San Francisco to Grand Canyon Road Trip

A view of a winding road leading to the Grand Canyon in Arizona. It is sunny and bright, and the sky is pure blue. This illustrates a San Francisco to Grand Canyon road trip.

The Grand Canyon is a must-see, so if you’re in the SF Bay Area and have the time, a San Francisco to Grand Canyon road trip is definitely in order. Driving to the Grand Canyon is actually fairly easy from anywhere in California. 

There are two main routes for driving between the Bay Area and the Grand Canyon. In this post, I’ll focus on the quickest one. 

The longer route goes through Yosemite, Las Vegas, and Death Valley. It is very scenic and has everything from amazing and diverse natural beauty to the lights and glitz of the famed city of Las Vegas. 

So, why don’t I recommend this longer route with all of its impressive stops along the way? Honestly, I think driving from San Francisco to Yosemite, Las Vegas, or Death Valley are all road trips in their own right.

If you’d like to make any of those drives, I would suggest doing it as its own road trip. This will allow you a better opportunity to enjoy what each of these areas has to offer. 

On the other hand, the Grand Canyon is well worth the drive from San Francisco, even without any other amazing stops along the way. The shorter route is a bit monotonous and not incredibly scenic, but it does offer some interesting stops and sights.

Another benefit of taking the shortest route from San Francisco to the Grand Canyon is that it can be done at any time of the year. 

In the winter, Tioga Pass in Yosemite will be closed due to snow, leading to forced further detours. Likewise, in the summer, temperatures in Death Valley often reach 120℉ (49℃), making that portion of the longer route more uncomfortable (and potentially even dangerous). 

San Francisco to Grand Canyon Distance

The drive from San Francisco to the Grand Canyon via the shortest route is just under 800 miles and takes about 12 hours and 30 minutes of driving time, give or take a bit. 

Quickest (and Best) Route from San Francisco to Grand Canyon

My recommended driving route from San Francisco to the Grand Canyon takes I-580 south, I-5 south, CA-58 east, and I-40 east. Toward the end, you’ll get on AZ-64 north. You’ll then enter the Grand Canyon via the South Rim entrance.

North Rim vs South Rim Entrance to Grand Canyon

Entrance to the Grand Canyon with the road on the left side and a sign reading "Entering Grand Canyon National Park" on the right. There is a bit of snow in the front and tall trees in the back.

While both the North and South Rims have their pros and cons, for the vast majority of travelers, I would recommend using the South Rim entrance.

First of all, if you are traveling between October 15 to May 15, you won’t have an option. The North Rim is closed due to snow and weather conditions for these 7 months each year. 

Likewise, the South Rim region contains most of the famous Grand Canyon sights. It’s also much more accessible and is used by the vast majority of visitors each year. If you plan to visit a restaurant or stay overnight in a hotel, you’ll have many more options near the South Rim.

Stopover Ideas on a San Francisco to Grand Canyon Road Trip

Admittedly, taking the fastest route from San Francisco to the Grand Canyon doesn’t offer the most spectacular stopover points. The drive is a bit monotonous at times, and the places worth stopping at for a visit aren’t particularly prevalent.

Still, you’ll have plenty to do and see once you reach the Grand Canyon, and there are a few nice options for brief visits or overnight stays on this road trip. I’ll go over them now.

Lost Hills Wonderful Park in Lost Hills, CA

When we travel on I-5 between Northern and Southern California, we always stop at Wonderful Park in Lost Hills, CA. 

It’s a big, clean park located in the very small town of Lost Hills. Conveniently located just off I-5, it makes a perfect stopover point to stretch, get some exercise, or eat a picnic lunch. 

There are plenty of picnic tables located under some trees for shade. Likewise, the public restrooms have always been clean and well-stocked whenever we’ve visited. 

There’s a nice playground for the kids, a splash pad, a soccer field, as well an expanse of well-maintained grass for kids to run and play on. 

In the warmer months of the year, the area gets quite hot, making the splash pad even more enjoyable for kids. 

We generally eat a picnic lunch, then relax and walk around a bit while the kids run, play, and get in some exercise. Once we get back in the car, everyone tends to feel refreshed and ready for the next stretch of driving.

Stay the Night in Bakersfield, CA

This image shows an aerial view of Downtown Bakersfield, CA as viewed from above. There are buildings, palm trees, and an intersection of four roads with some stoplights and cars.

While it’s true that Bakersfield isn’t one of California’s most famous tourist towns, it makes a great stopover point on a road trip from the San Francisco Bay Area to the Grand Canyon. 

Bakersfield is about four and a half hours from San Francisco. It’s also one of the bigger cities you will pass through on this particular drive. I generally prefer to stay the night in bigger towns or cities because there tends to be a greater number of options with regard to things like hotels and restaurants. 

At over 375,000 people, Bakersfield has a fairly large population. It’s also home to the California State University, Bakersfield campus. While it doesn’t have as much natural beauty as some other parts of California, there are definitely a few places worth visiting.

If you only have time to visit one place in Bakersfield, I would recommend the California Living Museum (CALM). CALM is a unique zoo which only houses animals native to California.

The animal inhabitants are all injured or otherwise incapable of being released back into the wild. The zoo houses them while providing an opportunity for local students as well as visitors to learn more about the animals and plants that are native to California.

This makes for an especially enjoyable visit if you are traveling with kids. Walking through the zoo is also a great way to get in some light exercise after spending a lot of time in the car.

Enjoy the Beauty of the Mojave Desert

Not long after leaving Bakersfield, you’ll enter the Mojave Desert. The entirety of I-40 in California is part of the desert, and the Mojave extends into the Arizona-portion of this road trip as well. 

One of the the four major deserts of North America, the Mojave is absolutely worth seeing. Its most recognizable feature is perhaps the ubiquitous Joshua Tree. Though not technically a tree at all, the Joshua Tree resembles one with its upward-standing trunk and branches coming forth in various directions. 

Image of Joshua trees to illustrate what you can see in the Mojave Desert on the way to the Grand Canyon.

With its long, spiny leaves, the Joshua Tree is fairly easy to spot and you’ll see plenty of them as you pass through the desert on I-40. If you are traveling with kids, it can be fun to make a game out of spotting the first Joshua Tree on your journey. Try showing everyone a picture of one in advance of the day’s road trip, so that they can be on the lookout.

Should You Drive From Bakersfield to the Grand Canyon In One Day?

The answer to this question will depend on your own personal interests and circumstances. If you are able to handle nearly 8 hours of driving time in one day, it is indeed possible to drive this entire portion of the trip without any stopovers.

You’ll encounter few cities along the way, so your choices for staying the night will be limited. 

If you do want to stop anywhere, the best choices are Barstow, California and Kingman, Arizona. Barstow is only a couple of hours outside of Bakersfield, so if you’ve stayed the night in Bakersfield, you’ll likely want to get more driving in before stopping again. 

In my experience, Kingman is the best stopover city when driving between Bakersfield and the Grand Canyon. Below, I’ll detail my reasoning a bit.

Kingman, Arizona

With a population of a little over 30,000, Kingman isn’t a big city, but it’s certainly larger than most of the places you’ll be passing through on this part of your trip. 

Kingman is just under 3 hours drive from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. This makes it an ideal place to stay the night and then reach the Grand Canyon refreshed the next morning. 

While arriving at the Grand Canyon at night is certainly possible, I wouldn’t advise it, especially if this is your first time visiting. The difficulties of driving in the dark as well as potential issues with weather conditions make it somewhat inadvisable, for me at least. 

If you arrive in Kingman early enough to venture out a bit, consider checking out the three-for-one museum ticket which, for a nominal fee, will gain you access to three separate museums in Kingman. These museums include the Mohave Museum of History and Arts, the Arizona Route 66 Museum, and the Bonelli House

Depending on your own interests and how much time you have, you may want to visit one or all of these. The staff at all three are friendly and tend to be happy to share information about each museum’s contents as well as the area’s history in general. 

Final Destination: The Grand Canyon

Image of the Havasu Falls waterfall in the Grand Canyon. There are trees in the foreground and the tan and brown colors of the Grand Canyon in the background.

Whether it’s your first or hundredth time visiting the Grand Canyon, the experience is invigorating. If you’ve arrived at peak season, you may have to deal with crowds, but there are always opportunities to venture out and spend time enjoying nature and the remarkable sights you’ll encounter.

Hiking, taking the train, and helicopter tours are just a few of the ways to begin exploring this vast park. My advice is to spend a few days there so that you don’t feel the need to rush about. Allow yourself some time to relax and take in some of the wonders of this amazing place.

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