What do I need to know for a road trip from California to Arizona?
April 27, 2016 7:24 PM   Subscribe

I just quit my job and I need to get away from my life for a while. I want to take a road trip by myself to Arizona, but I've never been on one before. Actually, I've never left the Bay Area since I was a kid. Does anyone have some kind of advice, things that newbie travelers usually neglect that I should know about?

I've got a little hatchback car that I plan to sleep in, and was going to take only a single backpack (couple changes of clothes, trail mix, water, sunscreen, my phone), and keep myself entertained with audio books (see previous question). I don't have any specific designations other than, maybe, the Grand Canyon. I don't really want to do the tourist thing, I just want the experience of being very far away and alone for a while. I thought I would improvise the pitstops (using my phone) and keep to major highways. I have a gym membership that allows me access to all their locations, so I figured I would use those if I really need a shower.

Am I too ill-prepared?
posted by picklenickle to Travel & Transportation (19 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Bring some additional food, maybe a tent & sleeping bag, and be prepared to spend a day or two in a motel or whatever if something goes wrong. You'll only be a few days from home, max, so not too terrible should anything happen. I went for a ~month long trip last summer, and food, water, books, fire equipment/stove, and cash were all necessities.

I would recommend the Virgin River Recreation Area. I stayed there for a night last summer and my campsite looked like this.
posted by papayaninja at 7:37 PM on April 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't worry about being too ill-prepared. If you find that you really need something during your trip, most things can be picked up a store along the way. That said, here are some things I find handy when I'm on roadtrips:

paper maps (sometimes service is shit or your phone is dead/dying)
jug(s) of water
windshield sunshades (great for privacy when you're sleeping/changing in the car)
a cooler (not necessary, but nice)
a journal

Something else to consider is if you're heading to the Grand Canyon anyway, why not get a National Parks Pass and hit up all the nice parks along the way? They are usually great when you want to feel far away and alone.
posted by finally at 7:46 PM on April 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

I think you're ideally prepared.
Do take lots of extra water just in case of breakdown somewhere. My daughter & I drove 20 miles down a dirt road then had a flat and found the spare was also flat.
As papayaninja suggests, a sleeping bag will be useful if you're sleeping in the car, and a tarp and sleeping pad would be good if you sleep under the stars.
posted by anadem at 7:48 PM on April 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

If your car is at all not reliable, you might consider getting a AAA or similar membership. If you break down in the middle of nowhere, tows can be expensive.

If you're going onto the backroads, you may not have cell phone signal. If you see a sign saying last gas for 100 miles or whatever, you might do well to fill up.

Bring a backup pair of sunglasses. Bring water bottles and clips so you can hang them off you clothes or backpack if you go hiking.
posted by Candleman at 8:06 PM on April 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

Great idea. Arizona is an incredible state. Since others are giving you good advice about things to bring along, I'll give you some location ideas.

Keep in mind that time of year matters. During the summer, Phoenix's 4 million residents all leave the city in droves. It can be a bit more challenging to find good campgrounds throughout the state, particularly in areas closer to Phoenix (like Sedona/Flagstaff/Prescott, or the Rim Country). During the winter, the northern and eastern part of the state (which are mountainous and forested) can get awfully cold and so get fewer tourists... and Phoenix turns into a crowded zoo of tourism as all the snowbirds and golfers descend on the Valley.

A savvy traveler goes during the late spring or during the fall, where you get the best of everywhere... the desert is cool enough to enjoy (though beware, to a Bay Area kid, it's going to be hot pretty much any time of year), and the mountains aren't too cold yet either.

Here are some great places to visit:

Northern and Central Arizona:
  • The Grand Canyon. Everyone should see it at some point in their lives if they are able. It is the greatest natural wonder in the United States, and we're a country that is completely spoiled in that regard. Protip: the South Rim is the crowded, touristy way to visit (while it's touristy, it's still very beautiful). The North Rim is where Arizonans and locals try to go (if they can manage the drive). It's more remote, it's up in the forest, it also has amazing picturesque views, and it's far less crowded.
  • Sedona. While it is full of hippies, crystals, UFO woo, and tourist trap nonsense, it's utterly beautiful. Photo ops abound. It's such a unique landscape.
  • Prescott. A charming town that has grown quite a bit over the years. Its downtown has a beautiful Civil War era courthouse and good places to eat and drink. The city has many great parks with places to hike. (By the way, locals pronounce it PRESS-kit, not PRESS-cot).
  • Flagstaff. A hippie and outdoorsy college town in the forest- a hotspot for skiers, athletes, and vacationers. Great places to hike, run, and ride bikes during the summer. Plenty of good spots to eat and drink in its downtown area.
  • The Mogollon Rim. (Pronounced Muggie-yon by Arizonans, an anglicized version of the correct Spanish pronunciation.) A natural wonder... a massive escarpment that stretches for many miles. Great views from atop it. Above the rim is "Rim Country," a forested region with tons of great places to camp and many lakes and reservoirs. Towns in this region include Payson, Heber, and Show Low.
  • Phoenix. During the summer, Phoenix's finest hotels (some of the finest in the country) can be unbelievably cheap. While much of the city is dull suburbia, it still is a huge city and has all the amenities that come with that- many tremendous places to eat and drink in particular. Phoenix's parks are also unique- there is nothing like it in any other metro area in the US. Phoenix is unique in that it has a number of foothills within the city limits that have amazing hiking trails. Camelback Mountain is probably the most famous example of an outstanding hike in the middle of the city, and South Mountain is one of the largest city parks (if not the largest) in the US. If you like to hike and mountain bike it's heavenly. Just be smart as a tourist: do not go out and hike in the desert during the summer. Not even if you think you are prepared. Not even if you bring tons of water.
Eastern Arizona:
    The White Mountains. While portions of the White Mountains are still damaged by recent major forest fires, it's still a beautiful area with gorgeous meadows, tall forests, and many rivers and reservoirs.
Southern Arizona:
  • Tucson. The Old Pueblo probably has the best Mexican (or truthfully, Arizona-style Mexican) food in the state. It's the birthplace of the chimichanga, for example, one of the greatest foods known to man. It's a college town in a number of ways, with cool concert venues, good bars, and hip hotels. Phoenix residents look down on Tucson as it's admittedly the older and dirtier city... but it has some history and culture that Phoenix doesn't.
  • Mount Lemmon and Mount Graham. Two great mountains to camp at, with tons of great places to hike.
  • The Chiricahuas. Do you like birdwatching? During the spring and summer, this place has some of the best birdwatching in the world. This national monument is on the flight path for many migratory species. And don't forget... if you're coming to Arizona... Utah isn't that far away. Zion and Bryce Canyon would be amazing stops to make on your way to Arizona, or on your way home to the Bay Area.

posted by Old Man McKay at 8:06 PM on April 27, 2016 [6 favorites]

Have someone with whom you can check in on a regular basis. Someone who knows your rough itinerary and who will send the cavalry if you go awol.

Seconding, AAA. They were lifesavers on a previous trip of mine.
posted by Beti at 8:08 PM on April 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'd get the largest external battery pack charger thingy I could find (>10,000MaH). Some of them can jumpstart a car, so maybe that's a feature that would be useful for this trip.

I did this trip about 25 years ago to go touring skateparks. The idea was to go to Texas, but since it was mid-August, we melted in Phoenix and couldn't go any further. Eastern California is extremely boring, drivewise, so you'll have plenty of isolation time wherever you decide to camp.

Don't buy Cheetos to snack on. Trust me on this, you'll finish the trip with orange all over the inside of your car.
posted by rhizome at 8:08 PM on April 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Guys building the Hoover Dam drank 6 gal. of water a day, it never hurts to have too much water. Check all the rubber on your car, spare tire, engine belts and hoses. I always carry a big knife/ small hatchet, small shovel, a lighter and a 100 ft. of light rope. Download a coverage map for your cell company before you need to know how big a no coverage area is.

posted by ridgerunner at 8:15 PM on April 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

Just to add to the water thing: Lots of water for you. Water and/or an extra jug of coolant for the car as well. Cali can be hot. Arizona can be hot. Cars heat up if you go up steep hills. Also, if this is even a potential issue, turn off your AC when you're climbing a steep hill.

Don't assume you can legally sleep in your car just anywhere - a rest stop is fair game, but in lots of counties, the side of the road isn't.
posted by Gucky at 8:30 PM on April 27, 2016 [2 favorites]


Aw hell, I'll just cut'n'paste it:
Most truck seats are actually pretty comfy when you kick 'em back. I've also spent at least three weeks (total) kicked back in my Del Sol driver seat, and before that, a month or two in a CRX. Sleeping in the back of an SUV sounds positively luxurious. That said, here's some advice.

-Make sure your head is not lower than your feet. It's grossly disorienting. Head up a little ain't bad. Side to side slope blows.
-Even if you sleep in your clothes, take everything out of your pockets and take your belt off.
-If it's cold, wear a hat. A watch cap can be unfolded to cover your eyes.
-A camo boonie hat (bucket hat) goes a loooong way (esp if you get a haircut before you go) toward the law not giving you a lot of trouble. Especially if you "nossir" and "yessir".
-Take your goddamn socks off. It'll smell for a few minutes, but you'll thank me. Otherwise, even if it's cold, at some point in the night your feet will sweat and your socks will be terrible in the morning.
-Pull in after dark, amscray for sunrise. Set your phone alarm for 45 minutes before sunrise. And don't forget to turn the ringer on.
-Leave one inch of window down for each person in the car. Cracking two windows gets a crossdraft, which will stave off indoor fog.
-Piss before you park.
-If you sleep in the car seats, fold a towel over three times and put it under your lower back.
-An old blanket folded up to make an extra-firm pillow is better than the pillows from home.
-If you forget to piss before you park, or if you have a squirrel bladder, make sure there's a flashlight or headlamp you can find in the dark. Hang it from the hanger hook, or in a door pocket. The headlamps that have a "red" setting are pretty awesome for not completely WAKING THE FUCK UP when you just want to pee and go back to bed.
-Figure out how to turn the dome light on, and how to turn it back to "on when doors are open" before you bed down.
-A mummy bag, worn backwards and left unzipped, covers your face from light and is warmer than a blanket.

Food ideas:
-Oatmeal. Most gas stations won't mind if you take a little of the hot water from the coffee tap and put it into a go cup.
-nutrition bars. Twice a year, for a week at a time, I live on Zone, Clif, and Builder bars, and beer.
-Propel and Crystal Lite packets. Mix two in a one-quart nalgene and fill with water from the gallon jugs you brought along.
-Gorp. Make your own. Not just for hiking.

Other road-trip/camping advice:
-Wool socks.
-Take an extra day or two of any medicine you may take, and make sure there's some at home where someone can find it and overnight it to you, just in case.
-Medicated foot powder is also great for preventing crotch-rot.
-Don't forget duck and electrical tape. I've held lenses, shoes, and watches together for weeks.
-Parachute cord is godlike.
-Wool socks.
-Don't forget your sunglasses. Or your clothes, so when the pants you're wearing get a rip right through your skivvies, you have to borrow your friend's oversized pants and wear nothing but surfer pants and a pair of Tevas for a week. Ask me how I know.
-Put a spare key on a piece of rope around your neck. Do not take it off except to use it.
-Wool socks.

(just for credibility's sake, I've probably spent four [edit] five months of my life sleeping in cars.)
posted by notsnot at 8:37 PM on April 27, 2016 [6 favorites]

Piddle Pail.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:47 PM on April 27, 2016

Eat all the produce you buy in AZ before you come back to CA or it will be confiscated at the mandatory state line stop.
posted by brujita at 9:46 PM on April 27, 2016

Plenty of the drive will be boring. I was surprised by how much nothingness there is. Have fun stopping at the rest stops and weird little tourist places.

I like to pack a variety of snacks: sweet, salty, crunchy, soft, wet, dry...

Definitely write down directions or get a map. You won't always have service.

Definitely go to the Grand Canyon. (Me on the way to the Grand Canyon: "Yes, I've seen pictures. I'm sure it's very large and pretty." Me staring at the Grand Canyon IRL: *quiet sobbing*)
posted by meemzi at 10:12 PM on April 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Buy a paper map in a gas station when you get into each new state. Phones are great, but they have no-coverage zones and batteries that die. And if you're trying to be alone, incessant Twitstagrambook notifications whenever you check directions are going to kill that real fast.

Staff at state and national parks are extremely friendly and can point you towards awesome stuff to see and do nearby.

Bring more water than you think you need, and maybe a camera that, again, isn't your phone.

Have fun!
posted by Dilligas at 12:03 AM on April 28, 2016

Don't forget AZ is hot. Weather should be lovely right now, but it usually gets hot, meaning 100+, in May sometime and stays that way well into September.

So... if your car lacks AC, I'd rent one that has it. Driving in a car without AC when it's like 110F is debilitating.

Also: sunscreen, good sunglasses. and a hat. And, stay hydrated. It's arid, and away from urban areas you will often see single-digit humidity. Definitely not like the Bay area.

Arizona is not a small place, so be sure you gauge distance correctly.

Also, keep an eye on your gas gauge outside the few urban sprawls. You won't see a service station every 10 minutes.

Take some care where you park if you spend the night in the car. Me? I'd opt for motels.

Also, if you plan on using gyms, be sure there is actually one near you. Many sights, like the Canyon, are a long way from a city of any size. (Again, a vote for motels. They will be there in touristed areas. Gyms? Not so much.)
posted by justcorbly at 4:45 AM on April 28, 2016

A lot of RV parks didn't care that I was sleeping in my jeep, but some did. I usually paid less for a night in a RV park than a state park. And the RV parks usually had better wifi. I felt safe at all the parks and rv campsites I stayed at, though some were sketchier than others (Texarkana, looking at you)

Since so many of the RV parks and campsites I was in had electricity hookups, I could have brought a small microwave. I honestly wish I had thought of that on my ~month long car survival trip. If its cold, and you are eating cold food and bars and such, having a hot meal/coffee tea or hot chocolate/ restaurant food is a major morale boost.

If you are sleeping in the trunk/cargo section of your car, it is HARD. My little thin camping mat, blanket, and sleeping bag was NOT enough padding, and I got lucky in finding a foam pad at a dollar store.

Do you know how cold it will get a night? I forgot my sleeping bag once in 30 degree weather, and it was miserable.

Bring at least four gallons of water. I used milk jugs. Keep them topped off.

I bought a backup phone battery (chargeable by usb, so it also worked with my car phone charger) and a wall charger. It was sometimes difficult keeping my phone charged when out in the middle of nowhere. I used it for entertainment, navigation, and safety calls, so I was glad I had lots of charging options. I spent several cold and wet evenings in a Mcdonalds using their wifi and wall outlets.

Can you plug your audio entertainment into your car's sound system? If not, I'd have wanted external speakers for my phone... I didn't trust wearing headphones (also possibly illegal? I think so!) and it was a pain to get my phone where I could hear my audiobooks.

I used Overdrive to get free audiobooks. Driving hundreds of miles over dozens of hours burned through a lot of audiobooks.

You can not guarantee cell coverage!!! This is super important. Also, keep a firm eye on your gas. Running out is terrible. I didn't ever need a spare container of gas, but I seriously thought about having one, just in case. Also, yeah, AAA was cheap for the peace of mind it bought me. I never really needed it, but not having to worry about insane towing fees from the middle of nowhere (or even finding someone to tow!) was. priceless.

Bring toilet paper. sunscreen. a flashlight. Bug repellent possibly. a good hat or two (one for sun, one for cold) and sunglasses. Bring at least one bath towel. Comfortable shoes. I also had trash bags and ziploc bags; I didn't use many of the trash bags but the ziplocs were my main storage for... everything, really. I genuinely was glad I had something to pee in at night... such a pain.

I carried a few hundred in cash, most of it hidden, but most places I hit took cards.

Overall, it was really easier than expected. Lots of little details to work out at first, and I sorta regret doing it in the winter. Test your sleeping spot for comfort. Seriously: Bath towel, and TP, warm clothes if it will get below 50. Take lots of pictures, and have fun :)
posted by Jacen at 9:14 AM on April 28, 2016

When I was 65 I sold almost everything, bought an RV, and hit the road. So here's some comments.
1. If you go to Tucson, check out the Desert Museum. Also in AZ, Montezuma's Castle and Chaco Canyon.
2. Bryce Canyon and Zion Park in Utah are spectacular and not far from AZ, though you'll have to the northside of the Grand Canyon to get there.
3. Get the National parks pass. In summer, you may have to make a reservation.
4. Don't forget to carry water. And a pee bucket as somebody mentioned (my first trip out west was in a car; the RV had a toilet) -- I used a plastic cereal holder with a sealing lid, easy to hold with one hand, tp in the other, then put lid on and empty when convenient. Getting out of the car to pee puts you in a vulnerable position.
5. You can get free maps at State Welcome Centers, shortly after crossing the border. Always have paper maps.
6. Almost forgot about the new glass viewing bridge at the Grand Canyon (not if you have vertigo, though).
7. Near Tucson is San Xavier Mission on the Tohono O'odham Reservation. and nearby is Kitt Peak Observatory and you can take a tour of the telescopes -- they have a huge solar daytime telescope and a neat gift shop. Down in Green Valley south of Tucson are small towns with artist colonies.
8. If you drive west after the Mission you'll eventually wind up where the boojum trees are and in Organ Pipe Park, nice and eerie.
I once lived in LA and drove out into the desert for hours just for some peace and quiet. Turned off the car and drank in the silence. Then an ATV came barrelling down the cliff. Hope your trip goes better than that. Enjoy.
posted by MovableBookLady at 9:28 AM on April 28, 2016 [4 favorites]

Oh! the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff is totally worth it. A really amazing collection.
posted by notsnot at 10:47 AM on April 28, 2016

Water. Water. Water. Make sure you have plenty. And be ready for your cell phone not to have reception. There are several areas where you may not have it. I have AAA with 100 mile towing coverage added because there are places where you may be 50 miles from help, and you don't want to have to a. figure out who to call for a tow and b. pay a fat towing bill.

Grand Canyon? If you've never seen it, you must. I'd seen it before, but last October I backpacked it for two nights. It now owns me. I did another two nighter in February and I have a one-night permit in a couple of weeks. I have so many hikes I wanna do there. The North Rim is much quieter, but it is a much longer (albeit beautiful) drive, and the road will be closed until May 15th, as will the services at the North Rim. The South Rim does have a lot more to do, with the west rim and east rim drives.

Zion isn't far off. Bryce Canyon isn't either. Lake Powell is beautiful. There so much to see out here I don't know where to start.

If you have the time, and you can afford this trip, do it. You may not get another chance to run off like this for a while.
posted by azpenguin at 3:58 PM on April 28, 2016

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