Thursday, March 01, 2012

Sierra Nevada Road Trip from Southern California

Since summer is fast approaching, I will be sharing here one of the summer road trips we love taking. The Sierra Nevada road trip offers one of California's spectacular landscapes . The Sierra Nevada got its name from its rugged mountain and snowy peaks. "Sierra Nevada" in Spanish means "snow covered mountain range".

Mammoth Mountain Peaks, Eastern Sierra, CA
Sierra Nevada is also known
as the Sierras and the High Sierras. The Sierras extends North to South of East California a total of 400 miles in length, and in some places, it overlaps the state of Nevada.

The Great Western Divide, from the top of Moro Rock, Sequoia National Park, CA
This mountain escape is home to three neighboring National Parks: the Sequoia National Park,

Divided Highway 180, Sequoia National Park
Kings Canyon National Park

Kings River Canyon, CA
and Yosemite National Park.

Tunnel View, Yosemite National Park, CA
Aside from these 3 neighboring National Parks, there are still a lot of interesting landscapes and geological formations to see.
I can actually stay in one of these parks for a week and still would not be able to see all that the park has to offer and hike every trails that I like. However, for someone who may want to see more for a week, especially those coming outside of California, a road trip to see more of the interesting places maybe preferrable. The ideal cities to do this road trip would be either San Francisco, or Los Angeles. For those who want to see more, you can drive from LA to SF (or vice versa) by way of PCH 1 passing through Big Sur in addition to the Sierras. That, however, would be a longer road trip, but it will offer three different sceneries in California, the ocean, the mountains and the desert. This post will just be on the Sierra road trip which is more on the mountains and desert scenery of CA.
Here is a sample 7 day itinerary if coming from Southern California, this road trip can be shortened to 5 days or lengthened to 2 or more weeks, depending on the planned activities. For a 7 day road trip, this will not cover all the length of the Sierra but mostly just the South part of the Sierras.
Best time to visit: Late Spring or Early Summer ( at early spring, some roads are still closed due to snow especially at the High Sierras, yet at late summer, the waterfalls are not at their best already).
Day 1: Leave San Diego ( but for tourists, LA or SF is the closer city ) for Sequoia National Park.

General Sherman, world's largest tree in terms of volume
From LA to Visalia is about 3.5 hours, but after that, the road becomes very windy that driving becomes very slow. From Visalia to the South entrance of the park in Ash mountain is about 1 hour. Though the drive is very slow, yet it is very entertaining and inspiring because of the scenery. One very impressive scenery that unfolds in this drive is the change in vegetation. The foothills are very typical Southern California setting, filled with dry grass, beautiful yuccas, clusters of oaks, pines and low lying chaparrals. Then, it slowly changes to more pines, and to Sequoias and more pines, now very typical of a sub-alpine setting.
If you are interested in caving, when you get to the South Entrance at Ash Mountain, you buy tickets for Crystal Cave. Or you can take a hike to Moro Rock , drive through Crescent Meadow and do some easy hikes in Giant Forest and General Sherman tree trail which are filled with really awe inspiring big trees!
For lodging choices, there is Wuksaschi Lodge right in the heart of Sequoia National Park, or for more lodging options, you can visit this page.
Day 2: Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park.
There are many hiking trails at Sequoia, but for this trip, because of limited time, you can take one of the short hikes. For us, we took the short 3.8 miles round trip hike with 600 ft change in elevation to Tokopah Falls. From day 1 to day 2, we were greeted by grazing deers while hiking and some black bears while driving.

After hiking to Tokopah Falls, we drove to the nearby Kings Canyon National Park, took the Boydern Cavern tours in Kings Canyon, drove until Road's End and took the short hike at Zumwalt's Meadow. There are some interesting waterfalls to see in the drive, such as the Grizzly Falls and the Roaring River Falls.

Grizzly Falls, Kings Canyon
For lodging in Kings Canyon, you can visit this this page
Day 3: Kings Canyon National Park and Yosemite National Park.
Wake up early and walk amongst the giant woods in General Grant Tree Trail in Kings Canyon National Park. General Grant tree is one of the world's biggest tree. From Kings Canyon, drive to Yosemite National Park, which is about 3 hours drive. At Yosemite, if you still have not gotten enough of the big trees, you can stop at Mariposa or South entrance and take the 1.6 miles round trip hike at mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. However, if you think you have enough, you can proceed directly to Glacier Point. Since there are no free shuttle to Glacier Point and you are entering the park from the South and heading North, it is more practical and easier to stop at Glacier Point first so that you do not have to drive back and forth.

Half Dome from Glacier Point
At Glacier Point, there are several moderate trails that you can take. After Glacier Point, you can proceed to Yosemite Valley. I really recommend to stop at the Tunnel View, this will be your first glimpse of Yosemite Valley. Then, if you are in time ( late afternoon), stop by at Bridalveil Falls on your way to the valley.

Rainbow at Bridalveil Falls
Rainbow usually appear with the right sunny conditions at Bridalveil Fall around late afternoon of early summer (we got there about 5:30 pm), or maybe early afternoon in spring. It is during this time where the sun is low and behind you while you gaze at the cascading waterfall in bridal veil like manner in front of you.
This maybe your first waterfall experience if your first stop is Yosemite, but quite the nth falls already if you went to Sequoia and Kings Canyon first.
For lodging at Yosemite, I suggest, you really make reservations way ahead. Last year, I made our reservations as early as March for mid June, yet we could not make it to the lodges anymore, so, we settled for cabins in Curry Village. Unlike Sequoia and Kings Canyon, this is very popular and highly visited park, that reservations must be done way advance.

For lodging, please click here. I think both lodging and camping requires reservations way ahead.

For camping, please click here.

Day 4: Hike the Yosemite Valley Floor Loop Trail @ Yosemite National Park (13 miles round trip )

Yosemite Waterfall
This is a very inspiring hike that I truly recommend. This is a moderate 13 miles round trip hike. Actually, with the crowd in Yosemite, if you take this hike, you will wonder where are the crowds. This is a very peaceful trail and the tranquil beauty of the hike is truly rewarding and inspiring.

Wildflowers, Pines and Granite Walls at Cook's Meadow
The only crowded part of this hike is at the start, which is the Yosemite Fall trail. A lot of people make their piligrimage to Yosemite Fall, but after taking this short walk to marvel at the tallest waterfall in North America, or the 5th tallest in the world, the people disappear you wonder where they went. Some of course, took the other trails, but a lot really just pass through this park and proceed to the cities. Sad for them, happy for us, since there are still really a lot of natural beauty beside the Yosemite waterfall.
Day 5: Hike to Vernal and Nevadal Fall @ Yosemite National Park ( 7 miles RT hike, 2000 ft elevation gain)

The Mist Trail from the top of Vernal Fall
The hike to the top of Vernal fall is 1.5 miles one way with 1000 ft elevation gain. However, if you continue your hike adding 2 more miles and climbing an additional 1000 ft, you will reach the top of Nevada Fall.

Half Dome, Liberty Cap and Nevada Fall from John Muir Trail
Some really very physically fit woke up early enough to start their hike, from Nevada Fall they continued to Half Dome, a total of 15 miles round trip with approximately 4,800 ft climb. I still hope to do this one day :)
Day 6: Explore Yosemite High Sierras at Tioga Pass and the Eastern Sierra.

Spring Pond @ Tuolomne Meadows, Yosemite National Park
Experience the inspiring tranquility that the High Sierra has to offer at Tuolomne Meadows. The High Sierra of Yosemite traverses through Tioga Pass which opens late May or early June, depending on the conditions. After the road is opened, the road can still remain wet and snowy for several weeks. There are various hiking trails that starts at Tuolomne Meadows, and the drive offers also spectacular vistas. There are just so many beautiful places to see in this 39 mile stretch. Please click here to check the many hiking choices at Tuolomne Meadows.
By late afternoon, proceed to the Eastern Sierra and stop by Mono Lake. You now have left the alpine scenery for a desert landscape.

Mono Lake South Tufa State Reserve
Mono Lake is just 22 miles Southeast of the Yosemite National Parks entrance at Tioga Pass. Amazing that in that short distance, you experience a contrast of 2 completely different world, one is an alpine region clad with pines, while the other is a surreal desert region guarded with the eerie tufas.

Mono Lake South Tufa State Reserve
For lodging, the closest lodging at Mono Lake is at Lee Vining, however, it is very close to Yosemite's Tuolomne Meadows, even if I attempted to make reservations at March for a June trip, we did not make it. Since we were planning to see Devil's Postpile National Monument, we made reservations at Mammoth Mountain instead. And since Mammoth Mountain is home to a lot of skiing resort, finding a place to stay was not a problem for us. It was no longer the peak of skiing season, and also the mountain biking season has not officially started yet.
Day 7: Explore the Eastern Sierra while driving back to Los Angeles/San Diego.
Aside from skiing, fishing, mountain biking, Mammoth Mountain offers several interesting geological formation and stunning scenery. During summer and fall, the road to Devil's Postpile National Monument from Mammoth Mountain is opened for visitation, by way of the Red Meadows Shuttle Bus System.

Pile of Columnar Rocks at Devil's Postpile National Monument
Devil's Postpile is just a short 0.4 mile hike to the base and another 15 minute uphill hike to the top of the formation. Just another 2 miles downstream from this formation is another beautiful waterfall in the Sierra, the Rainbow Falls. Mark Meader of the Photographic Aspect featured this beautiful waterfall in his post just a few weeks ako, you can check it out by clicking here.
From Devil's Postpile, you can explore the area around Mammoth Lakes, and then proceed South of Highway 395. The drive on 395 again looks surreal since you are driving through a desert scenery with towering and rugged granite peaks.

Desert Landscape with Granite Peaks @ Eastern Sierra
Amazing to see snow not so far yet the desert road we were driving at that time was in the low 90s (or in low 30s Celsius)! It is not surprising to me that the Eastern Sierra is known as the land of the extremes. Not far from Mammoth Mountain is the Bishop Creek Canyon, another beautiful and rugged mountain scenery in the Eastern Sierra. Bishop Creek Canyon is at higher elevation, thus having been used to the extremes in this region, it is not surprising to see a frozen lake here early of summer while the temperature of the desert valley is in the 80s or 90s.

North Lake, Bishop Creek Canyon, Eastern Sierra
Continuing South of Bishop, you pass the town of Lone Pine, which is Hollywood's popular setting of the wild wild west. Just a few miles off of Highway 395 on Whitney Portal Road, is this another amazing geological wonderland.

Alabama Hills, Lone Pine, Eastern Sierra
This is a world of rocks, the area is graced by incredible rock pile formations of all shapes and forms you can think of. Some movies that require a wild western setting or a sci-fi setting were shot here. The list includes Maverick, How the West was Won, Gladiator, Lone Ranger, etc.
This is usually our last stop in the Eastern Sierra before proceeding driving back to LA (starting point) or San Diego.
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  1. whoah!awesome sights and interesting info.great post!

  2. The photos are just stunning, and the ones with the rainbow are magnificence!

    Very informative, and an enjoyable post!

  3. Excellent post full of useful information and spectacular photos. Some of my favotite images are of the Sequoias, Cook's Meadow and Devil's Postpile.

  4. I love all of your posts so for me to say this is really a lot but this is my favorite I think. These pictures are amazing. The Sherman tree is unbelieveable, the deer, the rainbows, everything. Very peaceful!

  5. By your description and your pictures, if I ever was able to get to this place, I'd never want to leave. Someone would have to drag me out. I really mean that. The only reason I leave my small hiking trails here is because I know I'm still close to the city. I could be a happy hermit. :)

  6. Bethcai, it's nice of you to provide a sample itinerary (with beautiful pictures!) for those who plan to have a Sierra Nevada trip. I'm sure this post would be very useful especially for first time hikers to the area. How I wish I could visit this place too and pose beside General Sherman as well. ;)

  7. I want to go to Crystal Cave, and I always love the pictures of the older trees, you take. I am not sure what it is about a tree, that I love so much, but I do. Great pictures, as always.

  8. Nice waterfall and the last photo's very nice too...interesting composition.

  9. I can always count on coming by here for fabulous photos! I will have to try this trip sometime.

  10. Wow, unbelievable!! great informative post and awesome images of , well everything, mountains and the rainbows were super, nice job.

  11. You always get me amazed with all your photos betchai. Great shots, views and everything. Your adventures are all worth seeing and reading. Where are you heading out this summer?

  12. Your photos never fail to amaze me! Great post, as always.

  13. My goodness, my eyes are glued to the screen again, and I keep admiring your wonderful photos! I love all of them! I know it, I would never get tired looking and staring at those amazing views!!

    Debbie :)

  14. wow!! Astonishing photos!

    Looks real nature's wonders to me...I have seen photos of Yosemite and i really want to see that oneday!! Nevada and Vernal and rest of the falls too looks breathtaking..

    Thanks a lot for posting this :)

  15. Have you ever been snowboarding?

  16. Hello, Beth! It's Rose. This is a really helpful post. I am planning a road trip starting from San Diego ending at San Francisco on late April to May. Can you give me suggestions on where to go after a stop at LA before heading to San Francisco?

  17. the world's largest tree whew....awesome and the blue shots know what happens to me when I see your beautiful blue I'd love to go on a road trip there too one sweet day :-)

  18. Beth.........i still didnt see that arch rock at Alabama that towards the Whitney Portal turn? ;o)