Take a road trip along California’s premier mountain range, the Sierra Nevada—the dramatic granite backbone defining the state’s eastern edge. Start with a visit to California’s turquoise gem—Lake Tahoe—then follow spectacular mountain routes to a wish list of incomparable alpine destinations: the waterfalls and granite monoliths in Yosemite, the mountain-town fun of Mammoth Lakes, the world’s largest living things at Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, and the lonely, windblown beauty of California’s best-known ghost town, Bodie.
Before you go, check road conditions, especially in winter and spring, as snow can limit travel (chains, all-wheel drive, and snow call Caltrans (800/427-7623; English only), or check the Caltrans website.
Blue as a topaz and circled by majestic peaks, this High Sierra gem straddling the California-Nevada border is a bucket-list staple, a place where the air is “very pure and fine...it is the same the angels breathe,” according to author Mark Twain. Lakefront towns dot the shoreline, each with their own appeal. Winter and springtime snow lets you carve it up at world-class alpine resorts. Summer brings out the water toys—sailboats, stand-up paddleboards, kayaks, and almost anything that floats. Fall paints the hills with golden aspen leaves.
Lake Tahoe lays claim to some of the country’s top alpine resorts. On the north shore, Squaw Valley, Northstar California, and Alpine, the sister mountain to Squaw, are top draws, especially on powder days. On Tahoe’s south shore, Heavenly—one of the world’s biggest ski resorts—offers jaw-dropper lake views from runs as wide and bump free as freeways. Heavenly has also bumped up the fun even if you don’t ski or board, with on-mountain zip lines, tube runs, scenic gondola rides, and a party-like atmosphere on and off the mountain. Tahoe is also home to lower-key resorts—Boreal, Donner Ski Ranch, Homewood, Sierra at Tahoe, Soda Springs, Sugar Bowl, Tahoe Donner. You can also head out on groomed cross-country and snowshoe trails at Royal Gorge or Kirkwood. For a real treat, get your mush on with a sled dog ride near Squaw Valley, Kirkwood, or in Hope Valley, just south of Lake Tahoe.
In summer, many of these same resorts—especially Northstar, Heavenly, and Squaw, offer summertime fun such as mountain biking, hiking, and scenic tram or gondola rides—a great way to get high up in the mountains without a lot of effort.
From Lake Tahoe, climb over the Sierra to the range’s drier eastern side, to explore one of the West’s best preserved ghost towns.
Your route now takes you south on I-395, one of California’s most spectacularly scenic roads, following the base of the soaring Sierra’s eastern side. Just past the cattle-ranching town of Bridgeport, turn east onto the dusty desert road that winds into Bodie State Historic Park. Round the final bend in the careworn road, drive by the lonely graveyard on the sagebrush-dotted hill on the southwest side of town, and look down upon the tattered remnants of an all-but-forgotten town. Back in the late 1800s, Bodie was a booming mining community with nearly 10,000 residents. Over time, the townsfolk began to fade away with the gold, and roughly a half-century ago, the final residents packed up and left Bodie, leaving the buildings alone and at the mercy of the dry desert winds. Walk the silent streets lined with shops, hotels, and simple homes, each one carefully preserved to look just as they did when the last of Bodie’s residents moved away. Look for period images on newspapers stuffed into the walls as makeshift insulation. Old trucks and gas pumps, a weathered wood church, and the lonely cemetery paint a picture of life—and death—in this remote corner of California’s high desert.
Be sure to bring food; there are no concessions in the park (though there is potable water). A bookstore is well stocked with interesting information, and the self-guided walking tour is wealth worth doing.
Continue south from Bodie to Mono Lake, the remarkable remnant of a once enormous inland sea.
There are few places in California—and maybe on the planet—that can make you think you might just be on Mars. This is one of them. At this high-desert preserve, on the eastern side of the towering Sierra, ghostlike tufa towers trim the edges of a one-million-year-old lake, the salty remnant of an ancient inland sea. Over a million sea birds feed on the surface and swirl overhead—and incredible show of life in this seemingly desolate setting.
Get yourself oriented with a visit to the excellent interpretive center, just off U.S. 395 north of Lee Vining and Tioga Pass (the only route into Yosemite from this side of the mountains). Inside, exhibits shed light on the natural and human history of the Mono Basin, including major environmental challenges caused by water diversions that almost killed the lake. (Huge efforts by the local Mono Lake Committee, with a gift-filled shop in Lee Vining, have successfully saved it.) Wraparound decks offer expansive views of the dramatic setting—Sierra peaks to the west, chaparral-dotted desert to the east, and views of the lake and its tiny Wizard Island, an important nesting site for Western gulls and other sea birds. Bird walks are offered at 8 a.m. Fridays and Sundays, mid-May through Labor Day. The visitor center is closed December through March.
Trails lace the area; you can explore rehabilitated Lee Vining Creek riparian habitat and the region’s cinder cones, blanketed with with obsidian and pumice, or walk in the South Tufa Area, with close-up views of the lake-trimming calcium-carbonate spires and knobs formed by the interaction of freshwater springs flowing into the ultra-alkaline lake water that’s 2½ times as salty as the ocean. Naturalists lead free tufa walks at the South Tufa Area three times daily from late June through Labor Day. Guided paddles are also offered through Caldera Kayak.
Next stop is the friendly mountain town of Mammoth Lakes, a wintry destination for skiers and boarders, and a playground for outdoor enthusiasts once the snow melts.
Surrounded by some of the highest peaks in the west, folks in this laid-back mountain town know they’ve got a good thing going. It’s a land of serious outdoor lovers, who take to the slopes of signature Mammoth Mountain (actually a massive volcano surrounded by granite peaks) and nearby June Lakes resorts in winter, then head out on trails when the snow melts to fly-fish in clear mountain streams, hike and mountain bike through wildflowers in high alpine meadows, and dip into natural hot springs. Join the locals for craft beer and listen to bluegrass music during summer’s Bluesapalooza festival (typically held in late July). For a high-mountain town, Mammoth Lakes is surprisingly easy to get to too, especially during the ski season, when daily flights zoom in from San Francisco area airports as well as Los Angeles.
In winter, Mother Nature is good to Mammoth Lakes. The mountain town’s signature peak, Mammoth Mountain, gets, on average, more than 30 feet/9 meters of snow, and lifts and gondolas continue to zoom up the mountain longer than any resort in the state. Visit the base village for shops, restaurants, and nightlife. Even if you’re not a skier, you can take advantage of Mammoth Mountain’s gondola, which climbs to the mountain’s summit at 11,053 feet/3,369 meters for jaw-dropper views of surrounding high-altitude peaks. Wintry splurges abound—choose from motorized Snowcat tours to guided full-moon snowshoe treks. Go tubing with the kids. Glide through the wilderness on a dogsled. Get an après-ski massage at area resorts, such as Sierra Nevada Resort & Spa or Snowcreek Athletic Club. Finish with dinner at cozy Lakefront Restaurant, surrounded by snowy pines.
After Mammoth Lakes, catch a shuttle from Mammoth Lakes for a day visit to fascinating Devils Postpile National Monument. (Note that this destination is closed in winter, when snow blocks all access roads and trails. The park typically opens June through September, but call ahead to get updates on access—the season can be shorter, or longer, depending on snow pack.)
Follow Highway 203 west of Mammoth Lakes through stunning mountain scenery to explore this remarkable natural wonder. Looking like lumber pile left over by the gods, the 60-foot/18-meter basalt columns at this National Monument induce a lot of head scratching and pondering. How did these flawless columns get here anyway? Truth is, they formed on site, the result of volcanic eruption that sent lava flowing down the mountainside here, leaving behind an impressive wall of columns. Glaciers played a part too, exposing the columns and naturally polishing and enhancing the lava’s natural hexagonal patterns.
No matter how they were created, these columns are cool, and well worth exploring, as are other sites here. Follow the 2.5-mile/4-km trail to breathtaking 101-foot/31-meter Rainbow Falls. Also check out current evidence of volcanic activity at the monument’s soda spring area.
In summer (mid-June through Labor Day), driving into the park is restricted, but it’s easy to catch the shuttle from Mammoth Lakes. In winter, roads are generally closed, so you’ll need to cross-country ski or snowshoe into the park. Other times of year it’s okay to drive in: just know that the parking lot often fills by mid-morning on sunny days and weekends, so get there early.
If you arrived via shuttle, return to Mammoth Lakes to continue your itinerary. If you drove in by car, return to I-395 and continue south to Manzanar National Historic Site, an enlightening reminder of what happened here during World War II.
Driving south along I-395, the landscape is staggeringly beautiful—giant peaks to the west, dramatic high desert plains and hills to the east. Just south of the tiny town of Independence, turn in to this sobering glimpse of what happened in the region back in the 1940s. During World War II, thousands of Japanese-Americans were moved from their homes throughout the West and brought to internment camps like Manzanar. This remote site in the wind-swept Owens Valley aims to shed light on that time and the people who lived here, through recreated buildings, photographs, films, oral histories, and interactive displays. Today you can sort through layers of history at the Manzanar Visitor Center, where some 8,000 square feet/743 square meters of exhibits relay a fascinating, albeit disturbing, part of California’s history. A 3-mile/5-km loop offers a chance to see the remnants of orchards and structures, as well as a Buddhist cemetery. Adjacent to the Visitor Center is Block 14, with two reconstructed barracks and an exhibit-filled mess hall where you can check out a large-scale model of Manzanar War Relocation Center crafted by former internees. Ranger-led tours occur regularly and run from 15 to 90 minutes. Be sure to leave time to watch the insightful 22-minute film Remembering Manzanar, which plays every half hour.
Next on the trip is a stop at Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the 48 contiguous United States.
From Manzanar south on I-395, you’ll probably have a hard time keeping your eyes on the road. That’s because you’ll want to stare west and up, up, up at some of the tallest mountains in the country, so tall that clouds hover below their summits, so high in the night sky that they block out stars. And among these giants is this granite beast, topped by a hornlike granite formation near its summit, which scrapes the sky at 14,494 feet/4,418 meters, making it the tallest mountain in the 48 contiguous states.
For all its brawny bigness and dramatically treeless crags and spires, Mt. Whitney is surprisingly accessible, even climbable. Though there are people that rush up and back in a day (10.7 miles/17.1 kilometers each way), there’s really no reason for that—not when there are awesome views of the Sierras tallest peaks to the north, west, and south, and pale desert plains (including Death Valley) to the east to take in along the way. If you’re in descent shape and are comfortable with backpacking, plan for a two-day trip (plus time to acclimatize to the thin air at high altitude). Most backpackers pitch their tents for the night at Consultation Lake; from there, they drop their heavy packs and tackle the series of 99 quad-busting switchbacks that lead to the final pass to the summit. Climbing season is typically May through October, though it can snow at any time and all climbers should be well prepared for inclement weather. Even so, the hike is extremely popular, and required permits are only awarded by lottery, February 1 to March 15.
If you’re not into bagging the summit or didn’t get a permit, no worries—you can still get a satisfying, permit-free leg-stretch to Lone Pine Lake (roughly 5.5/9 kilometers round trip). Start 13 miles/21 kilometers west of Lone Pine at Whitney Portal, a pretty campground in the pines; there’s also a nice camp store with Mt. Whitney souvenirs. Before leave your car, heed signs warning you to clean out and discard of any food or other suspect items (don’t worry; they’re listed) that might attract native black bears; they have no qualms about destroying an empty car to get at food inside.
The Sierra quickly dwindles south of Mt. Whitney, and your route swings west then north around the southern end of the mountain range to head north again, leading you to Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks and the largest living things on earth.
Climb back into the Sierra, this time on the mountains’ west side, to explore this expansive and diverse parkland. Famous for their giant sequoias, soaring mountains, deep canyons, and roaring rivers, this tandem set of parks have plenty to see, even though they are less well known than Yosemite, roughly 75 miles/120 kilometers north. Within the borders of national parkland are the western side of Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States at 14,494 feet/4,417 meters, and the Kings River Canyon, one of the deepest canyons in North America. Still, the parks—as well as adjacent Giant Sequoia National Monument and national forest lands—are most revered for their super-size sequoias. Thanks to the General Sherman Tree, the world’s largest living thing, and its gargantuan neighbors, gawking at the big trees is the most popular activity here. The General Sherman Tree measures 103/31-meters around, and soars 275 feet/84 meters into the blue Sierra sky—and it’s still growing. Every year it adds enough wood to make another 60-foot/18-meter-tall tree. Still can’t grasp the size? One branch of the General Sherman is so big—almost 7 feet/2 meters in diameter—that it’s larger than most trees east of the Mississippi River.
Not surprisingly, General Sherman attracts a crowd, which is why the park runs free summer shuttle buses to two separate stops, one above and one below this amazing tree. Many visitors get off at the upper stop and walk one-way downhill to the lower stop, passing the General Sherman along the way. That’s fine for a quick trip, but there’s much more to do here. Get an even bigger dose of sequoia awesomeness by hiking the adjacent Congress Trail, a 2-mile/3-km loop that travels through dozens of sequoias with diameters the size of your living room. The House and Senate groves, two more sequoia clusters near the end of the loop trail, are the most impressive, but another standout is the Washington Tree, which was long considered the world’s second largest tree.
Winter snows significantly limit access in the parks; check the website in advance for details.
From here, your road trip continues north to another crown jewel of California, Yosemite National Park.
The route north of Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks takes you through deep forests on the Sierra Nevada’s west side, then drops to the sweeping agricultural farms of the Central Valley before climbing east again into the mountains. Here lies Yosemite, California’s first national park and designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984. Yosemite attracts 4 million visitors each year—with good reason. Nearly the size of Rhode Island and covering more than 1,100 square miles, it features unforgettable natural beauty, from the sheer walls of Yosemite Valley to the alpine beauty of Tuolumne Meadows, and the awe-inspiring sequoia trees of Mariposa Grove.
Among Yosemite’s many bragging rights, its waterfalls rank high. In the list of the world’s 20 tallest waterfalls, Yosemite Valley scores three spots for Yosemite Falls, Sentinel Fall, and Ribbon Fall. Yosemite Falls holds the undisputed title of the tallest waterfall in North America. It’s a challenging hike to the top of the 2,425-foot/729-meter falls, but fortunately it’s an impressive view from the base to—an easy and scenic 1-mile/1.6-km loop that should be on everyone’s bucket list. An easy walk to 620-foot/189-meter Bridalveil Falls takes you to an overlook point below its billowing cascade. A more demanding hike to Vernal and Nevada Falls ascends granite steps to the brink of two massive drops, where you can watch the entire Merced River plunge over the rocky ledge. (Adhere to all safety signs and stay behind all ropes and signs.)
One of the most photographed regions of Yosemite, Tuolumne Meadows is a wide, grassy expanse bounded by high granite domes and peaks. At elevation 8,600 feet/2,627meters, pristine meadow extends for more than two miles/3.2 km along the Tuolumne River, making it the largest subalpine meadow in the Sierra Nevada. From its tranquil edges, hiking trails lead in all directions—to the alpine lakes set below the spires of Cathedral and Unicorn Peaks, to a series of roaring waterfalls on the Tuolumne River. The meadow’s small visitor center, housed in a historic cabin, features exhibits that focus on the area's geology, wildflowers, and wildlife. (Note the access to Tuolumne is limited; roads generally close due to snow mid-November to June.)
From Yosemite, continue north to your last stop, a visit to the outstanding and easily accessible groves of giant sequoias at Calaveras Big Trees State Park.
On your way to this park, save time to visit the charming Gold Country town of Murphys (a great place for wine tasting and innovative dining along the town’s main street). Then continue north and east to discover peaceful groves of giant sequoias at this under-the-radar park. Established in 1931 to preserve the a stunning stand of giant sequoias, this park offers one of the easiest places to see these towering trees. Head 4 miles/6.5 kilometers east of Arnold, in the Gold Country, to the preserve, then put on your walking shoes and follow trails to North Grove, the most visited part of this 6,498-acre/2,630-hectare park, as well as quieter South Grove. Reserve a site at one of the two large campgrounds, or pitch your tent at one of five more remote walk-in sites. Summer is the busiest time of year, but spring offers showy white dogwood blossoms, and the colorful leaves of autumn create a striking contrast with the russet sequoia trunks. Seasonal activities offered by the park include campfire talks and guided walks.
To continue on to the state capital, Sacramento, head roughly 2 hours northwest through the Gold Country and Central Valley. To return to San Francisco (about 3 hours) drive southwest across the Central Valley to the Bay Area.