As winter approaches, the high country of our local mountain ranges get encased in ice and snow, limiting access to many trails for all but experienced mountaineers. At lower elevations, the usually sweltering deserts cool down and provide a scenic playground with a myriad of adventure opportunities. One of the best ways to experience the deserts of Southern California is with a camping road trip. One of my favorite itineraries links up the alien and otherworldly landscapes of Alabama Hills, Death Valley, and Trona Pinnacles. If you’re in SoCal and looking for a memorable weekend getaway, keep reading and you’ll find everything you need to make this trip a reality.
HWY 395 Road Trip Overview
The overview for this HWY 395 road trip begins with a centralized SoCal starting point of Pasadena. You’ll see in the map below that you’ll head north via HWY 14 to link up to HWY 395, and then take HWY 395 south to complete the loop. Your starting point will obviously vary, so plan accordingly.
- Route: See full route with Google Maps
- Distance: 750 miles
- Driving Time: 13 hours 12 minutes, but add much more time for stops
- Road Trip Time: At least 3 days, but 4-5 days is optimal
- Road Conditions: Mostly paved roads and highway. Alabama Hills and Trona Pinnacles are rough dirt roads that may require 4×4 and high clearance
- Activities: Hiking, camping, photography
- Dog Friendly: Yes, but dogs are not allowed on trails in Death Valley
- Weather: Very hot during the summer months. Temperatures reach freezing and below during the winter months.
Vasquez Rocks and Red Rocks State Park
Starting from the Los Angeles area, you’ll head north on HWY 14 towards HWY 395. If you’re stuck in traffic or driving from further south, Vasquez Rocks can be a great place to take a break. If you don’t want to stop so early in the drive, continue on towards the Martian landscape of Red Rocks State Park. Along this stretch of HWY 14 there are some really cool roadside stops to pull over and take pictures.
Red Rock Canyon State Park is located at the southern tip of the Sierra Nevada mountain range and features vividly colored desert cliffs and dramatic rock formations. If you’ve ever traveled to the Eastern Sierra from the Los Angeles area, you’ve probably passed by Red Rock Canyon State Park via State Route 14. I recommend a visit to this state park on its own merit, and also as a way to break up your drive to Lone Pine, Bishop, or Mammoth. In this past, I’ve written about two hikes in Red Rock Canyon SP, the Hagen Canyon Nature Trail and the Red Cliffs Nature Trail.
After leaving Red Rock Canyon behind, you’ll continue on HWY 14 and link up to HWY 395. Just after joining HWY 395, you’ll see a large red cinder cone on the eastern side of the highway. This is your cue to pull off for the amazing Fossil Falls. If you started your road trip late in the day, Fossil Falls does have a campground. If you’re just stopping for a short break, make sure to take the hike out to the lava flow area.
Lone Pine is the first major town along HWY 395 and is the gateway to many adventures in the Eastern Sierra. From Lone Pine, summer hikers can reach Whitney Portal (Mt. Whitney) and Horseshoe Meadows. Lone Pine is definitely worth exploring if you have the time. If you’re getting in a little late, head west on Whitney Portal Rd out of town towards Alabama Hills.
Alabama Hills is a recreation area made up of scenic rocks and hills located in the Owen’s Valley. Sitting on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada, Alabama Hills has some of the most impressive low-elevation views a visitor can hope to see of Mt. Whitney and it’s surrounding peaks. Many people have unwittingly seen Alabama Hills without ever having been there due to it’s use as a set location for many Hollywood films. Under the purview of the Bureau of Land Management, Alabama Hills remains completely free and open to the public for camping and hiking. Just make sure to stick to established campsites to avoid vegetation degradation.
The most popular attraction at Alabama Hills is the Mobius Arch, which acts as a natural window frame to view the Eastern Sierra. To see the Mobius Arch, visitors only need to hike a short loop trail from the main Movie Flat Rd.
Death Valley NP
After a night of camping in Alabama Hills, you’ll head east on HWY 190 just south of Lone Pine. Make sure to fuel up and stock up on food and water, as the services are sparse from here on out. As you enter the park, you’ll pass by Panamint Springs and Stovepipe Wells before reaching your first point of interest, Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.
After enjoying the sand dunes, you’ll continue on to Zabriskie Point, Devil’s Golf Course, Badwater, and more. Make sure to check out my comprehensive guide to Death Valley in the link below.
Death Valley has hotels and campsites, but both options require visitors to book well in advance. To make the most of your time in the park, try to find accommodations early.
The Trona Pinnacles are a series of more than 500 tufas making up one of the most memorable geological landscapes you’ll ever see. The pinnacles sit on the Searless Dry lake basin and are mainly composed of of calcium carbonate (like Mono Lake). Some of the pinnacles stand taller than 140ft. The Trona Pinnacles have been featured in countless movies, TV shows, commercials, and photo shoots. You may have seen the Pinnacles in Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, or Planet of the Apes. The Trona Pinnacles area is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and it’s completely free to visit for recreational use.
From Badwater Basin in Death Valley, head back west to Panamint Springs and head south on Panamint Valley Rd. This road will take you towards Searles Valley and the town of Trona.
The Trona Pinnacles are located 20 miles east of Ridgecrest, CA, on SR 178. Heading east on SR 178, you’ll see a sign for Trona Pinnacles and the dirt Pinnacles Rd (RM143). Follow this 5-mile dirt road to the pinnacles.
From Trona Pinnacles, you’ll head back home by heading west on SR 178 towards Ridgecrest. SR 178 can connect you back to HWY 14 via Inyokern, or you can take 395 south past Randsburg and Kramer junction. There are some nice roadside stops here, so make sure to drive slow and enjoy the ride home.