The Ultimate 10 Day Southwest Road Trip Across the USA
Updated on January 22nd, 2020
Do you want to go on an epic 10 day southwest USA road trip? These states of America are my absolute favourites. What I love the most about them is how much the landscape varies over such a short distance. One moment you’re in northern California in the mountains and redwoods forests and then a few hours later your driving through arid deserts en-route to stunning beaches and one of the largest cities in the country. As you head further east the landscape becomes increasingly arid and large canyons and rock formations are created.
This region, comprising of California, Nevada and Arizona make for one of the most exciting drives with so much to see and do in these incredible states. I have taken several road trips in this area and I want to share with you one of my favourites. You will need 10 days to do and see everything in this southwest road trip itinerary.
Make sure you also read my guide for top tips on how to plan a road trip across the USA.
Disclaimer: Some links in this article are affiliate links, which means that if you purchase through them, I receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. For more information on my disclaimer click here.
Southwestern USA Road Trip Map
The following map shows the exact route a girlfriend and I took during the late Spring. You could do this trip at any time of year but bear in mind there may be snow in places during the winter and the summer months are very hot in the desert. So, pick a time of year that suits the type of weather you enjoy the most.
Tip – Did you know you can save google maps to be viewed in an offline mode? This is perfect for international travellers to not chew through your data while overseas. The easiest way to do this is to search for a location on your phone and then hit the download button at the bottom of the screen.
Day 1-3: San Francisco, California
We decided to start our road trip in San Francisco as part of a 5-week round trip. Although this guide is just the southwestern states, so we will end in Flagstaff where you can easily fly back to San Francisco if necessary.
We choose San Francisco as our starting location as it is an easy place to get to with many affordable inbound flights daily. At the time I was living in Lake Tahoe while my girlfriend flew over from Australia. We picked up our car we had rented through Hertz on the morning that we departed the city.
About San Francisco
San Francisco becomes a favourite city for many travellers. This culturally diverse ‘island’ city is LGBT-friendly, home to the largest Chinatown outside of Asia and has world-famous sporting teams. The people are welcoming and have a liberal, open-minded mentality.
You’ll spend your days walking up and down more hills than you thought possible, taking in excellent views, enjoying great dining and cultural events and being impressed with how green the city is.
Unfortunately, San Francisco is not a great city for budget travellers in terms of dining and accommodation. Although you can offset these expenses by choosing some of the free or cheaper activities.
San Francisco Highlights
- Cycle over the iconic Golden Gate Bridge
- Visit Sausalito for views of the city on a clear day
- Zig-zag your way down Lombard Street
- Wear red and white to support the Giants and 49ers at a live game
- Experience a real speakeasy bar at Bourbon and Brandy
- Head over to Alcatraz
- Explore Fishermans Wharf and Pier 39
- Listen to regular live music or watch a variety show
Where to stay
Hostel: We spent two nights in the Green Tortoise Hostel. This hostel continually gets rave reviews from travellers. We loved the small dorm sizes and daily free breakfast. Located in North Beach there are plenty of attractions nearby and is in walking distance to Fishermans Wharf.
Budget Hotel: The Union Square Plaza Hotel is great for two travellers. The room is basic but in an excellent location and clean. The most appealing factor is the price, starting at $60/night for a double room.
Total drive time
Day 3-4: Santa Cruz, California
While we loved San Francisco (this was my third time visiting) we were excited to get out of the city and officially start our road trip. We got up early and drove just over an hour south to the beachside town of Santa Cruz.
About Santa Cruz
With the laid back, beachy vibes of Santa Cruz, you’ll find it hard to believe you’re just over 100km from the city. The iconic wooden wharf and beachside amusement park make for some unbeatable sunset photos. While being surrounded by redwood forests and natural reserves this is also a great place for wildlife viewing. Twice a year you can head out on a boat trip to catch the whale migration.
Santa Cruz Highlights
- Hire a paddleboard and paddle in the harbour amongst the seals and dolphins! This was an amazing experience, we must have been paddling with 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.
- Wander the funky shops
- Go on a brewery tour with Brew Cruz
- Indulge in gourmet ice cream at Marianne’s Ice Cream shop.
Where to stay
Hostel: Strangely enough, there is only one hostel where we stayed in Santa Cruz, the HI Backpackers. While rooms were relatively standard I didn’t like the midnight curfew. As well as the curfew you are not allowed in the rooms or common areas between the hours of 11 am and 5 pm.
Budget Hotel: The Pacific Inn is a Mediterranean style motel offering budget accommodation for $50/night for a double room. They offer a free continental breakfast and rooms have a microwave and fridge. There is also a pool and hot tub.
Total drive time
1 hour and 20 minutes depending on traffic leaving the city.
Day 4-5: Big Sur and Monterey, California
After a casual morning in Santa Cruz, we went for one last walk along the beach before continuing our drive south to Big Sur. Although we wanted to head east at Monterrey, we thought a detour down to Big Sur would be worth it. It definitely was!
About Big Sur and Monterey
Big Sur and Monterey are along Highway 1 (the Pacific Coast Highway). This is another iconic US road trip for a different trip. The section between Santa Cruz and Big Sur offers incredible coastal views and is a great introduction to this highway. When you reach Big Sur you will recognise the McWay waterfall and Bixby Creek Bridge from photographs. The area has amazing star gazing and is also a good place for hikers.
If you have enough time in the day, Monterey is an interesting place to learn about the history of canning and visit the aquarium.
Big Sur Highlights
- See the McWay waterfall spilling on to the beach
- Hike 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.
- Seeing the Instagram-worthy Bixby Creek Bridge.
Where to stay
Big Sur is an expensive place for accommodation. As the following day, we will be heading east from Monterey the best bet is to drive back north to spend the night.
Hostel: We stayed at the HI Monterey Hostel. Breakfast is included and rooms have beautiful hardwood floors (it’s the little things, right?).
Budget hotel: The Arbor Inn Monterey is one of Booking.com’s best sellers in Monterey. A double room is $42/night and the hotel is centrally located.
Total drive time
To get from Santa Cruz to Big Sur and then back to Monterey is 2 hours and 10 minutes.
Day 5-6: Sequoia National Park, California
Today is the first big driving day of the trip. It’s essential to set your alarm and get up early this morning. The earlier the better. Prepare for a big day of exploring your first National Park in California.
About Sequoia National Park
Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Park’s are conjoined and are located in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. They are home to some of the largest trees in the world. The park is divided into 5 areas, the Foothills, Mineral King, Giant Forest & Lodgepole, Grant Grove and Cedar Grove. Each area has its own special features and climates due their changes in elevation. In the Giant Forest and Lodgepole area, you will find the world’s largest tree, measured by volume. The General Sherman tree is 83m tall and over 11 metres in diameter at the base. It truly is a sight to see a tree as big as this.
The park is 95% wilderness, which makes it the perfect place for some hiking and wildlife spotting. This was the place I saw my very first bear! If you have extra time, I would recommend staying a couple of nights here to experience more of the area. Check out the official park website to plan your hiking trails ahead of time.
Entering the National Park:
The cost to enter the park for one vehicle is $35. On this trip you will enter the Grand Canyon also, it more cost effective to buy the two passes individually. However if you plan on visiting one extra park or live in the US, an annual pass will be the better option. The annual pass costs $80.
Sequoia National Park highlights
- Saying 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
- Moro Rock is where you can drive through the trunk of a sequoia tree
- Visit the free museum and visitors centre
- Enjoy the scenic drive through the forest
Where to stay
Camping: If you have a tent or campervan you can camp in the Lodgepole area.
We chose to stay in Porterville, which is an hour outside the parK and gives us a start on the following day’s drive. There are no hostels in Porterville so we stayed in a motel 6. Which, if you are new to America is the basic roadside motel. These will become your best friend on long road trips over here. An alternative to Porterville is Three Rivers, just outside the park entrance.
Another alternative is to find somewhere on Airbnb. If you are new to Airbnb you can use this code to get $55 AUD off your first booking.
Total drive time
The drive from Monterey to Sequoia National Park is 4 – 4.5 hours. You also will spend a bit of time driving within the park, but how much is up to you. Then afterwards to get to Porterville is 1 hour. Making the total drive time today around 6 hours.
Day 6-8: Las Vegas, Nevada
Today is another long drive – 547 km from Porterville to Las Vegas. We set the alarm and got up early to get on the road. After almost 3.5 hours into the drive we saw signs for the Calico Ghost Town and like all the best road trips decided to make a spontaneous stop.
Calico is just a short detour off the main road and makes for a good pit stop. This old mining town was deserted when the price of silver dropped. The original buildings from the 1800s have been restored and is a fun place to walk around and step back in time.
After you’re refreshed get back on the long dry stretch of road and head through the desert towards Sin City. Las Vegas is our first stop in Nevada and has something for everyone, families and non-drinkers included.
About Las Vegas
We all heard the stories about Las Vegas, but what you haven’t heard I’m sure is how much there is for non-drinkers and families. Vegas is a large city and comprises of much more than ‘The Strip’, although even so, this is where you will want to spend a lot of your time. So it is a good idea to be based as close as possible. Take a look at this guide on things to do that aren’t gambling or partying.
Vegas sees more than 41 million tourists annually and is home to 14 of the world’s 20 largest hotels! This is also where you can shop all day and eat at some of the best restaurants in the world. No matter what pre-expectations you have of Vegas, it is truly an unmissable destination for your road trip.
Use Travel Zoo to find insane accommodation deals and the cheapest prices to any shows, concerts and dining. Try staying just weekday nights or combine your trip to overlap one weekend day to keep costs as low as possible. Things are going on here regardless of the day of the week.
Las Vegas highlights
- Bar and club hop all night between the casinos. 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.
- Wander through The Park Vegas – The outdoor entertainment area on the strip.
- Experience the Bellagio Water Fountain Show.
- See a show or attend a concert. We got tickets to the Beatles Cirque du Solei on Travel Zoo for under $50 each.
- Attend a Pool Party at Mandalay Bay’s, Daylight during the summer months
- 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!
- Check out Get Your Guide for tours around the area.
Where to stay
We stayed at the Rio All-Suites Hotel and Casino just one block off the strip. As mentioned, we got an incredible deal on our accommodation through Travel Zoo. When we got to the hotel, we then slipped the reception a ‘tip’ and asked for an upgrade. Which we got! Yipee. If you don’t ask you don’t get.
Total drive time
Day 8: Hoover Dam, Nevada
I’m sure after 2 nights in Vegas, you will be ready and rearing to get out of the city and back to nature. I know we were. Our livers were bruised and after pulling an all-nighter, which I didn’t think I was capable of anymore, I was ready for a few low-key nights. But first, one more man-made structure, the Hoover Dam and then on to the Grand Canyon.
About the Hoover Dam
The Hoover Dam is undoubtedly one of the most impressive man-made structures I have ever seen. Photos do not do this place justice. The Dam is located right on the highway and won’t be a long stop. Although not the biggest dam in the world (that claim goes to Three Gorges Dam in China), 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 4 billion kilowatt-hours of hydroelectric power each year which is enough power for 1.3 million people.
Day 8-10: Grand Canyon, Arizona
As we cross the border into our third and final state, you’ll be wondering how this 10-day southwest road trip has gone by so fast. But before you get too disappointed it is coming to an end, you’ll first be awed by the Grand Canyon.
Let’s get our National Parks pass out 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. For a single-car entry to the national park, it is $30 unless you bought the annual pass at Sequoia National Park.
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 this would be great to see, the $79 ticket to be is not worth it.
About the Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon is 446 km long, up to 29 km wide and more than a km (1,800 meters) deep. It was formed by the constant erosion by the Colorado River over millions of years. Read more about how the canyon was formed. The canyon is waiting to be explored by as many means as your imagination can hold; foot, canoe, helicopter, raft.
All Trails is a great resource to find a hiking trail suited to your time frame and fitness ability. If you want to see the horseshoe bend, this is another 2 hours north of the southern Grand Canyon entrance. Near the town Page, on the Utah/Arizona border. If you have more time, I would keep heading north into Utah and explore the hiking areas this state has to offer.
Where to stay
Unless you have a tent, the accommodation is very pricey inside and near the entrance. I recommend staying in Tusayan on the first night at the Best Western Premier Grand Canyon Inn. This allows you to explore the park at the southern entrance after arriving from Las Vegas.
The second night head north to Page where you will find cheaper prices. Stay at the Best Western View of Lake Powell Hotel.
Total drive time
Day 1: 4.75 hours. From Las Vegas to the Hoover Dam is 45 minutes and then 4 hours to the southern entrance of the Grand Canyon.
Day 2: 2.5 hours to Horseshoe bend.
Finish in Flagstaff, Arizona
Yay! Today we drive the final leg to Flagstaff where you’ll have completed your 10-day south-western USA Road Trip.
From here you can either fly back to San Francisco or continue on across the country as we did. Are you interested in other road trips? Why not drive the iconic Route 66 or a Northern California route?