It’s no secret that I am partial to traveling on the western side of the United States. From the ease of the west coast to the rugged landscape of the Rockies and the vibrant colors of the southwest, this side of the country is a truly enchanting area to explore. Once you decide to road trip California to Arizona, you better get ready for the trip of a lifetime!
Depending on the time of year you are traveling, your starting point may vary. It’s best to leave around late fall to avoid the scorching heat of the Arizona summer. Temperate weather, stunning sunsets, and clear night skies are just a few things to look forward to as you road trip California to Arizona. Let’s get into some of the stops that can not be missed, starting with California.
Road trip California to Arizona, start here: Big Sur – California
Originally called El Sur Grande or The Big South, Big Sur is one of the most beautiful areas in California. Spanning 90 miles of jagged coastline, Big Sur is an undeveloped area full of amazing views and outdoor activities.
To fully explore Big Sur, you should start your drive in the lovely town of Carmel. Fun fact: Clint Eastwood was once mayor here!
As you begin your drive south, you’ll notice the Santa Lucia mountain range to your east. Just on the other side of the mountain range, you’ll find the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, which is one of my favorite wine-tasting regions.
Depending on your preferred level of activity, Big Sur has something for everyone. Exploring roadside viewpoints and wildlife viewing are both amazing ways to get to know the area. For more active travelers, there is plenty of hiking, with rewarding views of this unique coastline.
Aside from relishing in nature, the famous Nepenthe restaurant is located on Pacific Coast Highway 1. Between Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge and Castro Canyon, this is a frequent watering hole for celebrities, tourists, and locals alike. Even if you’re not hungry, it’s worth a stop to see their famous curved deck with a truly stunning view.
Stunning landscape in Yosemite National Park – California
Sometimes called the Land of Giants, a reference to its huge granite formations, Yosemite is well renowned for its natural beauty. The most famous of its giant granite formations is El Capitan. Best known as the world’s tallest monolith, it is a popular rock climbing destination for enthusiasts from all over. Another popular destination is Half Dome, which can be climbed without any specialized gear. The final stretch requires the use of permanently mounted metal cables due to the smooth and steep terrain.
However, you do not need to climb rocks or scale mountains to fully appreciate what Yosemite has to offer. This world-famous national park is chock-full of amazing views, unique wildlife, camping, and outdoor activities.
The quintessential beach stop: Pismo Beach – California
If wine tasting and pristine beaches are on your agenda, then you won’t want to miss Pismo Beach. It is also the winter home to thousands of Monarch butterflies, who live in a protected grove near the area. Pismo is a great stop for families because of its many hiking trails, impressive playgrounds, and stunning ocean views.
Pismo Beach is also home to a 1200-foot pier, built in the 1920s. It’s a great place for watching surfers, but fishing buffs enjoy it too. The Pismo Beach Pier allows fishing for certain species without a license. Another fun fact about Pismo Beach is that they allow vehicles to drive onto the sand. Imagine a beach day where you don’t have to carry all your stuff back and forth to the car!
Quirky art that blends into the landscape: Palm Springs – California
Moving into Southern California, your next stop will be the impossibly stylish town of Palm Springs. The area is fed by an underground water source and cultivated into a green expansion hedged by a desert landscape. If that scenery is not dramatic enough, the San Jacinto Mountains also watch over the town from the south. Palm Springs is best known for world-class golf courses, mid-century art and architecture, and a plethora of boutique motels.
Depending on your budget, you can enjoy a day by the motel pool or engage with a variety of day spas and top-tier restaurants. Make sure to leave time for the Palm Springs Art Museum, which is surprisingly well-stocked despite the town’s small population.
The most famous stop: Grand Canyon National Park – Arizona
There is no better way to turn your road trip into a totally awesome adventure than a visit to the Grand Canyon. Why? Because it really is grand! It is grand in scale, grand in beauty, and full of grand adventures.
The canyon spans 277 miles in length and is 1 mile deep. The result of the Colorado River carving its path for millions of years, this well-known national park is truly a sight to behold. While most of my greatest memories involve hiking, there are plenty of ways to explore. One of the most famous activities is the mule ride to the bottom of the canyon. You can also go rafting, cycling, partake in wildlife photography and enjoy several scenic drives.
Road trip California to Arizona, finding peace in Sedona – Arizona
Just south of the Grand Canyon you’ll find a little gem called Sedona. Known for its gorgeous landscape, made of red rocks, this town is also packed with culture. This small and quirky town is full of art, with a heavy dose of spirituality. Known by many as a “power spot”, the area has drawn some of the best-known spiritual guides and healers. Just wait until you witness the entire landscape suddenly change color at sunset and then you’ll understand the magic.
Aside from enjoying the town and the people, make sure to leave time for hiking or driving around the area. Sedona is the best place on your journey for simply relaxing while watching the sunset. Luckily you will not have to look far to find a good place!
Getting off the beaten path: Chiricahua National Monument – Arizona
The long-time home of the Chiricahua Apache Native American Tribes and a favorite place for rock hounds, this area is unlike anything you have ever seen. Rich in Native American history, here you’ll find plenty of wildlife, hiking, and some extremely unique rock formations.
This is also a place to relax and take in the landscape. Start at the famous Massai Point overlook, where you can see the entire park. Make sure to stop by the Erickson Cemetary, the final resting place for Bonita Canyon’s earliest settlers. The exhilarating yet sobering experience of visiting the Chiricahua National Monument is a stop you should not miss.
Road trip California to Arizona – the nation’s biggest cacti in Saguaro National Park – Arizona
The park is named after the stately saguaro cactus and stretches across 91,327 acres. Divided into two districts (East and West), the town of Tucson sits right in the middle. When you visit Saguaro, make sure to leave time to visit both districts, which are roughly 30 miles apart.
While hiking is common, a lot of people bring their bikes to the park to view the awesome scenery. This is a great place to have our camera handy. Aside from the gigantic cacti, you’ll also find plenty of petroglyphs and an abandoned gold mine.
In Conclusion – Road trip California to Arizona
While this article has covered some of the highlights you can expect if you road trip California to Arizona, the true joy of the journey will always be the surprises in between. Take the time to watch the sunset, pull over at random viewpoints, talk to the locals and try new foods. The scenery, wildlife, and culture are sure to capture your heart, no matter what route you take!