Road Trip Guide: Las Vegas To San Francisco Via Yosemite National Park
Explore from the desert to the mountains to the coast.
If beautiful red canyons, ghost towns, alpine lakes, and the all-encompassing beauty that is Yosemite National Park sound like a trip you’d love to go on, consider doing a road trip from Las Vegas to San Francisco. Between two national parks, multiple national monument sites, vista points that bring tears to your eyes and delicious eats in the Bay Area, this road trip will leave lasting memories for a lifetime. Grab your hiking boots and extra batteries for your camera and let’s hit the road!
Start your trip in Sin City, but don’t spend too much time gambling away your gas money on the strip. Take a few hours and head to Red Rock Canyon, a short 30-minute drive from the Vegas Strip. Red Rock Canyon offers amazing climbing and hiking routes, as well as a one-way 13-mile loop road if scenic drives are more your thing.
Head north on Highway 95 and enter Death Valley National Park. There are many different routes to enter the park that can be found on the park’s website, some taking you past ghost towns and other points of interest, so plan your route to suit what you want to see. Death Valley National Park has such a surreal feeling to it. You can stand in the middle of a two lane road and look out in every direction and realize you are the only people for miles and miles. It is so crazy to me that a seemingly desolate place is home to so many different types of plants and animals. Keep your eyes peeled for the occasional coyote (we had one walk right up to our car) and make sure to check out Bad Water Basin, the lowest point in North America. Dante’s View, Zabriskie Point, and Mosaic Canyon should all be added to your list of sites to see, but make sure you have filled up with gas (typically Stovepipe Wells has the cheapest gas in the park) because you don’t want to run out if you’re visiting the park in the hot summer heat. Oh, and if you see signs that say to turn your air conditioning off in your car while going up a hill, do it. We learned the hard way and almost broke down in the middle of nowhere.
After you’ve seen what Death Valley has to offer, head out of the park and towards Lone Pine, a small town located at the base of Mt. Whitney. If you’re feeling extra adventurous you can get a permit to climb to the top of the tallest mountain in the lower 48. Since you walked across the lowest point in North America the day before in Death Valley, making it to the summit of Mt. Whitney the next day definitely gives you bragging rights. If you’re looking for a more laid back day, take a drive through Alabama Hills, an area of strange rock formations and hills where countless movies and tv shows have been filmed throughout the years.
Heading out of Lone Pine on Highway 395 towards Yosemite is such a cool drive. National Monuments, Mammoth Lakes, hot springs, and Mono Lake are just a few of the stops I would highly recommend taking. If you’re looking for a beautiful mountain town to hang out in for a night, Mammoth Lakes is it. While the winter brings in thousands of skiers and snowboarders, the summer shows a different side of the town. Mountain bikers and hikers will love this picturesque town.
Before heading into Yosemite, fill up your tank and your stomachs in Lee Vining. It’s the last stop before entering Yosemite National Park. Entering the park from the Tioga Road entrance is so beautiful that you will want to make sure you take advantage of the pull-off spots along to the road to really take it all in. I personally enjoy Tuolumne Meadows area of Yosemite over the more popular Yosemite Valley. Less crowded, no tour buses, no shops and museums, just you and nature. There are some great trailheads in the area, as well as climbing. If you’re looking for a great day hike, Clouds Rest is one of my favorite hikes in the park. The scramble at the end isn’t for the faint of heart, but it’s so worth it in the end. If you’re looking for more of “city in a park” feel, head down to Yosemite Valley. You’ll find restaurants, shops, lodging, tours, etc. and be able to see iconic El Capitan, Yosemite Falls, and Half Dome. If you’re up for the winding road, head up to Glacier Point and look out over Yosemite Valley. It’s absolutely spectacular!
From here you have several options. You can head out of the park (but not before checking out the Giant Sequoias) and drive straight to San Francisco. Once you arrive, the adventure doesn’t end...San Francisco is full of amazing adventures nearby and some even right in the city. You could also stay south out of the park and head west all the way to the coast and hit up Santa Cruz for some surfing and beach time, or take highway 101 up the coast for some breathtaking views (check out the Big Sur to San Francisco section in this road trip guide for some awesome ideas). Either way, spend the next few days reflecting on the awesome road trip you just had while eating some delicious San Francisco eats!
Cover photo: Greg Balkin
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Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.
Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph. Learn More
Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.
Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.