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No matter the season, California’s High Sierra region offers an adventurous playground full of natural beauty and attractions. For outdoor adventurers to casual landscape road-trippers, the thrilling panorama of mountain ranges and calm lakes provide a picturesque paradise offering days of exploration. Frequent travellers may already be familiar with Lake Tahoe, Mammoth Mountain, Yosemite, and Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, but there’s a world of possibilities in and around these majestic areas. Whether you’re a culture seeker or an adrenaline junkie, you’ll find year-round destinations perfect for exploring – perhaps best accomplished by trying one of these three road trip itineraries (or combine two or three) for a whirlwind High Sierra adventure.
Road Trip Itinerary 1: Lake Tahoe-Truckee Region
Start: Donner Summit | End: Heavenly, South Lake Tahoe
Suggested route: Donner Summit - Squaw Valley - Hellman-Ehrman Mansion - Emerald Bay - Heavenly, South Lake Tahoe
Distance: 76 miles / 122 km
Duration: 1-2 days
Best time of year to avoid crowds: spring or fall
Josiah Q. Roe
The Lake Tahoe area is a fabulous destination year-round, though you’ll find peak season is July and August. Start your Lake Tahoe road trip by visiting Donner Summit. Donner Summit and the deep emerald lake at its feet both bear the name of the tragic emigrant party crossing Donner Pass, whose story is wonderfully displayed at the Donner Lake Museum located at the bottom of the summit. Today, Donner Summit and the Donner Pass are known for hiking trails, biking trails and endless views. Donner is just a few minutes from downtown Truckee and only another 20 minutes from the shores of Lake Tahoe.
For a great outing of scenery and sights, visit Squaw Valley USA, home of the 1960 Winter Olympics. Squaw Valley | Alpine Meadows is one of North Lake Tahoe’s mountainside communities, offering individual style, restaurants, shopping, skiing, snow tubing, hiking, tram rides and more. This is a must-see when you are in Lake Tahoe – take the Aerial Tram ride up to the top of the mountain for 180-degree views of Lake Tahoe and visit the free Olympic Museum to see some of Squaw Valley’s history.
From Emerald Bay, take the short drive past Taylor Creek, the Tallac Historic Site and Taylor into South Lake Tahoe to visit Heavenly Mountain Resort. The gondola is open year-round for skiing and snowboarding in the winter and in the summer for sightseeing with unrivalled views up above Lake Tahoe.
Heavenly Mountain Resort
The Lake Tahoe-Truckee region offers a great mix of year-round outdoor adventure, sightseeing, and shopping. Summers are great for kayaking, boating, and other water sports, while fall and spring are excellent times to hike and bike the trails or backpack through parks.
Road Trip Itinerary 2: Eastern Sierra
Start: Bodie | End: Death Valley National Park
Jeff Sullivan Photography
Suggested route: Bodie - Mono Lake - Mammoth Lakes - Bishop - Death Valley National Park
Distance: 265 miles / 427 km
Duration: 3-4 days
Best time of year to avoid crowds: May/June and September/October (Travellers should note that mountain passes (SR 120 W/108/89) close due to snow, usually from mid-November to late May)
Drive the State-designated Scenic Byway US 395 along the east flank of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, as you head to Bodie State Historic Park, the west’s largest unrestored gold-mining ghost town. Then visit Mono Lake to see the photogenic limestone tufa towers and birdlife of this vast, salt-water lake. (Yosemite National Park’s east entrance is just 19 km (12 miles) west.)
Mono County Tourism
Further south, Mammoth Lakes resort offers excellent hiking, golf, fishing and a scenic gondola ride to 11,053’ on Mammoth Mountain – and don’t miss geologic wonder, Devils Postpile National Monument. Continue to Bishop, home of Laws Railroad Museum, the Buttermilk boulder fields, and fall colours of Bishop Creek.
Bishop Chamber Of Commerce
Next en route, watch for Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous U.S. at nearly 4,000 metres tall (14,505 ft). Then, venture east to Death Valley National Park – in contrast, the lowest point in the country. You'll see that the diversity of the Eastern Sierra landscape, outdoor recreation, and natural beauty are well worth the trip.
Road Trip Itinerary 3: Western & Southern Sierras
Start: Loope | End: Three Rivers
Suggested route: Loope - Dorrington - Toulumne - Coulterville - Highway 41 - Three Rivers
Distance: 385 miles / 620 km
Duration: 2-3 days
Best time of year to avoid crowds: spring
Explore the Ebbetts Pass National Scenic Byway (Highway 4) over the Sierras. Don’t miss multiple pristine alpine lakes and hiking trails accessed from this breathtaking highway. Bear Valley offers mountain sports adventure year-round and newly opened glamping sites offering spectacular views. Continue east to Calaveras Big Trees State Park in Arnold, open daily, year-round to walk through magnificent giant sequoia trees where they were first discovered. See the largest concentration of these magnificent trees in the South Grove. Nearby, enjoy Arnold’s multiple restaurants, 27 km (17 miles) of hiking & biking trails on the Arnold Rim Trail and insight into the fascinating logging history in the Sierras at the Sierra Nevada Logging Museum. From Arnold, it’s just a 15-minutes drive to Calaveras County’s culinary and wine center, where more than two-dozen wine tasting rooms are all within strolling distance in charming, historic Murphys.
In Tuolumne County, visitors will find a wealth of year-round adventures and activities. The County's Highway 108 leads adventure seekers to extreme mountain vistas, high country lakes and a wide variety of outdoor recreation in the vast Stanislaus National Forest and Carson Iceberg Wilderness. A ski resort, sliding hill and ice skating round-out fun winter activities. Those heading to Yosemite National Park via Highway 120 should be sure to visit Hetch Hetchy. This reservoir is home to San Francisco's water supply and also offers excellent hiking and waterfall sightings. While located in Yosemite, Hetch Hetchy is far less crowded but equally as spectacular as the famed Yosemite Valley.
Make your way to Yosemite Valley where you can see soaring granite icons such as Half Dome, El Capitan and Yosemite Falls. Park your car and hop on and off the free Yosemite Valley Shuttle to make the most of your day. Stay in the small town of El Portal, just outside the park and visit the historic Gold Rush town of Mariposa, where you’ll find shopping, dining, wineries & breweries all downtown in an old west setting.
Heading out of the south gate of Yosemite National Park along Highway 41, don’t miss the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoia. Be one of the first visitors to experience the newly-restored grove that is reopening this spring. Another popular attraction along Highway 41 is the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad in the town of Fish Camp. Take a six kilometre (four-mile) journey back in time aboard a historic steam train, learn gold panning, visit the Thornberry Museum, shop at the Depot Gift Shop and grab lunch at the Station Sandwich Shop.
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