San Diego may be known as the best city in America, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t explore what the rest of Southern California and beyond has to offer.

Most of San Diego’s best routes go through California, but if you have more time, Las Vegas, Arizona and even New Mexico are not far away.

Our list includes some of America’s best national parks, beautiful urban areas and islands off the coast of California, and the best routes in the state.

Whether it’s a 40-minute drive along the coast to Carlsbad or a long drive to Northern California and New Mexico, there’s something for everyone depending on the time you have and the distance you have to travel.

We have compiled a list of the 30 most important car trips to San Diego, in descending order of time.

The best car trips from San Diego - from short drives in Southern California to national park tours and epic tours.

1. Short route to Karlovy Vary and Legoland

50 minutes from San Diego (35 miles) Carlsbad State Beach at night in Carlsbad, California
Carlsbad State Beach is beautiful and less than an hour from San Diego.

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Less than an hour’s drive from San Diego, Carlsbad is the shortest route we’ve ever taken, making it top of the list. If you want to take a day trip, this is a great option because there are great things to do in this small town.

The most famous attraction is Legoland California, which opened in 1999, the first outside of Europe. If Lego is your thing, or even if it’s not your thing, it’s a great place to spend a few hours.

There are fun rides, miniature versions of famous cities and attractions from all over the world, and even the Sea Life Aquarium, which is not made of Lego but always has a theme!

The beaches of Karlovy Vary are popular and not too crowded – the southern state beach of Karlovy Vary is beautiful and you can choose your favourite type of pebble beach, although most of them are sandy.

Don’t miss the city. There are great local shops and a fantastic local atmosphere – perfect for coffee breaks and short walks.

2. Road to San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente

1 hour 10 minutes from San Diego (67 miles)

Gardens of the San Juan Capistrano Mission in California
Beautiful gardens of the San Juan Capistrano Mission in California

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Shortly before arrival on the beach of Laguna is the coastal town of San Clemente. A little further on is the Capistrano mission in San Juan and a small settlement in the area. It is best to first go to San Juan Capistrano and spend the morning and lunch there, and then return to San Clemente.

The Capistrano Mission in San Juan was founded in 1776, and a series of buildings belonging to the Mission were built in the 18th century. The complex includes a chapel, a museum and the mission basilica, all open to the public.

The historic Los Ríos neighborhood around Missionary is one of the oldest in California, and some of the buildings there date back to the 1700s – it’s worth taking a walk and relaxing.

San Clemente Beach, Marina and Fisherman's Restaurant on a beautiful day, California
You can spend the day and evening at San Clemente Marina and enjoy grilled fish.

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In San Clemente the atmosphere is relaxed, everything is directly on the beach. The marina of San Clemente is the main attraction and takes beautiful pictures at sunset. After taking the pictures you can sit in the fisherman’s restaurant, just at the beginning of the pier, and enjoy fresh seafood with a view.

If you have time in the afternoon, you can sit down further up the hill in the Casa Romantica, a museum of culture and history, surrounded by large gardens where you can take a stroll.

3. Relaxation on the beaches and coves of Laguna Beach

1 hour 20 minutes from San Diego (73 miles)

Pearl Street Beach in the afternoon, one of the many great places in Laguna Beach, California
Pearl Street Beach is just one of the many great places in Laguna Beach, California.

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Laguna Beach is located along the coast south of Los Angeles and has some of the best beaches in Southern California.

From cosy little bays to long, wide strips of sand, everyone will find the perfect spot somewhere along the coast.

There is Victoria Beach with its castle tower that resembles the building that stands on the rocks. It is actually a staircase that leads from the private apartment to the water from above, but the lower part of the tower and the door are completely flooded at high tide, so the staircase is useless half the time.

Some bays have small tidal pools where you can observe all kinds of marine life, but also sea lions and seals resting in the sun. Be careful not to disturb the seawater ponds, because there are fragile ecosystems where crabs, snails, stars and sea cucumbers live among the inhabitants.

If you like art, you’re in luck. Lagoon Beach is home to a number of art galleries and hosts some of the most famous art events in the country. The Lagoon Art Festival and the Sawmill Arts Festival take place every year and the Masters Landscape is a unique event where famous paintings are recreated in real life by meticulous designers and actors.

4. Spend the day at Disneyland Park in Anaheim

1 hour 40 minutes from San Diego (95 miles)

Incredicaster and Pixar Pal-A-Round goes to Disneyland in Anaheim, California
Incredicaster Disneyland at the wheel of the monstrous Pixar Pal-A-Round

James Kirkikis/Shutterstock.com

If you have kids, it could be at the top of the list if you haven’t been here a dozen times before. If you don’t have children, this could be the first on your list – who wouldn’t want to go to Disneyland?

Anaheim Disneyland Park is the original Disneyland that was built long before Florida, Paris and other places in the world. It’s true – it may be older and the castle may not be as majestic as some of the new parks, but it’s the one Walt Disney made himself, so you just have to go there!

Getting up early is a good idea to avoid traffic as you approach Los Angeles, and it also saves time to get to the park. There are good places for breakfast, so come early and make pancakes.

Since its opening, about 750 million visitors have visited Disneyland, which is still the second most visited amusement park in the world, with only the Magic Kingdom Park in Florida, which is itself a model for Disneyland, being lost.

The entrance fee is over $100, so use it occasionally and the setup will be shorter at the beginning of the day. If you’re looking for excitement or relaxation, there are rides and attractions for everyone, from the noisy Incredicators to the tranquil Mark Twain River Boat.

5. Cross the border with Mexico and go to Valle de Guadalupe

1 hour 50 minutes from San Diego (84 miles)

Adobe Guadalupe Winery in Baja California, Ensenada, Mexico
This relaxing pool at Adobe Guadalupe Winery has a certain Mexican charm.

Sherry in Smith/Shutterstock.com

Because San Diego is directly on the border with Mexico, we had to make a drive south to the Guadalupe valley. Sure, Tijuana can be fun at night, and Rosarito Beach is fun too, but they’re so close to San Diego it would be wrong to call it a 20 minute drive!

For those of you who don’t know: Valle de Guadalupe is a region of Baja California famous for its wine production. The climate is mild and similar to that of San Diego, and the soil is surprisingly well adapted to the vineyards.

If you don’t care about the idea that Mexican wine is one thing, don’t make the mistake of stopping before you taste it. You can blow your brains out!

To get there, avoid the busy intersection of Tijuana and head east to Tecate. From there you can reach the cellars via federal road B 3.

If you want to add a little more fun to your trip, continue on the highway to Ensenada on the Pacific coast. It is a typical holiday resort with many restaurants, bars, shops and tourists. It can be very entertaining and refreshing to change the tranquility of the vineyards.

6. Finding time to relax in Palm Springs

to 2 hours 10 minutes from San Diego (133 miles)

Palm Springs, California, USA
Still sunny with clear skies in Palm Springs

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The trip to Palm Springs is relatively easy and surprisingly fast. The quickest route through the Moreno Valley takes just over 2 hours, but our advice – ignore the navigator and take the California 79 to Temecula and follow Highway 74 to Palm Springs – the road is quiet and the views are much better than on the highway!

Although the weather in San Diego is almost perfect all year round, Palm Springs has a reputation for being a place with bright, sunny days almost every day of the year. Summer is really hot because of the daily maximum temperatures in July and August, which average 42° C (108° F).

The best thing you can do in Palm Springs is do nothing. That’s right. Here everything calls for relaxation – the luxury hotels are ideal for sleeping and relaxing by the pool, while the centre of Palm Springs is perfect for an evening stroll.

If you feel more adventurous or tired of the book you’ve brought to read, take the cable car to Palm Springs. The ride takes 10 minutes and the tram turns with you as you board, so you can enjoy the view without having to turn your head.

Upstairs you will find a number of good restaurants and more than 80 km of hiking trails in unspoilt nature. On one of the routes you can reach the top of Mount San Jacinto at an altitude of 3,302 m. Don’t forget, it’ll be much cooler here, so change your coat.

7. Discovering the real madness of the Salton Sea

2 hours 30 minutes from San Diego (118 miles)

The Salton Sea Coast
The Salton Sea is 45 miles long and is a great place to visit.

Natalia Leen/Shutterstock.com

The Salton Sea is one of the strangest places to visit in California and perhaps even throughout the United States, so it’s worth spending the weekend there.

This huge reservoir, the size of the bay of San Francisco, was accidentally built in 1905, which is reason enough to visit it now.

Engineers worked on diverting water from the Colorado River for the irrigation project until, due to technical problems, the water flooded the banks and began to flow into the Salton River basin. When engineers solved this problem two years later, a new sea was born.

The area was a popular holiday destination in the 1950s, but has shrunk over the decades, leaving traces of what it once was. It is fascinating to see old signs and abandoned buildings today. The whole neighborhood feels like time is there.

Salvation Mountain in Neeland, California
Salvation Mountain is a unique work of art that almost sums up what the Salton Sea is all about.

Ovidiu Hrubaru/Shutterstock.com

Mount Salvation is located a few kilometres from the southeast corner or the Salton Sea and was designed by the local Chevalier Leonard. He built a mountain and recorded themes, lessons, and Bible passages to spread the word of Jesus.

Whether you’re a believer or not, you have to come and see for yourself – it’s as crazy as it is creative.

Sculptures from Borrego Springs, California
Where can I find a giant dragon sculpture floating in the desert?

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On your way from San Diego to the Salton Sea you will stop at the Borrego Springs Sculptures. These gigantic metal structures, completely random, house everything from dragons to elephants, from jeeps to stone barns and even life-size fighting dinosaurs.

To make things even crazier, these statues stand in the middle of the desert, in the Anza Borrego National Park.

We’re not sure what the artist Ricardo Breseda had in mind when he had these creatures welded together in the heat of the desert, but it’s such a coincidence that it must disturb you.

8. Road to Yeshua Tree National Park

3 hours from San Diego (165 miles)

Morning walk to
Yeshua Tree National Park Unique carob trees growing in the Yeshua Tree National Park in California.

Mike Ver Sprill/Shutterstock.de

The Yeshua Tree is the closest California national park to San Diego, and the journey takes about 3 hours, whether you are south or north of the park entrances.

The park owes its name to the uniquely shaped trees, which look like a man standing with outstretched arms. But don’t be fooled by the name of the park: Yeshua Tree National Park is one of the warmest and most inhospitable deserts in the United States. So plan ahead and we don’t recommend camping in July and August.

In summer, the temperatures in the Joshua tree are warm, with average daily maximum temperatures of 38°C (100°F), which makes the walk uncomfortable, and although the night temperature drops to around 21°C (70°F), sleeping can be difficult.

Although accommodation in the park is limited, there are more than 300 campsites and excellent hiking trails and attractions. If you climb to the top of Keys View (the highest point of the park), you can see Mexico on a clear day.

The months of March and April are particularly conducive to visits. Different types of desert plants bloom in these months, and the weather is relatively mild, with a daily maximum of 24°C (75°F).

9. See Arrowhead Lake and Great Bear Lake

to 3 hours 15 minutes from San Diego (160 miles)

Cloudy day at Arrowhead Lake
Tree cover over hills around Arrowhead Lake

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With Yeshua National Park to the east and the vast areas of the Mojave Valley and the Valley of the Dead to the north, a small enclave of temperate climate and forests in the northern part of the San Bernardino National Forest can be surprising.

Locals call it the Southern California Alps, and although the mountainous landscape isn’t as spectacular as it seems at first glance, it’s a great place to escape San Diego.

Arrowhead Lake is a private lake, which means you can take boat trips and try water-skiing at the local school. If you want to spend the day relaxing on the beach and swimming, you should go to the Little Lake of Gregory instead.

The village of Lake Arrowhead is well worth a stay – there are several excellent restaurants for lunch and dinner, a selection of shops and a really cool atmosphere.

After exploring the trails and the surrounding lake, you can drive another few kilometres to Big Bear Lake.

In summer you can take the scenic mountain slope and in winter there are several ski areas along the way – take your skis and snowboards with you to explore a small mountain or go snowtubing.

View of Big Bear Lake
Wilderness with hiking trails and lush wildlife around Big Bear Lake with remains of spring snow

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Big Bear Lake has the same advantages as Lake Arrowhead – there’s plenty of fun, sun or snow, and the wooded mountains surround the beautiful lake, which is slightly larger in area.

The village can be even more charming, with its cobbled streets and traditional wooden houses nestled among the trees.

The prices are highest and the place is busiest in January and February at the height of the ski season. So try to arrive later in winter or other seasons.

If you come in winter, make sure you have your car ready with the right tires and snow chains – which can easily slip out when you leave the hot climate of San Diego!

10. Away from it all on Santa Catalina, California.

3 hours 20 minutes from San Diego

Historic lighthouse at sunset at Point Vicente, near the waters of Santa Catalina
Picturesque lighthouse on a rock at Point Vicente, near the waters of Santa Catalina

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Santa Catalina Island, or simply Catalina Island as it is often called, lies off the coast of Southern California and is an ideal place for a day trip or more.

It’s relatively easy to get from San Diego to Catalina Island – it takes about an hour and 15 minutes to travel north along the coast to Dana Point. That’s where you have to park your car (I know – not all street exits allow you to sit in the car all the way). Handle it!) and take the ferry.

The ferries take an hour and a half to reach the harbour town of Avalon on the island. With a reduced ticket and reduced boarding time you can get there in just over 3 hours.

More than a million people visit the island every year and there is a lot to do on land and at sea. There are reefs and wrecks that you can explore in a glass bottom boat, with an inflatable boat or with full diving equipment. For those who want to see the island for themselves, there are endless footpaths offering beautiful views in all directions.

In addition to birds, flying fish, seals and sea lions, a herd of bison can also roam around you. They come from the original group of 14 people who were brought back in 1924 to shoot the film and left the island to save money for the return transport to the mainland. The scene with the buffalo was never played in the movie, but make it a challenge to find him on the road!

11. Travel between Los Angeles, Malibu and Pasadena Beach, California

to 3 hours 30 minutes from San Diego

Los Angeles at night sunset on highway
Buildings on the highway pass skyscrapers in downtown Los Angeles.

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If you’re in Southern California, you can’t miss a visit to Los Angeles – it never gets old and there’s plenty to see and do, you can explore the city for weeks and not scratch the surface.

To get from San Diego to Los Angeles, just take the San Diego Highway north. You can travel to Los Angeles or save time for a few dollars by taking the National Highway 73 (toll road) of San Capistrano.

What you need to see in Los Angeles depends on how much time you have and where you’re going – the city is huge and the best neighborhoods are scattered for miles.

Once you’ve noticed the mandatory escape of Hollywood tourists, looking at rich people parking their Ferrari’s in Beverly Hills and driving down Sunset Boulevard, go to Pasadena. This city has much more sense of neighborhood, authenticity and classic Californian atmosphere than many other parts of Los Angeles.

Then head west to places like Culver City, Venice and Santa Monica. When I say go, I mean really go and every time you let me go, at least half a day. Santa Monica is small and seems to be full of famous people, so you can have a cup of coffee and do a celebrity spot.

Malibu is a long beach near Los Angeles and is very popular with locals on weekends.

You can spend a whole week here – behind you are the mountains of Santa Monica and beautiful golden sandy beaches as far as the eye can see. Add a few places to stop – Pierce Malibu, Point Dumas and El Matador Beach should be on your list.

12. Ojai Place of rest and relaxation

3 hours 45 minutes from San Diego

Ojai California, Yellow Mustard and Mount Top
The Ojai Valley is known as the Hollywood A-listers retreat.

Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock.com

Ojai is literally between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, and he’s also stuck between two options on our list. It’s just a small town and you could probably add it to one of the routes, but there’s a good reason why it fits well.

Situated in a lush green valley north of Ventura, Ojai has become a badly kept secret for those who want to isolate themselves from the daily hustle and bustle of the city.

Staying here is expensive, whether in a 5-star hotel or a casual motel, but many are in Spanish style, with beautiful gardens and picturesque rooms.

Whether you are looking for meditation, relaxing Hawaiian massages or a wide variety of restaurants offering vegetarian and palaeontological cuisine, Ojai is the place for you. There are also trendy little shops selling all kinds of clothes and things that look good on home shelves.

After recharging your batteries you can go to the Los Padres National Forest, which starts with hiking trails and lots of mountain views.

13. Charm and glamour in Santa Barbara, Montecito and Solvang

4 hours 20 minutes from San Diego

Santa Barbara of Wharf, California
The coastal city of Santa Barbara, California.

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If you want to extend your trip to Los Angeles and Malibu (see point 11 above) or simply want to avoid the endless and busy highways, you can continue via Malibu along the coast until you reach a much more relaxed Santa Barbara.

Once you’re here, you’ll understand why so many people like to come or even settle here. Santa Barbara infiltrates the old school of California glamour.

From the old Santa Barbara Mission to the palm-lined waterfront promenade, you’ll feel classically chic everywhere. Although Santa Barbara dates back to the late 1700s, much of the city was rebuilt after a major earthquake in 1925. The buildings you see here therefore date back to the 1920s and 1930s and were built in the style of the Spanish colonial era.

Morning fog in the Romero Canyon, Montecito, California
Morning fog in the Romero Canyon near Montecito

Or Glenn/Shutterstock.com.

While the rich settle in Santa Barbara, the super rich choose the hilly suburb of Montecito. You can visit the Casa del Herrero, an open air museum and a botanical garden in Lot Russia. Watch out for people like Oprah who live in this quiet town.

To get to Solvang, you have to go inland from Santa Barbara – up the hills to the San Marcos pass.

Solvang is an old Danish village, which means you will have traditional carriages, trams, stylish Danish houses and even 4 Danish windmills. Lately it has become a bit of a tourist trap, but it’s always worth a visit if you’re in the neighbourhood.

14. Normandy Islands National Park

4 hours 45 minutes from San Diego

Inspired image of East Anacapa Island in the Normandy Islands National Park, California
Inspired image of East Anacapa Island in the Normandy Islands National Park

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The Normandy Islands National Park is about 30 km off the coast of California. To get there you have to drive to Port Ventura – about three and a half hours from San Diego, depending on how long you are in Los Angeles.

Depending on the part of the park you want to visit, a boat trip takes 1 to 3 hours. The small Santa Barbara, Anacapa and the eastern islands of Anacapa are very popular with visitors and offer a beautiful view, as can be seen on the picture.

If you want to take other walks, the largest island, Santa Cruz, is the best option, and the trip takes just over an hour.

Sometimes referred to as the Galapagos Islands of North America, untouched nature is the main reason to come here. From whales and dolphins swimming in a canoe to the incredibly cute fox on the island, it’s the perfect way to spend time outside of civilization.

If you plan to spend more than one day here, please note that there are no accommodation or shops and that facilities are limited. You can stay at one of the campsites, but plan ahead and take everything you need with you in your backpack.

15. Death Valley National Park

to 5 hours from San Diego

Walking in Death Valley National Park
The landscape of Death Valley National Park can seem very wild.

Dan Cedran/Shutterstock.com

If your idea of the perfect trip is to drive to the hottest place on the planet, I’d like to introduce you to Death Valley National Park.

If the name is not suggestive enough, the Death Valley gets very hot in summer, and I recommend not visiting the valley from June to August, where the average daily maximum temperature is above 49°C (120°F). November to March is a much better time to see a varied landscape without the constant heat.

The Death Valley lies between Las Vegas and the forested mountains of the Sierra Nevada. It’s a large national park, and there are almost all kinds of deserts. There are dry sea beds, inhospitable stone deserts and even sand dunes that make everything visible.

Death Valley National Park is the largest in the United States, with the exception of Alaska, and is an international dark sky park, which means there is no light pollution at night. This makes it one of the best places in the world to observe the stars with a perfectly clear night sky, where thousands of stars and galaxies can be seen with the naked eye.

16. Gambling, parties and dinners in Las Vegas, NV

to 5 hours from San Diego

Las Vegas Nevada
Las Vegas really comes alive at night because almost everything is open until the morning.

voluptuous andy/shutterstock.com

Everyone should visit Sin City at least once in their life. The total madness of building replicas of the Eiffel Tower, Egyptian pyramids and huge fountains in the middle of the desert has something very American, I don’t know what.

Most of what you want to see in Vegas is up and down the road, and you can get here from San Diego in exactly 5 hours if the traffic is on your side.

Stay in one of the big hotels for a complete experience. The new end of the aisle is my favourite choice – Aria and Cosmopolitan – both excellent options.

Most hotels have huge casinos on the ground floor, with a few exceptions, especially in Cosmo. They range from the ridiculous splendour of the Bellagio to the old school of the dark MGM Grand.

It’s almost as much fun running around and watching people play, although I’m not sure how I feel when I see an old lady feeding a big pile of dollars to the slot machine.

Make sure you check everything Las Vegas has to offer. Every night of the week there are many great shows and musical events and restaurants for all tastes and budgets that can really surprise you with the quality of the food and wine.

17. See Phoenix and Scottsdale, Arizona

5 hours 20 minutes from San Diego

Phoenix, Arizona, USA Downtown at Twilight
The city of Phoenix has grown rapidly in recent years, so come and see what it’s all about.

Sean Pavone/Shutterstock.com

The fastest route from San Diego to Phoenix is the I-8, which runs along the southern border of the United States – we drive close to the Mexican border, sometimes close enough to see through. Don’t make the mistake of getting too close – we accidentally drove to the border hill near Yuma, which didn’t impress the border soldiers.

Phoenix and San Diego have a close relationship that few people know outside of these cities – for those who live in Phoenix, there is a tendency to avoid the hottest months of the year on California’s colder coast, and San Diego is often the destination.

Phoenix has taken off in recent years. A number of successful start-ups have started to grow and more and more established companies are expanding their base in Phoenix.

Art and culture are among the best in the country – there is the Word Museum, regular street art exhibitions and small galleries that are well worth a visit.

Scottsdale is a dense and lively area of Phoenix. While downtown Phoenix sees businessmen in suits shaking between office buildings, Scottsdale has a relaxed old town with shops, cafes and restaurants and some of the best hotels in town.

Sunset views of the desert and mountains near Phoenix, Arizona.

JeniPhoto/Shutterstock.com

The trip to Phoenix takes you through some really picturesque and wild places, and one thing I highly recommend is to have a picnic and leave the highway somewhere along the road to organize it.

A unique Arizona cactus grows everywhere, and a relaxing mix of hills and flat desert provides the perfect backdrop. Of course, mountain lions are one thing here, even though I’ve never met anyone I’ve ever seen.

18. San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay

to 5 hours 30 minutes from San Diego

Waves falling on rocks in the fog at San Luis Obispo, waves of the California Ocean falling on rocks at San Luis Obispo, waves of the California Ocean falling on rocks at San Luis Obispo, California.

AntonioFernandez/Shutterstock.com

San Luis Obispo is a city a few miles from the sea in downtown California. It is one of the oldest cities in the state, built around Mrs. San Luis Obispo de Tholos and dates back to the 1700s.

The pace of life is slow and Pismo Beach attracts a crowd of visitors. It stretches 17 miles south of San Luis Obispo and is a surf spot with wild waves crashing on dry land. Spectacular rocks and stones rising from the water give him an attractive extra pair of glasses.

Few people know this, but San Luis Obispo has two wine regions, the Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande. There are dozens of wine cellars you can visit, and even if you don’t want to taste the wines, the roads and the countryside are an excuse to go there.

Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the best grape varieties growing in this region, so you have the choice between red and white!

A short drive will take you to Morro Bay, a quiet coastal town where you can relax to the sound of the sea waves. It’s a fishing village, so find a good place with a decent view and order seafood.

Put your phone and watch in your pocket and enjoy a quiet life for once!

19. Tucson, Arizona

to 6 hours from San Diego

Tucson, Arizona, USA center with
Twilight Sentinel Peak at Twilight The cute area of Arizona Tucson is one of the reasons for your visit.

Sean Pavone/Shutterstock.com

For those who want to make a trip to Arizona but don’t want to spend time in the big, bustling city, there’s Tucson. Tucson is about a third bigger than the Phoenix and is situated in a breathtaking landscape. Tucson has a small town you can’t find in the big city.

It’s easy to get to Tucson – just follow the I-8 all the way to the end, until it merges with the I-10 and you go straight into town. With a lunch break and rest breaks, it’s a journey you can easily make in a day. If you have children or more time, I suggest you leave early. There aren’t many good places to spend the night on the road, except the motels along the road.

The Saguaro National Park, located just outside the city as it approaches, is an ideal place to explore. There are many saguaros cacti that have become one of the unofficial symbols of Arizona.

In the park there is the Arizona-Sonora desert museum, which has a small zoo with 200 species of desert animals, 1000 different species of desert plants, a local history museum and even an art gallery.

In downtown Tucson you will stay at the San Javier del Bac Catholic Mission and St. Mary’s Cathedral. These Spanish classical-style buildings are among the best examples of classical colonial architecture and have a strong Southern European atmosphere.

20. Sedona and flagpole

7 hours 15 minutes from San Diego

Cathedral Sunset Rock in Red Rock State Park near Sedona, Arizona
The breathtaking rocks of Red Rock State Park are worth the trip from San Diego.

Sean Pavone/Shutterstock.com

There are two best places to see the famous red rocks of Arizona. The Monument Valley, in the northeastern part of the state on the border with Utah, is about 11 hours from San Diego for stops and lunch breaks.

The good news is that the Red Rock State Park near Sedona is much closer and can be reached in a day or two by a shorter car with a stopover in Phoenix.

The Red Rock Scenic Byway is a 7.5 mile stretch of Highway 179, which is probably one of the most breathtaking stretches of road in the world. No wonder they call it a museum without walls.

You’ll pass gigantic red rock formations, including the famous Bell Rock and the Cathedral Stone. There are many viewpoints to stop, so park on one of them before you take your eyes off the road!

You can walk through the rocks and enjoy even better views – the Devil’s Bridge Trail is perfect if you haven’t seen incredible views before.

21. Zion National Park

7 hours 30 minutes from San Diego

Colorful Valleys in Zion National Park, Utah
Colorful Valleys in Zion National Park, Utah are worth the ride.

Photos593/Shutterstock.com

The area of Bryce Canyon and the adjacent national parks are a wild card on our list, but you might just want to pick one for your trip from San Diego.

Technically you will cross 4 states, from California to small parts of Nevada and Arizona before arriving in Utah, but you can do it in one day and still have time to stop and arrive for dinner.

I don’t know about you, but this could be the most beautiful national park in the southwestern United States – imagine walking in the valleys for a few days, like in the picture above!

The paths are clearly marked, and you can choose a level of difficulty that varies roughly from Walk In The Park (I know…literally) to Mountain Goat, for those who like fresh and tiring walks.

Bryce Canyon is not a canyon, but presents a series of large amphitheatre formations with clear vertical rocks called Hudu that look like giant people from the inside. Bryce Canyon is higher than Zion National Park and has an edge that rises to 2,700 m (9,000 feet). So bring an extra layer of clothing to feel fresh.

22. Big Sur and Carmel at sea

7 hours 30 minutes from San Diego

Bixby Creek Bridge on California Highway 1 Big Sur
Bixby Creek Bridge on the California Coast along the San Diego to Carmel Highway

Michael Urmann/Shutterstock.com

Big Sur is a long way from San Diego. To get to San Francisco, you have to take the shortest route to the California coast, but if you do, you’ll see that it’s worth the trip.

A long strip of jagged rocks and waves crashing into the rocks below is a great way to relax and unwind. Roll down your windows and enjoy the wind blowing in your face as you ride Highway 1.

The Bixby Creek Bridge (pictured above) has been the backdrop for countless films, television programmes and commercials. You can park on the observation platform for a better view of the bridge and the creek below.

Carmel is a quiet coastal town that is one of the many other towns on the Californian coast built around the Catholic mission.

It’s so quiet and peaceful here that some people living in Los Angeles, San Francisco or Silicon Valley use it as a place to recharge. Things are slowing down here, and you can do amazing things you haven’t done in years, like sitting in a coffee shop and reading a book. No, seriously, try it!

23. See the giant sequoia trees in Kings Canyon and Sequoias National Parks

7 hours 30 minutes from San Diego

Sequoias that dominate the sky, Sequoia National Park,
King’s Canyon and California Sequoia National Park are among the best places to see giant sequoias.

Stephen Moel/Shutterstock.com

The closest place to San Diego where you can see giant redwoods is the Canyon of Kings and Sequoia Parks. The National Sequoia Forest is closer to the National Park and is more than its most famous namesake, but despite its name, it is largely covered with desert style shrubs with no large trees in sight.

The biggest tree in the world (but not the biggest!), called General Sherman’s tree, grows in Sequoia National Park, and you can see it on a short walk, although it would be very difficult to judge if there are no signs that all the trees here reach the sky.

Don’t forget to drive State Route 180, which runs between two parks – it’s one of the most beautiful stretches of road in the Sierra Nevada, and zigzags to ditches where you can park.

From here you can choose routes that go in all directions and offer the best views of the mountains, a good workout and many mountain streams.

Plan ahead and turn back before you get too tired – some of these paths can be quite steep and cover dozens of kilometres across the Sierra Nevada.

24. Camping in Yosemite National Park

8 hours from San Diego

Stoneman Bridge across the beautifully preserved Merced River in Yosemite National Park, California
The Yosemite Valley is one of the most breathtaking landscapes in the world.

Sarah Fields Photography/Shutterstock.com

Yosemite is California’s most famous national park and consists of a large number of mountains, valleys, rivers and redwood forests.

It takes about 8 hours to get out of San Diego before the count stops. If you want to settle in San Diego or in the camp, it is best to leave early or make a stop along the way.

Most visitors to Yosemite National Park only visit a small part of it, the Yosemite Valley, which includes the granite cliffs of El Capitan and Sentinel House. This part of the park has homes, facilities and a selection of restaurants.

If you want a little more walking than pepper sauce, head to the rest of the park – there are more trails than ever, breathtaking scenery and great places to camp. Keep in mind that it gets cooler when you climb the mountains, so expect changes, even during the summer months.

25. Visit to the city of San Francisco

8 hours and 30 minutes from San Diego

San Francisco's traditional cable cars run along one of the city's steepest streets.
Replace your car with classic San Francisco trams to explore the city.

canadastock/shutterstock.com

If you need a more traditional city break, San Francisco is the perfect city for you. The quickest way out of San Diego can be done in one day, but if you want to make it a real road trip and stay on Highway 1 and drive all the way along the coast, you really have to divide it into a few steps.

Luckily for you, Los Angeles, Malibu, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Big Sur and Carmel are all on our list!

San Francisco is a great city, built in the hills between the Pacific Ocean in the west and the bay of San Francisco in the east.

The list of things to do in San Francisco is endless – retro cable cars for a ride, sea lions at Pier 39 and the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. As if that wasn’t enough, you have Alcatraz, the presidency of San Francisco and the largest Chinatown in the world.

The attraction of the car means that you can drive about 49 miles on Scenic Drive, which takes you to some of the best spots in and around town, as well as to the hills with stunning views of the bay.

26. To the Grand Canyon

8 hours and 30 minutes from San Diego

The Unique Horseshoe Curve in Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
The Horseshoe Curve is one of the most amazing attractions in Grand Canyon.

Wisanu Boonrawd/Shutterstock.com

The Grand Canyon needs no introduction and if you want to see it with your own eyes, you can travel by car during the day with lunch and stop on the way.

Although you can reach parts of the Grand Canyon near Las Vegas via Lake Mead, the more scenic parts are further along the Canyon, and we would leave Las Vegas behind us and head to Arizona for your first tour from Mather Point.

From here the canyon leads to Page, on the border of Arizona-Utah, where you can see the Horseshoe Bend (pictured above).

This trip can easily be combined with a visit to Flagstaff and Sedona and a stop in Phoenix if you have more time.

If you want to see more nature, head to Utah – the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument and Glen Canyon Recreation Area offer nearly 3 million hectares of wilderness to explore.

You will find desert landscapes and red rock formations, as well as lakes, rivers and even more canyons.

27. Tasting of exceptional wines from the Napa and Sonoma valleys

9 hours from San Diego

Welcome to the Napa Valley Wine Region in Northern California
You will have no trouble finding a Napa Valley with local signage.

CO Leong/Shutterstock.com

If you go a little further north after San Francisco, you will reach the most famous part of California’s wine country, the Napa Valley and its neighbour Sonoma.

The time you have to spend here depends entirely on your love of wine. There are about 1200 vineyards in these two valleys and half of them offer wine tastings, gastronomic tours and vineyard visits, so you won’t run out of new wines, even if you try 6 different vineyards a day for 3 months without taking a break.

A popular way to do this while staying on the right side of the law and without having a grumpy designated driver is to bring or rent bikes and ride two-wheeled vehicles between the vineyards.

The weather here is excellent from spring to autumn, so all you have to do is find accommodation. A big car is a good idea, because it allows you to pack up many more bottles from your favourite cellars and take them home with you. Especially the big truck will be in your warehouse until next year!

28. Coming to Lake Tahoe all year round

9 hours from San Diego

East coast of Lake Tahoe, Nevada
The beautiful east coast of Lake Tahoe, Nevada.

Topseller/Shutterstock.com

Lake Tahoe is unusual because it is an incredibly beautiful place almost every month of the year. The blossoming of spring, summer activities on and around the lake and skiing in winter make it an ideal place for excursions when you have time.

The best way to reach Lake Tahoe from San Diego is to take the American route 395 after passing San Bernardino. Stay on US 395 to the snowy peaks around the lake.

9 hours is a long trip in one go, but you’re lucky as the route goes directly through the Sierra Nevada Ridge and goes through Royal Canyon, Sequoia and Death Valley National Parks and Yosemite and Mammoth Lakes. If you love nature, there’s nothing better than that.

Lake Tahoe, located on the border between California and Nevada, is 1,897 m above sea level. The water of the lake is crystal clear and surrounded on all sides by high snowy mountains that offer a perfect view.

Whether you want to canoe, jet ski or paddle in the hot summer months, or ski in some of the best ski resorts in California, including the famous Heavenly Resort, Lake Tahoe awaits you, so pack your bags and go!

29. Albuquerque and Santa Fe, New Mexico

12 hours and 30 minutes from San Diego

The Unique Architecture of Downtown Santa Fe in the Soft Evening Light, New Mexico
Downtown Santa Fe is an incredible place to visit for a glimpse of New Mexico’s culture and architecture.

Sean Pavone/Shutterstock.com

If the journey to the next state is not long enough for you, we have the right route for you from San Diego. The cities of Albuquerque and Santa Fe in New Mexico can be reached by car in a few days, and if you have enough time this can be an excellent route.

On the way to the Phoenix and at the red rocks of Sedona there are many accommodation options. A large detour leads to the Grand Canyon and Joshua Tree National Park.

All I need to check before I talk about the benefits of northern New Mexico is this: I hope you like the desert. Because the only thing we can do on this trip is the desert. Miles, miles and hours pass by the strangely shaped cacti in Arizona and the endless sands of New Mexico, in case you bring a few bottles of water in your car.

The two cities are about an hour apart, but can no longer differ from each other. Albuquerque is a big business city, with its hustle and bustle, tall buildings and air of renewal. Of course there is a small old town, but it is more of a tourist venue than the heart of the city.

Santa Fe is much smaller and seems much stranger. There is also a city centre with shops in large buildings, but the city is very different. The former colonial environment means that there are many cultural sights and a lot of Indian art to discover.

Although this is hard to avoid, you should definitely try the local cuisine of New Mexico – a mix of local and pueblo Mexican dishes. Chili pepper is the main course of most dishes, and you will love piñons, a local variety of pine nuts.

30. See the tallest trees in the world in Redwood National Park.

13 hours from San Diego

High redwoods in Redwood National Park, California
High, giant redwoods that grow incredibly tall in Redwood National Park, California

Roman Khomlyak/Shutterstock.com

If the trees in Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks are not high enough, you have to drive through California from San Diego to Redwood National Park, near the border with Oregon.

The fastest route on the I-5 goes through Los Angeles and San Francisco and reaches the park in about 15 hours if you plan a few stops along the way.

You can get there in a day if you leave early and book a hotel room on the other side, but I strongly advise you to get off the road and make a stop on the way. Look further down the list – half the cities are on your route, so you can get a tour of Napa’s vineyards from Malibu beaches.

Accommodation options are simple: you can camp in the park at one of the 4 designated campsites or apply for a camping permit at one of the 8 other campsites in the park.

If you are looking for comfort and thick mattresses, there are no houses in the park. You will need to rent a room in one of the foreign cities – Eureka in the south and Crescent City in the north are good options.

There are many paths and trails in the park, and you can see trees that were on average in the park a few centuries ago. Some of them are up to 2000 years old and can reach an altitude of more than 107 metres. The largest tree in the world, the Hyperion, stands in a park and rises 115.5 m above the ground, above the rest of the world.

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