Exciting San Diego to Grand Canyon Road Trip Itinerary

If you are a fan of beautiful sights and outdoor activities, a visit to the Grand Canyon National Park is an absolute must!

The drive from San Diego to the Grand Canyon, although long, is filled with beautiful landscapes and can’t-miss sights to see. There are a couple of options as far as the route you choose to take, and depending on which you select, there are great activities and fun experiences to enjoy along the way. 

We have put together a complete guide that will provide everything you need to know about your trip from San Diego to the Grand Canyon, including the time needed for travel, route options, and an itinerary filled with fun activities and experiences that will make your trip well worth it!

Distance from San Diego to the Grand Canyon

The drive from San Diego to the Grand Canyon is approximately 500-600 miles, depending on which route you take, the northern route via Joshua Tree or the southern route, which will take you through Phoenix.

How Long Will It Take To Drive From San Diego To The Grand Canyon?

The drive, if you were to have good traffic and minimal stops, would be roughly around 8.5-9 hours. Rather than making your trip a long and boring drive, we recommend taking a little extra time to enjoy the drive and make stops for fun activities and experiences along the way. 

If you break your trip up into two days, you will find you will enjoy the ride a little more. If you choose to take the more direct route (Northern via I-40) you will find yourself arriving in just under 8.5 hours, crossing through Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave Desert. 

Comparatively, if you take the more scenic route (Southern via I-8) it will take you closer to 9.5-10 hours, and you will pass through Phoenix, Arizona. While the more direct route may be appealing, we always like to opt for the more scenic route that will provide us with additional scenery and experiences to enjoy as a family. 

If you are returning to San Diego after your adventure, you can always make the drive using one route on the way there and the other on the way back, giving you two new experiences and the opportunity to compare the two routes.

Best Time Of Year To Drive From San Diego To The Grand Canyon

Because both California and Arizona have beautiful weather nearly all year round, in our opinion, there isn’t any particular time of year that would be better than any other time weather-wise. 

However, to avoid heavy traffic and high groups of tourists at each attraction, we recommend avoiding peak times that will include large groups of families (such as summer vacation time).

Summer temperatures in Arizona can get into very high temperatures ranging from 90-100+ degrees as well, so that may be a deterrence if you are not a fan of warm temperatures.

Pro tip: While the temperatures are high and you will definitely feel the heat, California and Arizona both have very low humidity, and the dry air helps to make those high temperatures a bit more bearable.

Essentials Stops Along the Northern Route – San Diego to Grand Canyon

As we mentioned before, with such a long drive, there are plenty of great stops and experiences that you will not want to miss out on. We have put together a list of some of the best nature stops and other fun activities to enjoy along the way.

Palm Springs & Joshua Tree National Park

Traveling the northern route will take you through the Palm Springs/Joshua Tree National Park area. The drive to Joshua Tree from San Diego is roughly 150 miles and will take you about three hours. 

USA California National Park Road Trip - Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park makes for a great stopping point, putting you just under half of the way to the Grand Canyon. There are a number of excellent spots to stop and enjoy along the way as well as excellent choices for staying in the area.

Where To Stay Near Joshua Tree

Unless you are planning to camp within Joshua Tree National Park (which we highly recommend you try at some point in your lives!), then your best bet for breaking up the journey is an overnight stay in Palm Springs.

Shortly after leaving Joshua Tree, you will cross into Arizona, where you will find a number of great cities to stop and enjoy. Here are a few great stopping points along your route:

Lake Havasu City

Lake Havasu is a city in Western Arizona known for its water sports and outdoor activities. This is a great city to stop and enjoy some time outdoors, cooling off in the refreshing water. A brilliant lake vacation spot in the southwest, there are a lot of great experiences and attractions to enjoy in Lake Havasu, such as: 

USA San Diego to Grand Canyon - Lake Havasu City
  • Lake Havasu State Park has sandy beaches to take in the beautiful sights and enjoy a quiet picnic lunch with your family. 
  • The Aquatic Center is a huge indoor pool/splash park that offers public swimming making it a great family-friendly spot to take a break from your long drive and have a little fun. 
  • SARA Park is a must in our opinion, the views are incredible, and the hiking trails make for a great option to get out of the car and stretch your legs while taking in the nature around you. In addition to hiking trails, you will also find a dog park, frisbee golf, and more fun outdoor activities to enjoy. 


Route 66 is a famous road with many impactful cities and stops along its route; Kingman, Arizona, is one of them. Kingman is known as a historic railroad city and is home to many pieces of history, including:

  • The Route 66 Museum tells the story of how the famous driving route has evolved over time and includes integral pieces of history such as vintage cars, maps, dioramas, and more. 
  • At the Kingman Railroad Museum, you get the opportunity to see and learn about how the railroad system has changed and developed through the years. The museum features train models, railroad memorabilia, and even an operational train depot; if you have a little one that loves trains, this would be an excellent stop for your family! 
USA San Diego to Grand Canyon - Locomotive Park

As we mentioned previously, Kingman is a historic railroad city, so you can expect to see a lot of railroad history throughout your visit.

  • Locomotive Park is another great stop to see railroad history, here they have a number of historical exhibits and trains to see. We love Locomotive Park because we get the chance to enjoy history while still being out in the beautiful weather. 


When you reach Williams, Arizona, you are in the home stretch to get to the Grand Canyon. Williams is just over an hour outside of the Grand Canyon and is considered one of the gateways to the Grand Canyon National Park. 

We find that Williams is a great last stop to round out your road trip. It makes for a great overnight stop to get some rest and start the following day, headed straight into the Grand Canyon via the Grand Canyon Railway for a unique way to experience the park. 

USA San Diego to Grand Canyon - Williams

There are plenty of fun activities and family-friendly experiences to enjoy while you are in Williams, including the following: 

  • Bearizona Wildlife Park is a drive-thru wildlife experience where guests get the opportunity to see a number of animals including wolves, bears, deer, goats, and more! The Bearizona Wildlife Park has both a drive-thru experience as well as a walk-thru experience and up-close animal encounters, including Backstage Grizzly Training and Otter feeding. We always find that a zoo/animal experience is a great family-friendly activity that we all enjoy.
  • Pete’s Route 66 Gas Station Museum is the perfect stop for car enthusiasts! At this famous Route 66-themed museum, you will find a number of incredible vintage vehicles, gas pumps throughout the years, and more pieces of history dedicated to the historic Route 66. 
  • The Route 66 Zipline is a great way to add some adventure and adrenaline to your visit to Williams. If you have never done a zipline before, the Route 66 Zipline may be a great start to your zipline adventures because it is a bit less scary. Rather than a harness where you are dangling freely, you will sit in a seat that is suspended over the Route 66 highway. 

Places to Stay in Williams

Williams is a great place to have an overnight stay as there are options for however you are traveling, including hotels, campsites, and even RV parks. A few great places to stay include: 

Williams to Grand Canyon

Depending on how you are traveling, there are multiple options to get from Williams to Grand Canyon National Park. Choose one of these options that best fit your plans: 

USA San Diego to Grand Canyon - The Grand Canyon Railway Hotel
  • Self Drive – Of course, self-driving is always an option, and if you are traveling by a standard-size vehicle, this is no problem at all. The drive will take you just over an hour, and this option provides the flexibility to stay for as short or as long as you would like and gives you full control of your visit – but be aware of the queues!
  • Shuttle – The Arizona Shuttle runs multiple times a day and is an affordable option if you are traveling by RV or a large vehicle that you may not want to drive up through the canyon. The Shuttle runs multiple times a day, is a direct ride lasting about an hour and a half, and will cost you around $30-$40 per person to ride. You can find additional details and book shuttles here.
  • Train – Taking the train is also an option, but this is probably the least popular option due to the cost and length of the ride. If you choose to book a train ride, you can expect about a 2.5-hour ride, and the cost can vary from as little as $25 up to $200+ per person for a one-way trip, depending on carriage class. 

Stops Along the Southern Route – San Diego to Grand Canyon

Taking the southern route will have you traveling along the Mexico border as you make your way up through the state of Arizona, including cities such as Phoenix and Flagstaff.

This route will provide you with plenty of beautiful sights to see and adventures to enjoy as you make your way to the Grand Canyon. Popular stops include: 

Cleveland National Forest

Starting in San Diego, after just about an hour out, you will come to the Cleveland National Forest, an excellent stop to kick off your road trip. While the Forest provides beautiful accommodations because it is so early in your trip, we recommend making it a quick stop, perhaps for a couple of hours as you head toward the Grand Canyon. 

USA San Diego to Grand Canyon - Cleveland National Forest

Popular activities at the Cleveland National Forest include horseback riding, hiking and biking trails and stopping in one of the numerous picnic areas for lunch.


Phoenix is the capital of Arizona and just under 5 hours from the Cleveland National Forest, making it the perfect stop for an overnight stay to get rested and relaxed to finish out your drive the following day. 

USA San Diego to Grand Canyon - Papago Park

We’d budget a couple of nights in your itinerary for Phoenix as there’s so much to see and do with kids. Some favorites include:

  • The Phoenix Zoo – ranked in the top 10 zoos in the U.S.A., we highly recommend checking this out when you are in the Phoenix area. We say this every time we mention a zoo, but they are always a priority for our family because it is an activity that everyone in our family enjoys together, so we really enjoy seeing and visiting zoos that we have never been to before. 
  • Papago Park is great if you are looking for some outdoor scenery and activities. Papago Park is very close to the Phoenix Zoo and as you walk some of the trails in the park, you can even catch glimpses of some of the animals at the zoo. There are plenty of trails and picnic areas throughout the park making this a great spot to enjoy quality time with your family. The views at sunset are unmatched!
  • We always like to incorporate some knowledge and education into our travels and visiting places like museums and exhibits are a great way to do that. The Children’s Museum of Phoenix provides not only an educational experience for you and your little ones but fun activities as well. 

Places to Stay in Phoenix

Because it is a major city, there are countless options for lodging in Phoenix. Here are a few of some of the most popular options in the area: 


Upon leaving Phoenix after about two hours you will get into Flagstaff, another city that is considered to be a gateway to the Grand Canyon, which makes it the perfect final stop on your road trip. 

USA San Diego to Grand Canyon - Arizona Snowball

Flagstaff is roughly an hour and a half from the Grand Canyon National Park so it is a great city to enjoy some local activities and then make your way to your final destination of the Grand Canyon. Here are a few activities and experiences to check out while in Flagstaff: 

  • The Lowell Observatory is a science lover’s dream! At the Lowell Observatory you can see science happen right before your eyes and dive deep into the history of Space. See how telescopes have evolved over the years and get the opportunity to take part in exhibits and tours including the Lowell Tour, the Journey to Pluto Science Show, and stargazing at the Giovale Open Deck Conservatory. 
  • Downtown Flagstaff is a historic town that features a number of fun things to do, sights to see, and delicious meals to enjoy at a variety of local restaurants. Take part in fun activities such as live music, local shops, and the Brewery Trail. 
  • Arizona Snowbowl is a can’t miss activity if you are visiting the area in the colder months of the year. The snow season at the Arizona Snowbowl is typically from November to April with a combination of natural snowfall and man made snow. At the Arizona Snowbowl you can enjoy the mountains with fun snow activities such as skiing, snowboarding, and tubing. 

Stay in Flagstaff or Grand Canyon?

Whilst you are only an hour and a half from the South Rim entrance to the Grand Canyon at Flagstaff, we recommend to make an early start to beat the traffic; if you’re not staying in the national park itself, consider staying just outside the park in Tusayan.

Additional Tips For A Successful Road Trip From San Diego To The Grand Canyon

  • California and Arizona are both states that are great for visiting throughout the entire year when it comes to weather but keep in mind that depending on the time of year and the weather conditions in the area, activities may look a little different for your trip – in both the peak of summer and winter
  • Do still pack warm clothing for winter travel and be mindful some parts of the Grand Canyon South Canyon are difficult to navigate; the North Rim of the Grand Canyon is closed for winter.
  • Be sure to make a note that during this road trip you will cross through multiple time zones. You will start your trip on Pacific Standard Time (PST) with your origin point being in California and as you cross into Arizona you will switch to Mountain Standard Time, pushing your clock an hour ahead so it may seem like you are losing time. In summer, there will be no time difference as Arizona does not observe Mountain Daylight Time.
  • Camping spots in Joshua Tree in the winter and spring (November to May) and both lodgings and camping grounds in Grand Canyon National Parks will book up, fast! Always look to plan staying within a US national park 6-12 months in advance.
  • Don’t miss our complete family guide to visiting the Grand Canyon – we share all our favorite kid-friendly hiking trails and itineraries, along with need-to-know information on lodging, weather conditions and what to pack to make your Grand Canyon family road trip a great success!

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