Few things beat the thrill of a road trip.
While snacks, playlists and, in some cases, fur babies are essential ingredients for your next outing in the family truckster (Clark Griswold, anyone?), we recommend adding a few stops to explore some of the top hidden gems along the way.
The five-and-a-half hour jaunt from the San Diego area to Greater Phoenix is nearly a straight shot that takes you from coast to cactus, with plenty of stunning scenery and historic landmarks to explore in between — as long as you know where to look. Here are six stops to make your next journey just as exciting as the destination.
Before hitting the open road, be sure to check out these fall deals at Greater Phoenix hotels and resorts.
1. Imperial Sand Dunes, El Centro
In accordance with the Governor of California's shelter in place order, the Bureau of Land Management has temporarily closed some facilities and locations at this site until further notice. For a list of closures, visit the COVID-19 Update page.
The majority of your drive will be along Interstate 8 East, which will take you through a variety of desert landscapes. The most mesmerizing of which might just be the Imperial Sand Dunes, the largest mass of sand dunes in the state. Formed by windblown sands of ancient Lake Cahuilla, the dune system extends for more than 40 miles and the dunes reach heights of 300 feet above the desert floor.
While most of the off-highway vehicles action takes place in the recreation area, the North Algodones Dunes Wilderness is a tranquil, 26,000-acre wilderness where visitors are welcome to walk or ride horses (as it's closed to all vehicles and mechanized use). Visit the website for additional information.
Admission: Permits are not required for short-term visitation areas (posted), including Osborne Overlook, the Plank Road Cultural Resource Site, the Buttercup and Cahuilla Ranger Stations. However, season and weekly permits for access to recreation areas can be purchased here.
Directions: Access to the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area is best made along Highway 78, located East of Brawley, California, or along I-8 West of Yuma.
2. Kofa National Wildlife Refuge, Yuma
Although most refuge lands and outdoor spaces have remained open for the public to enjoy, visitors are encouraged to take the precautions outlined here.
Admittedly, this stop is a couple hours out of the way, but Kofa Wildlife Refuge is a walk on the wild side that’s worth the drive. As the second-largest wilderness area in Arizona (666,640 total acres), 80% of refuge was designated as wilderness under the Arizona Desert Wilderness Act of 1990. This designation plays an important role in ensuring this desert landscape and its inhabitants are protected for future generations.
The refuge – home to numerous amphibians and reptiles, a variety of birds and desert mammals – is a sanctuary for such activities as wildlife watching and photography, hiking, camping and limited hunting. The Visitor Center is open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday (closed on all federal holidays).
Directions: The refuge is located 40 miles north of Yuma, on the east side of State Highway 95. The lat/long for the King Valley entrance is 33.24977, -114.21724.
3. Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park
Nothing says Wild, Wild West like a prison that first housed inmates back in 1876 (pre-dating Arizona's statehood by 36 years). The Yuma Territorial Prison was operational for the following 33 years and its facilities were subsequently used as a high school (1910-1914), the County Hospital (1914-1923) and by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, as their clubhouse (until 1960).
The Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park opened to the public on a limited basis on January 1, 1961, and has since appeared in a variety of films, including "3:10 To Yuma," as well as an episode of "Ghost Hunters."
Today, you’ll find the original cellblocks, water tank, guard tower, sally port (entrance gate), library room, the dark cell, caliche hill, new yard and cells. While interpretive panels are situated throughout the historic site for self tours, we recommend first stopping in the visitor center to view the introductory exhibit, video presentation, photos and artifacts.
Directions: From I-8 East, take S Redondo Center Drive (exit 1) and follow to 100 Prison Hill Road, Yuma.
Admission: Ages 14 and up, $8; ages 7-13, $4; ages 6 and under, free
Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (exhibits close at 4:30 p.m.) Please note that the site is closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays from June to September.
4. The Bridge to Nowhere (McPhaul Bridge), Yuma
While this lesser-known landmark is closed and only viewable from a safe distance, it’s well worth the 7-mile detour. Built in 1929 by John Roebling (the architect credited with the Golden Gate Bridge – you can miss the resemblance), this 800-foot-long suspension bridge once spanned the Gila River. In 1968, the construction of a dam upstream diverted the river – as well as the highway – and left the bridge where you see it today. Additionally, the bridge was named in honor of Henry Harrison McPhaul, who is known as the only Yuma resident to become an Arizona Ranger.
Hours: Daylight (no additional lighting)
Directions: From I-8, take exit 12. Head north on Fortuna Road for 2 miles, then north on US 95 for a little less than 5 miles and you will be able to spot the bridges towers off to the west of the highway.
Know for, well, dates, Dateland was established in the early 1920s as a water stop along the railroad lines. During the 1940s, this small town was the site for two of General Patton's desert training camps: Camp Horn and Camp Hyder. Today, this convenient stop has blossomed into a date mecca that's home to a travel center, RV park, gardens and various date-inspired businesses that include a bakery, gift shop, cafe and more. Pro tip: Don't leave here without trying the world-famous date shake (just trust us on this one).
Hours: Open 24 hours. the Date Bakery is open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily
Directions: From I-8 E, take exit 67. The Dateland Travel Center is located at 1737 S. Ave. 64 E, Dateland.
6. Painted Rock Petroglyph Site and Campground, Gila Bend
The Bureau of Land Management is adhering to guidance from the CDC as well as local and state health authorities to minimize the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Additional details can be found here.
The Painted Rock Petroglyph Site and Campground is home to hundreds of symbolic and artistic rock etchings that were created centuries ago by prehistoric peoples. Within the campground, there are several historic trails that feature interpretive panels for self-guided exploring. The Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail, The Butterfield Overland Stage Route and the Mormon Battalion Trail are three trails that played prominent roles in the history of Arizona and the American West.
Overnight camping is allowed at the adjacent Painted Rock Petroglyph Campground. The campground has picnic tables, grills, steel fire rings and a vault toilet. No potable water is available.
Admission: $2 per vehicle for day use; $8 per vehicle, per night for camping
Directions: Exit I-8 at Painted Rock Dam Road/exit 102, approximately 12.5 miles west of Gila Bend. Travel north on Painted Rocks Dam Road for 10.7 miles to Rocky Point Road and head west for 0.6 miles to 46101 Rocky Point Road, Gila Bend.
7. Space Age Restaurant, Gila Bend
As of May 11, Space Age Restaurant reopened in accordance with the Governor of Arizona's social distancing guidelines (limited seating and takeout available).
“Home of the friendliest aliens (and humans),” this iconic outer space-themed restaurant serves up American-style diner eats and an out-of-this-world aesthetic. The giant solar system-inspired sign beckons extraterrestrial enthusiasts, vintage lovers, inquisitive Instagrammers and hungry travelers alike.
If sitting at a booth for lunch isn’t enough to curb your curiosity (pro tip: peep some more of the history on the back of your menu), Stovall’s Space Age Lodge is still operational beneath the super-sized UFO adjacent to the restaurant. And you won’t want to miss the gift shop!
Both the lodge and the restaurant were created by Al Stovall, a local who owned a plastics factory that produced the custom space-age decorations … making “his motel the closet thing to The Jetsons this side of the 23rd century.”
Hours: The restaurant is open daily from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Directions: Take I-8 until it turns into Pima Street, the restaurant and lodge will be on the right (401 Pima St., Gila Bend) just before I-85 N (to Phoenix).