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6 days, 5 destinations, and 2,000 miles: The Ultimate Road Trip Guide to see California’s most popular National Parks and Forests. 

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Guide and Photos by Amanda Capritto

Vacationers flock from far and wide to visit the Golden State, usually heading straight for Los Angeles and the Pacific Coast Highway. As a dweller of the California coast, I can vouch that these locations offer endless fun and beauty, but there’s so much more to this state than its famous oceanside destinations.

What many travelbugs don’t know — or don’t know enough about to appreciate — is that a few hours northeast of Southern California’s storied coast lie five awe-inspiring destinations, all nestled up just a short drive from each other.

These five magical locales make it possible for anyone to embark on scenic drives and hikes through mystical groves of giant sequoia trees; climb up sprawling, sparkling, golden sand dunes; stare up incredulously at a rock climber’s ultimate provocation; and putt around one of the country’s deepest lakes — all in less than one week.

Here’s how to do it.

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TRIP OVERVIEW

DAY 1

Drive to Sequoia National Park and explore, driving Generals Highway all the way up to Kings Canyon National Park. Stay in Three Rivers, California.

DAY 2

See more of Sequoia National Park, staying close to the south side to minimize driving time in the evening. Leave Sequoia and head to Death Valley National Park.

DAY 3

Get an early start at Death Valley National Park to beat the heat — expect near 100-degree temperatures by 9 a.m. Leave Death Valley and head toward Yosemite National Park.

DAY 4

Explore Yosemite, starting at the east entrance and following Tioga Road to the famous Yosemite Valley. Head out in late afternoon and make your way to South Lake Tahoe, California.

DAY 5

Spend the day traipsing around South Lake and rest up that evening for a long day of travel back home.

DAY 6

You did it! Today’s the day to head homebound.

Day 1: Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Upon entering Sequoia National Park, you’ll drive along Generals Highway, a twisty, two-lane highway that connects Sequoia and Kings Canyon. Enjoy the ride: Generals Highway runs along the Kaweah River and is flanked by waterfalls, giant red Sequoias, and rocks so large they look like they came from outer space. Even in mid-August, the air is that particular kind of cool and crisp that makes you recall memories of cannonballing into piles of raked up leaves.  

Depart early from Los Angeles to make it to the Sequoia National Park entrance before the line backs up into the gateway town of Three Rivers, California. Once you’re in, check out these attractions for a magical day one.

Must-do: Giant Forest, Little Baldy, General Grant, Buck Rock. 

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Giant Forest is the first attraction you’ll reach after entering the park. Sequoia trees can only grow between 4,000 and 7,000 feet due to their sensitivity to weather conditions, so it’s an hour drive from the park entrance to this first grove. Pull off wherever you can find enough empty roadside and walk around Giant Forest to marvel at the “Big Tree” as naturalist John Muir so simply put it.  

Keep driving down Generals Highway to get to the Little Baldy trailhead. This 3.4-mile out-and-back trail takes you to an impressive lookout at 7,335 feet over both the Monarch Divide and the Great Western Divide. It’s a short, relatively easy hike with a great payoff. 

After your return from Little Baldy, make your way up to General Grant Grove in Kings Canyon. Here you’ll find the world’s second-largest tree, General Grant, which is fondly known as the Nation’s Christmas Tree. Make sure to walk around the backside of the tree to see its impressive burn scars (Sequoia trees are fire-resistant due to an abundance of a chemical called tannins). 

Head back southbound on Generals Highway after your excursion to General Grant. Follow the signs for Buck Rock, which is perhaps the most impressive attraction of the day. At a dizzying 8,502 feet, an old fire lookout station perches atop a granite dome, accessed by 172 wooden steps. The lookout offers spectacular 360-degree views from the San Joaquin Valley to the highest peaks of the Sierra Nevada. Note that the access road to Buck Rock is pretty precarious, so high-clearance or 4-wheel drive vehicles are recommended. 

If you have time: Kings Canyon Overlook, Big Meadows. 

You’ll find Big Meadows off of the same road on which you traveled to Buck Rock (before the off-roading bit). It’s an expansive area of nearly neon greenery and small wildlife, like pikas. Either on your way to General Grant or on your way out of the park, stop at Kings Canyon Overlook along Generals Highway to wonder — and potentially giggle at — the “town” of rock towers constructed by the many tourists who pass by. 

Driving time:

It’s 3.5 hours from L.A. to the entrance of Sequoia National Park, but day one will include 2-3 more hours of driving time between parks — don’t worry, it’s all scenic. 

Pro tip: The way this road trip is set up, you’ll want to get to Kings Canyon on day one. The two parks are connected by Generals Highway (Highways 180 and 198). By exploring the northernmost parts of the parks on day one, you can minimize driving time on day two, because you’ll need to exit at the southernmost end of Sequoia. 

Where to stay: 

Rent an Airbnb in Three Rivers, California, or the “Gateway to Sequoia.” This quaint town sits just outside the park entrance and offers much more affordable lodging than in-park options. 

Pro tip: Get a place with a host who’ll be present (with a guesthouse if you want more privacy), so you can snag some local expert recommendations. 

Where to eat: 

Ol’ Buckaroo for dinner after your first long day of adventuring; Sequoia Coffee Co. for a latte and grab-and-go breakfast before heading back into the park for day two. 

Day 2: Sequoia National Park to Death Valley National Park

After spending the night in cozy Three Rivers, take the first half of day two to wander through more Sequoia groves and hike to a crystal-clear, ice-cold swimming hole fed by a gushing waterfall. Say goodbye to the big trees around 1 p.m. and begin the drive to Death Valley.

Must-do: Moro Rock, Tokopah Falls, stargazing. 

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If you want to visit the popular Moro Rock, get an early start on day two. The road to Moro Rock is closed to private vehicles during the summer so expect to take a shuttle bus if you going at that time of the year. Get there early, so you don’t have to fight for a seat on the shuttle bus. Moro Rock doesn’t quite compare to Buck Rock’s 8,502-foot peak, but it still tops off at an impressive 6,725 feet with 360-degree views.

Drive about 10 minutes north down Generals Highway to get to the Tokopah Falls trailhead, which puts you on a riverside hike to one of the most stunning falls in Sequoia. The hike is 3.4 miles out and back, and it takes about two hours to complete (give or take, depending on how many photo-ops you stop for). 

Pro tip: Before you head out after Tokopah Falls, stock up on essentials at the Lodgepole Visitor Center market on Lodgepole Road. This is where I grabbed napkins, wet wipes, and a “Secrets of the National Parks” book. 

It’ll be almost nightfall once you get close to Death Valley, so make it a point to go stargazing tonight (you’ll leave Death Valley before nightfall tomorrow). Death Valley has one of the darkest night skies in the U.S., but you don’t need to be inside the park to stargaze — if you do make it inside the park tonight, rumor has it that visitors can see the Milky Way from Harmony Borax Works on Highway 190. 

Pro tip: If you’re serious about stargazing, plan your trip around a New Moon. The stars are bright out in the desert, but so is the moon, and it can drown out the stellar (pun intended) views. 

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If you have time: General Sherman, Tunnel Log. 

Both of these attractions can be accessed by the same shuttle system you used to get the Moro Rock. Tunnel Log is a fun, and great for a quick photo-op. General Sherman is the largest tree known on earth by volume. However, its dimensions aren’t much different than those of General Grant, so if you don’t feel like battling tourists, skip this attraction. 

Driving time: 

It’s approximately 4.5 hours from Sequoia to Death Valley National Park, not including the time you spend driving during your second day in Sequoia (about 2 hours, depending on what you choose to see and do). It’s 3.5 hours to Ridgecrest, California, where I recommend staying before day three in Death Valley. 

Where to stay: 

Rent an Airbnb in Ridgecrest, California if you don’t mind an hour’s drive to the park in the morning. If you want to stay inside the park, opt for Stovepipe Wells Village, which has simple and affordable lodging near the park’s biggest attraction: the Mesquite Sand Dunes. 

Where to eat:

Stop for dinner at Schooners Patio Grille in Ridgecrest, whether you stay inside or outside of the park. It’s been serving great food and great vibes to the community for more than 30 years, and you can tell it’s a local favorite the moment you step foot inside. 

Day 3:

Death Valley National Park to Yosemite National Park

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Fair warning: Death Valley during the summer isn’t for the ill-prepared or sensitive. The park lives up to its claim to fame as the hottest, driest, lowest place on earth. Be sure to pack plenty of iced-down water and salty snacks — according to placards at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, you can lose up to two gallons of water per day in Death Valley, even when sitting in the shade. But if you go prepared and think you can handle the heat, the rolling views of this unique, Mars-like landscape are worth it. 

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Must-do:

Mesquite Sand Dunes, Artist’s Drive, and Badwater Basin. 

About 30 minutes after passing the Death Valley National Park sign on Highway 190, you’ll come upon the sparkling Mesquite Sand Dunes. If you’re up for it, slather on sunscreen, pack a backpack of water bottles, and walk out to the largest sandy slopes that peak at about 100 feet tall. 

Pro tip: Get an early start. Expect to see temperatures nearing 100 degrees by 9 a.m.

After your sandy adventure, follow Highway 190 down to the Furnace Creek Visitor Center to grab your park map. Continue down the highway to Badwater Basin, the lowest place on earth. Look up at the mountains behind the basin for the “sea level” sign — you’re 282 feet below it! 

Then head back north to drive along the one-way Artist’s Drive. Make a pitstop at Artist’s Palette along the 6-mile offshoot to see mountains in shades of ocher, blue, mauve, and red. 

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If you have time: Scotty’s Castle (if open — it’s currently closed due to flood damage), Ubehebe Crater, and the Racetrack. 

These three attractions sit at the north side of Death Valley, and it’s about an hour’s drive from the sand dunes area. To get there, keep driving up Highway 190 past Furnace Creek, but make a right onto Scotty’s Castle Road before reaching the sand dunes. Keep in mind that the road to the Racetrack requires a high-clearance and off-road vehicle. 

Driving time: 

It’s just over 4 hours to get from the Highway 190 exit of Death Valley to the east entrance of Yosemite; just over 3 hours to get from Death Valley to Mammoth Lakes, California.

Pro tip: If you do travel to the north side of the park, and you have a 4-wheel drive or off-road vehicle, take Death Valley/Big Pine Road out of the north side of the park (through Last Chance Range), rather than travelling all the way back down Scotty’s Castle Road to Highway 190. It’ll save you about 70 miles and about an hour. 

Where to stay: 

Rent an Airbnb in Mammoth Lakes, California, a ski town with uber-friendly locals and good eats. If you plan far enough in advance (read: at least six months if you’re going in the summer), you can book a room somewhere in Yosemite Valley or even camp in one of the park’s many campsites

Where to eat: 

If you spend the night in Mammoth, go to Slocum’s for happy hour and dinner; If you stay in the Valley, check out Dregnan’s Deli. 

Day 4:

Yosemite National Park to South Lake Tahoe

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Despite being the most crowded park, Yosemite stands, in my opinion, as the most majestic. Here you can gaze up at brave climbers making their way to the tops of towering granite monoliths, raft down the quiet Merced River, spot wildlife, and walk through groves of deep green conifer trees. As one of the more popular national parks — averaging 4 million visitors each year — expect traffic and crowds during the summer months. 

Pro tip: Tourists tend to congregate in Yosemite Valley, so be prepared to spend a lot of time and effort on parking. The best way to navigate Yosemite seems to be by bike. If you have a bike, you can park your car toward the east end of the park and pedal your way into and around the Valley. 

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Must-do:

Tuolumne Meadows, El Capitan, Half Dome, Tunnel View, Swinging Bridge Trail. 

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Start your Yosemite journey at the east entrance (get there early; it’s a one-lane line) and drive down Tioga Road to Tuolumne Meadows. Here, take Tuolumne Meadows Trail to Soda Springs for a short but beautiful hike. 

Pro tip: Want to see wildlife? Stay out of the Valley. The more peaceful part of the park lies east of the Valley, encompassing miles of bright green meadows and quiet groves of conifer trees. On the Tuolumne Meadows trail, I saw nearly 10 mule deer and a handful of pikas in the first 10 minutes of walking. 

El Capitan and Half Dome are more “must-sees” rather than “must-dos,” unless you’ve allotted them several days and are an expert climber. You can catch glimpses of these monoliths from most parts of the Valley, but the best view of El Cap comes from an unassuming pullout on the one-way drive to the Valley. It’s unnamed and not on the park map, but keep an eye out for a passenger-side turnout shortly after keeping left at the intersection for Wawona Road. 

For peace and quiet near the Valley, stroll to Swinging Bridge, a wooden bridge over the Merced River. Here, you’ll find tranquil viewpoints and clearings that are great for picnicking. 

Tunnel View on Wawona Road offers up perhaps the most inspiring view in all of Yosemite: You can see El Capitan, Half Dome, and several other granite structures towering over the green canyon. Hit this viewpoint on your way out of the park, as you’ll have to travel back east (toward Tunnel View) for the shortest route to Lake Tahoe.

If you have time: Lower and Upper Yosemite Falls. 

Together, these two falls make up the tallest waterfall in Yosemite National Park. The walk to the lower falls is mostly paved and quite easy, while the trail to the upper falls requires a little bit of scrambling. It’s 9.4 miles round trip if you want to see Yosemite Point. 

Pro tip: If you’re short on time — or just exhausted — walk the short distance to the lower falls view, where you can see both falls and escape the flocks of tourists heading to the lower falls pool.

Driving time: 

If you stayed in Mammoth, it’s about 45 minutes to the park’s east entrance, then about 90 minutes down the incredibly scenic Tioga Road to Yosemite Valley. From there, unlike the other parks, you’ll do more walking than driving (park your car near the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center and walk to avoid summer traffic). Then, it’s 4.5 hours from Yosemite Valley (back down Tioga Road and out of the east side) to South Lake Tahoe, California. 

Where to stay: 

Book a hotel room in advance somewhere in South Lake Tahoe, California or Stateline, Nevada. Unlike a lot of places, hotels actually tend to be cheaper in this area than Airbnb. Montbleu Resort, Casino & Spa was affordable and clean, though the lobby level does smell like a casino (but that’s to be expected in a gambling town).

Where to eat: 

If you stayed in Mammoth on day three, go to The Stove for a cute, country breakfast before trekking the remaining 45 minutes to the east entrance of Yosemite. Bring snacks and sandwich supplies for lunch in Yosemite, and stop for dinner at Bodie Mike’s BBQ in the tiny town of Lee Vining on your way to South Lake Tahoe. 

Day 5:

South Lake Tahoe, California and Tahoe National Forest 

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The last destination on this trip isn’t a National Park, but it does sit between two federally protected National Forests: El Dorado and Tahoe National Forests. The second-largest lake in California and the second-deepest in the U.S., Lake Tahoe offers exquisite views of waterfalls, ponderosa pine, white fir trees, and, of course, shimmering lakefronts.

There’s no doubt you’ll be tired by now, so take advantage of the close proximity of attractions and minimal driving today. Check out these attractions for a fun-filled final day that won’t wipe out the rest of your energy.

Must-do:

Emerald Bay Road, kayak or jet ski to Emerald Bay, Cave Rock. 

Emerald Bay Road alone is one of the best ways to see a lot of Lake Tahoe in a short amount of time. You could ride the Heavenly Mountain Gondola, but it’ll cost you $53 per person (as of August 2019). Stop at Inspiration Point to gaze out over Emerald Bay, a National Natural Monument, and take a peek at Vikingsholm, a 38-room Scandinavian mansion on the National Register of Historic Places. After the drive, rent a kayak or jet ski to get up close and personal with Emerald Bay and Vikingsholm (and feel the water that remains ice-cold even into mid-August).

Pro tip: During the summer, Kayak Tahoe’s Emerald Bay location books out by 10 a.m. If you can’t get there that early, join the waitlist and hike to the nearby Eagle Falls. It takes about 90 minutes, which is how long you can expect to wait for a kayak. 

For a short hike to a mind-boggling lookout, head to Cave Rock, a 3-million-years-old volcanic rock structure that’s considered sacred to the local Washoe Indians. In 1931, a tunnel opened under the rock as part of a reconstruction effort on the Lincoln Highway (Highway 50). If you scramble to the top of the rock, you’ll be standing directly over cars passing through the tunnel.  

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If you have time: Maggie’s Peak. 

Avid hikers will love this 4.5-mile trek to one of the best lookouts (8,699 feet) in all of South Lake Tahoe. You need a Desolation Wilderness permit to do this hike, which you can fill out for free at the trailhead. 

Driving time: 

Hooray! You’ll catch a break from driving today since you’ll actually explore and sleep in the same city. Driving on day five consists only of the time it takes you to do and see things in South Lake. 

Where to stay: 

No moving today — stay wherever you stayed on day four and rest up for a long day of travel tomorrow. 

Where to eat: 

Grab a quick (seriously, really quick — the fastest service I’ve ever experienced) at Red Hut Cafe near Heavenly Village. For lunch, stop by Tahoe Keys Deli, a quaint counter-serve sandwich shop frequented by locals. Skip dinner in favor of a massive ice cream cone or cookie sandwich at The Baked Bear.

Day 6:

Homebound

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Congrats, you did it! You saw some of California’s most majestic, magical, and mystical sights. You trekked up and over mountains, teetered on mountains’ edges, survived 110-degree weather, and took a dip in Big Blue. Now, it’s time to head home.

Today will look different for you depending on where home is, but if you’re headed back to the L.A. area, you can expect this:

Driving time: 

It’s about 8 hours from South Lake Tahoe to L.A. It takes about 90 minutes to get out of El Dorado National Forest — your last twisty, scenic drive — and you’ll spend the remainder of your time traveling southbound on Interstate 5. 

Where to eat: 

No matter where you’re headed at trip’s end, enjoy one last breakfast at Driftwood Cafe in Heavenly Village. 

Fuel up: 

There are few gas stations along this portion of I-5, so fill up your tank in South Lake Tahoe before you leave. 

Pro tip: Fuel prices soar in resort towns like South Lake. We found the cheapest gas at the Safeway gas station on Highway 50 headed west. 

What's your favorite National Park in the USA?Comment Below 


For more road trip inspiration, check out our article on The Best Long Weekend Destinations in The US.


amandacapritto

Amanda Capritto is a health and travel writer, fitness trainer, and health coach. She is based out of Los Angeles where she writes about all her passions. If you want to talk about fitness, nutrition, travel, or the best day hikes in LA, Amanda is your person. Check out her website and Instagram for more stories and inspiration.

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