5 ways to get from San Francisco to Phoenix by car
By the time I got to Phoenix, the car was covered in dust from blowing desert sands and highway construction. I was a bit dusty myself. I was also hungry — traveling always whets my appetite. And I was happy. Road trips make me smile, and arriving at a place where I’ll be visiting loved ones makes me smile, too.
For some Phoenix road trip music, here’s Glen Campbell to accompany us on our journey.
Mr. TWS and I had covered about 750 miles in 11 hours over two days, leaving home on a mid-afternoon and spending one night on the road. That’s nothing for a Sweeney: being behind the wheel is second nature for members of my family. I know that road trips aren’t for everyone, but we love them. Northern California to the Arizona desert is a great drive just for the fun of a road trip and it’s also a good alternative to flying if you have a little more time. It has a variety of options for all time schedules while showcasing the rich agriculture of California’s San Joaquin Valley, the natural beauty of American Southwest, and offering opportunities to visit historic attractions.
There are many ways of getting from San Francisco to Phoenix by car — these are simply the routes that I’ve had the pleasure of taking over the years, most recently Drive 1 to Phoenix and Drive 2 (which I did in the reverse order) on the return.
Of course, a lot depends on how much time you’ve got and what attractions you want to make sure you visit. Most recently, my trips have been fairly direct to Phoenix. I prefer having more time to stop and see sights along the way, but even these trips give me that incomparable feeling of being on the road, especially in the wide, stunning open spaces of the American Southwest.
Each of these five routes utilizes I-5 which can be reached in different efficient means depending on your starting point. From my home on the San Francisco Peninsula the best bet is I-280 to CA-85 to US-101 to Gilroy. From there, I head east on CA-152 to I-5 west of Los Banos. (This route is shown below.) From downtown San Francisco and various other parts of the San Francisco Bay Area, Google Maps will show you other ways of getting to I-5.
Drive 1: Fastest way from San Francisco to Phoenix via Los Angeles area
We’ve even driven this route in one day. Sure, it’s not my preferred kind of road trip, but when time and circumstances don’t give you another choice, it’s a fine way to travel. On our trip to Phoenix in October, we took this route spending the night in Lebec, California.
CA-152 winds through winds through the hills of the western San Joaquin Valley and scenic Pacheco Pass to the San Luis Reservoir, just seven miles west of I-5 and 33 miles east of US-101 from Gilroy. You may need a break and the Romero Visitor Center is a perfect place to also take in the gorgeous view. It also has interesting exhibits about the California Aqueduct project if you can take a few minutes more.
We hadn’t left the house until about 2 p.m., so in October it was dark by the time we got past Bakersfield. Just south of Bakersfied, the highway becomes very busy with both cars and big semi trucks headed into and beyond Los Angeles. Already several miles into a steep and winding climb in the famous “Grapevine” section of I-5 and in heavy getaway weekend traffic, Lebec was a great place to spend the night. It’s best to do this trip in the daylight for a more comfortable drive as well as being able to enjoy the scenery.
Although you’ll never actually enter Los Angeles on this route, you’ll get to experience a bit of the L.A. traffic driving vibe — for better or worse. It’s kind of exciting to be in this crazy metro area that seems to go on forever. We thought it was pretty ironic and cool that “The Little Old Lady from Pasadena”, a 1960s song by Jan and Dean, was playing on the radio as we passed through Pasadena, an L.A. area city famous for the Rose Bowl and Parade of Roses.
You’ll be tempted to admire the passing palm trees and homes perched on hilltops while thinking about what it’s like to live in Southern California, but remember to keep focused on your driving. Be cognizant of what I call the “L.A. cutoff” maneuver that some locals in a hurry find necessary regardless of the danger involved. Picture this… you’re in one of the center lanes (there are usually several in this area) traveling at or just a touch above the speed limit in heavy traffic. You notice a car zipping by you on the right, it zigzags past a few more cars ahead of you before coming behind another vehicle that is just about fender to fender with a car in the next lane. Does that stop the speeder from cutting around the car into your lane? No. Almost by magic (dangerous magic), the car slides between the two vehicles to make the move without more than a few inches to spare. Scary, even for a person like me used to many years of city driving.
Side trip: Heading east on I-10, you’ll see exits for the Palm Springs area. On our recent trip, we took the Highway 111 exit for a 10-mile detour to downtown Palm Springs for lunch and a drive through and walk around part of this town made popular by resident and frequent visitor celebrities. After lunch we stayed on the main drag, Highway 111 heading east for about 19 miles through Rancho Mirage and Palm Desert before getting back to I-10.
Once crossing the Arizona state line at Blythe, California, you’ll be zipping along at 75 miles per hour admiring unusual rock formations and cacti. If you’re a passenger, take some photos!
Drive 2: San Francisco to Phoenix via Bakersfield, Barstow, Needles, and Parker
I’ve taken this route with my dad and Mr. TWS, but I also did it solo a few years ago. I wrote about that trip in 2011 in The Heat Was Hot: My desert road trip.
Instead of heading further south on I-5 to the Los Angeles area, take CA-46 to Bakersfield.This is another good point to stop for the night if you got a late start. I prefer to take the next portion of the journey over the Tehachapi Pass into the Mojave Desert in the daylight. If you get a reasonably early start, good spots further on to spend the night would be either Barstow or Needles.
From Needles, you’ll head south on US-95 and CA-62 to AZ-72 to Parker through what I think is the best part of the trip on two-lane road largely untraveled by the masses. In the springtime, here and further on in Arizona’s Sonora Desert, you’ll be treated to the beauty of cactus blossoms and other wildflowers as far as you can see.
There is an alternate lonesome route from Parker that goes through Salome. It’s not necessarily recommended (especially at night). Winding roads with numerous cattle crossings without many other signs of life make it less desirable and not advisable if you’re a conservative road tripper. My dad loved taking this route — day or night!
Side trip: Exit I-40 at Ludlow to get gas and take a nice detour on Historic Route 66. On the 2011 trip, I took this track through Amboy as far as Kelbaker Road before heading back to I-40. This makes for a nice combination of fast interstate highways with awesome two-lane desert roads without taking up too much extra time.
Drive 3: San Francisco to Phoenix via Bakersfield, Barstow, Needles, Kingman and Flagstaff
Take the same directions as Route 2 as far as Needles, but keep going east on I-40 instead of turning south. You’ll go through the Northern Arizona town of Kingman about 150 miles before reaching Flagstaff and turning south to Phoenix. Taking the reverse route from Phoenix you might find Kingman a good place to spend the night. Depending on your timing, you might want to go further to Needles (1 hour), or Barstow (3 hours).
There’s much more diversity to the terrain and climate of Arizona than many people think. It’s not all desert. For a gorgeous example of this, take a drive from Flagstaff to Phoenix (fast drive on I-17 or take side trips through Sedona and ghost towns like Bumble Bee or Crown King). Between Sedona and Flagstaff, there’s a beautiful drive on a two-lane road through the canyon.
Side trips: Between Phoenix and Flagstaff, you have options to take exits for ghosts towns like Bumble Bee and Bloody Basin or the famous resort town of Sedona nestled between red rock mesas and massive rock formations.
Drive 4: San Francisco to Phoenix via Death Valley and Las Vegas
There’s plenty to see along this route to Death Valley National Park, a place on earth that is like no other. Be prepared for extreme heat in the summer when temperatures can top 120°F (49°C) in the shade. In fact, the park boasts the highest recorded temperature in the world of 134 °F (56.7 °C) on July 10, 1913. After your Death Valley exploration, head to Las Vegas for some fun on a stopover before heading south to Phoenix.
Side trip: Everyone should see the Grand Canyon at least once in their lifetime. This side trip isn’t for those in a hurry to get to Phoenix, but well worth the time if you’ve got it.
Drive 5: Get your kicks on Route 66
If you’ve got the time and a love of American history, follow in the tracks of those travelers (like my family) who discovered the joys of road trips on Historic Route 66. Take Drive 2, but instead of turning east near Los Angeles, go west toward Santa Monica on the I-405 S/San Diego Freeway to get to the historic route at its western end. Although much of the original road has been replaced by the interstate highways (such as I-40), there are wonderful remains of the old highway in California (including the section I mentioned in Drive 3) and Arizona that you can experience before heading south on I-17 toward Phoenix. You could take this route (in part on old sections of the road) all the way to Chicago. I can remember taking Route 66 as a young girl — before it was considered historic!
You’ll see much the same scenery as on the other routes through the Mojave Desert and Northern Arizona, but you’ll be far removed from most of the traffic, except for the freight trains that you’ll notice from time to time on their cross-country journeys.
Take as much time as you can and consider these other road trip possibilities between Northern California and Arizona. The possibilities seem as endless as the vast expanse of the desert landscape that you’ll see along the way. And there are many other side trips with spectacular sights and points of interest in the Southwest.
By the time you get to Phoenix, you’ll be glad you took the drive.
- Don’t assume that just because you’re away from big city expressways you won’t have some traffic jams, or even major traffic backups. Although it would be rare to find any significant road blocks or construction on the more remote roads, interstate or state highways could possibly present some traffic issues primarily due to road construction somewhere along your route.
- The last three times I’ve been to Phoenix, there has been extensive road work being done on I-10 for several miles well west of downtown Phoenix. I’m talking the kind of road work that can slow you up in bumper-to-bumper traffic for an extra hour. I can’t say that will be the case when you take a drive, just be prepared not to hurry, relax, listen to the radio….. and patiently wait. You’ll get there. I don’t know of any efficient ways around it.
- On our last trip, we also encountered severe delays about 20 miles east of Kingman, Arizona due to road work. We had sped along just above the speed all the way from Flagstaff to this point. Once again, just relax.
- Don’t drive the entire distance yourself, unless you were born with the road trip stamina of a long-haul trucker. (I was, so I have been the sole driver at times.) Share the driving responsibility or spend a night along the way.
- Keep your eye on the gas gauge. They mean it when the signs say that there are no services for “X” miles. And don’t be so sure that those services won’t be closed when you get there. The simple message is not to take chances. Don’t assume…. never assume in the desert.
- Keep plenty of water and other essentials in the car on any road trip, but especially in places like the desert where you may have to wait a while for assistance to arrive if you’ve got car problems.
- Learn how to change a tire. (I haven’t learned this yet myself, but will do so before my next road trip!)
- Have your favorite tunes loaded on the iPod or on CD. You may run into some areas where radio transmission isn’t great. Although I love to listen to some tunes while driving, there are times when I just want to open the windows to hear the sound of the wind and feel the sun on my face. I like to drive and think.
- Don’t have time to do a two-way road trip? Do a “fly and drive” by getting a one-way rental car. Flights to Phoenix from San Franciso are about 2 hours of air time.