A Northern California Roadtrip: San Fransico, Yosemite & Lake Tahoe
What better way to kick off 4 months of travel than with a classic Northern Californian Road Trip?
We stopped by the states en route to Europe to break up the huge flight journey and to explore some places that have been on our bucket list of years (YOSEMITE, AHHH SO EPIC!). Jucy rentals kindly gifted us a van to take away which was absolutely perfect for a 6 day roadtrip and we had one of the most incredible and memorable weeks of our lives.
It was short and jam packed, but it’s possible to fit San Fran, Yosemite & Lake Tahoe all into 6 days if you’re on a time and money budget like we are, we always love travelling like this because you get to see more, but also have a taste test of places you might want to visit again later in life.
Here are all of our tips for a 6 day long Northern California Roadtrip!
Our top tips
When you come through arrivals, go up the escalator to the level above and call an uber from the dedicated ‘ride app pickup’ spot. An uber into the city can cost $25-$35 USD depending on traffic.
Uber is the easiest/quickest way to get around SF.
It’s WINDY. Always take a jacket and a pair of jeans, even in the summer!
The ‘cool’ areas to hang out in and see those beautiful classic SF houses are in Haight-Ashbury, where the painted ladies are. It’s touristy but a must do, head down to Fisherman’s Wharf and walk down Pier 39 to see the smelly (but cute) seals lazing on the pier. We didn’t have time, but I’ve also heard that driving over the Golden Gate to check out the Redwoods & Saucilito is worthwhile.
Alcatraz is 100% worth it and so incredibly interesting, I recommend it! Pay for the ferry/entry fee to go over to the island, don’t bother booking a private tour. Once you arrive you basically wander the island at your own pace, but the main bit is up the top in the prisoner cells where you take the head set tour. It’s absolutely fascinating!
The Golden Gate & Bay Bridges require tolls. You can pay online for them in advance before you cross them or you can pay in cash in the cash lane when you cross the bridges, however this line is always super long and will put you in stand still traffic up to 2 hours. I also recommend avoiding Bay Bridge at peak hour times because the traffic gets absolutely ridiculous as a lot of the SF population live in Oakland (across the bridge).
The Golden Gate bridge is also often covered in fog, we didn’t get the opportunity to see it properly, an excuse to come back to this incredible city!
We didn’t get to spend much time in cafes and restaurants but if you’re looking for great NZ level coffee head to The Mill
For amazing Frose (frozen rose) head to The Dorian
Book in advance
You MUST book your campground or accommodation in the valley well in advance, it’s consistently booked out 2 months in advance at all times so you cannot afford to leave this booking to the last minute. There are first in first serve campgrounds but it’s honestly not worth the stress of taking your chances.
Learn from our mistakes
We left our campground booking SO late and ended up booking a campground on the other side of the 120 Tioga Pass road, this was a huge mistake as the Tioga Road (about an hour and a half drive) is closed most of the year and was only open from 10-11 AM & 3-4 PM twice a day during the time we were there. Due to this not fitting in with our desired Yosemite itinerary (we wanted to start hiking at 9 AM but the Tioga was closed) we had to drive all the way around the national park which took 5 hours, and we had to leave at 4 AM to get there in time. We couldn’t bare the thought of driving another 5 hours back to our campground on the other side of the Tioga Pass at the end of our hiking day, so we tried our luck at a first in first serve campground, luckily ONE of them had space for our van, which was the Indian Flats campground. Avoid this whole issue and just book a campground in advance right in the middle of the valley!
We ended up staying in a first in first serve campground called Indian Flats Campground, it’s a 30 minute drive out of the valley but it was a great last minute option for us. However, I recommend you book one of the campgrounds in the valley. Do not freedom camp, it’s illegal and the park rangers will find you, and fine you (that sounds dramatic but it’s true lol)
OK this can all be quite confusing.. There are a tonne of campgrounds around the area but the main ones that are directly inside the valley are North Pines, Lower Pines and Camp 4. These are the most ideal to stay in because the free Yosemite shuttle stops by them during their loop, so you can park up, put your tent up and just catch the shuttle from your campsite when you want to go on a hike. The rest are outside the valley and will be a 25 min+ drive from the hikes, meaning each morning you’d need to drive in and park, then catch the shuttle around the valley to each walk you want to do. We did this and had no issues. If these campgrounds are booked out and you do need to book outside the valley, it’s not a major it just means you need to make sure you’re organised each morning so that you can get a park!
Main reservation required campgrounds
North Pines (Probably the best as it’s right inside the valley near the walks and you can access the free shuttle so you don’t have to drive your car to the carpark)
Lower Pines (As above)
Main first in first serve campgrounds
Website to check availability and book
Know which roads in the area are open and closed
If you’re visiting Yosemite in Autumn or early Summer, a lot of the main roads in the area are closed which can take you from a 2 hour drive to a 5 hour drive very quickly. Do your research and make sure the roads are open where your campground/accom is located.
There is a Yosemite Valley park entry fee which you pay when you drive into the valley. It’s $35 USD per vehicle for the week, you will be given a receipt and will need to show it to the park rangers every time you leave and re-enter the park. This doesn’t matter if you’re camping/staying inside the valley as you probably won’t leave the valley during your Yosemite trip
One of the most amazing parts of visiting this area of the world is the incredible wildlife. You’re likely to see Deer wandering through the valley (even the carpark!) and a load of squirrels. There’s also mountain lions in the area which you need to be aware of but the main safety concern when it comes to wildlife is the bears. It’s uncommon to see one, but if you do you need to abide to the recommended bear encounter guidelines here. Bears have tendencies of breaking into cars and tents if you keep food in there, especially if it’s displayed. Every campsite has bear proof food storage boxes where you need to store your food overnight, NEVER keep it in your tent with you while you sleep.
Where to eat
Yosemite has two small villages with supermarkets and food spots. They are Yosemite Village and Half Dome village, both of them have a supermarket and a grill/burger place which is actually pretty good. I recommend doing your food shop before you get to Yosemite to save money, however the burger joints are great after a long day of hiking (get the truffle fries). There’s also a cool pizza place in Half Dome Village which is also awesome after a long day when you can’t be bothered cooking in your campground.
There is next to no service in the valley. Some places have wifi and you can get a small amount of service in Half Dome Village & Yosemite Village but don’t rely on it. The best part of a trip to Yosemite is being disconnected from your phone and social media, so embrace it!
There’s limited parking in the valley (you park up at Half Dome Village or Yosemite Village) so make sure you get to the carpark early before 8.30 AM to start your day. If you’re staying in the valley campgrounds you can just hop on the free shuttle that circles around the valley (it drops off/picks up at all of the campgrounds and hikes). This is also how you get around to the starting locations for all of the hikes, free shuttles arrive at each stop every 20 minutes ish.
Yosemite has a great range of hikes that work for everyone. We only had 1.5 days to hike so we did the Mirror Lake trail and the Upper Yosemite Falls trail. If you’re a keen hiker and you want to do the Half Dome 12 hour hike, you have to enter a lottery to gain access to the hike (they do this to prevent damage to the area). The easy to moderate hikes are: and more difficult ones are: and if you just want that classic, beautiful upper view of the valley with Half Dome in the distance, do the Upper Yosemite Falls trail half way or all the way (1.5-2 hours for half way, 3-4.5 hours for the whole hike, we just did the half!). Always start your hikes earlier in the morning during summer, by 11 AM the valley heats up and it can be unbearable to hike in!
The summer days are long (sunrise is 5 AM, sunset 9.30) so you can pack in HEAPS in one day. Hike in the morning and wander the valley/take a bike ride in the afternoon, there is so much to see and do but the beauty of this place is to just explore and appreciate the true outdoors.
Our top tips
South Lake Tahoe is where it’s at, it’s exactly how you imagine it to be with cute lodge designed restaurants, pine trees EVERYWHERE and the most awesome American lake house vibes. It’s such a unique place! Assuming you’ve taken a road trip out there with a car, you can visit spots around the lake and a round trip takes just under 2 hours.
We parked up our van at Tahoe Valley Campground which we really enjoyed, it’s got all of the facilities you need and is in a really great location with a CVS, Raley’s supermarket, Starbucks and an award winning Tahoe Pizza place across the road: South Lake Tahoe Pizza Co. They make their own dough and it’s THE. BEST. PIZZA. The campground also does things like outdoor movie nights which is super cute!
There are a tonne of things to do. You can obviously swim in the lake, go bike riding, hire paddle boards (SUP’s), go hiking, white water rafting, the list is endless. In the winter you can ski the mountains which we would LOVE to do next time! If you’re a kiwi, think of Lake Tahoe as Queenstown/Wanaka, but on steroids.
Lake Tahoe is known for its beautiful clear waters, our favourite spot was Secret Cove which is on the east side of the lake on the Nevada state side. There’s no clear sign to where the trail starts, you kind of have to find the road turnout, park up and take the 10 minute walk down to the cove. It’s a beautiful swim spot to hang for the afternoon!
Lake Tahoe is the PLACE for smore’s. The supermarkets literally have dedicated aisles for everything you need to make smore’s. Go on, you know you want to.
Also check out Emerald Bay & Eagle Falls for some incredible scenes!
Northern & Southern California are SO different, but that’s what makes Cali such an awesome state. It’s only a 12 hour flight for us kiwis and has pretty much everything to offer. We’ll definitely be back!
Onto the next one.. see you soon New York!