Road trip! Advice?
February 29, 2012 10:54 AM   Subscribe

I’m leaving Tucson, AZ tonight for a last minute solo road trip to San Francisco. I have 7-8 days to drive, so obviously I’ll be taking the scenic route. Where should I stop? What route should I take? What should I do? What should I eat?

I’m headed up to San Francisco to visit family and since I’ve got the time and I’ve always wanted to do a long distance road trip, I’ve decided to drive instead of fly. I’m quite familiar with the Bay Area, but I’ve hardly been anywhere between Phoenix and San Jose.

I’m thinking about staying a day or so in Flagstaff, a couple days in the Grand Canyon, then . . . ? I like hiking (day hikes, 5-7 miles tops, no special gear), wide open countryside, mountains, desert, and cheap food. I’ll have a reliable car, will be staying in hotels/motels, no camping. I’ve lived in Las Vegas, don’t need to do anything around there; been through Death Valley very briefly but wouldn’t mind going again. I’ve never been to Yosemite, is it possible to drive through this time of year? (I notice that google maps tends to route me completely around it rather than through).

I think I can just futz around and make it through fine, but I don’t want to miss anything spectacular, or end up driving through Bakersfield to Fresno as my GPS will suggest. Any tips? Suggestions? What stretches will be the most boring and can be done after dark?
posted by skewed to Travel & Transportation (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I asked a similar question not too long ago. Some of those answers may help you.
posted by hamandcheese at 11:13 AM on February 29, 2012

Sorry, should have actually linked that.
posted by hamandcheese at 11:15 AM on February 29, 2012

Just a general suggestion to take the 1 north to SF, starting anywhere N of San Luis Obispo. That's the quintessential HWY-1 stretch—a twisty two-lane hugging a cliff and hurtling over the ocean. It's utterly breathtaking and really fun to drive. Just don't get distracted ogling the beautiful scenery.

Stay off the 5 as much as possible.
posted by carsonb at 11:17 AM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I highly recommend Flagstaff and its environs. I lived in Tucson for a number of years, and when my wife and I tired of endless saguaro, we'd head up that way.

I'd highly recommend the Arizona Mountain Inn if it's within your budget- it's usually not much more than a motel in town, but the quiet, comfort, and beauty of the inn is worth it to us.

There's a good microbrewery/restaurant in town (Beaver Street Brewery), a cool coffee shop (Macy's), and a breakfast place with the greatest Eggs Benedict I've had (La Bellavia).

Nearby is Sedona (beautiful town and hiking) and a number of really cool Native American cliff dwellings.

Have a great trip!
posted by EKStickland at 11:26 AM on February 29, 2012

If you take Highway 1 up the coast (which you should if you can), check to see if it's open first. The Big Sur Blog (verbose) and the CHP (terse) have conditions.
posted by zsazsa at 11:27 AM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Monterey Bay Aquarium
posted by Heart_on_Sleeve at 12:02 PM on February 29, 2012

Just a general suggestion to take the 1 north to SF, starting anywhere N of San Luis Obispo.

Carsonb speaks truth.

Also, it would only take you about 3 days to drive this stretch (even if you stop in 4 places along the way), and you'd be able to stay at Deetjen's while you're heading up the coast and by god you should.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:30 PM on February 29, 2012

This whole area is pretty incredible, but out of your way. It’s out of everyone’s way, everywhere. There is nothing there and you will understand the saying "middle of nowhere".,-109.813611&spn=0.1,0.1&t=m&q=37.236389,-109.813611
posted by bongo_x at 12:39 PM on February 29, 2012

The Sierras are sort of finally getting their winter dose of snow, so keep that in mind depending on what sort of vehicle you are driving. A trip to Bodie may not be doable if the weather is bad (it says closed during inclement weather), but is a fantastic place. There are some really great primitive hot springs out there too.

I've done a Central Valley to Southeastern AZ drive a few times, and my favorite route would be to cross at Tahoe, down 395 (Bodie, Mono Lake, Saline Valley (4wd only), Death Valley), then shoot west and up a bit through LV to Zion. Someday I'd like to do lots of exploring in Southern Utah (Arches, Escalante, Brice Canyon) but the few times we did this we didn't have time. From there shoot down to Flagstaff.

In my opinion you should avoid LA/SoCal at all costs (TRAFFIC/Concrete Jungle), and only cross the Valley, don't drive up it (endless monotony).
posted by Big_B at 12:48 PM on February 29, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for the suggestions all, I'm still debating. I should have mentioned, I have driven down PCH 1 from SF down to Monterrey before, and driven up from Santa Barbara to SF. I may do it again, but all things being equal I'd rather go somewhere I've never been.
posted by skewed at 1:13 PM on February 29, 2012

I did a cross country trip in late December, early January 2010 that involved driving Tuscon to Phoenix to Grand Canyon to Las Vegas to Death Valley to San Francisco. That was all pretty awesome - though I'm from the East Coast (we started in Vermont) so some of the terrain that was amazing to me might be expected for you.

I am sad that on my trip we drove right by the Casa Grande Ruins during the Tuscon to Phoenix segment yet did not stop. So I think you stop there so that I might vicariously live through you. ^_^

Also in Arizona, I'd say drive through Sedona (take 179, then 89a off of I-17), but I'm not sure what the snow cover is like? And that matters because the pass up through the mountains towards Flagstaff looks like this. The red cliffs and canyons are beautiful, it doesn't add *that* much time. We didn't even do anything in Sedona, it was just a beautiful drive.

After the Grand Canyon.... We stayed in Williams which was cheap, though our hotel was unheated, watch out for that. (If you have room in the car, it wouldn't hurt to pack a fleece blanket just in case). We drove Seligman to Kingman on Rte 66 instead of I-40 which took longer, but now I can say I've been on Route 66! I'm not sure if I necessarily recommend that - I enjoyed it, but again, I'm from the northeast. Kingman is super depressing, though.

Again, if I'd had time, I'd have checked out Lake Mead a bit more. Hoover Dam was worth seeing.

If you decide to do Death Valley, make sure you are prepared - there really isn't anything for miles on either side and leaving on the south/west side (toward Searles) involves crossing a 5000 ft mountain pass. Just make sure your car is in good shape.

To cross the Sierras, we drove south toward Bakersfield then cut across near Isabella Lake on CA route 178. That was one of my favorite parts of the trip. Desert and Joshua trees on side, Central Valley on the other. Again, it was totally dry and lacking in snow when I went, but check road conditions.

By that point it was dark and we wanted to make SF that night, so we more or less just took I-5 north. I would take anything else that seemed reasonable, I-5 is like the most boring road ever conceived. It makes I-95 look interesting. (Well, except for in South Carolina, can't nothing help that.)

Oh, and yeah, anything in Yosemite will be snowed the fuck out, so don't even bother. Tioga Pass is barely open in April.
posted by maryr at 1:35 PM on February 29, 2012

(BTW: We did Burlington, VT, to Berkeley, CA, in 10 days via New Orleans. If I had the time, there are about a million more places I'd have gone, especially in the southwest. Based on what I did get to see, which was almost all driving rather than visiting, I really do recommend the route we took, except the I-5 bit. That said - I don't think you can go wrong with a National Monument. Seriously. They are all awesome.)
posted by maryr at 1:37 PM on February 29, 2012

I would go the southern route and stop in Joshua Tree. It's cold in the high desert this time of year, but you can stay in one of the many cabin-type places. I recommend Spin and Margie's if you don't mind more of a hotel-like scene, or Rimrock Ranch in Pioneertown. Green Acres Ranch has a couple of great cabins and is more secluded. All of them are close to the park.

And any time I'd go to Joshua Tree, I'd always stop at Cabazon for pie at The Wheel Inn, as seen in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. Be warned that creationists have infected the dinosaurs, but they are still cool.
posted by Kafkaesque at 4:52 PM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh and should you take my sage advice and visit Joshua Tree, make an appointment for a sound bath at the Integratron in Landers.
posted by Kafkaesque at 4:54 PM on February 29, 2012

Seconding J-Tree. Please, go to J-Tree. It is lovely. When I was last there it was winter, and my partner and I found this huge empty patch of land and walked out into the middle. There we did some serious star-gazing. Nothing, no one, no wind, no bugs, no other people, bothered us and we could just lie there and look up.
posted by jet_silver at 7:40 PM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

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