Long desert drives aren’t for everyone—but if you’re willing to brave the rugged terrain and the aggressive heat, you can see some pretty amazing things. Driving directly from Phoenix to Los Angeles should only take you a little less than six hours, and you can even take Interstate 10 almost the whole way there. But where’s the fun in that? If might be the desert, but there are some pretty cool places just waiting to be found in the dry landscapes of Southwest Arizona and Southern California. Plus, when you take the long way to LA, you can even add a few more classic Cali cities to your itinerary, like San Diego, Carlsbad, and Santa Ana.
Only about 30 minutes west of Phoenix, Skyline Regional Park makes for a nice bit of green—albeit sparse in some places—before plunging deep into the desert. With nearly nine thousand acres to explore, Skyline Regional Park has a multitude of trails where you can hike, bike, and ride on horseback (dogs are also permitted on certain ones). If you’re looking to spend a night beneath the stars, you can set up a tent on one of the park’s seven campsites. The park also hosts events and special programs, which you can view and book in advance here.
Whether you’re an experienced hiker, a novice, or just someone looking to get out of the car for a little, Skyline has trails for every type of hiker. But no matter what level hike you decide to tackle, the views are sure to be top-notch, all the way around. Another perk of Skyline? It’s free to get in! (That being said, it does cost a fee of $20 a night to camp out.)
The Kofa National Wildlife Refuge is just over three hours west of Phoenix and was established in 1939 to protect desert bighorn sheep in the Yuma Desert. Here, you’ll find almost seven thousand acres of rugged wilderness, the unexpected home of a variety of animals, including mammals, birds, and reptiles. You’re most likely to see smaller mammals like kangaroo rats and ground squirrels, as the bigger mammals often seek shelter from the heat during the day in surrounding caves. If you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of the largest lizard native to the United States, the Gila monster, though these elusive (and venomous!) reptiles are quite rare and most commonly found in the early morning.
In the southwest corner of the refuge, you’ll find relics of yesteryear in the Wild West: Castle Dome City, an abandoned mining city from the 1800s. With remains of over 50 buildings and a museum, Castle Dome City and Mine Museum is an extraordinary piece of history that you can not only see but also walkthrough as you learn about it. The Castle Dome Mining District holds more than 300 mines, and when you tour the museum, you can wander among many artifacts that once lay deep beneath the earth’s surface.
Seated right along the United States’ southern border, the city of Yuma, Arizona, is around 3 hour hours southwest of Phoenix overlooking the Colorado River. With a historic downtown, a riverfront pathway, and a number of museums and historic sites, Yuma is a wealth of knowledge, offering insight into the area’s past and the long train of events that shaped its present. Among Yuma’s best-known attractions, however, is Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park, a place where some of the structures that still stand predate the state itself.
The last of the states admitted to the contiguous United States, Arizona didn’t become a state until 1912—yet ground was broken to build the Yuma Territorial Prison in 1876. Arizona’s first prison didn’t have too long of an active lifespan, and after 33 years, all of the inmates were moved to a new facility in Florence. Today, the site has several preserved remnants of the prison, as well as a visitor center, gift shop, museum, and even a few picnic areas. See original cell blocks, a guard tower, a library room, and more when you set foot on these infamous historic lands.
Situated on the outskirts of the rural Mountain Empire in San Diego County, A Simpler Time Alpaca Ranch & Mill is a hidden treasure about 30 minutes east of San Diego. A family-owned alpaca ranch with its own fiber mill and store, this delightful stop offers immersive, interactive tours of its grounds and the cuddly inhabitants that live on them. What started a budding interest and four alpacas has now blossomed into a multifaceted business with a herd of 36!
Meet and feed the animals, learn about how they live and how to take care of them, and tour the fiber mill that turns the alpacas’ wool into yarn. Then, check out the ranch store where you can buy your own alpaca products like gloves, hats, scarves, socks, teddy bears, yarn, and more. Aside from the alpacas, who are gentle creatures that always welcome a stranger (especially one that has food in hand), visitors love the personal nature of the tour and getting such an intimate look at a niche industry.
Nicknamed “America’s Finest City,” San Diego might be a bit of a detour on your way from Phoenix to LA, but it’s definitely one that’s worth making. With sandy beaches, fascinating museums, gorgeous weather year-round, and coastal views that you just can’t beat, San Diego is the perfect stop to celebrate making it out of the desert and reaching the Pacific Coast! Some of San Diego’s must-see attractions include the USS Midway Museum, Seaport Village, the Spruce Street Suspension Bridge, and the Maritime Museum of San Diego. However, if there’s one place that should be at the top of your list, it’s Balboa Park, a colossal city-center that has a slew of other museums and points of interest within it.
With 1,200 acres of green space, walking paths, gardens, theaters, museums, and, of course, the iconic San Diego Zoo, Balboa Park is a hub of entertainment at the heart of San Diego. In addition to the zoo, you’ll also find the Fleet Science Center, the San Diego Museum of Man, the San Diego Natural History Museum, the San Diego Museum of Art, the Spanish Village Arts Center, the House of Pacific Relations International Cottages, the San Diego Air & Space Museum, the San Diego Japanese Friendship Garden, and much, much more (including a carousel and miniature train!).
A little under an hour north of San Diego and about two hours south of LA, Carlsbad, California, is a laid-back beach town that might not be as big as San Diego or LA but is still a city that you won’t regret stopping in. With seven miles of coastline, Carlsbad is the perfect place to hit the beach, surf some waves, go kayaking, and, in general, just sit back, relax, and enjoy yourself! One of Carlsbad’s mainstream claims to fame is its seasonal Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch. Colorful, memorizing, and indisputably Instagram-worthy, the Flower Fields stretch nearly 50 acres and bloom from March through May, attracting countless visitors to Southern California every year.
But if you’re not going to be in town during the spring, an attraction that’s open year-round—and is arguably just as visually stunning, albeit in a different way—is the Carlsbad Sea Wall, an oceanfront trail that offers walkers, runners, and sightseers some of the best views in town. Tie on your walking shoes, grab your camera, and take to this popular, paved walkway in North Carlsbad to squeeze in a little exercise and experience Carlsbad in all of its sandy, sunny glory. And don’t forget to stay on the lookout for dolphins and other forms of wildlife!
About an hour south of LA, you’ll find San Clemente, another charming coastal city with plenty of opportunities for some fun in the sun at the beach! Whale-watching, fishing, surfing, and playing volleyball are just a few of the ways that you can spend your time while in San Clemente, and as you head inland, you’ll see that like most California cities, the beach is just one of the things that make San Clemente such an unforgettable travel destination. With a variety of local restaurants, parks, and other points of interest, San Clemente is as eclectic as it is beautiful. Of course, no trip to San Clemente is complete without a visit to the San Clemente Pier!
Walking the pier is kind of a rite of passage when in San Clemente—a form of initiation that simply has to include a stop at Fisherman’s Restaurant & Bar, a seafood restaurant where diners can enjoy unparalleled beachfront views. Serving breakfast, brunch, lunch, and dinner, Fisherman’s is a classic place to grab a bite to eat while touring San Clemente, whether you stop before or after you explore the pier. While you’re visiting the pier, don’t pass up a chance to see the neighboring Casa Romantica Cultural Center, a historic estate that was once the home of Ole Hanson, the founder of San Clemente. Featuring Spanish Revival architecture, breathtaking gardens, and multicultural events, Casa Romantica is another San Clemente icon, and it’s only about a 10-minute walk from the pier!
You don’t need us to tell you what a legendary travel destination LA is. From the Hollywood Sign and Griffith Observatory to the Santa Monica Pier and the Venice Canal Historic District, Los Angeles is a city that never ceases to amaze. You’re sure to fall in love with La-La Land and all of the excitement that it holds! But that doesn’t mean that you have to speed over there from Phoenix—instead, try taking the time to do a little exploring. After all, you never know what you might find when you take the road less traveled!