California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains are a surprisingly big place, measuring about 400 miles from north to south and 50 miles or more across, so a week is an ideal amount of time for exploring them. It takes time to get around here, especially if you’re crossing from the west side of the mountains to the Eastern Sierra or up to Lake Tahoe. But relax, you can still manage to see many of the region’s biggest highlights and have plenty of outdoor fun in just one week.
Summer is the best and the busiest time to take a road trip through the Sierra Nevada. That’s when all of the mountain roads and hiking trails are open and snow-free. You could also take this road trip in early autumn, before the first snow falls. Autumn in the Sierra Nevada sees far fewer crowds than summer, and lodging rates drop after Labor Day in early September. Insiders know that the first half of June, right after the Memorial Day holiday weekend, is also a slightly less frantic time to visit the Sierra Nevada.
Start your trip at Yosemite National Park in the Yosemite Valley, where 19th-century conservationist and Sierra Club co-founder John Muir once lived in a cabin beneath spectacular Yosemite Falls, North America’s highest waterfall. Spend a day hiking the Mist Trail or, if you’ve won the advance permit lottery and are a strong, well prepared hiker, you can tackle Half Dome. With reservations made months ahead of time, you can bed down in Yosemite Valley at a lodge or a campsite under the pines.
The next day, drive south of Yosemite Valley and detour along Glacier Point Road for wildflower meadow walks and panoramic views of Yosemite Valley from Glacier Point. Further south lies historical Wawona, near the magical Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias (though note the grove is closed for restoration until spring 2017).
On the third day, pack up and drive to Yosemite’s high country around beautiful Tuolumne Meadows, kept green by the Tuolumne River. Stops along Tioga Road (Highway 120) that you shouldn’t miss include Olmsted Point for the views and serene Tenaya Lake. A quick day hike off Tioga Road brings you to the shores of petite May Lake, or you can scramble up one of the granite domes around the meadow instead. Stay overnight at Tuolumne Meadows Campground or in a rustic tent cabin at Tuolumne Meadows Lodge or White Wolf Lodge.
The next morning, drive over Tioga Pass and roll downhill toward scenic Mono Lake, with its unusual tufa formations that jut up out of the water. Take a shoreline walk or paddle a kayak into the alkaline waters before driving south toward Mammoth Lakes, the biggest outdoor adventure town in the Eastern Sierra. Check into your lodgings and spend the afternoon mountain biking on Mammoth Mountain, which is a premier ski resort in winter, or hop on a shuttle bus to the geologically fascinating Devils Postpile National Monument.
Keep going south the next day to Lone Pine, where countless classic Hollywood Westerns were filmed, for a scenic drive up Whitney Portal Road. You can’t help but gape in awe at the Sierra Nevada’s tallest peak, Mount Whitney (14,505 feet). En route back to Mammoth Lakes for a second night, you’ll pass through Bishop, another jumping-off point for backcountry adventures on foot and horseback.
On the morning of day six, leave Mammoth Lakes and follow Highway 395 north through the Eastern Sierra up to Lake Tahoe, where you’ll spend your last night. Go for a swim by one of the lake’s sandy beaches, then kick back with waterfront drinks and catch one last gorgeous Sierra Nevada sunset.