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Planning a US Road Trip: The Southern Route

Co-founder of Zujava, I write about U.S. travel, road trips, and music. You can also find my work on Road Roamer and Metal Descent.

One of the main southern routes running west of New Orleans, the I-10 spans the Bonnet Carre Spillway at Lake Pontchartrain.

One of the main southern routes running west of New Orleans, the I-10 spans the Bonnet Carre Spillway at Lake Pontchartrain.

A Road Trip From California to Florida

If you love warmth, sunshine, and scenic southern routes, this is the perfect US road trip for you. You'll get to see eight different states and, if you drive at a leisurely but efficient pace, you can make the trip in nine days.

Along this route, you will begin in Los Angeles and end in Jacksonville, Florida, passing through the states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida.

This route flows through some of the most unique areas in the country. Use the I-10 as your launching pad for side trips to some of America's most unique treasures:

  • The Grand Canyon
  • Joshua Tree National Park
  • Big Bend National Park
  • Carlsbad Caverns
  • Austin, Texas
  • The Mississippi River
  • Savannah, Georgia
  • So many more beautiful places!
Interstate 10 runs from coast to coast, Los Angeles to Jacksonville, covering a total of 3,960 miles.

Interstate 10 runs from coast to coast, Los Angeles to Jacksonville, covering a total of 3,960 miles.

Interstate 10 Mileage

StateMiles of I-10

California

243

Arizona

392

New Mexico

164

Texas

881

Louisiana

274

Mississippi

77

Alabama

66

Florida

362

The Los Angeles skyline and San Gabriel mountains, picture by Navid Serrano

The Los Angeles skyline and San Gabriel mountains, picture by Navid Serrano

Beginning in the West: Beautiful Los Angeles, California

Beginning your I-10 road trip in the west puts you right in the heart of Los Angeles. There aren't many areas of the world where you'll encounter such a diverse culture as Los Angeles (okay, maybe New York). The best of everything can be found right in the city limits of LA, from restaurants to zoos, skyscrapers to mountains, busy roadways to tranquil parks.

If you have time to explore, head to the northern side of LA and visit some of the famous beach communities: Venice Beach, Santa Monica, and Malibu. Along the southern side are Long Beach, Newport Beach, and Huntington Beach.

Heading southeast, you will feel the temperature rising. The towns of Palm Desert, Palm Springs, Indio, Indian Wells, Rancho Mirage, and Cathedral City comprise the hot desert region of Coachella Valley. It's known for its spectacular golf courses and mountainside homes, but also has some of the best restaurants, nightlife, and relaxation opportunities you can find in the entire state. This is definitely a place you'll want to stay a night, especially after being out on the open road all day.

What's cool: A unique culture all its own, LA is made of many smaller cities that each have their own personality. Beach towns like Huntington Beach and Long Beach differ greatly from the inland parts like Hollywood, Beverly Hills, or nearby Anaheim.

The pristine beaches of San Diego.

The pristine beaches of San Diego.

Not Too Far: San Diego

It's just over 120 miles to San Diego from Los Angeles, an easy drive south along I-5. This drive will take approximately two or three hours, depending on traffic. On the northern side of San Diego is "Old Town." Also on the northern side is the beautiful shorefront community of La Jolla.

Further south, you'll find Sea World and the best zoo in the United States: the San Diego Zoo. To the west of San Diego lies Coronado Beach, connected via the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge.

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The arid but beautiful desert land of Arizona.

The arid but beautiful desert land of Arizona.

Arizona: Desert Serenity in the Grand Canyon State

Don't let the dry climate and openness of Arizona fool you. There's plenty here to see. Along I-10, you'll pass through Phoenix, where temperatures regularly top 100 on summer days. Be prepared if you are traveling in the warm months! North of Phoenix, right in the middle of Red Rock Country, lies Sedona. Red rock formations tower into the air, surrounding the upscale desert community. Sedona is home to a large, impressive art community, as well as some of the state's well known spas and state parks.

What's cool: Check out the ghost town of Tombstone, the border towns Nogales and Yuma, and Oak Creek Canyon. There’s also a designated "scenic highway," one of the most breathtaking rides in the state, if not the country, and well worth the drive.

A bighorn ewe at the edge of the Grand Canyon.

A bighorn ewe at the edge of the Grand Canyon.

The oldest mission in the Southwest.

The oldest mission in the Southwest.

Not Too Far: San Xavier del Bac

The oldest mission in the Southwest is the spectacular San Xavier del Bac Mission, ten miles south of Tucson on Interstate 10. Adobe brick towers into the open desert sky in this Spanish architectural gem. Amazing patios, domes, altars, chapels, towers, painted ceilings, stonework, and native cacti make this a fun trip.

A collage of downtown Santa Fe.

A collage of downtown Santa Fe.

Next Stop: New Mexico

Only a small portion of New Mexico is on Interstate 10. However, to the north are several natural wonders like White Sands National Monument and Carlsbad Caverns (see below). The Latino and Native American influence in Albuquerque is colorful and vibrant, with a cool style all its own.

Your drive through the rest of New Mexico can be a dramatic ride or a boring one, depending on your outlook. The scenery is much the same throughout the hundreds of miles of highway, and there are no major cities until you reach Tucson. Instead of looking at the dry desert environment as bleak, lifeless, and dead, instead, see the desert for what it really is: a complex environment teeming with life.

During the day, the white sands can be blinding, but as afternoon approaches, the setting sun brings brilliant colors that light up the landscape in pinks, oranges, purples, and browns. The nocturnal desert wildlife comes out to hunt or be hunted, and the stars illuminate the roadway. If you're looking for a true clear nighttime sky, New Mexico is where you'll find it. Those used to the light pollution of populated areas will be amazed at how the sky is truly supposed to look at night.

Note: Before heading into western Texas, fill your gas tank. Western Texas is miles of open highway with few opportunities to fuel up. When you see a chance, take it.

What's cool: Santa Fe defines the Southwest. The city offers a unique desert experience, with a great art community, Spanish-style architecture, top-notch dining, and excellent hiking.

What lies off the exit ramps?

Side destinations off I-10 will make or break your trip. Think of I-10 merely as a roadway that you get back on between the really cool stuff, like the national parks and the coastal Florida panhandle. As you travel through this guide, take note of the special side trips that aren't too far off the main route.

The Carlsbad Caverns

The Carlsbad Caverns

Carlsbad Caverns: New Mexico's Underground National Park

Take a trip to New Mexico's amazing, partially underground national park, Carlsbad Caverns. You won't regret it. Carlsbad is a small town in the middle of New Mexico, near the Guadalupe Mountain Range and the northern Chihuahuan Desert. Inside the massive cavern are stalactites and stalagmites, natural limestone formations that formed over thousands of years. Bring a sweatshirt, the average cave temperature is around 55 degrees F!

Arches National Park

Arches National Park

The Grand Circle: An Abundance of National Parks

This area of the country offers so much natural beauty that the only way to see it all is to make a giant circle. The area is called the Grand Circle, and it lies far off the interstate. It's really a separate vacation in itself. In about 7-10 days you can see numerous national parks, all of them breathtaking. You may want to plan a separate trip for these parks, but if you have time, the nearest park to Interstate 10 is Petrified Forest National Park, about 260 miles from Phoenix.

  • Petrified Forest National Park: A forest of petrified wood and colorful "badlands," the clay-rich landscape of the Southwest.
  • Bryce National Park: A large amphitheater of rock formations, called hoodoos in southern Utah.
  • Capital Reef National Park: A large formation nearly 100 miles long called Waterpocket Fold, a plateau in the middle of the southern Utah desert.
  • Canyonlands: Spectacular canyon views, biking, hiking, and enormous panoramic vistas of the Southwest from high elevations.
  • Zion National Park: The challenging terrain of the Narrows section of Zion and the beautiful enclosed canyon are must-see destinations.
  • Mesa Verde National Park: A long lost culture of Native Americans can be found again in the ruins of Cliff Palace and Mesa Verde.
  • Monument Valley: You may not have been to the Navajo area of Monument Valley, but you've definitely seen it in Western movies and television commercials.
  • Arches National Park: An incredible view of the majestic and strange arches that millions of years of erosion have left behind.
  • Black Canyon of the Gunnison: The Gunnison River carved a mighty slice into the earth in Colorado.
  • Great Basin: An underground cave is nicely complemented by gigantic Mount Wheeler in this eastern Nevada park.
The Alamo in historic San Antonio.

The Alamo in historic San Antonio.

Next Stop: Texas

Everything is bigger in Texas, including the long stretch of roadway between El Paso and Houston—nearly 900 miles. That's comparable to driving the distance from Providence, Rhode Island to Charleston, South Carolina!

Upon entering the mountainous El Paso area, look for stellar views of the Chihuahuan Desert. In between San Antonio and El Paso, you won't find much. However, there are some sights to see off the interstate if you have the time. Big Bend National Park is on the southwestern portion of the state, along the Rio Grande River. To the north, you'll find the beautiful Guadalupe Mountains National Park, which contains the highest peak in Texas. San Antonio is the unofficial divider between the eastern and western parts of the state (see below.) On the eastern side of the state, the air becomes gradually more humid as you approach the Gulf area of Houston, America's fourth largest city.

Where should you stay in Texas? From personal experience, you'll want to stay in the major cities. Plan your day to end in Las Cruces, New Mexico, San Antonio, or Houston.

What's cool: Don't miss Austin's music scene. For more of an amusement park experience, visit Sea World in Dallas. Aviation buffs will enjoy Houston's Space Center.

San Antonio

At the midway point between Florida and California (and in the middle of Texas) lies the second largest city in the state, San Antonio. The historic section of town is home to the Alamo, the site of a 13-day siege between Mexican and U.S. forces.

The oak-lined River Walk is beautiful place to visit. Follow the San Antonio River as it winds underneath the city, with towering palm trees and oak trees lining the paved banks. Complete with pedestrian walking, fine restaurants, and lively bars, the River Walk is one of the must-sees of San Antonio.

If you're looking for fun in the form of amusement parks, San Antonio also has its own Sea World, as well as Six Flags Fiesta Texas. San Antonio Missions National Historical Park preserves some of the city's 17th century Spanish missions, while the nearby San Antonio Botanical Garden displays beautiful plants and gardens.

Bourbon Street in New Orleans

Bourbon Street in New Orleans

Louisiana: Crossroads of Culture in the Deep South

Louisiana is a crossroads of cultures. You can see it in the varying built-up cities to the sprawling plantations and swamps. It's one of the warmest states in the country, and the humidity makes it feel even hotter. Louisiana is about as "deep south" as you can get!

Interstate 10 stays mostly inland, but does pass through Lafayette and Lake Charles—two towns that are the center of Cajun culture. Stop in for some authentic Cajun food, at Nimbeaux's, Julien's, and the Blue Dog Cafe.

The coast of Louisiana is immense and vital to the entire country. The longest river in the United States empties into the Gulf of Mexico right in Louisiana's Mississippi River delta, which is the lifeblood of the entire state. Tributaries fuel the bayous, ponds, and lagoons and wind their way to the Mississippi River itself. It all culminates south of New Orleans, one of the most vital ecosystems and migratory bird stops in the country. Paddleboat tours give a great glimpse into the importance of the river delta. By car, you can tour much of the delta (or at least see it close up) by driving Highway 21 south to Venice. This is as close the Delta National Wildlife Refuge as you can get. If you'd like to see it further, you'll have to take a boat.

What's cool: The home of Cajun culture, Louisiana blends many influences from around the globe. There's Native American influence, old French ancestry, and Creole and Southern charm. Visit the Garden District, enjoy the trees, and stop by a restaurant for some authentic Cajun cuisine.

southern-route

The Mississippi Gulf Coast

It's hard to talk about the Mississippi coast without talking about Hurricane Katrina. The coast is still rebuilding. The areas of Gulport and Biloxi offer casinos and restaurants with excellent views of the Gulf Coast's amazing beaches.

What's cool: Try taking a river tour, or explore the roads along the Mississippi. It takes about 90 days for Mississippi River water to move more than 2,500 miles from its source at Lake Itasca, Minnesota all the way to the Gulf of Mexico!

southern-route

Alabama: The Short but Sweet Coast

Alabama's coastline has many lovely inlets and bays, enlarging the overall distance of shoreline. Lighthouses dot the bays leading to Mobile, making for a scenic drive.

The city of Mobile lies at the head of Mobile Bay, which separates Alabama from Florida. In the center of the bay, you'll find the spectacular Dauphin Island. In Mobile proper, find the Museum of Mobile and the USS Battleship Alabama Memorial Park. This is where Mardi Gras celebrations take place every year.

Mobile's real attraction is the Bay and surrounding beaches. Delta excursions through the massive river delta, over twenty golf courses, and some of the South's best seafood restaurants, are all within the Mobile Bay area.

Panama City Beach on Florida's Emerald Coast.

Panama City Beach on Florida's Emerald Coast.

You Made It! The Florida Panhandle

Florida has hundreds of destinations on the coast as well as inland Orlando, but some of the best beaches lie on the panhandle. Smaller crowds, pure white sands, and southern flavor make the Florida panhandle a delight. If you have the time, the Emerald Coast has some beautiful beaches worth visiting. Port St. Joe, Panama City Beach, Gulf Breeze, and Pensacola have some of the top-rated beaches in the USA.

Interstate 10 ends (or begins, depending upon your point of view) in the city of Jacksonville. There are plenty of things to do and see here:

  • The Jacksonville Zoo
  • Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens
  • Amelia Island, about 20 miles away on the Georgia-Florida state border
  • St. Augustine, which is less than an hour south of the city

What's cool: Try visiting one of the many coastal panhandle towns like Pensacola, Tallahassee, or Panama City, for some of the best beaches for miles.

southern-route

Not Too Far: Georgia and South Carolina

Georgia and South Carolina have some of the most spectacular coastline in the country. The Cumberland Island National Seashore is in Georgia, just a few miles north of the Florida border. Also in Georgia is the unspoiled Tybee Island and historic Savannah.

In South Carolina, visit Hilton Head Island. Head into historic Charleston. Further north, the beachside town of Myrtle Beach is a favorite for those looking to for a fun and relaxing atmosphere.

© 2008 Kiwisoutback

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