a day to give it justice, starting with the waterfalls. Some of them are right next to the highway, while others require a short to medium hike.
Probably the most famous is Multnomah Falls, with nearby Latourell, Wahkeena, and Bridal Veil Falls. You could consider spending more time here and following a few of the trails, either by yourself or as part of one of the hiking and biking tours available.
It is wise to check up on current conditions before you go, as there is a possibility of fires in summer and inclement weather in winter.
There are great eateries along this route, with wineries and craft breweries aplenty to indulge yourself. Quaint towns like The Dalles and Hood River offer an opportunity to stop and amble through their streets.
If you travel this route during flowering time, do visit Lavender Valley, with its beautiful fields and take in the vista of Mount Hood.
If you manage to travel the whole route, you can overnight at the town of Bend, otherwise the towns along the way offer friendly accommodation. The next day, you can head south towards Crater Lake National Park.
The lake is contained in the rim of an ancient volcano, that erupted and collapsed less than 8,000 years ago. The lake is nearly 2000 feet deep and can be visited in both summer and winter.
Sometimes the entire lake is shrouded in cloud, and you can only see Wizard Island peeking out of the mists.
Leaving Oregon for Siskiyou County
The first stop in Siskiyou County in NorCal (Northern California) is Mount Shasta, one of the many volcanoes in the Cascades mountain range and a World Heritage site.
It is surrounded by the Shasta-Trinity National Forest and is over 14 000 feet in height. It has a strong spiritual significance to the original inhabitants of the area, the Klamath, and has attracted other religions, including a Buddhist monastery.
If you are fascinated by volcanoes and volcanic activity, you may want to take a detour east and visit Lassen Volcanic National Park. There are thermal springs and volcanic peaks in this part of the Cascades mountain range.
Great stop offs – Humboldt Redwoods State Park
California is famed for its Redwoods and Giant Sequoias, and if you travel along the coastal route, you have the opportunity of visiting one or more of the parks and reserves dedicated to these awe-inspiring trees. There are eleven reserves and forests where these trees can be seen.
One of the best is the Humboldt Redwoods State Park, where you can drive along the 50 km Avenue of the Giants, and even through some of the trees via a tunnel carved in their bases. Dwarfed by these massive trees all around you, the trip will leave an indelible impression on you.
Take a stop off at a vineyard
Northern California is wine country, from the world-renowned vineyards of the Napa Valley to Sonoma County, the wine-lover can indulge in trips to estates and wine-tasting boutiques.
While the most widely grown varietals in Napa are Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, there are over 3 dozen grape cultivars, providing interesting varietals and blends.
Sonoma is the original base for California’s wine industry; Buena Vista vineyard was founded in 1857 and the farm is both a historical monument and a famed producer of quality wines.
The terroirs of Sonoma are even more suitable for a range of grapes, and there are more than 60 cultivars grown in the county. Some idea of the number of vineyards in Sonoma is indicated by the fact that over 70% of the county’s agriculture is devoted to growing grapes for wine-making
Other Places You Need to See
There is no way we can fully describe what to see in Oregon and North California. Obviously, San Francisco on its own has many attractions. There is Fort Bragg, with its Glass Beach, Point Reyes National Seashore, and Eureka with its redwoods and striking Victorian houses.
There are parks and trails of every description for the active hiker, beaches for surfing, beachcombing or just lazing, and outdoor opportunities for golfers, windsurfers and skiers, depending on the time of year.
Tailor your own trip in the season that suits you most, focusing on your favorite activities; you will not be able to cover all bases, unless you have a couple of months, but you can get a taste of the unspoilt beauty of these two states.
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Beth was born under a wandering star, with drama in her veins and ink in her pen. After stints studying theatre in Dublin and Utrecht she used her creative streak to see as much of the world as she could on as little money. She toured Italian Schools with a children’s theatre troop, lived as an au-pair in both Rome and Washington DC, explored the British countryside, worked her way through much of Europe, Salsa danced in Cuba and road tripped down America’s west coast where she discovered her spiritual home; Portland, Oregon. In between adventures she resides peacefully with her family, cats and ukulele.