My family loves road tripping, and more often than not, we hit the road even after flying to a location, treating our flight destination as a base. During our latest road trip, we noticed that our drive to Yosemite and eventually Sequoia and Kings Canyon from Los Angeles made a perfect circle while hitting some of the most beautiful landscapes in California. Though our entire California trip was longer, this was its most spectacular segment.
You’ll experience contrasts while driving from the busiest city to the most desolate landscape in the country, from the lowest point on the continent in Death Valley to the highest peak in the contiguous United States, from sand dunes empty of vegetation to dark forests featuring some of the largest trees in the world. The following are the best stops on this road trip through the best of California.
1. Los Angeles
The variety of scenery and landscape of the city and its proximity to the ocean and high desert environment, make Los Angeles a must-visit city in California. And its location offers the best base for one of the most scenic road trips to embark upon in the state.
But before setting up off the trip, visit a few places in the city. Start with the pier at the famous Santa Monica beach, then dip your toes in the ocean and walk in the sand along its sides. Or walk the paved path along the shore and enjoy the views. For even better views and a pleasant walk, head over to the cliffs of the Pacific Palisades and walk along the trail bordering the clifftops.
For a taste of the Hollywood scene, head over to the Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard, where you’ll see the stars featuring celebrities embedded in the sidewalk.
If it’s museums you prefer, you’ll find one of the best at the Getty Center, comprising impressive galleries through multiple buildings. You can also read up on our picks for the best art museums in Los Angeles and what to see there.
Pro Tip: Traffic in Los Angeles is some of the worst in the world, and parking spots are few and expensive, so instead of driving, park your car and use Uber or Lyft to get around.
2. Death Valley
Driving away from Los Angeles, you’ll transition from the busiest city on the coast to one of the most desolate areas in the U.S. The hottest and driest desert on the continent, Death Valley National Park also features the area with the lowest elevation at 282 feet below sea level.
Aside from the oasis where the hotels are, it is the most desolate area I’ve ever visited — and I live in the desert. But this lack of vegetation and water resulted in a showcase of some of the most beautiful geological features. Colorful rock formations, salt flats, and golden sand dunes enchant the senses here.
During a summer visit, you can’t do much more than drive through, but the scenery is still worth it. Stop at the sand dunes, drive the 9-mile-long Artist Drive, and before leaving, stop at Zabriskie Point for some of the best views in the park.
Pro Tip: The best time to visit Death Valley is winter. Spring is still bearable and adds the spectacle of wildflowers in some areas. But, with temperatures constantly in the triple digits, summer is the time to avoid this national park, except to drive through it in an air-conditioned car.
3. Lone Pine And Mount Whitney
A gateway to both Death Valley and Mount Whitney, the town of Lone Pine lies between the lowest and the highest elevation in the contiguous U.S.
Known as a background for Western movies, over 400 of which were filmed here, the town displays memorabilia from them at the Museum of Western Film History.
But Lone Pine is more popular for its proximity to Mount Whitney and its famous Summit Trail. The spectacular Whitney Portal Road starts in the center of town and leads up to it. At only 13 miles long, the road climbs to 8,374 feet via steep dramatic switchbacks.
Whitney Portal, a wooded canyon surrounded by towering granite cliffs, marks the end of the road. This is where the Summit Trail starts, leading to the top of the mountain on a strenuous 10.5-mile trek. However, you need a permit, proper gear, and mountaineering experience to hike to the top of the 14,494-foot mountain.
Instead, enjoy the Portal and its surroundings. Take a shorter hike along Lone Pine Creek, and have a picnic in the shadow of tall pines.
Pro Tips: Remember, you are at high elevation; if you are prone to elevation sickness, you might feel it, with headache and lightheadedness being the most common symptoms. Make sure you drink plenty of water and take it slow if you hike. Also, I visited Whitney Portal at the beginning of June 2021. As of June 29, 2021, the area is closed through November 2021 because of the Inyo Creek Fire. As you plan your visit, check the status of the National Recreation Trail here.
4. Mammoth Lakes
The town of Mammoth Lakes lies at the foothills of Mammoth Mountain at an elevation of 7,880 feet. A gateway to the scenic mountain and to Devils Postpile National Monument, the town and its immediate surroundings offer outdoor activities year-round in an area of unbelievable natural beauty.
During our road trip in early June, Devils Postpile National Monument was still closed, so we couldn’t drive up to it. If you’d like to visit it, check the status before you go. But even without it, Mammoth Lakes itself was one highlight of the trip.
Driving toward Devils Postpile, you’ll reach the ski resort of Mammoth Lakes. You can spend some time here, enjoying outdoor activities, shopping, or taking the ski lift on the scenic ride to the summit of Mammoth Mountain.
Take the scenic drive surrounding the town, then head over to the Mammoth Lakes Basin, where you’ll find several crystal-clear mountain lakes surrounded by deep pine forests. Here, you’ll enjoy hiking opportunities on trails ranging from easy to strenuous.
Don’t leave town before walking through the picturesque Mammoth Village in the center of town for great dining and shopping opportunities.
5. Lee Vining And Mono Lake
A truly tiny town, Lee Vining is a gateway to the east entrance of Yosemite National Park, when it is open. Sitting at the foot of Tioga Pass, near Mono Lake, the town offers a perfect alternative to overnight stays in the park.
You can stay in a hotel here if you don’t have reservations in the park or are looking for cheaper alternatives. Lakeview Lodge was our choice. For dinner, it might surprise you to hear locals send you to Whoa Nellie Deli, especially when you realize it’s in a gas station. But don’t let it deter you; we had one of the best meals of our whole trip there.
Other than using the tiny town as a gateway to Yosemite, you can spend time here exploring Mono Lake, an ancient saline lake. You’ll have opportunities to take free, naturalist-led walking tours through different habitats and will learn about California’s most unusual lake. You’ll walk among strange tufa (limestone) towers and bubbling springs, brine shrimp habitats, wetlands, willows, sagebrush, and cottonwood trees. This is also an excellent area for birdwatching and wildlife viewing.
6. Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park was the primary destination of our road trip, and since we needed reservations to enter, we timed everything else around it. If you are visiting Yosemite, you’ll have to do the same, since visitors now need reservations to enter the park. Besides that, to enjoy this road trip, you need to ensure Tioga Pass is open.
In the park, explore the higher elevations along Tioga Road. Take a hike in Tuolumne Meadows for gorgeous views of the waterways, and often wildlife. Spend time on the shores of Tenaya Lake, where you can walk the rim trail, swim (though the water is always cold), fish, or kayak. Have a picnic near the rushing Yosemite Creek, and stop for gorgeous scenic views at Olmsted Point.
Down in Yosemite Valley, and throughout the park, enjoy a few hikes with gorgeous views of the famous waterfalls, surrounded by green meadows and towering granite rocks. As the best-known area of the park, Yosemite Valley is extremely popular and may get congested. However, if you get there early or late in the day, you should be fine. You’ll also find the Visitor Center and the park’s store here.
For the most spectacular (and most famous) views of Yosemite Valley, drive up to Glacier Point, where you can take several short hikes to different viewpoints.
7. Sequoia And Kings Canyon National Parks
As spectacular as Yosemite is, the highlight of this trip for me was Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. The dramatic landscape of these parks includes towering mountains, deep canyons, and rugged foothills, but the most amazing thing about them is that they’re home to the world’s largest trees.
Sequoia National Park is home to the General Sherman Tree, the world’s largest tree by volume, standing at 275 feet tall, with over 36 feet of circumference at the base. A paved but steep trail leads to it, one you cannot miss. The famous giant is part of the larger sequoia grove, the Giant Forest, offering an extensive network of hiking trails, from 1- and 2 hour-long hikes to half-day and longer ones.
In Kings Canyon’s Grant Grove, you’ll find the stunning General Grant Tree. Home to many of the largest sequoias in the park, the hike through Grant Grove was probably my favorite in the park. No wonder, since according to the National Park Service site, “a higher percentage of this grove’s mature sequoias reach sizes of ten, fifteen, and twenty feet in diameter than any other grove.” The trail also leads through a fallen sequoia, offering an inside view of its hollow log.
Pro Tip: Return To Los Angeles Through Bakersfield
The easiest way to return to Los Angeles from Kings Canyon is to pass through the California desert and the town of Bakersfield. The desolate area stands in stark contrast with what you just experienced, offering a slow transition through farmlands to the world of cities.