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San Francisco to Death Valley – A Super Scenic California Road Trip!

The road trip from San Francisco to Death Valley is full of picturesque scenes at every corner. I did this road trip during the early summer months and the journey was as beautiful as the destinations. I stopped at several places before spending a night at Mammoth Lakes on my first day and reached Death Valley the next day at night. I switched into vacation mode the moment I reached Long Barn on CA state route 108. The road was blanketed in mist, a mystery that unfolded slowly. So if you are a California road trip aficionado or are just curious, join me virtually on this super scenic California road trip to Death Valley.

If you are a California road trip aficionado or are just curious, join me virtually on this super scenic California road trip to Death Valley. #Travel #Explore #California Click To Tweet

Map of the scenic road trip from San Francisco to Death Valley (with driving directions)

The road trip from San Francisco to Death Valley is full of picturesque scenes at every corner. #Travel #California #Wanderlust Click To Tweet

The memories of roads 

An open road personifies freedom and is full of promise. One is free to embrace the endless possibilities of a road not traveled. It always has an unparalleled lure. Whenever I hit the road, I know several stories await me. I write some, I erase some and I keep some just for me. The road trip from San Francisco to Death Valley comprises of several such stories, unguarded moments and beautiful stops. I didn’t even count how many times the star-filled sky, an endless sea of tiny pinpricks of light, filled me with joy during this trip. I remember the oasis amidst the desert. The innumerable beautiful sunsets that I have seen during this trip made its way to my big digital album in my living room. The adventurous sandstorm night still fills me with thrill. So, get a cup of coffee, lean back, and enjoy the journey. It will surely be a good read for planning an exciting California road trip in the future, I promise!

An open road personifies freedom and is full of promise. One is free to embrace the endless possibilities of a road not traveled. It always has an unparalleled lure. #Travel #California #Roadtrip Click To Tweet
Whenever I hit the road, I know several stories await me. I write some, I erase some and I keep some just for me. The road trip from San Francisco to Death Valley comprises of several such stories, unguarded moments and beautiful… Click To Tweet

Stanislaus National Forest – First stop on the San Francisco to Death Valley road trip

Stanislaus National Forest is one of my favorite weekend getaways from San Francisco. I have seen this forest during the summer and autumn, and loved it both times. In fact, this destination made its permanent way to my Instagram highlight. While driving to Mammoth Lakes, when I saw the tall pine trees through wisps of swirling mist, I pulled my car near an open and safe place in the forest. After sitting for almost a couple of hours in the car, it was a welcome break both for Siddhartha and our little daughter. The moment we stepped out, I loved seeing my girl’s awed gasps. She heard the sound of a flowing stream nearby and immediately ran towards it. It is always fun to make your own discoveries when on a road trip. Glowing memories ensue.

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San Francisco to Death Valley - A Super Scenic California Road Trip.  Travel Realizations,  Stanislaus National Forest
Our Internet-deprived phones inside the forest couldn’t tell the location when we were there but later understood it is called strawberry. What a relishing name!
San Francisco to Death Valley - A Super Scenic California Road Trip.  Travel Realizations,  Stanislaus National Forest
Wilderness is always medicinal and makes long road trips endurable.

Stanislaus Forest – Where to stay?

If you have an extra day in hand, especially during the fall season, then consider spending it in Stanislaus National Forest. This is a perfect place to unwind amidst nature. Autumn is especially spectacular here. I stayed in the Long Barn Lodge and enjoyed my time very much. Mornings are especially beautiful in this mountain retreat. Birds, mist, and greenery greeted me in every corner. These quaint wooden houses helped me forget the rush of everyday life. Consider spending some time at nearby Pinecrest lake before starting for Mammoth Lakes.

Book your stay at the Long Barn Lodge here

Pinecrest Lake – Second stop on the San Francisco to Death Valley road trip

A four minute detour from Strawberry transported us to the beautiful Pinecrest lake, one of my favorite stops on this trip. I love walking here along the lake and the forest, which has well-maintained restrooms. I remember enjoying a family picnic here under the towering pine trees, overlooking the beautiful lake.

San Francisco to Death Valley - A Super Scenic California Road Trip.  Travel Realizations,  Stanislaus National Forest, Pine Crest Lake

Mammoth Lakes – Third stop on the San Francisco to Death Valley road trip and our stay here

I drove till Sonora Junction on CA state route 108 and then took a right and hit highway 395. When darkness descended and our car was rolling through the Inyo National forest with not a single soul in sight, I had fallen under the spell of the hypnotic forest all around. I pulled my car several times to see the sky full of sparkling stars. Finally, we drove non-stop to reach Mammoth Lakes by night. I enjoyed the company of the beautiful sceneries in the fading light of dusk and an audiobook for almost two and a half hours till we reached the Mammoth Lakes at almost midnight. We boarded a beautiful European chalet-styled hotel named Alpenhof Lodge, and spent the night in cozy comfort. The next day, I savoured a sumptuous breakfast before starting the day.

San Francisco to Death Valley - A Super Scenic California Road Trip.  Travel Realizations,  Mammoth Lakes, Alpenhof Lodge

Book your stay at the Alpenhof Lodge here.

Lake Mary – Fourth stop on the San Francisco to Death Valley road trip

The next day, our first stop was Lake Mary. Although it was windy and cold that day, the beauty of the snow-clad mountains across the blue lake filled me with joy. We spent some quiet time there while my daughter engaged in here favorite activity – throwing pebbles from the lakeshore into the water. Children are really at their best when in nature. The bracing and buoyant equilibrium of nature is perhaps the best antidote for the complexities of modern life. I loved watching her play in these picturesque surroundings and clicked many beautiful photographs.

The bracing and buoyant equilibrium of nature is perhaps the best antidote for the complexities of modern life. #Travel #Explore #California Click To Tweet
San Francisco to Death Valley - A Super Scenic California Road Trip.  Travel Realizations,  Mammoth Lakes, Lake Mary

Later we drove the loop road around Lake Mary and got to see some breathtaking scenery. If you love taking pictures, then this drive will not disappoint you. We went to the other side of Lake Mary and sat quietly amidst serene nature, contemplating about life. There was no one but a lone boat, ready to set sail.

San Francisco to Death Valley - A Super Scenic California Road Trip.  Travel Realizations,  Mammoth Lakes, Lake Mary
A lone boat on Lake Mary, waiting for her journey.

Mammoth Mountain – Fifth stop on the San Francisco to Death Valley road trip

We went to the village at Mammoth Lakes and the sculpture of a wooly mammoth in the center is a sight to behold. The wooden chalets, small shops, and the grand mountain surrounding the place is spectacular. If you love to ski then take a gondola ride from here to go up into the mountains. Even if you are not in a mood to go skiing, don’t miss this gondola ride for a spectacular 360 degree view from the top.

San Francisco to Death Valley - A Super Scenic California Road Trip.  Travel Realizations,  Mammoth Lakes, My Mammoth, Mammoth Village
A wooly mammoth stands at the center of the village of Mammoth Lakes

After reaching the top, fresh mountain air and silvery snow greeted me. We enjoyed our lunch at the restaurant on the top while bathing in the mountain whiteness. We stayed for a couple of hours, played with the snow, and enjoyed a lot with our little daughter. Finally, we bid adieu to the mountains and started for the Death Valley National Park.

San Francisco to Death Valley - A Super Scenic California Road Trip.  Travel Realizations,  Mammoth Lakes, Mammoth Mountain
The splendor of the mountain is certainly no secret!

Hot Creek Geological Site – Sixth stop on the San Francisco to Death Valley road trip

Our next stop was the Hot Creek Geological Site, a true geological treasure. This site is like a mini version of the Yellowstone National Park. I saw dozens of natural hot springs bubbling up within the rocky walls of a river gorge and in the shadows of the towering Eastern Sierra mountain peaks. It felt like a surreal place where boiling, bubbling water rich in dissolved minerals emerges in turquoise pools rimmed by layers of travertine rock and shrouded in veils of steam.

In the lap of the snow-clad mountains, surrounded by the desert, the Hot Creek is a unique sight to savor. The sense of untrodedness here, and a mix of expansiveness and depth is bliss.

San Francisco to Death Valley - A Super Scenic California Road Trip.  Travel Realizations,  Mammoth Lakes, Hot Creek Geological Site
The Hot Creek Geological Site – Surrounded by desert and in the lap of snow clad mountains

Mountains, different shades of green and yellow desert bloom and a man walking in the middle of no-where were perfect for a click.

The nomadic instinct is a human instinct!

Mark Twain
San Francisco to Death Valley - A Super Scenic California Road Trip.  Travel Realizations,  Mammoth Lakes, Hot Creek Geological Site

And then we started once again for our next stop!

San Francisco to Death Valley - A Super Scenic California Road Trip.  Travel Realizations,  Mammoth Lakes, Hot Creek Geological Site

Round Valley – Seventh stop on the San Francisco to Death Valley road trip

While driving for miles surrounded by desert, my eyes were aching for some greenery. And out of nowhere, we came across an oasis – appropriately named Round Valley.

To be young, to be bound for the far hills, to be going where happiness hung from a tree, a ring to be tilted for, a bright garland to be won – It was still a realizable thing, we thought, still a harbor from the dullness and the tears and disillusion of all the stationary world.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

It was a cloudy afternoon and the road was almost empty. The mountain afar and the farm land full of cows nearby with green trees all around felt like a whole new world to me. We stopped our car and relaxed a bit in the pleasantly warm breeze. One of the advantages of road trips is that you can enjoy such pristine places at your will.

One of the advantages of road trips is that you can enjoy such pristine places at your will. #Travel #Roadtrip #California Click To Tweet
San Francisco to Death Valley - A Super Scenic California Road Trip.  Travel Realizations,  Mammoth Lakes, Round Valley

Bishop – Eighth stop on the San Francisco to Death Valley road trip

When we were driving from Bishop on Highway 395 towards the town of Independence, I absorbed the scenery and the greenery to my heart’s content. I imagined the world of the Paiute and Shoshone Native Americans who inhabited this terrain from time immemorial.

When we were driving from Bishop on Highway 395 towards the town of Independence, I absorbed the scenery and the greenery to my heart's content. #Travel #California #roadtrip Click To Tweet
San Francisco to Death Valley - A Super Scenic California Road Trip.  Travel Realizations,  Mammoth Lakes, Bishop
A solitary horse in the oasis of Round Valley

Independence – Ninth stop on the San Francisco to Death Valley road trip

When we reached Independence, I started seeing the beautiful mountains and its rugged peaks shimmering in the glowing and setting sun. These are the moments that breathe for you, on days you can’t. I am realizing it especially now when I am unable to hit the road during the pandemic.

These are the moments that breathe for you, on days you can't. I am realizing it especially now when I am unable to hit the road during the pandemic. #Travel #Explore #wanderer #California Click To Tweet

And the wheels of the car continued amidst the beauty!

San Francisco to Death Valley - A Super Scenic California Road Trip.  Travel Realizations,  Mammoth Lakes, Bishop
The bundle of sunlight pierced the clouds and shone like a flashlight on the car

Additional stops and resources for this trip

I would highly recommend you to see the following while driving along the Highway 395.

  1. Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest – Home to some of the oldest trees in the world, the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest is a gem to explore and see the spectacular bristlecone pines. These living trees that are over 4,000 years old have perfectly twisted and beautifully colored woods.
  2. Bodie State Historic Park (Ghost Town) – Bodie State Historic Park is a genuine California gold-mining ghost town. Visitors can walk down the deserted streets of a town that once had a population of nearly 10,000 people. This historic place is especially popular with Instagrammers.
  3. Alabama Hills – Visit this place if you are driving in spring, to see the swaths of beautiful spring wildflowers.
  4. Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve – See the spectacular “tufa towers”, the calcium-carbonate spires and knobs formed by the interaction of freshwater springs and alkaline lake water.
  5. Manzanar National Historic Site – This place has a painful history. In 1942, the United States government incarcerated more than 110,000 men, women, and children of Japanese origin here during the second world war.
  6. If you want to go on a guided tour directly from San Francisco and want to avoid driving, then consider this trip and enjoy the ultimate Sierra Mountains adventure! 

Death Valley – Final Destination

As we were approaching the Death Valley National Park, our final destination, we saw a spectacular sunset that day. The sky turned yellow to orange to red. When I saw a riot of colors in the sky through the windshield, it was like a vibrant frame changing colors continuously. When we finally reached Death Valley, we were greeted by a sandstorm! It was a half scary and half thrilling experience, something we will remember all our life. The strong wind was shaking our car and outside everything was covered with sand. When I came out of the car for a few seconds, I got completely drenched with sand. Oh, what an adventure under the blanket of a dark star filled sky!

Finally, we reached our hotel very late at night. The next day while exploring Death Valley, I enjoyed reveling in the silence, the solitude, and the vistas. I felt that the long road trip from San Francisco to Death Valley was completely worth it! Read about my experience of exploring Death Valley, where seeds sleep for years until the right rain awakens them, and mesquite trees send roots down 125 feet in search of water, on my blog.

San Francisco to Death Valley - A Super Scenic California Road Trip.  Travel Realizations,  Death Valley, Death Valley National Park, Dante's view,

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My perennial romance of roads and journeys is sometimes physically exhausting but always a rejuvenating mental elixir. #Travel #Explore #Wanderlust #California Click To Tweet

Travel Realizations

One of the advantages of road trips is that one can expand or shrink the itinerary, depending on the time in hand. During this trip, I would have loved to stop more often and seen more places but could not do it due to time constraints. And even though the omnipresent signals beaming down from the GPS satellites would never allow any of us to get lost, I longed for that feeling of disappearing. Even if momentarily. Nevertheless, I can never forget the beautiful sceneries I saw for miles along Highway 395. I saw forests, mountains, snow, and a desert in a short span of time during this trip. I was like Alice in Wonderland. No wonder, this is one of those classic California road trips that any person staying in or visiting this part of the world should do. If you are planning a trip along this route, I hope this article will help you to pick the right stops depending on your time and interests. I hope the experience of my road trip from San Francisco to Death Valley rekindles the spark of wanderlust in all of you!

A road trip is like a canvas and the paint brush is the steering wheel. Fill it with sunrises, sunsets, rainbows, mountains, waves and deserts!

Chirasree Banerjee
I hope the experience of my road trip from San Francisco to Death Valley rekindles the spark of wanderlust in all of you! #Travel #Explore #California #roadtrip Click To Tweet
San Francisco to Death Valley - A Super Scenic California Road Trip.  Travel Realizations,  Death Valley, Death Valley National Park
A road trip is like a canvas and the paint brush is the steering wheel. Fill it with sunrises, sunsets, rainbows, mountains, waves and deserts! #Travel #California #Roadtrip Click To Tweet

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Chirasree Banerjee

Hello. My name is Chirasree. I have been traveling for almost 11 years to places all over the world. I enter into a separate reality during my travels and enjoy the allure of escape from the mundane. I seek beauty through nature and human-made creations. Because beauty is powerful. I seek knowledge. I observe, absorb, and write about the places I visit and the profound realizations and inspirations that each place has to offer.

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11 Comments

  1. Amit Sen

    It is, as usual, a wonderful post. Enjoyed it very much. Now my wait for the next Article starts. After reading each and every trip of yours, Ithink if I could roam around like this. But at this age it is impossible.

    Thanks a lot.

  2. Your photos are amazing! An incredibly detailed guide. Thank you so much for this post. I hope to visit these beautiful places someday.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing this awesome trip. Your photos are stunning. I felt that I was with you xx

  4. What a wonderful and lyrical journey through one of my favorite parts of California! Thanks for taking us along on the ride.

  5. Very comprehensive and detailed post!

  6. What amazing scenery! Especially in Death Valley. Looks like quite a trip! Maybe post covid…

  7. I love a well-planned road trip. Each stop looks so stunning!

  8. Love road trips! And this particular one is amazing. The scenery is stunning all the way. And the best thing is that road trips can be done anytime. Thanks for the inspiration!

  9. I’d love to take this drive. The idea of a place where the road is just so long in front of you as far as you can see is somewhat unfathomable to me that it just has to be done one day. Not to mention the fact that I love San Francisco so visiting again would never be a chore

  10. Chelsea

    OMG! So many stunning scenic photos that make me want to do this road trip! I had a very short stay in SF last year; I wish I had more time to explore the area!

  11. I’d love to do this road trip. In fact, I think I will when covid is over. Thanks for a great post.

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