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Las Vegas to San Francisco Road Trip

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.

Watching Wildlife in Death Valley National Park

Death Valley is a famous American National park located at the California-Nevada border, just east of the Sierra Nevada mountains. The park includes Death Valley, the northern section of the Panamint Valley, part of the Eureka Valley, and most of the Saline Valley. Home to the arid Great Basin and Mojave deserts, the park is a great place to check out salt flats, sand dunes, badlands, valleys, canyons, and mountains. Basically, this park has it all.

Originally inhabited by Native Americans, a group of Europeans became trapped in the valley in 1849 while looking for an easy way to get to California for the gold rush. Since one of their groups died there due to lack of water and hot sun, they named the area “Death Valley.” To their dismay, the only profitable ore to be mined in the region was borax. The valley was abandoned for some time until the 1920s when tourism expanded and included the surrounding regions. The Death Valley National Monument was declared in 1933. However, the area was not declared a national park until 1994.

Death Valley is characterized by ancient rocks that have been metamorphosed for at least 1.7 billion years. The warm and shallow seas deposited in the region, causing the different coloration. The area is also known as “one of the driest places on earth,” where fresh water can be nearly impossible to find. Animals that live in the region need to be able to survive on no water for days at a time.

Despite the heat, the inhospitable appearance, and the previous death in Death Valley, the park is still home to quite a bit of life. Famous for the desert tarantula, the park is home to the western desert tarantula, the Arizona blond tarantula, and the Mexican blond tarantula.

Birding is also certainly something to consider in the park, and you can seek out bird viewing spots along their migratory routes.

Death Valley National Park’s Top Animals

  • Tarantulas
  • Devil’s Hope Pupfish
    • This tiny incredible fish lives in a 90-degree hot spring within a limestone cave, located just outside of the valley. The fish is a miracle of creation, able to live in something that hot without the ability to migrate up or down stream. The fish congregate in the small spring, rising up to a small shelf of rock just beneath the water’s surface to feed and breed.
  • Coyotes
  • Bobcats
  • Desert bighorn sheep
  • Bats
  • Kangaroo rats
  • Cottontails
  • Foxes
  • Badgers
  • Mountain lions
  • Ringtails
  • Burros
    • Feral burros were not originally found in the park a few hundred years ago, though they can be spotted there today. It is estimated about 400 or 500 burros live in the park’s 3.4 million acres of desert and mountain.
  • Desert tortoise
    • Known as the champion of avoiding heat, the desert tortoise spends most of the year in its burrow.
  • Roadrunners

Viewing Locations

Cottonwood Creek: Located in Grapevine Canyon, Cottonwood Creek is one of the best spots to go birding in Death Valley National Park.
Amargosa River: One of the few water sources in the park, you can catch just about any kind of animal species around this river. The best spot is along the park’s border east of Furnace Creek.
Saratoga Spring: Another great spot in the park to go birding.
Scotty’s Castle: Another great birding destination.

When Should You Go?

The best time to catch Death Valley animals out in the open is during their migratory routes in the spring and fall. Since the park is so hot in the summer, it’s recommended to proceed with caution and pack tons of water. You’re not likely to catch any animals out in the open during the hot summer months.

Death Valley National Park is also considered a dark sky park by the International Dark-Sky Association. You can enjoy unparalleled stargazing any time of the year.

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Categorized as Wildlife Tagged

Hidden Gems in Death Valley National Park

Situated in eastern California and part of Nevada, Death Valley National Park is one of the largest national parks in America. A hub for hiking, mountain biking, and exploring, Death Valley boasts some of the hottest temperatures in the world and the lowest point in North America. Rife with sand dunes, salt flats, canyons, and expansive stretches of the Mojave Desert, Death Valley National Park has an abundance of hidden gems to explore.

hiking

Twenty Mule Team Canyon

This breathtaking, less-traveled canyon offers spectacular views for miles. Drive through the ravine brimming with colorful badlands, and you’ll probably be the only ones there to enjoy it. Be wary of hiking in this area as it can get incredibly hot. If you do choose to hike, make sure to go at a cooler time of day.

Mosaic Canyon

Experience the geological wonder that is Death Valley National Park when you visit Mosaic Canyon. A canyon bordered by smooth marbleized rocks and stunning mosaic patterns, this off the beaten path destination will be a highlight of your trip.

Striped Butte

Head to Striped Butte located in the Butte Valley, one of Death Valley National Park’s most beautiful peaks. Due to its remote location, it’s not often visited by guests of the park making it a perfect hidden gem. Park at the base of Striped Butte and enjoy a hike to its glorious peak.

Eureka Dunes

Situated in the remote Eureka Valley in the northwestern region of the park lie the Eureka Dunes. Rising suddenly from the desert floor, these pale dunes are the tallest in California and are absolutely breathtaking.

Artists Palette

Artists Palette is characterized by the jagged peaks of a canyon covered in a variety of different naturally occurring colors. From purple and blue to orange and green, these spectacular colors are a result of the oxidation processes happening in the rock elements. Hike through the weaving canyons to get up close and personal with these lovely formations.

Barker Ranch

An abandoned mining ranch located in the park, Barker Ranch has gained notoriety for its association with the Charles Manson family. Head to Death Valley National Park’s Panamint Range to view this fascinating and mysterious ranch.