Driving from Phoenix to Yuma to San Diego… and vice versa!

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Why we chose to drive instead of flying

Researching online, I knew the driving distance from Phoenix to San Diego is approximately 570km/ 350miles, and it was going to take about six hours to drive from Phoenix to San Diego, cactus to coast. We’d done enough flying recently and I though that, if we drove, we probably wouldn’t be far off the time it took to mess around returning rental cars at both ends and the airport waiting times catching flights. Decision made – we would be driving down the I-8 between Phoenix, through Yuma, and on to San Diego with little man.

My Phoenix, AZ, to San Diego, CA, estimated driving time of six to seven hours turned out to be pretty accurate. If you’re going to stop everywhere we mention below, I’d add a couple more hours on though. You may also hit traffic at the Mexican/US border checkpoints, so be aware of that. On the flip side, if you don’t plan on stopping at all, you could probably do it in 5hr 30mins.

We weren’t sure how little man would take being cooped up in the car for so long, but we needn’t have worried. He was happy with his Kindle tablet (see review here) and he especially loved our stop at the garage near Gila Bend.

If you’re going to take the plunge and drive from Phoenix to San Diego, what is there to see on the way to break your journey up? There’s actually more than the internet suggests! We’ve not included absolutely everything (we’re still adding though!), but these stops should break up your journey fairly evenly. See the map below to pick out your route attractions.

Gila Bend

Not quite Gila Bend itself, but what’s not to love at this stop for little kids? Giant dinosaur sculptures at the Shell garage at Butterfield Trail make it a perfect place to stop and stretch your legs and refresh. I think the metal statues change sometimes, so you’ll never quite know what you’ll find!

If you’re looking for things to do in Gila Bend itself, have a look at the town’s Gila Bend website here.

Telegraph Pass Trailhead

Before you reach Yuma, you’ll find the Telegraph Pass and Telegraph Pass Trailhead. Now, this is an actual hiking trail, which is pretty hard-going in places, so is not for beginners.

If you’re driving all the way to San Deigo, or don’t hike, you won’t want to do it all. However, you can always just head out for a half hour walk. Make sure you sign the guestbook before you head out, take plenty of water and make sure the kids listen to you.

Yuma

Yuma is the last city you’ll hit in Arizona, before you head into California. You could easily spend a day here, so could break up the drive with an overnight stay.

How far is Yuma from Phoenix? The distance Phoenix to Yuma is just short of 300km or 180 miles, and takes about 3 hours to drive. The distance from Yuma to San Diego is then approx 280km or 170 miles, with a similar driving time of just under 3 hours. This makes Yuma the perfect halfway point on your road trip.

Attractions in Yuma include the Territorial State Prison Historic Park, the Castle Dome Mines Museum and Ghost Town, several heritage areas – Yuma Crossing and Proving Ground – historic parks, camel farms and wildlife areas, so definitely worth a stop over if you’re not in a rush.


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Yuma is situated roughly half way between Phoenix and San Diego, so perfect to break the trip up if you’re doing a slow drive. If you are looking for accommodation around Yuma, here’s the link for up-to-date Yuma hotel prices on Hotels.com


 

Museum of History in Granite

The Museum of History in Granite is a collection of 400 granite panels, detailing history over the last thousand years. Teamed up with the
Centre of the World Chapel and Maze of Honour, it’s a pretty unique place, and worthy of a stop off in the town of Felicity. This is also where you’ll find the ‘centre of the world’ – there’s a disc that proves it! 😉

Old Plank Road

Originally built in 1915, the old plank road originally connected San Diego to Yuma over the sand dunes, but only fragments remain today. The fragments are now a California Historical Landmark. Remnants of the Plank Road may be seen at the west end of Grays Well Road, south of I-8 and a monument is situated about three miles west of the Sand Hills interchange.

El Centro

El Centro is where you’ll find plenty for off-road or river rafting enthusiasts, as the Algodones Dunes and Colorado River are nearby. Apart from that however, you may prefer a stop in Yuma, unless you can catch the El Centro Mardi Gras in February.

Desert View Tower

Just before you reach Jacumba Hot Springs, you’ll find the Desert View Tower. Built in the 1800s, it’s been a stopping point for travellers since then. You’ll also really want to visit Boulder Park while you are there though, as the kids will love it! Desert View Tower is open year round and you can find out more by clicking here to visit the Desert View website.

Jacumba Hot Springs

Take a fabulous break from driving from Phoenix to San Diego by heading into the hot springs for a soak. Virtually next to the Mexican border, the hot springs were built on onld rout 80 – the Devil’s Highway. Since the I-8 was built, Jacumba has struggled, so if you want to support a local town as it tries to regain its former glory, this is the stop for you!
See rates and further information from Jacumba Hot Springs here.

Viejas Indian Reservation

One of the remaining 12 bands of the Kumeyaay Indian Nation, the Viejas Band resides on a 1,600-acre reservation in the Viejas Valley, and are as a sovereign government by the United States. If you want to stop on the reservation, there’s nothing authentic, but if you’re without kids and haven’t hit the heady heights of Vegas, you might want a quick stop at the Viejas Reservation Casino. If you’re with the kids, there’s an outlet mall or ten-pin bowling, just to stretch you feet, have some fun or grab some food.
You can find out more about the Viejas Band Indians via their website.

If you want more details about the history of American Indians, search for American Indian history books here, or see below.

Tips for driving from Phoenix to San Diego

  • Water, water, water! Take plenty of water for yourself and also plenty of water for your car. The mountain stretch of the road is steep and hard going in places. In the heat, you don’t want your radiator overheating resulting in a breakdown callout.
  • Stop off as often as you can, as this is a pretty boring stretch of road in places. If there’s two of you, swap the driving often. Don’t worry if not though, I drove it all myself, so it’s easily doable.
  • If none of stops we have mentioned suit you and you just want to stretch your legs, there are plenty of rest areas along the route, so wait for them instead of just stopping at the side of the road.
  • Allow a bit of extra time in case you get stuck in traffic at the border checkpoints.
  • If you want to check distances, see this US driving distance calculator. Covers all countries too, so a good one to bookmark for road trips.

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