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Road Trip to California: From Salt Lake City to Sacramento

Experience Old West charm, including “the Loneliest Road in America,” as you head to the Golden State

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Posted a year agoby Ann Marie Brown

For people who love to travel the open road, California is an irresistible magnet. But if you're not already in the Golden State, you need to get here, so we've put together four fabulous road trips starting from some of the West's great cities. Each itinerary focuses on essential Western experiences—intriguing towns, outdoor adventures, fascinating sights, and first-rate road food—and delivers you to your ultimate destination, the Golden State. Here's our second installment in the series, a road trip starting in Utah and crossing Nevada on America's "loneliest road," U.S. 50.

Kick things off in Salt Lake City, a vibrant metropolis cradled by the Wasatch Mountains and the largest lake west of the Mississippi. The city's epic setting is reflected in grand architecture, including the stately Utah State Capitol, fronted by 52 Corinthian columns, and the Main Library, a wedge-shaped glass structure designed by Moshe Safdie. Tour them both, then visit the Natural History Museum of Utah, a terraced, copper-wrapped building housing dinosaur fossils, Native American artifacts, and a rooftop observation deck with a panoramic Salt Lake Valley vista. The famous Salt Lake Temple, a gothic marvel with six spires, is under renovation until 2024, but you might catch choir practice at the neighboring Mormon Tabernacle.

Antelope Island State Park

Salt Lake City also has plenty of outdoor fun. Go see the bison at Antelope Island State Park. Meander around the open-air City Creek Center, where a fish-filled creek flows past 100-plus retail shops and eateries. Visit the Tracy Aviary in Liberty Park, America's oldest aviary, with more than 135 species of birds—flamingos, ibis, owls, and more. Have lunch on the leafy patio at Ruth's Diner, where the chefs have been flipping burgers since 1930.

Ready to move along? Point your compass needle west as you follow I-80 along the Great Salt Lake's south shore. In less than two hours, cross into Nevada and veer south for Ely, an old stagecoach-and-mining burg that oozes history. Take a 90-minute ride on the Nevada Northern Railway's 100-year-old tracks. Visit the beehive-shaped Ward Charcoal Ovens used to process silver ore in the 1800s. Kick back for the night in the six-story Hotel Nevada, once the state's tallest building.

Depart Ely on one of America's longest roads—U.S. 50's black ribbon stretches from Maryland to California. Life magazine named Nevada's legendary stretch "The Loneliest Road in America" in 1986. It's not so lonely now, but this landscape is the stuff of cowboy movies—mountain ridges and deep valleys populated by tumbleweeds and sagebrush.

Eighty miles west of Ely, pause in Eureka, Nevada, to peek inside the restored 1880 Eureka Opera House and see 1880s newspaper printing presses at the Eureka Sentinel Museum. Stretch your legs on Hickison Petroglyph Recreation Area's trail through sagebrush and junipers to 10,000-year-old rock art. In tranquil Austin, swing by Stokes Castle, an oddity built in 1897 by an eccentric railroad magnate. End your travel day with a soak in the wood-fired hot tub at rustic-chic Miles End B&B.

In the morning, roll along U.S. 50 to Grimes Point, one of Nevada's largest petroglyph collections. Look for human figures, snakes, and sun symbols etched into basalt boulders. Press on to Carson City and the Nevada State Museum to see the mint press that turned Comstock silver into coins. Hit up artsy Comma Coffee for paninis before winding up and over Spooner Summit's curlicues.

Swoop into California at South Lake Tahoe. Just across the border, hop on Heavenly Mountain Resort’s thrilling gondola ride. A tram car whisks you uphill nearly 2,800 feet in a mere 12 minutes while dazzling your eyes with vistas of 22-mile-long Lake Tahoe, its brilliant cobalt waters hugged by conifer-clad mountains. At the top of the tram, choose your fun according to season: In winter, ski, ride, snow-tube, or drink hot toddies at Tamarack Lodge. In summer, try out the ropes course or climbing wall.

Sleep in mountain luxury at Black Bear Lodge or The Landing Resort, then take a morning kayak paddle out of Timber Cove Marina, or rent bikes and visit Tahoe's beaches on two wheels. Share a charcuterie plate and a lakefront table at The Idle Hour before cruising up to Emerald Bay to admire Fannette Island from Inspiration Point.

Descend from Tahoe's alpine perch with a zig-zagging jaunt over Echo Summit, then a scenic cruise alongside the South Fork American River, still on U.S. 50. In Placerville, a well-preserved Main Street is home to the town’s oldest building, the rustic, stone Fountain-Tallman Soda Works, built in 1852. Now a museum, the building houses artifacts like Placerville's original Soda Works carbonation machine. Grab lunch under the stamped-tin ceiling at The Farm Table, a charcuterie and bistro serving artisanal house-cured meats and farm-fresh produce.

In a little more than an hour, U.S. 50 brings you to California’s capital city, Sacramento. Here, state politics blend with sophisticated eateries, convivial breweries, and ultra-modern hotels. Take a free guided tour of the State Capitol building, an 1869 neoclassical stunner with an imposing 128-foot dome. Stroll along Old Sacramento’s riverfront corridor among buildings dating back to the Gold Rush. At the Central Pacific Railroad passenger station, climb aboard a restored passenger train for a riverside excursion ride.

Get a taste of Sacramento's culinary panache at Michelin-starred The Kitchen (reserve in advance for a five-course, prix fixe extravaganza). Check into an upper-floor room overlooking the Sacramento River at urban-elegant The Kimpton Sawyer Hotel, a short walk from museums and sports arenas. Take a dip in the rooftop pool, then tuck in for the night and dream about where you're headed next in California.

For more than 50 detailed road trip itineraries across the Golden State, please visit the California Road Trip Republic hub.

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