From San Diego to the Grand Canyon: distance, stops, itinerary and where to sleep

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Martí Micolau

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On West Coast itineraries that include San Diego, you often have to contend with the distance between this fascinating city and the Grand Canyon. This route is often useful for connecting the red rock park area (Arizona and Utah) to the California coast, however the route should not be underestimated: both for its length (it requires at least one stop along the way), and for the different possible itineraries (at least 3), both aspects that require careful planning and a minimum knowledge of the territory.

In this article we will look at 3 possible routes to cover the distance between San Diego and the Grand Canyon and the recommended stops for stopping to sleep along the way; the aim is to make this part of your road trip easier and full of surprises, we hope to succeed 🙂


  • Distance between San Diego and Grand Canyon
  • Itinerary: Recommended stops between San Diego and the Grand Canyon
    • Route 1: From the deserts to Route 66
    • Itinerario 2: Only Route 66!
    • Route 3: Through the Red Rock Country
  • Where to sleep between the Grand Canyon and San Diego?

Distance between San Diego and Grand Canyon

The distance between San Diego and Grand Canyon is over 800 km, a journey that will take you about 8 and a half hours of travel (if you are crazy enough to do it without stopping). The trip will allow you first to cross the desert region of California, and then to cross the border with Arizona, where the landscape will gradually turn red, heralding the much desired destination: the Grand Canyon.

Itinerary: Recommended stops between San Diego and the Grand Canyon

The 3 possible itineraries between San Diego and Grand Canyon require more or less the same travel time (you will drive 4/5 hours a day depending on the chosen stops), therefore, to decide, you can freely rely on the attractions and landscapes that the 3 routes offer. The first itinerary is, from a certain point of view, the most balanced one, including destinations of considerable interest along the entire route. The second is a variant of the first and is dedicated to lovers of Route 66. The third, although the first part is not irresistible, extensively goes back to the second, giving an unforgettable crescendo of places of interest and portentous natural landscapes of red rock.

Here are the three possible paths:

Route 1: From the deserts to Route 66

Parco Joshua Tree
Palm Springs
Oatman Route 66

From San Diego, head north on I-15 to converge towards Palm Springs. In the first part of this route, the one in California, you will enter the desert area of ​​the state, among national parks, western cities and oases for the rich. The second stretch, the one in Arizona, is instead a classic of Route 66, with characteristic attractions and towns where the myth of this famous historic street is perpetuated. Here are some interesting stops along the way:

  • Palm Springs: an oasis for the rich filled with swimming pools, palm trees, adobe houses and golf courses; a unique town of its kind.
  • Pioneertown: a western town conceived as a film set for films from the 40s and still inhabited by a few hundred people.
  • Joshua Tree National Park: one of the most evocative desert parks in California, featuring the famous sprawling trees that inspired the famous U2 album
  • Route 66 in Arizona: the route to Williams is a classic stretch of the Mother Road, the legendary road that crosses most of America. For all the attractions where to stop along the way I would like to point out our guide to Route 66 in Arizona.

Route map 1

Itinerario 2: Only Route 66!

Kelso Dunes
Calico ghost town

It is a variant of the first itinerary, as the second part is practically identical. The first, instead of letting you pass through Palm Springs and Joshua Tree Park, plans to continue on I-15 and cross Route 66 also in California, a road that you can take at the height of Victorville and continuing for Barstow. The stretch that the Mother Road offers on the Californian side is in my opinion less fascinating than the one in Arizona, however it still has interesting attractions to offer; in addition, it will allow you some interesting detours, such as the western city of Calico Ghost Town or the Kelso Dunes, the singing dunes of the Mojave National Preserve.

Here are 2 useful links to organize the itinerary:

  • Attractions along Route 66 in California
  • Attractions along Route 66 in Arizona

Route map 2

Route 3: Through the Red Rock Country

Sedona Cathedral Rock
Yuma prison
Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area
Tomba at Hi Jolly
Montezuma Castle National Monument
Devil’s Bridge a Sedona
Sonora Desert
Phoenix Desert Botanical Garden

Instead of heading north from San Diego you will have to cross Southern California, near the Mexican border, and then gradually ascend once you enter Arizona. The first part of this itinerary includes long desert lands not particularly rich in places of interest, however, later on, the driving experience will improve considerably, allowing you to penetrate the heart of the extraordinary Red rock country, one of the most typical landscapes of Arizona. Here are the stops that await you along the way (some require a detour):

  • theImperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area, the desert dunes where the third episode of Star Wars was filmed (if you are a fan of the saga take a look at our article on Star Wars locations in California).
  • Yuma Territorial Prison: The historic Yuma prison, which fans of western movies will have heard of more than once, is now a museum where you can visit the cells, view photographic material and exhibits dedicated to the history of this legendary prison in the West.
  • Hi Jolly MonumentWhy should you make a special detour to visit a pyramid-shaped monument topped by a metal camel? To pay tribute to Hi Jolly, one of the first members of the “Army Camel Corps”, an experimental army made up of camels established at the end of the 800th century. The detour will lengthen the route by about 30 minutes so it is only recommended for lovers of unusual attractions ...
  • PhoenixYou will pass this large Southwestern city that is home to inspiring museums, desert botanical gardens, sophisticated modern architecture and interesting nearby attractions, but if you want to enjoy it you will want to invest an extra day; to get a better idea, read our guide to Phoenix.
  • Arcosanti: a city built by Paolo Soleri, disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright, inspired by the principles of arcology, it is not easy to explain what it is, but expect many arched structures and sci-fi structures.
  • Sedona and surroundings: this is the real pearl of this itinerary, a town immersed in a truly evocative natural environment, with monoliths, rocky palaces and other surreal forms of red stone that emerge from the depths of the earth. For a more detailed idea read our guide to Sedona.
Do you want a tip?

The second part of this itinerary is splendid and it is a real shame to dedicate only one stop to it. Dedicate 1 more day to the Sedona area (below you will find the advice on how to organize overnight stays), in this way you can explore the surroundings, take your time along the splendid panoramic road of Oak Creek Canyon, visit Meteor Crater, or hop on Route 66 by taking 2 steps to the towns of Flagstaff and Williams.

Route map 3

Where to sleep between the Grand Canyon and San Diego?

The choice of the sleeping area obviously depends on the itinerary. If you opt to go by north of San Diego (itineraries 1 and 2), the best place to find accommodation is Needles, a small town with few pretensions but which has the good fortune of being right in the middle of the journey. The structures are not very many so it is better, as always, to book, also because the structures of the town are besieged by those looking for a place to sleep between the Grand Canyon and Los Angeles.

Needles accommodation available

If you can't find a room in Needles, you have 2 more chances:

  • search in Laughlin, Nevada, extending your route by approximately 40 minutes -> available accommodations in Laughlin
  • look to Kingman; in this case the route will not lengthen but you will have to drive an extra hour to get to the first stop -> accommodation available in Kingman

If, on the other hand, you opt to cross Southern California and then go up from the Red Rock Country (route 3) you will be faced with 2 choices:

  • if you don't intend to detour to see Hi Jolly's grave you can:
    • sleep in Gila bend, a town that has few accommodations but has the advantage of being located halfway and bordering the Sonoran desert (you know the cacti of Wile E. Coyote and Beep Beep?) -> accommodations available in Gila Bend
    • sleep in Phoenix; you will break the route later, but there is certainly no shortage of accommodation. -> accommodations available in Phoenix
  • if, on the other hand, you really don't want to give up to say hello to the famous camel of the "Army Camel Corps" here is a series of towns along the way suitable for sleeping and breaking the journey in half:
    • Aguila -> available accommodations
    • Quartzsite -> available accommodations
    • Salome -> available accommodations

Finally, if you opt for an extra stop to spend more time exploring the Rock Country, you can choose to sleep in Sedona (all available accommodations) or in a town closer to the Grand Canyon (read our tips for staying outside the South Rim).

Accommodations available in Sedona

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