Rachel + Dana of Traveling Found Love are here today sharing this epic California national park road trip itinerary!
One thing is for sure, California’s vibrant cities and the stunning Pacific Coast Highway attracts millions of visitors every year. We loved walking on the Santa Monica Pier and admiring the amazing views on Highway 1 but what really left us speechless was the inner part of California.
As outdoor lovers, we are always up for an adventure in a national park. On this route, you will pass through five exceptional parks with undeniably gorgeous landscapes and some of North America’s greatest natural wonders.
From the lowest point in Death Valley National Park to the highest waterfall in Yosemite National Park and not to forget the largest tree in the world in Sequoia National Park.
Ready to get off the beaten path for an unforgettable 2-week California national park road trip from San Diego to South Lake Tahoe?
We would recommend doing this road trip from spring to fall since there can be road and trail closures in some parks due to snow in the winter months.
When Should You Take This Route?
The national parks and Lake Tahoe are beautiful all year round and each season will provide you with different and unique experiences in the parks. From beautiful wildflowers in the spring in Death Valley to the incredible fall foliage around Lake Tahoe.
Nevertheless, we would recommend doing this road trip from spring to fall since there can be road and trail closures in some parks due to snow in the winter months. To stay up to date on road information and conditions it is best to check the national park website before your trip.
We completed our trip during the summer. The weather was always beautiful and sunny but extremely hot, especially in Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Park.
If your trip includes outdoor activities, it is best to complete them in the early morning or late afternoon. You will want to limit these activities during the middle of the day since you can experience scorching temperatures. Always remember to have lots of water with you!
Our 14-Day Road Trip Itinerary
- Day 1-3: San Diego
- Day 4-5: Joshua Tree National Park
- Day 6-7: Death Valley National Park
- Day 8: Sequoia National Park
- Day 9: Kings Canyon National Park
- Day 10-12: Yosemite National Park
- Day 13-14: South Lake Tahoe
Day 1-3: San Diego
San Diego is a must-see city on the West Coast and one of our ultimate favorites.
It offers a lively downtown area with awesome nightlife possibilities, tons of beaches to unplug, wildlife encounters at La Jolla Cove, and incredible parks to wander around in.
When you want to combine a relaxing afternoon on the beach and a unique hiking experience, don’t miss out on the Ho Chi Minh trail which brings you right to the shore. It is a bit of a climb through a sandstone passage but we had a lot of fun on this little adventure.
Best Things to Do and See in San Diego:
- Visit the famous San Diego Zoo
- Stroll around Balboa Park
- Experience Downtown: Gaslamp Quarter, Seaport Village, Little Italy
- Admire the sea life at La Jolla Cove
- Hike the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a unique hiking trail that leads you to the Blacks Beach
- Soak up the sun on one of San Diego beaches: Mission Beach, Pacific Beach
- Go on a hike through Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve for stunning overlooks of the Pacific Ocean.
- Catch a sunset at Sunset Cliffs Natural Park
Where to Stay in and Around San Diego
Ranchos Los Coches RV Park (20 minutes east of San Diego) This family-owned campground is a great place for RV traveling and tent camping. Another plus is the prices are cheaper since you are a little outside the city.
Day 4-5: Joshua Tree National Park
Drive from San Diego to Joshua Tree National Park (south entrance at Cottonwood Spring)
[Approx. 158 miles | 3 hours 20 minutes]
Experience how two deserts, Mojave and Colorado, come together to create a unique landscape in Southern California.
Snapping a picture with the spiky Joshua Tree is a must. But don’t forget to experience the diversity of the lush and rocky landscape in the park up close on one of the incredible hikes.
Keep your eyes open for wildlife on your hikes! We were lucky to spot a chuckwalla (lizard) and a rattlesnake underneath a rock.
Best Things to Do and See in Joshua Tree National Park
- Take a scenic drive through the park
- Check out the unusual Cholla Cactus Garden
- See impressive rock formations: Skull Rock and Arch Rock
- Admire the panoramic view of Joshua Tree from the highest point at Keys View
- Take a hike on the Barker Dam Trail
Where to Stay in Joshua Tree National Park
Camp out in one of the national park’s campgrounds!
Day 6-7: Death Valley National Park
Drive from Joshua Tree National Park (north entrance at Twentynine Palms) to Death Valley National Park (east entrance via Highway 190)
[Approx. 228 miles | 3 hours 50 minutes]
Death Valley is the hottest, driest, and lowest of all the U.S. National Parks. You can expect a true desert experience from climbing up the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, standing in salt flats at Badwater Basin, to admiring surprisingly colorful patterns on the Artist’s Drive.
You also have to see Death Valley from above, the views from Zabriskie Point and Dante’s view are breathtaking.
Best Things to Do and See in Death Valley National Park
- Take in the views of Death Valley at Zabriskie Point and Dante’s View
- See a salt pan at Devils Golf Course
- Visit the lowest point in North America at Badwater Basin
- Journey down Artist’s Drive to see the beautiful colors of Artist’s Palette
- Explore the sight of Harmony Borax Works in Furnace Creek
- Walk on the dunes at Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
Where to Stay in Death Valley National Park
Stay in one of the park’s campgrounds from late fall until spring. We would not recommend camping in this area during the summer months due to extreme heat. For a more delicate experience book a room in one of the park’s lodges.
Kings Canyon National Park - General Grant Trail
Day 8-9: Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park
Drive from Death Valley National Park (west entrance at Panamint Springs) to Sequoia National Park (Ash Mountain entrance at Three Rivers)
[Approx. 268 miles | 4 hours 45 minutes]
Drive from Sequoia National Park to Kings Canyon National Park via Generals Highway
[Approx. 10 miles | 20 minutes]
Home to the largest trees in the world, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park are truly the land of giants.
What will be your favorite way to experience the land of giants?
Is it feeling like a tiny ant standing next to these massive trees, seeing inside of a tree while walking in Grant Grove or driving through a fallen sequoia tree at Tunnel Log?
Best Things to Do and See in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park
- Hike up Moro Rock
- Drive through a fallen sequoia tree at Tunnel Log
- Stand next to the largest tree in the world on the Congress Trail: General Sherman Tree
- Hike around the General Grant Tree and walk through the fallen Monarch in Grant Grove
- Take a Scenic Drive on Kings Canyon Scenic Byway
- Stop and see Grizzly Falls on Kings Canyon Scenic Byway
- Enjoy the scenery at Zumwalt Meadows
Where to Stay in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park
Day 10-12: Yosemite National Park
Drive from Kings Canyon National Park (Grant Grove Village) to Yosemite National Park (south entrance via Highway 41)
[Approx. 111 miles | 2 hours 15 minutes]
Yosemite National Park is not only California’s most visited National Park but one of the top ten in the U.S. The park is best known for its impressive waterfalls, especially Yosemite Falls which is the highest in North America.
Enjoy the stunning views on the scenic drive, have a picnic at one of the lakes, and when you are up for a real adventure, take a strenuous hike up Half Dome or Vernal falls.
For a romantic ending of the day, drive up to Glacier Point to see the iconic Half Dome shining in the orange and red lights of the sunset.
Best Things to Do and See in Yosemite National Park
- Explore Yosemite Valley
- Take a Hike: Lower Yosemite Falls, Vernal Falls, Bridalveil Falls. Or take on the challenging 14-16 hour hike up Half Dome (permit required)
- Stop and see El Capitan: best views are at Bridalveil Falls area, the western part of Yosemite Valley, and Tunnel View
- Capture a photo at Tunnel View
- Catch a sunset at Glacier Point
- Take a drive on Tioga Road to Tuolumne Meadows
- Have a picnic by Tenaya Lake
Where to Stay in Yosemite National Park
Day 13-14: South Lake Tahoe
Drive from Yosemite National Park (east side via Tioga Pass Road) to South Lake Tahoe
[Approx. 131 miles | 2 hours 45 minutes]
Lake Tahoe is truly enchanting with its crystal clear turquoise water and the surrounding forest and mountain sceneries. You will get the best views from Emerald Bay State Park Campground which is located on the southwest part of the lake.
From there, take the Rubicon Trail down to the lake to enjoy the cool water in a kayak or while swimming around. For a great cultural experience tour the unique Scandinavian Vikingsholm castle.
Best Things to Do and See in South Lake Tahoe
- Visit a State Park: Emerald Bay State Park or D.L Bliss State Park
- Hiking: Rubicon Trail, Balancing Rock Nature Trail
- Water Activities: kayaking, paddle-boarding, boating
- Take a tour of Lake Tahoe’s hidden castle: Vikingsholm Castle
Where to Stay in South Lake Tahoe
We take every chance to admire colorful street art and artsy creations wherever we go. If you are also into art, take the 50 minutes detour to Salvation Mountain on your way to Joshua Tree National Park. It is just a quick stop but the visionary environment on the hill is indescribable, it is best to see it for yourself!
When you have some extra time, make a stop at Las Vegas on your way to Death Valley National Park for a little sinful fun on the Las Vegas Strip.
For more original Vegas vibes, don’t miss out on the “old strip” around Fremont Street. Here you find beautiful original casinos that are worth checking out even when you are not into gambling.
A great way to end the day is to go to one of the dozen buffets which serve whatever you can imagine. Our all-time favorite is the Wicked Spoon. Make sure to arrive hungry…
Lastly, if you have even more time, think about making a loop back to San Diego via the California coast.
For those who want a time out from technology, this is your chance to unplug and enjoy the view, feel, and smell of nature because you will be lucky to find any service while in the parks.
If you are traveling by campervan or RV, we recommend campendium.com to find cheap or free spots to stay for the night. Campgrounds in the national parks in California book out months in advance, so make sure that you reserve your favorite campsite in time.
But don’t worry, even when you can’t get a site on a campground, there are National Forests and BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land where you can stay completely for free.
Another great way to save money on this 2-week California national park road trip is to purchase an America the Beautiful pass. This pass will give you access to a full year of national park adventures all over the USA.