A Californian city on the coast of the Pacific Ocean, San Diego is about 120 miles south of Los Angeles and located next to the state’s border with Mexico. California’s second-largest city, San Diego boasts a mild climate throughout the year along with gorgeous beaches, and with the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) and the UCSD Medical Center, the city is a center of research in biotechnology.
With year-round pleasant weather, there is no bad time to embark on a road trip from San Diego, and choosing to head east to Albuquerque over three to five days will allow you to experience the diversity of three states, where you can explore popular national parks along with smaller, quirkier destinations. From mountains to canyons and even ice caves, there is something for everyone on this eastward adventure.
Not only will you encounter plenty of gorgeous scenery and exciting recreation opportunities during your journey, but your destination of Albuquerque also has plenty to offer. Located in the high desert of north-central New Mexico, Albuquerque has one of the highest elevations of any major city in the United States, ranging from 4900 feet above sea level near the Rio Grande to more than 6700 feet in the foothills of the cities’ Sandia Mountains. In addition to plenty of outdoor recreation opportunities, Albuquerque boasts a rich culture and is known for its red and green chile.
Perfect for outdoor lovers, you will have no trouble finding a place to park your RV in and outside the city, allowing the opportunity for exploration.
From El Malpais, you are not far from Albuquerque. However, you will likely want to make one more stop before reaching the city. About a 30-minute drive from El Malpais is Acoma Pueblo, where you can visit the Sky City Cultural Center and Haak’u Museum, as well as experience a tour of the Pueblo, which is the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in North America.
Founded in the thirteenth century, Acoma Pueblo is part of the cultural heritage of New Mexico. The Sky City Cultural Center and Haak’u Museum, which are open on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, seek to preserve the traditions of the Pueblo while sharing its unique history. The Cultural Center offers exhibits and guided tours along with Acoma pottery and Native American crafts for purchase. If planning to take a tour, be sure to dress appropriately for the weather and wear comfortable shoes.
As you continue east on I-40 toward Albuquerque, another two hours of driving will bring you to the El Malpais National Monument and National Conservation Area. Malpais is Spanish for “badlands”, an appropriate name given the very barren volcano field that makes up much of the Monument. There are all sorts of unique things to see, like lava flows, natural arches, cinder cones, and complex lava tube systems.
During your visit, you can explore sandstone bluffs as well as historic and archaeological sites, where, for more than 10,000 years, people have been present in the area. Puebloan people from Acoma, Laguna, Zuni, and the Ramah Navajo continue to utilize the area as their ancestors did in the past.
Looking to spend another night outside the city? Visitors to El Malpais will find a pleasant place to camp in Joe Skeen Campground, where there are pit toilets available. The campground will ensure that you have easy access to all there is to see and do in the area.
After experiencing Grand Canyon National Park, you can easily make a visit to another National Park in Arizona; Petrified Forest National Park. Just under three hours from the Grand Canyon National Park, Petrified Forest National Park got its name from large deposits of petrified wood. It includes about 230 square miles and is at an average elevation of 5,400 feet. Summer within the Park is hot, with highs of around 100 degrees F, while lows during the winter months reach well below freezing.
During your visit, you have the opportunity to view more than 400 species of plants and animals like pronghorns, coyotes, bobcats, deer mice, snakes and lizards. The park will likely have less of a crowd than the Grand Canyon National Park; it received 644,922 visitors in 2018.
You will find plenty to do during your visit; there are opportunities for hiking, backpacking and photography, for example. The Park is known for its fossils; some of which are fallen trees that lived about 225 million years ago!
After enjoying the wildlife that make their home in Bearizona Wildlife Park, an easy 50-minute drive north will take you to Grand Canyon National Park’s South Rim. The park is located in the northwestern part of Arizona and features the Grand Canyon, a gorge of the Colorado River frequently described as one of the “Wonders of the World”. The Grand Canyon is one mile deep, close to 300 miles long and 18 miles wide in places, making it quite a sight. The South Rim is open all year and is the place where 90% of the park’s visitors (about 5.5 million annually) view and explore the canyon.
You can plan for a short visit, where you take in the amazing site and its surrounding beauty, or consider staying longer, perhaps enjoying a hike down into the canyon. Other activities include driving tours along the South Rim, walking tours and private flyovers (helicopter and small planes).
After spending some time at Lake Havasu State Park, head east for about two and a half hours to the Bearizona Wildlife Park where you will have the opportunity to view some wildlife without leaving the comfort of your vehicle. Located in Williams, Arizona among Ponderosa Pine forests, the Bearizona Wildlife Park offers a natural environment for its residents and excellent viewing opportunities for visitors.
The drive-through part of the park is about three miles in length and visitors can enjoy a close up look at a number of mammals; like the rocky mountain goats, Alaskan tundra and Arctic wolves, bison and black bears.
Those who prefer can tour the park utilizing the Wild Ride Bus Tour offered free of charge by the park. On the bus, park staff drive and provide information about Bearizona and the animals that live there. Those who take the bus may experience guides feeding the animals, providing an up-close view. Check the Bearizona Wildlife Park website for information on when the bus tours run.
Just two and a half hours from Joshua Tree National Park is Lake Havasu State Park. Lake Havasu is a large reservoir that is created by Parker Dam on the Colorado River and Lake Havasu State Park has a lot to offer visitors. Within the park, there are gorgeous beaches, nature trails, three boat ramps, and 47 campsites, from where you can enjoy the park’s beauty with easy access to its recreation opportunities.
Visitors can take the Mohave Sunset Trail, which is 1.75 miles, in order to explore the lowland desert as well as the shoreline of Lake Havasu. Also, check out the Arroyo-Camino Interpretive Garden where you can see birds and lizards that reside in the area’s desert.
Watersports are popular on Lake Havasu and the climate of the area is perfect for year-round enjoyment of the lake and the state park. Expect visitors from cooler parts of the country during its mild winters and during the hot summer months, expect to encounter visitors from Arizona and southern California.
About two hours and forty-five minutes from San Diego is a perfect first stop for your road trip; Joshua Tree National Park. Once out of San Diego traffic, enjoy a pleasant drive to this unique location. Named for the Joshua trees that are native to the Mojave Desert, the Park is made up of an area a little bigger than the state of Rhode Island and includes 429,690 acres of designated wilderness. Two ecosystems exist within the park, one within the higher Mojave Desert and one within the lower Colorado Desert.
With eight campgrounds, you can choose to spend the night at the Park, relaxing and enjoying the setting sun among the desert surroundings. Due to the high temperatures in the area during the summer months, the park is ideal to visit from September through May.
As you leave Acoma Pueblo, you are about an hour from the city of Albuquerque. As you continue east, you will soon be rewarded with a view of this major city in the middle of the desert, the Sandia Mountains rising proudly at its eastern limits.
During your time in Albuquerque, you will find plenty to do. Outdoor enthusiasts can enjoy hiking and mountain biking in the Sandia Mountain, where there is a myriad of trails to explore. The Sandia Peak Tramway will take you from the foothills to the crest of the Sandia Mountains at 10,378 feet in just 15 minutes, while you enjoy gorgeous views of the city and the mountains.
Other opportunities in the city include Old Town, where you can view historic buildings, art, and jewelry by New Mexican artisans, along with New Mexican food. Petroglyph National Monument, on the west side of the city, is an archaeological site where you can see prehistoric art. Campgrounds are available in the city as well as just outside of it.
Try the Coronado Campground in the town of Bernalillo, north of Albuquerque, where you can relax and enjoy gorgeous scenery while being in close proximity to all that the city has to offer.