The drive from Las Vegas to San Francisco takes you through awe-inspiring landscapes and nature preserves. There are several national parks between the two urban areas and it’s incredible how much the scenery changes along the journey.
Where to Go
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area
Begin your road trip at Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. You don’t have to travel far outside of Las Vegas to find desert canyons, painted cliffs, and interesting wildlife. The 13-mile scenic drive features piercing bands of red rock and provides access to exciting hiking paths, cycling routes, and camping spots. As you venture deeper into the Mojave Desert, you’ll notice the Native American petroglyphs decorating the canyon walls. Depending on the time of year, you might find a pristine waterfall amid the desert.
Death Valley National Park
The next stop on your road trip is Death Valley National Park. The lowest elevation point in North America produces a land of extremes that bewilders explorers who cross its boundaries. Summers produce unbearable heat, and winter nights create numbingly cold temperatures on the valley floor. Hiking in Death Valley is not for inexperienced trekkers, but hardy travelers come across incredibly diverse natural features. Zabriskie Point is a photographer’s dream with its vantage of the sunset dipping below the Amargosa Range. Badwater Basin descends nearly 300 ft below sea level and reveals striking salt flats on the valley floor. Admire the craggy walls of Titus Canyon and keep your eyes peeled for petroglyphs and wildlife within the gorge. Telescope Peak is the highest point in the park, and the snow-lined summit gives you uninterrupted views overlooking the horizon. Death Valley’s land of contrasts will also take you to barren lake beds, tumbling waterfalls, and volcanic craters.
Sequoia National Park
Continue on to Sequoia National Park. As you leave the depths of the desert, get ready to be astonished by nature’s skyscrapers. Sequoia National Park’s star attractions are the enormous sequoia trees that tower above the forest. When you stare in awe at the General Sherman Tree, you realize the majesty of the natural world. The sequoia is the largest known living tree anywhere on the planet, and benches around the trunk let you stare high into the treetops. Not all the sequoias are standing, and you can drive right through a fallen tree at the Tunnel Log. Mountaineers can embark on a thrilling climb through the Sierra Nevada Mountains to Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States. If underground adventures are your preference, Crystal Cave displays beautiful calcite formations.
Kings Canyon National Park
Next, your road trip will bring you to Kings Canyon National Park, which sits beside Sequoia National Park and is famous for its rugged granite cliffs. Giant sequoias can be found throughout the park, with the highest concentration located at General Grant Grove. The grove’s namesake tree is the world’s third tallest and over 1,500 years old. Hikers can explore the wilderness by trekking through the Zumwalt Meadows and gazing at the granite canyon walls. The John Muir Trail courses through the Sierra Nevada Mountains and challenges trekkers with intense elevation gain. Other hiking trails let you chase waterfalls such as the Roaring River Falls, and Mist Falls on your way to Paradise Valley.
Yosemite National Park
Continue your journey to Yosemite National Park. One of America’s most cherished national parks, Yosemite is renowned for its plunging waterfalls, granite cliffs, and glacial valleys. The glorious vista of Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View has graced postcards for generations. Ancient sequoia trees dot the landscape, and sharp canyon walls attract daredevils from around the world. Half Dome is the park’s legendary granite rock formation that challenges the hardiest of rock climbers. Adventurers also gravitate to El Capitan for its sheer cliff face that soars upwards of 3,000 ft. Yosemite Falls drops more than 2,400 ft from the cliffside and has inspired civilizations since the Ahwahneechee established their village beneath the falls. There are three sections of Yosemite Falls, and fierce hiking trails give you thrilling vantages of Upper Yosemite Fall, the Middle Cascades, and Lower Yosemite Fall.
Tahoe National Forest
From Yosemite, make your way over to Tahoe National Forest. Before making the final push towards San Francisco, you’ll admire the crystal-clear waters of North America’s largest alpine lake. The lake straddles the border of California and Nevada and greets visitors with stunning mountain vistas. Hiking, boating, parasailing, and fishing are among the popular summer activities, and it’s a ski resort haven by winter. The surrounding wilderness engulfs the shoreline and stretches along the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Within the forest, you’ll find the legendary Donner Pass that opened the westward path for 19th-century pioneers.
Muir Woods National Monument
Finally, you’ll come to Muir Woods National Monument, just north of San Francisco. Muir Woods is home to coastal redwood forests that tower above the Pacific Ocean. Walking amongst nature’s giants gives you a sense of solitude that’s hard to match elsewhere. The redwoods nestled inside the forest are thousands of years old and inspired conservationists upon first discovery. Peaceful trails coursing through Cathedral and Bohemian Grove provide enchanting views of coastal redwoods, Douglas-fir, and other large trees of the old-growth forest. Many of the hiking paths are paved or on boardwalks to make them accessible for all skill levels.
When to Go
Selecting the best time for this road trip can get a little tricky due to the incredible diversity of environments you encounter. Spring is a fantastic time to visit Death Valley due to more suitable temperatures and desert wildflowers, but the weather can be unpredictable in Sequoia. Crowds can be unbearable at Yosemite during the summer, and spring or fall provide better alternatives. Some parts of Kings Canyon remain closed well into April, and the weather during fall is sublime. While you can surely complete this road trip anytime between mid-April to October, spring and fall will likely give you the best combination of lighter crowds and comfortable temperatures.