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most scenic route San Diego to Phoenix + Vegas alternatives

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most scenic route San Diego to Phoenix + Vegas alternatives

We have 5 nights in San Diego from New Year's Eve. On departing we plan to drive to Phoenix, then on to Sedona and Grand Canyon, before driving back to Anaheim via either Las Vegas (becoming less keen evey minute) or somewhere else.

It would be great to know more from people who've travelled in the area. I know we could detour en route from San Diego to Phoenix via the Joshua Tree Natnl Park but unsure if worth it in early January.

We'd also welcome ideas re good ways to get back from Grand Canyon to Anaheim (driving) that will avoid Las Vegas. Thanks.

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1. Re: most scenic route San Diego to Phoenix + Vegas alternatives

Here is what I would do. Not the same as everyone else, but you asked for scenic route. It’s not clear if you want to stay overnight between San Diego and Phoenix or just go all in one day.

Drive Interstate 8 east from San Diego to Sunrise Highway, turn left to go north on Sunrise Highway through the forested Laguna Mountain Recreation Area. On the right you will have views of the desert 5,000 feet below. Continue north and take Highway 79 to Julian. Before Julian there is a view point you can stop at, with free parking, and look at the deserts, and if it’s clear the mountains in the distance, some with snow if there have been recent storms. Usually you can see the Salton Sea in the distance. You can see into Mexico as well. If it’s really clear you can see all the way to Arizona and some mountains there.

In Julian, an old gold mining town now an apple-growing area, stop and have lunch somewhere and pick up a whole apple pie - the best pie is at Apple Alley Bakery on the right (east) side of the main street. Julian has been preserved to look like it did 100 years ago. There are tours to old gold mines. http://julianca.com for more info.

You have 3 choices for getting from Julian to Palm Springs or Joshua Tree. Choice 1 is to go west on 79 from Julian, to Santa Ysabel, then north to Warner Springs, Sunshine Summit and Aguanga, then east on 371 to the Palms-to-Pines Highway (74) and east on that to Palm Desert, then north on 111 to Palm Springs. Choice 2 is to go west on 79 from Julian, to Santa Ysabel, then north to Warner Springs, Sunshine Summit and Aguanga, then east on 371 to the Palms-to-Pines Highway (74), then west on 74 past Lake Hemet and then at Mountain Center go north on 243 to Idyllwild. Idyllwild is a mountain resort town, and you can stop and eat there, the Gastro Gnome is very good though not cheap. You can drive up to Humber Park and view the huge rock at Tahquitz Peak, which is used for practice by southern California rock climbers before going on to Yosemite. Then take 243 north from Idyllwild to Interstate 10 and take Interstate 10 east to Palm Springs. Choice (3) is to go east from Julian on Highway 78 down the Banner Grade to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, and visit that park if it interests you; otherwise just continue north through Borrego Springs on Highway S2, maybe stop and see the metal sculpures in various areas around Borrego Springs, then continue on Borrego-Salton Seaway (S22) to Highway 86 north, past the Salton Sea to Coachella, then either 111 north and west or Interstate 10 west to Palm Springs. Don’t bother stopping at the Salton Sea as it is awful.

Whichever route you take, you would end up in Palm Springs, where you could stay overnight. You can ride the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, which would take you from warm desert to chilly mountain forest in a 10-minute ride, and there may be snow at the top station if there was a recent storm. You would have sweeping views of the desert from the top if it is clear. You can take a walk around through Mt. San Jacinto State Park at the top and then ride the tramway back down.

Otherwise continue to Joshua Tree National Park, and there would be a choice of 2 ways to get there. One would be to take 62 north from Palm Springs to Joshua Tree, then enter the park on the north side and drive through the park, exiting the park on the south side and getting on Interstate 10 east to Phoenix. Another way would be to take Interstate 10 east from Palm Springs and enter the park at the south entrance and drive around the park, then get back on Intersate 10 east to Phoenix.

If you want to try a date shake, stop at Shields Date Gardens in Indio. The shake at the store at Chiriaco Summit is not as good. From Chiriaco Summmit to Phoenix is a straight shot east on Interstate 10, about 3.5 hours of driving.

An alternate route to get from San Diego to Phoenix is just to take Interstate 8 east all the way to Gila Bend, Arizona, then 85 north to Buckeye, then Interstate 10 east to Phoenix. However in my opinion that is a very dull, non-scenic route with little of interest along the way. Just ordinary boring desert. There are a few man-made oddities though. There is the Desert View Tower off Interstate 8 just after Jacumba and before going down to Imperial County. http://www.roadsideamerica.com/story/9178 And there is an optical illusion at the Mountain Springs Road exit, but you need to be coming from the east to get on the offramp that has the illusion. yelp.com/topic/san-diego-mountain-springs-ro… And, if you are willing to take a detour off your route, you can visit the bizarre work of art called Salvation Mountain, in Niland. http://www.salvationmountain.us And if you go through Gila Bend, Arizona, which is just an awful place, you can take a look at the Space Age Lodge, an unusual motel built in the 1960s. http://www.roadsideamerica.com/tip/76 But as far as scenery, forget it. This route is dull.

Another all-desert route that is a bit more scenic is to take Interstate 8 east from San Diego to El Centro, then at El Centro go north on 111 to 78 east, then take 78 through the Algodones Dunes area (Imperial Sand Dunes) known more popular as “Glamis.” There will be thousands of people ridiing vehicles all over the sand dunes, quite a sight as you drive by. Then continue northeast on 78 through open desert, which is very nice because it’s mostly unspoiled and natural looking. It is marred only by a small, ugly border patrol checkpoint building. You will probably be just waved through, but be prepared to show your passport if asked. Continue on to Blythe, then from Blythe take Interstate 10 east about 2.5 hours to Phoenix.

Which route you use will depend on what you want to see along the way. If you want to get to Phoenix quickly, take one of the above 2 routes. But neither one would take you to Joshua Tree. If you want to visit Joshua Tree, I’d recommend staying overnight at Palm Springs first. To try to go from San Diego to Joshua Tree and then to Phoenix all in one day would be technically possible, but very rushed, and with the short hours of daylight in January, you would certainly end up driving in the dark for part of the trip.

If sunny, Joshua Tree could be pleasant at that time of year. For January 5, Joshua Tree averages 69 F for the afternoon high and 43 F for the nighttime low. By contrast, the south rim of the Grand Canyon is much colder at that time, averaging only 38 F for the afternoon high and 16 F for the nighttime low. So be well-prepared for cold at the Grand Canyon.

For your trip from the Grand Canyon to Anaheim, you can take 64 south to Williams, then Interstate 40 west to Barstow, then Interstate 15 south to Corona, then 91 west to Anaheim. That would be 8 hours of driving time plus time spent at stops along the way. It would not go through Las Vegas. If it interests you, Oatman, Arizona is another historic mining town you can take a detour to: http://www.roadsideamerica.com/story/13961 But that would take more time, possibly adding an hour or two to your total drive time.

Uden, The...
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2. Re: most scenic route San Diego to Phoenix + Vegas alternatives

It all depends on how much time you want to spend for this trip. BW gave you great options. We have done all of them and they are all scenic. I'd take 2 days between GC back to Anaheim and stay overnight in either Kingman or Laughlin. I'm not much of a Needles fan. Laughlin is a very small Las Vegas with cheap lodging. We prefer Golden Nugget in Laughlin for an overnight stay. Definitely see some of R66 between Seligfman and Kingman and from Kingman to Coll Springs, Sithgreaves pass and Oatman. Also in Ca still are long stretches of R66 locally called National Trails Hw via the ABC hamlets and Roy's Cafe in Amboy.

Another option from Laughlin to Anaheim is via Mojave National preserve.

www.historic66.com

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3. Re: most scenic route San Diego to Phoenix + Vegas alternatives

The route that BW describes as "boring desert" to US is quite interesting!

There are at least 5 different types of deserts you pass through from rocky desert mts. to sand dunes and other sorts in between, during that drive and so we find it quite interesting! It also happens to be the most direct route to Phoenix only taking about 5ish hours of driving!

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4. Re: most scenic route San Diego to Phoenix + Vegas alternatives

It's awful, but you can believe who you want to believe.

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5. Re: most scenic route San Diego to Phoenix + Vegas alternatives

I, personally, do not find the desert to be very "scenic" between San Diego and Phoenix. I have driven the Pines to Palms Highway, (which is winding and curvy and in January could have snow). BW also suggested visting Idyllwild and Humber Park. Both of which will have snow that time of year and Humber Park will be a train wreck with people triple parked trying to go sledding. In order to park there, you have to buy a Forest Adventure Pass in town first. I would just avoid this in general. (We had a cabin there growing up)

Julian will also likely have snow as it is another mountain town.

To get from San Diego to Phoenix this time of year, I would just take the interstate. Palm Springs/Palm Desert is beautiful and scenic and very famous for its golf communities. If you take the 10 East, you could stop at the Cabazon Outlets for shopping at great discounts. (I think this is the best outlet mall in California) Stay the night in Palm Desert and then continue on to Phoenix.

Another option would be to take Route 8 East to Phoenix. Mind you, you will be here right as our "winter" is really picking up. You could even hit snow on Route 8, unlikely, but possible.

The trade off for taking a "scenic route" from San Diego to Phoenix is that you will be going 100s of miles out of your way to see...sort of nothing. Some people just LOVE the desert, I tend to think that dry open areas all look the same.

Edited: 2:09 pm, October 02, 2012
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6. Re: most scenic route San Diego to Phoenix + Vegas alternatives

Thank you all for your comments, that is so useful and we will sit down and plot our route with the advice in mind. Probably need to do the trip in one day but I am sure we can at least make the most of the journey now. We're not used to desert scenery coming from NZ.

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7. Re: most scenic route San Diego to Phoenix + Vegas alternatives

Hi Gillian,

Bw92116 offers up some good suggestions (that I will likely use later) and MunFam raises some good points in Post #5.

It would be helpful to know how much time you are planning for your post-San Diego portion of your trip.

If you follow the first part of Bw92116’s suggestion (Sunrise Hwy, Julian, Warner Springs, Palm Springs) you’ll be making a very ambitious trip on slow, two-lane mountain roads.

It will take just over an hour to get to the Sunrise Hwy exit off of Interstate 8 from downtown San Diego (longer with traffic). It will take another hour to get from I-8 to Julian on the Sunrise Hwy, but, as Bw92116 mentioned, there are plenty of scenic points for you to stop at, so depending on how long you linger, that hour trip can take an hour and a half to two hours. A stop in Julian to see the shops and have lunch will cost another hour and a half to two hours.

So that means you’ll likely spend 3-5 hours just driving the first quarter or third of the distance to Palm Springs. The remainder of Bw’s route is another 90-140 miles or two and a half to three hours of pure driving time (from Google Map estimates—I have not personally made that trip yet). Throw in stops for some of the sights Bw mentioned, dinner, etc., and you could be looking at a 10-12 hour driving day. Seeing as sunset is just before 5 PM that time of year, you’d be making some of that trip in the dark.

You could easily spend another full day or day and a half in Palm Springs and Joshua Tree NP, so you’ll have spent two to two and a half days and still be in California. (Which goes back to my question about time for the trip.)

If you are pressed for time, it’s about 6 hours between San Diego and Phoenix on Interstate 8, and I have to agree with Riff M, the drive offers a bit of desert variety that you’ll likely enjoy (especially if it’s your first time in a desert environment). Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

And just some practical desert driving tips, as some of these suggested routes take you into some remote areas with services few and far between:

1. Make sure the spare tire in your car is ready for use.

2. Stop at a grocery store and buy several bottles of water and some nonperishible snacks (even though it won’t be as hot in January as it is in August, it’s still a good precaution).

3. Keep your gas/petrol tank above 3/8 at a minimum. (Personally, if I know I’m out in a remote area, I generally refill when it gets below a half a tank.

Many small towns don’t have service stations with extended open hours.)

One other suggestion that will keep you headed in the same general direction as Phoenix is to take California Highway 94 (CA 94) out of San Diego to where it rejoins Interstate 8. It runs through some scenic hilly, rocky country, but aside from the railroad museum in Campo and seeing the border fence between the US and Mexico a few hundred meters south of the road at its southernmost point, there isn’t much else along the route. Driving it may add another hour to hour and a half to your trip to Phoenix.

https://maps.google.com/maps?saddr=16th+St&daddr=Jamul,+CA+to:CA-94+E%2FCampo+Rd&hl=en&ll=32.678107,-116.760635&spn=0.494154,0.891953&sll=32.689665,-116.560822&sspn=0.49409,0.891953&geocode=FcYr8wEd2HAE-Q%3BFcc48wEdmZwI-Sl16MjXl1zZgDEWvGG1YrCdsQ%3BFaht8gEdwhAR-Q&oq=Campo&mra=dme&mrsp=2&sz=11&t=m&z=11

There will be a couple of Border Patrol check points along the way, so make sure you have your passports handy (you won’t actually go into Mexico, they’re just checkpoints on the US side).

I hope this helps with your planning.

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8. Re: most scenic route San Diego to Phoenix + Vegas alternatives

Taking I8 to Gila Bend and az85 to I10 and east to Phoenix will be shortest way. Not a bad drive at all if you aren't used to desert driving. Over rocky mountains first to below sealevel and farmland to sanddunes and the low desert. Fuel will be cheaper in Arizona.

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9. Re: most scenic route San Diego to Phoenix + Vegas alternatives

Thanks again all. Zed1958, after the San Diego to Phoenix leg of the trip we are driving up to Sedona, 2 nights there, then to Grand Canyon for a night, possibly 2. Then we will drive to LA stopping over either at Boulder City or Vegas - or possibly somewhere else as we're not sure we want my younger kids (we have 3 aged 16, 12 and 8) exposed to the adult themes at Vegas though apart from that it sounds kind of surreal. Anyway, from there we go back to Anaheim for 4 days then leave for home. A lot of driving but hopefully broken up into managable sections. Any suggestions on a type of vehicle that would fit us all comfortably and also fit 5 bags in the boot (sorry, trunk)?

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10. Re: most scenic route San Diego to Phoenix + Vegas alternatives

With 5 people in your party I'd rent at least a standard SUV or maybe a full size. A minivan also will do.

Edited: 4:43 pm, October 03, 2012