Interstates. Expressways. If it wasn’t for these amazing engineering feats, products, food, and other essentials would be impossible to get across this amazing country. But when it comes to road-trip vacations, there’s something lost if you stay on these high-speed thoroughfares. A divider from seeing the countryside. Instead, take the next exit and explore the best California scenic drives by going on one of these scenic byways in the High Sierra.
Sierra Vista Scenic Byway
Over four million people visit Yosemite annually which translates to throngs of people. Sure, you can hit up the hot spots early in the day, but what if you yearn for less people? It’s time to head over to the Sierra Vista Scenic Byway for one of the best California scenic drives. Here you’ll find the exact geographical center of California. Your eyes will feast on granite domes, glaciated peaks, high mountain meadows, & minimal people on the nearly “100-mile” loop. Some of the key attractions on the byway are the Nelder Grove, Jones Store, Globe Rock, Mile High Overlook, and Mammoth Pool.
Tioga Pass (Highway 140)
If you’re in the Yosemite region, another highway to consider exploring is Highway 140. This scenic stretch starts in the oak woodlands and follows the Merced River up into Yosemite’s High Sierra where the peaks reach nearly 13,000+ feet in elevation. Even if you don’t have a reservation to enter Yosemite, you’ll find plenty to explore in the lower elevations just outside of the gate. From the historic town of Mariposa featuring unique museums like the Yosemite Climbing Association Gallery and Museum dedicated to the first ascents in Yosemite’s history to hikes that follow the mighty Merced River, you’ll find something to enjoy.
Carson Pass Highway (Route 88)
Although Emerald Bay on the southern shore of Lake Tahoe gets all the fame, there’s a quieter stretch of road that you should consider exploring – the Carson Pass Highway. Accessed via Luther Pass from Tahoe South, this trans-Sierra Highway is a must for any outdoor lover. You’ll find the cool green meadows of Hope Valley. Crystal clear mountain lakes such as Caples or Winnemucca Lake for camping, wildflower peeping, or fishing. And if you visit in the winter, you can take a snowmobile tour or get your powder hound fix at Kirkwood Mountain Resort.
June Lake Loop
Are you looking for a relaxing day trip with scenery resembling the Swiss Alps? Then the June Lake Loop is where it’s at. The drive is approximately 15 miles filled with dramatic Sierra peaks and alpine vistas containing a chain of gorgeous lakes. Grant Lake, Silver Lake, Gull Lake, and June Lake all nestle in a steep, horseshoe shaped canyon. You’ll also find world-class road cycling, fishing, hiking, boating, horseback riding, camping, and the town of June Lake. It’s a place where you’ll still find family owned businesses such as Ernie’s Tackle and Ski Shop, founded by Ernie Felkins in 1932. The June Lake community is low key and more geared towards the natural beauty that exists here. For more adventures like this and more, check out the Mammoth Lakes Tour Itineraries guide.
Ancient Bristlecone Scenic Byway
Just about an hour south of June Lake Loop is the Ancient Bristlecone Scenic Byway. Starting within Owens Valley, it quickly ascends to its summit of 11,000 feet above sea level. In the lower elevations, you’ll travel through pinyon-juniper woodlands until you hit 9,000 feet in elevation. This is where the OLDEST trees in the world begin to appear. At more than 4,000+ years old, these trees don’t just survive but thrive in this unique rocky terrain with very little rainfall. As you take it in, you’ll realize there’s some sort of life lesson to learn from these guardians of the White Mountains.
Kings Canyon Scenic Byway
As millions visit the jaw-dropping vista of Moro Rock and the largest tree on Earth in Sequoia National Park, its sibling next door sees only a fraction of the visitors – Kings Canyon National Park. Pictures don’t do this canyon justice. The scenic byway has everything. Foothills covered in oak woodlands that as you ascend, transform into old growth pine forests that even feature Giant Sequoia groves. As you reach the summit and descend into the deepest canyon in North America, you’ll understand why John Muir remarked that Kings Canyon is “a rival to Yosemite.”
Historic US 40 (Donner Summit)
Before interstates crisscrossed America, there was the historic Lincoln Highway dedicated in 1913. It was the FIRST automobile road to span the width of the United States. The segment just outside the historic town of Truckee-Tahoe starting at Donner Summit to Donner Lake is considered by many as not just one of most scenic drives in California but the entire country. As you take in the unique Rainbow Bridge and the vista of Donner Lake, imagine what travelers a century ago must’ve felt seeing this same view.
Ebbetts Pass National Scenic Byway
With hundreds of miles of trails through designated wilderness, Ebbetts Pass National Scenic Byway is frequently referred to as one of California’s best kept secrets. Here you’ll see some of the most majestic natural wonders in the High Sierra. An internationally beloved destination in and of itself, kick up the sense of adventure on your next trip to Yosemite or Lake Tahoe by planning a route through the Ebbetts Pass corridor. It’s an easy loop to some of California’s most spectacular internationally adored destinations. As one of the country’s most dramatic byways, enjoy epic roadside views from idyllic wildflower-filled meadows, quaking aspen forests electrified by brilliant fall colors, refreshing High Sierra lakes, sheer cliffs, wild rushing rivers, glacially carved valleys, bald eagles, hot mineral pools, historic structures, and the first discovered majestic stands of Giant Sequoia. And this is all within 60 or so miles.
We’re serious when we say this is one wild ride. You’ll definitely want to leave the towed rigs and extra long RVs behind. Coming from the Bay Area? Hop on Highway 4 East through Calaveras county’s charming gold rush towns and national award winning small craft vineyards before emerging into one of the most pristine designated wilderness areas in all of California. Ready to learn more about the area? Visit www.gocalaveras.com to scout the region or get free personal assistance planning your next Ebbetts Pass High Sierra adventure.
The High Sierra isn’t just a place filled with many one-of-a kind wonders. It’s also a destination to remove the tension of city life. Get away from the mid-summer heat, the terrible traffic, and check out one of the many California scenic drives in the High Sierra. Don’t let another weekend pass without a respite.
Author: Alex Silgalis
Alex Silgalis is an outdoors travel writer who enjoys snowboarding, mountain biking, or having a cold one from a local mountain brewery. See more of Alex’s work at https://localfreshies.com
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