Los Angeles Road Trip: Eastern Sierra to Yosemite Loop
As tourism restrictions fluctuate in many states and counties, be sure to review local health department updates and guidelines before traveling and keep in mind the potential impacts you may have on the communities you travel through.
Adventures close to home are something we can all get behind. If you’re in Southern California, it doesn’t get better than this bucket list road trip which takes you on the road less traveled from Los Angeles to the granite wonderland of Yosemite and back. Along the way, you’ll explore the majestic Eastern Sierra, go off-the-beaten path in the park and take on some of the state’s most thrilling whitewater. Here’s the route and how to make the most of your time on the road…
Explore the Best of California’s Eastern Sierra & Yosemite on this Road Trip from Los Angeles
Stop 1: Lone Pine | Whitney Portal | Alabama Hills
Leaving Los Angeles, head north out of the city via I-5 before merging onto Highway 14 toward U.S. Route 395N. If you need to stretch your legs along the way, make a pit stop at Red Rock Canyon State Park. Otherwise, hold out for the rustic town of Lone Pine, best-known as the gateway to the John Muir Wilderness and Mount Whitney. At 14,494-feet Mount Whitney is the tallest peak in the Lower 48 and attracts hikers from around the world.
It’s a tough permit to snag and an even more challenging hike, so if that’s not an option, opt for a half-day adventure that gives you a taste of the big mountain scenery along this iconic trail. The 5.6-mile hike to Lone Pine Lake follows the Mount Whitney Trail, but as long as you make it a day trip, you don’t need a permit. If you prefer a bit more solitude, check out the nearby Meysan Lake Trail, a challenging 11-mile round-trip hike that leads to alpine lake bliss. Afterward, don’t miss the chance to grab a post-hike burger and beer at the famed Whitney Portal Store.
If you’re able to snag a spot, throw down a tent at the Whitney Portal Campground for a night under the dark Sierra sky, or grab a no-frills room back in Lone Pine. Either way, before you leave, grab a table at Alabama Hills Cafe & Bakery for the best breakfast in town. Then, check out the Mobius Arch Loop Trail in the nearby Alabama Hills Recreation Area. This quick and easy .6-mile jaunt is popular but worth it for the view alone—the nearby peaks perfectly framed through a spectacular natural arch.
Stop 2: Mammoth Lakes | Devils Postpile National Monument
Back on the road, continue north along Highway 395 to Mammoth Lakes, an outdoor-lover’s dream town.
In the summer months, Mammoth Mountain, the town’s world-class ski hill, transforms into a slick downhill mountain biking park with more than 80-plus miles of singletrack and options for all levels of riders. You can hop on the gondola and bomb down from the top of the mountain, or get your bearings on the fun and accessible lower trail system. No bike, no worries—you can rent everything you need at the mountain, or from one of the bike shops in town.
If you prefer two legs over two wheels, however, there are more than 300 miles of recreational trails part of the Mammoth Lakes Trail System, including hikes from the top of Mammoth Mountain that are accessible via the gondola during the summer months. Or, consider catching the shuttle to Devils Postpile National Monument from the Mammoth Mountain Adventure Center where you can hike to a unique, 100,000-year-old rock formation formed by lava and 101-foot-tall Rainbow Falls.
After an adrenaline-fueled ride or challenging hike, snag a picnic table in the beer garden at Mammoth Brewing Company, and enjoy the lively scene in the heart of town. If you’re hungry, the EATery at Bleu, which is located inside the brewery’s tasting room, offers a wide variety of tasty bites.
For the perfect nightcap, don’t miss the chance to grab a towel and head to one of the many hot springs in the area for a soothing sunset soak. Don’t expect solitude unless you luck out with timing, but the dramatic mountain views you’re treated to while relaxing in a natural hot tub are almost always worth the short drive outside of town.
Stop 3: Yosemite National Park
You could spend an entire vacation exploring the Eastern Sierra and Mammoth Lakes area, but with one of the most sought-after national parks just an hour further up the road, it wouldn’t make sense to skip it when you’ve already come this far.
From Mammoth, continue north on Highway 395 to Lee Vining. In Lee Vining, stock up on lunch fixings at the Mono Market before heading into Yosemite National Park from the west via the Tioga Pass Entrance along Highway 120. Be sure to time this trip right and check road conditions, because Tioga Road is typically only accessible between May through October each year before it closes for the winter. Still, this less-crowded Yosemite corridor offers some of the park’s best hikes and views.
For a moderate day hike that’s big on rewards, don’t miss the 4-mile round-trip hike to Dog Lake and the top of Lembert Dome. A fairly straight-forward scramble to the top affords hikers spectacular views of the Cathedral Range and two of the tallest peaks in Yosemite—Mt. Dana and Mt. Lyell. Afterward, backtrack to the junction for Dog Lake and enjoy your lunch on the shores of a serene High Sierra lake.
To make the most of your visit, including seeing the famed sights in Yosemite Valley, plan to spend at least three days exploring the park (here’s a sample itinerary). Yosemite campsites typically need to be booked six months in advance, or consider staying at accommodations just outside of the park like the rustic Evergreen Lodge which gives you the chance to explore the lesser-known Hetch Hetchy area of Yosemite, as well.
Stop 4: Groveland | Tuolumne River Rafting
For the grand finale to this Yosemite road trip from Los Angeles, don’t miss the chance to experience world-class whitewater in Yosemite’s backyard. Hook up with an outfitter just outside of Groveland for a 2- or 3-day Tuolumne River rafting trip. The Wild and Scenic Tuolumne roars down from the snow-covered peaks of the Sierra Nevada into a spectacular river canyon, offering paddlers 18 miles of thrilling Class III-IV+ whitewater, along with complete wilderness immersion, hidden swimming holes and camping under brilliant star-filled skies. The trip can be done as a day trip earlier in the season, but it’s worth taking the extra time to fully experience the magic of this remote river canyon.
Following your rafting adventure, unwind for a night in nearby Groveland before making your way back to Southern California. Book a room at the historic Hotel Charlotte where you can treat yourself to a delicious meal and post-river trip libation at Charlotte’s Tavern as you reflect on your adventures.
Please remember to travel responsibly and always Leave No Trace in any area you’re visiting.
Photos: Hot spring hidden along the Highway 395 corridor – Joshua Sortino; Mobius Arch near Lone Pine, CA – Stephen Leonardi; Hiking near Mammoth Lakes – Mick Haupt; Lembert Dome in Yosemite National Park – Matt Artz; Whitewater rafting on the Tuolumne River near Yosemite – James Kaiser