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Day Trips to Yosemite and Tahoe

From San Francisco, it’s just a four-hour drive to either Lake Tahoe or Yosemite National Park. Combine a trip to both in summer by crossing through Yosemite via Tioga Pass Road (Hwy. 120). On the eastern side of the Sierra, scenic U.S. 395 leads north almost to the Nevada border, and road-trippers can take forested Highway 89 west to its junction with U.S. 50 to continue to South Lake Tahoe.

One Day in Yosemite

200 Miles, 4 Hours from San Francisco

From the north, Yosemite National Park is most easily accessed from Highway 120 through the Big Oak Flat entrance; in winter, use Highway 140 through the main Arch Rock entrance.

Yosemite National Park.
Yosemite National Park. Photo © Thicoz/

In Yosemite Valley, hop aboard the Valley Shuttle for a scenic exploration of the valley’s sights, especially Bridalveil Fall, El Capitan, and Half Dome. The best way to experience Yosemite’s beauty is on one of its many trails. Enjoy a leisurely stroll around Mirror Lake, scale a waterfall on the Mist Trail, or test your powers of endurance on the way to Upper Yosemite Fall. Afterward, reward your efforts with a pit stop at the Majestic Yosemite Hotel bar to soak in the valley views.

Overnight: It takes advance planning to score a campground reservation in Yosemite Valley, especially in summer. Try your luck with one of the first-come, first-served campgrounds such as Tamarack Flat or Tuolumne Meadows (summer only)—but be sure to get there before noon.

Two Days in Yosemite

Highway 120 becomes Tioga Road as it continues east through Yosemite’s high country. This seasonal road is only open late spring-late fall, so plan your trip in the spring and fall to avoid the crowds. Along the way, gape at jaw-dropping vistas from Olmsted Point, gaze at crystal-clear alpine lakes and grassy Tuolumne Meadows, and explore some of Yosemite’s rugged high-elevation backcountry on a hike to Cathedral Lakes. Tioga Road peaks at Tioga Pass as it leaves the park, descending to the arid desert along U.S. 395. Here, abandoned ghost towns like Bodie State Historic Park and saline Mono Lake characterize the drier eastern Sierra.

Map of Yosemite National Park, California
Yosemite National Park

One Day in Tahoe

190 Miles, 3.5-4 Hours from San Francisco or Yosemite Valley

U.S. 50 enters the Tahoe region on the popular South Shore of Lake Tahoe. Stop in at one of the casinos across the Nevada state line, or take in the lay of the land on the Heavenly gondola. Highway 89 heads west to glittering Emerald Bay, where you can hike the Rubicon Trail to Vikingsholm Castle. Continue north on Highway 89 to reach the North and West Shores, which hold Tahoe’s legendary appeal. The lively center of Tahoe City has plenty of restaurants, hotels, and campgrounds to keep you close to the lake for the night.

Emerald Bay and South Lake Tahoe. Photo © Christopher Arns.
Emerald Bay and South Lake Tahoe. Photo © Christopher Arns.

Overnight: Spend the night at the Pepper Tree Inn in Tahoe City, or camp at General Creek Campground in Sugar Pine Point State Park (reservations recommended in summer).

Two Days in Tahoe

In the morning, take Highway 89 east to Truckee. Along the way, you’ll pass Squaw Valley, which may merit a detour through The Village at Squaw Valley. While in Truckee, enjoy the Old West vibe and stop for lunch at the Bar of America, a town institution since 1974. On your way home, stop by Donner Memorial State Park. Although the park history tells a grim tale, the hiking trails around the lake are quite beautiful. After your last taste of the Sierra, it is 184 miles back to San Francisco (3.5 hours).

Tahoe in Winter

Nothing says winter like sliding down the slopes at Tahoe. Numerous ski resorts line the lake and mountains. Heavenly rules the roost on the South Shore, while Squaw Valley draws snowboarders and skiers on the North and West Shores. Cross-country skiers should head to Royal Gorge in the Truckee-Donner area.

Highway 89 and U.S. 50 are the main arteries to the Tahoe area, and they can become congested and blocked by snow into spring. Bring tire chains and plenty of patience—in inclement weather, it can take up to eight hours to drive here from San Francisco.

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