There's never been a better time for a road trip. Many folks are still not ready to fly and the open road is calling. We are so lucky in the U.S. to have a great interstate highway system (thanks Ike!) that can connect the North to the South and the East to the West. You’re probably familiar with the old Route 66 highway that connected Chicago to LA. Sadly, it met its demise because of the same interstate system that paved the way (ha ha) for other cities to flourish along the new routes.
Yep, there are several highways that cross the country, and Interstate 10 hits many of my favorite cities and National Parks. LA, Palm Springs, Phoenix, Tucson, San Antonio, New Orleans, Mobile, Tallahassee and Jacksonville are all on deck. Glitz and glam, fiestas, cajun food and great beaches – this trip has it all.
But you know what drives me crazy?
A search for things to do along I-10 or better yet, an itinerary, will show the same or very similar sites on most articles. Someone decided that a handful of places are the only places to stop, and I humbly disagree. I have to guess that most of these folks have never toured much of this highway or the cities that surround it. Because as I looked across I-10 on the map, I just kept thinking of all the amazing side trips that could take place along the route.
I thought about just coming up with a list of places that could be reasonably done in a week or so (like most articles), but that doesn’t seem particularly helpful because it forces you to eliminate so many places. I certainly didn’t include everything because that would also not be particularly useful. Instead, I focused on the main sites along the highway with some side trips within a couple of hours of the route that would be a shame to miss if you had the time (I'm looking at you, Marfa).
You may not have time to do the entire highway at once. No worries. You may even choose not to do the whole thing ever. This itinerary can help you do segments or the whole shebang. It should be noted, however, that it is a huge source of pride (and bragging rights) to say that you’ve traversed from one end of the country to the other and all on the same highway.
So, let’s get started.
Where does Interstate 10 start and where does it end?
If you are headed west, you start in Jacksonville, Florida and end in Los Angeles, California. If you are headed east on I-10, well.... you can figure that out.
Total mileage: 2,416 miles Total travel time without stops: 36 hours
Starts in: Santa Monica, California Ends in: Jacksonville, Florida
Number of States That I-10 Goes Through: 8
I-10 through California
Santa Monica Pier
Since 1909, the Santa Monica Pier has been one of the most fun and photographed places in California. Whether you ride the Ferris Wheel or just walk the pier, you are going to have a good time.
Day 1: Santa Monica Pier
Los Angeles (LA) and Anaheim
Los Angeles is a very unique American city. It's a good place to visit [once], but I hate it when people come to the U.S. and feel like LA and NYC are representative of the States. Wrong. They are iconic, but not representative. Having worked and spent a fair amount of time in LA, I would say that it is worth a visit, but I would stay just as long as necessary, and then get out. Here are some suggestions:
Day 1, cont.: Hollywood and see the Hollywood Sign, Rodeo Drive, and end the day at a beach (Venice, Manhattan or Malibu would be my recommendations)
Day 2: Disneyland
Day 3: Wake up and drive to Palm Springs
Palm Springs and Joshua Tree National Park
I've actually driven through Palm Springs and not stopped. That was young Chrissy. Middle-age Chrissy appreciates mid-century modern architecture and the Hollywood glamour of a bygone era that vacationed in Palm Springs. I've since added it to my bucket list and look forward to doing an architecture tour when I can.
Day 3, continued: Take an architectural tour or just lounge by a pool. By 5:00 p.m., head to Joshua Tree to catch the sunset. Spend the next two nights near the park or in Twentynine Palms, CA.
Day 4: Take a hike at Joshua Tree National Park. Here is a 1-day itinerary for Joshua Park.
I-10 Through Arizona
Day 5: Drive to Phoenix (~4 hours)
Phoenix is a nice city with a lot of great restaurants and shopping, but I also think that you could stop for lunch and then get back on the road to head to Tucson within the same day. If you enjoy museums, the Heard is a great one. For architecture and design buffs, Taliesin West is a must-see. This is where Frank Lloyd Wright created his desert laboratory with his apprentices. It's not just a place that he built; it's a place that he frequented. That's cool.
Want to add a detour to the Grand Canyon or Sedona? Read more about our trip to both geologic wonders!
Day 5, continued. Drive to Tucson (~1 hour, 45 minutes).
Eat dinner and make it an early night (unless you got there late). Either way, go to bed!
Day 6: Visit Saguaro National Park.
When you think of the West, you probably think of saguaro cacti. Come to the desert and see these beautiful giants. Overnight in Tucson
Day 7: Time to get out of Dodge...er, Tucson.
Consider stopping by Tombstone (that is a very multi-layered Western joke). I hear that it's very kitschy including re-enactments at the O.K. Corral. That is OK by me...(wink, wink). Tombstone is just 1 hour and 11 minutes down I-10.
Day 7, continued. Las Cruces, NM
Continue driving on I-10 and in just under four hours, you will arrive in Las Cruces, NM. Check in to your hotel or AirBnb.
Day 8. Check out and head to White Sands National Park (~1 hour).
Check out my post on our trip to White Sands National Park.
It's surreal to drive through the West and then get to White Sands. You don't expect to see beautiful dunes of powdery, white sand. And you certainly don't expect them to be comfortable to the touch out here in the desert, yet here they are...little pieces of broken gypsum. Take a sled down and then repeat. Now if you've done this in Colorado or another place, this is probably skippable. If not, make sure to add it to your list, especially if you have kids.
Day 8, continued: El Paso
El Paso is about 1 hour and 10 minutes further. El Paso is a scenic border town where the mix of American and Mexican culture intermix equally. If you've spent half a day at White Sands, you will arrive in time to get some good food and check in to your accommodation. Then, go up to the scenic overlook, which provides a look over El Paso and into neighboring Juarez, Mexico.
Balmorhea and Kerrville
Day 9: Balmorhea State Park
Today, you will drive through to Kerrville (~7 hours from El Paso). Balmorhea State Park has one of the largest spring fed natural pools in the country and is GORGEOUS, The park is just off of I-10.
Optional Trip: Time is always at a premium, but if you are in this area, try and figure out a way to make a side trip to Marfa for galleries, food and funk and the McDonald Observatory for a Star Party.
Further south, Big Bend is the least visited National Park in the contiguous United States because of its remoteness. It is a certified international Dark Sky location and seeing the Rio Grande and the Santa Elena Canyon are well worth the stop. It's also just outside of the amazing town of Terlingua, Texas famous for it's people and it's chili cook-off. Don't miss the Starlight Theatre restaurant.
Day 9, continued: Kerrville
Once you get to Kerrville (7 hours later), you've arrived into the Hill Country. This area has a special place in my heart. It's where Bill and I got married and it is a magical land of river tubing, barbecue, wineries, distilleries, antique stores and wild flowers. Stay around Kerrville or exit TX-16 and stay at the Hangar Hotel or a quaint house in Fredericksburg (30 minutes away). Plan on spending at least 2 full days (3 nights) in the area.
Day 10: Go tubing on the Guadalupe River
Day 12: Head back to I-10E and drive another hour into San Antonio.
San Antonio is one of my favorite cities in Texas and it's not a surprise why that's the case. The Riverwalk is fabricated but magical and is amazing around the holidays. The lights drip down from the trees, music can be heard throughout the river and the boats are filled with tourists and locals alike. There's so much to do - you could easily spend a week here. But if you are just needing a taste as you pass through, make these stops:
Day 12: Riverwalk and the Alamo Day 13: Pearl Market and shops Day 14: Six Flags Fiesta, Texas and/or Sea World (if you or your family are interested. Otherwise, skip)
See more of my favorite Texas stops with my article on my Top 10 Texas Bucket List Places You Must Visit
Day 15: Houston
Leave San Antonio and head on I-10E for Houston (just 3 hours down the road). Houston has a lot of things to offer, but as a Dallasite, I am pre-disposed to drive through it:) With that said, by far one of the coolest things to see there is Space Center Houston. I think it's pretty cool that you can start in desolate West Texas - among the cacti and rattlesnakes - and end up among Mission Control and gators within the same (very long) day. Say what you want about Texas, but we have variety.
Lake Charles is approximately two hours and fifteen minutes from Houston. If you need a break - or better yet, are feeling lucky, play some tables or slots at the Golden Nugget. The pool setup is pretty swank and the rooms are nice, so it makes a good stopover as well.
Day 16: Lake Charles
It's just over two hours away from Houston though, so I am going to assume that you are going to continue on to...
The State Capitol is lovely and worth a look if you like to visit state capitol buildings. You arrive in Baton Rouge 4 hours and 35 minutes after leaving Houston. If you are not interested in touring the capitol, skip it and make the choice between...
Heading straight to New Orleans via I-10 or
Adding 15-20 minutes to your drive (plus the additional time to make a couple of stops) along River Road at some of the antebellum houses
Day 16, cont: Baton Rouge OR...
Now, the second option may be a reluctant choice for the purist that wants to say that he or she traveled the entire I-10 without circumventing the highway at any spots. Plot twist - no one will ask you specifically if you got off of I-10 and you can still claim credit as far as I'm concerned. I promise not to say a word.
To learn more about the history of the area, tour a couple of houses with differing styles and histories. Houmas House is considered the crown jewel of River Road and is in the Greek Revival Style. Laura House, is not nearly as ornate (it was actually pre-antebellum if that's a word). But if you can only make it to one house, make it to this one. It is a Creole plantation and there is a fascinating history that has been well-preserved both on the tour and in the book that's for sale in the gift shop. It also has slave quarters still intact on the property which gives a small but potent glimpse into the conditions that its slaves had to endure.
Image by James DeMers
As you continue down River Road, you will arrive to New Orleans (just about an hour and a half from Baton Rouge). I find that people either love or hate New Orleans. I also find that the people that don't like New Orleans are people that I don't like to hang out with too much.
It's an amazing city. The history, the blend of cultures, the food, the personalities, the music, the atmosphere...if you can't get behind at least one of those things, you should really reevaluate how you spend your time. I don't like to repeat a lot of places, but a weekend trip to NOLA now and then always refills my soul with happiness.
There are so many things to do but having visited most of the sites, we usually just focus on eating and drinking our way through. Bill and I enjoy oysters, but the first time we heard about chargrilled oysters, we were uninterested. I made the unfortunate (or so I thought) mistake of asking our server what she recommended and...you see where this is going. But since I asked, I ordered them. Holy hell. I will never forget that first time - it was one of those few food experiences where it's just on another level. If you've never had them, try them. Acme's and Felix's are across the street from each other. Acme's is more famous but Felix's is more of a local favorite. We love Felix's.
I would suggest spending a couple of nights here. First, it's probably been a long day so get a hotel or Airbnb next to the French Quarter and just walk around until you find a place that looks yummy to eat. Grab a hurricane and get acclimated but don't make it too long of a night. You have a long day ahead of you tomorrow.
In the morning, pack a daypack and prepare for a fun-filled day out on the town. Here's my idea of a perfect day in New Orleans:
Have coffee and beignets at Café du Monde (800 Decatur St.)
Grab a muffuletta at Central Grocery & Deli (923 Decatur St.)
Hop on the Canal St. streetcar to the Garden District
Pay your respects at St. Louis Cemetery No. 1
Take a break at your hotel or Airbnb
Grab an early dinner at Felix's
Walk through Bourbon St and get a hurricane at Pat O'Brien's
Spend another night in this beautiful and vibrant city and prepare to get up sometime before check out (hell, ask for a late checkout, you're on NOLA time).
Days 16 and 17: New Orleans
Alabama and Mississippi
You drive through just a sliver of both Mississippi and Alabama. Both have good beaches. But if that's something that you are really interested in, I would continue on to Destin and possibly even detour further down highway 30A along the Emerald Coast in Florida where you'll find sugary sand and emerald green water. And if you decide to do that, make sure to add at 2-3 days onto your itinerary.
Mobile is a nice town, just two hours from New Orleans. For history or more specifically, World War II history, the USS Alabama, which was part of the Pacific Theater is interesting to tour.
Day 18: Mobile, AL
Thirty-two minutes away from Mobile is Fairhope, Alabama. It's just off of I-10. This is a really cool little town with funky shops and good restaurants. If you need a break, make it here.
Day 18, cont.: Fairhope, AL
Welcome to Florida! You've driven a lot today and have made it to the capitol city. Check into your hotel and if you have the energy, see some of the sites. If not, go to bed and get up early. There are some good history and art stops here:
Knott House - Built in 1834, this house was a headquarters for the Union Army during the Civil War. This was where Abraham Lincoln read the Emancipation Proclamation! UPDATE: As of 1/9/22, the Knott House is closed for restoration. Please check the link above for the most up-to-date information when planning your trip
Railroad Square Art Park - here you can watch artists create magic, peruse galleries, listen to blues and grab a yummy bite to eat
Tallahassee Automobile Museum - with over 150 cars - including Lincoln's hearse (what is it with this city and Lincoln?), this is a cool stop for any car lovers
Day 18, cont.: Tallahassee
If these ideas all appeal to you, spend at least 2 nights here. Otherwise, just pick one and move on. You have a busy day ahead of you.
Ichetucknee Springs State Park
If you didn't get a chance to tube as you passed through the Texas Hill Country, try and make a stop at Ichetucknee Springs State Park. This is just over 30 minutes off the highway (and ~2 hours from Tallahassee). Not only can you swim or tube, but you also have a chance to see manatees. These gentle giants are a bucket list favorite for adults and kids alike. And did I mention otters? You may have a cuteness overload! I thought that you had to go further south to see manatees so while I have done most of I-10, I have added this detour to my bucket list and plan to visit on the next trip to the region.
Day 19: Ichetucknee Springs State Park
Photo by John Moran
Just one and a half hours down the road from Ichetucknee, you reach Jacksonville. Congrats - you've reached the Atlantic Coast! Jacksonville has beautiful beaches, great food, wonderful shops and lots of places to hike and enjoy other outdoor sports.
I've cherrypicked a few places, but I also am including a link from Busy Tourists: 64 Best & Fun Things to Do In Jacksonville (Florida):
Amelia Island - you have your pick of beaches, but Amelia Island has 12 miles of beach and beautiful water
Riverside & Avondale - these two areas are right by each other and sport beautiful, historic homes. The Five Points area has cafes, bookstores, bakeries and lots of great shopping
Friendship Fountain - When built in the 1960s, this fountain was the largest and tallest fountain in the world. It's no longer as grand as it once was, but it still is an icon of the city and is a great backdrop for pictures
Plan to spend 2-3 days. Two is probably sufficient if you are just doing one beach day, but make it longer if you want to enjoy the ocean.
Days 20 and 21: Jacksonville, FL
You did it! Completing this trip surely should earn you some bragging rights. And I bet that not only do you not regret doing the trip, but you have probably added a lot more places to your bucket list. Traveling always makes for longer bucket lists and the joy of knowing that you’ll never run out of new places!
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