A road journey from San Diego to the Grand Canyon can only be for you if you are one of those people who appreciates the lesser-known beauty of a desert excursion. It takes 8 hours and 30 minutes to drive from San Diego to the Grand Canyon nonstop, but you can make it a memorable trip for three days. On your journey, you’ll see some incredibly stunning scenery and quaint desert towns. You may take in Sedona’s spectacular red rock formations, the untamed Prescott National Forest on the way, and the Mojave National Preserve and Route 66.
About 550 miles separate San Diego from the Grand Canyon on the highway. The I-40 travels through the Mojave Desert on the shorter route. Even if you have lots of time, it can be challenging to convince yourself to take this route rather than the more picturesque one. And this is because you’ll spend most of your time on the road and have plenty of opportunities to see Los Angeles and the Mojave National Preserve.
Day 1 From San Diego, CA, to Joshua Tree Journey
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404 mi — about 7 hours, 59 mins
Set out on your journey from San Diego towards Joshua Tree journey. San Diego is an excellent starting point for a drive to Joshua Tree National Park. The warm, sunny city in southern California boasts a Mediterranean environment with year-round average temperatures of 70 degrees. More than 20 museums, more than a dozen theaters, opera houses, and symphonies make San Diego a popular destination for tourists, so there is no shortage of things to do there.
With more than 16 museums, monuments, trails, gardens, and performing arts venues, Balboa Park, located two miles northeast of the city, is great fun. This breathtaking journey starts in the Mojave Desert, known for its twisted, jagged Joshua trees. The Joshua tree, a representative of the Mojave desert that gets 7.5 inches of rain annually, can withstand the ferocious wind and heat. A member of the Yucca family with spike-like leaves, the oldest tree in Joshua Tree National Park is more than 800 years old. It then travels through the Colorado Desert, which is covered in creosote bushes and cacti.
The Hexie Mountains are in front of you as you go east on this desert road past Big Morongo Canyon Preserve. The lush foliage, creatures including bighorn sheep, bobcats, and coyotes, many species of reptiles and amphibians, and more than 240 species of birds in this verdant oasis are a sharp contrast to the desert surroundings.
Joshua Tree Journey to Anza Borrego Desert
As you travel towards Joshua Tree National Park from Anza Borrego Desert, There are numerous distinct desert plants, including Cholla, Ocotillo, and Barrel Cacti, in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park region (including Palm Trees). There are multiple hiking paths, and many gravel roads leading into the forest are accessible to four-wheel drive vehicles. The biggest state park in the western United States, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, offers breathtaking landscapes and intriguing geologic and human history. The name of the park, Borrego, is a combination of Juan Bautista de Anza, a Spanish adventurer, and the word for bighorn sheep.
On the east edge of the park, this lovely road begins. To reach San Diego, you can use exit 40 for CA-79 North on I-8, travel east, and turn onto CA-78, which splits Anza Borrego State Park in half after 27 miles. You can reach the Calcite Canyon Scenic Area by traveling east on County S-22 into the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
Visit the Calcite Canyon Overlook for stunning vistas and spectacular rock formations. Deep within these canyons sits the old Calcite Mine. During World War 2, calcite crystals were mined for use in the military to make gun sights. In the distance, you can view the Salton Sea. As you approach the Salton Sea, stop in Brawley, California, and detour from the main road for the day.
Day 2 From Anza Borrego Desert to Salton Sea
481 mi — about 7 hours, 59 mins
The Salton Sea, a sizable body of water, is located east of Anza Borrego Desert State Park. After a particularly wet winter, the Colorado River burst through irrigation channels and flooded the basin in 1905, creating the Sea. Salinity has increased through time, and the Sea is now 30% saltier than the ocean. The Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge Complex is located along the southern and southeast portion of the Sea, accessible via CA-86 in the south. Large concentrations of snowy geese, eared grebes, white pelicans, and other waterfowl can be found here from late October through the winter.
Exiting CA-86 onto Vendel Road will take you immediately into Unit 1 of the Refuge, one of the most excellent viewing locations. Parking, a viewing platform, a photography blind, and the Hardenberger Trail are all nearby. The Refuge’s Visitor Center lies on Sinclair Road, which is reachable from CA-111. The Salton Sea State Recreation Area is accessible through CA-111, which runs along the north and northeastern edge of the Sea. Swimming, boating, fishing, and camping are all options, in addition to superb bird watching. Stop in Munds Park, Arizona, and continue traveling on Day 3.
Day 3 Anza Borrego Desert to Grand Canyon Loop
312 mi — about 6 hours, 12 mins
This picturesque trip traverses 2 billion years of earth’s history. It includes the snow-capped San Francisco Peaks, Kaibab National Forest, and the vibrant colors of light and shadow sweeping across the cliffs, buttes, and spires of the Grand Canyon. As you travel north on US-180, you will pass through ponderosa pine forests and stunning open meadows as you take in the San Francisco Peaks’ historic volcanoes.
The San Francisco Peaks are a separate, dormant volcano that, a few hundred thousand years ago, resembled Mount Fuji before erupting sideways and being flattened by glaciers to form the structure we see today. You reach the town of Fort Valley after traveling seven miles from Flagstaff. For breathtaking views of the San Francisco Peaks, take Snow Bowl Road. The lava fields of Slate Mountain and Red Mountain are visible to the north as the route winds through them. Go for a drive on Forest Road 191.
Go for a drive on Forest Road 191. You may reach the summit of Slate Mountain after a 2.4-mile one-way climb, where you’ll get rewarded with breathtaking panoramas of the San Francisco Peaks, Kendrick Mountain, Red Mountain, the Grand Canyon, and Painted Desert. The lava fields of Slate Mountain and Red Mountain are visible to the north as the route winds through them. You might also go to Red Mountain, one of the numerous cinder cones in the region. Enjoy the rare chance to observe the internal structure that erosion has exposed, along with hoodoos and crystals.
The only tribe to live permanently in the Grand Canyon, the Havasupai Indian Tribe, reveres Red Butte, a lava-capped remnant of rock layers. Red Butte welcomes you to the Kaibab National Forest 9 miles from Valle. Consider starting your journey at the Red Butte Lookout Trail Head if you’re up for a strenuous one. It ascends 6,460 feet in 1.25 miles to a fire lookout with spectacular vistas in all directions.
There is undoubtedly never a better time to visit the Grand Canyon from San Diego because it offers something nearly every day of the year. Each season is the ideal time to visit the park, except for winter, when there is a lot of snow and restricted access to some areas.