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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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
Leave Las Vegas really really early. Enter Death Valley NP via Pahrump, Bell Vista Road, State Line Rd , & Death Valley Junction. Shortest Route
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.
Spend the night in the small, charming town of Lone Pine. After hectic places like Los Angeles, Las 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.
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.
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:
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" like lobster taquitos and buffalo meat loaf. 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.
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:
Thank you to a DVNP Destination Expert and other TA members who contributed material for this article.
Heavenly white light at Devil's Postpile
Eerie tufas at Mono Lake