East California Road Trip – Death Valley to Lake Tahoe

Duration: 6 days / Death Valley to Lake Tahoe

Start: Las Vegas

End: San Francisco

I’m definitely not a pro with travel blogging, so I’m going to keep this itinerary short, sweet, and right to the point! My fiancĂ© and I love vacations jam-packed with activities versus lounging around and doing absolutely nothing. Our wanderlust thirst is just too real LOL. I want to share with you the places we were able to visit during our East California roadtrip this summer (August 2021). What was really amazing about this roadtrip is that we started off in the desert, and finished off in the lush mountains – honestly the best of both worlds!

I will break down our trip by the day, listing all the sites we saw, all the food we ate (chef boyardee being one of them), and magical moments that happened 🙂

Danielle’s Amazon Favorites for Traveling

*Photos are a mix of iPhone, GoPro Hero6, and Fujifilm Xt-1*


DAY 1: DEATH VALLEY PT 1

We left Miami at 7am and landed in Las Vegas around noon. We were STARVING so, naturally, we had to slide though an In-n-Out for a traditional west coast meal. After that, we picked up our rental car, made a groceries run at Walmart, and headed straight over to Death Valley to chase the sunset.

Artists Palette / Artists Drive – our first stop in the desert…and it was HOT AS HECK! Of course, it was the middle of August…what did we expect? :’) But the colorful mountains did not disappoint. The colors changed as the sun made its way down to the horizon. An awesome spot for multiple photo ops.

artists palette, california / east california road trip - death valley to lake tahoe
Artists Palette
artists palette, California / east california road trip - death valley to lake tahoe
Artists Palette

Truth is, places in Death Valley are pretty spaced out, so getting from one site to the other took a good 30min or so! So we lost some sunlight as we were leaving Artists Palette, but had just enough light to check out the Golden Canyon!

golden canyon / east california road trip - death valley to lake tahoe
Golden Canyon

Since the first day was a travel day, we made our way back to our AirBnb in Pahrump, Nevada (super small town, everything closes early, so we ate at Denny’s) to settle down and get some much needed rest before our early start to Day 2.

TIP: purchase Liquid IV powder packets before heading to the valley and dump it straight into your CamelBack/Hydroflask


DAY 2: DEATH VALLEY PT 2

5AM wake up call! Arriving at the Instagrammable sites in Death Valley before 10AM is a must (especially during the summer). We had a light breakfast of protein bars to save time and headed over to Badwater Basin to check out the salt flats.

badwater basin salt flats / east california road trip - death valley to lake tahoe
salt flats at Badwater Basin
badwater basin salt flats / east california road trip - death valley to lake tahoe
badwater basin salt flats/ east california road trip - death valley to lake tahoe

badwater basin salt flats / east california road trip - death valley to lake tahoe

Our next stop was the Mesquite Sand Dunes. These are more yellow in color versus the White Sands in New Mexico. We only spent 10 minutes here or else we were going to turn into puddles!

mesquite sand dunes / east california road trip - death valley to lake tahoe
Mesquite Sand Dunes
mesquite sand dunes / east california road trip - death valley to lake tahoe
Mesquite Sand Dunes
mesquite sand dunes / east california road trip - death valley to lake tahoe
wildlife at the sand dunes

We continued our trek north. The Alabama Hills were a grand sight to see, being that is was our last “desert” spot for the trip. We grabbed some lunch and continued our drive to Mammoth Lakes.

alabama hills / east california road trip - death valley to lake tahoe
Alabama Hills

Now it was time to bring on a completely different scenery! As I woke up from my car nap, I was greeted with pine trees outside of the windows versus cacti about an hour prior…how BIZARRE is that?! California is just so neat in the sense that it has such a variety of terrain.

rainbow falls / east california road trip - death valley to lake tahoe
Feeling like a hobbit on Rainbow Falls Trail

Mammoth Lakes is such a cozy town nestled in the mountains. It feels like the Breckinridge of California. Little log cabins lined up the streets and the downtown area. Our first stop was Rainbow Falls – this was one of the first sites I wrote down while creating the itinerary for this trip. Something magical happens when the sunlight hits the mist of the falls at the right time. And guess what…we made it there at that right time! We hiked about a mile before we were able to take off our boots and make our way to the base of the falls. What a beautiful view! Although we went in the middle of August, the water was still VERY chilly – but it feels so great on the feet after a long day of hiking.

rainbow falls / east california road trip - death valley to lake tahoe
rainbow falls / east california road trip - death valley to lake tahoe
Rainbow Falls during sunset
rainbow falls / east california road trip - death valley to lake tahoe
Rainbow Falls

A quick drive over to our next site, we began another easy trail over to Devil’s Postpile. Thanks to volcanic activities, these stones that seemed “pushed up” are in perfect hexagonal shape! Nature is ~wild~.

devil's postpile / east california road trip - death valley to lake tahoe
Devil’s Postpile
devil's postpile / east california road trip - death valley to lake tahoe

We ran into some horses and made friends on our way to Minaret Vista. The wind was wild at the top, but of course, the view did not disappoint at all. Many photographer’s were posted up on this specific evening to catch a meteor shower!

minaret vista / east california road trip - death valley to lake tahoe
Minaret Vista

At this point…we were SO hungry! We’ve been non-stop since the crack of dawn. We decided to head on over to the downtown area of Mammoth Lakes. It was such a winter town! We ate at Gomez Tequileria. Had one of the BEST spicy margs out there (or maybe it just tastes extra amazing after hiking?!). Full & happy, we made our way to our next AirBnb 5 min from downtown and called it a day.


DAY 3: HOT SPRINGS + YOSEMITE PT 1

Thankfully, we got to sleep in a little longer after a non-stop day 2 (7am, lol). We packed up for the Hot Springs, but convinced everyone to eat at a well-known local spot called The Stove. Talk about ultimate comfort food that will fuel you for a couple of hours. I ordered the sunrise skillet (tip: ask for sour cream on the side) and oh my goodness, it was heaven.

the stove mammoth lakes / east california road trip - death valley to lake tahoe
The Stove, Mammoth Lakes, CA
“sunrise skillet”

Continuing north, next stop were the desolate hot springs. We got a little confused with where to go (multiple hot springs surrounded a similar area), and may or may not have gotten lost on a dirt road LOL. We finally made it Wild Willy’s Hot Springs. This spring is unique because if you look at it at a certain angle, it looks like a big crystal blue heart! And yes, the water was HOT. Only recommend dipping your entire body when it’s winter time to enjoy nature’s jacuzzi.

Trail that leads to Wild Willy’s Hot Springs
wild willy's hot springs / east california road trip - death valley to lake tahoe
Wild Willy’s Hot Springs

The next hot springs we visited was the Hot Creek Geological Springs. These are SO hot and unstable that you can only view them from up top, or far away in a gated area. At this point in our trek, it was midday and very hot, so we decided we were ready to head over to the Mono Lakes area.

Hot Creek Geological Springs

Our “desert-y” part of the day was coming to an end as we drove into a mountain range again. June Lake was next on the list – it was pretty cloudy this day so the lake wasn’t beaming in its rich blue glory, but it was still such a peaceful sight to see.

june lake / east california road trip - death valley to lake tahoe
June Lake
Entrance to June Lake

A quick drive over, we came across Mono Lake. Known for its mysterious appearance, Mono Lake is famous for its high salinity and “tufa towers” of minerals that have stacked up over the years. I guess you can called it the Dea dSea of Northern Cali! The beach felt so serene, with tall grass that flowed with every wind gust.

mono lake / east california road trip - death valley to lake tahoe
Mono Lake

It was now time to enter Yosemite (the part of our trip I was MOST excited for). A quick back story before I continue on our adventure. Since we did this trip in the time that COVID was still prevalent, Yosemite only released a certain amount of tickets in batches on designated days. About 2 weeks before our trip, we set our alarms to make sure we were on the website to secure our passes for the park.

I kid you not when I tell you the passes sold out within 30 seconds of logging on…I was SO discouraged. But Frankie pulled some ultimate strings along with some friends (even MORE of a back story to all of this that I was totally clueless about, and you’ll see why hehe!). Long story short, we decided to stay in the Yosemite Valley Lodge instead of an AirBnb outside of the park (SO GLAD WE DID THIS!). Why? If you stay in a lodge within the park, it automatically grants you a pass, woohoo!

Back to regular programming! So Yosemite is HUGE!!! So depending on what site you’d like to see, it may take 15 minutes to 1 hour of driving. We started on the Tioga Pass and stopped at random vista spots along the road. One of these spots was the iconic Tunnel View. Frankie kept on wanting to stop at random spots before making our final destination to Taft Point. Little did I know, he had the biggest surprise waiting for me on that cliff…(*cliff hanger*)

Ah…Taft Point. A top 5 destination on my bucket list. It’s even more breathtaking in person. The hike to the point is a short 45min trek one way and very easy and so beautiful. We arrived just before sunset as the haze and golden light were creating the most stunning hues. Per usual, I wanted to take a photo with Frankie at the epic point. What I didn’t know is that Frankie was planning for MONTHS the proposal of my wildest dreams.

As the cherry topping, he flew over my friend Ramses and his wife Annette. Check out the amazing photos and perspectives he took of this indescribable moment *waterworks coming back again*.

taft point proposal / east california road trip - death valley to lake tahoe
Taft Point Proposal by bae!
taft point proposal / east california road trip - death valley to lake tahoe
photo by Ramses Garcia

Yup…it’s safe to say that this was already coined as the most amazing trip I’ve ever been to. As I reminisce about it again, it still feels like a dream!!! It was one of the most thoughtful things anyone has ever planned out for me.

As we laughed, cried some more, and celebrated, we noticed the sun was going down so we started our hike back to the car. Another hour ride back to the lodge, we were surprised to find out (while checking in) that the food hall closed relatively early and there were absolutely no vending machines. Coming from Miami, I found that pretty odd. But then again…we don’t have bears that can crush through glass to get a snickers bar back home.

Remember that Walmart run we made at the beginning of this trip? Thankfully Frankie had the bright idea of stocking up on ravioli and macaroni. That was our first meal as fiancĂ©’s – fun fact! Here’s the proof…

Five star dining LOL

TIP: If you are staying within Yosemite Park, make sure to have some “just in case” meals so you’re not left hungry after a long day of adventures. We recommend sandwiches or microwaveable meals.


DAY 4: YOSEMITE PT 2

Time to soak up the rest of Yosemite! I’m still surprised by how many hot spots we hit up in one day before heading back to Taft Point for our engagement shoot later this day. We hiked, jumped in a creek, and looked over more beautiful cliffs.

First stop was Cathedral Rock Beach. It was practically empty in the morning and so serene. Right after, we crossed across Cooks Meadow as we made our way to Lower Yosemite Falls.

cathedral rock beach / east california road trip - death valley to lake tahoe
Cathedral Rock Beach
cooks meadow / east california road trip - death valley to lake tahoe
Cooks Meadow
lower yosemite falls / east california road trip - death valley to lake tahoe
Lower Yosemite Falls

The boys decided to hike up and a take a dip right at the bottom of the waterfall, but Natalie and I decided to just wade and soak our hiked-out feet in a natural pool filled with cold mountain water.

No long breaks today! We made our way out of the falls and straight to Valley View on River Merced. Here you can get a spectacular view of El Capitan and the Three Brothers rock formation.

merced river / east california road trip - death valley to lake tahoe
view of El Capitan from Merced River
view of Three Brothers from Merced River

This crystal clear river made us crave a dip in cold water…badly! So we continued to scout out a creek we could take a dip in and cool off again (this day was a hot one). We came across Sentinel Beach (a river with little sandbars all around and a wonderful family spot). I didn’t take photos of this place because we wanted to just relax and not have our phones on us while we hung out on the sandbar. It was the PERFECT midday dip!

The last stop for us before our engagement shoot was the magnificent Glacier Point. Pictures don’t do it’s majestic appearance justice.

Glacier Point

pano view of Glacier Point lookout
Glacier Point – Not pictured – my newly fiancĂ© standing on the CLIFF!

As golden hour started to roll around, we headed over to Taft Point (a short 15 min drive from Glacier Point) to start getting ready for our photoshoot with Ramses! Frankie planned out our outfits for our shoot and I was beyond excited. I did my makeup in the passenger seat as Frankie shaved his beard outside of the car. I finally was experiencing the adventure session of my dreams with my favorite person!

From making makeshift bouquets with foliage we found along our hike, to witnessing the most epic sunset I have ever seen…this photoshoot was for the books. Check out more images here in Ramses’ blog post!

By the time we got back to our cars, it was nightfall. And that’s when we began our 3.5 hour drive up to south Lake Tahoe. Perfect time to catch some Zzz’s after such an adventurous day.


DAY 5: LAKE TAHOE PT 1

So we made it to south Lake Tahoe in the early morning hours and knocked out immediately. We stayed in one of my favorite renovated hotels ever – Station House Inn (10/10 for all things!). We decided to sleep in a little since we were beyond exhausted from being nonstop the past couple of days.

After grabbing something to eat, we headed towards Cascade Falls. Here is a BIG pro tip before taking up on a hike in the summer time (especially if there is a waterfall/body of water at the end) – visit the park’s info center or read up on the recent Google reviews of the specific trail. We failed at doing both of those things and hiked up a very, very HOT mountain to only reach a trickle of water where a waterfall usually is during other seasons. So yes, no cascade was found, ah! I just noticed we were so winded by this trail that no photos were taken either, LOL.

We needed a serious cool down after that fail of a hike, so we made our way down to the lake. It was SO refreshing! We stuck our Truly’s under rocks in the lake for them to ice up (yup, water was chilly!). I almost knocked out laying out on the shore at Lester Beach, D.L. Bliss State Park – it was pure bliss.

view of Lester Beach from the parking lot
enjoying my naturally CHILLED Truly’s on the shore!

After being refreshed and rejuvenated, we were ready for our second attempt at a hike. And let me tell you…the end of this trail looked like a straight up Bob Ross painting. The hike to Eagle Lake is one of the prettiest (and shadiest!) trails I’ve ever been to (especially right before sunset). Check out some of the sites you see as you hike along…

Drum roll please…yes, a drum roll was needed for the view of the actual Eagle Lake. When we got there, it was a little packed with people at the entrance, so we kept on walking around the shore and found a secluded spot away from the tourists.

Eagle Lake

It was honestly such a peaceful way to end the day. The weather was perfect and the skies were finally clearing up from the local fires that have been making it hazy.

We wanted to treat ourselves and have a celebratory dinner (plus, we were craving some sushi and spicy margs), so we checked out Kalani’s in the downtown area of South Lake Tahoe. It was so TASTY and fresh! After that, we satisfied our sweet tooth at the famous The Baked Bear (one cookie sandwich is definitely for sharing!).


DAY 6: LAKE TAHOE PT 2

Since this was the last day of our trip, we wanted to still adventure but wind down at the same time. The day before, we booked a clear kayaking tour with Tahoe Paddle Sports. We chose the tour that took us to Bonsai Rock, since that was on our itinerary from the start. We didn’t get a day full of sunshine because the smoke was pretty bad, but the lake was still so serene and extremely beautiful.

clear kayaking with Tahoe Paddle Sports
Bonsai Rock taken with the GoPro Hero6 in the dome
crystal clear water of east Lake Tahoe

The tour was just an hour, so we went back to the hotel room and changed, then decided to have a midday snack at The Idle Hour. My charcuterie board + red wine craving was satisfied at this cute boutique restaurant that had a wonderful view of the lake.

view outside of The Idle Hour
charcuterie board and red wine at The Idle Hour

Ah, that hit the SPOT. It felt great to pause for a moment and soak up all the amazing things we experienced in the past couple of days. Since we wanted to have some time to pop champagne and hang out by the fire pit back at the hotel, we decided to have an early dinner at Sonney’s BBQ (NOT the chain restaurant “sonny’s”).

And of course, the boys wanted to keep the scraps and throw them in the garbage can outside our hotel room to see if we could see a bear sighting just one more time. Side story – the night before, someone left trash outside of their jeep, and let’s just say, Mr. Cinnamon Black Bear that lives across the street had a FEAST. And we definitely caught it all on video. It was actually a little terrifying having a bear in front of your door going ham LOL!

We wrapped up our last day reminiscing around the fire and relaxing before a long day of traveling the next day. This trip made top 5 in my book. I do wish we could have spread it out a couple of days longer, that’s probably the only thing I would’ve changed from it. But who doesn’t wish we could always extend our vacations?

Departing: we woke up very early the next day and made our way west to San Francisco, and that’s where we flew out of in a direct flight back to Miami (*cries*).

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  1. Mayda Valdés-Torres says:

    Thank you for sharing your wonderful journey! What an amazing trip, and such beautiful pictures to keep your memories alive.
    May you continue to discover more unforgettable places.

    MVT

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