One of my more recent road trips was a week long drive starting off in Los Angeles with the final destination being San Francisco, while making stops in Death Valley, Yosemite, and Lake Tahoe. Overall a super fun week with lots to do on the way. Since time was limited, we did limit what all we could do. However for those wanting to hit many places, but still wanting something relaxing and just go here there and move on, I definitely think this is a trip worth taking.
Drive from LA to Death Valley
The drive starts off around noon from LAX on Sunday. While the first hour or so is just getting out of Greater LA, it wasn’t long before we hit the drier side of things. The route being 210 to 15 to 395. A couple of hours in, and we finally hit 178, and that’s when you start feeling the silence. Not a single car, not a single bird or other animal. Turn off the car, park by the road, and just spend some time appreciating it.
Since sunset was closing as we continue driving in, instead of going to our hotel (Stovepipe Wells), we decide to first stop by Father Crowley Overlook, which I believe is often referred to as Star Wars Canyon as well. Well the spots are right next to each other at least. We spend a good hour or so waiting for sunsets, and while not the greatest or anything, there was still a lot to appreciate. If you’re lucky, you might even get to see a few fighter jets. Sadly we didn’t get to see those (Sunday evening does the trick I guess).
Once again, there was nobody to be found. Silence. A moment to discover yourself. Cliché, I know. But you really have no option but to listen to your own thoughts. Living in a city, there’s constant sound, constant noise. Whether from construction, traffic, or people yelling and protesting…or just random strangers swearing at each other. None of that here. Even for those living in the country side, animals can heard. Not sure how to explain it in words to be honest.
After sunset, we head out to our hotel. In the dark, I will be honest, the drive was a little scary. But a good kind of scary, assuming you’re not speeding like crazy…which we totally didn’t do.
Once at the hotel, we grab some dinner, and head straight for bed. Our “true” exploring of the valley starts the next day.
It’s a new day, and after a good rest, we head out. First things first though, need to pay the park fees which is conveniently located right across the hotel, alongside a gas station and a gift shop. As we go past the Dunes, our first stop is Furnace Creek for some brunch. We did plan on checking out Salt Creek Interpretive Trail, but due to the heat, we decided against it due to time constraints. The dining at Furnace Creek left something to be desired, but I’ll give them the benefit of doubt due to Covid. However, something you should probably consider looking into.
After brunch, our first stop is the Devils Golf Course. Whilst only 100F, it felt dry and like it would burn the skin off. Initially, I thought the sand was on the softer side and stepping on it would break the formations. But nope, it’s hard, so no guilt over going in a bit.
Right after, we decided to head out to Badwater Basin. I definitely recommend making a stop here. The weirdness around the landscape, and the water…its something else. We did find small puddles of water — that are way too salty for anyone to drink though. Hence the name, Badwater I guess. We were also almost 300ft below see level at this point…and it was hot and dry. Carry a water bottle!
Now for a U-Turn, we start heading back. But we do have one more stop, the Artist’s Palette. Yet another stop I recommend making on the way back. The drive in itself is awesome, and while the “painting” is not as colourful as other pictures lead you to believe, it still was beautiful. Do take a moment to climb up the couple small hills to get better views. Apparently the colors are more rich after it rains too…so maybe that is what we were missing.
Death Valley to Mammoth Lake
After the Artist’s Palette, we start making our way to the location we will be spending the night — Mammoth Lake. However, that drive also had a few pit stops on the way. First being a series of different rock formations: Lone Ranger Canyon / Alabama Hills / The Mobius Arch. We were initially going to stop at Vista Point on 395 (and maybe check out Owens River Gorge), but sadly due to the fires, the smoke was high and therefore no sunset would be visible really. So instead, we spent more time in these rock formations.
As for the Mobius Arch, a quick 5-15min easy loop takes you to this popular spot for your Instagram shots. Luckily we had absolutely no one, so perfect opportunity. Though I do see how sunset would attract a bigger crowd as we noticed more people coming in closer to that time.
After the stop, we reach Mammoth Lake during the evening, take it easy, grab some food and check out the local scenes. Next morning before we head out to Yosemite, we stop by the Village to grab some breakfast. The reason for staying here for the night was the cheaper hotel costs compared to the valley, whilst still being close to the valley.
Yosemite National Park
Once we leave mammoth lake, the same day, our first goal was to each the Yosemite Valley, checkin, and then head out to the Vernal Falls trail (via the Mist Trail). Sadly due to some construction this took longer than we had anticipated, but that didn’t stop us from enjoying the beauty that is Yosemite. Once we had some food to eat, checked in at Curry Village, we head off on the trail.
The first First Half of the trail is fairly easy. While I personally had to take a few breaks (thanks covi-pounds), It was relatively well maintained with a good paved paths. A stop at Vernal Falls Bridge allows you to view the falls from a distance, and do your final water refills as well take restroom breaks as needed.
The Second Half of this hike however, is a whole different story. Especially the last half a mile. I think most people will enjoying the bridge, but for those who want something a little more rewarding, definitely recommend this trail. The most difficult part (even with multiple breaks…at least for now) are the extremely steep steps leading to the fall at the very end. I saw a few groups turn around at this point, but trust me, take the breaks and keep pushing.
Finally the top. While the smoke still had the haze effect, it was still such a beautiful and fulfilling hike up. Once here, take a break, enjoy the views, then head down to the Emerald Pool which is a couple of minutes away (and don’t worry, no more steep anything). Even though cold, we did catch a few people taking a dip.
I would not stay here once sunset is close though. Navigating through those steps in the dark is as scary as it sounds. So while much quicker to go down, it is quick to get dark. Luckily for us, we had already crossed the steep steps by then. Once back, we make a quick stop to get some food as we were starving. Since we are living in Curry Village, the Pizza Deck makes the most sense. After dinner, we go straight to the tent and crash. With a bigger group I can totally see starting here for 2 nights instead.
The next morning plan was to drive up to Glacier Point, and hike the Sentinel Dome + Taft Point loop. However, we take it slow in the morning, and end up ditching the Sentinel Dome + Taft Point loop. Glacier point is something I recommend everyones does. No hikes really, and easy to see some of the best views of the valley, in my opinion.
South Lake Tahoe
Now that the views are done, its time we headed out South Lake Tahoe. We head back towards 395, and simply go there without any more stops. Our goal was to simply relax here. No hikes, no views, no activities. Just sleep and chill. And so we end up getting the Marriott’s Timber Lodge so that everything is basically walking distance. Since I have been here multiple times, I’ll do another post on Tahoe specifically. But for this trip, we only spent the last day (Friday) to check out Emerald Bay State Park before heading to SF.
And with this, we head back to SF. I’d say one of the more well balanced trips I’ve been on. The only problem were the fires, and the smoke. And I would like to end this post with a simple thank you to the amazing firefighters that help not just the forests and its animals, but the people who end up caught in it. Just being able to enjoy this vacation on its own, is because of them. So THANK YOU, to all the firefighters out there for their bravery!