Highway 395 Road Trip: Death Valley to Yosemite to Tahoe

California is ready-made for road-tripping. In only a few hours, you can drive from the lowest spot in the western hemisphere—Death Valley’s Badwater at minus 282 feet—to 10,000 feet in elevation near the Sierra’s crest. With saw-toothed granite peaks on one side and the arid desert on the other, this Highway 395 road trip will connect it all.

woman taking a photo of a rock formation in California's Alabama Hills
Hundreds of Old West movies were filmed in the Alabama Hills. Photo © Ann Marie Brown.

Head west out of Death Valley to US 395 at Lone Pine. At the Beverly and Jim Rogers Museum of Lone Pine Film History, check out Hollywood props like costumes, saddles, and guns salvaged from the hundreds of Old West movies filmed in the neighboring Alabama Hills. Pick up the Movie Road Self-Guided Tour booklet and drive the Movie Road to Movie Flat, where dirt roads fan out to famous film locations—Gene Autry Rock, Lone Ranger Canyon, and Gary Cooper Rock. You’ll have big views of 14,505-foot Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the contiguous United States.

Next stop: Bishop. Relive the real Old West with a stop at the Laws Railroad Museum, where you can wander through twenty-eight wooden buildings crammed with pioneer curios: antique sewing machines, nineteenth-century dentist tools, blue glass medicine bottles, and Victorian wreaths made from human hair. As you head north out of town, stock up on elk and buffalo jerky—the perfect car snacks—at Mahogany Smoked Meats.

At the junction with Highway 203 to Mammoth Lakes, turn west and cruise up to California’s largest ski resort. Year-round you can ride the gondola to Mammoth Mountain’s 11,053-foot summit and view the panorama of the Sierra’s highest peaks. Don’t like heights? Rent a bike and pedal into the Mammoth Lakes Basin, or go for a hike: A steep but short trail leads to Crystal Lake, which fills a granite bowl below 10,377-foot Crystal Crag.

view of Mammoth Lakes and surrounding mountains
Take in the gorgeous view at Mammoth Lakes. Photo © Ann Marie Brown.

Continuing north on US 395, Mono Lake appears like a mirage—or maybe a land-locked ocean. From a distance, its 65-square-mile size dazzles, but get a close-up view at Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve. Walk the path that skirts past knobby clusters of tufa formations at the lake’s shoreline.

In Lee Vining, drive uphill (west) on Highway 120 to see Tioga Pass and Yosemite’s glorious eastern side. Stop for a meal at the historic Tioga Pass Resort, or take a walk in the splendor of Tuolumne Meadows. Hiking trails abound, from short strolls to multi-day treks.

woman hiking Tioga Pass in Yosemite
Take a hike through Tioga Pass in Yosemite National Park. Photo © Ann Marie Brown.

US 395 continues north to Bridgeport, passing Route 270 to Bodie State Historic Park—a worthy side-trip. The West’s largest unrestored ghost town, Bodie consists of 100 deserted buildings left from the days when gold fever gripped the Sierra. Peer in the windows to see tables, chairs, bed frames, and calendars that were abruptly abandoned when the mining boom went bust.

Beyond Bridgeport, 395 follows the Walker River Canyon, a raging waterway in spring and a mellow stream in late summer. Continue north into Nevada, then take the western turnoff for Kingsbury Grade (Highway 207). Climb up this steep, winding grade, then drop down to the vast blueness of Lake Tahoe, the largest alpine lake in North America.

emerald bay in lake tahoe
Cross into Nevada to arrive at your final destination: Lake Tahoe. Photo © Ann Marie Brown.

If you do this road trip, tag @moonguides on social media or use the #travelwithmoon hashtag. And don’t forget your copy of Moon Yosemite, Sequoia & Kings Canyon for an even bigger adventure in and around the park!

Ann Marie Brown

About the Author

Ann Marie Brown made her first solo trip to Yosemite at age 22. Like many first-time visitors, she was immediately inspired by the Valley's sheer granite walls and shimmering waterfalls. Parking her car at the first trailhead she saw, she set off on the Four-Mile Trail. Carrying nothing but a water bottle, she intended to hike only a short distance but was so wowed by the scenery that she kept on walking. Two hours later she found herself at Glacier Point, considered by many to be the grandest viewpoint in the West. Scanning the scene, she noticed tourists dressed in everything from high heels to a nun's habit, and realized that she could have driven to Glacier Point instead of walking. Ann Marie vowed she'd never again go hiking without a map.

More than two decades later, Ann Marie has gained substantially more outdoor savvy and is a dedicated California outdoorswoman. She hikes, camps, and bikes more than 150 days each year. She is the author of 13 Moon guides, including several outdoors titles, like Moon 101 Great Hikes San Francisco Bay Area, and is the co-author of Moon California Hiking with Tom Stienstra. Her work has also appeared in Sunset, VIA, and California magazines.

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