San Diego to Phoenix Road Trip Guide


When you're in San Diego, it might be tempting to never go far outside the city limits. The city is right on the edge of the Pacific Ocean and has beaches that can make you feel as if you're on a tropical island rather than in one of the top ten biggest cities in the entire United States. San Diego has an ideal climate for enjoying these stretches of golden sand too, with year-round mild temperatures and low rainfall. Every weekend could be a beach weekend, and if the youngsters in the family are into surfing, you'll probably have a hard time getting them interested in doing anything else other than paddling out ready to catch their next wave.

If you've taken them to see the USS Midway Museum, that enormous aircraft carrier anchored up on Navy Pier, given them a taste of the past by exploring the Old Town San Diego Historic State Park or thrilled them with a visit to SeaWorld with its aquariums, oceanariums, and amusement rides, they'll have had a great time. San Diego really is a fantastic environment for families, but it's easy for kids to get complacent with what's on their doorstep and start to take it just a little for granted. To appreciate what they've got, it's a good idea to show them something totally different and you can do that by taking them on a weekend road trip from San Diego to Phoenix in Arizona.

Pack up the RV and head east out of San Diego along the I8, and you'll motor through the heart of the Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. The park's forests and meadowlands are an amazing contrast to the city skyscrapers and to the desert-scapes you'll be driving through on the way to Arizona. Stop off to climb up the Desert View Tower and explore a couple of BLM managed wildernesses along the way, and by the time you get to Phoenix, the kids will have seen so much sand they'll never under-appreciate being by the ocean again.

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Max RV length
Max trailer Length
Road trip length: 2-3 days
Recommend rig: motorhome
audience: family

Point of Interest

Cuyamaca Rancho State Park

The Cuyamaca Rancho State Park is the perfect place to let the youngsters discover there's more to nature than riding over briny waves on a surfboard. The park is just over an hour's drive from San Diego so they won't even have time to get bored with having to sit still while in the vehicle. The park has two family-oriented campgrounds, the Paso Picacho Campground and the Green Valley Area Campground. The latter would probably be more suitable for a short weekend road trip as you won't need to go too far out of your way to get there.

Once you're pitched at your campsite, you'll find the park has around a hundred miles of trails for hiking or biking and there's a creek winding its way through the campground where you can fish for supper. If the weather is warm and the kids want a swim, they can do that in the natural pools near the park's day-use area.

Desert Wildernesses

Once you're back on the road and motoring towards Arizona, the landscapes will start to change and you'll leave behind the green and mountainous San Diego County for more open and arid terrains. Take a short break from the road between Boulevard and Coyote Wells to let the young ones climb up the Desert View Tower. They'll be amazed by the expanses of desert they can see from the top of the tower and fascinated by the eclectic collections of artifacts on display.

After visiting the tower, give them a first-hand experience of the desert by heading into the Jacumba Wilderness Area. The BLM managed wilderness covers more than thirty thousand acres so no, you won't get to see it all. Leave the RV at the wilderness boundary and set out on foot to explore. The kids will be expecting a dinosaur to appear as it really is just like the land that time forgot.

They'll be even more stunned when you're back on the road and heading towards Phoenix, as you'll drive right along the border of the North Algodones Dunes Wilderness. Park up in the parking area and let them take a good look at the seemingly never-ending stretch of sand dunes, where there's not a drop of water in sight.

Waylon's Water World

After seeing and exploring all those desert terrains, the kids will probably be ready for some re-hydration and would undoubtedly appreciate you making a short detour off route to take them to Waylon's Water World in Yuma. The theme park is located just off the I8 on the edge of town, so you won't have too much traffic to contend with.

The water park has fifteen different slides that will keep the young ones busy for hours. They'll love the twisting tunnels of the Constrictor, the speed of the Red Racer or enjoy a tranquil float down the park's Lazy River. If you're making your road trip from San Diego to Phoenix out of season and the water park is closed, compensate the kids with a visit to the Z Fun Factory instead. It's right next door and has a mini-golf course, go-karts, batting cages, and an amusement arcade.


By the time you roll into Phoenix after your weekend road trip from San Diego, the kids will have learned plenty about the desert. You can still show them some more by taking them to Papago Park where they can cycle around the sandstone buttes or explore the Desert Botanical Gardens. If they love animals, they'll enjoy seeing the creatures in Phoenix Zoo, the Sea Life Center, or the OdySea Aquarium.

Phoenix has a great interactive museum for kids too, the Children's Museum of Phoenix, but guaranteed after all the sand they saw on the trip, there are two places you'll struggle to keep them away from and that's Big Surf and the Oasis Water Park. Water is life after all, and there's nothing better than ending a family road trip with a big splash.

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