Driving the Eastern Sierras, California

As part of a Memorial Day weekend road trip with plenty of driving, we decided to drive the back side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range from Death Valley National Park to the Mammoth Lakes ski area. What a beautiful drive! If you are considering a California family road trip, consider this addition to your itinerary.

The Drive

If you live in Los Angeles and want to go skiing in Mammoth, this drive might be familiar to you, but if you live in the San Francisco Bay area, there is little reason to ever take this road. Since we were in the latter group, we had to invent a reason to drive this road. Fortunately, our love of Death Valley National Park made this easy!

In May of 2017, we decided to turn a long weekend into a massive road trip that included Kings Canyon National Park, Death Valley National Park, and the Mammoth Lakes ski area, with the option to stop in the Lake Tahoe area on our way home. If you don’t like extensive amounts of driving, this probably isn’t the long weekend road trip for you, but if you have a week or two, there are plenty of activities to fill the time!

Here is a map that shows different starting points that will allow you to drive between Death Valley and Mammoth Lakes. San Francisco, Los Angeles, or Las Vegas are all great choices:

In May, Death Valley is most pleasant in the mornings and evening, so after a delightful morning, when the afternoon heat became oppressive, we decided it was time to start driving to Mammoth Lakes.

Closer to Death Valley, you will encounter a lot of arid desert with little vegetation besides small cacti and scrub brush.

The landscape is really quite surprising, and not at all what you might think of when you picture a drive by the Sierras.

One thing to keep in mind is that the towns you will encounter are both small and somewhat far apart. Make sure that you have some water and a few snacks in the car in case you can’t find a restaurant around meal times. A quick Google search turned up plenty of fast food options in Lone Pine and Bishop, but outside those towns, your options are likely to be limited until you reach Mammoth Lakes.

We had a delightful drive!

The largest town between Death Valley and Mammoth is Bishop, which is a good stop for lunch.

If we’d had more time, we would have liked to have visited the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, which contains the oldest known trees in the world – the path is roughly an hour into the mountains from Bishop. Meanwhile, a more somber site along the way is the Manzanar War Relocation Center (WWII), which has a visitor center.

Mammoth Lakes Area

On arrival, we learned that the ski slopes were still open! This isn’t normal for Memorial Day weekend, but 2017 had fairly unusual amounts of snow. We didn’t have appropriate gear to go, so we settled for letting the boys play in a big pile of snow that we found. If you are worried about summer-time frostbite on your kid’s fingers, socks make a good emergency substitute for mittens.

For dinner, we found a nice pizza place and enjoyed the quiet, yet lively atmosphere of this delightful town.

Eventually, we felt like we had seen enough and brought the boys to our hotel to sleep.

Drive Home

The next morning, we debated making a stop in the Lake Tahoe area, or simply driving straight home to the Bay Area. In the end, we chose to skirt South Lake Tahoe and head home.

On the way, we made a stop at Mono Lake, which is surprisingly a saline lake, so salty that most fish cannot survive in it. Brine shrimp are one of the few exceptions, and there are trillions of them that make this lake their home. You can also find limestone columns, called tufa towers, that typically only form in salt water lakes that are carbonate rich.

The visitor’s center has some decent descriptions and exhibits. If you stop there, enjoy the variety of birds and read about the cool features and history of this lake. The Mono Lake website has a lot of information about free walking tours, guided canoe tours, seminars, and more.

At this point, on a less snowy year, we may have been able to drive the Tioga Pass and gone to Yosemite National Park, but May is always iffy on whether or not the pass will be open, so check the website first.

Instead, we continued north onto the Lake Tahoe area. The California mountain scenery is amazing! If you have the opportunity, spend some time exploring the Lake Tahoe area. We visited a few scenic pullouts and snapped some pictures from the car, but otherwise, decided it was time to return home.

Long Weekend Itinerary

Our basic itinerary for a 3-day (Memorial Day) weekend California road trip included:

This is at least 1,100 miles of driving and three nights of hotels. Super fun if you like fast-paced travel and want a quick overview of some of California’s more unique destinations, but if you are a slow traveler, you might want to budget significantly more time.

As a caveat, some parts of this drive can be tricky in the winter (Kings Canyon and Mammoth get snow, roads can require chains at times) or tricky in the summer (Death Valley gets quite hot). Late May proved to be an interesting time where we could see both.

Our family came home delighted with what we had managed to see!

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