Climb into California’s Sierra Nevada range, the dramatic granite backbone defining the state’s eastern edge. Start with a visit to California’s turquoise gem—Lake Tahoe—then follow spectacular mountain routes to a wish list of incomparable alpine destinations. See waterfalls and granite monoliths in Yosemite, giant trees in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, and the lonely, windblown beauty of California’s best-known ghost town, Bodie.
Blue as a topaz and circled by majestic peaks, this High Sierra gem straddling the California-Nevada border is a bucket-list staple, a place where the air is “very pure and fine...it is the same the angels breathe,” according to author Mark Twain. Lakefront towns dot the shoreline, each with their own appeal. Winter and springtime snow lets you carve it up at world-class alpine resorts. Summer brings out the water toys—sailboats, stand-up paddleboards, kayaks, and almost anything that floats. Fall paints the hills with golden aspen leaves.
Lake Tahoe lays claim to some of the country’s top alpine resorts. On the north shore, Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows and Northstar California are top draws, especially on powder days. On Tahoe’s south shore, Heavenly—one of the world’s biggest ski resorts—offers jaw-dropper lake views from runs as wide and bump free as freeways. Heavenly has also bumped up the fun even if you don’t ski or board, with on-mountain zip lines, tube runs, scenic gondola rides, and a party-like atmosphere on and off the mountain. Tahoe is also home to lower-key resorts—Boreal, Donner Ski Ranch, Homewood, Sierra at Tahoe, Soda Springs, Sugar Bowl, Tahoe Donner. You can also head out on groomed cross-country and snowshoe trails at Royal Gorge or Kirkwood. For a real treat, get your mush on with a sled dog ride near Squaw Valley, Kirkwood, or in Hope Valley, just south of Lake Tahoe.
In summer, many of these same resorts—especially Northstar, Heavenly, and Squaw, offer summertime fun such as mountain biking, hiking, and scenic tram or gondola rides—a great way to get high up in the mountains without a lot of effort.
Just past the cattle-ranching town of Bridgeport, turn east onto the dusty desert road that winds into Bodie State Historic Park, once a booming mining community in the late 1800s.Over time, the townsfolk began to fade away with the gold, leaving the buildings alone and at the mercy of the dry desert winds. Walk the silent streets lined with shops, hotels, and simple homes, each one carefully preserved to look just as they did when the last of Bodie’s residents moved away. Look for period images on newspapers stuffed into the walls as makeshift insulation. Old trucks and gas pumps, a weathered wood church, and the lonely cemetery paint a picture of life—and death—in this remote corner of California’s high desert.
Be sure to bring food; there are no concessions in the park (though there is potable water). A bookstore is well stocked with interesting information, and the self-guided walking tour is wealth worth doing.
At this high-desert preserve, on the eastern side of the towering Sierra, ghostlike tufa towers trim the edges of a one-million-year-old lake.
Get a picture of the natural and human history of the Mono Basin at the interpretive center, just off U.S. 395 north of Lee Vining and Tioga Pass (the only route into Yosemite from this side of the mountains). Decks offer dramatic views—Sierra peaks to the west, chaparral-dotted desert to the east—as well as the lake itself and tiny Wizard Island, a nesting site for Western gulls and other sea birds. Bird walks are offered at 8 a.m. Fridays and Sundays, mid-May through Labor Day. The visitor center is closed December through March.
Explore Lee Vining Creek riparian habitat, blanketed with obsidian and pumice, or walk the South Tufa Area for close-up views of the tufa towers formed by the interaction of freshwater springs flowing into the ultra-alkaline lake that’s 2½ times as salty as the ocean. Naturalists lead free walks at the South Tufa Area three times daily from late June through Labor Day. Guided paddles are also offered through Caldera Kayak.
Surrounded by some of the highest peaks in the west, Mammoth Lakes is for serious outdoor lovers, who take to the slopes of signature Mammoth Mountain and nearby June Lake resorts in winter, and when the snow melts, head out to fly-fish in clear mountain streams, hike and mountain bike in high alpine meadows, and dip into natural hot springs.
In winter, Mammoth Mountain, gets, on average, more than 30 feet/9 meters of snow, and is open longer than any resort in the state. Visit the village for shops, restaurants, and nightlife. If you’re not a skier, you can take the gondola to the mountain’s summit at 11,053 feet/3,369 meters for jaw-dropper views of surrounding peaks. Wintry splurges abound—choose from motorized Snowcat tours to guided full-moon snowshoe treks. Go tubing with the kids. Glide through the wilderness on a dogsled. Get a massage at area resorts or dinner at cozy Lakefront Restaurant, surrounded by snowy pines.
Follow Highway 203 west of Mammoth Lakes through stunning mountain scenery to explore this remarkable natural wonder. Looking like lumber pile left over by the gods, the 60-foot/18-meter basalt columns at this National Monument induce a lot of head scratching and pondering. How did these flawless columns get here anyway? Truth is, they formed on site, the result of volcanic eruption that sent lava flowing down the mountainside here, leaving behind an impressive wall of columns. Glaciers played a part too, exposing the columns and naturally polishing and enhancing the lava’s natural hexagonal patterns.
No matter how they were created, these columns are cool, and well worth exploring, as are other sites here. Follow the 2.5-mile/4-km trail to breathtaking 101-foot/31-meter Rainbow Falls. Also check out current evidence of volcanic activity at the monument’s soda spring area.
In summer (mid-June through Labor Day), driving into the park is restricted, but it’s easy to catch the shuttle from Mammoth Lakes. In winter, roads are generally closed, so you’ll need to cross-country ski or snowshoe into the park. Other times of year it’s okay to drive in: just know that the parking lot often fills by mid-morning on sunny days and weekends, so get there early.
If you arrived via shuttle, return to Mammoth Lakes to continue your itinerary. If you drove in by car, return to I-395 and continue south to Manzanar National Historic Site, an enlightening reminder of what happened here during World War II.
Driving south along I-395, the landscape is staggeringly beautiful—giant peaks to the west, dramatic high desert plains and hills to the east. Just south of the tiny town of Independence, turn in to this sobering glimpse of what happened in the region back in the 1940s. During World War II, thousands of Japanese-Americans were moved from their homes throughout the West and brought to internment camps like Manzanar. This remote site in the wind-swept Owens Valley aims to shed light on that time and the people who lived here, through recreated buildings, photographs, films, oral histories, and interactive displays. Today you can sort through layers of history at the Manzanar Visitor Center, where some 8,000 square feet/743 square meters of exhibits relay a fascinating, albeit disturbing, part of California’s history. A 3-mile/5-km loop offers a chance to see the remnants of orchards and structures, as well as a Buddhist cemetery. Adjacent to the Visitor Center is Block 14, with two reconstructed barracks and an exhibit-filled mess hall where you can check out a large-scale model of Manzanar War Relocation Center crafted by former internees. Ranger-led tours occur regularly and run from 15 to 90 minutes. Be sure to leave time to watch the insightful 22-minute film Remembering Manzanar, which plays every half hour.
Next on the trip is a stop at Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the 48 contiguous United States.
California’s eastern Sierras are home to some of the tallest mountains in the country. Among these giants is Mt. Whitney, whose summit scrapes the sky at 14,494 feet/4,418 meters, making it the tallest mountain in the 48 contiguous states, and a popular climbing destination.
People do race up and back in a day (10.7 miles/17.1 kilometers each way), but with awesome views of the Sierra’s tallest peaks and desert plains along the way, there’s no reason to rush. Pitch a tent for the night at Consultation Lake, then tackle the switchbacks leading to the summit. Climbing season is typically May through October, but it can snow at any time, so all climbers should be prepared. Permits, awarded by lottery only, are required.
If reaching the summit isn’t your thing, or you didn’t get a permit, no worries, you can still enjoy the area, with a hike to Lone Pine Lake (roughly 5.5 miles/9 kilometers round trip), including a stay Whitney Portal, a campground in the pines, 13 miles/21 kilometers west of Lone Pine.
Sequoia National Park’s Ash Mountain entrance, located in the small town of Three Rivers, offers a quick-and-curvy route to the massive sequoias of Giant Forest. Navigate the General Highway’s 130 curves and 12 switchbacks and you’ll be on the fast-track to the General Sherman Tree, the world’s largest living tree by volume. Once there, get out and walk—it’s the only way to fathom the sequoias’ sheer size and regal beauty. Salute the General Sherman, then move on to the quieter Congress Trail, where hundreds more gargantuan trees grow. After you’ve been thoroughly astonished by these ancient giants, take a heart-pumping climb up Moro Rock’s 360 stairsteps. Even young kids can make it to the top of this bald granite precipice with a sweeping vista of the saw-toothed Great Western Divide. For dinner, head to the park’s Wuksachi Lodge. In The Peaks’ glass-walled dining room, every table overlooks a forest of firs and the Silliman Crest.
Seven miles long and one mile across at its widest, Yosemite Valley is a mélange of sheer granite cliffs, plunging waterfalls, and verdant meadows bisected by the clear Merced River. The Valley’s world-famous sites include Yosemite Falls—the tallest free-leaping waterfall in North America—which drops in a foaming torrent of three tiers totaling a prodigious 2,425 feet, or nearly a half-mile of vertical whitewater. There’s also iconic Half Dome, Yosemite’s most recognizable chunk of granite. With three smooth, rounded sides and one sheer vertical face, the dome’s bald pate appears as if it’s been sheared in half. The towering monolith of El Capitan rises 3,593 feet above the Valley floor as “the largest single piece of granite rock on earth,” an irresistible challenge to daredevil rock climbers. Yosemite Valley also has man-made majesty, as seen in the National Historic Landmark Majestic Yosemite Hotel. This 1930s architectural gem is adorned with massive hand-stenciled timber beams, sandstone fireplaces, and intricate stained-glass windows.
On your way to this park, save time to visit the charming Gold Country town of Murphys (a great place for wine tasting and innovative dining along the town’s main street). Then continue north and east to discover peaceful groves of giant sequoias at this under-the-radar park. Established in 1931 to preserve the a stunning stand of giant sequoias, this park offers one of the easiest places to see these towering trees. Head 4 miles/6.5 kilometers east of Arnold, in the Gold Country, to the preserve, then put on your walking shoes and follow trails to North Grove, the most visited part of this 6,498-acre/2,630-hectare park, as well as quieter South Grove. Reserve a site at one of the two large campgrounds, or pitch your tent at one of five more remote walk-in sites. Summer is the busiest time of year, but spring offers showy white dogwood blossoms, and the colorful leaves of autumn create a striking contrast with the russet sequoia trunks. Seasonal activities offered by the park include campfire talks and guided walks.
To continue on to the state capital, Sacramento, head roughly 2 hours northwest through the Gold Country and Central Valley. To return to San Francisco (about 3 hours) drive southwest across the Central Valley to the Bay Area.