For many, driving from coast to coast at least once in their life is part of living the American dream. It’s a very unique way to explore this amazing country with all of its different climate zones, natural treasures, cultures and states – and last but not least, a real feeling for how long it actually takes you to cross it. As I have moved from San Francisco to Miami, I figured there would be no better way of moving my things than driving them myself. Of all the routes to take, only one stood out because of weather conditions during the month of January – the south route on and off the I-10, not having any snow, and hitting California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and finally Florida.
For anyone who is thinking about doing something similar, here are my personal highlights of the itinerary. There’s obviously a lot more to discover, but when thinking about which places to visit, I would highly recommend at least considering all of the below options for your road trip bucket list.
Highway 1 from San Francisco to Los Angeles, CA – If you have never done this drive, have enough time to start your trip in the City By The Bay and are not driving an oversized U-Haul, I can highly recommend this start to your journey. Some areas of it will make you feel like you’re in paradise, it’s the perfect scenic drive, and the curves up high over the Pacific make you feel like you’re flying. Plan at least two days, rather 3 – it sounds long, and as I had done it twice before I did not include it this time, but I promise you it’s worth it! Stops you should definitely make along the way are the Monterey Aquarium and Cannery Row, Carmel Beach and Downtown, Cafe Nepenthe in Big Sur, Hearst Castle, Santa Barbara and Malibu. In Santa Barbara, definitely have a sundowner on the patio of the Four Seasons – it is absolutely gorgeous!
Joshua Tree National Park, CA – Amazing experience, a must-see, you will feel like you’re in another world! Depending on how much time you want to spend in the park, I can definitely recommend the Lost Horse Mine Trail which you should hike counter-clockwise for the right views. It has some strenuous parts, but all in all a nice 3 hour loop trail experience with great views. Also, drive up to Keys View, it’s worth the views over Coachella Valley and Salton Sea. A definite must-see: Sunset somewhere around the rocks, probably around Skull Rock or Jumbo Rocks. There are picnic spaces and campgrounds, and it is incredible to witness the desert go to sleep. Another highlight to close off the day is driving through Cholla Cactus Garden in Wilson Canyon when the lights are low but before darkness, it is one of the most amazing sights on the road south through the park to get back to I-10.
Heard Museum and Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, AZ – Great places to get an understanding of the culture and nature of the Sonoran Desert. The Heard Museum exhibits Native American and Hispanic cultural artifacts and history in a very unique and beautiful setting. They offer free tours by the hour, and the guides are amazing and very knowledgable. Secondly and although surprisingly expensive for its kind with $25, the Desert Botanical Garden close to the Phoenix Zoo explains and lets you experience the different habitats in a great way. When I was there they were just hosting a light exhibition that lasted until after sunset – unfortunately I wasn’t able to stay for that, but from my last day’s desert experience I can only imagine how incredible that light installation between the cacti must have looked when the sun went down.
Petrified Forest National Park and Painted Desert National Park, AZ – This is actually a solid detour north, but in my view absolutely worth it! Even the drive to Holbrook was a great experience as we traveled from cacti through snowy Tonto National Forest back down into the steppe. It’s best to start on the south end of the park and work your way up north. It’s hard to find the right words to express the amazing beauty of this place, but let me say this: Imagine 20 million years old petrified conifers, scattered across mountains that look like Indian teepees with the most unique forms and colors, all concluded by a view into a desert valley that is covered in a red like you’ve never seen it! If you’re up for one more monument and a little additional detour while you’re at it: 3 hours east, you find the El Morro National Monument, a limestone natural fortress that had hosted an ancient pueblo village on top of it and inscriptions of early Spanish generals and Western settlers that have passed by it over the years. The visitor center is the starting point for two great hikes there that give amazing views over the surroundings and into the inner base of the formation.
White Sands National Monument, NM – Yes, this is the sight where the first atomic bomb was tested, still being an active missile test center which they occasionally close the park for. Not this day though! The monument consists of a widespread area between the two mountain ranges, where the wind moves the world’s biggest gypsum dunes from side to side. They are completely white and look like the most amazing sand you will ever have seen! The Alkali Flat Trail at the end is a must-do and leads you in a marked loop into the absolute “lost in the desert” experience, although you shouldn’t take the name for a description, as it leads up and down the sand dunes and is everything but flat. 3 strenuous hours, but a great workout and an amazing experience! There is also a 4.30pm guided sunset stroll where a ranger explains more about the different animals and plants and their survival strategies. Sunset on one of the dunes concludes the day – before February and after May, you can even bring a drink and have it while watching the gypsum wonderland go to sleep.
Carlbad Caverns National Park, NM – Probably one of the big tour highlights – the biggest and most beautiful cave system in the United States, if not in the world! Definitely be in the caves before 12pm if you want to hike in and out, as the full tour is a 4 mile round trip, and the hike back up is pretty strenuous, comparable to walking up 80 floors in stairs. Usually, they also have elevators that get you in and out much faster, but they were out of order when we went, and I can not imagine it to be the same experience as hiking in. The cave is absolutely mind-blowing! One of the rangers that we talked to called it the “last frontier” of exploration on earth, and after seeing the amazing formations and the atmosphere in the Big Room, we felt extremely humbled. The cave is also host to a huge swarm of bats in the summer time, and an amphitheater on top of the cave entrance lets guests witness the swarm flying out to hunt at sunset. If you feel like more cave experience (or if you don’t want to do the full detour to get to Carlsbad), the Sonora Cave right off the I-10 is also great, with knowledgable guides and a more touch-and-feel approach to the experience.
Mississippi Plantations and New Orleans, LA – You cannot do this drive without spending at least one day in New Orleans! If you are driving in early, I would definitely recommend to visit one of the sugarcane plantations along the Mississippi. In earlier days, there had been numerous of them, but six were preserved and are now open to the public with museums and guided tours. I have visited Laura and San Francisco, both were great but I must say that the quality of the Laura tour was better. In New Orleans, try to get a hotel right on Canal Street close to Bourbon Street, as you can walk all of the French Quarter including Frenchman Street, the French Market and Jackson Square from there, and the trolleys to the Garden District leave right in front of it. Clear lunch and dinner favorite is Cafe Amelie close to Jackson Square. For the musical experience at night, make sure you don’t get pulled into the next tourist trap on Bourbon Street but do a little research on Yelp or ask the concierge for suggestions. There’s some amazing jazz and rock bands out there, but you need to find them and not have the tourist hunters find you too early.
St. Augustine and the Castillo de San Marcos, FL – Never heard of it before? Let me ask you this: Are you seriously thinking about missing out on visiting the oldest city in the United States?! This super-cute little pearl right on the Atlantic Ocean is home to a fort that is operated as a National Park with all the information and educational exhibits that come with it. Twice a day, they even shoot one of their cannons, following a classic old Spanish canon maneuver that includes five dressed up soldiers. It’s very impressive, not only for history lovers. The town around it has beautiful little allies with cute shops and bars (and unfortunately is also home to an addictive gelato shop on the main street). After taking a stroll, you are invited to visit the pirate museum close to the visitor center by the fort. Definitely a great last stop before hitting Miami!
Of course there were many more incredible places and moments that you could hit on the way, like Austin in Texas, or Disneyworld in Orlando, but it’s tough to capture everything, and a lot is obviously very much subject to taste. Also, I excluded San Francisco and Miami as the start and end destinations on this list – honestly, they would both be worth their own blog posts!
For everyone who is planning to do a similar road trip: ENJOY! You will love it! Come back to this post and leave some comments on your own experiences, I would love to hear from you. And: Safe travels out there!!