Our 9 Day Southwest road trip had it all! We saw cactus, theme parks, road side attractions, and a part of the USA we have never explored. It was a Southwest family vacation we will never forget.
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, Tucson, Disneyland, and the Pacific Ocean.
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. Once we had our dates picked and the flights booked we started putting together the itinerary for our 9 day southwest road trip.
Southwest Road Trip Itinerary Overview
- Day 1
- 6:00am Flight from Rochester-Baltimore-Albuquerque
- Arrive in Albuquerque, New Mexico at 12:00pm
- Drive Albuquerque to White Sands National Monument (223 miles)
- Visit White Sands National Monument, Stop for the night in Las Cruces, New Mexico. (52 miles)
- Day 2
- Drive from Las Cruces, New Mexico to Tucson, Arizona. (285 miles)
- Old Tucson
- Dinner at the HUB
- Day 3
- Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
- Drive from Tucson to Yuma (237 miles)
- Overnight stay in Yuma.
- Day 4
- Drive from Yuma, Arizona to Anaheim, California (255 miles)
- Stopped at Cabazon Dinosaur along the way.
- Lunch at In-N-Out Burger
- Arrive in Anaheim, California.
- Walked around Downtown Disney at Disneyland in the evening.
- Day 5
- Disneyland Parks for the day.
- Day 6
- Drive from Anaheim to Carlsbad (61 miles)
- Checked into hotel in Carlsbad and relaxed.
- Day 7
- LEGOLAND California day.
- Day 8
- La Jolla beach to see the sea lions.
- Day 9
- 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. I wish we had more time to explore but we had to get on the road for the next part of our adventure.
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. My kids were missing school and we didn’t want to fall behind.
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 our Southwest Road 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.
Day 4: Yuma, Arizona to Anaheim, California
We had a relaxing evening in Yuma eating burritos and catching up on homework. Today we packed up the car and headed west to Anaheim, California.
When we first planned this trip we didn’t plan on visiting Disneyland but after a little consideration we knew that we couldn’t be that close to Disneyland and not visit. So we changed our plans a bit and added Disneyland to our itinerary.
The drive from Yuma to Anaheim was over 4 hours and we wanted to plan a stop to break it up. We did a little research and discovered Cabazon Dinosaurs. Cabazon Dinosaurs is a road side attraction that has also been the location for a few popular movies.
Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and The Wizard had filmed scenes here and we thought it would be a fun place to stretch our legs. It was a fun road side attraction. You do have to pay to enter part of it, but there are a few dinosaurs to take your picture next to that are free of charge. If you want to climb up the T-Rex you have to have a ticket.
We purchased tickets and it took us about 30 minutes to explore. Climbing into the head of a T-Rex is an interesting experience and something everyone should try!
Honestly, the visit is a bit pricey but we budgeted for it before we arrived. I don’t think I would pay again but I would stop and stretch, take a few pictures, and explore the gift shop. It was a one time visit and the kids enjoyed themselves.
From there we continued our drive to Anaheim. It was lunch time and we had planned our first visit to In and Out Burger. This is a west coast staple and everyone said we had to try it. I even went all out and got the milkshake!
I liked the burger and fries but the milkshake was my favorite! I went with the Neapolitan and highly suggest it! We finished the drive to Anaheim and made it to the Fairfield Inn Anaheim for our two night stay.
I have to admit, as much as I love a good family road trip, at this point we were tired of being in the car. When we finally arrived everyone was exhausted and ready to be done. I was happy we planned all the driving at the start of our trip.
We checked into the hotel and relaxed for an hour before walking to Disneyland.
Our hotel was across the street from Disneyland and perfect walking distance! We are used to Walt Disney World and it was kind of nice to walk out of our room and be at Disneyland in the time it takes to walk to a resort bus at Walt Disney World.
We picked up our tickets for the next day and walked around Downtown Disney. I am not a big shopper but we did walk through The World of Disney store to see all the new merchandise. We decided to eat Panera, located next to our hotel, in our room for dinner and enjoy a swim in the pool before our full day at Disneyland tomorrow.
Day 5: Disneyland and California Adventure
The feeling that takes over you when you are a huge Disney fan visiting Disneyland is incredible. It is the park that Walt built, and walked through and it is amazing. It is different than Walt Disney World but it is charming and nostalgic.
We had a big day planned. Disneyland and California Adventure. 2 Parks in 1 Day. I don’t suggest this for your first visit because there is so much to see and do that you will miss a lot. We didn’t have a choice and couldn’t choose a park so we decided to tackle both.
We started early and were at the Disneyland gates at 7:45 for a 9:00am opening. From there we purchased MaxPass to maximize our FastPasses and explored the park. We prioritized attractions that are not at Walt Disney World and managed to ride everything we had on our list.
Visiting both Disneyland resort parks is easy because they are so close together. It makes park hopping much easier and allowed us to do a lot in one day.
We opened and closed Disneyland and walked back to our hotel after a busy day. I loved that the hotel was within walking distance and would stay again on our next visit. (I share the Fairfield Inn room tour in the video below.)
Day 6: Anaheim, California to Carlsbad, California
We slept in after our Disneyland day and then packed up for our last destination of the trip: Carlsbad, California. We stayed at the West Inn & Suites and it was the perfect place to finish the last few days of our vacation.
We checked in early, got lunch at Cessy’s in Carlsbad Village. I ordered the Carnita platter and it was delicious!! Then we headed back to the hotel to relax. We played games, watched TV, did homework, and went in the hotel hot tub.
Our family needed this time to recharge and relax. We like to see a lot when we travel but we also like to plan a bit of down time. At the end the night we enjoyed the warm cookies at the hotel and went to bed excited for the next day at LEGOLAND California.
Day 7: LEGOLAND California
My kids love LEGO. We are totally a LEGO family and we are a theme park family. Put those together and it is an awesome day!
We made the 5 minute drive to LEGOLAND California early so we could explore the on-site hotels before the park opened. LEGOLAND California has 2 hotels: The LEGOLAND Hotel and the Castle Hotel. Both are perfectly LEGO themed and the kids love them.
We didn’t stay at the LEGOLAND hotel because we didn’t want to switch hotels during our stay. We had packed and unpacked so many times we wanted a few days to be in one place, but I would recommend a stay. The hotel is so much fun and has so many activities for families.
During our visit the weather had been kind of crazy for Southern California and it rained on and off during our visit. Thankfully it wasn’t a complete wash outbut it did close a few rides throughout the day. As much as this changed our day it also kept the crowds low and we never waited longer than 5 minutes for anything.
We loved the NINJAGO ride and were pleasantly surprised by the Deep Sea Adventure Ride. We assumed it would feel a bit claustrophobic inside the submarine but it wasn’t at all. It was our favorite of the day.
LEGOLAND closed around 5:00pm so we headed back to the hotel for dinner in the room. We ordered pizza, borrowed some games and a movie from the front desk, and had some family time in the room. I love balancing busy days with rest and relax time.
Day 8: La Jolla Beach
La Jolla Beach has been on my list forever because I wanted to take the kids to see the seals on the beach. It was about a 1 hour drive from Carlsbad and the kids were not excited to get back in the car. (Next time we rent a van!)
We were all so happy we did though because feeling our toes in the sand, running through the waves, and seeing the seals was one of our favorite memories of the trip.
La Jolla Beach is stunning. There is so much to explore and it is easy to walk around. The parking can get busy but we found street parking and walking along the ocean was good for all of us.
We spent our morning at La Jolla and then returned to our hotel to pack and get ready to fly home tomorrow. In the evening we went to Joe’s Crab Shack for dinner and watched the sunset on the bay.
Day 9: Time to Go Home
We scheduled an afternoon flight so we wouldn’t have to rush out in the early morning. I was so happy we did this because we went back to the hot tub, enjoyed a slow breakfast, and then drove to San Diego airport for our drive home.
As I write this I know that this trip was a once in a lifetime trip. It had it’s ups and downs but it made these memories that I will never forget. We saw parts of the country that I may never see again. I am so happy we stepped out of our comfort zone to plan and take this trip.
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