Are you planning a road trip from San Diego to Joshua Tree? This road trip in Southern California is one of our favorites. Explore some of the best roadside attractions in Southern California including desert sculptures, ruins photography, and amazing landscapes. On your way back, visit Los Angeles and Anaheim, 2 of southern California’s fun family destinations. Follow our comprehensive southern California road trip itinerary for recommendations on what to do, where to stay, and what to eat. Also read 22 Best City Breaks in the USA.
The other day someone asked us which part of California we love the most. Ah, tricky! On one hand, you have the gorgeous, dense, dark Northern California redwood forests while on the other side, almost near Mexico, you have the arid deserts, ghost town, and otherworldly landscapes. Then there’s the stunning Big Sur region on the central coast even while Yosemite and the Sierra Nevadas enchant visitors on the first visit.
How do you pick a favorite part of California? The answer lies in the seasons! Come springtime and there is nowhere I’d rather be than enjoying the super blooms in Southern California – especially Joshua Tree National Park.
That’s what we did this spring. We went on an amazing Southern California road trip from San Diego to Joshua Tree. We enjoyed hours and hours of sunshine, saw spectacular wildflowers, breathed in the ocean air, and just soaked in the beautiful scenery of the California desert. We hiked among the unique Joshua trees, scrambled among the boulders in the Jumbo Rocks area and saw many Palm oases along with unique desert flora and fauna.
We had a date shake and spa massage in Palm Springs. Then we headed to Disney: met Mickey and Minnie, ate Mickey-shaped macarons, had some Dole Whip, sat in a few roller coasters and fun rides, and saw the fireworks. It was our kids’ first trip to Disney and they loved it!
A road trip around Southern California is a great opportunity to just drive around, enjoy unique roadside attractions, eat delicious food, and have fun with your family.
We recommend this road trip for everyone: whether you like nature or culture or luxury resorts or off-the-beaten-path places, you are sure to find something of everything on this amazing road trip from San Diego to Joshua Tree. Here is our suggested itinerary along with 10 essential stops on this Southern California road trip.
Point to note: This itinerary covers only Southern California and it’s desert region and just a little of the Pacific coast side, from Los Angeles to San Diego. If you are looking for a California road trip itinerary that covers the entire state including the stunning drive along PCH1 and Big Sur, check out our article, 10 Days in California: From the Pacific to the Redwoods
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“Though outsiders always assumed Southern California is perpetually soft and subtropical with the perfect beach breeze, that sweet lick of sunshine, I knew the truth. The real Southern California exists in extremes. It’s a place of spontaneous wildfires, and Santa Ana winds, and droughts that turn lakes into craters, splintering the earth like pottery that has crazed. It’s a place of storms that transform streets into oceans, and I had no doubts now: the rain was coming.”
― Sarah Nicole Smetana in The Midnights
San Diego to Joshua Tree: 10 Places to visit on the Southern California summer road trip
Are you planning a road trip from San Diego to Joshua Tree National Park in southern California? San Diego is located 3 hours away from Joshua Tree and while you can easily see the beautiful Joshua Tree National Park as a weekend trip or even a day trip if you are willing to drive through the night, we would recommend taking the time to spend at least 4 to 5 days in this area. If you have a week, then you can even camp in Joshua Tree – there’s nothing like it!
The area around Joshua Tree is full of quirky, unique attractions – including a crochet museum and an abandoned resort city which is a haven for ruin photographers. Beautiful Palm Springs or nearby Desert Hot Springs are great to experience luxury in the desert. On the way back from Joshua Tree, follow the I-10 to see Anaheim – Los Angeles area. Visit the theme parks and check out the highlights of Los Angeles.
You can also return the car and fly back from Los Angeles – LAX is well connected to most parts of the country and one-way car rentals from San Diego to Los Angeles are quite cheap.
If you want to return to San Diego to complete your Joshua Tree road trip, we would recommend following the Pacific Coast Highway (California Route 1) from San Diego to Los Angeles.
Or you can head north and visit the most scenic part of California’s coast in Big Sur. Alternatively, you can also continue along the Pacific Coast Highway all the way up to San Francisco.
Here are the most amazing stops that you need to add to the road trip from San Diego to Joshua Tree.
For our Southern California road trip, we took a flight from Houston to San Diego via Southwest. San Diego makes the best start for this road trip because it has amazing connectivity to most American cities and the tickets are cheaper compared to Los Angeles, at least from Houston. This time we scored a deal of $120 per person and between the 4 of us, that’s a lot of savings! We rented a car in San Diego from Fox Rental Car and drove to the desert but not before exploring the sunny city of San Diego.
Did you know that the European’s first arrived on the west coast of America in San Diego? They settled in San Diego Bay hence the city is also called the ‘Birthplace of California’.
There is a lot to do in San Diego. We suggest spending 1-2 days here depending on how much time you have. To ideally see all of San Diego, you will need to spend at least 3 to 4 days in the city. You can start the day in Balboa Park, one of the largest parks in the country.
Balboa Park has everything from the famous San Diego Zoo, museums housed in Spanish Revival style buildings, and even a Japanese garden with cherry blossom trees. Balboa Park also happens to be one of the best places in southern California to see cherry blossoms! If you have only one day spend the afternoon exploring Old Town and evening at Embarcadero.
San Diego Old Town is a charming place with historic buildings and adobe architecture. This was where California’s first European settlement was established!
You will love Old Town with its vibrant Mexican restaurants, museums with historic sculptures, period docents and murals, lively bars, and fascinating attractions including an old Wells Fargo coach. We recommend spending a couple of hours in the area for walking, shopping, and dining.
Related: 22 Best Things to do in San Diego
Check out these waterproof beach shoes for your California trip
For the perfect end to the day, visit Embarcadero at sunset. This is San Diego’s cruise ship hub and has many attractions including great seafood, souvenir shops, and waterfront green parks.
But the best attraction by far is the USS Midway Aircraft Carrier Museum, one of the best ship museums in the world. During your visit, you can see a variety of military aircraft as well as view engine rooms, sleeping quarters and military equipment of the ship. Kids in particular love visiting the museum and hearing about maritime history.
After seeing the museum, walk along the Embarcadero. You will love the sweeping water views of the San Diego Bay. Along the walkway, you will also have excellent views of Coronado Island and downtown San Diego. This is also a great place to people watch, let the kids run free, and spend a relaxing evening. You can also depart for a whale-watching cruise from San Diego.
After you have had your fill of San Diego and it’s Hispanic heritage, we recommend heading out to Southern California’s desert region.
Anza Borrego Desert State Park
Anza Borrego Desert State Park is California’s biggest state park and is conveniently located 2 hrs away from San Diego. The park looks beautiful surrounded by the desert environment and the mountain peaks of the Santa Rosa and Pinyon ranges. The park has miles and miles of open roads: both paved and 4WD as well as lots of hiking trails to explore its unique beauty.
The state park is most popular for two things: the stunning display of spring wildflowers and the striking variety of landforms. Inside the park, you will find a variety of geological forms from badlands and sand dunes to slot canyons. For the spring wildflowers, time your visit from February to April and you will see them in every color.
If you are visiting during a super bloom (the recent one was in 2019) then you will see the ground carpeted in wildflowers. It’s really hard to imagine the cacti bursting with so many colors and seeing them for the first time is a real treat. We’d suggest setting aside half a day to a day for hiking in the park.
Borrego Springs Sculptures
Borrego Springs located in Borrego Valley is an essential pit stop on this road trip for one reason: a collection of gigantic, fantastic metal sculptures of mythological creatures, prehistoric beasts including giant dinosaurs. The sculptures easily soar high in the sky and are truly immense.
Some of the most popular sculptures include a 350-foot long dragon-serpent, a couple of wooly mammoths, dinosaurs, giant sloths, camels, tortoises, sabertooth tigers, and more.
The artist Ricardo Breceda has created true masterpieces. There are over 130 sculptures located in the area. Walking among them is a favorite activity and the sculptures are naturally famous for taking pictures for the gram. You can visit the entire collection on the private property of Galleta Meadows for free.
For an exact location of the sculptures, visit the Borrego Springs Chamber of commerce and ask for a handy map. If you are visiting in summer, we would recommend early morning or evening as the afternoons are too hot to go around looking for sculptures.
How much time you spend here depends on how many sculptures you see. To see a few of the famous ones, you will need about an hour or two but to see most of them by exploring all over the place, it would easily take an entire day. Also keep in mind that the roads are unpaved and if you don’t have a 4WD, you won’t be able to explore a lot.
The property also allows people to picnic and camp, so you can also explore the area over the course of 2 or more days. If you are camping here, then try taking photos of the sculpture on a starry night.
The Salton Sea and Bombay Beach
There is almost nothing to do in the Salton Sea, which is the very reason it’s quite a tourist attraction. The area of the Salton Sea has a very interesting story. (The story feels like a school lesson in the beginning, but bear with me – it gets quite interesting towards the end – dying fish and stuff!)
The Salton Sea was formed in 1905 when a canal of the Colorado River that irrigated the Imperial Valley failed and the river water flooded the Salton Basin. The resulting Salton Sea was a freshwater lake – California’s biggest – and the area quickly became a vacation hotspot.
In its heyday, more people visited the Salton Sea than Yosemite. Resort communities like Salton City and Bombay Beach grew around the lakeshore and Los Angeles’ rich and famous came for water activities on the lake.
However, things quickly changed after the 1950s. As the Colorado River canal was repaired, the lake got cut off from the river. It did not drain into any ocean nor did any river or stream drain into the lake. As a result, the water did not have any stabilization system and got increasingly saline over the years. Fertilizer runoff and other environmental pollutants also contaminated the water.
By the 1970s, the fish started dying and with them, the birds that ate them. Tourism declined and even the locals left the area. Today Bombay Beach is a paradise for ruin photographers: you will find everything from washed up dead fish and old road signs to abandoned motels and forgotten furniture.
We would recommend visiting the Salton Sea, especially Bombay Beach since it is unlike anything you have ever seen. Just remember that visiting the area with small kids (babies and toddlers) is tricky since there are very few amenities and it gets super hot in the afternoon.
However, older kids and teens would find Bombay Beach and the Salton Sea really cool. Expect to spend half an hour to an hour to walk among the ruins and photograph them.
Salvation Mountain is a hillside artwork collection of murals, Bible verses, and more created by a southern California local, Leonard Knight. He built it to spread his message, “God is love”.
Salvation Mountain is located in Slab City, a few miles away from the Salton Sea. Slab City is a semi-permanent artist community and is an attraction in itself with its hippie vibe, motorhomes, and lots of creativity at work.
Some don’t feel comfortable exploring the disheveled Slab City, however, it has lots of character and uniqueness if you want to look around. Moreover, the area is completely safe to visit, even with kids.
Salvation Mountain is built from Adobe and plastered hay bales and has been painted over with messages and murals. You can actually follow the path up to the top of Salvation Mountain (up to the cross) and see the view from above. Kids, especially, love to see the vibrant artwork and have a great time walking around it.
While Salvation Mountain is not a must-visit, we would recommend visiting this quirky roadside attraction if you have the time. Expect to spend at least half an hour to an hour at Salvation Mountain.
Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park is the highlight of any Southern California Road Trip. This national park has some of the most dramatic and beautiful landscapes that we have seen in the country. The park is named after the iconic twisting and turning yucca trees: Joshua Tree.
Seeing one in front of bald boulders that are perfect for rock scrambling or the silhouette of another at sunset is a delight. You will also see vast areas of the desert dotted by these fascinating trees. Driving through them along the Joshua Tree National Park scenic drive is a memorable activity. To read more about visiting the park, read our Joshua Tree day trip guide.
However, Joshua Tree National Park has so much to offer beyond these unique trees. The national park is located over two different ecosystems: the Mojave desert and the Colorado desert.
Each of these desert systems is different and home to different species of cacti and other desert plants. The popular yucca trees are located in the northern Mojave desert while the southern Colorado desert has other spectacular trees including the ocotillos, cholla cacti, and many other flowering cacti.
Joshua Tree National Park is also great for rock climbing, hiking, striking rock formations, and unique desert wildlife. In spring, you will see the landscape come alive with colorful cacti flowers in shades of yellow, purple, blue, red and pink.
Another unique feature of this park is that it is located on many active fault lines including the San Andreas fault which passes through the park. We recommend driving to Keys View to see the fault and a 360 view of the area.
Our kids also loved hiking to the palm oases which had grown where water seeped through an active faultline. For more information on hiking trails and things to do, read our post on 24 Family-friendly things to do in Joshua Tree.
We recommend spending anywhere from 1 to 3 days in Joshua Tree. If you can, camp at the national park. The night sky at Joshua Tree is one of the darkest in the country and you will have excellent stargazing opportunities.
After roughing it out in Joshua Tree, we would recommend spending a couple of days in Palm Springs to relax and enjoy this resort city. Palm Springs is the very antithesis of desolate Bombay Beach and isolated Joshua Tree desert.
It is a fun and vibrant city bursting with mid-century modern architecture, designer shopping stores, and hip restaurants. Palm Springs also has many luxurious hotels with the Parker Palm Springs being a hit for its stunning decor and luxe vibe. All these resorts also make Palm Springs a popular babymoon destination.
There are many things to do in Palm Springs from cultural attractions to architecture tours. The city has many big museums with well-curated collections including the Palm Springs Art Museum, Palm Springs Air Museum, a Depression-era general store museum, Children’s Discovery Museum of the Desert, and 19th-century homes.
It also has many free attractions including its own Walk of Stars in downtown Palm Springs and a statue of former mayor Sonny Bono.
For outdoor attractions hike in the nearby Indian Canyons area or take the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway to the top of the San Jacinto Mountains. At the mountain top, you will find miles and miles of hiking trails, a restaurant and visitor center, and Mount San Jacinto State Park.
Drive around to see the windmills or relax in the pool at your resort. Go for a spa massage and get refreshed for the rest of your trip. For a complete guide, read our post on 30 Awesome Things to do in Palm Springs.
Palm Springs also happens to be where most of the world’s dates are grown and you will find a lot of eateries incorporating dates in their menus. We love the date shakes in Palm Springs: if in downtown, visit Great Shakes for their amazing date banana milkshake or drive out to Shields Date Garden in nearby Indio.
At Shields, you will also be able to see a date museum and documentary! Another popular place to get a date shake is Hadley’s in Cabazon. (see below)
Cabazon is on the I-10 on the way from Palm Springs to Los Angeles. It is located just half an hour away from Palm Springs and makes a great pitstop on the Southern California road trip. Families with kids especially need to stop here for one main reason: dinosaurs!
The Cabazon dinosaurs are famous throughout California. These are two ginormous steel and concrete dinosaur sculptures of Dinny (a Brontosaurus) and Mr. Rex (obviously, a T-Rex). These two dinosaurs look fabulous looming over the roadside – they make you feel as if you are in a post-apocalyptic world!
Kids love these dinos and the fact that they can climb over their feet and play under their belly. You can even have lunch on a picnic table under Dinny. The best part? You can visit the dinos for free.
The Cabazon Dinosaurs site also has a gift shop and museum which are ticketed entry only – however, we would suggest visiting only after reading more about them. We have heard from friends that the museum supports creationism (which is anti-evolution) and has exhibits saying why evolution is not supported by facts.
As such we did not visit the museum but our kids had great fun seeing and playing around the huge dinosaur sculptures. Apart from the museum, you will also find fossil hunting, smaller fiberglass, and robotic sculptures as part of the ticketed attractions.
The other great Cabazon attraction is Hadley’s orchard for a date shake. Other things to do in Cabazon including shopping for designer goods at Desert Hills Premium Outlets or Cabazon Outlets. At these malls, you will find most of the high-end fashion brands having daily discounts and deals.
While you are in Cabazon, you can also check out the Morongo Casino and spend some time at the slot machines or play a game of poker. Cabazon also provides access to Mount San Jacinto State Park along SR 243 (which is currently closed due to flood damage).
After spending so much time in the desert, doesn’t cotton candy, icecreams, roller coasters, and Mickey Mouse sound like a great idea? Enter Anaheim!
Anaheim is home to Disney California resorts including Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure Park. We have been to the parks several times, by ourselves as well as with kids, and had so much fun each time.
Disneyland Park is where the kids will get to meet Mickey and friends, say hello to Princesses, and visit lands such as Fantasyland and Frontierland while Disney California Adventure is dominated by cool roller coasters, thrill rides, and movie-based attractions such as Toy Story Land and the Incredicoaster based on The Incredibles.
If you are planning to go to Disney, check out all our Disney posts here.
Apart from Disney, Anaheim is also home to many other theme parks including Adventure City and Knott’s Berry theme park. But apart from theme parks and kid-friendly attractions, Anaheim also has lots of things to do for adults.
Check out the Anaheim Packing District which is like an indoor culinary theme park with a variety of delicious cuisines and snacks as well as historic decor and posters. You can eat everything from ramen, fish and chips, pho, steaks, tacos, southern comfort food, cotton candy, boba, icecreams, popsicles, and pastries while exploring the 2 floors of this delicious food hall.
Anaheim also has great shopping, gardens, music venues, and sports stadiums and is perfect for a relaxing break towards the end of your San Diego to Joshua Tree road trip.
End your Southern California road trip in the city of dreams, Los Angeles! We have been to Los Angeles a couple of times and still haven’t seen many of its attractions. The city is huge and there are so many things to do in LA that even a week wouldn’t be enough.
If this is your first trip to Los Angeles, then we would recommend starting with the most popular attractions. On the first day, visit the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Grauman’s Chinese Theater, and the Kodak theatre.
Do a tour of Universal Studios or Warner Bros. Universal is more for theme park fans while at Warner Bros you can go behind the scenes and see attractions like the Big Bang Theory set.
End the day by visiting Griffith Park. From here, you will see excellent views of the Hollywood sign. The famous Griffith Observatory is also located here. We love exploring the exhibits inside the observatory including celestial models, Foucault’s pendulum, telescopes, and more. Also, the view of Los Angeles from the Griffith Observatory terrace is amazing.
Spend the next day exploring LA’s amazing museums. At Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) you will find parts of the Berlin Wall as well as the famous urban lights installation. The Broad is famous for its unique artwork and is one of the Instagrammable places in Los Angeles. Children love to visit the La Brea Tar Pits and Page Museum.
For beautiful art pieces as well as beautiful architecture, visit the Getty Center. If you are not into museums, then check out the LA Farmer’s Market or shop on Rodeo Drive. Spend the evening at Venice Beach boardwalk and nearby Santa Monica Pier. Kids love the rides at Pacific Park.
For more ideas on things to do in LA, check out our post on spending 2 Days in Los Angeles.
Other things to do in Southern California
If you have more time, you can also check out other places of interest in Southern California, including Temecula Valley, Lake Arrowhead, and San Luis Obispo.
Temecula Valley is located just an hour out of San Diego and is home to many wineries. Lake Arrowhead is popularly called as the Alps of Southern California and is a beautiful lake. San Luis Obispo is a vibrant college town on the Central Coast.
You can also visit historic and abandoned towns such as Calico Ghost Town and Pioneertown or take a trip out to sea to Catalina Island or Channel Islands National Park.
Did you like our itinerary for the southern California road trip from San Diego to Joshua Tree? Did we make you change your plans and add a couple of these destinations to your road trip? Let us know in the comments.