Although it would take years to explore all of California’s natural treasures, this route offers a good sampling of the highlights. From the majestic high Sierras to the vast Mojave Desert and the beautiful Central California coast, there’s something for just about every taste and ability on this trip.

Route

This route begins in San Francisco, travels east through California’s Central Valley, then continues along Highway 120 to Yosemite Valley. Then it’s over Tioga Pass to Highway 395, and south to Mammoth Lakes. From there, continue south on Highway 395 to Lone Pine, then go east on Highways 136 and 190 to Death Valley. Next, it’s out the east park entrance, south to Baker, across the desert to Barstow and south on Interstate 15 to Victorville. To complete the loop, continue west to Ventura, then head north on Highways 101 and 1 through Cambria and Monterey, before arriving back in San Francisco.

Along the Way

  • Yosemite Valley: Yosemite Valley is certainly worth an extended visit. Getting around is easy, as free lift-equipped shuttle buses stop at most of the major attractions in the valley. And if you need a little help getting around, the bicycle rental stands at Yosemite Lodge and Curry Village also stock scooters and manual wheelchairs. Handcycles are also available at the same outlets. Yosemite Falls, which plummets 320 feet to the valley floor, tops the must-see list in the park. A barrier-free trail leads from the bus stop to an accessible bridge near the base. Just up the road, you’ll also find an accessible trail at Happy Isles. This gently sloping trail is covered with decomposed granite and crosses the Merced River in several places. And don’t miss the drive up to Glacier Point for a panoramic view of the valley. There’s a nice 300-yard paved trail out to the viewpoint, and accessible restrooms, a snack bar and a gift shop near the parking area.
  • Eastern Sierra Scenic Byway: The Eastern Sierra Scenic Byway, which runs along Highway 395, from Topaz Lake to Little Lake, also boasts a number of unique and accessible natural treasures. At the top of the list are the unusual tufa towers in and around Mono Lake. For a good view of the tufa filled lake, head over to the quarter-mile crushed gravel David Gaines Boardwalk, located off Highway 395, just north of Lee Vining. For a closer look at the tufa towers, stop at the South Tufa Area, which is a must-see even though only partially accessible. Another worthwhile detour is the June Lake Driving Loop. This 15-mile drive begins just north of Highway 120 East, and travels on Highway 158 past June, Silver and Grant Lakes, before rejoining Highway 395.
  • Death Valley: In stark contrast to the Sierras, Death Valley features great expanses of barren desert, an arid landscape and it’s own unique ecosystem. For a good perspective of the vastness of it all, make sure and stop at the Salt Creek Boardwalk. Located at the bottom of Cottonball Basin, this half-mile loop boardwalk is wide, level and great for wheeling. Death Valley also boasts a number of scenic driving routes. At the top of the list is Artist’s Drive, which is located south of Furnace Creek on the east side of Badwater Road. This nine-mile drive features a good view of the alluvial fans in the surrounding mountains, and it’s especially stunning in the late afternoon. For a good primer on Death Valley history, stop by the Borax Museum at Furnace Creek Ranch. There’s ramp access to this free museum, which contains a pictorial history of early Death Valley.
  • Cambria: For a laid back coastal break, spend a few nights at the Cambria Pines Lodge. Located in Cambria, this 126-room property borders an  undeveloped natural area filled with native wildlife. Access is first-rate throughout the property, with level paths, accessible parking, plenty of room to navigate in a wheelchair or scooter and an accessible ground floor suite with a roll-in shower. Just up the road is Hearst Castle, an estate featuring 167 rooms, 127 acres of gardens, and a top-notch collection of European and Mediterranean art. The Accessibly Designed Tour features transportation in a lift-equipped vehicle to the hilltop mansion and a barrier-free route through the house (reserve at least 10 days in advance).
  • Monterey: Monterey is a required stop on any California coastal drive. Located just a few hours south of San Francisco, the coastline features dramatic scenery, abundant wildlife and  attractions that showcase the natural beauty of the area. The Monterey Bay Aquarium tops the attractions list, with over 200 exhibits featuring more than 250,000 marine creatures. Save some time to wander around Cannery Row, the namesake street from Steinbeck’s classic tale. And for some spectacular coastal scenery, the Pebble Beach 17 Mile Drive is a must. Make sure and stop at Spanish Bay along the way for a breathtaking ocean view.

Timing

The optimal time to drive this route is in early September, just after Labor Day. That way, you’ll dodge the crowds in Yosemite Valley, miss the peak heat in Death Valley and enjoy the fall colors in the High Sierras.

Fly-Drive Option

To make this a fly-drive vacation, fly to San Francisco International Airport, Oakland International Airport, or Mineta San Jose International Airport; then rent an accessible van at Wheelchair Getaways.

If You Go