This post may contain affiliate links. Please read my disclosure.
Early spring in the desert is a perfect time to roll down your windows, pop open that Coke, turn the radio up and DRIVE! The road from San Diego to Tucson is an easy, beautifully scenic drive with some of the most gorgeous weather, taking just about 6 hours (less than a day’s work)! Check out some of my favorite stops along the way.
I love a road trip more than most (non-food) things in the world.
I honestly can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten in the car to go run an errand or head to work and just wanted to keep on driving….the open road beckons me.
Unfortunately, I have responsibilities today.
But that doesn’t mean I can’t still take an awesome, whilst slightly more planned, road trip.
Yes, I said whilst.
My younger sister and her family live in Tucson, so I’ve done my fair share of roadtripping (can we make this a verb?) to Tucson.
And I love the drive. The desert is such a peaceful place. Quiet, beautiful, serene…it brings me such happiness.
Driving straight through it takes between 5 and 6 hours depending on your speed and where in Tucson you’re headed. If you think this drive is boring, think again. There are so many beautiful things to see!
I’ve left San Diego early in the morning, and in the afternoon. Love both options.
If you leave early in the morning, leave about 1-2 hours before sunrise and you can catch the most beautiful sunrise just as you are descending the grade into the desert.
If you leave in the afternoon, it’s a great time to enjoy the warm afternoon sun and the breeze as you drive up and over the grade. As you descend, you may need to turn on the air conditioning depending on the time of year. I almost never turn on the air if I’m alone in the car.
If you’re looking for some amazing views, make a quick stop at the Desert View Tower in Jacumba (In-Ko-Pah Road).
I’ll be honest, every time I think of the Desert Tower, I am reminded of the book the Dark Tower. I love that series. There’s a movie now, but I haven’t seen it yet.
As you keep trucking down the highway, you’ll come upon Dateland, where there isn’t much to see, but make sure to get you a famous date shake at the local store!
Now it’s almost time to make a decision on what you want out of your road trip.
If you want to keep this a one day trip, keep heading East on the 8. Don’t forget to stop at the ostrich farm and feed the animals.
If you’ve got some extra time, I highly recommend taking State Highway 85 down to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. It’s absolutely gorgeous.
On my last trip, I left San Diego in the afternoon and stayed the night in Gila Bend. Let me tell you though….the hotel options in Gila Bend are limited. I stayed at America’s Choice Inn & Suites and it was perfectly adequate. Decent breakfast, in room microwave, refrigerator and coffee maker, and a pretty decent shower. I’d stay there again.
Food options are also limited, however, all your standard fast food restaurants are available. I ate at Humberto’s Mexican food which made a pretty darn good chili relleno burrito. I was fat and happy.
I hit the road around 6 AM the next day to catch the sunrise on the way down State Highway 85 to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. What a beautiful drive.
This is also the way to Rocky Point in Mexico, so you will see many signs for Mexican insurance as you drive through the small towns.
Apparently, Rocky Point is where Arizona residents go to the beach. I have not been but am totally up for it next time….
Organ pipe cactus national monument
It’s really beautiful. The smell of the desert first thing in the morning is one of those that I’d love to bottle and keep forever.
There are many hiking trails and scenic drives in the park. The Puerto Blanco Drive is a 37 mile drive, for which I drove as many miles as I could in my 2 wheel drive Honda Civic (it’s not paved for most of the drive). Another very popular drive is the Ajo Mountain drive, about 21 miles long and a little less rough.
I got there around 8 AM, and it was beautifully quiet and peaceful with that intoxicating desert smell I love so much. Perfect for a short hike to stretch your legs. Don’t forget to bring plenty of water though. You need more than you think you do!
After you’re done at Organ Pipe, head back North on SH 85, and take SH 86 in Why, AZ heading East for the scenic road to Tucson. This will take you through Tohono O’Odham Nation Reservation. The countryside is beautiful.
Cactus covered rolling hills with a few small towns sprinkled about, this quickly became one of my favorite parts of the drive from San Diego to Tucson.
One last stop before you head into Tucson. Kitt Peak Observatory. Here you will find some absolutely amazing views. But I don’t speak from experience, I haven’t actually stopped here before. But it’s totally on my list for the next trip, and comes highly recommended from others.
I spent a couple days with my sister in Tucson antique shopping and sunning by her pool. We visited Saguaro National Park, which is one of my favorite things to do while in Tucson. Stay tuned as I will be writing about that shortly as well.
The way back – Tucson to San Diego
There is typically a little less dilly dallying given the time crunch I’m usually in to get back home for work the next day.
However, there are still some awesome places.
Instead of backtracking the way I came, I hop straight on the 10 West until it splits, and stay on the 8 West. This takes me through the Sonoran Desert National Monument, which is beautiful countryside.
I usually lose my Pandora here, which is fine with me – I just sit back and enjoy the sun and scenery while creating my own Pandora. I love to belt out country songs as I cruise down the road.
Once through the Sonoran Desert, I’m right back in Gila Bend, where I usually need to stop for some snacks and a bathroom break at the Love’s. My favorite truck stop.
Have I told you guys how much I love truck stops?
So much. I love truck stops so much.
Which probably sounds weird.
random road trip stops
Now sometimes I like to choose a random exit and see where the road takes me. This particular trip, I stopped in Noah, Arizona (S Ave 36E Exit). I cruised North, where the road turned to Roll Road after a few minutes of driving through the small town.
The road crosses over the Gila River, which was totally dry, but a great place to stop and photograph the railroad bridge. It was so quiet I just had to pause a moment to enjoy it. You can see the dried up river bed in the photos.
Anyways, it was time to head back to the highway. Getting back on the 8 West, there are a number of rest stops along the way, and the restrooms are always pretty clean. And the sodas are cheap.
Oh yeah, I love soda. I have an addiction to Coke Zero.
If you’ve got some extra time, Yuma is a great place to stop and get something to eat, perhaps take a visit to the Prison State Historic Park, the Colorado River State Historic Park or one of their many tasty restaurants. Whatever floats your boat. It’s a cute little town.
And so we say goodbye to Arizona.
Don’t forget to check your speed, the limit drops back down to 65 once you enter California.
Take that 8 West all the way back up and over the grade.
No matter how much I love the desert, the feel of the cool breeze as you descend into San Diego is the best thing ever….
Once you’re back in San Diego, grab a bite to eat at one of these awesome places:
Have you ever driven from San Diego to Tucson before? Where are your favorite places to stop? Do you take your time or just drive straight through? Leave me a comment below and let me know!