Driving from Las Vegas to Yosemite via the scenic summer or fall route 


This drive allows visitors to go from Las Vegas to Yosemite (and on to San Francisco) via a less traveled but extremely scenic route through the Eastern High Sierra. It goes through two National Parks, a National Monument, two National Historic Sites, excellent trout fishing, a mountain biking / ski resort, old western movie locations, small towns, ghost towns, alpine lakes, interesting rock formations and signs of volcanic activity. It is an excellent route to consider as a scenic alternative to the shorter route via Hwy 95 through Hwys 6 and 120; or driving around the southern end of the mountains and up Hwy 99.

Plan on taking two days to enjoy this drive of about 425 miles / 680 km (8-9 hours actual driving without stops). If you have 3-4 days, you can get out of your car and really experience the adventure: Some choose to spend an additional night in Tuolumne Meadows (very very limited lodging), June Lake or in Lee Vining so that they can explore the Yosemite high country. Allow another 4-5 hours drive if continuing on to San Francisco (see separate article on SF-Yosemite drive)

This drive is full of extremes so you do need to be careful and be prepared: In the summer, expect to roast in 120°F (49°C) temperatures in Death Valley and be chilled by much cooler 45°F (9°C) temperatures if stopping at Tioga Pass in the evening. The typical 60-70° swing in temperature on this drive is matched by the swing of 10,227 feet in elevation. The extreme heat in summer and large amount of mountain driving may not be everyone's cup of tea. 

395

Fig 1: The drive starts at about 2,000 feet elevation in Las Vegas, rises up above 5,000 feet then down to 282 feet below sea level in Death Valley; back up above 5,000 feet getting out of DV, leveling off somewhat then climbing back up to 9,945 feet at Tioga Pass before winding down to Yosemite Valley at 4,000 feet above sea level. 

Things to consider before your drive 

Road Conditions: Access is only available during summer and early fall, when Tioga Pass is open. On average, Tioga Pass is open from June through October. However, it has been closed as late as July 8th and as early as September 4th. Even if Tioga Pass is not permanently closed for the season, snow storms in October and November may sometimes close the pass temporarily for a few hours to a few days. On the other hand, Tioga Pass may also be open early in mid-May or in early November.

Be sure to check Death Valley and Yosemite road conditions before you leave and have a backup plan when traveling during late fall in case snow is forecast and Tioga Pass is closed.

Vehicle: Bring a paper map and do not just depend on your vehicle GPS or smartphone app as they can lead you astray. Drive a reliable vehicle to avoid being stuck in the hot desert or overheated on the way up a narrow mountain pass. If you feel your car straining to get up the mountain, turn the air conditioner off to avoid overheating the engine. Rental cars are generally new and can be an excellent choice for this drive. 

If you plan on making this drive late in the season, 4WD or AWD may be useful if it snows and chain requirements are in effect in Yosemite (Tioga Road will close if there is snow). If you plan on spending an additional day in Death Valley NP and traveling on some of the un-maintained dirt roads there (see map of backcountry roads), make sure you have the appropriate 4-wheel drive or a high-clearance vehicle for your route as some options are not suitable for regular cars. 

Note: It appears that most rental car companies prohibit the use of chains or driving on un-paved backcountry roads. If you plan on driving off-road, you may need to rent a specialty vehicle from adventure outfitters like Farabee's.  

Weather and Safety Preparation: Death Valley NP is Hot, Hot, Hot between June & October. Heat kills, so you need to be prepared and safe with lots of water and snacks. Yosemite is not as hot as DV but has bears and dangerous currents so you need to remove food from vehicles overnight and stay out of cold rivers. However, auto accidents are still the number one cause of death in both parks so it is just as important to drive safely and observe the speed limit.  

Read the following safety preparation information before starting the trip: 

Also check weather reports for DV and Yosemite in case there are any extreme weather conditions or warnings to heed. 

Reservations: Reservations are absolutely needed if you plan on staying within Yosemite or Death Valley NP. Check out the Yosemite NP forum page Top Questions (upper right) for lodging ideas. 

 

Two Day Sample Intinerary 


Day 1:
 

Leave Las Vegas really really early.  Enter Death Valley NP via Pahrump, Bell Vista Road, State Line Rd , & Death Valley Junction.  Shortest Route   

Basic Map of Death Valley NP 

After you enter DVNP, make Dante’s View your first stop (on a side road about 13 miles / 21 km from the main road) to get a sweeping view of the entire Valley and the surrounding ranges. Return to 190 and continue west to 20 Mule Team Canyon (one way loop from the west) and Zabriskie Point, and then to the junction of Badwater Road near the Furnace Creek area. Pay your park entrance fee at the Visitor Center and peruse the dining options. If you eat first, backtrack a mile to Badwater Road.  This road leads to Devil’s Golf Course, Badwater, Artist’s Drive, and Golden Canyon. These sights are all in the first 18 miles / 25 km of the road; see them in that order and return to Hwy 190.

From the Furnace Creek area it is about 22 miles / 35 km to the Devil’s Cornfield and Sand Dunes. You can visit Borax Harmony Works and Mustard Canyon and Salt Creek (boardwalk) before. After seeing these, you can stop at Stovepipe Wells Village, another park resort, if you want to eat or buy anything. From Stovepipe Wells you can drive up to the parking lot for Mosaic Canyon, a 2.5 mile unpaved road but any car can drive it. Mosaic Canyon is one of the DV highlights, you can take as long as you wish for it. Panamint Springs is a smaller resort about a half hour past Stovepipe Wells that also has food and a few supplies. The price of gasoline is always higher at Panamint Springs than anywhere else in the area because of their energy and transportation costs (they have no public utility connections and have to supply all their own power from generators). Stovepipe Wells typically has the cheapest gas in the park. Plan to get back on the highway before sunset as taking a wrong turn at night on a trail in the dark desert (with no lights) is no fun. Sunset Calendar

Exit via Panamint Springs. Stop for a view at Father Crowley Point. Use Hwy 136 to head over to Hwy 395. You'll have fantastic views on Alabama Hills and the Sierra with Mount Whitney from Hwy 136. 

Night 1:

Spend the night in the small, charming town of Lone Pine. After hectic places like Los AngelesLas Vegas, or San Francisco, Lone Pine is literally a breath of fresh air. All essential visitor services are available, including several lodgings. The town is at the foot of Mt. Whitney, and you can drive into the foothills and see areas where many movies have been made. If you like American adventure and Western pictures, you might recognize some of the landscapes and enjoy the movie museum in town. 

Lone Pine Attractions  

Users' Guide to Lone Pine 

As you approach Lone Pine, stop at the visitor center for a nice view of Mt Whitney. A nice place to stay might be the Dow Villa, which has both a historic hotel and a modern motel. The hotel is from the 1930s and the décor matches that era; this is where the Hollywood folks would stay while filming around Mt/ Whitney and Death Valley. The hotel lobby has a movie memorabilia exhibit. The motel on the same property is like any modern American motel, and there is a pool and Jacuzzi. The Dow Villa is in the center of town near restaurants and shops. Other options include the Best Western Frontier Motel, Comfort Inn, Timberline Motel, Portal Motel, Mt. Whitney Motel, National 9 Trails Motel, and the Lone Pine Budget Inn. There's even a hostel for those who don't mind sharing a room.

Mileage: Las Vegas to Lone Pine, including detours to Dante’s View and Badwater: 275 miles / 440 km.

Day 2:

Hwy 395 from Lone Pine to Lee Vining is spectacular. This region is mountains and desert in close proximity and will probably be quite hot in the summer. September & October temperatures are more reasonable. Along the way, every town north of Lone Pine has services and are also good places to spend the night; Bishop and Mammoth Lakes are the biggest, but you will never be more than 50 miles / 80 km from food, fuel, lodging, or other necessities.

Options that may appeal to travelers on the drive from Lone Pine to Lee Vining include:

  • Alabama Hills ~ range of hills near Lone Pine often used in classic movie Westerns and newer ones like Django. Check out interesting rock formations like the Mobius Arch and Face Rock.
  • Mt Whitney Portal ~ to view (especially at sunset), not to climb  webcam view 
  • Manzanar National Historic Site  ~ Japanese Americans and resident Japanese aliens were interned here during World War II. Right off Hwy 395 so even if you're not a World War II buff, it is a worthwhile short 20 minute stop to learn a little about the history. 
  • Big Pine ~ Small town with services and lodging. Visit the Roosevelt Tree (you would think it is a big Pine tree, but it is a Giant Sequoia instead)
  • Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest  ~ a new visitor center offers opportunities to learn about the "oldest trees in the world" (allow 2+ hours).
  • Bishop ~ Has small town feel even though technically the largest city in the area; try Erick Schats bakery and visit Laws Railroad Museum. Many motels here have fish cleaning stations for those who need it.
  • Hot Creek Trout Hatchery ~ self guided hatchery and entry point for millions of trout eggs. Watch out for the little brown sign near the airport. Kids (and adults) have fun feeding the fish (all sizes). Bring quarters for food, Hours 9-3. Continue 3 miles down a dirt road to the Hot Creek Geological Site for hot springs and fumeroles (note: Do NOT enter the water!!)
  • Mammoth Lakes ~ ski resort town with beautiful lakes stocked with trout. There won't be snow in summer or fall but the gondola ride up the mountain is available along with mountain bike rentals. Pick up some food and feed the ducks at Mammoth Creek Park; or have a picnic at Earthquake Fault; A 1/2 mile trail lets you explore an earthquake fissure 10 feet wide and 60 feet deep. Because many ski hotels and condos are discounted in the off-season, some choose to spend the night in Mammoth instead of Lone Pine. 
  • Devil's Postpile National  Monument  ~ columnar basalt formations 60 feet high. Allow at least 2-4 hours for this stop as you may need to take a shuttle through winding roads to access the Monument. Allow more time if you want to hike to Rainbow Falls or explore Reds Meadow -- a re-supply stop on the John Muir trail.  
  • Obsidian Dome ~ mile long 300 feet high lava dome consisting of shiny black volcanic glass.
  • June Lake Loop  ~ beautiful lakes for swimming or trout fishing, or just a short scenic detour.
  • Mono Lake Tufa SNR  ~ a unique natural feature, with tufa spires in the water and along the shore. These were created by minerals in the lakebed, and every place you see tufa was once submerged. Mono Lake has two visitor centers, where you can learn about the lake itself, the volcanic origins of the Eastern Sierra, how humans have impacted the environment for better and worse, why the lake is so much smaller and shallower than it once was, and the kinds of wildlife to be found in the area. It requires a detour north of Lee Vining but is highly recommended.  Allow 1 hour for the visitor center in Lee Vining and at least another hour if you plan on driving to the lake itself and exploring the tufas up close. And another hour if also exploring Panum Crater on the way.
  • Bodie State Historic Park  ~ a well preserved ghost town and a National Historic Site. Allow 3 hours from Lee Vining for this ghost town detour - the last 3 miles is a bumpy dirt road that may be muddy in the late spring.

For a full list of summer activities, see Mono County's Visitor Website or see various personal travel blogs like this from Bill and Nancy.

 

Heading to Yosemite on Hwy 120:

Figure at minimum 4 hours travel from Lone Pine to Yosemite Valley, plus whatever time you want to have for stops along the way. In order to make it to Yosemite Valley by nightfall and allow time to enjoy the Tuolumne Meadows / Tioga Road high country of Yosemite, try to time your travel so you approach Tioga Pass before 2:00-3:00 pm.  

At the corner of Hwy 395 and 120, check out the Whoa Nellie Deli inside the Tioga Gas Mart which serves "gourmet food". Many people get a big kick out of ordering lunch at a gas station and eating on picnic tables overlooking Mono Lake. The original chef has moved on but the food is still good. Check your fuel tank and look for cheaper gas in Lee Vining.

Hwy 120 / Tioga Road runs due west, and it’s a steep, curvy mountain road with no divider. Ascend 2,000’ past some sweeping views and very scenic high country lakes. For those driving in the opposite direction down Tioga Pass, you may want to put your vehicle in low gear to avoid burning out your brakes.   

Enter Yosemite National Park at the Tioga Pass Entrance. At this point, you will be faced with a dilemma: Do you stop now to enjoy this beauty? How do you want to spend your time? You could hike to a unique high mountain lake, climb/hike to the top of a dome or two, stroll through a meadow, wander along the Tuolumne River, stop at the Visitor Center, look for marmots or ground squirrels, check out Soda Springs -- or just spend the night in Tuolumne Meadows and do it all. 

NPS Hikes   YosemiteHikes options

When driving on Tioga Road, look for climbers on your left as you approach Tenaya Lake, and then stop at the lake for a few minutes to dip your toes. Continue on to Olmsted Point and clamber up the rocks for a nice view of the back side of Half Dome. Just be careful not to overdo the hiking: everything is harder at 9,000 feet if you haven't spent a day or two getting used to the high elevation. 

For safety and for maximum enjoyment of the scenery it’s best to head down towards Yosemite Valley before dusk so as not to have the glare of the setting sun right in your eyes. Check sunset time here.  

Back in the car and drive down to Crane Flat. You'll pass the parking lot for Tuolumne Grove on your right, but there might not be time to stop now as it's a one mile hike down to see the Giant Sequoias. Check your gas tank. If it is low, top off at the Crane Flat gas station before making the left turn onto Big Oak Flat Road towards Yosemite Valley. Watch out for 'bear jams' or 'Bambi jams' as the meadow by the road is frequented by animals and people stop (jam up) to watch them. Continue on to Yosemite Valley to your reserved lodging.

Mileage: Lone Pine to Yosemite Valley without any detours: 200 miles / 320 km (without any stops: 4.5 hrs)  With Alabama Hills, Manzanar, Ancient Bristlecone, Devil's Postpile, & the June Lake Loop detours: 300 miles (without any stops: 7.5 hrs)  Adding in some scenic stops along the way, meals, restrooms, photo opportunities, this can be an all day drive. Many spend an extra night to enjoy an entire day just on the short section from Tioga Pass to Yosemite Valley. 


Summary of the drive in reverse from Yosemite to Las Vegas:  

  • Yosemite: Olmsted Point, Tenaya Lake, Tuolumne Meadows
  • More of Hwy 120: Ellery Lake, Tioga Pass
  • Hwy 395: fabulous Eastern Sierra! Bodie State Historic Park (north of the 120/395 intersection), Mono Lake, June Lake Loop, Devil's Postpile National  Monument, Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, Manzanar National Historic Site, Mt Whitney, Alabama Hills, Lone Pine
  • Death Valley NP: Panamint Springs, Father Crowley Point, Mosaic Canyon, Stovepipe Wells, Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Devil's Cornfield, Harmony Borax Works, Furnace Creek, {detour ... Badwater, Devil's Golf Course, Artists Drive, Golden Canyon}, Zabriskie Pt, 20 Mule Team Canyon, {detour ... Dante's View}
  • and on through Pahrump to Las Vegas

Thank you to a DVNP Destination Expert and other TA members who contributed material for this article. 

Death Valley

Solitude under sea level in Death Valley 

 

Rock formations in Alabama Hills 

Devil's Postpile

Heavenly white light at Devil's Postpile 

 

Eerie tufas at Mono Lake

 

Gourmet food at the corner of Hwys 395 and 120  

 

Shadows against granite cliff cast by Upper Yosemite Fall