Going from Las Vegas to San Diego by car only takes around five hours, but if you’re thinking that you should just hit the road and get the driving over with—think again! Sure, you’ll get to San Diego relatively quickly but don’t forget about all of the destinations that you’d miss out on along the way. Southern California is a land that warrants some exploration, and what better time to do it than when you’re already traveling? If you’re not convinced yet, keep reading to find out more about some of the best places to stop when you’re driving from Vegas to San Diego.
Mojave National Preserve lies about an hour southwest of Vegas, and with 1.6 million acres of desert wilderness, this sprawling park has just about every type of terrain imaginable, from mountain ranges and dry riverbeds to cactus gardens and lava flows. Among the top places to see in the expansive preserve, however, is without a doubt the Kelso Dunes. At 45 square miles, the Kelso Dune Field is the largest area of aeolian sand deposits in the Mojave Desert.
The Kelso Dunes Trail is probably the best way to see the dunes, but fair warning—the hike can get pretty strenuous at times. A three-mile round trip, the Kelso Dunes Trail will take you the field’s summit, which rises 650 feet from the desert floor. While it’ll be easy to get caught up in the views, don’t forget to listen for the dunes’ “singing sand,” a low rumble that occurs when the hot surface sand comes into contact with the cooler sand below it.
About two hours southwest of Vegas, you’ll find the Mojave Trails National Monument, the largest stretch of land along Route 66 that remains undeveloped. In addition to connecting Mojave National Preserve with Joshua Tree National Park, the monument is designed to preserve the land’s natural and cultural resources, and while asked to adhere to the “Leave No Trace” principle, visitors are permitted on the grounds and can enjoy a variety of activities like hiking, rockhounding, and camping.
Located within the monument, Amboy Crater is a Mojave Desert point of interest that might just leave you speechless. Almost perfectly symmetrical, Amboy Crater sits 250 feet above the lava field below and has a rim that’s over 15 hundred feet wide. A National Natural Landmark since 1973, this former volcano cone is over six thousand years old and boasts some of the most extraordinary desert views that you’ll ever see.
Approximately halfway in between Vegas and San Diego, Joshua Tree National Park encompasses the place where the Colorado Desert and the Mojave Desert converge, resulting in a diverse, unique landscape that includes distinct geologic formations, cryptobiotic crusts, and, of course, the Joshua trees for which it is named. Some of the animals that call the park home are coyotes, bobcats, mule deer, foxes, owls, and iguanas.
While in Joshua Tree, visitors can enjoy a number of outdoor recreational activities, like biking, hiking, horseback riding, birding, photography, backpacking, and stargazing. With over 800 thousand acres, Joshua Tree has plenty to do and see, and the most popular areas of the park include Skull Rock, Keys View, Cottonwood Spring, Barker Dam, and Coachella Valley Preserve. Nearby, in the town of Twentynine Palms, you can find additional points of interest, such as Sky’s the Limit Observatory and Nature Center, 29 Palms Art Gallery, and the Old Schoolhouse Museum.
The city of Palm Springs is a little over two hours northeast of San Diego, and with everything from hot springs and hiking to shopping and horseback riding, this is one town where you won’t have any trouble finding ways to stay busy. But perhaps the most famous attraction in Palm Springs isn’t really even in Palm Springs at all—it’s above it.
Take the sky when you go for a ride on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, where you’ll journey two-and-a-half miles through the air over Chino Canyon and Mt. San Jacinto State Park. Sporting the world’s largest rotating aerial tramcars, the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway has become an iconic part of Palm Springs, making it a must-do attraction when passing through the area. Once you reach Mountain Station at the end of the ride, you’ll have access to two restaurants, observation decks, a natural history museum, two documentary theaters, a gift shop, and more than 50 miles of hiking trails.
Riverside, California, is about an hour-and-a-half north of San Diego, and as the birthplace of the California citrus industry, the city is home to an array of historical landmarks and museums commemorating its impactful legacy on Southern California. Among the most prominent of these sites is California Citrus State Historic Park, a museum and visitor center that offers guided tours of working citrus groves. The park is open daily from 8 am to 5 pm, but the visitor center and museum are open Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from 10 am to 4 pm, while the grove tours are offered Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 11 am.
With a 300-acre campus, the park provides visitors with an immersive learning experience, during which they can take in the state’s history while also enjoying its natural offerings, thanks to the park’s trails, picnic areas, vista points, and other outdoor amenities. Though there is a $5 parking fee, the museum, visitor center, and guided tours are all free. Additionally, you’ll be able to sample some fresh fruit at the tasting station, where staff members will happily give you more information about California’s citrus history and the fruits that you’re trying.
Located a little over an hour northwest of San Diego, Crystal Cove State Park is the perfect place to appreciate California’s natural coastal landscape before heading to the more commercialized, urban area of San Diego. With 3.2 miles of beach, 24 hundred acres of backcountry wilderness, and an offshore underwater area, Crystal Cove State Park encapsulates California’s seashore in all of its elements, each in pure, raw form. Open from 6 am to sunset and situated between Corona del Mar and Laguna Beach, Crystal Cove is as peaceful as it is beautiful and will give you plenty of opportunities to stretch your legs before getting back in the car.
Crystal Cove’s backcountry features more than 15 miles of trails with varying levels of difficulty that are conducive to hiking, biking, and horseback riding. Something that undoubtedly sets Crystal Cove apart from most state parks is its federally-listed Historic District, comprised of 46 vintage cottages that were built in the 1930s and 1940s. (This portion of the park is open until 10 pm.)
Around 35 minutes north of San Diego, the city of Oceanside is a highly-rated travel destination that still maintains small-town vibes and a casual atmosphere. A coastal city, Oceanside has three miles of shoreline and a beach for seemingly any occasion. Surfing, whale-watching, and fishing are all popular activities in Oceanside, and the historic Oceanside Pier is one of the best places in town to watch beachgoers dabble in everything from volleyball to bodyboarding. Stretching nearly two thousand feet out across the Pacific Ocean, Oceanside Pier is one of the longest wooden piers on the West Coast and has become an unofficial community center for the city.
As we mentioned before, surfing is pretty popular in Oceanside—so much so that the city has an entire museum dedicated to surfing as both a sport and a lifestyle. Founded in 1986, the California Surf Museum has established itself as one of the most comprehensive institutions centered on surfing’s history, and its various exhibits explore the ways in which surfing and wave-riding have changed people’s lives. Open daily from 10 am to 4 pm, the museum costs $5 for adults and $3 for students, military personnel, and seniors (it’s free for kids 11 and under!).
Carlsbad, California, might only be about 30 minutes north of San Diego, but with attractions like South Carlsbad State Beach, Leo Carrillo Ranch Historic Park, Carlsbad Ranch, and Batiquitos Lagoon, Carlsbad is a place that you’d regret not stopping at. One of Carlsbad’s biggest claims to fame is the Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch—but, sadly, as a strictly seasonal event, the Flower Fields are only open from March to May. Not to worry, though; if you’re not traveling through Carlsbad during the right time of year, there is another attraction that the city’s pretty well known for… Legoland California!
Legoland California is a fun, unforgettable destination, no matter what age you are. And with it being so close to San Diego, why waste such a golden opportunity to stop there? Legoland California, which opened in 1999, was the third Legoland to open and the first of the brand’s theme parks to make its debut in the United States. From Miniland USA to the Block of Fame, Legoland is filled with nonstop entertainment that the whole family can enjoy.
San Diego has a couple of different nicknames, but the most popular is probably “America’s Finest City.” And with gorgeous weather year-round, miles of pristine beaches, and a wide range of attractions and activities, it’s not too difficult to guess why. But while San Diego is definitely not a destination that you want to pass up, that doesn’t mean that you have to skip out on all of the amazing places that you’ll come across when driving there from Vegas. Breathtaking landscapes, famous parks, and fascinating points of interest are just a few of the things that you’re sure to find when you’re on the road in Southern California—but who knows what else is waiting for you? There’s only one way to find out!