Our Three-Day Road Trip Itinerary for California's Eastern Sierra Nevada with Kids
We just got back from a three-day road trip to California's Eastern Sierra Nevada with our two toddlers. In three days and three nights, we drove over 650 miles/1,050 km, it was definitely our biggest road trip since we had kids. Were we a bit crazy to make our kids endure all that time strapped down in the car? A timid yes. Did we see some absolutely incredible landscape and lived some amazing experiences that we'd never forget? A resounding YES!
The Eastern Sierra is a region with snow-capped mountain peaks, wide-open plains, hidden lush canyons, and crystal-blue lakes. It's the perfect escape into wilderness, where you can be immersed in that ragged, rough, and unspoiled atmosphere. This is where you'd take an AWD for a spin and watch the awe-inspiring sceneries flash by as you drive down the road. Even if this part of California is the playground for the adventurous types, with some tips and preparation, visiting the Eastern Sierra with toddlers is definitely manageable.
From what we've experienced in the past few days, I'm tempted to say that Fall is perhaps the best season to go for an Eastern Sierra road trip. As we cut through valleys and rode through meadows, we experienced a range of seasons... from scorching heat in the desert to golden fall in the forests to glistening snow in the mountains. For this reason, the Eastern Sierra is a favorite among photographers for that California Fall Color. We were very lucky to visit at a time when many aspen and maple leaves were still hanging tight on the trees after a recent storm and the first snow fall. The result is a visual feast of colors.
As I'm writing this post on the kitchen table right now, I'm still reminiscing about those breath-taking vistas we saw in the past few days. Here's our three-day road trip itinerary to the Eastern Sierra with kids.
The Evening Before
We left the Bay Area after peak traffic hours. We passed the wind turbines at Altamont Pass, after a few winding roads up and down the hills, the kids soon fell asleep with the backdrop of a flamboyant sunset.
We checked into the recently-opened Rush Creek Lodge at Yosemite (read my full review here) on Highway CA-120, just a few miles before Crane Flat, and hoped that the road between Crane Flat and Tioga Pass would re-open as estimated the next day, as the storm last weekend brought down some boulders on Highway 120. The shortest route to reach Eastern Sierra is through Tioga Road, if it didn't open, we'd have to travel through Sonora Pass, and that would add 100 miles or almost 2 hours of driving.
I checked the Yosemite road condition hotline several times, crossed my fingers, and with a little bit of faith, went to bed in the forest-themed lodge.
We woke up to a crisp mountain morning under a bright blue sky. After promptly checking the hotline and finding out that the road would open at noon, we gladly went about our business in the hotel, enjoyed breakfast, lingered in the play room, and soaked in the salt-water pools under the tall evergreens.
After a light lunch on the patio, we hit the road, desintation Tioga Pass.
Highway 120 Tioga Road
Driving through Yosemite National Park on Tioga Road is quite an experience in itself. This road is an engineering marvel, it cuts through granite mountains and meadows, on one stretch it even slices horizontally through a 45-degree-angle slope.
Tioga Pass is the highest highway pass in the Sierra Nevada and in California at an elevation of 9,943 ft/3,031 m. The road leading up to the pass can be treacherous in winter: slippery snow and ice are major culprits, and occasionally boulders fall onto the road. Because of these reasons, the road usually closes in late October and doesn't open again until next May.
But aren't the sceneries worth the drive.
Shortly after we passed Tioga Pass, a breathtaking view of Mono Lake awaited us.
Mono Lake has been on my list of sights to see in California for years. This salty alkaline lake with "tufas" or calcium carbonate columns has an almost extraterrestrial appeal. As the Eastern Sierra is in the rain shadow of the Sierra Nevada, this area is often arid without a cloud in the sky. Under the afternoon sun, a bewitching tone of blue permeates the whole scene, making the gargoyle-like tufas stand out even more.
Highway 395 and Lundy Canyon
Highway 395 runs parallel to the ridge of the Eastern Sierra. It is quite a road trip with grandiose landscape around. At turns there are grazing sheep and abandoned houses along the road, all adding to that wild wild west ambiance.
Right before sunset, we drove off the 395 into Lundy Canyon in search of the famed fall colors. Many trees were already bare from the storm a few days ago, but there was still enough aspen leaves glittering like golden coins in the air. With the last ray of sunshine of the day, the canyon turned a mesmerizing field of warm gold.
Night at the Settlement
That night, we stayed at the truly unique Virginia Creek Settlement just off the 395 outside the town of Bridgeport. I couldn't think of a better lodging option in the area to complete that "Western" theme we had going on. The recently completed wooden cabin we had was small and cozy. We had dinner in the main building, attempted to watch the Orionides shooting stars in the night sky, but soon decided to curl up in the warm blankets instead. Here's my full review.
It was delightful to wake up to the sound of the flowing creek and to the sight of the old covered wagon. After having pancakes the size of wash basins, we headed over to the gold rush era ghost town, Bodie.
To reach Bodie you have to drive into the wilderness, and the final stretch of Bodie road is a bumpy dirt road. But to explore an entire abandoned gold rush era town in the carefully preserved "arrested decay" state is... awesome. This is a place where you can easily spend a full day poking around or photographing everything that you come across. It's a ghost town full of life of history! See my Bodie post for more details.
June Lake Loop
After Bodie in the arid desert, we headed south and entered the land of milk and honey on the June Lake Loop. June Lake, Gull Lake, Silver Lake, and Grant Lake are on this 20-mile (32 km) loop. This is a famed fishing destination as the lakes are bountiful of trout. A picnic by the lake seemed like the obvious thing to do to admire the aquamarine lake and sky.
Wild Hot Springs
Let me say that there is no better way to end a day than soaking in a wild, natural hot spring in the middle of the wilderness with a panoramic view of auburn meadows and distant snow-capped mountain ridges during sunset. We crossed paths with other travelers that "came home" to this little piece of heaven. As someone that grew up in the hot spring culture, I can say that this was the most amazing hot spring experience I've had to date. So much so that I've written another post about it.
Night at Mammoth Lakes
We arrived at the Village at Mammoth Lakes at sundown, and it was the perfect time for a warm, wood-fired pizza and to get toasty by the fire.
We said our goodbyes to the Eastern Sierra and headed back west through Tioga Pass before its annual closure. We timed the drive for the kids to have a light nap in the car while we once again marveled at the sceneries along the way. When they woke up, the kids decided to go skinny dipping in the freezing-cold Tenaya Lake. At their age, fun probably helps elevate body temperature to withstand melted-snow cold.
It was hard to resist the urge to make a detour into Yosemite Valley on the way home. The recent snow had freshly melted and recharged Yosemite Falls to its pre-summer flow. We went on a small hike on the Lower Yosemite Fall trail, and watched Half Dome turn gold into sunset. Fall in Yosemite Valley had a distinct charm that we had never experienced during our past summer visits. Here's the full story.
We headed home from this whirlwind road trip to the Eastern Sierra with our two toddlers. Although the roads were bumpy at times and there were some moments of toddler tantrums, we traveled together as a family and packed up full of memories.
And you know, as they say, there's always light at the end of the tunnel.
Here's my Eastern Sierra map, don't hesitate to save it to your Google Maps.
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