I really discovered what “safari” means while living in Kenya in the late 1980s, when I traveled by bus across that country every few weeks. These weren’t the khaki-clad, native-guided, exotic animal-hunting safaris of such Hollywood films as Mogambo, but more serendipitous explorations of remote locations under challenging conditions. Like Rutger Hauer’s Roy in Blade Runner, I ended up seeing things and places that people wouldn’t believe—and that sometimes, now, I can hardly believe myself.
Unfortunately, most of us have few opportunities for such faraway adventures, and our closer-to-home, more conventional travels often disappoint. But why? Is it simply because they’re close to home? Or is it because the itinerary is so carefully executed that it might as well take place back home?
With a little planning, a little anti-planning and some patience, we Las Vegans can create our own “road safari” simply driving outside of Clark County limits. Yes, road trips in the Southwest can seem exhausting and underwhelming: such long distances, so desolate! But with a reordering of expectations and a readiness to pay attention to history and subtlety, a Nevada-California safari can generate those rare memories so sharp and enduring that, like my Kenya adventures, they hardly seem real.
Below, I’ve collected some favorite locations from my Las Vegas-to-Bay Area trips. Most drivers take the most direct route, dominated by two long stretches: Interstate 15 toward Los Angeles and then Interstate 5 north. A more scenic alternative is to head north to Lake Tahoe on the two-lane U.S. 95 before driving west through the Stanislaus National Forest.
My safari option, though, is to head diagonally northwest and visit remote, below-the-radar treasures along the way. The driving does take a few hours longer—particularly if you’re stuck behind a dawdling RV along the way—but together these sites are worth spending two or three days to explore, and they’re ideal if you’re traveling with children or interested in photography, history, technology or geography. The key is to be willing to stop at a moment’s notice: When I embark on these journeys, I usually plan to stop every two hours or so, and carry a generous amount of food and drinks, not just for emergencies but so I can stop and snack on my own schedule.
1. First stop: Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge
The Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge is about two hours from Las Vegas, between Pahrump and Death Valley Junction. The refuge suffers from being too far from Las Vegas for a casual trip, but so close that drivers often don’t want to break the momentum of longer trips to Death Valley. Take a chance and stop: The refuge features beautiful views, bird watching and two boardwalks that children and dogs will enjoy exploring. Be sure to stop by the visitors center to ask about the wildlife, and for directions.
2. Next stop: Death Valley Junction
About 30 minutes past Ash Meadows, it’s worth stopping to explore the desolate Amargosa facilities, built in the 1920s by the Pacific Coast Borax Company, and to view Peter Lik’s dramatic photography on the facing corner. When starting the journey from Las Vegas, Death Valley Junction feels like many of the stops on this safari: an oasis built and maintained by spirited contrarians; the results of their dedication are both marvelous and precarious. On the return portion of my trips, usually at night, I find this location bittersweet. It’s the last waypoint before I leave the desert and these oases behind, and the first hints of city life begin to appear: First, stop signs, then increasingly frequent street lights, fussy speed limits and heavy traffic. Marta Becket, the force behind the Amargosa Opera House, left such constraints behind decades ago. If you can, look inside the hotel and take advantage of the increasingly rare events at the Opera House (the Borax company’s former recreation hall). According to the venue’s Facebook page, performances will start again in October.
3. Next stop: Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
From the Amargosa Opera House, drive a long stretch downhill into Death Valley toward the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, just before Stovepipe Wells on the west side of the park. On the way, there’s a pricey-but-welcome convenience store and gas station at Furnace Creek (rumor has it that you can pay to use the pool as well, a worthwhile respite in the warmer months). Plan to reach the dunes at sunset; you’ll experience dramatic environmental changes as the temperature and night falls. Sounds will seem to become more muffled at dusk. If you have young children with you, they’ll treat the dunes like a giant sandbox. Be prepared to handle the resulting sandy mess! Consider staying overnight at the Stovepipe Wells Village Hotel, or drive on through the night uphill and down through the Panamint Valley—a steep and starkly beautiful section of this trip; take a moment to photograph one of the longest straight rural roads in the U.S. You can stay at the rustic Panamint Springs Resort. Even if you don’t stay, check out the great beer selection and, if you must, use the resort’s Wi-Fi service (provided by satellite connection). Or continue for another 90 minutes into the mountains to Owens Lake and stay in Lone Pine. Whatever lodging option you choose, be sure to make reservations for a late arrival.
4. Next Stop: Owens Lake and Keeler
Wake up early and enjoy dawn in the desert (if you stayed at Panamint Springs) or the mountain views (at Lone Pine), then get back on the road. Depending on the condition of your car, it will take about 90 minutes to get from Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes to the southern end of the Owens River Valley. The main challenge facing this region will sound familiar: It was sucked dry for Los Angeles (see Chinatown), and Owens Lake has had to be terraced at great expense to reduce wind-blown dust. Much of the valley is, controversially, still controlled by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Driving next to the lake, you’ll pass Keeler, a semi-ghost town that was a terminal for ships carrying ore when the lake was full. (Note: The remaining residents aren’t enthusiastic about looky-loos.) At the intersection of Routes 136 and 395, see an original portion of the 10-foot diameter of the Los Angeles aqueduct pipe at the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center, which opens at 8 a.m.
5. Next Stop: Lone Pine
You’ve seen the Lone Pine and Alabama Hills area even if you don’t realize it. The region, just a few miles north of Owens Lake, has provided film locations for nearly a century, from Westerns (starting with The Round-Up, 1920) to recent action films set in the Middle East (Iron Man, 2008) to otherworldly locations (Star Trek Generations, 1994). Make sure to visit the Beverly and Jim Rogers Lone Pine Film History Museum (opens at 10 a.m.). And ask for directions to the nearby film locations in the Alabama Hills.
6. Next Stop: Manzanar
About 15 minutes north of Lone Pine on the road to Bishop, you’ll pass by the remains of the Manzanar Japanese-American camp, one of many internment camps created during World War II. Star Trek actor George Takei’s family was forced to live in similar camps in Arkansas and at Tulelake, California. A child-friendly museum, reconstructed on a site that was rapidly demolished after the war, raises questions about patriotism during wartime that resonate today.
7. Next Stop: Bishop
Heading north on Route 395 through Big Pine for about 45 minutes gets you to the small town of Bishop, famous for nearby rock-climbing opportunities. On this trip, I recommend visiting Mountain Light Gallery to see Galen and Barbara Rowell’s influential landscape photography. Continuing north, skip the bakery crowded with tourists on Main Street, and instead picnic on the pleasant grounds of the Laws Railroad Museum northeast on Route 6. Give yourself more time to visit than you probably thought necessary, and be aware that the museum closes at 4 p.m.
8. Next Stop: Convict Lake
After leaving Bishop, continue north on Route 395 for another 45 minutes. Across the street from the Mammoth Yosemite Airport, turn left and drive two miles to Convict Lake, so-named because a group of convicts who escaped from Carson City were captured there. Today, hiking, fishing and camping are available—just beware of bears—or you can just stop for the view on the way to Bodie or nearby Mammoth.
9. Next Stop: Bodie
About 90 minutes north of Convict Lake and Mammoth—and 45 minutes past Route 120 (the Yosemite turnoff)—is a chance to explore a uniquely photogenic site. Bodie is a classic “boom and bust” ghost town; once the gold ran out, the remote locale was unsustainable. Because Bodie is so remote, and it’s best to arrive early or stay late in the day, consider using one of the two motels just north on Route 395. Check hours and road conditions beforehand: The location is at high altitude and exposed, and the access road gets snowed in during the winter.
10. Onward to Yosemite and San Francisco
As Bodie disappears in your rearview mirror, head south to Route 120 toward Yosemite. The Bay Area is about a five-hour drive west through Yosemite on the remarkable climb through the Tioga Pass (closed during the winter). Take time to stop at the viewpoints along the way, particularly if the traffic is sparse, and turn left off 120 to visit Yosemite Village itself. Yosemite, of course, is a popular destination and often crowded—so if you’re lucky enough to be traveling during midweek or other low-traffic seasons, make the most if it. For the same reason, be sure to research and reserve your accommodations in advance if you plan to stay in the area.
Leaving Yosemite, you have about a four-hour drive west to San Francisco through increasingly busy and crowded communities, with multiple traffic chokepoints. (Your best option is to take Route 120 west to Interstate 205 to Interstate 580 to the Bay Bridge.) Fortunately, increasing urbanization means that your GPS and phone work again. I recommend arriving after the evening rush hour to enjoy the beautiful view as you drive over the Bay Bridge into San Francisco. At night, it’s worth turning off the bridge at the Treasure Island/Yerba Buena Island exit for panoramic city views (get in the left lane; it’s an abrupt turn).
Once you’re in San Francisco, give your car a well-deserved rest and continue your explorations aboard public transportation and on foot. A must-see final destination is the Exploratorium, the superb hands-on science and technology museum recently relocated to Pier 15 on the Embarcadero. Founded in 1969 by Frank Oppenheimer, brother of one of the “fathers” of the atomic bomb, the museum is famous for child- and adult-friendly exhibits—and now also for an excellent cafeteria in its new location. The Exploratorium is a gem for curious visitors, and an inspiration for those coming from regions like ours that aspire to a more technologically sophisticated, diversified economy. It’s a worthy place to conclude our safari, looking back in the direction we started.
Before You Go …
Despite the following cautions, I’ve found this trip safe and people along the way friendly and exceptionally helpful. I’ve even had locals stop to make sure I’m safe when I pull off the road at night to admire stars. Nevertheless, you should check both online and printed maps beforehand. (I carry state maps so I can compare notes with other travelers, plan with the family and evaluate alternate routes. AAA maps are free with membership, which I recommend in case you need roadside assistance.) Verify that roads and sites are open, particularly if you’re traveling in the snowy winter season; to that point, this trip is best taken in the fall or spring. Consider what time you’d like to start based on the locations you’d like to see: Leaving Las Vegas in the early afternoon gets you, with the stops mentioned here, to Death Valley in the evening, when it’s cool and the desert night sky is stunning. Plan where you’d like to stay along the way: I recommend two nights, one in Lone Pine and one near Bodie. Cellphone service is poor to nonexistent during much of this trip, particularly in the areas you’d most likely need directions or have car troubles. Make sure your vehicle is in good shape—check your tires, oil and lights—and carry spare flashlights. Know how to mount your spare tire, and check that you have the necessary tools. During the trip, avoid the rookie mistake of depending entirely on your GPS for accurate routes. If you’re directed off the paved roads near Death Valley, your GPS has failed you. Remember: If the road sign tells you one thing and your GPS disagrees, always follow the road sign. People—locals and rangers—are the best resources. There are few gas stations on this route: It’s worth topping off even at expensive stations just in case, and so that you can explore detours if necessary.