Sure, you can drive from Las Vegas to Los Angeles in about 4 hours if you take the freeway, but where’s the fun in that? By diving off into the back roads, you can turn a boring desert drive into a fabulous adventure through the great American desert southwest that lasts for days and is surprisingly affordable. So instead of rushing, treat yourself to a tri- state tour where you’ll get to see everything from ghost towns to the London Bridge. Tip: Have that camera ready!
Leave Las Vegas early heading south on Highway 95 to Boulder City where you’ll make a short detour to Vons Store at 1031 Nevada Highway to stock up the ice chest with your favorite drinks and carrots (you’ll find out why about the carrots later!) and some fresh breakfast pastries to enjoy at your next stop. Drive on for about 45 minutes to the tiny town of Searchlight where you take a left onto Highway 164E and follow this side road until it dead ends into Cottonwood Cove. Follow the signs to the Tonto Forest (what a great sign picture, eh?) where you’ll find shaded riverside tables along the shores of Lake Mohave, a perfect spot for your breakfast picnic. Stroll down well-groomed gravel paths that amble along the canyon floor and take advantage of the public facilities.
Once refreshed and refueled, hop back in the car and double back on 164 and continue south on Highway 95. Take a left onto Highway 163 right before the California border to cross the Colorado River into Laughlin, a Nevada resort city. Enjoy the scenery but ignore the high priced casino atmosphere and continue west towards Kingman down Highway 68 and stop for a visit at the Historic Route 66 museum (only $3 for a ticket, kids under 12 free) at 120 West Andy Devine Avenue. For lunch, keep it cheap at the exclusive West Coast fast food chain called In-N-Out Burgers at 1770 East Beverly Avenue where they offer a limited but hearty menu of 100% organic beef burgers. Besides being a bargain, the restaurant even welcomes your canine companions on the patio with a special doggie burger.
Hop back in the car to enjoy a scenic afternoon drive southwest along old Route 66. Wind through magnificent desert landscapes to the living ghost town of Oatman, Arizona, where the streets are home to wild, but quite friendly, burros that flock to visitors bearing juicy carrots (see why you brought them?). Grab an ice cream at the Olive Oatman Restaurant to beat the afternoon heat and marvel at the old west flavor of this picturesque mining town.
Continue south to Lake Havasu City, Arizona, and settle in for the night at the Crazy Horse Campgrounds (another great sign picture) at 1534 Beachcomber Boulevard. You can rent a trailer on the shore or pitch your own tent plus have access to all their amenities like showers, a Laundromat, general store and cable TV. Best of all, the campground is in walking distance of the famous London Bridge in Arizona, a great spot to watch the stars come out! Afterwards wander down to Rosati’s Pizza at 91 London Bridge Road for some delicious Chicago-style fare.
After your rustic evening on the river, head to Basha’s Grocery at 3269 Maricopa Avenue for yummy breakfast fare and stock the cooler with drinks and picnic supplies for lunch. Head out of town and go south along Highway 62 as it hugs the eastern banks of the Colorado River and passes Parker Dam. At that point the road veers west and you’ll cross the river again and find yourself in California at Vidal Junction, a nice place for a quick break, but don’t linger…the best is yet to come. Continue west to the Joshua Tree National Park and turn south at Twentynine Palms. Follow the park signs to the Hidden Valley picnic area where you can stretch your legs on their 1-mile loop trail after your lunch.
Take a leisurely drive south through Joshua Tree Park to Interstate 10W and follow it west to Highway 111 where you can turn south to tour the enigmatic Salton Sea, the only body of water below sea level in the US. Though not particularly picturesque, the towns around the lake boast some eccentric characters and the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge is due west of Calipatria. After getting some great snapshots for the “you’ll never believe this” file, head back to Highway 78/86 to hook back up with Interstate 10 that will lead you into the City of Angels – Los Angeles.
Cheap Gas Tip: Often the gas stations along the highways have the highest prices in town, so it’s worth a little snooping around in these small towns to find the neighborhood stations where you can fill up for less. If you plan on being a little tech savvy you can download a free app such as Gas Buddy that will help you find cheap gas in the area you are.
Itinerary written by Lela Lake, a travel writer.