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 at Yosemite National Park

Nestled into California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, Yosemite National Park is famous for its ancient sequoia trees, the iconic vista of towering Bridalveil Fall, and the granite cliffs of El Capitan and Half Dome. More than just an ancient trove of geological spectacles, Yosemite boasts an impressive wildlife community as well.

Home to more than 500 black bears, although presenting more brown than black in appearance, Yosemite National Park is bursting with mammal activity. Don’t forget to bring your binoculars to view the 262 bird species that reside within the park!

Yosemite National Park’s Top Animals

  • Black Bears
  • Mule Deer
  • Bobcats
  • Mountain Lions
  • Turtles
  • Coyotes
  • Elk
  • Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep
    • This specific branch-off breed of the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep can be seen in Yosemite National Park. Home to more than 600 bighorn sheep, they are currently on the endangered species list.
  • Pacific Fishers
    • Fishers are tree-dwelling carnivores that were once abundant throughout the states of Washington, Oregon, and Northern California. They have been extirpated from more than 50% of their previous range, though some live abundantly within Yosemite National Park. Although they have faced adversity in the past, they have proven to be a hardy and durable species.

Viewing Locations

Mariposa Grove: Mule deer, elk, coyotes, mountain lions, bighorn sheep
Tuolumne: Pacific fishers, black bears, bobcats, bighorn sheep
Meadows: Bears, elk, mule deer
Pine Campgrounds: Bears
Curry Village: Bears, bighorn sheep
Glacier Point: Bears

When Should You Go?

Due to Yosemite’s location high up in the mountains, the park can be closed for many months out of the year due to snow and dangerous conditions. Therefore, it’s most popular to visit the park between the months of May and September. The busiest wildlife viewing months are June through August, but if you want a better chance of being able to enjoy the animals in private, try late April/early May or late September when it’s less crowded. Less noise and commotion will make it more likely that the animals will show themselves near you.

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Categorized as Wildlife Tagged

Points of Interest in Yosemite National Park

The road to Glacier Point

If you only have a single day to visit the park, a drive around Yosemite Valley is probably the best option. Longer visits provide options for hiking, visiting sites outside the Valley, and getting a fuller experience of what the Sierra Nevadas have to offer.

Visiting in winter provides the opportunity to see dramatic winter landscapes in Yosemite Valley or to ski in Badger Pass, but much of the park will be inaccessible due to winter road closures. Spring is the best time to see the waterfalls at their strongest. During the summertime all park roads are open, and Tuolumne Meadows will be snow-free and full of flowers. The Fall offers a time with smaller crowds, cooler weather, and access to the entire park (unless there is an early snowstorm).

The vast majority of tourists to Yosemite will spend almost all of their time in Yosemite Valley. Returning visitors and experienced travelers alike would be well-served to avoid the valley and visit more isolated sites.

Yosemite Valley

Yosemite Valley is the reason why Yosemite was America’s first place set aside by the federal government for its scenic beauty. The cliffs rise around the valley at impossibly vertical angles, waterfalls tumble down unimpeded from a thousand feet above, and the Merced River meanders aimlessly along the valley floor. The Valley is also one of the most accessible places in the park, with roads open year-round and plenty of amenities including lodging and food (but no gas stations). During summer months traffic can make the valley highly congested, so consider using the shuttle to cut down on stress.

Those entering the valley via Highway 41 will be treated to the spectacular viewpoint known as Tunnel View. Named for the tunnel that bores through the granite, the eastern side provides a dramatic view of Yosemite Valley with El Capitan on the left, Bridalveil Fall on the right and Half Dome in the center. Photographers should consider this area for pictures after storms, as many of the most famous pictures of the Valley have been taken from this spot as rough weather clears. There are two small parking lots that can get congested, so arrive early in the day if visiting during Summer to ensure a spot.

The sights in the valley include the granite monolith of Half Dome, a mountain that looks like it was split in two, leaving only a vertical face and rounded granite summit behind. In reality Half Dome was formed in the same way that many of Yosemite’s granite formations were created – long ago an intrusion of magma deep underground solidified to form a massive granite block, and that block was eventually exposed to the surface via a combination of erosion and uplift. Glaciers that flowed through Yosemite did the rest, carving out the wide, U-shaped valleys that are bordered by sheer vertical walls. These same forces created the wall of El Capitan, a mecca for rock climbers and another of the Valley’s famous formations.

Waterfalls in Yosemite Valley include Yosemite Falls, one of the highest waterfalls in the world at 2425 feet (782 m). Bridalveil Fall is another easily accessible waterfall, while Nevada Fall and Vernal Fall can be reached by those willing to do some hiking. While some water flows over the waterfalls year-round, by mid-Summer flows are significantly diminished – plan on visiting in the Spring to see these waterfalls at their grandest.

Wawona

El Portal Rd. in Wawona

Wawona is the home to the historic Wawona Hotel, dating from the late nineteenth century. The Pioneer Yosemite History Center, a collection of historic buildings, is just over the covered bridge from the hotel. Wawona is accessible by car year-round.

The Mariposa Grove is the largest of the three giant sequoias groves in the park (the Merced Grove and Tuolumne Grove are the other two) and is home to over 500 mature trees. While not the tallest or oldest things on earth, by volume the giant sequoias are the largest living organism known to man. The grove is south of Wawona near the entrance station, with parking available in a lot located two miles from the grove, and a shuttle bus available to bring visitors from the parking lot into the grove. Trails lead from the Lower Grove to the Upper Grove – traversing the entire route is a 3-4 mile hike, depending on the paths chosen. Trees within a short walk of the lower parking area include the Grizzly Giant, a massive 1800 year old tree, and the California Tunnel tree, which was cut in 1895 to allow carriages to pass through. Further on, in the Upper Grove, is the Clothespin Tree, which has a natural tunnel in it created by fire that is large enough for a car to pass through, the Wawona Tunnel tree, another tree with a man-made tunnel in it that fell in 1969, and the Telescope Tree, a living tree that is hollow inside, allowing visitors to enter its trunk and stare upwards.

Glacier Point and Badger Pass

Glacier Point, an overlook with a commanding view of Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, and Yosemite’s high country, is generally regarded as the most spectacular viewpoint in the park. It is accessible by car from approximately late May through October or November. Driving time from Wawona and Yosemite Valley is about an hour, but during the busiest summer weekends delays of up to two hours are possible if the Glacier Point parking lot fills. From the parking lot a quarter mile long paved walkway leads to a viewpoint 3214 feet above the Yosemite Valley floor. From mid-December through March the road is usually closed, but cross-country skiers can experience this view after skiing 10.5 miles. The area is particularly popular late in the day to watch the light changing on Half Dome, and is also an excellent area for stargazing. Washburn Point, just south of Glacier Point, offers views of the southern side of Yosemite Valley.

Badger Pass is the oldest ski area in California, and is along the road to Glacier Point. The road to Badger Pass is plowed year round, and this area is the starting point for downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing during the winter. During winter months a free shuttle runs twice a day from Yosemite Valley to Badger Pass.

Tuolumne Meadows

The Tioga Road (Highway 120 East) is an amazingly scenic route through Yosemite’s high country that crosses the park from west-to-east and provides access to the Eastern Sierra and Mono Lake. This road is closed in winter and usually opens to vehicles only from late May or early June through the first snowfall in November. It offers a 39-mile scenic drive between Crane Flat and Tuolumne Meadows through forests and past meadows, lakes, and granite domes. Many turnouts offer broad and beautiful vistas. From Tioga Road all the way to the south of Mount Whitney, no other roads cross the High Sierra, making this the northern end of the largest contiguous roadless wilderness in the continental United States. The high point of the Tioga Road at Tioga Pass (elevation 9943 feet) is the only place in the park where visitors might encounter the endangered Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep.

Along the Tioga Road at 8600 feet elevation, Tuolumne Meadows is one of the largest high-elevation meadows in the Sierra Nevada. The Tuolumne River meanders across the meadow while rugged mountain peaks and glacially carved domes surround it. During the brief snow-free summer season the meadow is the site of a massive wildflower bloom, making this an excellent area for day hikes and photography.

Crane Flat

Crane Flat is a pleasant forest and meadow area 16 miles (30 minutes) from Yosemite Valley. Crane Flat is accessible by car all year. Bears can be spotted in the meadows in this area regularly, so keep your eyes open and don’t block traffic if you see one!

The Tuolumne Grove has about two dozen mature giant sequoias and is on the Tioga Road just east of Crane Flat. Sequoias are only visible after a one-mile hike with 500 feet of elevation loss. (The one-mile hike back to the parking lot gains 500 feet and is strenuous.) The drive takes about 1½ hours from South Entrance. Parking is limited.

The Merced Grove is on the Big Oak Flat Road east of Big Oak Flat Entrance and is home to about two dozen mature giant sequoias. Sequoias are only visible after a 1½-mile hike with 500 feet of elevation loss. (The 1½-mile hike back to the parking lot gains 500 feet and is strenuous.) The drive takes about 1½ hours from South Entrance. Parking is extremely limited.

Hetch Hetchy Valley

Until the completion of the O’Shaughnessy Dam in 1923, the Hetch Hetchy Valley was said to rival Yosemite Valley for beauty. The fight over the dam was a bitter battle between environmentalists including John Muir and the city of San Francisco, and efforts are still ongoing to remove the dam and restore the valley. Today, the dam is used to deliver water from the Tuolumne River 167 miles west to San Francisco. Even though Hetch Hetchy Valley is flooded, it is still home to spectacular scenery and is the starting point for many less-used wilderness trails. Although the road to Hetch Hetchy is open year-round, on a day-to-day basis it has restricted hours due to security for the reservoir. It may close periodically due to snow in winter and spring. Swimming and boating are not allowed in the reservoir.

The Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne lies upstream from Hetch Hetchy and is accessible to hikers. Hikers can also visit two of North America’s largest waterfalls in the Hetch Hetchy Valley: Wapama Falls, at 1,700 ft (520 m), and Tueeulala Falls, at 840 ft (260 m).

The Yosemite and Big Sur Road Trip

The Yosemite and Big Sur road trip can be started from San Francisco or Los Angeles, but the route is easy to map in your favorite navigation app.

Yosemite National Park

The Yosemite National Park was initially protected in 1864 and is now renowned worldwide for its waterfalls. However, within the 1,200 square miles of area, you can observe an entire array of landscapes, ranging from grand meadows and deep valleys to ancient sequoias and vast forests. While exploring this National Park, you should visit the Mariposa Grove to view over 500 undisturbed mature sequoias. Hiking, like in many other parks, is one of the most common activities for visitors.

Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Park offer hiking trails, dense forests, and seasonal wildlife.

Kings Canyon & Sequoia National Parks

The Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks are home to diverse habitats due to their wide elevation ranges, resulting in a lot of variation in the weather throughout the year. Do not forget to bring the appropriate gear when you come here to visit.

A drive through Big Sur offers stunning views.

Pheiffer Big Sur State Park

Through the western slopes of the Santa Lucia Mountains, the Big Sur State Park tower soars over the Big Sur River Gorge, the point at which the Big Sur River enters this marvelous state park. You can enjoy a calm and refreshing walk along the banks of the Big Sur river among the impressive conifers, maples, alders, cottonwoods, oaks, sycamores, and redwoods. Multiple campgrounds are located along the Big Sur River. The wildlife includes black-tail deer, gray squirrels, skunks, racoons, and birds, such as kingfishers and dippers. Hikers can enjoy many scenic trails, including Buzzard’s Roost, Liewald Flats, Mt. Manuel, Valley View, River Path, and many more.

Deer roam freely at Point Reyes National Seashore.

Point Reyes National Seashore

The Point Reyes National Seashore is a diverse landscape with over 1,500 species of plants and animals. Depending on the amount of time you have available to spend on the Seashore, you have a variety of activities available. For example, if you are only willing to spend a few hours, you can plan a trip to the lighthouse or visit the Bear Valley Visitor Center that showcases multiple ecological and historical exhibits. If you are accompanied by children, they may enjoy visiting the Morgan Horse Ranch to view horses. For a longer planned visit, you can go biking, kayaking, birding, tide pooling, backpacking, whale watching and yes, you can also see elephant seals.

Hidden Gems in Yosemite National Park

One of the most famous national parks in the United States, Yosemite is located in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. From granite cliffs to giant sequoia trees, it’s no question why this national park is so popular. If you’re looking to escape the crowds, you’ll want to visit some of Yosemite’s off the beaten path destinations.

Tuolumne Grove

A quieter alternative to popular Mariposa Grove, Tuolumne Grove offers a peaceful place to wander among giant sequoias undisturbed. Experience these ancient redwoods firsthand with a visit to this unique grove, and walk through the tunnel formed inside the base of one of these massive trees.

Hetch Hetchy Reservoir

Created by the Tuolumne River’s O’Shaughnessy Dam, the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir is a stunning body of water framed by breathtaking granite rock faces. The dam famously provides some of the cleanest water in the United States. This beautiful reservoir is a hidden gem certainly worth visiting!

May Lake

Scenic May Lake is located in the heart of Yosemite and is often overlooked by park visitors. A steep but quick hike, you’ll be rewarded with fantastic views and a picnic lunch if you decide to make the trek.

Olmsted Point

A short and picturesque quarter-mile hike, Olmsted Point provides magnificent views over Tenaya Canyon and Yosemite Valley. This low-effort trek is well worth it to see unique glacial erratics and dramatic panoramic views. 

Rancheria Falls

These lesser-known waterfalls are absolutely stunning, and can be reached via a hike beginning along the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. These impressive falls are a string of cascades instead of a single vertical drop, making their power overwhelmingly beautiful. 

Soda Springs

Located in Tuolumne Meadows, you’ll find these rare mineral springs enclosed by a wooden structure. The carbonated waters will bubble before your eyes in the heart of Yosemite’s lush green meadows. Soda Springs are an interesting and worthwhile hidden gem to explore.