Do you want to go on an epic south-western USA road trip? These states of America are some of my favourites (read: can I live in California please?). Not just the various states but the same one can differ significantly in its landscape and environment. Northern California is home to redwood forests and mountains. Southern California boasts stunning beaches, large populations and becomes increasingly arid the further south you head. Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico is desert and home to one of the largest canyons in the world. Plus have you seen those rock formations? This region of the US has so much to offer, the best way to explore is by road tripping. If you haven’t yet read my tips on how to plan a US road trip, you can do so here.
Gone are the days of following Highway 66. Who wants to drive boring stretches of road to come across tacky roadside souvenir shops? If you want your American road trip to be fun and full of adventure..
Read on for an Ultimate South-Western USA Road Trip
You can start this journey at either end. Although it was ultimately designed to be the beginning of my epic 5-week cross country USA road trip. Clicking ‘more options’ will open up the map with each stop and more detailed travel directions.
Tip – Did you know you can save google maps to be viewed in an offline mode?
Arrive in San Francisco, California
At no surprise, San Francisco becomes a favourite city for many travellers. This culturally diverse city is LGBT-friendly, home to the largest Chinatown outside or Asia and has world famous sporting teams.
Things not to miss in San Francisco
- Cycle over the iconic Golden Gate Bridge.
- Continue on to Sausalito for views of the city on a clear day.
- Wear red and white to support the Giants and 49ers.
- Experience a real speakeasy bar at Bourbon and Brandy.
Stay – Green Tortoise Hostel
Santa Cruz, California
Head south out of the city to the laid back, beachy vibes of Santa Cruz. You’ll find it hard to believe you’re just over 100km from the city centre.
Things not to miss in Santa Cruz
- Hire a paddleboard and paddle in the harbour amongst the seals and dolphins! – When I went there must have been 30 or more seals and dolphins swimming along with us.
- Have a laugh at the amusement park on the waterfront. Free entry, just pay for rides.
Tip – If you do stay overnight here, do not stay at the HI Backpackers. Not only is there a midnight curfew, you also have to be out of your rooms between 11 am and 5 pm. There is absolutely no access between these times including to any common areas.
Detour – Big Sur, California
Continue your drive South another hour and a half and you’ll reach Big Sur. Are you always seeing that photo of the beautiful skinny waterfall falling onto a beach? This is the McWay falls which you will see today. After spending the day exploring Big Sur unless you are camping accommodation is quite exxy here. I recommend heading back up to Monterrey to stay the night.
Things not to miss in Big Sur
- Take your own personal McWay waterfall photo.
- Get your hiking shoes on and follow the Ewoldsen Trail. You’ll find it easily across from the Waterfall track. This 7 km hike is the perfect addition to your day to experience the natural area.
- Make sure you have plenty of space on that memory card. Highway 1 is one of the most famous drives in the US if not the world. Pull over between Monterey and Big Sur for today’s second Instagram-worthy pic of the Bixby Creek Bridge.
Stay – HI-Monterey
Sequoia National Park, California
Get up and hit the road early this morning. The drive from Monterey to Sequoia National Park is about 4.5 hours (412 km). Prepare for a big day of exploring your first National Park of the trip. I saw my first ever bear here, so keep your eyes peeled.
Things not to miss in Sequoia National Park
- Say hello to the giants of the forest. The General Giant and General Sherman are the two biggest trees in the world! Get ready to be awestruck and give them a hug.
- Hike through the Giant Forest.
- Drive your car through a tree.
- Visit the free museum and visitors centre.
Stay – Much as before camping would be great here. If you don’t have a tent you can stay in Porterville, which is an hour outside the park.
Las Vegas, Nevada
Next, we have another long drive – 612 km from Sequoia NP. You can break this up by stopping off at Calico located halfway to Vegas. This old mining town has been named Calico Ghost Town as it was deserted when the price of silver dropped. With original buildings restored from the 1800’s, this is a great stop over.
However, most of you will be ready and raring to get to the famous Las Vegas. Of course, you have heard stories about Sin City. I recommend staying here for three nights to really experience everything there is.
Things not to miss in Las Vegas
- Bar and club hop all night between the hotels. There will be no lack of inspiration in the form of club promoters trying to give away free entry or drink vouchers wherever you are.
- Take a stroll down the strip.
- Experience the Bellagio Water Fountain Show.
- See a show or attend a concert.
- Are you road tripping in the summer? Attend a Pool Party at Mandalay Bay’s, Daylight.
- Experience a world tour without leaving the strip. Always wanted to see the Eiffel Tower? Now you can. What about taking a gondola down the canals in Venice. Yep, you can do that too!
Tip – Use Travel Zoo to find insane accommodation deals and the cheapest prices to any shows, concerts and dining. Try staying two weekday nights and one weekend to keep costs as low as possible.
Detour – Hoover Dam, Border of Nevada and Arizona
As a result of your three days in Vegas, I bet you’re ready to leave the concrete jungle for some more solitude and less drinking? Before you do, there is one last stop as you head East. The Hoover Dam is undoubtedly one of the most impressive man-made structures I have ever seen.
The Hoover Dam is located right on the highway and won’t be a long stop. Although not the biggest dam in the world, it is the biggest one I have ever seen by a long way. Looking down from the top seems like it goes on forever. The dam creates enough power for 1.3 million people!
Grand Canyon, Arizona
Time to whip out your National Parks pass again and spend a couple of days exploring the Grand Canyon by foot. Seeing the size and vastness of this natural wonder is such a contrast from the man-made Hoover Dam. Unless you have a tent, accommodation is very pricey here. I recommend staying in Williams or Flagstaff, one hour to one and a half hours respectively. Hostelworld has a couple of dorm style accommodations available for under $30 USD a night.
Tip – Type Grand Canyon Visitor Centre into your GPS to enter the park at the south gate which is closest to Williams and Flagstaff. The other south gate is located only one hour from the Hoover Dam and has the glass-bottomed skywalk. Although a great idea in theory, for the budget traveller $79 USD for a ticket is probably not worth it.
Finish in Albuquerque, New Mexico
Yay! Finally, drive your last 524km to Albuquerque and you’ll reach your end final destination in your South-Western USA Road Trip. I hope you had the greatest road trip and will stay with me for the full cross country trip itinerary in weeks to come.
We’ll pick up here in Albuquerque with what to do in the next part of the series. Sign up for my free email subscription so you are first to know when the next part of the series is released.
Have you been on a road trip through the USA? Tell me about your favourite places and experiences below in the comments. I would love to hear from you!