SoCal Holiday Road Trip Tips?
December 10, 2009 6:55 PM   Subscribe

I'll be embarking on a two week road trip from just before Christmas until just after the new year. My plan is to drive south out of the SF Bay Area and spend most of my time in southern California, possibly with forays into Az, Nevada, and Mexico. My interests are nature, archaeology, and history, and I'm an avid photographer. Tell me about the places I shouldn't miss.

I'm considering the obvious destinations: Death Valley, the Salton Sea, Pinnacles, and Joshua Tree. I also intend to spend some time in San Diego, visiting the zoo and wild animal park. Beyond that I'm eager to hear your suggestions about roads to drive, places to stay, places to stop, and places to skip.

Bonus points for forgotten little picturesque attractions, and double bonus points for practical tips on visiting Mexico for a few days.
posted by Capostrophe to Travel & Transportation around California (13 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
On your AZ leg, you might want to head north from Phoenix on the I-17 and see Montezuma Castle.

Continue north and then a bit westward from Flagstaff along historic Route 66 to the Grand Canyon.

Then head out through the northeast corner of the state toward New Mexico to see the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest and possibly Canyon de Chelly.

All of these have historic significance, some have significant archaeological sites and most are particularly picturesque.

If you're going the southern route from AZ to New Mexico akong I-10, it's less notable (IMHO), but you can stop at Picacho Peak, the Casa Grande Ruins and swing by Tombstone, AZ, site of the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

Phoenix has its own attractions, of course, and a googling could elucidate those well enough. I usually like to take visitors to the Desert Botanical Gardens in Papago Park, though, on the east side of the metro area. Lots of flora that most folks unfamiliar with the desert have never seen. And they often have art exhibits there, as well.

It's near the Phoenix Zoo, a good zoo as zoos go, but honestly, San Diego's is better, so you could give ours a skip if you've had the chance to stop in SD.

Drive with plenty of extra drinking water when you're driving in AZ. Drink more frequently than you are accustomed to, as it's very dry here and easy to dehydrate even when carrying on regular activities. Sun screen, a hat and sunglasses are highly recommended (the sun can really do a number on you here, even in the cooler months).

Good luck on your trip and have fun!
posted by darkstar at 7:25 PM on December 10, 2009

i didn't get to explore as much as i'd like when i lived down there, but this place i found mesmerizing. i spotted it on google maps and had to go there.

then again, i think everything in the desert southwest is incredible.
posted by klanawa at 7:35 PM on December 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

See the Getty Museum and the Bradbury Building in Los Angeles. LA has a TON of great museums. depends what you want.

Just north of Phoenix is Taliesin West. Gorgeous! Between Phoenix and Tucson is Biosphere 2. They give tours every day.

In Tucson is the Pima Air Museum, which houses amazing aircraft!

South of Tucson is the Titan 2 Missile Museum and the "White Dove of the Desert", the Mission San Xavier del Bac, which is AMAZING inside!

All I really know of Nevada is Vegas, but there are many ghost towns, abandoned mining towns, etc. So you might look at Calico ghost town in SoCal.
posted by Jinx of the 2nd Law at 7:43 PM on December 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you plan to go to Mexico, please be aware that you will need to present your passport to return to the U.S. More information is at the State Department's page on Mexico.
posted by snugglebunny at 7:44 PM on December 10, 2009

And if you drive into Mexico make sure you get insurance (there's a ton of places near the border that will do -- I like Sanborns but they're all the same. Or at least I guess so since I've never actually had to use it.
posted by birdherder at 8:24 PM on December 10, 2009

Going to AZ? You must visit Arcosanti. Crazy middle-of-nowhere city of the future/past.
posted by khedron at 8:33 PM on December 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Coachella Valley Preserve and the Indian Canyons are pretty special places if you're near Palm Springs. Cabot's Pueblo Museum is interesting and there are some incredible views from the tramway. The Living Desert in Palm Desert is great.

And just down the road from Joshua Tree, Pappy and Harriet's is a great place for beer and good live music.

And there's always the Integratron.

As for weather, it could be either cold or very warm in Palm Springs and Salton Sea, but will most likely be cold(maybe even snowy) here in Joshua Tree during your visit. The drive into Joshua Tree/ Yucca Valley from either Victorville or Barstow is my preferred route home. I hate Interstate 10.
And that route takes you right past the Blackhawk Slide.
posted by buggzzee23 at 9:34 PM on December 10, 2009 [3 favorites]

Be sure to leave an itinerary with friends and check in regularly. The desert is an alien and hostile place even in winter. People and cars still vanish and aren't found for years here despite all our modern technology. The high desert will almost certainly be very cold so take plenty of warm clothing in addition to emergency supplies that include several days worth of water, food and a sleeping bag. You will likely be without cell phone reception for several hours at a time as you travel through this area, so don't count on being able to call for help in an emergency unless you're packing one of these.

As appealing as they may be, stay out of mineshafts (PDF). They are deadly. There are thousands of unmarked vertical shafts scattered across the desert, so always look where you're going or you can wind up at the bottom of one. That's one of the best ways to vanish without a trace and never be heard from again.

Another SoCal hazard in the wintertime are roadside ice chutes. Some are along side highways and people have stopped to pee or take a photo and fallen to their deaths.
posted by buggzzee23 at 10:05 PM on December 10, 2009

If you're heading from SF to Death Valley, stop at Mono Lake.

In Arizona, most folks visit the Grand Canyon and Sedona, but IMHO Southern AZ has some of the most amazing sites for history, nature, archeology, and photography. Here are a few of my favorites:
Organ Pipe National Park and Saguaro National Park
San Xavier del Bac Mission and Tumacacori
Kartchner Caverns and Bisbee
and my absolute favorite: the Chiricahua's
Take in these sites and you'll have an amazing trip!
posted by kbar1 at 10:44 PM on December 10, 2009

I'd thoroughly recommend the Hearst Castle, which is one of those things that you should really take the chance to see if you can. Weird and unique.
posted by essexjan at 5:31 AM on December 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you all for the great tips!
posted by Capostrophe at 7:30 AM on December 11, 2009

The Salton Sea and Joshua Tree are two of my favorite photo-destinations within a day's drive from San Diego. From Escondido (where the Wild Animal Park is, and where I happen to live and work), you can take the highway 78 east to get through the mountains and through Anza Borrego desert and out to the Salton Sea. Anza Borrego itself is worth a visit; it has nice camping and hiking sometimes you can see bighorn sheep in the mountains. Joshua Tree also has camping and a few lodges. The desert will most likely be very cold this time of year, so bring warm clothes.

Seconding essexjan's Hearst Castle recommendation. The nearby town of Cambria is also pretty cute and scenic. On the drive down the coast from Hearst Castle, you can stop through Paso Robles for great wine tasting and more stark, scenic views. You can also make a stop in Kings Canyon/Sequoias National Park on the way down. It's snowy and gorgeous this time of year. For photos of all these places, check my Flickr stream (link is on my profile).

When you go to the San Diego Zoo, you might want to make a stop into the Natural History Museum, in Balboa Park right near the zoo. Balboa Park is a very pretty place, built for a World's Fair. I've lived in San Diego almost all my life, so if you email me I can give you specific recommendations on other things, places to eat, specifics on the zoo and the Wild Animal Park. If you're interested in science and/or libraries, you can come visit me at the WAP's research library. Enjoy your trip! The southwest is beautiful.
posted by booknerd at 9:43 AM on December 11, 2009 [2 favorites]

Since you're interested in archaeology, the San Diego Archaeological Center may be of interest to you. It's only two miles down the road from the Wild Animal Park.
posted by vespertine at 1:28 PM on December 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

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