After spending several days in Las Vegas, it was time to hit the road again. We were looking forward to, after passing through Death Valley, leaving behind the extreme heat and enjoying the relative coolness of Yosemite and the California coast. It’s a long ride to San Francisco with a lot to see along the way, but we planned for several overnight stays, as well as spending a couple of days with family.
Day 1: Death Valley
Death Valley National Park is the lowest and hottest national park in the United States. At the time we were here, towards the end of July, the thermometer in our car hit 52°C/125°F. It’s recommended to bring lots of water, some food (there aren’t that many food options throughout the park) and a relatively modern car with good air conditioning. You’ll see lots of signs along the road telling you to turn of your AC when going uphill, because your engine could overheat. We were able to keep the AC running, but we kept a close eye on the engine temperature and made several stops along the way. Some RV rental companies do not allow you to take the vehicle into or through Death Valley certain times of year. Many car manufacturers test drive their new car models in the park, seeing how they hold up in the extreme heat, so every now and then you’ll spot a couple of camouflaged cars parked or driving by.
Death Valley has a many beautiful landscapes and landmarks with a lot of variety, but a lot of them take quite a detour, require driving on unpaved roads or are not accessible by regular cars at all. We picked several easy to reach highlights of the park, so we knew for sure we would be able to make it through within the day. The entry fee for a normal vehicle is 25 USD (23.18 EUR). We didn’t dare drive the convertible rental car on unpaved roads and we also didn’t go on any hikes, because standing outside for a couple of minutes in the dry and blazing heat to take a few of pictures was already a challenge.
Our first stop was about a 2 hour drive away from Las Vegas, on the east side of Death Valley. You’ll be driving out of Nevada and back into California before you get there. By walking up the hill next to the parking lot, you’ll get a great view of large part of the valley at Zabriskie Point. Directly around the view point are beautiful rill slopes and there are several short and long hikes you can take through the area. Zabriskie Point should really be on your list of stops to make, because it’s so easily accessible and will give a great overall impression of Death Valley.
About a 25 minute drive away from Zabriskie Point, driving south through the valley just before getting to Furnace Creek, is Badwater Basin. At 85.5 M/282 FT below sea level, these salt flats are in the lowest point in North America. There is a sign on the surrounding mountains indicating where the sea level would actually be. Unfortunately, the salt flats don’t look as untouched as you might have seen in pictures, because a lot of people go off the wooden walkways and head quite far onto the flats, ruining the natural ground patterns for at least as far as the eye can see from the walkways. Right next to the parking lot, under the walkways, is a shallow pool (depending on recent weather) where you can see some signs of life in an otherwise barren environment.
Artist’s Drive & Palette
This is a sight you should visit on the way from Badwater Basin back north again, because Artist’s Drive is a one-way scenic route in that direction to the side of the main road. Especially the last part of it is very narrow and windy, but because it’s well paved it’s a joy to drive in between the sometimes pretty high hillside walls. While the route itself is great, the main attraction along the way is Artist’s Palette. On the Black Mountains, there are rock formations of different colors, caused by metal oxidation. You can see more of that during the scenic drive and in different areas throughout the Death Valley (like in the above Instagram photo taken at Zabriskie Point), but there’s a little parking area next to Artist’s Palette for a closer-up view. You might also recognize parts of the landscape from Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes & Stovepipe Wells
Stovepipe Wells is a little outpost a bit further into the park. It’s main attraction is the general store, next to the gas station, but there is also a saloon, hotel and airport. It’s a nice stop to get a snack and drink and cool down in the air conditioning a bit. There’s a sign outside that shows the current temperature in Fahrenheit. At this little village is also the start of the unpaved road leading to Mosaic Canyon, which we decided to skip.
Just before reaching Stovepipe Wells, you’ll get to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. There’s also a small parking lot here, where you can get out of the car to walk into what looks like an actual sand desert. Most of Death Valley is rock or more solid dirt, so the dunes of fine sand stand out a lot in the landscape. It’s one of several areas in Death Valley where sand from canyons and washes collects into sand dunes.
Father Crowley Overlook & Star Wars Canyon
About a 45 minute drive to the west of Stovepipe Wells you’ll find Father Crowley Overlook. Most of the roads in Death Valley are pretty straight and flat, but this overlook is in an area full of steeper and windy road. An easy to walk path takes you from the small parking lot at Father Crowley along the canyon’s rim. It’s officially called Rainbow Canyon, but nicknamed Star Wars Canyon because of the fighter jet training the US Air Force and Navy do here. Those jets will actually be below the photographers frequenting the canyon and close enough to be able to see the pilots.
From Father Crowley Overlook, it’s about another hour and a half to Bishop. There are several options for an overnight stay between Death Valley and Yosemite, but we booked a hotel in Bishop because it’s one of the slightly larger towns along highway 395. It’s a nice drive north on that highway with great views, being in between mountain ranges on both sides (Sierra Nevada being on your left). We checked in to Motel 6 Bishop in the middle of town and had some great pizza and pasta at The Upper Crust Pizza.
Day 2: Yosemite & Calaveras Big Trees
Before heading over to Yosemite, we went out for breakfast on another sunny day. On our list of bookmarks was a bakery with a Dutch history, so as a Dutch person I was keen on checking it out. Erick Schat’s Bakery is a pretty noticeable building on Bishop’s main street and the inside is filled with several Dutch decorations (wooden shoes mostly). You can also get some very Dutch products, such as “gevulde koeken” (soft cookies filled with almond paste), “stroopwafels” (caramel-filled thin waffles) and “speculaasjes” (spiced shortcrust biscuit). We got a selection of tasty breakfast items, together with some coffee and juice, and then went on our way to Yosemite.
It’s about an hour drive from Bishop to the east end of Tioga Pass, highway 120 leading straight through Yosemite National Park. This is where we learned that while the pass was open, the main valley of Yosemite was closed due to lingering forest fires. That meant that we could at least still follow our intended route, but not spend the day in the main area of the park. The entrance fee to enter the park with a regular vehicle is 30 USD (26.86 EUR). At the end of this post is a list of all the things we planned to see but missed out on, below is an overview of the sights we were still able to drive past and stop at.
Tioga Pass Vista Point
This vista point is located at the very start of highway 120 leading into Yosemite. You drive up a hill past a gas station with a store and deli and then the best view is actually in the opposite direction of Yosemite. Looking past Lee Vining Airport’s runway you’ll see Mono Lake, with Paoha Island and Negit Island within it. Behind the lake is California’s state border with Nevada.
Lembert Dome & Tuolumne Meadows
About 30 minutes further down highway 120, you’ll get to the Lembert Dome, on the edge of the Tuolumne Meadows. The dome is a 240 M/787 FT high granite rock formation and there’s a nice hike you can take up to the top. The meadows are large, green fields filled with trees, granite rocks and a river flowing through it.
Tenaya Lake is one of the bigger lakes in the park and the road goes right alongside it. No matter where you stop your car, you’ll have a great view of the lake and the granite mountains around it. The water is very clear and is often used for activities such as kayaking, swimming and fishing. Like at many other spots in Yosemite, there are also hikes of varying lengths and picnic areas around the lake.
Crane Flat Gas Station
This gas station is at the end of Tioga Road, where it turns into Big Oak Flat Road. It’s of course not a sight to go visit in itself, but I’m mentioning it because it’s at the intersection with the main road leading into Yosemite’s valley. This is where we were not allowed to continue, the road being blocked and a ranger informing people the valley was closed due to forest fires. While the situation seemed under control, the lingering smoke in the valley would mean you wouldn’t be able to see anything even if you were allowed to enter. We had a quick bite and bathroom break here before going on our way out of Yosemite.
Even though we were not allowed into Yosemite’s valley, we still had a great time driving through the National Park. The roads are great to drive on and the views are often spectacular, even outside of the actual sights to stop at. Driving west out of Yosemite, eventually you’ll hit Priest. It’s a very small town where both the Old Priest Grade and the New Priest Grade start, roads leading down the mountain to Moccasin. The Old Priest Grade is a shorter but pretty steep road going almost straight down. The New Priest Grade was made to smoothen out the descent, so it’s longer and has an insane number of corners. We decided to take the touristy option by going down the new and windy road, which is an interesting drive and gives you a nice view of the cars going down the steep road across the valley.
Calaveras Big Trees State Park
With a visit to Yosemite’s valley cancelled, we had lots of time left this day after exiting the park. My family in San Andreas was not expecting us until after dinner, so we decided to pick something from our list of things to do while staying in San Andreas. That thing was Calaveras Big Trees State Park, which consists of 2 groves of giant sequoias. The North Grove is the most popular one close to the visitor center. There are wooden pathways leading you through the park for an easy tour, but there are many trails for more hiking options.
Along the pathways you’ll of course find many trees towering above you, but there are also some other sights that give a good impression of scale. Some trees have fallen over, exposing their giant roots and even allowing you to walk through them. One tree fell across a main path, so a part was cut out to provide access again. There is also a giant tree stump, which has stairs to access it and is often used as a stage by the rangers giving tours. There used to be standing tree that you could walk through (Pioneer Cabin Tunnel Tree), which I remembered from my many visits during earlier stays with my family, but when we asked a ranger about it, we learned that it fell over during a big storm and flooding in January of 2017.
Day 3 & 4: San Andreas
San Andreas is a small town of less than 3,000 people in Calaveras County, California (“calaveras” means skulls in Spanish). It’s a little over 2 hours northeast of San Francisco and almost an hour and a half southeast of Sacramento. The town was established in 1848, during the California Gold Rush, just like many other settlements in the Gold Country region. The area is very hilly and covered in tall grass that turns yellow when it gets hotter. This, together with its gold mining history, gives the landscape the nickname “the golden hills”.
I’ve been to San Andreas many times to visit relatives. My grandfather’s brother moved to the United States just before World War II and started a family there. My mom’s cousin now lives in San Andreas, with many more relatives living both close by and a bit further away. We were staying with her these couple of days, just to spend time together and catch up with the rest of the family as well. The first day we just relaxed, did some groceries while talking through town and went for dinner in the evening at Eddie’s Grill (now permanently closed) over in Valley Springs. The second day, we had a family barbecue with more relatives that came over for the occasion.
There’s not a whole lot to do in the town of San Andreas itself, but there are quite a few sights and activities in the area if you’re willing to drive a bit. There’s of course Big Trees State Park mentioned above, but also New Hogan Lake (an artificial lake with water activities 15 minutes away), Mercer Caverns (a show cave about half an hour away) and Bear Valley (a ski area in the Sierra Mountains, just under an hour and a half away).
Day 5: Sacramento & Napa
You can get to San Francisco from San Andreas in a little over 2 hours, but we decided to take the touristy route through Sacramento and Napa Valley and make a day out of it.
With big cities like San Francisco (884,000 people) and Los Angeles (4 million people) being in California, it might surprise you that the capital of the state is actually Sacramento (502,000 people). The city center is all laid out around the state’s capitol building.
We parked our car close to Old Sacramento, a neighborhood between highway 5 and the Sacramento River that reminds you of the city’s gold rush history. There are some museums in the area (like the California State Railroad Museum) and some sights along the water (such as the Tower Bridge and Delta King riverboat hotel), but the main attraction for my wife was a candy story named Candy Heaven. It’s a big store with a large variety of candy, including lots of different taffy flavors, where you can have a few tasting samples.
From Old Sacramento, we took K Street towards the city center. It’s a cozy street with tram tracks running through it, which will also lead you past the nicely designed Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament. We met up with a cousin who was unable to come visit us in San Andreas and had lunch at the restaurant she suggested, Cafeteria 15L. It has some nice and varied lunch options and is right on the corner of the California State Capitol Park. So after saying goodbye to my cousin, we walked through that park and around the capitol building (which has a museum I visited before but skipped this time), back to our car to continue our journey towards San Francisco.
In one of the world’s most famous wine regions, California wine country, is Napa Valley. It’s a tourist destination for (of course) wine, food, cozy towns and pretty views. Just driving through it is a nice experience, because you’ll almost constantly have a good view of the many hillside vineyards the region is known for. We stopped in the lovely town of Napa itself to get some Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and then looked up a nice vista point. We then drove back a little bit to get to the Napa Scenic Overlook south of town. It doesn’t have a lot of elevation, but it’s still a nice looking small park with decent views of the valley around it. From there we continued to San Francisco but hit heavy traffic on the roads leading to highway 101. Along the way we made a failed attempt at a bathroom break, leaving because other people stuck in traffic had the same idea and the gas station toilets had super long lines.
Because we already spent a lot of time in Sacramento and Napa, and some unexpected traffic delays, we didn’t have any time left for some of the other sights we had on our list. Instead of coming from the east, you’ll actually approach the city from the north, going across the Golden Gate Bridge. We only briefly left the highway to go to the Golden Gate View Point, next to all the military batteries (fortified emplacements), before crossing the bridge and get a good view of it. Unfortunately, it got way too misty to properly see the bridge, so we quickly went on our way. Due to the weather, driving across the bridge was also not as spectacular as it could have been. You pay toll to cross it (between 5 USD/4.61 EUR and 8 USD/7.37 EUR), but only going into the city.
Our hotel (Chelsea Inn) was in the north part of the city on Lombard Street, which is technically still highway 101 going through the whole city. We specifically looked for a hotel with affordable parking, which is tricky in a city like San Francisco. Chelsea Inn has free parking, but space is limited. After parking the car and checking in, we looked for a quick dinner place and settled on Tacko. The tacos and burritos here were great, as well as the chips and salsa with guacamole. The place doesn’t look Mexican at all, it has more of a Main maritime feel to it. We were close to falling asleep during dinner, so we went to bed right after to be able to go enjoy San Francisco early the next morning.
We bookmarked way more things ahead of time than we were able to do during our drive to San Francisco. Here’s a quick overview of the things we missed out on:
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite deserves its own section here, because it’s quite a big missed opportunity. As mentioned above, the valley was closed due to fire, so we missed out on all the sights around the looping road through it. Here’s a selection of the things we had bookmarked but didn’t get to see:
- Mountains: Yosemite National Park is located in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and is famous for its assortment of impressive granite cliffs. Some of its amazing cliffs and peaks are Cathedral Peak, Glacier Point, Half Dome and El Capitan.
- Waterfalls: During spring time, the melting snow creates many waterfalls throughout the park, such as Bridalveil Falls, Vernal Falls, Nevada Fall and Yosemite Falls. You can just stick to looking at the waterfalls from a distance or hike up to most of them.
- View points: There are some excellent spots along the main roads throughout the valley where you can look at all the mountains, waterfalls, rivers and meadows in all their glory. The view points we bookmarked were Valley View Yosemite and Yosemite Tunnel.
- Natural Bridge Trail: Just north of Badwater Basin, you can take the unpaved Natural Bridge Road to the start of this trail. It’s named after the natural rock formation towards the end of this relatively short hike. We didn’t do any hiking because of the heat, but it does seem like this trail gets a lot of shade.
- Devil’s Golf Course: Between Furnace Creek and Badwater Basin is this large surface of salt formations. From the parking lot, at the end of an unpaved road, you’ll have a great view of the valley and you can hear the sound of salt crystals popping in the heat. The name comes from the fact that the surface is so rough, that only the devil could play golf on it.
- Golden Canyon Trailhead: The Golden Canyon trail is part of a collection of hiking trails (together with the Badlands Loop and Gower Gulch) between Zabriskie Point and Badwater Road. It gets its name from the corridors of golden-colored walls. We didn’t do any hiking because of the heat and it seemed like this trail had very little shade.
- Mosaic Canyon: This trail gets its name from the naturally formed mosaic-like rock walls. You’ll have to do some light climbing, but because of how narrow and high the canyon is in different places, it’s actually a doable walk even when it’s hot. The trail is 3.2 KM/2 MI one-way, you need to head back the same way you came. It takes a bit of a drive on an unpaved road to get to the start of the trail, which we decided not to risk with our convertible.
- Inyo National Forest: This national forest is right next to Bishop and contains many different mountains, lakes and meadows. It’s great for hiking and mountain biking in the summer and in the winter it’s home to one of the largest skiing resorts in the United States.
- Mammoth Lakes: A small and cozy town off of highway 395 between Bishop and Yosemite’s east entrance. It’s at the bottom of the Mammoth Mountain ski area and has some nice food options, such as the Old New York Deli & Bakery bagel shop and a good pizza place that now seems to have closed. I stayed the night in Mammoth Lakes on a previous road trip, instead of in Bishop.
- Point Reyes National Seashore: A large area of protected coastline northwest of San Francisco. It has a lot of beaches, grassland and pine forest. At the right time of year, you can see migrating gray whales from Point Reyes Lighthouse.
- Muir Woods National Monument: Also northwest of San Francisco, but a bit closer to the city, is this vast redwood forest. Wooden pathways wind between the trees and you can go off of them for longer hikes. A large part of the 2011 movie Rise of the Planet of the Apes with James Franco was shot in this area.
- Sausalito: A hillside town on the water on the north side of the Golden Gate bridge. It’s nice to drive on the winding roads and along the waterside. You’ll have a great view of the bay, Alcatraz in the middle and San Francisco on the other side of it.
- The Date Grove Diner: We bookmarked this as one of the few food options along the route through Death Valley. It was part of the Oasis of Death Valley resort and served a wide variety of breakfasts, pizzas, sandwiches and salads. It apparently did not match the standards you would expect from the resort, because this canteen-style restaurant got a lot of bad reviews and is now closed and replaced with a new facility.
- Timbisha Tacos: Indian Village is a very small town of around 50 people from the Timbisha Shoshone tribe, next to Furnace Creek in Death Valley. Timbisha Tacos serves Indian tacos, with fry bread as its base, which you can also get with sweet toppings. According to many reviews, it’s the best and most affordable food option in Death Valley.