Traveling as a family on a southwest road trip has been a family travel goal of mine for a while now. We love a good family road trip and this trip had it all. Theme parks, cactus, road side attractions, and back seat squabbles. This was going to be an epic family vacation.
The idea to plan this road trip started during my solo trip to Gallup, New Mexico for a travel conference. From the minute I landed I knew I wanted to come back with the family. The landscape was like nothing I had ever seen and I couldn’t wait to show the kids.
After I returned we started talking about how we could make it happen and what we wanted to see. There is so much to see in this part of the USA and narrowing it down to what worked for us took a bit of back and forth. We decided to focus our time on a few major landmarks: White Sands National Park, Disneyland, and the Pacific Ocean.
Read More: Gallup, New Mexico Hot Air Balloon Ride
These three very different places helped shape our trip and the direction we would go. Our trip was also complicated by the fact that we don’t live in the Southwest. We live in New York state. I knew we wouldn’t have time to drive cross country so we flew to our starting point and flew home from our ending point.
This meant we would have to book flights and a rental car for our trip but it was the best choice for our family.
Southwest Road Trip Itinerary
- 6:00am Flight from Rochester-Baltimore-Albuquerque
- Arrive in Albuquerque at 12:00pm
- Drive Albuquerque to White Sands National Monument (223 miles)
- Visit White Sands National Monument, Stop for the night in Las Cruces. (52 miles)
- Drive Las Cruces to Tucson. (285 miles)
- Visit Tucson for the day/night.
- Tucson to Yuma (237 miles)
- Yuma to Anaheim (255 miles)
- Anaheim to Carlsbad (61 miles)
- Fly Home San Diego-Baltimore-Rochester
Each day was around 4 hours of driving. If I had to plan it again I would fly into El Paso, TX and drive up to White Sands National Monument. It is a shorter drive and would have been a better plan. Everything else worked out well.
The only other thing I would do different is spend the extra money to rent a mini-van. We have a mini-van at home and it makes road trips much easier with kids. We rented a small SUV and the amount of time in the car was exhausting at times.
Day 1: Travel Day Rochester, New York to Las Cruces, New Mexico
Our first day started at 6:00am, actually 4:00am, with a 6:15am flight! I love an early morning flight the first day of travel. It is a great way to start our vacation and with the time change flying to the western USA we felt like we gain a few bonus hours of vacation time.
This was a long day of travel, around 7 hours and then we had to drive over 3 hours to get to White Sands. As I mentioned earlier, I would have done this a bit differently.
As soon as we arrived the kids were excited and they were loving the views all around. This was our first time as a family to New Mexico!
I’ll be honest with you- the drive from Albuquerque to White Sands National Monument was not our best. We were all tired, off schedule and ready to stretch our legs. The drive was gorgeous(watch the video at the end of this post) and we made a few stops along the way to run around a bit.
I also planned ahead and packed snacks for the ride and their water bottles. I knew we would need some special snacks and treats to keep us going through the day.
As we drove into Alamogordo, where White Sands National Monument is located, we made a quick stop at the largest Pistachio….because you have to stop at a giant pistachio statue! Then we arrived at White Sands at 4:45…15 minutes before the gift shop closed.
Typically we wouldn’t care that the gift shop was closing but on this trip we had planned to go sledding on the sand dunes and purchase the sleds at the gift shop. If you have time, bring your own sleds or purchase them at a store before you enter the park. We didn’t have either of these options and $48.00 later we were the proud owners of 3 plastic saucer sleds and a block of wax.
At this point we didn’t really care about the cost and made our way into the park before it was too dark to sled. Words do not do this place justice and White Sands is unlike anything I have ever experienced. It is stunning and you will want to sit and take it all in.
Our timing ended up being perfect-we caught the most beautiful sunset and had time to run around. We took our time and enjoyed the park. As we were leaving we saw a sweet family driving through the park with 3 kids and passed on our sleds to them. The joy in their faces was priceless and it worked out perfectly.
After our sledding we finished our drive to Las Cruces where we picked up dinner and crashed for the night. We stayed at the Springhill Suite Las Cruces. It was clean, affordable, and offered breakfast in the morning.
Day 2: Las Cruces, New Mexico to Tucson, Arizona
We woke up early feeling well rested and ready to start the next part of our trip. The nice part about being on east coast time is that we got on the road early and didn’t have to deal with much traffic.
The drive from New Mexico into Arizona was one of my favorites because it was so diverse. We would see mountains, then snow covered mountains, then nothing but desert, and then cactus…lots of cactus! It was an incredible experience I will never forget.
This may sound funny but I was shocked by the cactus. I was under the assumption that they would only be in the parks but they were everywhere! It was very cool to see and much different than what we are used to.
I was excited for two things in Tucson: first the weather!! This was our only stop that would be hot and I was ready to soak it all in! Second we were partnering with Visit Tucson to visit a few family friendly attractions in the short time we were there.
Our first stop was Old Tucson. Old Tucson is a working film studio that offers tours and an opportunity to immerse yourself in the old western films. It was fun for the kids and we really enjoyed checking out the old film sets.
After Old Tucson we checked in to our hotel. We stayed at the Comfort Suites at Tucson Mall. Again this was a budget friendly hotel without a lot of fancy amenities. It worked for our short one night stay in Tucson.
We relaxed at the hotel for a bit before heading to the HUB for dinner and dessert. If you are visiting Tucson make a point to visit the HUB. Delicious food and homemade dessert make this a great option for families.
After dinner we were ready for bed and went back to the hotel for the night.
Day 3: Tucson, Arizona to Yuma, Arizona
The next morning we had breakfast, packed our bags, and drove to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum for our last Tucson stop. Our GPS took us a back way and I am so grateful. We winded around a mountain to a huge clearing of cactus, its in the video below. We stopped to take a few pictures because it was amazing!
The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is a zoo and botanical gardens packed into one. You could explore all day and not see everything. We all really enjoyed our visit and learned a lot about the wildlife in Arizona.
Read More: 24 Hours in Tucson with Kids
After the museum we got back in the car for the drive to Yuma, Arizona. Basically we picked Yuma for two reasons. It was about half way to the California coast and it had the best burritos in Arizona. It doesn’t take much to sway us and we are always up for trying new food.
So we headed to Yuma. Yuma also had a big playground that we thought would be great for the kids to stretch and play a bit. We also had homework to do.
By the end of the day we were exhausted. The playground was great. The burritos were delicious, although I would go with the rolled tacos, they were my favorite. Our stay at the Springhill Suites Yuma was clean and comfortable. We had dinner in the hotel room and went to bed early.
Check Out Our Vlog of the Trip!
The next day was our last long drive and our first visit to Disneyland in Anaheim, California. We couldn’t wait and knew it would be an awesome part of our amazing road trip.