Gateway Airport: McCarran International, Las Vegas, Nevada
This circle tour connects the best of the California desert with the high peaks and giant trees of the Sierra Nevada. Within these parks are all manner of extremes: the lowest and highest places in the continental U.S.—Badwater in Death Valley and Mount Whitney in Sequoia; the world’s largest tree—General Sherman in Sequoia; and one of the country’s tallest waterfalls, Yosemite Falls in Yosemite.
Geology is laid bare in Death Valley, the hottest, driest, and lowest place in the Western Hemisphere. The human history is equally fascinating, and the park’s high country is a cooler alternative in the summer months. Paved roads link most of the major sites.
The Route: Las Vegas > US 95 > Nevada 373 > California 127 > California 190
On the Way: In Death Valley Junction just east of the park, the Amargosa Opera House and Hotel is a lavishly decorated performing arts center restored by dancer Marta Becket.
Stay: Furnace Creek Resort in the heart of the park has two units: Rooms in upscale Furnace Creek Inn start at $345, while rooms at Furnace Creek Ranch start at $139. Both have spring-fed swimming pools.
Eat: The Wrangler Buffet at Furnace Creek Ranch has reasonably priced, plentiful offerings.
Don’t Miss: Walk out on the salt-pan floor of the desert at Badwater, lowest spot in the Western Hemisphere (its elevation is -282 feet).
Tour: Scotty’s Castle, the most improbably sited mansion you’ll ever see. While there, check out the Underground Tour and marvel at the circa-1930 castle’s ahead-of-its-time innovations.
Take a night walk into the sand dunes near Stovepipe Wells to experience silence, an awesome star show, and/or moonlight glow on the sand. (But not in summer, when the dunes can still be over 100ºF at night.)
Jaw-Dropping Viewpoints: Catch sunrise from Zabriskie Point. It’s a quick drive from Furnace Creek. Watch the lambent glow of the early sun illuminate the badlands below. Dante’s View gives you an eagle’s-eye perspective over Badwater from more than 5,000 feet above the desert floor.
- Easy: The mineral-rich walls of Golden Canyon shimmer with color late in the afternoon, culminating at the fluted, 400-foot face of Red Cathedral, 1.25 miles from the trailhead.
- Moderate to Strenuous: In the cool high country, walk any portion of the 4.2-mile trail from the alien-looking Wildrose Charcoal Kilns to Wildrose Peak, 9,065 feet.
Side Drive: Artists Drive loops nine miles into the badlands and side canyons below Zabriskie Point.
Oddity: Ubehebe Crater, 600 feet deep, a half-mile in diameter, punctuates the Martian terrain west of Scotty’s Castle.
Before You Come: Read Death Valley and the Amargosa: A Land of Illusion by Richard E. Lingenfelter.
Park Website: nps.gov/deva
Seasonal Notes: Death Valley is very hot in summer, but still fascinating and surprisingly popular, especially as a brief road-trip stop. Be sure your car’s cooling system is in good shape. Furnace Creek Inn is closed in summer, but Furnace Creek Ranch is open year-round. High-country roads and trails can be snowy and icy in winter.
Yosemite’s famed valley is the natural nave of a granite cathedral—woods and meadows and the Merced River are framed by towering faces of granite over which tumble roaring waterfalls. Yet the valley is only about 5 percent of the park. The rest is high country, the Sierra Nevada, with peaks up to 13,000 feet. Parks roads are brilliantly designed to provide access to it all.
The Route: Death Valley > California 190 > California 136 > US 395 > California 120 > California 41
On the Way: Just west of Lone Pine off US 395 are the Alabama Hills, where dozens of cowboy Westerns have been filmed. Just north of Lone Pine off US 395 is Manzanar National Historic Site, where more than 10,000 Japanese-American citizens were interned during World War II. And see Mono Lake, with its tufa towers and amazing bird life, just west of the intersection of US 395 and California 120.
Stay: The Ahwahnee Hotel is the quintessence of national park lodging, with stone/timber construction and tall windows framing views of meadows and monoliths. Rooms begin at $471. The park has many less expensive options as well.
Eat: Splurge in the grand Ahwahnee Dining Room (resort casual attire) or partake of similar ambience and park views in the less expensive Ahwahnee Bar.
Don’t Miss: Make the easy walk to the base of Lower Yosemite Fall and gawk up at the lower and upper falls, tumbling a total of 2,425 feet. Stand in the middle of Yosemite Valley anywhere along the Merced River (Swinging Bridge, for example) and marvel at the towering monoliths all around, including Half Dome and El Capitan.
Jaw-Dropping Viewpoints: Tunnel View at the entrance to Yosemite Valley frames all of the valley’s granite formations and waterfalls at one of Ansel Adams’s favorite viewpoints. Glacier Point looks down to Yosemite Valley from 3,800 sheer vertical feet and reveals views of Half Dome and Vernal and Nevada Falls. Olmsted Point on Tioga Road looks across Yosemite high country and offers a perspective on Half Dome that many park visitors miss.
- Easy: Take the one-mile paved trail to Mirror Lake early in the morning or late in the day for a reflection of Half Dome in the placid water.
- Easy: See Yosemite’s giant sequoia trees in Mariposa Grove in the Wawona section of the park. Walk at least as far as the Grizzly Giant, 0.8 miles.
- Moderate: The short (three miles round-trip), steep hike on the Mist Trail to the top of 318-foot Vernal Fall has great views all the way up and a roaring, wet payoff at the finish.
Side Drive: The road to Glacier Point has great short hikes along the way—such as Taft Point and Sentinel Dome—and culminates at Glacier Point’s sheer overlook.
Oddity: In late spring and early summer, the prismatic effect of a near-full moon shining on the mist of Lower Yosemite Fall creates a moonbow.
Before You Come: Read The Yosemite by John Muir.
Park Website: nps.gov/yose
Seasonal Notes: California 120, Tioga Pass Road, generally closes in November and reopens in late May or early June. Because it is the only way into the park from the east, this road trip would need to be reversed in winter: Death Valley, then Sequoia, then Yosemite. Glacier Point Road is closed in winter beyond the Badger Pass ski area, which has downhill skiing. The rest of the park is open for hiking, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing.
The contiguous parks of Sequoia and Kings Canyon, managed as a single unit, showcase some of the Sierra’s most majestic mountains and gigantic fauna. The park is home to Mount Whitney, tallest peak in the continental U.S., and the General Sherman Tree, the world’s largest tree by volume.
The Route: Yosemite > California 41 > California 180 > California 198
- Nat Geo Expeditions
To complete the loop to Las Vegas: Sequoia > California 198 > California 99 > California 58 > I-15 > Las Vegas
On the Way: The historic village of Coarsegold, set in the Sierra foothills on California 41 between Yosemite and Sequoia near the southern end of California’s gold country, has crafts shops and a historic museum.
Stay: Wuksachi Lodge in the heart of Sequoia is a modern lodge built in traditional lodge fashion, with stone-and-cedar construction and a lobby with a giant stone fireplace. Rooms begin at $205.
Eat: Wuksachi Lodge’s Peaks Restaurant showcases California ingredients and cuisine, and stages an all-you-can-eat barbecue in Wolverton Meadow, June through September.
Don’t Miss: The General Sherman Tree stands nearly 275 feet high and 36.5 feet in diameter—the giant sequoia is the world’s largest living tree by volume. It’s an easy walk in Giant Forest, and rangers conduct frequent talks at its base. Crystal Cave, with its ornate marble formations, is the park’s showcase cavern. Plan on a half day to visit it, including the drive, short hike, and 45-minute tour.
- Easy: The Congress Trail in Sequoia threads two miles amid some of the biggest of the park’s giant trees. Once you walk away from the General Sherman Tree, the Giant Forest trails are quiet and the atmosphere majestic.
- Easy: In Kings Canyon, visit the General Grant Tree and then take the quiet 1.5-mile North Grove Loop amid giant sequoias, mixed conifers, and meadows.
Side Drive: Drive into Kings Canyon itself by following California 180 (Kings Canyon Scenic Byway) from Grants Grove past Hume Lake to road’s end in the canyon. It’s a three-hour round-trip with numerous viewpoints overlooking waterfalls, the foaming Kings River, and the deep, U-shaped, glacially carved canyon.
Jaw-Dropping Viewpoint: Climb the 400 stone steps up Moro Rock (just off California 198 between Ash Mountain and Lodgepole in Sequoia) for a glorious view of the park’s meadows, giant forests, and 12,000-foot peaks.
Oddity: It’s not every day you can drive through a log. The park’s famous Tunnel Log, a fallen giant sequoia, is in Sequoia Park along Crescent Meadow Road in Giant Forest.
Before You Come: Read John Muir’s The Mountains of California.
Park Website: nps.gov/seki
Seasonal Notes: The park and Wuksachi Lodge are open in winter. Snowshoeing and cross-country skiing amid giant sequoia trees are compelling experiences, but the road between the two units closes in winter, so to visit both units requires out-and-back trips via other roads.