The optimal southern road trip across the US

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Get ready for a sun-kissed road trip along the southern route from San Diego to Miami. It takes you across a continent, from the Pacific to the Atlantic, and it does so in a way that allows you to stay warm throughout the drive. When taking this optimal southern road trip across the USA, you most certainly never have to freeze, no matter what time of the year you travel.

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  • Total distance: 3072 mi / 4944 km
  • Total driving time: 45.5 h

1. San Diego, California

Sunny San Diego lies magnificently on the Californian coast. It’s not called America’s Finest City for nothing. Great weather around the year creates the laid-back atmosphere that you appreciate especially at the start or end of a big trip.

Grasp the opportunity and say hello to the beach bum in you and visit one of San Diego’s beaches. But head over to Balboa Park before that tan gets the best of you.

Pick a favorite beach in San Diego

As San Diego has a long shoreline along the Californian coast it’s not hard to find a great beach to spend the day on when you’re about to begin your road trip. A favorite beach is Coronado Beach where scenes in the classic movie “Some Like It Hot” with Marilyn Monroe were filmed.

But there are many other great options if you don’t want to walk in the footsteps of Marilyn. To only name a few, other good options are Pacific Beach, Mission Beach, Imperial Beach, Ocean Beach, Moonlight Beach, Del Mar City Beach and Jolla Shores. So find that beach bum in you and spend some relaxing time at the Pacific Ocean before the great southern road trip adventure starts.

Oceanside Pier at start of southern road trip.
The landmark pier at Oceanside Beach.

Check out what Balboa Park is all about

Balboa Park in San Diego is the crown jewel of the city. It spreads out over 1,200 acres (5 square kilometres) and hosts the zoo, museums, gardens, architecture, restaurants, cafés and other attraction venues.

It’s the perfect place to spend an afternoon, but with all the things to do in the park you could easily spend a long weekend there too. While San Diego Zoo is the name that stands out among all the things to do in Balboa Park, to wander around without a real plan ahead of you and take it as it comes could be as rewarding.

Balboa Park in San Diego
Balboa Park in San Diego.

2. Saguaro National Park, Arizona

  • Driving distance: 398 mi / 641 km
  • Driving time: 5.5 h

It’s time to leave California and continue into the state of Arizona. In Saguaro National Park you find cacti higher than houses.

The environment in Saguaro National Park is just breathtaking. Its nature reminds you of a good old cowboy movie. And the famous and enormous saguaro cacti that rise with authority towards the sky is the highlight of the park.

These giant tree-like cacti can become more than 50 feet (15 m) tall, which makes them the largest cactus species in the United States.

A very special feature of Saguaro National Park is that the park is divided into two separate sections, also called districts. Tucson Mountain District is on the western end and Rincon Mountain District on the eastern end of Tucson. Both districts are beautiful to visit and you find the saguaro cactus in both.

Cacti in desert during sunset
The huge saguaro cactus in Saguaro National Park.

Additional stop: Grand Canyon is without a doubt the most famous national park in Arizona. But Grand Canyon is located too far north for it to be included on this ultimate southern states road trip route from California to Florida. Still, feel free to add Grand Canyon to the itinerary if you don’t mind the detour.

3. White Sands National Park, New Mexico

  • Driving distance: 346 mi / 557 km
  • Driving time: 5 h

The next stop on the southern itinerary from San Diego to Florida is neither as famous as Grand Canyon or Yellowstone. But that doesn’t make it less spectacular. White Sands National Park is a great destination for its own reasons.

You find White Sands National Park in Tularosa Basin in New Mexico. What makes it so spectacular is that it consists of enormous white sand dunes. The glistening sand dunes that cover about 275 square miles (712 square kilometres) create the world’s largest gypsum dunefield.

It could be hard to grasp as we now are so far from the ocean, but once White Sands was the bottom of the sea. Nowadays the area is not at all as wet as it once was. But the dunes aren’t as soft all the way through as they appear. And you can pretty easily climb the dunes as they are rather wet beneath the surface.

Scenic drives and hiking are fun and popular things to do in White Sands National Park. But an even more unique activity is to try some New Mexico sledding. The sandy dunes not only resemble snow by their looks, they also behave like snow dunes and are great for sledding.

The location of White Sands has contributed to the fact that it doesn’t get too much attention, and that people still don’t go even when the park does get some headlines. But for a road trip like this one White Sands National Park is the perfect place to stop at. The dunes are incredible and what’s more fun than to see something that’s off the beaten track?

White sand dunes stop on road trip
Endless dunes in White Sands National Park.

Additional stop: On the way from White Sands to Carlsbad Caverns you pass by another national park. Guadalupe Mountains National Park offers rugged mountain peaks and dramatic vistas. The park is called the top of Texas as it encompasses the state’s four tallest mountain tops. You find options for where to stay near Guadalupe Mountains along the California to Florida route in El Paso and Carlsbad.

Overlook in Guadalupe Mountains
Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

4. Carlsbad Caverns NP, New Mexico

  • Driving distance: 181 mi / 291 km
  • Driving time: 3.5 h

When you think of New Mexico it’s easy to think that it’s warm and sunny. Well, Carlsbad Caverns is definitely not warm or sunny — it’s time to go underground.

Carlsbad Caverns is situated in the southeastern corner of the state, inside the Guadalupe Mountains. Even though Carlsbad Caverns National Park consists of more than 119 impressive caves there’s clearly one that gets most of the visitors.

It’s called the Big Room but to just call it a big room is a hefty understatement. The limestone chamber is bigger than six football fields with its 4000 feet (1 220 m) length, 625 feet (191 m) width and 255 feet (78 m) height. And the beautiful rock formations and sculptures take your breath away.

The most exciting way to enter the Big Room is to take the Natural Entrance Trail. It takes you 750 feet (229 m) down into the depths of the earth. In the Big Room you can wander around yourself and try to take in the immense cave.

But remember that it’s rather cold down there. Make sure that you bring a jacket and long pants to fully appreciate the wonder of the world that Carlsbad Caverns is.

Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico
The amazing Carlsbad Caverns.

5. Big Bend National Park, Texas

  • Distance: 248 mi / 399 km
  • Driving time: 4 h

A huge contrast to the dark and cool underground environment in Carlsbad Caverns is Big Bend National Park in southwestern Texas. The park is the largest protected area of Chihuahuan Desert in the US and one of the best southern road trip stops.

Big Bend National Park was named after the shape of a large bend in Rio Grande. In the isolated, wild and often hot corner of the US Rio Grande tranquilly passes through. The river carves majestic canyons and creates bends as it flows through the dry landscape.

The secluded Big Bend National Park shares border with Mexico for as much as 118 miles (190 km) and Rio Grande is what separates the two countries. Rio Grande creates a natural international border and the land south of the river lies within Mexican territory.

Along Rio Grande the elevation is less than 1,800 feet (549 m) but in the majestic Chisos Mountains you reach almost 8,000 feet (2438 m). The varying altitude contributes to the diversity in vegetation and wildlife that you find in the park.

But in general Big Bend National Park is a hot place to visit. The extreme temperatures make summer a demanding time to explore the beautiful park. Therefore the less hot months of the year is the best time to visit Big Bend.

Scenic overlook with river running through Big Bend National Park
Big Bend National Park.

6. San Antonio, Texas

  • Distance: 366 mi / 589 km
  • Driving time: 6 h

Following awe-inspiring natural treasures it’s now time to see what Texas great cities have to offer.

The itinerary’s first of two Texas cities is San Antonio. In San Antonio you can indulge in some of the most important historic areas of Texas and live your best life at the River Walk. It’s certainly very easy to fall in love with this Texas beauty.

Uncover a city rich in history

San Antonio is a great place for sight-seeing and learning about the past. Of all the historic sites in San Antonio, the Alamo Mission is the one that especially stands out.

Alamo was built by the Spanish as a mission in 1718, but later that century it was secularized and abandoned. Instead of a mission it got a role as a military fortress.

And the fortress would be the scene of one of the most famous battles in the history of America. At the place the Battle of the Alamo took place in 1836.

A small force with soldiers entrenched themselves in the fortress when they were attacked by a much larger Mexican army. Even though the defenders were outnumbered and lost the battle, the battle stands out as one of the defining moments of the Texas Revolution.

Feel the pleasant vibe of the River Walk

The River Walk in San Antonio is a true sanctuary in the heart of the busy city. Some call it the American Venice for the beautiful water passages that San Antonio River forms. And the area is full of dining opportunities, shopping, sight-seeing and other fun things to do as you visit.

One of the best ways to beautifully and effectively see what the River Walk is all about is to take a narrated boat tour on the river. That way you can see what the area is all about and spot your favorite areas along the walk.

For dinner it’s a good idea to try one of the cozy restaurants just at the riverside, where you can sit down for an al fresco meal in the tranquil setting. The cypresses and oaks along the river create some often well-needed shade in the hot Texan climate.

For the history buff there’s always something to indulge in at the River Walk too. The Alamo is just steps away but so are other missions and a lot more to explore when you visit on the San Diego to Florida drive.

River walk in San Antonio
The beautiful River Walk in San Antonio.

Additional stop: To extend the road trip with more Texas stops you can continue on the ultimate Gulf Coast road trip. The coastal route takes you from the southern tip of South Padre Island all the way along the US Gulf Coast to the quirky Florida Keys.

7. Houston, Texas

  • Driving distance: 197 mi / 317 km
  • Driving time: 3 h

From one big city in Texas to another, Houston is next up. It’s a fun and interesting destination on the optimal southern road trip itinerary. The city is dynamic, lively and has first-class attractions to offer.

The biggest must-see when you visit Houston is the Johnson Space Center. It has a large museum with a great variety of exhibitions about space and space travel, which is both educating and entertaining.

And it has NASA tram tours running that take you to some of the best spots of the space center. How about the chance to see Rocket Park with a real huge rocket, the astronaut training facility or maybe most iconically the Apollo Mission Control Center?

After a day at the space center it’s perfect to return to the central part of Houston and hang out in Hermann Park. In Hermann Park you find beautiful trails, amazing picnic spots and you can even take a cute and idyllic train ride around the park. It’s no wonder that the Houstonians love this place.

Hermann Square in Houston.

8. New Orleans, Louisiana

  • Driving distance: 348 mi / 560 km
  • Driving time: 5 h

When you have driven all the way from San Diego to New Orleans it’s really time to let loose and enjoy yourself. New Orleans, the Big Easy or just NOLA is known to appreciate all the temptations and desires of life. As the old NOLA saying goes “Laissez les bons temps rouler”, or in English “Let the good times roll”.

To make the most of the time in New Orleans, the famous French Quarter with its unique ambience is the best place to stay in or at least close to. The atmosphere in the French Quarter is unique and you have most New Orleans things to do near or easily reachable from there.

In the French Quarter you find French homes from the 18th century with wrought-iron balconies. Them together with the street signs in French, smell of Creole and Cajun food and vibrant street performers could make you think you have arrived to a different country.

Bourbon Street is always lively and a paradise if you are in the mood to wet your throat, while Royal Street has plenty of antique shops just one street away. The area is compact and a perfect place to stretch your legs.

A short distance away from Royal Street you find Jackson Square with the beautiful St. Louis Cathedral. The beautiful and fairy-tale like cathedral could make you think you’re already at Disney in Orlando.

Jackson Square in NOLA.

9. Pensacola Beach, Florida

  • Driving distance: 209 mi / 336 km
  • Driving time: 3.5 h

It’s time for the final state Florida on the itinerary. And the first Floridian stop out of three on the itinerary from San Diego to Miami is the perfect beach destination.

Pensacola Beach sits on Santa Rosa Island in the Florida Panhandle. There you find one of the most beautiful beaches in America. People come back year after year for the white dunes, clear water and relaxing ambience in Pensacola Beach.

Still Pensacola Beach often gets a bit overlooked because it’s rather far away from a major city. Nevertheless, the beach is incredible and a fantastic stop on your southern states road trip.

As a bonus there are many more fun things to do than just lazing on the beach. An excellent activity if you would like to add some brick and stone into the mixture is to check out the old military fortress Fort Pickens.

Fort Pickens sits on the western end of Santa Rosa Island. A short and scenic drive away from the center of Pensacola Beach you can learn more about the history of the fort and the important function it once played. But the Fort Pickens area is also a great place to just unwind and enjoy the beautiful surroundings after a long beach day.

Crystal clear water and white sand on Pensacola Beach
The world-class Pensacola Beach.

Related: Don’t miss our ultimate Florida travel guide.

10. Orlando, Florida

  • Driving distance: 454 mi / 731 km
  • Driving time: 6.5 h

The route across the US continues southeast through Florida. Now it’s time for all your childhood dreams to come true, or at least some of them. The next stop is the home of Disney World, Orlando.

Planned in the 1960s and opened up in 1971, Disney has become synonymous with Orlando. Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure and Sea World are other thrill-seeking theme parks that call Orlando their home.

In Orlando you certainly can create memories, or at least fun pictures, that last for a life-time. Which favorite Disney character do you hope to run into when you visit?

But the city is not exclusively about the theme parks. Orlando also offers great dining and shopping opportunities for days off the theme parks when visiting on the San Diego to Miami road trip. So Orlando is certainly a road trip stop that delivers the entire package.

More info: Where to stay in Orlando

Disney character in Orlando
Disney World in Orlando.

Additional stops: From Orlando going south, you can take the shortest route directly to Miami as on this southern states itinerary. Alternatively continue on the Orlando to Key West itinerary which includes stops along the Gulf Coast in Clearwater Beach, Sanibel Island and Naples.

11. Miami, Florida

  • Driving distance: 236 mi / 380 km
  • Driving time: 3.5 h

Well done, you made it the whole way across the continent on the southern road trip route from San Diego to Miami. A drive to the famous Ocean Drive and South Beach makes up for a truly iconic finish to an unforgettable road trip.

Miami offers amazing beach life and all the places you need for a fun night out. But that’s only a slice of what the city has to offer.

Little Havana with its Cuban heritage and Wynwood most well-known for incredible street art are places not to miss. Both are great neighborhoods to visit when you want to explore past Ocean Drive and South Beach.

And if you feel brave enough you can make a day trip out to Everglades National Park and pay a visit to the home of the alligators. Just make sure that you keep at a safe distance as the Everglades locals could be a bit bitey.

White sand, chairs and umbrellas on Miami Beach
Welcome to Miami.

Southern route cross country itineraries with days

For the southern route cross country it’s optimal to have 4 weeks or more. If you have less time you can either do a pacier road trip or break up the itinerary and focus on your favorite parts.

Ultimate itinerary (4 weeks)

  • Day 1-3: San Diego
  • Day 3-5: Saguaro National Park
  • Day 5-6: White Sands National Park
  • Day 6-8: Carlsbad Caverns National Park
  • Day 8-12: Big Bend National Park
  • Day 12-14: San Antonio
  • Day 14-16: Houston
  • Day 16-18: New Orleans
  • Day 18-21: Pensacola Beach
  • Day 21-24: Orlando
  • Day 24-28: Miami

Pacy itinerary (3 weeks)

  • Day 1-2: San Diego
  • Day 2-4: Saguaro National Park
  • Day 4-5: White Sands National Park
  • Day 5-6: Carlsbad Caverns National Park
  • Day 6-9: Big Bend National Park
  • Day 9-11: San Antonio
  • Day 11-12: Houston
  • Day 12-14: New Orleans
  • Day 14-16: Pensacola Beach
  • Day 16-18: Orlando
  • Day 18-21: Miami
Palm trees on the optimal southern road trip across the US
The southern road trip across the US.

Use the booking tool below to find the perfect places to stay for your southern states road trip. Browse the map for options in various areas, or click on the search button to start with hotels in San Diego.

The optimal cross country southern road trip FAQ

How long does it take to drive from San Diego to Miami?

The ultimate road trip from San Diego to Miami is 3072 miles (4944 km) long. To drive it takes about 45.5 hours, not including any stops along the way.

Which states do you pass from San Diego to Miami?

The San Diego to Miami road trip includes 8 states. After California you in order pass Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama before you arrive in Florida.

Where should I stop on a road trip from California to Miami?

The main stops included on the ultimate southern road trip are San Diego, Saguaro NP, White Sands NP, Carlsbad Caverns NP, Big Bend NP, San Antonio, Houston, New Orleans, Pensacola Beach, Orlando and Miami.

Should you road trip San Diego to Miami or Miami to San Diego?

The southern states itinerary is as good from west to east as from east to west. Still South Florida is generally warmer than San Diego. So if you go in winter and have flexibility, west to east is a good bet to end the trip with some warm beach days.

When should you do the optimal southern road trip across the US?

The southern road trip route across the US can be done at any time of the year. However, outdoor activities along the way are more comfortable in spring, autumn and winter. In winter when large parts of North America is freezing it’s more often than not perfect weather for spending time outdoors down south.

How long time do you need for the road trip from San Diego to Miami?

To be able to enjoy the trip to the fullest, we recommend setting aside 4 weeks or more. But if you have less time, you can also take a pacier road trip.

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