September saw us head off on our road trip to America’s South West. I’ve written a little bit about what we did in our starting city of San Francisco, but here I’m going to share our road trip itinerary and how we planned it. We went with friends, coincidentally another Mr and Mrs Jones, so there were four of us and four different wish lists. We started with a map and wine. Wine is always a good place to start. After agreeing on a do-able radius we all pitched in with an orange marker pen and circled our ‘must sees’. From there it was just a case of joining up the dots. Well, sort of.
Planning a US Road Trip
All four of us work full-time so we had just two weeks for our trip and we decided to travel the middle two weeks in September. The weather wouldn’t be too hot and the kids would be back at school so hotel availability would be good. So with our dates agreed we booked our flights – flying into San Francisco and out through Phoenix two weeks later. We booked our car through a car hire comparison site to get the best deal.
Next we booked a hotel in San Francisco for our three nights in the city. That was a good move because there was a convention on when we arrived and room costs rocketed as availability was tight. Despite booking well ahead, these were the most expensive rooms of our trip. The views from the 46th floor of San Francisco Hilton Union Square made up for the cost a little bit.
And that was it. That was all we had booked in advance. Flights, car hire and our first three nights accommodation. We also had a rough idea of where we wanted to go. The rest of our accommodation was booked en route or on arrival. Isn’t that what road trips are all about? The freedom to stay a little longer if we really liked somewhere or to take off if we didn’t. It worked perfectly. We didn’t use Sat Nav – we took our good old-fashioned map, which was covered in even more scribbles by the end of the trip and actually makes a great souvenir.
Our Road Trip Itinerary – South West USA
Days 1 – 3 (3 nights) – San Francisco
We flew into San Francisco and spent three days in the city. Sightseeing included Alcatraz, Biking the Bridge with Blazing Saddles and exploring the city’s neighbourhoods of North Beach, China Town and Fisherman’s Wharf. On day three we picked up the car for the first driving leg of our trip. The 133-mile drive to Monterey Bay along the Pacific Coast Highway taking in some stunning coastal views en route.
Days 3 – 6 (3 nights) – Monterey Bay
We arrived in Monterey Bay around 16:30 pm and didn’t have to look too far for a hotel. Hotel Abrego is just ten minutes walk from Fisherman’s Wharf with a small pool and hot tub. Walk-in rates were $119 per room night plus tax – worth noting this was much cheaper than the online cost.
We checked out Old Fisherman’s Wharf, Cannery Row and the harbour seals and wildlife in the bay but it was in Monterey Bay that I experienced the highlight of our whole road trip. Monterey Bay Whale Watching was just epic. More to come on that shortly. We also took the 17-mile drive through the famous Pebble Beach Golf Course with it’s gorgeous coastal views carrying on the drive through Carmel-by-the-Sea, over Bixby Bridge down to Big Sur. Next we headed inland to Oakhurst…
Day 6 – 8 (2 nights) Oakhurst
Oakhurst was our base for our visit to Yosemite and we booked this over the phone on our last night in Monterey. There’s not a lot to see in Oakhurst – although there was a fabulous bar (or dive bar as the locals referred to it) right next door called the Dirty Donkey. Mel, the barmaid, with her cigarettes and rum accent was the most ‘to the point’ person I’ve ever met. We had huge fun in that bar and more than a few games of pool. We arrived late and spent the next day at Yosemite and set off again the next day en route to Death Valley.
Read more – The best places to see in California
Day 8 – 9 (1 night) Lone Pine
After a day’s driving through some beautiful countryside, we arrived at Lone Pine, on the edge of Death Valley, at around 5 pm. There’s no shortage of motels and a nice looking Art Deco hotel in the town but needing two rooms meant we didn’t get our first choice here. Lone Pine is a bit of a cowboy town with a few restaurants and a saloon bar or two (with proper swinging saloon bar doors). We had some great food here and an amazing breakfast which set us up perfectly for our drive through Death Valley.
Day 9 -12 (3 nights) Las Vegas
Would we still be alive at the end of the day after driving through Death Valley en route to Las Vegas? We’d heard stories – “check your tire pressure – they might explode in the heat”. “Turn your AC off – the engine will overheat”. We were actually a little nervous – but no need to be because we emerged on the other side unscathed. Temperatures reached a high of 108 degrees. We took a fairly direct route through the Valley and stopped off at a couple of sights as we wanted to be in Vegas before nightfall.
In Vegas we wanted to relax and have a bit of pool time which we did at the Monte Carlo hotel for three nights. We did some sightseeing too – The Stratosphere, The Mob Museum, The Strip and the Freemont Experience in downtown Vegas as well as checking out some of the hotels. We also saw a show Cirque du Soleil ‘Love’ the Beatles themed show which was fab.
Day 12 – 13 (1 night) Seligman and Route 66
We left Vegas early morning and stopped off at The Hoover Dam, just a 45-minute drive away. Our next stop was the West Rim of the Grand Canyon and after that we wanted to get to Sedona and spend our final three nights there and possibly one night in Phoenix. Things don’t always go to plan and we spent a lot longer than planned at The Hoover Dam as it was so interesting and then the drive to the Grand Canyon took longer than anticipated.
We realised that we weren’t going to make it to Sedona before nightfall and decided to stop in the next small town – Seligman. What a stroke of luck! The whole trip had started with the idea of driving a bit of Route 66 (because the other Mrs Jones was born in 1966) and it turned out that Seligman was located on a stretch of original Mother Road. It was the town where Billy Connolly stayed when he filmed his Route 66 trip and Radiator Springs, the town in the Pixar film ‘Cars’, was based on Seligman. We pulled up at the first motel we saw at around 6 pm and got two rooms without any trouble for $68 plus tax per night including breakfast. Ours was the John Wayne themed room and it also turned out to be the motel where Connolly stayed on his trip. The quirkiest stop on our road trip by far with kicks and kitsch Route 66.
Day 13 – 14 (1 night) Sedona
Our final night was spent in Sedona, land of red rocks, spirituality and vortexes. We stopped at tourist information on the way into town who directed us to Cedars Resort where we negotiated rates and got rooms with fantastic views. We found throughout our trip that we could get better rates by turning up or phoning and negotiating directly with the hotel/motel but some people might not be comfortable with this. We spent our first afternoon in Sedona relaxing by the pool and the second day explored the red rocks and vortexes of the area before driving down to Phoenix for our flight home.
So, that’s our American road trip South West itinerary. Have you been on a US road trip? How did you plan your route – did you wing it like us in true road trip style or did you plan meticulously? Either way, let me know in the comments below – would love to hear your advice.
Read more about our South West USA Road Trips stops
Suzanne Jones is creator, writer and photographer at The Travelbunny. When she’s not indulging her wanderlust you’ll most likely find her enjoying coastal walks in her home county of East Sussex, UK.
Suzanne co-writes Sussex Bloggers which showcases the best of East & West Sussex.