The optimal southern road trip across the US

  • Post last modified:February 26, 2021
  • Reading time:17 mins read
The optimal southern road trip across the US

The optimal southern road trip route takes you from San Diego on the Pacific coast to Miami on the Atlantic coast. It takes you across a continent and it does so as the cross country road trip route that’s located furthest south. Here you almost never have to freeze, no matter what time of the year you travel.

Some of the highlights along the way in the southern states include amazing deserts, deep caverns, America’s Venice, an iconic space center and world-class beaches.

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Optimal southern road trip itinerary

The 8 states this southern road trip itinerary takes you through are California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and finally Florida.

You find all the stops on the itinerary marked out on the San Diego to Miami map below.

  • Total driving time: 42 hours
  • Total distance: 2824 miles (4545 km)

A. The southern road trip starts in 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.

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.

Find you favourite 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. 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 about 1,200 acres (5 square kilometres) and hosts the zoo, museums, gardens, architecture, restaurants, cafes and many other attraction venues.

It’s the perfect place to spend an afternoon, but with all the things to do 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 the 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.

After the first destination on the southern road trip itinerary it’s time to leave California and continue into Arizona. Next up is Saguaro National Park and cacti higher than houses.

B. Sky-high cacti in Saguaro National Park, Arizona

  • Driving time: 5.5 h
  • Distance: 398 miles (641 km)

Grand Canyon is without a doubt the most famous national park in Arizona. On this road trip route we don’t go that far north. Instead the next stop on the optimal southern road trip itinerary is Saguaro National Park, which is located at Tucson in the southern part of the state.

The environment in the Saguaro districts is just breathtaking. It looks like something out of a cowboy movie. And the famous and enormous saguaro cacti that rise with authority toward the sky is the highlight of the park.

These giant tree-like cactus 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 it’s divided into two separate sections, also called districts. Tucson Mountain District is on the western end of Tucson and Rincon Mountain District on the eastern end. Both 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.

The optimal southern road trip itinerary now continues with a visit to White Sands National Park in New Mexico.

Where to stay when visiting Saguaro National Park?

Saguaro National Park is located on both the west and east side of Tucson. If you stay in Tucson you have good accessibility to both parts of the national park. If you only have time for one of the park districts, try to stay closer to that end of the city.

Select your dates and search for your hotel on the map below, or press search to get all the hotels in Tucson listed.

C. Hit the dunes in White Sands National Park, New Mexico

  • Driving time: 5 hours
  • Distance: 346 miles (557 km)

The next stop on the southern itinerary is neither as famous as Grand Canyon or Yellowstone. But that doesn’t make it less spectacular.

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 are so far from the ocean, but once this was the bottom of the sea. Nowadays, it’s 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.

And as the dunes resemble snow you might want to try to go sledding as well. Sledding is a popular way to enjoy the White Sands.

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 it does. But for a road trip like this it’s without a doubt the perfect place to stop at. And what’s more fun to see than something that’s a bit off the beaten track?

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

New Mexico is one of three states with two or more destinations on the southern road trip itinerary from San Diego to Florida. After visiting White Sands National Park we travel to reach another wonderful New Mexico attraction.

D. Explore the impressive Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico

  • Driving time: 3,5 hours
  • Distance: 181 miles (291 km)

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

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 an 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 its beautiful rock formations and sculptures make the cave breathtaking.

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.

Following two great New Mexico destinations it’s now time to see what Texas has to offer. Next up on the best southern road trip itinerary is Texas and a stop in San Antonio.

E. History and the River Walk in San Antonio, Texas

  • Driving time: 6,5 hours
  • Distance: 455 miles (732 km)

The itinerary’s first of two Texas cities is San Antonio. Here 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.

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. Here 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.

And with the best river walk in America

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 stuff.

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 favourite 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.

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

From one big city in Texas to another, Houston is next up on the southern cross country road trip itinerary from San Diego to Florida.

F. Let NASA teach you about space in Houston, Texas

  • Driving time: 3 hours
  • Distance: 197 miles (317 km)

Houston is a very 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 can 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 on the space center it’s perfect to return to the central part of Houston and hang out in Hermann Park. Here 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.

Next destination on the optimal southern road trip across the US is New Orleans, the Big Easy or just NOLA.

G. Loose up in New Orleans, Louisiana

  • Driving time: 5 hours
  • Distance: 348 miles (560 km)

In New Orleans it’s really time to let loose and enjoy yourself because the city 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”.

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.

A short distance away from Royal Street you find Jackson Square with the beautiful St. Louis Cathedral, which makes you think you’re in Orlando, because of its Disney like appearance.

Jackson Square in NOLA.

Read more: 7 highlights of a trip to New Orleans >>

After New Orleans it’s time to enter the last state on the optimal southern road trip itinerary, Florida. And the next destination on the route from San Diego to Miami is Pensacola Beach in the Panhandle area.

Where to stay when visiting New Orleans?

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 atomsphere in the French Quarter is unique and you have most places to see near or easily reachable from there.

Select your dates and search for your hotel on the map below, or press search to get all the hotels in the French Quarter listed.

H. Relax on Pensacola Beach, Florida

  • Driving time: 3.5 hours
  • Distance: 209 miles (336 km)

So here we are in the final state of the optimal southern road trip. And the first Floridian stop out of three on the itinerary is the perfect beach destination.

Pensacola Beach is one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. It often gets a bit overlooked because it’s rather far away from a major city. Nevertheless, the beach is as good as a beach could get.

Stay near the Pensacola Beach Gulf Pier to have a louder day on the beach. Or if you want to do like the locals like to do, travel further away on the island and get some private time with the sand, sun and fun in the water.

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 on the western end of the island. There you can learn more about the historic fort, but it’s also a great place to unwind and enjoy the beautiful surroundings after a long beach day.

First Florida stop on southern road trip itinerary
The world-class Pensacola Beach.

Read more: The optimal beach getaway to Pensacola Beach, Florida >>

The optimal southern route across the US continues east through the state of Florida. Now it’s time to visit the theme park capital.

I. The theme park capital Orlando, Florida

  • Driving time: 6.5 hours
  • Distance: 454 miles (731 km)

It’s time for all your childhood dreams to come true, or at least some of them. Because next stop on the southern states road trip itinerary 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.

Here 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?

But of course Orlando is not exclusively about the theme parks. The city also offers great dining and shopping opportunities for days off the theme parks.

Walt Disney World in Orlando
Disney World in Orlando.

From Orlando going south you can take the route directly to Miami as on this itinerary. Or, continue on the Orlando to Key West itinerary which includes stops along the west coast of Florida.

Where to stay when visiting Orlando?

Orlando is known for its great selection of hotels and Lake Buena Vista. International Drive and Kissimmee are all good choices for accommodation.

Select your dates and search for your hotel on the map below, or press search to get all the hotels in Asheville listed.

J. Finish the southern road trip in Miami, Florida

  • Driving time: 3.5 h
  • Distance: 236 miles (380 km)

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

Miami gives you 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 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 the Everglades and pay a visit to the home of the alligators.

A Miami Beach tower marks the end of the southern road trip
Welcome to Miami!

The optimal cross country southern road trip FAQ

Here you find the answers to some frequently asked questions about the optimal southern cross country road trip.

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

The estimated time on the road from San Diego to Miami for the 2824 miles (4545 km) is about 42 hours. But make sure that you fit in time for everything you want to see along the way. For a southern coast to coast trip like this one it’s optimal to have three weeks or more to really be able to enjoy the trip to the fullest.

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, but outdoor activities along the way are more comfortable in spring, autumn and winter. In the winter when large parts of North America is freezing, it’s more often than not perfect weather for spending time outdoors down south.

Should you make the southern road trip San Diego to Miami or Miami to San Diego?

The travel itinerary is as good from west to east as from east to west. With that said, South Florida is generally warmer than San Diego. So west to east is a good bet if you go in the winter and want to end the trip with some warm beach days.

How was the driving time estimated from San Diego to Miami?

The driving time for the southern road trip across the US was calculated with Google Maps by taking the shortest amount of time from point A to point B and rounding upwards to the next half hour. Any stops along the way from San Diego to Florida are not included in the driving time.

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