California Road Trip: The Tahoe to Yosemite Loop

California Road Trip: The Tahoe to Yosemite Loop

This unforgettable California road trip takes you from the mesmerizing blue waters of Lake Tahoe to the raging waterfalls of Yosemite and back. Along the way, pass over stunning mountain passes, stop for some whitewater action, stretch your legs on a hike or two and enjoy a dip in a natural hot spring.  Here’s the route…

Raft, Hike and Explore California’s Scenic Sierra Nevada

Emerald Bay Lake Tahoe

Gateway: Lake Tahoe

Plan a day at the beginning of your trip to drive the 72-mile loop around the lake and take in the stunning vistas and charming mountain towns along the way. Don’t miss your chance to get out on that crystal-clear water. Pull over at one of the many outfitters around the lake like Kayak Tahoe and rent a kayak or stand up paddleboard for the afternoon. Recommended paddling spot: Baldwin Beach, which gives you the chance to paddle the lake’s rugged shoreline to iconic Emerald Bay.

Rafting on the South Fork American River

Leg 1: South Lake Tahoe to Coloma

From “Big Blue,” head west on US-50 through the El Dorado National Forest to the Gold Country town of Placerville. Stretch your legs along historic Main Street, which features a wide variety of restaurants and boutiques. 

Leaving Placerville, head north along CA-49 for a slight detour to Coloma. In the summer months, this sleepy little town turns into a bustling river community and the hub for rafting on the South Fork American River. Spend a fun-filled day (or two!) splashing down one of the best stretches of whitewater in California.

Nevada Falls Hike

Leg 2: Lotus to Yosemite National Park

From Lotus, follow CA-49 south past other picturesque gold rush towns like Angels Camp and Sonora, which offer a variety of shops, creative eateries, wineries and pubs. Take your time to savor this unique corridor and consider a side trip to Moaning Caverns or Big Trees State Park, which are short detours along the route.Once in Sonora, take CA-108W to CA-120E which takes you into Yosemite National Park via the Big Oak Flat Entrance. Recommended Yosemite hike if you only have one day: Nevada Falls via The Mist Trail. Make sure to go early to avoid the crowds. Otherwise, if you have more time, check out this ultimate 3-day Yosemite itinerary for other hiking recommendations, hidden gems, lodging info and more.

Explore Yosemite Adventures

Mono Lake on the Eastern Sierra
Leg 3: Yosemite to Tahoe

Exit the park via Tioga Road/CA-120E to explore the off-the-beaten-path Eastern Sierra. In Lee Vining, don’t miss the infamous Whoa Nellie Deli before heading north on CA-395N, a stretch of road known for its sweeping mountain views, hidden hot springs and eclectic pit stops. As you make your way back to Tahoe, take a short stroll to see the curious “tufa towers” at Mono Lake, and stop for a soak at Travertine Hot Springs near Bridgeport, the ultimate finale to this California road trip.  

California Road Trip: The Tahoe to Yosemite Loop

An earlier version of this article was published in 2012. It was updated with new information and republished March 2020.


Photos: Yosemite National Park – Photo by Dan Wechter/Unsplash; Lake Tahoe’s Emerald Bay – Photo by Stephen Walker/Unsplash; Rafting on the South Fork American River – James Kaiser; Nevada Falls in Yosemite – Wanderlove; Mono Lake tufas – Photo by Eniko Polgar/Unsplash