In many ways, Las Vegas, Nevada, seems like the perfect gateway to a vacation in the West. It's about two and a half hours from Zion National Park, four hours from the Grand Canyon, four hours from Los Angeles, and five to six hours from Yosemite National Park.
Renting a car and driving the scenic route from Vegas to Yosemite is a popular tourist activity. Despite the distance, the drive is devastatingly beautiful and the stark contrast between the bright lights of Vegas and the natural splendor of the national park is awe-inspiring.
You can choose between three different routes, all within a half hour's difference. The fastest and most popular route is to take the U.S. 95 to State Route 266, then through Bishop and Mammoth Lakes on the 395. You could also take the U.S. 95 to the U.S. 6, or the western route, which cuts through Death Valley.
Depending on your route, the trip can be between 334 and 563 miles long. It could take five and a half hours or 11 hours if you take the long way and do a lot of stopping (rest assured you'll want to). Whichever you choose, you'll enter the park via the famously picturesque Tioga Pass, but keep in mind this road is closed from November to late May or early June due to snow.
Things to See Along the Route
Don't worry about the lengthy trip: There will be plenty of sights and activities to break up the journey. If you go by way of Death Valley National Park, you'll want to spend at least a night here to experience the vast desert, sand dunes, and salt lakes this place has to offer. After that, the road trails along to Manzanar National Historic Site, a memorial marking one of the concentration camps where Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II.
After this, you'll get a grand view of the Sierra Nevada mountain range running right along the road to the west. Don't pass through Alabama Hills without exploring some of the rock formations (many of them painted with quirky faces). The road joins up with the traditional, short route, in Big Pine, then you'll hit Bishop, another little mecca for mountaineers and rock climbers.
The ski-centric town of Mammoth Lakes is a stunning display of mountains and water and Mono Lake is worth at least stopping for a photo. After this, you can finally begin your Yosemite journey at Tuolumne Meadows, the eastern section of the park known for its grassy flats surrounded by granite domes.
What to See and Do in Yosemite
Yosemite National Park gets four million visitors per year. Its colossal granite walls beckon rock climbers from around the world, but if you're not into climbing, then you can come to hike, camp, photograph from viewpoints, ride a bike through the forest, or wade in the cool streams during summer.
You'll definitely want to spend a moment taking in El Capitan (a 3,000-foot monolith in the heart of the park) from the meadow. A hike up the Nevada Falls will provide you with a healthy bout of exercise not to mention world-class views of the park. You can admire Half Dome from Mirror Lake or hike it, yourself, if you have a permit. Then, in the evenings, you can cozy up with a cup of tea at the famed Yosemite Valley Lodge.