Trip itineraries in the Southwest often include both Yosemite National Park as well as Las Vegas, which is why people often ask me about the best way to get from Yosemite to Vegas (or the other way around). And it’s a good question, because you have two alternative routes –
- East of the Sierra Nevada ridge, via road US-395 (Mammoth Lakes).
- West of the Sierra Nevada mountains, via the valley (Bakersfield and Fresno).
Having made both drives, I’m here to recommend the first route – but only if you’re going between June and October, possibly November. That’s because that route crosses the Sierra mountains via the Tioga Pass, which is actually inside Yosemite National Park. This high-altitude mountain pass is covered in snow during wintertime.
Even during summertime, if you take the Tioga Pass and the eastern route, Google suggests taking a slightly shorter route, via Oasis, CA and then Beatty, Nevada. Don’t do that. You’ll be missing out on some cool places to see on road 395. Let me show you my two suggested routes, so you can see for yourself. First, there they are in a snapshot –
On the left, you see the route that takes you west of the Sierra Nevada. This is open all year round and during winter this is the only option for getting from Las Vegas to Yosemite (or the other way around), so I like to call it “The Winter Route”. On the right, you see a suggested route that takes you through one additional national park (Death Valley) as well as a couple of other interesting stops. I call that one “The Scenic Route”.
Let’s take a close look at both options, beginning with the scenic route, as this is by far my favorite.
Las Vegas-Yosemite: The Scenic Route
This drive to Yosemite from Las Vegas takes 5 hours and 32 minutes, according to Google Maps and that’s to the eastern entry point to Yosemite (near Lee Vining). I always add an hour to account for slower driving through scenic areas, bathroom stops etc.
This 340.2 mile drive may add an extra half hour or so to your trip compared to the shortest route suggested by Waze or Google, but it also takes you past several unique and beautiful spots, including Death Valley National Park. If you’re looking to stretch your legs on your way to Yosemite, these locations won’t take you too far from the road while also encouraging you indulge in California’s natural beauty.
We drove this route a couple of years ago, going from Yosemite to Las Vegas. We had actually left the park a couple of days before that, and spent some time exploring the gorgeous areas around the nearby ski resort of Mammoth Lakes. So, leaving from Mammoth Lakes, we leisurely drove around, stopped for some sighseeing, including scenic outlooks in Death Valley National Park. Leaving Mammoth Lakes at 10 AM, we finaly arrived in Vegas at around 5PM. So, this is totally doable in one day.
Let’s look into the stops along the way.
1. Ashford Junction to Death Valley National Park
About 118 miles from Las Vegas, you’ll find Ashford Junction – or, more specifically, you’ll spot the old railroad switching tower that serves as the junction’s last landmark. Ashford Junction, once upon a time, was one of the most active railroad towns operating in California. Nowadays, the aforementioned switch tower oversees trains passing through California to and from Buffalo, New York.
If you’re a train aficionado or want to delve into a piece of California’s history, Ashford Junction will let you do just that. Take a few minutes to enjoy the view, stretch your legs, and grab a bite to eat. You’ll make it back to the road refreshed and a little more knowledgeable.
To learn more about Ashford Junction and the surrounding facilities, you can visit its website.
2. Badwater Basin (Death Valley NP)
Driving to Yosemite through Ashford Junction will take you past another California natural landmark: Death Valley. If you want to go two-for-one on your naturalist road trip, you’ll want to stop at Badwater Basin. 30 miles from Ashford Junction, Badwater Basin sits on the southern corner of Death Valley National Park. It is also the lowest point in the surrounding county.
Note that it costs $20 per noncommercial vehicle to enter Death Valley National Park. For that price, though you’ll be able to walk along salt flats that become beautiful – albeit temporary – lakes and ponds whenever rain rolls in. Don’t worry about the longevity of these bodies of water, though. The temperatures in and around Death Valley are frequently blistering enough that the lakes that do form at Badwater Basin will evaporate within a day of their formation.
We have a detailed post about the best things to do in Death Valley National Park. If you’re driving in fall, you may want to spend some time hiking in the area too. And if you want to take even longer, you could do this as a day trip from Las Vegas (itinerary available here).
3. Furnace Creek Visitor Center (Death Valley NP)
If you’re looking to do a spot of camping, Death Valley’s Furnace Creek Visitor Center is the place to go. A mere 21 minutes away (and 15.2 miles) from Badwater Basin, this center houses 136 campsites with access to flushable toilets and an RV dump station. Prices will vary based on the campsite you need, but each comes with either a campfire ring or a grill.
You can visit Furnace Creek Visitors Center website for more information about seasonally-available campsites, prices, and to schedule your stay.
4. Bishop, CA (Oldest Tree In The World)
While on your way, why not visit another of California’s natural wonders in Bishop?
Some 2 hours and 52 minutes away from the Furnace Creek Visitor Center (a reasonable 163 miles), you’ll find some of the oldest trees in the world. Hypothetically, that is. Methuselah, a tree registered at 4,851 years old in 2019, and the other bistlecone pines in the area have had their location erased from the Internet. Why? To preserve their safety and ensure that future generations will be able to enjoy these historic relics.
There’s more to Bishop than its historic forest, however. Stop by and you’ll find restaurants, boutiques, and hotels that’ll make a day visit or overnight stay especially memorable. You can check out the town’s website for additional information.
5. Mammoth Lakes
For a more accessible natural landmark, you can visit Mammoth Lakes. Just 40.5 miles and 46 minutes away from Yosemite, these sprawling lakes provide day visitors and passing drivers alike a stunning view of the nearby mountain passes and the lakes that form there. The lakes are seasonal and things look very different in fall. This is a great option for June though.
You could also go visit The Devil’s Postpile National Monument. This is like a poor man’s Devil’s Tower. Having visited both places, the California version does pale in comparison to Wyoming’s but the hike to the Devil’s Postpile is great. Keep in mind you need to allow enough time for exploring Mammoth Lakes, both the towns and the hikes. At least one day, possibly two, if you want to get on the trails.
You can check out the affiliated website for additional information.
6. Lee Vining
At the end of your trip, but just before Yosemite, comes Lee Vining. A stop in Lee Vining puts you right at the gates of Yosemite. Here, you’ll be able to settle in at a luxury resort or in a nestled cabin and still reach Yosemite within 18 minutes. The 12.7-mile drive will take you to the Tioga Pass entrance to Yosemite, where you’ll be able to branch out into the park to find the natural landmarks of your choosing. If you’re staying the night but arrived early enough – you can go visit Mono Lake. Alternatively, you can drive into the park and hike along the Tioga Pass, then return to your motel at Lee Vining and drive to Yosemite Valley the following morning.
For more information regarding your lodging options and local deals affiliated with the Yosemite area, check out Lee Vining’s website.
Yosemite-Las Vegas: The Winter Route
While Tioga Pass provides you with one of the most gorgeous passages into Yosemite, it’s not open year-round. That’s because, come November, snow begins to accumulate on the road, making it impassable. Tioga Pass is typically closed for drivers’ safety between November and late may or early June. Highway monitors list the pass’s openings and closings on their website so that drivers can plan their trips appropriately.
So, if Tioga Pass is closed, what’s the best way to get from Las Vegas to Yosemite? You’ll want to travel along the California Valley, west of the Sierra Nevada ridge.
Calico is 5 hours and 300 miles out from Yosemite. Established in 1881, it once served as a California silver town, with 500 mines operating in and around the area. When the silver dried up, so did the population.
Nowadays, Calico is not so much a town as a part of the San Bernardino County Regional Park system. This ghost town is full of boutiques and restaurants for you to visit during the day. At night, you’ll have the chance to camp thanks to the available San Bernardino park system’s nearby facilities. For more information about this Yosemite pit stop, check out its website.
2. Barstow Outlets
Ten minutes and 12 miles away from Calico rests Barstow, another potential stop on your drive to Yosemite. Barstow provides non-camping housing services for the folks interested in exploring Calico for multiple days in a row. There are also a number of outlets operating in the area, making Barstow an ideal stop for visitors who want a more diverse shopping experience than the historically-oriented one Calico provides.
You can check out the Barstow, CA website for more information about the area’s attractions and the hotels open to visitors.
2 hours and 52 minutes out from Yosemite (roughly 168 miles), you’ll find Bakersfield, CA. This small town has a particular charm to it that makes it an ideal place to get out of the car and stretch your legs.
Depending on the time of year you visit, you may be able to catch the Kern County Scottish Games. These games celebrate Bakersfield’s Scottish community with bagpipes and caber tossing, among other regional sports. Even if you don’t make it in time for the festival, you’ll still be able to enjoy the restaurants, CIA historical sites, and down-home feel of California’s oil capital.
For more information about Bakersfield’s attractions, check out its website.
4. Fresno and Fresno Zoo
Fresno also serves as an excellent base of operations for folks wanting to spend several days exploring Yosemite. An hour and 16 minutes away from the park’s gate, Fresno offers visitors an urban experience, complete with a plethora of restaurants, cultural centers, and outlets.
The most exciting attraction in Fresno, however, is the Fresno Chaffe Zoo. It’s a fantastic zoo, with a massive open outdoor enclosure for the large African animals. You can read about our visit to the Fresno Zoo here.
5. Mariposa Grove
After Fresno, you’ll be knocking on Yosemite’s front door. If you want to visit an attraction that’s closer to Fresno’s urban center but still a part of the park, Mariposa Grove is your ideal stop. Mariposa Grove, while not at the heart of Yosemite, is home to one of its most impressive natural features: the Giant Sequoias.
On your way to the park’s main entrance, you can ogle at the 500 mature giant sequoias growing undisturbed in this grove. Do note, though, that pets are not allowed to explore the area with you, and that there are no food services available in the area. However, the local Depot can provide you with maps and souvenirs reflecting the time you spent under the canopy.
Check out the affiliated website for additional information.
Want to see the other type of tall trees? Check out our post about where to see Redwood Sequoia trees in California.
Either route will get you to your destination: Yosemite Valley. Here you’ll be able to explore the cliffs, waterfalls, and meadows that have made Yosemite such a California gem. Whether you’re driving through Tunnel View and Wawona Tunnel or walking through El Capitan Meadow, you’ll be able to shake off your roadway weariness.
The valley and park have a standing entrance fee of $30 per vehicle, but the views are worth the cost. You can check out the affiliated website for additional information. Yosemite is a world-class bucket list item for sure, so I won’t try to describe it all in a couple of paragraphs. After all, this post is specifically about the road between Las Vegas and Yosemite – not the park itself.
I do hope you find these suggestions helpful! If you’ve driven between Yosemite and Vegas yourself and have your own tips to add, or if you have any questions about the routes, please leave me a comment!