NorCal Roadtrips

An Explorer's Guide to Northern California

San Francisco To Death Valley National Park

Death Valley
Views of the Panamint Range- Death Valley

Death Valley National Park, at 3,396,000 acres, is the largest national park outside of Alaska and in our view one of the most inspiring. Its remote location and somewhat unforgiving climate (at certain times of the year) tend to be off-putting to many. But those considerations, considered to be liabilities by some, become virtues to those of us who like the fact that the reputation discourages casual visitors unwilling to risk some potential discomfort to experience something truly unique and beautiful. Our inveterate Expedition Leader recently combined a trip to Death Valley with an extended visit to some of the crown jewels of southern Utah (Zion's National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Canyons of the Escalante National Monument and Arches National Park) and came back with a ringing re-affirmation that Death Valley is at least their equal.

Like the Utah locations, which are also beautiful, Death Valley is desert. It includes over 5,000 square miles of the Mohave Desert, one of the hottest and driest places on earth. So guess what- don't go in summer. In the fall and winter temperatures are moderate and actually comfortable. Like most desert areas, there can be a 40 degree temperature swing from high-to-low, but 30 degrees Fahrenheit to 70 degrees Fahrenheit ain't bad. And in the spring you can combine moderate temperatures with the by-product of what little rainfall is experienced, and check out the wildflower explosion that results.

Visitors need to visit all of the classic destinations within the park, which are readily accessible from the paved roads. Hike all of the trails. For a more complete experience, consider taking some of the unpaved roads, several of which are more than suitable for stock 2-wheel drive vehicles. But the desert can be unforgiving, so be prudent and carry water and emergency gear. Vehicles can break down at inopportune times. And cell phones generally don't work here.

While mother nature did Death Valley proud, her human managers lacked the same vision. The major campgrounds in the park, Stovepipe Wells, Furnace Creek, Texas Springs and Sunset can best be described as parking lots. If parking in the lot of your local strip mall sounds like camping to you, you'll be okay. But the good news is that those with less discriminating tastes will occupy those spots while the rest of us will head to Mesquite Springs. While small, it actually feels like camping. It's about 4 miles from Scotty's Castle. The only disadvantage is that it is about 45 miles from many of the major attractions, which increases the driving load. But for many, the major sites are unlivable. And for those desiring a more primitive site yet, several very small alternatives exist; Thorndike, Emigrant, Wildrose and 4-Wheel Drive site Mahogany Flat. And bring your own shade; there isn't any in the natural world.

Getting there is half the fun. From San Francisco it involves crossing or avoiding the Sierra Nevada mountains. Our route of choice is to traverse Yosemite National Park via the Tioga Road, cross at Tioga Pass, and then proceed south on Highway 395. Tioga Pass closes in winter so the traveler needs to verify that the pass is open if traveling through Yosemite. Hwy. 395 from Lee Vining to Hwy 136 can be a trip in itself but is not covered here.

We like to avoid long drives on any given day so camping overnight in Yosemite National Park makes sense. Avoiding Yosemite Valley, we head right for the Tioga Road. There are a few camping choices along the way. In order, they include Crane Flat (at the start of the Tioga Road), White Wolf, Yosemite Creek, Porcupine Flat and Tuolumne Meadows. The time of year may well narrow the choices, as Tuolumne Meadows closes even earlier than Tioga Pass, and after early October until Spring Crane Flat and Porcupine Flat may be the only sites open. And Porcupine Flat may be 10 degrees or more colder than Crane Flat, so that may influence your decision.

The Tioga Road is a very nice drive, particularly in the area of Tenaya Lake. Tuolumne Meadows, if open, makes for a fine interim stop. But since Death Valley is our destination, one must leave Yosemite behind. So head over Tioga Pass to the village of Lee Vining. Here, a short detour is in order. Head north on Hwy. 395 for about a mile to Mono Lake. Stop at the Mono Basin Visitor's Center for a break, and explore Mono Lake for a few minutes or a few hours. Then head back south on Hwy. 395 enroute to Death Valley.

To break up what would be a fairly long drive, consider spending the night near Lone Pine, where Hwy. 395 intersects Hwy. 136 east toward Death Valley. Lone Pine is a nice little town in the heart of the Alabama Hills, an area famous as being the site where many "western" movies and TV shows (remember the Lone Ranger) were filmed. So it is the quintessential wild west. There's a nice store in town selling western gear too. We camped at Lake Diaz, a regional park on a small man-made lake that was serviceable if not memorable.

In the morning, hit Hwy. 136 for the drive into Death Valley. It's just a drive until you get to the destination, Death Valley National Park.

For our money Death Valley rivals anything that southern Utah or some of our better desert destinations have to offer. There are plenty of guides to the park to aid the visitor so we will not regurgitate them here. But we can help with the camping options.

Returning home offers choices depending on your available time and mind-set. You can backtrack through Yosemite if Tioga Pass is open. You can head north to Lake Tahoe on the east side of the Sierra Nevada mountains and make the crossing there. Or you can, as we did, head west to Morro Bay, stopping in the Mohave National Preserve. The latter is well worth a visit- see our write-up elsewhere. From Morro Bay you can meander north on Hwy. 1 past Hearst Castle and Big Sur as you return the Bay Area. See our write-up on Hwy. 1 South- San Francisco to Morro Bay, for our take on that trip.

Click this link for a stand-alone write up on Yosemite National Park, including Things To Do and Campgrounds.

Click this link for a stand-alone write-up on Death Valley National Park, including Things To Do and Campgrounds.

Click this link for our write-up on the Highway 395 South road trip, including Things To Do and Campgrounds. There is much to do and many places to sleep.

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