The drive from San Diego to Las Vegas is probably the best road trip we’ve ever done. From desert roads to mountain passes, the Colorado River to the San Andreas Fault, and Route 66 to America’s best apple pie… It’s the American dream at 70 miles an hour!
Everything you’ve seen in the movies – the road stops, the winding blacktop, the flying yellow line flying down the middle of the road – it’s all true.
And on our recent road trip from San Diego to Las Vegas, we saw it all. If you ever wanted proof that the best way to get a feel of the country is to drive it, this is it.
Here’s a free downloadable doc of our itinerary boiled down for you to use easier.
And here’s an interactive map of where we went to make it a bit clearer:
Our road trip from San Diego, California to Las Vegas, Nevada.
Day 1: San Diego – Palm Springs (via Julian for apple pie)
Driving time: 3h 15m
From San Diego it’s a little over an hour to the little town of Julian – home of award winning pies and some very cute houses!
We popped in for a slice of the action (sorry) and were very impressed. If you want to try American apple pie at its best, go to the Julian Pie Company.
We did try the Apple Alley Bakery’s offerings too, but weren’t as impressed. The people were a bit odd (shouting and having a domestic out the back) and the pies weren’t quite as good.
Feeling a bit sick, we plopped ourselves back in the car and carried on to Palm Springs. The road’s a good one, crossing the Santa Rosa – San Jacinto Mountains, and about half an hour out of Palm Springs, there’s some good hairpin driving.
Accommodation: Ace Hotel, Palm Springs
The Ace is a very cool hotel. Everything here is crafted and styled to within an inch of its life. It used to be a Westward Ho motel with a Denny’s attached. Now it’s a slick, uber-hipster joint with matching restaurant.
Day 2: Palm Springs
We stayed here to explore for the day (plus it bloody well rained) and were pleased we did. There’s an outlet mall about 30 minutes out of town where you can pick up some amazing bargains.
Alternatively, when you’ve seen the town, which shouldn’t take too long, head out into the nearby mountains. There’s a cable car ride you can go on that gives you some amazing views out over the desert.
Accommodation: The Saguaro, Palm Springs
Another hipster hotel, but a little more approachable. Each room is very brightly coloured and has a balcony facing into the pool and resort.
It’s a cool little place and pretty good value.
If you’re looking for something more up-market, you have to stay at the Parker. What an unbelievable hotel that is.
Don’t forget to have a drive around the neighbourhoods before you leave – and check out where Sinatra’s old house at 1148 E. Alejo Road.
Day 3: Palm Springs – Twentynine Palms (via Joshua Tree National Park)
Driving time: 1h direct, longer via Joshua Tree National Park
We didn’t leave much time to explore Joshua Tree National Park so we took the 62 to Alta Olma Drive and the Joshua Tree Visitors’ Center. We chatted to a park ranger, who told us to drive in via the West Entrance Station.
It costs $15 to go into the park. Make sure you buy supplies in Twentynine Palms – the snacks and drinks in the visitor’s centre are ridiculously expensive.
We took what’s known as The North West Loop (though we did it more west north!) with a very worthy detour down to Keys View to check out the San Andreas Fault Line.
Joshua Tree National Park is an incredible, unique habitat, full of these bizarre eponymous trees. There are also magnificent rock features to explore like Skull Rock – and it’s a beautiful drive.
Twentynine Palms is a remote town on the northern border of Joshua Tree, but it’s got plenty going for it in spite of its size.
Accommodation: we stayed in the Best Western Gardens, which was cheap and comfortable. However, we’d recommend staying in the Twentynine Palms Inn on the eastern end of town on Inn Avenue.
Twentynine Palms Inn has the best restaurant and bar in town attached to it.
Other dinner suggestions are: Bistro Twenty-Nine, Edchada’s Mexican, The Rib Co, Rocky’s New York Pizza and Red Lotus Thai and Vietnamese Restaurant.
Day 4: Twentynine Palms, CA – Laughlin, NV (via Route 66, Amboy, Oatman and Bullhead City)
Driving time: 2h 30m direct. Via above locations, it’s a half-day drive.
North of Twentynine Palms, along the Amboy Road, you’ll find saltpans, which are worth stopping for a photo. The Amboy Road ends at a crossroads where it meets Route 66 – also known as the National Trails Highway.
Left is the Amboy Crater – an extinct volcano you can climb.
Route 66 heading east will take you past Amboy itself and Roy’s Motel and Café – a classic Route 66 photo op.
Take Route 66 as far east as you can – it’s not a maintained road any more, so many areas of this fantastic historic road are impassable or closed. Make your way to Needles.
We were planning on spending the night in Needles, but it’s a bit of a sad little town. We did refuel here, which was a mistake. Wait until you get across the Colorado River into Arizona to get petrol. It’s a lot cheaper.
From Needles, we head north on the 95 on the Nevada side of the Colorado River. Then go right on the 153 to Oatman.
Oatman used to be a mining town and produced a lot of gold until the mid-1930s. At its height 10,000 people lived here. Now it’s all but a ghost town, but is popular with tourists.
The donkeys miners used have become feral and roam the streets of this peculiar place. But best of all, it’s here that you can find Route 66 once again.
We headed back south then turned left following 66. It’s called the 10 now, but it’s the best part of the 66, leading you through some great mountain scenery. Going north through Oatman is apparently even better with sharp hairpins steep elevations, but 66 will take you too far east.
For more information on Route 66 from Santa Monica Pier all the way to Chicago, Illinois, check out RoadTripUSA.com
Heading back past Needles, it’s a straight drive along the tri-state border to Bullhead City. We were going to stay here, but realised across the river, in Nevada, the casino town of Laughlin had cheaper accommodation.
Accommodation: Stay in a casino for a great hotel rate. We stayed at the Aquarius Casino Resort and paid the extra $10 for a river view room.
Laughlin itself isn’t the best, but it’s perfect to get you into the Vegas mindset – it’s a bit like Vegas was about 20 years ago! If you’re a non-smoker, you’ll find the casinos all very smoky – the ventilation here isn’t as good as Vegas.
Make sure you check out the Colorado Belle Casino – it’s in the shape of a giant paddle steamer – and the Pioneer Hotel and Gambling Hall for its sheer cheesiness. The Golden Nugget is worth looking at too.
Day 5: Laughlin – Las Vegas
Driving time: 1h 30m
The drive from Laughlin to Vegas is straight forward enough, but its here you’ll see some classic Nevada desert views.
The 95, the 582 then the 592 lead you through the Mojave Desert straight to the famous Las Vegas Strip where your next adventure begins!
Accommodation: We stayed at the Delano – a fantastic hotel that’ll make your time in Vegas so much more memorable.
For more to do in Las Vegas, here’s what we’ve covered so far:
Things to do in Las Vegas – helicopter landing tour of the Grand Canyon
Things to do in Las Vegas – the Neon Museum
Where to eat in Las Vegas – miX at the Delano
One of our top 10 burgers was found here too!
Do you have a favourite road trip? Where would you go if you could take a drive anywhere? What’s the longest road trip you’ve been on? Tell us in the comments!
Just got back over the weekend and we did the drive from LA to Vegas (direct). It took around 5-6 hours as it was a Friday and Valentine’s weekend so extra busy on the highway *cringe*. The scenery was OK, mostly desert, but still interesting.
We also drove the Pacific Coast Highway from San Francisco to Los Angeles over 2 days…and, wow. Just wow. Incredible scenery along the Californian coast. We stopped in Santa Cruz, Monterey, Carmel, various stops through Big Sur for photo opps, McWay falls, San Simeon and San Luis Obispo on Day 1; and then cruised into LA on Day 2 via Pismo Beach, Santa Barbara and Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch, followed by one last in-n-out stop before heading to the airport.
Next time I’d like to explore the coast south of LA a bit more. I love the idea of driving from San Diego and through Palm Springs to Vegas, and breaking it up over several days. Can’t wait for the next one!!
How good is driving in the States, Daisy? I love it. And that Pacific Coast Highway is just a winner. We did the same as you after we left Las Vegas – though we took three days – somehow missing out on things like the waterfall at Big Sur. We did bump into/have dinner with/spot Clint Eastwood in Carmel though, which was pretty cool. And stayed in the most awesome place in Santa Barbara. Can’t wait to get back to America to drive around a bit more now!
Think we’ll avoid that one from LA to Vegas though. It always looks so cool in the movies, but I had a feeling it was prone to traffic issues… a bit like the rest of LA I suppose.
Steph @ Lipstick & Cake
Aaaaah! This post has me so excited for my upcoming San Diego to Palm Springs adventure. CANNOT WAIT.
P.S. How gorgeous is that photo of you two!?! Love! x
Awesome stuff, Steph. You’re going to have an absolute blast! It’s so much fun – a really great drive.
That photo of us looks cute, but in truth that’s my signature wrestling move. Mrs R had just tried to steal my roadtrip Kit Kat. You know how protective I am over my food! 😉
Lydia C. Lee
That looks so great – I’d really love to do that one day (what a magnificent sunset!)
The desert sky is pretty much made for sunsets, Lydia. This is one of those great drives that anyone who loves a road trip should do. Definitely keep it high on your bucket list. 🙂
Lyn@The Travelling Lindfields
The US is a fantastic place for road trips – we’ve done so many I’ve lost count. Looks like you had a great time.
It really is, Lyn. Gas is cheap (or cheaper than Aus anyway!), the roads are superb, and there’s so much to see and do along the way. Very jealous of your road trip tally. Will have to work on ours a bit more! We had such a good time on this one, we can’t wait to get back there.
Wow, this looks like such a great trip. I never really thought America was on my radar, until now. You make it look like fun. I don’t mind a road trip and have done a fair bit of driving in plenty of different countries. I loved driving through Italy and getting lost in the Tuscan countryside. Then there was the time we almost slid off a mountain during a rain storm in Malaysia. Or getting the massive rental car stuck in a narrow cobblestone laneway in France. Ahh, roadtrips!
Ha ha! We’ve had our fair share of rental car nightmares too as it happens, Malinda – including ripping a hole in the side of our car in the south of France! We should compare notes! America is so good for road trips. The distances really lend themselves to a driving holiday. And there are so many places to stop at along the way.
Glad we’ve put the States on your radar though. You won’t regret it. 🙂
Sally@Toddlers on Tour
Wow it’s like you’ve stepped into the past – very cool.
It’s such an amazing drive, Sally. Like you say, apart from the modern road, I don’t think many things have changed in this desert for a very long time. And as for Laughlin, you’re even righter! Step back in time central.
Leah ~ KidBucketList
We did San Diego to Vegas the short way back in January. We saw a lot but it was largely a blur. You’ve almost convinced me that we need to go back and do it the long way. I LOVE driving in the USA. Puts Sydney’s motorways and highways to shame. #teamwanderlust
Hey Leah. Yes, the US roads really are great, aren’t they? That place is just made for road trip holidays! I bet the short way would still be fun, wouldn’t? I mean you still get to drive past a few In N Out Burger places for a start! :-P””
Definitely worth going back to do that drive the long way round though. Such a lot of fun.
Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella
I love me a good road trip and this is a great roundup of your trip! Love the hotels that you stayed in and I have a real soft spot for donkeys. I absolutely love them! 😀
Thanks Lorraine! Yes, those hotels in Palm Springs are so cool. Lots of fun and so different.
I know what you mean about donkeys. They’re usually quite cute. But these ones were totally feral – a bit like the locals! We saw one donkey try and climb into one group’s car then chase it down the road when they drove off. Another one ran after a couple of people and tried really hard to bite them. Entertaining for us… not so much for the other tourists!
Emma + Carla aka the merrymaker sisters
We are heading to the US in July and you’ve inspired us to do this road trip! YAY YAY!
Yay! That’s awesome. You will have the best time. Try and get a mustang too! xx
Amazing trip! And your photos look awesome. Looking forward to doing this someday.
Thanks, Sandra. Yes, it was an amazing trip. Definitely keep it high on your bucket list.
What happens in Adelaide... ends up on Instagram!Mr and Mrs Romance
[…] you’re interested in our roadtrips in the States, here’s what we did on our drive from So Cal to Vegas – the long way – and also our amazing drive south from San Fran to […]
So excited I found this post! Do you have driving directions as a list of route/suggested roads besides what I can decipher from your stops?
Thanks so much!
That’s a great idea, Christi. I’ll put a downloadable page on the post with a clearer itinerary and will email you when it’s ready!
We are doing the same road trip in September, (in a couple of weeks) as part of a larger road trip. I have been following your blog and love it. Would you mind sending me a copy of that itinerary as well? We would really appreciate it.
I would love a clear itinerary as well please. We are doing this trip in early September and we would love to take the same route you did.
Would appreciate it.
Hi Sue. Apologies for not replying sooner. We’re currently away on assignment in Borneo! I absolutely love your idea and will get cracking on making a downloadable itinerary asap. I’ll email you with it as soon as it’s done. Hope preparations for your road trip are going well. What we did is definitely worth fitting in. Such a fascinating part of the country. Speak to you again soon
Hi Sue. Post’s all updated with the itinerary, and I’ll email you your own special copy too! 😉
Hi Mr Romance my husband myself our daughter and soninlaw with a 11 and 4 year old are driving from San Diego to Las Vegas in early June we just need some guidance where we should stay as we don’t want to have a 4 hr drive to Vegas the next day, only having this short time we are wondering where we should head that would be fun for the kids and ourselves also interesting ! We are booked into Vegas for 5 nites and thought the short road trip would be a fun thing to do. Appreciate your feed back
Hi Kym. Sounds like you guys have quite the trip ahead of you! We really enjoyed our drive through California to get to Vegas, NV. It’s a very cool road trip. If you wanted to break the drive up into 2 days with a bit of a detour, there’s plenty to do along the way – mind you, it’s a good idea to take snacks onboard because there aren’t a whole lot of places to stop in for a proper meal in some areas.
My recommendation would be to drive Day 1 to Twentynine Palms on the northern side of Joshua Tree National Park. Going straight there is about a 2-hour drive but on the way you can stop in at Palm Springs. There are some great little cafes and diners there for the kids and the grownups can check out the old stomping grounds of Hollywood royalty.
Either on Day 1 or Day 2 you could explore a little bit of Joshua Tree too. It’s a really interesting national park with some great easy walks around the rocks and down to the spot you can see the San Andreas Fault. If you go into the park via the West Entrance Station and drive the loop to the Utah Trail, you come out in Twentynine Pines.
There are few places to spend the night here, but I’d definitely recommend the Twentynine Palms Inn on the eastern side of town. It’s lovely and has the best food.
On Day 2, it’s a pretty easy drive north to Vegas – though you get to go through the Mojave Desert and drive a little bit of Route 66! There’s also an extinct volcano near the ghost town of Amboy that’s fun to check out, and the famous Roy’s Motel and fuel stop on the road too. After that it’s all the way on Route 15 to the Strip.
I hope this is helpful to you – and thank you for asking for our help with your holiday. It means a lot that you’re willing to trust our recommendations.
Have a lovely trip and please drop me a line if you need any other advice.
Cheers – Jim
Dear Jim and Christina
Thank you so much for the itinerary for your San Diego to Las Vegas road trip. Having spent a few days in Vegas, including the Grand Canyon helicopter, we hired a car and went to Death Valley, Los Angeles and San Diego.
We then followed your route through Julian (apple pie) and stayed in Laughlin at the Golden Nugget. As we had time on our hands, we drove West into Arizona and then north on the I-93.
Santa Claus was just a shed and not worth visiting but Chloride was an absolute gem of a place. The local historical society have recreated the Wild West mining town in a museum and on alternate Saturdays they have a shoot out at high noon. Unfortunately we missed it because of the time change between Nevada and Arizona! We then drove over the Hoover Dam, which we had seen from the air a week before. From there it was back to Las Vegas and off home to Scotland.
Thanks again for the ideas. Incidentally, these were not hairpin bends near Julian. You have to go to the Alps to get proper hairpins (where a bus has to do a 3-point turn to get round the corner)!!
Hi Graeme. Thank you so much for letting us know you followed our itinerary! So glad you enjoyed it. We had a ball on this trip. Chloride sounds great – we’ll have to have a look if we get the chance to drive that way again. Shame you missed the shoot-out though. That would’ve been fun. Quite jealous of you driving the Hoover Dam. We also saw it from the air, but never got to go across it on land. Must be quite the spectacle.
Christina’s been across (and through) the Alps in the past and is always telling me about the incredible tunnels and switchbacks in the mountains there. Must check it out – though I think I’ll have to have the Top Gear music playing while I’m driving!
Anyway, thank you again for your comment. Made our day.
Cheers – Jim
More American than apple pie? The democracy of the humble hotdogMr and Mrs Romance
[…] American Roadtrip – San Diego to Vegas… the long way […]
We loved this road trip, but it took so much longer than expected, because Joshua Tree was so insanely intoxicating. You stopped in so many interesting places – I did it in one day. Never again!
Wow! All in one day! That must’ve been an early start. We almost got stuck in Joshua Tree because we had spent too long in Julien eating pie! If you do get the chance, go back and take the slow road. I mean, it looks like you didn’t miss anything out on your trip (love the photos btw) but spending a few days in Palm Springs is well worth it.